I wake, and see his fingers sliding through the cracked window glass. He is quiet. Dandelion seeds drift around him. I cannot move from my bed; instead, I stare up at him, moss mouthed. He is here.
When feeling returns, I struggle from my bed to the floor. Sheets twine around my limbs as I scoot away and press myself against the opposite wall. It is summer. He always comes in the summer. I cover my face so he cannot see me, and will my drowsy tongue to work. “Nell,” I say, breathless. Then, again, “Nell.”
She would not replace the window glass, and now he is here. I scream.
Nell throws the door open and, peering through my fingers, I see she holds a pair of shears. I say nothing: she knows what has happened. She moves through the room, steps onto my bed, reaches up to the window and shears off his fingers one by one.
She has left the door open. The room beyond yawns. I rise, heart hammering.
Nell snips the last of the fingers, then steps down from the bed and holds the trophies up in the morning light. They dangle beside her face, as if they were locks of her wild hair. Her hazel eyes are burning, and the marks of her sweat-stained pillow hang like new wrinkles on her cheek. Like me, she is pale as milk. “He is getting bolder,” she says.
I steal another glance at the open door, then look at my feet.
Nell tucks the shears into her belt and walks towards me. She crouches and kisses me on the forehead, still holding his fingers in a gloved hand. She takes a deep breath, and she is so close to me, I hear her nose whistle. She says, “Did you touch him, Cat?”
She rises and the fingers dangle at her side, caressing the folds of her dress. His fragrance reaches out and I shiver as he brushes my cheek. He snakes through my lungs, settles over my heart in a fibrous rime. I sigh, and spores float on my breath.
“Good,” says Nell. “I’ll make something to eat. The people left us some food yesterday.”
From my window, I only catch glimpses of the people. Nell says they bring us things because she keeps their village safe with charms. Nell is good at keeping things safe. She has kept me safe, all this time.
“Would you like to eat, Cat?”
I pick up my sheets and wrap them about myself.
“What is it?” Nell says.
“Why won’t you fix the glass?”
Nell is silent. She chews the inside of her cheek, then walks slowly to the door. She rests her hand on the doorknob and says, quietly, “You shouldn’t have broken it.”
When the path of light from my window hits the wall’s centre, Nell brings me food. She carries it on a tray, and places it beside me on the bed. She strokes my hair, and I sit up, smelling the rich scent of meat and wine. She has brought a bowl of stew and a slice of baked bread. “Go on,” she says.
I reach out and take the bread, dipping it in the stew, taking a bite.
She sits on the floor, and watches me as I eat ravenously. Then, halfway through the meal, she says, “I saw you.”
I swallow and meet her gaze. She is biting her cheek again.
“You were looking at the door.”
Dread coils like a root around my stomach. I drop the stew and push the tray away. “I wasn’t.”
Nell gives a sad smile. Then, I see she is still wearing gloves.
“No,” I say. “Please.”
From behind her back she takes out one of his eyes. It lopes on the end of a thorny stalk, and its iris is coloured sickly pink. She holds it before my face.
Trembling, I grit my teeth and refuse to look away.
“What is this?” Nell says.
“Where is he?”
“What happens if you touch him?”
“He’ll know where I am. He’ll knock on our door like one of the people.”
“Would you like that?”
“Because he’ll hurt me, like he hurt you.”
“How will he hurt you?”
“He’ll put a baby in my belly, and the baby will smell of wood-rot.”
“What are you?”
“What are you?”
“I am the green man’s daughter.”
Nell takes a deep breath, then rises. She moves to a corner of the room and sets down the eye, covering it with a napkin. She stands and looks down at it. Then, she turns to me and says, “I am leaving this here.”
Skin-prickle dances down my arms, but I am silent.
Nell removes her gloves, tucks them into her belt, and runs her fingers through her wild hair. “Remember, this is the safest place for you.” Smiling, she moves to the doorway. “Finish your food.” She leaves and locks the door.
I set the tray on the floor and lie back in bed. My gaze drifts with the dust motes, settling on the napkin covering his eye. I whisper, “I am the green man’s daughter.”
Nell says we must live here, or else her charms won’t work. We must be near the forest. We must be near him. I think of him often, walking from the sentinel trees, across the meadow to our house. I think of Nell, opening the door to find him gazing at her, hollow-eyed, spores bursting from his skin. I think of his body twining with hers, quitch grass filling her mouth, choking. He would do the same to me. I stay awake, staring at the napkin, praying he didn’t see me through the plucked eye. Nell says that sometimes he will not notice you, but if you touch him, he is sure to come.
Sleep lurches about the room like a mayfly, and when it settles on me, it burrows under my skin and makes me dream of outside. There is a field of his eyes, and they are all turned to me. I brush my fingers over them and gasp as our sight melds. I hold my hands before my face, and see my fingers are now his fingers, my forearms, his forearms. I am a thing of sinew and moss; of lichen and berries. I walk on through the field, and see that he is waiting where the meadow meets the trees. Wood-rot fills my nose.
Nell is standing over me. I must have been talking in my sleep again. I sit up in bed and rub my eyes. Then, I smell it.
“Up,” says Nell.
I pat the sheets around my legs. Wet.
I peel the sheets away and rise from the bed. I move to the centre of the room and stand, head bowed. Nell bundles the bedding without speaking, then she leaves the room. I stand and wait. The path of window light shines on the bottom corner of the wall; to the corner where his eye rests under the napkin. I hold my arms out before me. They are flesh and bone. I let them fall to my sides. I will not cry. The air is thick with that sour smell. My smell.
The door opens again, and Nell returns. She is holding a fire iron in one hand, a stool in the other. She sets the stool down, sits on it, then beckons for me to lie across her lap. I obey. My knees touch the ground now; this is how I know I am older.
When Nell finishes, she pushes me off and I fall, slumped, on the floor. I look up and see that her face is red. On her cheek is a fresh path of tears. She rises from the stool, and does not meet my eye. She steps towards me and raises her hand. She brushes my hair behind my ear. “You must learn, love,” she says. Then, she picks up the stool and leaves, locking the door behind her.
Belly down, I lie on the floor. Pain grows its weeds in my legs. I look to the corner and see his eye, still under the napkin. I crawl towards it, and as I slide across the floor, I hear Nell in the other room, speaking her charms with a shaky voice. I will not cry. My fingers brush the corner of the napkin. I lift it away and the rime around my heart blossoms as I meet his eye. It is wrinkled, and turning the colour of ash. I reach out, so my hand is hovering just above it. Then, I take it in my fist and clench so hard the thorns pierce me. Let him come.
I wake, and he is at the window again. He is beckoning. I reach up through the cracked glass, and brush his fingers with my own. Then, I walk to the corner by the door, hobbling from the welts that have formed across my legs. I pick up his eye and clutch it to my chest.
“He’s here!” I scream.
There is shuffling from the next room and Nell bursts through the door. I trip her and wrestle the shears from her hand. She rises, but I brandish his eye to keep her back.
The pink orb droops between us. Nell looks at it, chews her cheek, then smiles. “You’re a silly girl, Cat.” She snatches the eye from my hand and casts it to the floor as if it were nothing. She charges, but I dart out the way and slip through the door, slamming it behind me. I find her stool and wedge it against the doorknob. She whispers from the other side. “It’s not safe out there. It’s not safe.”
I run outside. His knotted back is warm under my feet; his hairs brush against me; his breath ebbs from the forest and makes my skin tingle. He is waiting there, just beyond the trees; waiting for his daughter. Giddily I stumble through scrub, swallowed by the shadows of his canopy. Birds float like scraps of black ash. They sing with his voice. He is laughing. His veins snake out, rearing above his dark, rich body before plunging back down, seeking. Milky light drips through the canopy and seeps into my flesh, and I join the susurrus of the forest. I come to an open vein and gaze at his clear, cold blood. I slip my feet in, one by one, as if putting on delicate slippers, then I wade gently through, watching the ripples wrinkle the surface with fissures and hills. He sucks at my feet and his soft body rises in pulpy gouts with each footfall. I crawl up to the other side and move deeper, still clutching the shears.
Nell made me fear him, kept me stupid with her charms. But now I am returning. My bones will twine like his, my skin will bloom with berries. I am not Nell’s. I was never hers. Ahead, I see a glade and, in its centre, lies a nest of his fingers. They sprawl out, and I know they are searching for me. My eyes fill with tears as I approach, smiling. When my toes brush his fingertips, I fall to my knees. He knows I am here. Soon, he will walk from the bordering trees, just like one of the people. He will kneel beside me and place his hand on mine, and he will see we are the same. His scent is wood-rot, like mine. I place the shears on my lap and hold my hands out in the milky light. They are not yet changed. My fingernails are gnawed, their little moons half swallowed by grey flesh. I take the shears, and they glitter under my knuckle. He will come soon. I will change for him.
Chris Barkley is currently reading a master’s in Creative Writing at The University of Oxford. He has had prose published in Palm Sized Press and the Writers of the Future 35th anthology. His poetry has featured in Agenda, and his theatre work has won The Stage Award at Edinburgh Fringe. He has worked as a bookseller at both Waterstones and Blackwell’s. His twitter is @TufferBaker
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