So today is a big day. It's my 44th birthday. And to celebrate, I'm doing two things: relaunching my blog and launching an Indiegogo campaign for my latest novel, LILY. You can read about the campaign and why I'm doing this on my Indiegogo page. You can read the first three chapters of LILY here. If you enjoy them, please consider supporting my campaign.
LILY: A NOVEL
On the morning of her thirteenth birthday, Lily kissed her father and knew that he would be dead by nightfall. The image of his death dropped into her mind suddenly and without warning. As her lips touched his she saw behind the thin skin of her closed eyes his face, pale and wet, rising up from the waves surrounded by caressing fingers of sea grass, and she screamed.
Her mother started, and the pitcher of cold milk she held in her hands crashed to the kitchen floor, where it exploded in a fury of glass and spread over the wood. Her father grabbed her and put his arms around her, but she beat her hands against his back, sobbing and trying to push away the lifeless body that slumped on her breast.
"Lily," he said. "What on earth happened?"
She looked into her father's anxious face, at the blue eyes clouded over with worry for her. She opened her mouth to speak, and found that she couldn't. Her voice seemed to have been drained away, and as hard as she tried, she could not coax any sound from her empty throat.
"What's the matter, honey?" her father pleaded. "Are you all right?"
Lily nodded. She knew that she was in no way all right, that nothing was all right, yet she sensed that to indicate otherwise would somehow throw everything even further out of balance. Her father clutched her to his chest, and again she saw his body hovering in the blue-green water, the eyes wide and staring, the mouth filled with the sea. She struggled to keep from vomiting, putting her arms around her father's neck, relieved to find that his shirt was crisp and dry under her fingers.
"Why don't you go upstairs and lie down," he said, stroking her hair softly. "Then this afternoon we can open your presents."
Lily nodded and turned away quickly before his skin could become wet and his lips swollen. She ran up the stairs to her bedroom and shut the door behind her. Lying on her bed, she put her hands over her face and waited for the vision of her father's death to come again. When it didn't, she fell into a troubled sleep and began to dream.
The branches were dead, thin and pale as bird bones and covered in the coldest frost. As she made her way through the trees, her fingers touched them lightly, sending showers of ice tumbling silently down through the blue of the moonlight like fine nets cast out over the sea. Her bare feet left small hollows in the snow as she walked, which the edge of her night dress filled in behind her, leaving no trace of her passing.
She was unaware of the cold that kissed and licked at her bare flesh. She moved across the snowy ground as if it were summer grass, pushing her way through the empty arms of the trees until suddenly the forest opened up before her and she was standing in a clearing. The trees formed a perfect circle around her, their branches closely knotted together to keep safe whatever awaited her inside. Above the circle in the wood the moon hung low in the winter sky.
Sitting in the clearing was a cottage. It looked like many of the cottages in the village, with a pointed roof and small, square windows that shone blackly in the moonlight. Tendrils of smoke crept from the top of the stone chimney, and through one of the windows Lily could see the pale yellow light of what she was sure must be a fire.
Suddenly, she felt the cold of the snow for the first time. She shivered, and drew her arms around herself. Beneath her bare feet, the cold crunched and bit at her toes.
She walked quickly to the door of the cottage and knocked. When there was no answer, she put her hand on the latch and lifted. The door opened, and she went inside, shutting it behind her. The warmth of a fire greeted her, and she felt the cold slipping from her skin.
Looking up, she saw that there was indeed someone else in the cottage. Standing near the hearth was an old woman, stirring a cauldron that hung over the fire. Her long hair fell about her face in wild tangles, and she was humming to herself a song that sounded to Lily both wild and soothing at the same time.
"I'm sorry to intrude, grandmother," Lily said. "I knocked, but no one came."
"I heard you," the woman said, turning her face to Lily. Her eyes were black as night, and her nose so long that it nearly touched her chin. Her mouth held a row of crooked teeth, and around her throat was a necklace of bones. Lily was startled by her appearance, but said nothing.
"You have come to Baba Yaga's house for something," the old woman said. "What is it?"
"I...I...don't know," said Lily. "I just found myself here."
"No one finds herself at Baba's house," said the old woman, laughing. "The path is too well hidden. You come here only when you are ready. Are you ready, child?"
Baba stopped stirring the pot and came toward Lily. Lily backed away, looking fearfully at the old woman's gnarled hands, the fingers ending in broken nails.
"Are you ready?" Baba Yaga asked again. This time, her voice was cold.
Lily could only shake her head. She didn't know what Baba Yaga meant. Ready for what? How had she come to be there?
"This is just a dream," Lily said, holding up her hands in front of her face.
Baba Yaga laughed again, filling the small house with her shrieks. Her voice rattled the windows, and on the hearth the fire died down to a frightened glow.
"No one dreams in Baba's house," the old woman cried. "Now answer me, girl. Are you ready?"
Baba Yaga was standing right in front of Lily, her dead black eyes looking into Lily's face. Lily could smell her stale breath ripe with the scent of rotting leaves. She stood there, trying to stop the racing of her heart.
"Ready for what?" she whispered.
"For the riddles," Baba Yaga replied, turning her head to the side and smiling. "Baba asks, and you answer. If you answer correctly, I give you a gift."
"What kind of gift?" Lily asked.
"A birthday gift," answered the old woman. "It is your birthday, is it not?"
Lily nodded. "How did you know?"
Baba Yaga cackled, spinning around in circles until she was spinning so quickly she was a blur. When she came to a stop, she was near the hearth once more, stirring the cauldron.
"Baba knows much," she said simply.
"And if I guess incorrectly?" Lily asked. Now that Baba Yaga was some distance from her, she felt a little more brave.
Baba turned and grinned. "Then I eat you," she said.
Lily looked at the necklace of bones, which Baba Yaga was fingering slowly as she spoke. Now she understood their meaning. Her heart turned cold, and her breath swept out of her throat in a gasp. Baba saw her fear and smiled. She laid aside the long spoon she stirred with and came back to where Lily stood, frozen in terror.
"A fair game, I think," she said as she waited for Lily to speak. "Now, are you ready, girl?"
Baba Yaga reached out one bony hand and took Lily's fingers in it. As her claws curled around Lily's soft hand, Lily started.
"Are you death or life?" she said suddenly.
Baba Yaga frowned. Her eyes hardened, but she said nothing.
Lily looked startled. "I see nothing," she said, looking at Baba Yaga's hand in her own. "I see no ending for you. Why is that so?"
Baba Yaga dropped Lily's hand and backed away.
"It is Baba who asks the questions," she said angrily.
"Tell me," Lily pleaded. "Why is it that I see no death for you?"
"Silence!" Baba roared. Suddenly she seemed to grow larger, filling the house until her head was bent beneath the rafters. Her black eyes blazed with cold fire, and Lily trembled.
"You are not ready for Baba's game," the old woman hissed through teeth the size of platters. "Now leave this house before I decide to eat you anyway."
"Please," said Lily. "I need to know what I am. I know you can tell me."
"I will tell you nothing," Baba Yaga said. "Now go. Go before I lose my temper."
Her hand swept through the air, the force of it blowing Lily toward the door, which opened by itself. Lily shielded her eyes from the wind, and felt herself being pushed through the doorway and into the night. She tumbled into the snow and lay there, the cold soaking into her skin.
When she looked up, she saw that the clearing had changed. Now it was surrounded by a fence of pointed sticks. Atop each stick sat an empty skull with pale light shining from its eyes. Lily gazed at them in horror, then looked into the gaping door of Baba Yaga's cottage. Through the blackness she saw one of Baba's gigantic unblinking eyes watching her.
"Go," said Baba, her voice pouring from the windows and the chimney. "And do not come back until you are ready. The next time I will not be so kind."
Lily staggered to her feet and ran. She pushed open the gate in the fence of skulls and fled into the forest. Her hands pushed at the branches, and her feet slipped on the frozen ground. The snow was falling thickly now, and the wind whipped it about her in gusts that filled her eyes with stinging cold. There was no path for her to follow back to where she had come from, and she groped wildly in the blizzard for something that would lead her to safety.
She looked up at the moon, and saw to her horror that it was the dark, cold eye of Baba Yaga looking down at her. The winter night broke open in a terrible smile, and the stars sank into the hungry mouth of teeth.
"Are you ready?" came the haunting cry. "Are you ready, girl?"
Lily sank into the snow and cried. As the blizzard swept over her shaking body, she wept, and the tears froze on her cheeks.
She awoke with a start, looking up into the white expanse of her bedroom ceiling. The quilt was pulled up around her neck, and the room was filled with an oppressive heat. There was a sharp crack of light, and then came the sound of thunder rolling across the sun. Lily looked to the window and saw that outside the sky had turned the ugly yellow color of fear.
She glanced at the clock and saw that its hands held the time at late afternoon. She had slept all day. She remembered little of her dream, but she recalled clearly her vision from the morning. Her father would be out at sea in his boat. As she realized this, the rain swept in from the swells and began to pound on the roof.
The sound drove her out of bed and sent her stumbling for the door. As the terror of the morning rushed back and filled her mind once more, she was overcome by the need to find her father, to hold him in her arms and feel the life flowing in him again. She fumbled with the latch on her door, struggling to remember how his face looked. When she couldn't, her heart jumped crazily.
Her nightgown grabbed at her feet, tripping her up as she raced down the set of twisting stairs to the kitchen. The storm outside rocked the world as she finally reached the bottom and ran into the kitchen calling out, "Father? Where is father?" Her voice was unfamiliar to her, as though she were calling into the wind and was hearing her words echoed back in tatters.
Once in the kitchen, she stopped. Sitting at the table was the village's lone policeman. His hat rested on the tabletop, and in his hands was an untouched cup of coffee, the steam rising up and trailing away somewhere just below his face. When he saw Lily, he paused, his mouth open as though he'd bitten in two the word waiting unspoken on his tongue.
"Where's father?" Lily demanded of her mother, who stood near the stove, her arms wrapped protectively about her chest as she rocked silently against the wall. "Where is he?"
"Lily," the policeman began, then stopped. She looked into his eyes and saw nothing in them. She turned to her mother, who was looking at the floor.
"Lily," the policeman said again. "Your father... The storm..." He stopped, staring down into the hot pool of his coffee as though searching for an answer.
"He's dead," her mother said into the silence, the words slipping out cold as well water. She looked up at Lily, and Lily saw that her eyes, too, were empty. Lily didn't know why, but she understood that the anger had settled into her mother's heart.
"He's dead," she said again. "Drowned."
"Where is he?" Lily demanded, and when no one answered her, she screamed the question again, her voice shredding the quiet. "Where is he?"
"The body is still on the beach," the policeman said. "We found him a short time ago."
"I want to see him," Lily said quietly. She moved toward the door.
"That's not a good idea," the policeman said, reaching out to grab her arm.
Lily twisted away, looking up into his face. "It's not a good idea," he said again. "He drowned."
"I know," Lily answered. "It was because of me."
The policeman looked at her, puzzled.
"Don't you understand?" she said. "I did it. I have to see him. I have to know."
While the policeman stared, she slid from his grasp and out the door. Her mother made no move to stop her, watching her with an empty face. Outside, the wind and rain swarmed about her like bees, stinging her skin and blinding her eyes as she made her way through the clouds of sea lavender and down the path to the beach. From the crest of the hill she could see the small crowd gathered at the water's edge, and she made her way toward it, the sand rough against her bare feet.
Reaching the beach, she pushed through the crowd of onlookers, the women, men, and children of the village who had come as soon as they'd heard that the sea had taken one of their own back into her arms. Lily knew them all, but at that moment she recognized no one as she looked past them to the still body lying on the sand. Her father lay there, still, as if for some unexplained reason he had fallen asleep in his clothes, while around him three men stood helplessly.
Seeing Lily, the crowd stepped back, forming a wall as Lily fell to her knees beside her father. They watched as she reached out and ran her hands over his face, the skin mottled in bursts of plum and rose where the sea had kissed the life from his lungs. Lily brushed the seaweed from his dark hair, and her fingers danced over his closed eyes. Her long black hair fell in curls over his chest as she bent her head and wept into her hands.
After some time, she felt a hand on her back. "It's time to take him back now, child," said a kind voice close to her ear. She looked up into the face of Alex Henry. The closest thing the village had to a doctor, Alex Henry knew the ways of life and death not because he'd studied them, but because he'd lived them many times over. He had delivered Lily, and her father before her, and his father before him. There were some who believed he was as old as the land itself, and even the oldest among them could not recall a time when he had not inhabited the small cottage at the very end of the point that stretched furthest into the sea of any piece of land along the coast.
Of all the village, only Lily's mother had not entered the world cradled in Alex Henry's hands. She had not been born into their midst but brought to it by Lily's father, who fell in love with her during his one venture outside the familiar walls of his life and returned with a thin gold ring around his finger and a woman who feared the sound of waves against the rocks.
Lily surrendered herself to Alex Henry's touch, thankful that he could take from her for a moment the searing pain that crackled throughout her body and replace it with a cool shade that surrounded her heart and settled it. She felt herself lifted in his arms and led through the crowd. The storm still rattled overhead, but she heard nothing as Alex Henry walked with her back up the path to her house.
When Alex Henry entered the kitchen with Lily, her mother ceased speaking. The policeman jumped to his feet and put his hands nervously behind his back.
"Alex," he said. "I was just..."
"The girl needs rest," the old man interrupted. "I will see her upstairs."
He helped Lily up to her room, where she sat on her bed and looked into Alex Henry's face. "I killed him, you know," she said.
Alex Henry laughed. "You did no such thing, child," he said. "Your father was simply given back to the sea. She chose him long ago, before you were born. Before he was born."
"But I saw him," Lily whispered, fearful even of speaking such words. "I touched him and saw him dead." She held up her hands for Alex Henry, as though he might be able to see through the flesh and bone to the darkness she felt coursing in her veins.
He took her hands in his and held them tightly for a moment. "Yes," he said. "You have some of the magic in you."
"What is it?" she asked, pleading.
Alex Henry looked into her eyes. "It is that which runs beneath the surface of the sea," he said. "It is what calls the rose to bloom and the stars to dance in formation season after season. It is wild with danger and mad with delight. It is what our hearts beat for."
"Why has it come to me?" Lily asked.
"It has not come to you," Alex Henry said quietly. "It is you who have gone to it. It's breath beats in everything, waiting only for those brave enough or foolish enough to reach out and take hold of it."
"But I didn't reach out," Lily said. "I did nothing."
"Sometimes we call out without knowing," said Alex Henry, "and it answers."
Lily thought of her dream of the night before. Pieces of it were coming back to her now, and she was afraid. She thought about telling Alex Henry, but she didn't. "Will it happen again?" she asked.
"I don't know that answer," he said. "It will stay as long as it is needed. For some the moment is so brief that its presence is never even felt. For others it remains for a lifetime."
"How is it with you?" Lily asked, looking into his face.
Alex Henry smiled. "It is time to dress now," he said. "There is much to do in the next hours." He turned and left the room.
Lily sat on her bed, listening to the rain outside calling sweetly and singing of death. Slowly, she rose and went into the small bath. Its windows opened out over the rolling seas, and because the house was built on a cliff, she could see no land below her. She sometimes shut the door and stood looking out at the endless plain of water, on the surface of which she saw reflected the changing colors of the year. Caught up there between sky and water, she sometimes played that she was a maiden who peered through castle windows day and night, watching for her lover to return from a voyage across the seas, his arms laden with strangely-scented flowers.
But now things had changed. She was no longer a maiden. She was just a girl, a girl imprisoned in a single thin tower that rose up from the sea like a great needle piercing the world, and from which there was neither entrance nor escape. She was a girl who held death in her hands, gazing out her window onto the lifeless bodies of those who, driven mad with desire, had tried to reach her by throwing themselves into the sea. She saw love bruised on the faces that looked up to her window, and she cried.
She cried for a long time, thinking of her father and how she had killed him, for even though she had heard Alex Henry's words, she had not believed them. She looked at her hands, twisted into balls in her lap, and she felt evil in them. Call it magic, she thought. Call it truth. It was pure pain she felt running through her heart, and she hated it. She wanted nothing more than to reach inside her chest and pull it out, beating wildly, and throw it into the sea as an offering in exchange for her father's life.
She stepped out of her nightgown, moving to stand in front of the long mirror her father had hung on the wall nearest the sink. Her body was thin, the skin slipping lightly over bones. Her dark hair fell loosely about her shoulders, and she saw for the first time that her breasts were becoming those of a woman, that the small patch of hair between her legs had thickened. She saw reflected in the clear face of the glass the shade of a beautiful woman.
It was this woman, she told herself, who had killed her father. In crossing over the line of her thirteenth year, which brought with it the swelling of her breasts and the unfolding of her body, she had unknowingly awakened some deep magic that needed for its working the sacrifice of love. It had reached and taken greedily the thing she loved best, feeding itself on his soul.
Lily hated this woman, and as she looked at her image in the mirror, she determined to stop her entrance into the world. She had been made stronger by the death of Lily's father, but she had not fully crossed over. Lily knew she could be pushed back, hidden so deeply that she could not take away anything else.
She turned to the bath and drew the water. It tumbled hotly into her hands, and she welcomed the heat as it drew itself into her skin and banished the chill that had invaded her bones. She lowered herself into the comforting curve of the tub and let herself sink into the water as it rose to surround her. She closed her eyes, imagining herself floating in the sea. The water rose over her hips, then surged around her breasts, and still she kept her eyes shut. It licked at her throat, and then she felt it close over her mouth and nose.
Only then did she open her eyes, gazing up through the thin skin of water that covered her body. She could see the familiar shapes of the bathroom around her, thrown out of focus by the distortion of the water's motion. She wondered if this was what it was like to drown, if just before death the drowning person looked up and saw through the waves the shapes of a familiar world stretched into fantastical lines. She wondered what her father saw just before the water filled his lungs and his heart had stopped beating.
The water became deeper, filling up the big tub until she was lying at the bottom with a foot of ever-shifting golden light between her and life. There, caught between the worlds of water and air, she floated, listening. Her ears were filled with the sounds of the storm coming from far away, as though somewhere far above her a giant blacksmith was beating his hammer against a forge and the echo was rolling down and around her head, becoming less powerful as it pushed its way through the water until, reaching her, it had become a soothing pulse.
Without wanting to, she found herself thinking about the ability of water to shut out the harshness of the upper world. She recalled once when she was very small being on the deck of a boat during a sudden and furious storm, and looking down into the black waves. The shrieking of the wind and the startled cries of the other passengers had upset her. Then the boat had shifted violently as a wave lifted it up, and she had been dumped into the ocean. The blackness closed over her head, and as she sank into it, in the moments before someone dove in to bring her back, her one thought had been not how frightened she was, but how quiet and calm it had been under the water.
It was like that now. Outside the storm raged, while in the tiny bathroom at the top of the house on the cliff, a girl who was not yet a woman was rocked in a warm cocoon. The shifting light threw patterns against the porcelain so delicate that the slightest movement of a finger or toe caused them to fall apart like breaking glass, only to reform moments later in entirely new ways as they played across her skin. She felt as though she was a creature waiting for its time to be born, knowing that while it remained in its shell of light it would be forever protected.
After a minute had passed, her chest began to ache, as the oxygen she had drawn into her lungs at the last moment before she submerged ran out. Her body cried out for her to leave the water and return to the realm of air. At the same time, she felt a peculiar desire to stay where she was, to let the water drag her even further down into itself, where she would not have to hear the sounds of storms. She wondered how many people, when they drowned, faced an instant when they had to choose to keep reaching for air and life or to simply sink. How many of them, thinking they wanted nothing more than to draw breath once more, stopped only inches away from the surface and, bewitched by the quiet, turned back. She imagined her father trying to push his way up through the blue as the remaining oxygen within him evaporated into his blood. She pictured him frozen, knowing that another pull of his arms would bring him through the barrier between life and death. She wondered if he'd had to choose.
Then came the moment when she herself had to make that decision. She could lift her head and rise up, or she could remain still. Despite the burning of her lungs as they called to her for air, she felt something comforting about the idea of taking the water into herself, of filling up every empty space inside with warmth. She closed her eyes, surrounding herself with the feeling of it. And as she did, she saw again her father's face, the dead eyes staring into her own, and she chose.
She screamed, the sound emerging as bubbles that rolled out of her mouth and went speeding up to the light. Her body followed, her head rushing up behind the scream until suddenly she was through and air was filling her lungs in great gasping sobs.
In the way of the village, they buried Lily's father that evening, despite the storm that continued to rage around the point where the cemetery had stood since the first inhabitant had died and been laid to rest there, looking out over the sea, her grave swept clean by endless winds. It was there that the people gathered at dusk, the lanterns they held in their hands casting a golden pale over the hole that had been dug as soon as news of the drowning had spread. Beside the hole lay the body, wrapped from head to toe in whitest linen, and tied around the chest with a red cord.
The village had no priest, as they followed nothing that would be called a religion by anyone who happened upon them murmuring into the waves before launching their boats or saw them pinning small bags of salt or bunches of mistletoe inside the pockets of their greatcoats before setting out after dark had fallen. Yet they were possessed of rituals as dark and as strong as any performed by the servants of God, and it was Alex Henry who led them through them. He stood now beside the mouth in the earth, looking out at the sea and waiting. When the last of the sun had fallen behind the horizon and the first and brightest star of evening was visible even through the cloud-washed sky, he turned to the assembled villagers.
"It is time," he said, and nodded to the two men on either side of him. Moving like ghosts, they took the head and feet of the body that lay on the grass and gently lowered it into the ground. Then they stepped back, and all eyes turned to Lily, who stood at the opposite end of the grave from Alex Henry. Her mother had refused to come, locking herself in her bedroom when they came for her, and so she stood alone looking down at her father's shell.
"It is the child who begins it," said Alex Henry, and Lily walked to the pile of earth beside the grave and took a handful of dirt. Clutched in her fist, it was cool with rain, and she felt it compress into a ball as she squeezed it tightly. Turning to the open hole, she held her hand over her father's chest and crumbled the earth in her fingers. It fell in a fine rain over the linen, dusting the body as cinnamon might fall over freshly-baked bread. When her hand was empty, she turned away.
One by one, the villagers filed past the grave, each one taking up a handful of earth and passing it over the body of Lily's father. This much of the death ritual they shared with those outside their world; even the children understood the importance of covering the body with earth from their hands. Lily watched as fathers led to the grave little ones barely able to walk and helped them cast their offerings into the darkness.
When they had all passed, Alex Henry nodded once more to the two men beside him, and they began to fill the remainder of the hole, their shovels working like clockwork arms as one lifted a spoonful of dirt, turned it into the hole, and then swept away as his companion echoed the sequence. Lily knew that they would be done quickly, as tradition demanded, and that before the moon rose to its highest point her father would be wrapped in earth.
The villagers began the walk back to the small group of houses, and as the last person passed by her, Lily fell into step with the others. Moments later, the song of death began, the first high keening note sung by the woman with the most beautiful voice. The others joined in after her, and soon the night air was filled with the sounds of many voices. Lily sang too, taking comfort in the words of light and love and renewal. Her heart was sore, and she knew that she would cry more tears in the days to come, but as she watched the procession of gentle light wind its way down the sloping path and into the welcoming arms of the village, she sang with joy.
They came to the doors of the great hall, and went inside. As they did at each death, they would spend the night together, eating and drinking around the fire. The youngest would be told stories of the creatures that came out with the moon and of things that danced beneath the sea. They would hear of the fair folk and the selkies, of the White Ladies and the kobold. They would be told of foolish Sarah, who had followed a man with the feet of a goat into the forest and returned seven years later, her mind half gone, and of the young man who listened too closely to the promises of a vodyany and been drowned for want of a kiss.
Like the funeral, this was the way of the village. Lily could remember with great accuracy the first time she'd sat in the hall, on a winter's night when the sea wind hurled snow sharp as razors and they gathered to celebrate the death of old Elsbeth Applegrim, almost two hundred years old when finally she'd turned from her baking and crumbled into dust on the kitchen floor. Lily had sat, eyes wide with terror and excited wonder, as Alex Henry had told the children why the villagers wrapped their dead about with red cord.
"The soul," he said in a voice like wine seeping from its cask, "is tied to the body like a lover to a lover. When one dies, the other wanders alone and afraid. We bind the soul to the body so that it remains at sleep. If we did not, the world would be crowded with souls looking for their missing selves."
Lily had seen ghosts. Everyone had. They appeared at moonfall and in the hours afterwards, pale forms that walked the fields and peered in windows. In general they were stupid creatures and not to be feared, but Lily knew that sometimes they gathered someone who looked like their missing selves into their arms and carried them into the next world. They did it for love, that was sure, but still their touch could bring death.
Sitting by the fire and looking into the dancing flames, she thought about the red cord wrapped tightly about her father's chest. She imagined digging through the earth and cutting it, freeing his soul so that she could see once more what he looked like in motion. But she knew also that it would bring pain. Years ago, a young man had done exactly that, sneaking away from the safety of the great hall to the cemetery and unearthing the body of the girl he'd loved. Her spirit had risen, and he'd reached out to her, only to feel the life taken from him as she reached cold hands into his chest to warm them.
The flames warmed Lily's skin, and the voices of the people talking around her provided a soothing murmur upon which she let her tired body rest. She thought about her mother, locked in the bedroom of the empty house. She pictured her huddled against the wall of the bedroom, staring at the locked door and fearing any knock that might come against it. She wondered if her mother would open the door should her father's wraith come calling for her, or if she would put a pillow over her head and scream until morning drove him away. Her mother did not believe in such things, she knew, but she also knew that belief had little to do with whether a thing was true or not.
She was woken from her half-sleep by the touch of Alex Henry's hand on her shoulder. "I have something for you," he said, handing her two packages wrapped in blue paper and tied with string.
Lily looked at the bundles. "What are they?" she asked, turning them over in her hands.
"Your father's birthday presents to you," he said. "I brought them from the house."
Alex Henry walked away and rejoined the children waiting for him to tell them another story about Black Hannah or the silver-eyed foxes that darted beneath the fir trees on Midsummer Eve carrying messages between the worlds. The other villagers were busy about the hall, tending the roasting meats, sewing, and remembering other nights like this one.
Lily picked up the larger of the two packages. It was surprisingly heavy in her hands. As her fingers worked at the knotted string, she imagined her father wrapping it, his big hands deftly knotting the thin twine as though he were mending a tear in one of his nets. Even more clearly than she remembered his face, she could recall the look and feel of his hands, so often had he held her close or lifted her up, laughing, and spun her around until the sky and sea melted together and she felt the pounding of the earth's heart in her own. His hands with their long fingers, the skin cracked from pulling the rough nets into the boat and from lifting heavy tangles of fish, flapping and dripping, from the ocean.
Finally, the knot came free, and the string fell away from the package. Lily tucked it carefully into the pocket of her dress before pulling apart the paper to see what lay beneath. It was a hand mirror, a small round of polished glass set in a silver frame. It looked very old, and Lily wondered where it had come from. It looked like something that would sit on the dressing table of a very rich woman, for her to hold in her hand and look into as she fixed her hair or applied color to her lips.
Lily picked it up, feeling the warmth of the metal in her hand. The back of the mirror was decorated with seahorses and the outlines of crashing waves. She traced her finger over the fine work, feeling the ridges and valleys of metal beneath her fingers. It was fine work, done with care, and it was one of the most beautiful things she had ever seen. She turned it over, and saw in the glass her own reflection. The edge of the frame was also worked up into waves of silver, and her face was ringed by falling crests of water. She looked at herself, and was surprised to see that the glass reflected nothing of the room behind her. Only her face was visible, and no matter how she turned the mirror, she saw nothing else. The glass itself was very old, its surface seemingly thin as paper. Yet within it her features were shown perfectly, as though her mirror image were even more alive than she herself was. This disturbed her, and she turned the mirror over in her lap and picked up the second parcel.
The smaller gift turned out to be a small wooden box. It was perfectly smooth, with no inscription or design marring the deep red skin of the wood. Nor were there any hinges or locks; the top was carved to fit perfectly over the bottom. Lily lifted the lid and found inside a seashell. It was unlike any she had ever seen before, perfectly round and about three inches across. It was pale blue in color, and its surface was swirled with violet, like the color of the clouds just after a rain. She picked it up, and found that its sides curved back under itself, forming a hollow shape. Around the sides were tiny holes forming intricate patterns all around the edge.
Also inside the box was a note. Lily picked it up and unfolded it. Written in her father's clear, fine hand was a short letter.
I found this shell many years ago, when I was the age that you are now. I have never seen another like it, just as I have never seen another like you. As is so with other shells, when you listen to this one you will hear the sea. But sometimes you will hear much more. I took it with me when I left the village, and when I needed to return its sound led me back.
Always remember that I love you.
Lily folded the note carefully and put it back in the box. Then she lifted the shell to her ear and listened. The sound of the sea roared through its emptiness, carrying with it the sharp cries of gulls, the slap of waves, and the whistling of the wind where it sang freely while tossing the waves into the air. It was the familiar sound of her life, and she had heard it many times echoed in the hollow of a shell. But somehow the sound from this shell was more alive than it was in others, as though instead of merely capturing the voice of the sea, the voice originated from within the simple curve of the shell's walls. She put it back into the box and replaced the lid.
It was nearing midnight, and the villagers were gathering in the center of the hall to dance. The frenetic movement of hands and feet, they knew, kept away anything that might wish them harm. The rush of bodies moving about the room was sure to create a circle of love and warmth into which nothing dark could pass. And in movement and dance and laughter, they were reminded that they were alive, that their arms and legs could still respond to the sounds of fiddle, flute, and bells.
Joining the others, Lily stood in a ring of women, forming a large circle around the center of the hall. The men stood outside them, also in a ring, their faces bright with smiles as they stamped their feet and prepared to begin. In the corners, children laughed and giggled as they made their own small circles in imitation of their elders.
Picking up his fiddle, Arnson Pimball sounded the rush of light notes that signaled the start of the dance. When Kaylie Featherfew joined in with her flute, the women bent their knees and began a slow walk to the right, their hands clapping a beat. The men moved in the opposite direction, circling widdershins while their heavy boots made sounds as drums.
Lily watched the faces of the men pass by her as she moved in place between Anne Cooper and old Tressa McSnare. Each one was familiar to her, but she found herself mesmerized as she studied the lines and shadows of eyes and mouths, searching for something that would recall her father's face. As each man passed her, she paused a moment before looking at the next, as though in the time between her father would rise from the dead and come to take his place in the dance, as he had many times before.
When the circles had passed one another and each man had seen each woman's face, the music began to quicken. Kaylie's flute ran like a brook beneath the notes twirling from Alex Henry's fiddle, and the dancers prepared to begin the chain in which each woman grasped the hand of the man across from her and the circles intertwined, with each woman spinning around each man and moving on to the next. Stopped across from her childhood friend Peter Layman, Lily reached out and took his hand in hers.
Immediately, she was struck by a vision of Peter as an old man, his children, yet to be born, gathered around him as he lay dead upon his bed. The image was a peaceful one, and Lily sensed nothing but love in it, but its impact was as if someone had struck her in the head with a rock. It overwhelmed everything else, and she could feel every emotion as though it were her own. She knew the confusion felt by Peter's youngest daughter as she looked into her father's face. She sensed the separation that was just beginning to soak into the heart of his widow as she gazed into the future and saw herself alone. All of these things exploded into her mind in a single instant, battering her with sensations.
Before she had time to recover, she was passed to the next waiting hand, belonging to Hugh Van Woojin, whose cows provided the village with milk and cheese. As his calloused fingers closed around hers, the vision of Peter's death was swept from her head and replaced with one of Hugh, his face contorted in agony, stretched in the field while his cows looked down at him with puzzled expressions on their placid brown faces. Lily felt the crazy jump of Hugh's heart as it beat out of time and pain shot through his chest. She saw clearly the heavy stone he had just attempted to lift, and felt the rawness of his skin where it had fallen from his hands as he'd stumbled under its weight. Then his eyes opened, taking in the familiar faces of his herd and the sun flashing above them, and he died.
Again Lily felt herself passed to another hand, and again a vision came. A vision of death. She closed her eyes tightly and tried to concentrate on the music. She attempted to grasp onto the notes that tumbled from Alex Henry's fingers and ride them, letting them lift her above the pictures that flashed across the wall of her skull like the ever-shifting images of a kaleidoscope. But time and again she was jolted away from the music as first one scene and then another played itself out in the moments during which she touched the hands of the people she'd known all her life. She saw how each would die, most peacefully, but some in great pain and others by their own hands.
The dance seemed to speed up, and Lily felt as though she were being twirled in seven directions at once as her body spun and swayed, kept afloat by hands that, while holding her up, were also the cause of constant terror. Her blood shrieked in her veins, and she felt her skin grow overheated until she was sure she would burst into flame. Through the haze of her visions, she saw their faces, laughing and gay, dodging in and out of sight. She wondered what she looked like to them, if a bright smile covered the dizzying fall she was taking inside of herself. She wanted to scream for them to stop, but as when she saw her father's death, her throat was locked tightly. All she could do was surrender herself to the movement around her and hope that it would end soon before she was torn apart.
Tableau after tableau bloomed and died in her mind while the music played on. She saw Gudrun Caster felled by a sliver of lightning and Arles Hewer taken by the vengeful shade of his brother, Shane Egan choking on the bone of a haddock and Molly Pillsin leaping from the cliffs afterwards with their child still in her belly. She saw women and men in their beds, dead while sleeping, their eyes closed as if in dreams. She saw hanged men and women killed by poisons. She saw a woman trampled by a horse and a man whisked into the darkness as the Fair Folk lifted him out of his boat. Most painful for her were the drownings, the faces floating up blue and lifeless as her father's had. One after the other they came, and she was helpless against them.
Then the music stopped, and Lily fell to the floor. As quickly as they'd come, the visions swept out of her mind, leaving her cooled and empty. She opened her eyes, and saw that people were staring down at her, concern worrying their faces. Maxon Ashe reached down to help her up, and she twisted away. "No!" she yelled in a voice hoarse as if she'd been screaming for an hour. "Don't touch me!"
Maxon drew back, confused. Lily couldn't tell him that only moments ago she'd seen him felled by a bear hungry from a long winter of starvation. She only knew that if he touched her the vision would return, and that her heart would tear from any further pain. She lay on the floor and wept while around her people spoke in whispers of madness and enchantment.
Then Alex Henry's face broke through the crowd, and he was beside her as he'd been that morning. "The visions," she said softly. "They've come back."
By the afternoon of the next day, everyone in the village knew of Lily's gift of sight. While certainly accustomed to the workings of magic, few had seen it manifested in such a powerful way, and the result was that Lily was looked upon with a mixture of fear and awe. Those who could remember the last time such a thing had happened passed glances between themselves and remained silent, knowing as they did that speaking of such things could cause the forces that brought them into being to behave in strange and unpredictable ways. Instead they made garlands of holly leaves and dried violets and hung them on their doors.
Lily herself remained in her room, staring out at the sea and trying not to look at her hands. From time to time she picked up the mirror her father had given her and gazed at her reflection. Again she saw the bones of a woman floating beneath the smooth surface of her cheeks and the curve of her lips, and she hated what she saw. She closed her eyes, willing the woman who carried such terrible power in her hands to die, leaving behind the girl who knew nothing of death. But each time she opened her eyes and saw that the woman was still there, growing stronger with each passing day.
After three sleepless nights spent trying to drive the wild woman out of herself through sheer will, Lily decided instead that she would bury her. Leaving her room, she went to the kitchen, where she proceeded to make half a dozen pies, stuffing the shells to bursting with blackberries, peaches, apples, lemons, and pumpkin. She veiled them with sugar and painted them with egg whites and nutmeg, then baked them until the stove glowed and the entire house filled with the smell of burnt sweetness and bubbling fruit.
While she waited for the pies to bake, she roasted pans of oysters and grilled chickens on spits, pulling them hot from the fire and eating them until juice ran down her face and her fingers were red from the heat. She grabbed handfuls of potatoes from the pot and soaked them in salted butter, and she ate greedily from a steaming pile of lobsters tumbled together on a plate like soldiers fallen in battle. She sucked meat from its bones and scattered the skeletons across the floor.
When she finished, she pulled the pies from the oven and ate them, still hot, with tall glasses of cool milk, spooning bite after bite into her seemingly bottomless throat. She felt her stomach swell within her as she savored the bitter skin of lemons and the wild joy of blackberries. She gobbled up peaches and scooped up drifts of soft apples wrapped in buttery crust, devouring whole pies in a matter of minutes and licking the crumbs from the tins.
She ate for a night and a day, and when she was done she had added a new layer of fat over her bones. When she looked at herself in the mirror, she saw that the woman who had been half-hidden beneath her skin had been pushed back inside a little more deeply. Her cheeks were rounder, her face more that of an innocent child. She looked at her hands and felt the fat covering the fingers like thin gloves. She wondered if it would protect her from the magic, keeping it inside as wool kept out the cold of winter.
Through it all, her mother remained in her bedroom. She, too, had heard talk of Lily's gift. Only unlike the villagers, she was certain that she knew well its origins, and she had spent her time on her knees in prayer to a god the villagers had no use for, and in fact had never heard talk of. It was the god of her own childhood, and she found herself crying out to him to remove from Lily whatever evil had crept into her soul and corrupted her in such a hideous way as to make her every touch open up a portal to death.
As she ate, Lily could hear mumbled words floating stillborn through the house, felt them trapped and smothered in the sweet-scented web of berried steam and roasted air before they could reach the ears of her mother's god. She had no idea what her mother was doing, and was thankful only that she remained in her room and left Lily to clothe herself in a new body. She knew that her father's death had changed something between herself and her mother, that her mother blamed her for what had happened. She knew her mother feared her in the same way she herself feared the woman moving about inside her skin, but she understood also that she would get no help in her fight.
After a week, Lily had added twenty pounds to her frame. As she was looking at herself in the bathroom mirror and thinking that maybe she was beginning to win her battle, her mother opened the door and announced that they were leaving the village that evening. She told Lily to pack one bag and to be ready to go when dusk descended and made it possible to pass out of the village.
Lily had never left the village. Few had. And only one--her father--had ever returned. He had refused ever to speak about what he'd seen, and likewise demanded that his wife never talk of her life before coming to her new home. This she had done out of love for him, although over time it had made her bitter and afraid, and in the end she had hated him almost as much as she loved him. The village she had always feared, and now that her husband was dead and her daughter possessed of evil, she longed for escape.
Like most of the people who lived there, Lily had given little thought to what lay beyond the lands she knew. Now, faced with the thought of leaving, she found herself very afraid. She feared also the urgency she heard in her mother's voice, and the way in which her eyes stared past Lily's face as though looking at something looming dark and dangerous behind her.
Still, she knew that leaving was what she had to do, not for her mother's sake, but for her own. She needed to run from the village and from the sea, away from the pull of its tides that drowned men and called women to throw themselves into the waves. She knew it was the tides that had summoned the blood from between her legs and woken the woman who fought even now to claw her way through muscle and bone to lay waste to Lily's world. The fat had done something to slow her emergence, but Lily could feel her still, the cold fingers working their way through knots of blood in a search for the door that would free her forever. Perhaps, she thought, running away from the sea would make the woman drowsy and lull her into a false sleep.
She packed quickly, filling a small bag with clothes. She put into it the hand mirror and the box with the shell, and then she was ready. She went downstairs and found her mother waiting. She too had packed almost nothing, choosing to leave behind that which belonged in the place she had been taken to by her husband. She had on the dress she had worn on the evening she'd arrived in the village, and a small hat perched on her head. Everything else remained in the house, which she left quickly and without looking back.
Once or twice as they walked down the lone road away from the village Lily saw her mother look back, as though expecting someone to be following them. But Lily knew that no one would try and stop them. People came and left the village by choice, not by force, and it was understood that no one who left ever spoke of its existence to anyone else. Even if they should, it would be impossible for someone not born into the village to find his way there.
After half an hour, they came to the bridge that passed over the river that marked the village's easternmost edge. Surrounded as it was on the west, north, and south by the sea, the bridge provided the only way in or out of the village, not that many ever crossed it's wide wooden boards. Sometimes the children, filled with the flighty courage common to the very young, would dare one another to step foot on it, but none ever got more than a few feet onto its expanse before turning and running back to the safety of the rocks that sat at the entrance, where they stood with hearts beating, laughing at their own fear as they looked into the fine fog that perpetually covered the far side of the bridge, even on the finest summer day.
As Lily and her mother approached the bridge, Lily's heart began to sing wildly in her chest. With darkness nipping at their heels, she knew that they must cross over quickly or risk doing business with whatever dark creatures wandered the borders at night. The fog swirled before her slowly, turning over and upon itself like a large grey cat rolling in the grass. She looked into its grizzled center and wondered where it would take her.
Her mother started forward uneasily, her footsteps unsure as she tested the bridge, perhaps half afraid it would give way beneath her shoes. But it held, and soon they were approaching the veil of fog. Lily closed her eyes and allowed her mother to pull her into it. She felt the cool wet kiss of air around her as they passed through, and the sound of their feet became duller and somehow sadder.
Then it was over. When Lily opened her eyes again, she was standing on the other side of a bridge beneath a sky dark with night and lit by the thin breath of a moon that seemed smaller than the one that hung over the village. The air was warm, and she could not smell the sea. When she turned around, she saw that the bridge she had just crossed simply made a small jump over a trickling stream before continuing on down a dusty road.
"Where are we?" she asked her mother. "Where is the village."
"Quiet now," her mother said sharply. "There is no village. There never was. Now follow me."
Her mother began walking down the road under stars, and Lily followed. She had no idea were she was or where they were going, and she wondered about the village. She wondered, too, if in crossing over the bridge she had left behind the woman she was trying to kill. She made her hands into fists, searching them for any signs of her presence, but she felt nothing but the comforting cushion of flesh plump with fat.
They walked in silence for half an hour. Lily listened to the sounds of crickets in the fields on either side of the road and to the wind rustling the leaves over her head. While every now and again she would see the shape of something creep out of the tall weeds and peer at her for a moment before slipping back into the dark, she sensed that she had nothing to fear from anything that lived in the woods whose trees rose up into the sky beyond the seas of grass.
Rounding a turn in the road, Lily saw ahead of them the lights of a town. They shone electric and harsh over the fronts of houses, filling the air with a hard white glow that hurt Lily's eyes and made her blink. As they left the fields and woods behind and made for the streets lined with cars, she felt a strong desire to turn and run. Yet the hum of the electrical lines over her head drew her deeper in with their voices, and she found herself anxious to see what lay beyond the quite fronts of the buildings.
Her mother walked down the main street as though she'd been reborn. "It's still the same," she said, her voice that of a little girl seeing her first circus. "It's just as I remember it the night we passed through."
"Passed through?" Lily asked. "You mean when you came to the village with father?"
Her mother turned to her, her eyes dark. "I told you not to speak of the village," she said. "If anyone asks you, we're from Pilotsville."
Lily nodded, afraid to say anything that might make her mother angry. She didn't understand why the village should remain a secret any more than she understood why they were in the town, but she knew that it was important to not draw any more attention to herself than was necessary. The woman within her fed on attention, and if she was still there, waiting, Lily was determined to starve her into death.
Her mother led her to the door of a building where a bright blue sign blinked like a startled child. good eats it said, bursting into indigo life and then dying again a moment later, only to be resurrected as Lily held her breath waiting to see if each time would be the last, marvelling when it was not. She peered in the windows and saw a room filled with tables. People sat at them, laughing and talking, and a woman wearing a red and white checked apron brought them plates of food.
Lily's mother pushed open the door and led Lily inside. To her surprise, no one looked up to stare at them, and the woman in the apron merely waved at them to take a table in a far corner. Lily sat on the red vinyl bench and slipped herself into the corner of the booth, where she could see everything in the room. The vinyl was hot and sticky against her legs, and she kicked her feet against the floor nervously as she looked around.
The people at the other tables looked much like the people in the village, but somehow smaller and less colorful, as though time had faded them in the way that repeated washings pulled the dye from cloth. Their faces showed the strain of wear, and they seemed tired despite their laughter. Still, their clothes were the clothes of working people, perhaps farmers, and that made Lily feel more at ease.
The woman in the apron approached the table and handed Lily and her mother each a piece of paper. "What can I get you to drink?" she asked.
Lily looked at her mother, unsure of what to say. "Water," her mother said, "and two orange sodas."
The woman left, and Lily looked at the piece of paper she'd been handed. Written all over it were the names of different kinds of foods, some of which she recognized and many of which she didn't. "What is this?" she asked her mother.
"It's a menu," she said. "This is a restaurant, where people eat. Pick something from the menu and order it."
Lily had never heard of such a thing, but the idea of being able to eat what she liked appealed to her. She ran her eyes up and down the lists of foods, trying to decide what to have. When the waitress returned with their drinks, she was ready.
"I'd like a hamburger," she said. She wasn't sure what it was, but it sounded good.
"Do you want cheese on that?" the waitress asked.
"How about fries?"
Again she nodded, although she couldn't imagine what the woman would bring her. She was thankful when the woman turned her attention to her mother.
"I'll have a tuna sandwich," her mother said. "With lettuce, please."
The woman retreated, and Lily picked up the glass that had been set in front of her. It was filled with orange soda, and the tiny bubbles that ran up the side of the glass fascinated her. She brought the glass to her lips and sipped. Her throat filled with the tart taste of orange, followed almost immediately by a sickening sweetness and a rush of fizzy air that filled her nose and made her choke. She quickly put the glass down and took a swallow of water. Again she choked, this time because the water tasted dead to her.
"That's awful," she said, thankful at least to have the horrible sweet taste out of her mouth.
"Things are different here," her mother said simply. "You'll get used to it. You'll have to."
Lily decided that the time was right for asking questions. "Where are we going?" she asked.
Her mother's mouth was set in a firm line. "I don't know yet," she said.
"Is this where you came from?" Lily said. "Before..."
"No," her mother interrupted. "I lived in a big city. Now don't ask anything else. Just remember that if anyone asks, we're from Pilotsville, and we're on our way to visit a friend."
The waitress returned carrying two plates. She set them on the table. "Enjoy," she said, smiling. Lily smiled back. Something about the simple way in which the woman moved through the room calmed her.
She picked up the hamburger and took a big bite. She expected it to make her gag, as the drink had, but she was surprised to find that she enjoyed the taste. She ate quickly, amazed to find that she was much hungrier than she thought. She picked up a fry and bit into it. Discovering that it was just a length of potato, she delighted in eating the pile on her plate. She couldn't imagine why anyone would want to take ordinary food and do such outlandish things to it, but she enjoyed it nonetheless. Besides, she could feel the food adding to the stores of fat that suffocated the woman inside her.
As she ate, Lily tried to listen to the conversations of people around her. The air was thick with voices, and it was hard to distinguish one from another, but sometimes she could pull a single thread of words from the tangle and make out what was being said. A few tables away, a man and woman were arguing, although no one looking at them could tell. The man was accusing the woman of being unfaithful to him, and she was denying it. Her voice flowed angry and hot on the air, and Lily could tell that she was lying even as she pleaded innocence and picked at her salad.
Near the door, a group of men were talking loudly. They seemed to be very happy, and accompanied their talk with much laughter. Their conversation centered around their work at a nearby factory, their wildly stupid boss, and their own unappreciated accomplishments. They appeared to be slightly drunk, and Lily found their behavior comforting in a way she did not entirely understand. Time and again she discovered herself staring at their round, reddened faces and laughing along with them.
Besides the men, the people she found herself watching most intently were a family seated across the room. A mother, father, and daughter sat eating quietly. The girl was about Lily's age, and several times she looked at Lily and smiled, as though their similarity in years made them friends without any other commonalities being necessary. In contrast to the rest of the diners, the family said very little. Despite their silence, Lily could tell by the way they passed things to one another that they loved each other very much. When the father took his napkin and unselfconsciously wiped something from his daughter's face, Lily felt tears begin to flow down her cheeks.
"Stop that," her mother said. "People will stare."
Lily mopped at her face with her own napkin. "I miss him," she said. "Don't you?"
Her mother looked down. "He's gone," she said simply.
Even though she knew and feared the answer, Lily asked the question that she had been thinking since the afternoon of her father's death. "You think I killed him, don't you?"
Her mother was silent. Lily looked at the half-eaten sandwich on her plate, a row of jagged bread where her teeth had bitten into it. She wanted to snatch it up and hurl it against the wall, to startle her mother out of her silence. She wanted to tell her about the other woman, the woman who had really killed her father, using Lily's hands to do it. She wanted to tell her about how the woman had reached out to the villagers during the dance and fed on their deaths. She wanted her mother to open her arms and take her into them.
But she also knew that it did not matter. The woman inside her slept, coaxed into a drowsy slumber by the lullaby of blood singing in Lily's veins as it beat beneath the layers of fat she had carefully wrought. Even now she felt the warmth of her meal spreading out like a blanket over the sleeping demon, pushing her deeper into hibernation. She picked at the few remaining scraps of food on her plate, thankful for every piece that added to her inner armor.
The waitress arrived again to take away the plates and glasses. As she reached over the table to gather up Lily's mother's unfinished sandwich, she placed a hand on Lily's shoulder. "Can I get you some dessert, honey? We have some nice chocolate cake."
Lily couldn't answer, for the moment the woman's hand touched her, the sleeping woman within her awoke. Lily saw clearly the waitress bent across the counter near the door, a ragged hole gaping in her chest where a gunshot had tattered her skin and blown her heart into scarlet ribbons across the wall behind her. Her mouth was open in surprise, and she still clutched the pencil she carried in her left hand. Stray pieces of paper, bills from the cash register, whirled about her feet.
The woman's hand continued to rest on Lily's shoulder as she waited for a response. As long as it was there, the scene remained fixed in Lily's mind, as though her touch formed a conductor between her soul and Lily's sight like a lightning rod channeled the power of a storm into the ground. She was unable to breathe, yet she could think of no way to remove the woman's hand from her body and break the connection. She looked up into the smiling face while the image of violent death floated over her still-living features like a mask.
"No," Lily was finally able to whisper. "No, thank you."
"Okay," the woman said cheerfully as the hole in her chest oozed blood onto the white expanse of the counter. "But it's not every day I make my chocolate cake. I'll just bring you the check."
As soon as she removed her hand, Lily felt cool air fill her lungs again. She looked up and saw that her mother was staring at her strangely.
"It happened again, didn't it?" she said stonily.
Lily could only nod. Se felt ashamed that she had not been able to keep the creature inside her at bay. She had not done enough.
"I thought maybe it was just that place," her mother said, as though speaking to herself. "I thought getting away would put an end to it."
"I'm sorry," Lily whispered. "I'm sorry."
Her mother said nothing more as she took the check when it came and paid with money that had remained in her purse untouched for more than thirteen years. The bills unfolded like leaves, and the coins clinked gently as her mother dropped them onto the table. Lily wanted to ask what they were, and what their importance was, but she didn't dare open her mouth.
Her mother stood and put her hat on. She started to reach for Lily's hand, as if to pull her up, and then drew it back suddenly. "Come on," she said.
Lily followed her out of the restaurant, taking one last glance at the family she had watched throughout her meal. The waitress was putting down two slices of rich cake on white plates before the daughter and the mother. One of the slices held a burning candle. As Lily watched, the daughter blew out the candle and took a bite of the cake. Then she pushed the plate toward her father. For a moment their hands touched, and Lily saw that the girl continued to beam with happiness. As Lily and her mother walked out of the restaurant into the shrill electric light, Lily heard the father's voice rise above the others.
"Happy birthday," he said as the door shut with a bang.