Fiction – “They Gather in the Green” by Michelle Muenzler
The creeping dark of autumn pressed against the low stone walls of the cottage like brittle fingers. In the bed, Rook drew the quilt higher while Salla, his sister, shifted her tiny head against his chest. Still awake.
“Tell me a story,” she murmured. The warmth of her breath tickled his chin.
“You should be asleep.”
In the corner, a goat loosed a quiet bleat and set the other goats to shuffling about. Salla did not set her head back onto his chest.
“Tell me the story.”
A sharp ache slid along his jaw’s arch. “Once,” he said, “there was a man.”
“Yes, of course. And a woman as well.”
“That would be Mother.”
“Maybe I don’t need to tell this story tonight.” The ache worked its way into the joints of his jaw. “You know it already.”
Her weight turned feather-light against him. He imagined her eyes, gold as agate, staring at him in the darkness. Begging in her stubborn yet quiet way. Mother’s eyes.
“Fine,” he said. “I’ll continue.” He sucked in a chill wisp of air, let it sift back between his lips. “The man, he loved the woman more than anything. So they married.”
“And had us.”
“Yes, and had us. Now shush or I really won’t finish.”
“I’m sorry.” She laid her head back against his chest.
“One day, after many years of happiness, an evil fairy came and stole the woman away.”
“Very evil. Enough to take the woman from her children and the man who loved her.”
“And what did Father do?” Oh, how well she knew the story. Her question was worn as the months she’d repeated it.
“He stored food, of course, enough for the children to last through a hand of seasons. And he followed the fairy south to find the woman.”
The long silence almost led Rook to believe Salla had finally drifted off. But she never missed the end of a story. Especially this one.
“He will save her, won’t he? And bring her home?”
“Go to sleep. We’ve work to do tomorrow.”
Rook checked the bags of oats piled in the corner. The mice had wormed their way inside again despite the fresh charms he’d copied from the decaying remains of the old. With what they’d stolen, the mice would certainly make it through winter, though Salla and he would not.
The door burst open behind him.
“Rook!” Salla leaned in the doorway, her pale face flush from running. She was too small, too lean. More wisp than human.
He pushed to his feet. “You’re supposed to be watching the goats.”
“But Nana’s in the blackthorn again and won’t come out. I called to her like you said, but she still won’t come.”
“Right then. Coming.” He let her lead. No telling where she’d prodded the goats to this time.
Salla skipped past the dwindling stack of dried peat, the crumbled stone wall plastered with charms, and into the craggy hills dotted over with fields of purple heather, yellow-red lichens, and moss as golden-brown as Salla’s eyes.
“There,” Salla said as they climbed a long ridge. She pointed at a thick clump of blackthorn stretched across half the hilltop.
Nana had managed to work her way somewhere near the center and was busy tugging at the curved thorns with her teeth. The rest of the goats milled about in the heather.
Rook shook his head. Nana’s milk would be sour for days now. “Why’d you bring them here? You should know better, Salla.”
“She wanted to come here. Not me.”
Sometimes his sister missed the point of herding. Nothing left to be done then but steer Nana out and hope Salla could keep the small herd out of trouble long enough for Rook to get some actual work done. He grabbed the goat-stick she’d left leaning against the edge of blackthorn and dropped to his belly. Recent rains had left the ground a soupy mud.
He wormed his way through the gaps in the scrub. Thorns scraped against his goat-hide jacket but failed to pierce the thick leather. When he reached Nana, he swatted her speckled flank and cried, “Out, Nana! Out!”
The goat sidestepped and jutted her bony jaw deeper into the blackthorn.
“Stupid goat,” he said, and swatted her again.
Salla cried from outside the scrub, “Come on, Nana. That’s a good girl.”
But Nana, the ornery beast, wasn’t moving.
Rook cocked his head to Salla. “Find something sweet to lure her out.”
Salla nodded and disappeared over the ridge.
Rook crawled beneath the claws of scrub, circling toward a lichen-blighted stone thick as his waist. The blackthorn shied away from the stone like errant knives bent back against Southland steel. It was probably the only place with space to breathe in the entire patch.
At the stone, he rose into a hunched position. “Stupid, stupid goat,” he repeated while Nana stared and chewed. And he leaned back against the stone.
A wet whistle was all the warning he had.
The stone sucked into the mud. The mud slurped into a stale gush of air. And the earth opened up where the stone had been. Rook flung out his arms and caught the branches of blackthorn. Slick thorns sliced into his palms.
Somewhere far below him, a cracked thud sounded. The stone. Were the hole any wider, he’d have followed it down. He pushed himself back into the scrub, letting the thorns snag against his jacket, and wiped the bloody mud from his hands. Before him, a cramped hole burrowed into darkness. Half an arms-length down, the muddied layer of soil turned to carved rock, and clinging to the rock, a ladder of green glass.
Outside the blackthorn now, Nana bleated. She must have frighted at his near fall. Something good at least.
Salla’s voice startled him. “What are you looking at?”
Rook swung about, stabbed his cheek on a thorn. Salla stood near Nana, a scant handful of clover in her hand.
“Nothing,” Rook said. “Stay back.”
“I want to see.” She scrambled under the scrub. Every thorn caught on her dress reminded Rook of the pile of mending so long undone. When she reached the hole, she looked down and gasped. “A ladder. You have to go down, Rook.”
“No. I don’t. This thing was stoned over for a reason.”
She reached toward the glass, but Rook swatted her arm.
“No, I said.”
Salla glared. The wind ruffled her hair. The goats bleated. “But what if—”
“No.” Nothing but ill luck lay in that hole. He could feel it in his jaw. “Mother isn’t in there. Father either. They’re in Southland and nowhere else. Understand?”
Of course she didn’t understand. He’d been feeding her fairy stories since Father left.
“What if,” she said slowly, as though trying to sneak around his incoming interruption, “we were to check?”
Rook sucked in a deep breath. The chill air stung his throat.
“Just this once,” she said. “Just in case.”
She wasn’t going to let this go. “Tell you what,” he said. “I’ll check. Alone. Fairy kingdoms are no place for little girls. And when I come back up and tell you there’s nothing down there, you’ll listen. Okay?”
Rook slipped onto the ladder. Its glass was green, so green it hurt his eyes. And wet, of course. What wasn’t wet this time of year? He had not expected the thrumming, though, like a harp. Like a heartbeat. The vibrations shivered in the marrow of his bones.
He gave Salla one last look of warning. “Don’t be coming after me now.”
And down he climbed, until the shallow disk of gray sky disappeared and the only light was phosphorous green and sticky against the glass. He’d only intended to go so far as halfway maybe, stay long enough to think of some story to scare Salla away, then return. But as the air warmed around him, his curiosity thawed. So further down he climbed. Into the green. At the bottom, the stone lay in shattered chunks, and a small chamber opened up, cramped and wet and swallowed in a glove of heat. Sweat simmered beneath Rook’s jacket.
Half buried in the rocky backside of the chamber, a sheet of green glass, smoky like the sea at storm, bathed the walls in a stronger green phosphoric glow. In its polished depths, a young man, lean of limb and dressed in goat-hide, looked on in amazement. Rook. Or almost Rook. As Rook as Rook could be with everything shaded and shadowed by green.
Rook removed his jacket and dropped it to the floor. His mirror twin did the same, but a half breath slower.
“What a curious mirror,” Rook said, and stepped forward.
His twin stepped forward as well.
Rook moved one hand, then the other, watching carefully as his twin did the same. But still the timing was off. And he had the distinct impression that when his eyes moved from his twin’s, the twin’s were not doing the same.
And that is when he noticed the broken glass. Not on his side of the mirror, of course. He would have noticed earlier if he’d been stepping in glass. But around his twin’s feet, green shards glinted, as if the mirror itself once had a twin.
The line of Rook’s courage pulled taut, and his heart throbbed in its tightening strands. He pulled back a step.
In the mirror, his twin stepped forward and reached out an arm and said, “What a curious mirror.”
The taut line snapped. Rook scrambled up the ladder, feet slipping, hands sliding. His own voice echoed behind him, repeating the same phrase over and over, until finally Rook thrust himself into the freedom of mud and gray skies and blackthorn scrub.
“Did you find them?” Salla asked, her face flushed bright.
Rook shoved her through the scrub. “Move,” he said. And then, “There’s nothing in there. Nothing at all.” And he pushed her through the scrub again.
She allowed herself to be pushed, crawled free of the blackthorn, Rook close behind her.
“Take the goats home. Now,” Rook said. “They’ve had enough forage for today.”
Salla turned to gather them, but Rook caught her arm.
“Salla. I don’t want you to go down there. Promise me you won’t.”
She blinked, looked about to say one thing, then another, then gave him a slight nod. It would have to be enough.
It wasn’t until all the goats were gathered and halfway home that the early autumn chill sunk through Rook’s shirt and reminded him of his jacket, forgotten at the bottom of the ladder.
“Tell me a story,” Salla said, her head again nestled against his chest in the dark. Outside, sleet spluttered against the stone walls.
He hadn’t the heart for stories after the green mirror. Especially not fairy stories. The thrumming of the glass still vibrated in his bones. His own voice echoed in his skull. “No stories tonight,” he said.
“I want the story,” she said. Already, she had shifted from his chest.
“No. Go to sleep, Salla. We’ve a long day tomorrow.”
And the sleet continued to splutter through the night. And slow drips slunk between the bundles of thatch, plinked against the flagstones. And Rook imagined Salla asleep and the world a peaceful place with no mirrors of sea green swimming in the earth. And finally, he imagined himself asleep as well.
It was well into morning when he finally woke. Nana bleated mercilessly in the corner, the other goats chorusing behind her.
“Salla?” He wiped the crust of sleep from his eyes. She should have had the goats out by now. And woken him. And had the oats boiling for breakfast. Beside him, the bed was cold.
The mirror. She’d broken her promise.
The goats moaned as he sprang out the door and across the moor. Frost hung on his breath, but his arms dripped with sweat. In sight of the blackthorn, he skidded to a halt. Salla was just slipping from the hole. Her hand clutched his jacket.
She looked quiet. Tired. Drawn too thin.
Her eyes met his. “Oh!”
“Out,” Rook said. “Now.”
She scrambled free of the blackthorn and handed him his jacket. He slipped it on before the cold could burrow through the thick haze of heat surrounding him.
Salla opened her mouth to speak, but he raised a finger, and she snapped her jaw shut.
“I think,” he said, “the goats need tending now.”
“Yes, Rook,” she said.
The rest of the day, they worked in silence. Ate in silence. Slept in silence. And the next day as well. Only at the dawn after that did Salla glance up from her breakfast of mashed oats and speak.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I won’t go back. I promise.”
And that, Rook thought, was that.
Rook floundered in the rain for days looking for a large enough stone to cover the hole. What he found was either too small or too heavy.
“Tell me a story,” Salla said every night.
And every night, Rook replied, “Go to sleep.” The story, the real story, pushed against his jaw.
When he gave up on his quest for a stone, Salla gave up on her request for the story. And so the hole remained open. And Salla fell into silence again.
Two weeks passed, and Rook began to cake thick mud around the bottom foot of their home. The stones had too many cracks and too many windings for mice to squeeze through. And none of his wardings worked. Not like Mother’s had.
Mud mixed with stalks of heather was all he could think of. And the mice would probably chew through that as well.
He finished with a scant handful of light left, washed in the ice waters of the creek, and returned home. Salla stood outside the doorway. Smoke curled from the chimney hole.
He stepped to slide past her. “The goats all in?” He didn’t expect an answer.
She moved into his path. Flecks of green studded her eyes, like mica. Like glass.
“Your eyes,” he said. “What’s happened to your eyes?”
She stared unblinking. Trembling. The flecks swam. “Please don’t be mad, Rook.” The first words he’d heard in days.
“Did you go back, Salla?” An ember sparked to flame in his stomach. He didn’t need her answer. He knew the truth. But he wanted her to say it. “Did you go back?”
An ugly tear refracted down her cheek and she glanced inside. “I missed them so much. I just wanted…I just—”
Rook shoved her through the door. Sitting by the fire, two tall figures stared. Orange flames danced on their green glass skin.
As one, they held out their arms and said in Salla’s voice, “Rook, what a good son you are. Would you like to hear a story?”
Salla tugged his sleeve. “I taught them that. We can teach them anything.”
The fire in his belly turned to a lump, like day-old mush congealed in the bowl. “That’s not them,” he said.
He turned to her, to her insistent eyes, and shook her as hard as he could. “It isn’t, and you know it. They’re gone, and they’re not coming back. You have to accept it.”
“No!” She shook her head. “It’s them!”
She screamed and shuddered, and Rook threw her to the flagstones, grabbed the broom behind the door, and smashed it against the head of the green glass man. The glass shattered. Skittered across the floor. Dug deep into the cracks. Like mice.
The green glass woman raised her hands. “What a curious mirror,” she said in Rook’s voice and backed away.
He slammed the broom into her face as well. The long handle snapped. Her face broke. The rest of the glass followed, spilled onto the flagstones like green blood.
“You’ve killed them!” Salla beat against his thigh.
“Go to sleep!” Rook pointed to their bed in the corner.
But she stood. So defiant. So small. “They’re gone,” she said, “and it’s your fault!” Out the door she ran.
Any other day, he might have followed her. But the stones in his heart dragged his feet into the earth. She’d be back. Eventually. There was little enough to eat in their home, but far less in the wild moor. And winter was snapping its jaws at autumn’s heels.
He leaned over to hold the broom from its broken point and began to sweep.
Half the night passed before Rook finally realized why he could not sleep.
“I’ll tell the story,” he said to the emptiness. “The real story.”
“Yes, please,” the emptiness replied. Shards of glass piled in the corner? His own fevered imagination? It didn’t really matter anymore.
“There was a man.”
“Yes, of course a man. And a woman.”
“Of course. There always is.”
“And the man loved the woman more than she could bear.”
“A woman can only bear so much.”
Thoughts of Salla flittered past, but Rook let the comment slide. “She married him because that is what women do when a man loves them. But she did not love him in return.”
“Ah, a tragedy then. I love a good tragedy.”
“I don’t have to finish the story.” Rook rolled over. Drew the blankets tight against the cold voice of the emptiness. Waited for the emptiness to protest.
But the emptiness made no reply. Its silence stretched into dripping strands.
“Go to sleep,” Rook said.
And that was that.
When he woke the next morning, the goats were silent. Not a bleat even from Nana. They stared as though staring had no meaning anymore.
“Stupid goats,” he said, and pulled his jacket on.
Last night had slipped into a blur of voices and green eyes. What he did remember, however, was that Salla was not at home. His bedside lay cold. Stomach empty, he walked through the moor and to the hill of blackthorn. At the ladder, he slid down, ignoring the thrumming in his bones, the wild harps strumming the strings of his ribs. Down he climbed into the earth. And at the bottom, with the green glow bathing him, he picked up a broken shard of stone. Rolled it in the palms of his hands.
And Rook turned to the mirror.
And his heart crumpled.
The mirror no longer reflected a poor rendition of Rook. A great city had replaced him, a fairy city, of green glass streaked with gold, of spiraled towers and bridges the width of his wrist. All glinting beneath the mirrored skies. And in the city, a thousand people danced and spoke, their mouths opening and closing without a sound. And in that crowd, a mirror-green Salla danced as well.
A lie. Nothing but a reflection of Salla.
He raised the stone in his hand to throw, but the mirror Salla glanced over her shoulder, caught his gaze, and shook her head. Her eyes were still agate gold streaked with mirror green. The stone in his hand trembled. Fell to the floor.
Every morning after, he led the goats to the blackthorn hill. Let Nana chew as she pleased in the souring scrub. Every morning, he climbed into the earth while they foraged. And every morning, he watched as the buildings in the mirror faded. First a stately tower far distant. Some fairy wizard’s abode, perhaps. Then a pair of castles that had been competing for greenest of the green. Then the market. The bridges. The great river. Piece by piece the world disappeared.
Whenever Salla wandered past his vision, her eyes ever greener, he would say, “Please, Salla. Please come back to me.”
She would shake her head and continue on.
Finally, one morning when he looked into the mirror, all he saw was a boy, dressed in goat-hide and tired of pretending to be a man.
The boy raised an arm to the mirror’s surface. “What a curious mirror.”
Rook nodded and finished the last oat-cake from his dwindled supplies. “Indeed it is,” he said, and eyed the stone shard he’d dropped a lifetime ago. “Indeed it is.”
About the Author
Michelle Muenzler was born in the broken pines of East Texas where she fought boys with concrete-sharpened pine spears and mastered squeezing through rabbit trails for quick escapes in the games of childhood war. Her short fiction can be found in publications such as Daily Science Fiction, Electric Velocipede, and Space & Time Magazine.