Echo North – Joanna Ruth Meyer

I WAS CALLED ECHO FOR MY mother, who died when I was born, because when my father took me into his arms he said he felt the echo of her heartbeat within me. My father didn’t blame me for my mother’s death, but he was often sad. He had me and my older brother Rodya to raise on his own. Two mouths to feed and no dark-haired laughing wife to come home to. But he bore it all cheerfully. He gave me my freedom, and I loved both him and my brother ɹercely. I was allowed to run barefoot in the summer, to tumble with the blacksmith’s hounds, to skip my classes if I wished and go ɹshing with Rodya in the lake. Not that my father wanted me to be ignorant. He taught me patiently from his books when we were at home together every evening. He read to me and asked me questions and answered all my questions. I couldn’t have been happier. I’d never known my mother—my father and Rodya were my whole world. And then my whole world shifted. It happened the summer I was seven. Our village stood on the edge of a forest, and that year had been a particularly bad one for wolves attacking cattle and sheep in their ɹelds.

Old man Tinker had set traps all around the village, and my father told me to watch for them carefully. “Those traps could snap you in two, my darling, and what would I do without you?” I promised him solemnly to take care. But as I was coming back from picking wildɻowers in the meadows, my embroidered skirts dirty about my knees, my kerchief forgotten somewhere amidst the waving grass, I heard a sharp, yelping scream—the sound of an animal in torment. I dropped my ɻowers, standing for an instant very still. The sound came again, and I ran toward it as quickly as I could. Round the corner, caught fast in a steel trap that butted up against a fence post, was a huge white wolf. I stared, frozen. For an instant, his pain seemingly forgotten, he stared back at me. I could feel him, not just looking, but seeing me, as if he were searching out something deep inside my soul. I should have been terriɹed but I wasn’t.

I felt drawn to him. Connected to him. Then I glanced down and saw the blood staining his white fur where the trap had caught his back left leg. I was brave. I was foolish. I went to help him without another thought. I knelt beside him in the dirt and touched him, gently, my small hand sinking into his white fur; it was the softest thing I had ever felt, softer even than the velvet cushion on my father’s favorite chair. I knew I was right to want to help the wolf. I was certain it was the most important thing in all the world. I took a deep breath, grasped the jaws of the steel trap as ɹrmly as I could, and pulled.

I couldn’t shift it. Not even an inch. All I managed to do was jostle the trap against the wolf’s wounded leg. He howled in pain and jerked away, a sudden whirl of claws and fur and snarling teeth. The trap was slippery with his blood and I dropped it back onto the ground. He lunged against the trap, desperate and screeching, but it held him, the metal jaws biting deeper and deeper, down to the bone. The wolf grew more frantic with each passing second, and I started digging, tearing into the dirt around the stake and chain connected to those ugly metal jaws. The stake loosened. The wolf gave one last desperate yank and pulled it free. For an instant, joy and triumph filled me up.

He leapt toward me in a blur of white, the trap and chain rattling behind him, and slammed into me with the force of an avalanche. Everything was all at once falling and fear, an impossible weight. Darkness. And blinding, earth-shattering pain. The weight lifted, but something wet and awful was smeared across my eyes and the world was distorted and bleared. It frightened me even more than the darkness had. Pain pulsed through me, lines of raging fire in my chest, my shoulders, my face. Someone was screaming and I realized it was me. I must have fainted, because when I opened my eyes again my father was kneeling over me, his form warped and strange. The light was fading orange and birds were singing in the wood.

I was dizzy, my face and chest strangely numb. One of my eyes was swollen shut. Bits of rock and dirt had ground into my palms and behind my ɹngernails when I’d dug the stake from the ground—in that moment, it was the only pain I could feel. “Let’s carry her inside,” I heard someone say. “She’ll be all right, Peter. She’s strong.” Peter was my father. The other voice belonged to old man Tinker. He must have come to check his traps and found me there instead. My father scooped me into his arms, and I passed out again.

The next time I tried to open my eyes there was only darkness, and something thick and suʃocating pressed against my face. “Papa!” I screamed, “Papa!” I jerked upright and fell in a tangle to the ɻoor and then my father was there, coaxing me back into bed, calming me down. “Just bandages, little bird. We’ll take them off soon. Hush, now. All is well.” I clung to him and he kissed me quietly on the forehead and sang me to sleep. Later, I don’t know how much, they removed the bandage from my right eye. It gave me an oddly skewed view of the world, but it was better than no sight at all. We lived in a house back then, and I sat for many weeks in my room on the third ɻoor, watching through my little square window as the world below turned from the green and gold of summer to the red-brown blush of autumn.

A host of doctors visited me, and I didn’t understand why. I crept downstairs and listened shamelessly outside the door to my father’s study while they talked about me. I heard things like “never fully heal” and “the cuts were too deep” and “infection” and “lucky if she isn’t blind.” And then one day, as the ɹrst of the winter snows blew soft across our village, the doctor came to take the bandage oʃ the left side of my face. My father watched intently as the doctor peeled the cloth away, and I held my breath and waited for it to be over. Horror and shock ɻashed across my father’s features, and for the ɹrst time, I realized what had happened to me might not be able to be undone. “Cover your right eye,” the doctor instructed. “Can you see out of the left one?” I lifted my hand and obeyed. The light was very bright, but I could see. I nodded.

The doctor let out a breath of relief. My father shifted where he stood. The horror had left his expression, melding into a distance that unnerved me. “Is there anything you recommend for …” he trailed oʃ, looking helplessly at the physician. “Not unless God gives her new skin,” said the doctor. I think he meant it as a joke, but my father didn’t even smile. I pushed past both of them and went out into the hall, padding to the room my mother had once shared with my father. She had a handsome mahogany vanity, with a mirror above. I stepped up to it and looked in. Four angry, jagged lines ran down the left side of my face, from my forehead all the way to my chin—the marks from the wolf’s claws.

My left eyelid was taut and scarred, my lips pulled up on one side. I stared at my reɻection, feeling dull and strange. I covered the right half of my face with one hand, studying the scars for a long while before switching to cover the left half and studying in turn the smooth, untouched skin. Then I let my hand fall. I heard my father’s step and turned to see him watching me from the doorway. “It isn’t so bad, little lamb. They will fade over time.” But sadness lingered in his eyes. He swept me into his arms and I clung to his neck, sobbing, while he stroked my hair and wept with me awhile. MY FATHER OWNED AND RAN the bookshop in our tiny village.

He was excessively proud of it: it had a green door and a brass knocker and a large shop window with carved wooden shutters. “It’s not a large living,” he always said, “but it’s enough.” PETER ALKAEV, BOOKSELLER was painted in bold red letters across the window. That was how I first learned to spell my last name. The summer after the incident with the wolf, my father sold our house, and he, my brother, Rodya, and I moved into the apartments over the shop. I had my own little room with a tiny circle window that looked out over the street, and all the books I could ever want. My scars whitened as I got older—they didn’t fade. I learned very early that in the old tales of magic the wicked were always ugly and scarred, the good beautiful; I was not beautiful, but I wanted to be good, and after a while I couldn’t bear to read those stories anymore. The villagers avoided me. My fellow students crossed themselves when I walked by, or openly laughed at me.

They said the Devil had claimed my face and would someday come back for the rest of me. They said he wouldn’t have marked me if I didn’t already belong to him. Once, I tried to eat lunch with a girl called Sara. She liked to read, same as me—she was always carrying around thick tomes of history or poetry or science, her nose permanently stuck between the pages. I thought that gave me the right to try and befriend her, but she spat in my face and pelted me with stones. I was the monster in her story. She was the heroine. I didn’t try again. Once, I wandered into the apothecary and bought a jar of cream for two silver pennies because the proprietor swore it would make the scars vanish completely by the end of the month. It didn’t work, of course.

Rodya found me crying in my bedroom and I told him what I’d done. He made jokes at the apothecary’s expense until I ɹnally stopped crying and forced a smile for him, but I still felt like a fool. I buried the empty jar of cream in a little patch of earth behind the bookshop—it had been intended for a garden, but no one had ever planted anything and it remained barren. I couldn’t stand to confess what I’d done to my father. By the time I turned ɹfteen, I had read nearly every book in the shop, and my father hired me as his assistant. “Her face might frighten the Devil who formed her,” I overheard one of my father’s patrons say, “but damned if she doesn’t know every word of the classics and can be counted on to point a fellow to the right book, every time.” This was one of the kindest things they said about me. There were many more less kind. I withdrew more and more, trying to lose myself in running the shop. I organized the shelves and reorganized them.

I wrapped books in paper and string for customers, I wrote letters to the booksellers in the city, sending for rare volumes we didn’t have. I kept my father’s account books in order, and when business was slow, I went to our upstairs apartments and scoured the rooms clean, one by one. I kept busy, attempted to convince myself I was content. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t shove away my loneliness, couldn’t bury it in my mind like I’d buried the jar of cream in the dirt where there ought to have been a garden.

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