Tales From the Hinterland – Melissa Albert

There was once a rich merchant who lived at the edge of the woods, in a tiny town in the Hinterland. Though he spent most of his days traveling, he was at home long enough to give his wife two daughters, the eldest dark and the youngest golden, born one year apart. Their father was distant and their mother was strange, often shutting herself up in her room for hours. Her daughters could hear her speaking to someone when they pressed their ears to the door, but only the eldest, Anya, ever made out an answer. The voice she heard was so thin and rustling, she could almost believe it was leaves against the window. On a winter’s day when Anya was sixteen, their mother locked her door and did not open it again. After three days the servants broke it down, and found—an empty room. The windows were shut, winter howled outside, and the woman was gone. But she’d left something behind: on the floor, in a puddle of blood, a bone dagger. Anya heard the servants whispering about it and crept into the room to see for herself. The stain she found on the floor infected her with a horror of blood so fearsome, she took to washing out her monthly rags in the dark. The servants sent word to the girls’ father that his wife was dead, or gone, or worse, and for a time heard no reply. Until the first warm day of spring, when he drove up to the house in an unfamiliar carriage. Inside it was the girls’ new mother. In silken slippers, clinging to their father’s arm, she stepped out onto the cobblestones.

She was smaller than Anya, with a heap of pale hair and blue eyes that switched coldly from one stepdaughter to the next. For half a year their father stayed home, besotted with his new wife and tolerating his children. They ran as wild as they always had, accustomed by then to raising themselves, and thought very little of their new stepmother. But their father grew bored of the woman in the end, as he’d once grown bored of their mother— as he’d always been bored of his daughters. On that day, he kissed his new wife goodbye, nodded at his daughters, and was gone. Now their stepmother had the run of the house, and of her stepdaughters. Whether she was bored or whether she was wicked, it came out to the same thing in the end. First she snapped at the girls, demanding they stay close by her. Then she pushed them away, slapping them at the slightest provocation, carrying scissors in her pocket to cut off hanks of their long hair. When she left the house, she locked them up—to keep them from misbehaving, she said.

But she kept them in their mother’s room, where the windows were warped shut and the stain on the floor taunted Anya like a vile black mouth. Their mother’s bed had been chopped into firewood after her disappearance, all the pretty objects she’d surrounded herself with sold or locked away. The girls rattled like seeds around the empty room, avoiding the poisonous blot on the floor. At first their stepmother stayed away for a few hours. Then whole days, then entire nights. The first time she left them locked up from dusk to the next, Anya beat on the door and screamed until her throat and fists were raw, but no one came. When the stepmother finally opened the door, she wrinkled her nose at the smell and gestured at the chamber pot. “Empty it,” she said. Kohl and rouge melted into candy swirls on her cheeks; she wouldn’t meet her stepdaughters’ eyes. There came a day when she locked them in with a bowl of apples and a jug of water and did not come back.

The sun rose and fell, rose and fell. On the third day Anya looked out the window and saw the servants walking down the lane, their belongings on their backs. The house was empty. The apples were eaten, the water long gone. The window wouldn’t open and the glass wouldn’t shatter, even when Anya smashed at it with her boot. That night the sisters lay together in the middle of the floor, trying to keep each other warm. Lisbet was sunk in shallow sleep when Anya heard a sound she’d nearly forgotten. A sound like leaves rustling together outside an unlatched window. It came from the bloodstain on the floor. Slowly she inched her way toward it, resting her ear just over it and holding her breath.

It was deep, deep in the night when the rustling resolved into a voice. You will die, the voice told her. Anya rolled away, angry. I know, she replied fiercely, in her mind. We’re half-dead already. You will die, the voice said again. Unless. And it told her how she could save herself and her sister. How she could remake the world just enough so that they could live. It would take blood.

When the sun rose Anya told Lisbet what she’d learned. Their mother wasn’t dead, she was gone. She’d used magic to make a door, and it had taken her far, far away. Their mother’s blood had spoken to Anya, and told her how to make a door of their own. “It will take blood,” she told Lisbet, “but it can’t be mine.” This was a lie. Anya wasn’t cruel, she was frightened. The idea of opening her own veins filled her with a terror that felt like falling, forward and forward without end. She swallowed the bitter taste of the lie and took the bone knife from the place the voice told her she’d find it: behind a loose brick inside the fireplace. “The blood can’t be mine,” she said again, “because I’m the sorcerer.

I must make the door, and you must sacrifice the blood for it.” Lisbet nodded, but something in her eyes told Anya she knew the words were a lie. This made her angry. When she drew the blade across her sister’s wrist, the anger made her careless, and the blade bit too deep. Lisbet said nothing as her sister took her wrist and used it to paint a door. She painted the sides of it first, in two continuous lines, scraping Lisbet’s wrist over the stone. She lifted the girl as high as she could to paint a lintel over the top. When Anya eased her back onto her feet, Lisbet was as white as the flesh of an apple. Anya turned away from her sister’s drained face and said the words that would make the blood into a door. Words the voice had said into her ear, three times so she’d remember.

All at once the stone wicked up the blood, and the red of it became lines of warm white light. The newly made door swung toward them, letting out a breath of warm air and a scent like clean cotton. They held hands and watched it open. Then Lisbet moaned, and swayed, and crumpled to the ground. Her arm stretched out, her cold fingertips nearly touching the door. The door that wasn’t there, and then was. The door that her lifeblood fed. At the moment she let go her last breath, the white light shuddered and went green. The green of infected wounds, of nightmares, of the rind of mold that crawled over week-old bread. The cotton scent turned dusty and stuck in Anya’s throat.

She threw herself against the door, but it was too late. It opened, inch by inch, yawning with dank air like the mouth of a cellar. Anya didn’t think her mother could be behind that door, but she had nowhere else to go. She lifted Lisbet and carried her through. The room she stepped into was just like the one they’d left, but reversed. Anya’s eye went to where the stain on the floor should be. In its place was a pool of bright blood, freshly shed. She limped across the room, still holding her sister’s body, and wrenched open the door. The hall behind it curved left instead of right, and the lanterns on the wall were gone, replaced with paintings of people Anya didn’t recognize. Their eyes were charred holes and their mouths were wet and red.

The hall hummed with heavy green light. Cradling Lisbet, Anya moved through the house. It was cold and smelled of coal dust and iron. In every fireplace curled heatless flames. On every table were plates of rotting meat, or glossy dark flowers with pollen dripping livid from their hearts. When she opened the front door she saw the sickness spread beyond the house. The branches of trees had become slender bones, the dust of the road crackling ashes. I did this, she said to herself. I killed my sister—her death made a door, and the door opened onto death! It took hours, but she dug deeply enough into the burnt earth to bury her sister. Then she set off toward town, to see if she could find anything living.

Town was a place of strange horrors. Not a body to be seen, just a heavy sky that bathed the whole world in light the color of disease, and locked houses, and windows painted a blind black. Anya grieved and wandered but never wearied. She needed neither sleep nor food nor drink, and when she ran the bone knife over her own wrist it made no nick in her skin. In desperation she scaled the vines spilling over the walls of a cottage, hoisting herself onto the crumbling gray shingles of its roof. From there, she jumped. She drifted to earth like an autumn leaf, touching down unharmed. There she lay, praying for an end, though every prayer tasted as bitter as the lie that had killed her sister. It was then that the voice spoke to her once more. It had been a long time since she’d lain on the floor of her mother’s bedroom letting it whisper secrets into her ear.

Longer than she thought. Far away, her stepmother was dead, killed by a fever. Her father had taken a new bride, who’d borne him a son. Will you take me back home? Anya pleaded. You’re asking the wrong question, the voice replied. It led her through town, back to the grave she’d dug in front of her father’s house. From it a black walnut tree had grown. Its rustling leaves were the only moving things in the blighted land. “Lisbet,” Anya said, and laid her hand on its trunk. With a rustle like a sigh, the tree dropped three walnuts into her hands.

She cracked them open one by one. The first held a satin dress the color of moth’s wings. The second held a pair of slippers with the black shine of petrified wood. The third held a translucent stone the size of an eye. When she peered through the stone, the world around her burst into life. The day was clear, the trees were blooming, and a carriage was bearing down on her. The driver didn’t see her, but the horse did, and reared, hooves high over Anya’s head. She dropped the stone, returning to her miserable realm. Now she understood what her sister had given her: a window onto the land of the living. Do with it what you will, the voice told her, but do not squander your sister’s gifts.

Anya waited until the green light had faded to murk, marking night in this in-between place. She put on the moth-wing dress and the slippers. She combed back her heavy hair. Then she raised the stone to her eye. She saw her home as she once knew it, when she was a girl with a mother and a father and a sister named Lisbet. She held the stone in place like a peephole, circling the house and looking into its windows. In one candlelit room she saw a beautiful woman playing the piano. Her father drinking a glass of sherry, his hair lined with gray. And a boy just older than her. He was tall and narrow, growing into manhood but not yet there.

Anya’s father looked at him proudly, clapping a hand to his shoulder. The boy’s gaze roved idly over the room, and his mother at the piano, before landing on Anya. Frowning, he moved to the window. Anya shrank back as her father joined his son. The boy pointed, but their father looked past her, shaking his head. Finally he pulled the curtains closed. Anya waited in the garden, in her dress the color of will-o’-the-wisps. When she lowered her arm, she stood in a place of rotting bowers and bone. When she raised the stone back to her eye, she could see the soft grass and the brief starlight of fireflies. She could see the boy walking toward her, his step tentative but his face eager.

“You may ask me one question,” she told him. “But it has to be the right one.” “Who are you?” he asked. Anya said nothing. “Why can’t they see you?” he pleaded. She stayed silent. “You are very beautiful,” he whispered, reaching out to touch her. “Why do you hold your hand so high?” Anya smiled at him the way she’d once seen her stepmother smile at her father. She let him bend close to her mouth, closer, before dropping her arm and returning to the dead garden. It took her father’s son many nighttime meetings to ask the right question.

By then his eyes were hollow with sleeplessness, and he looked at her with a love like hunger. “How can I get you to stay?” he asked at last. She smiled and put her mouth to his ear. She told him how they could be together. How he could remake the world just enough so she could stand beside him. It would take blood. She taught him the words to say, repeating them three times so he would remember. She pressed her bone knife into his hand. And she watched as he slid his bleeding wrist over the wall of her father’s house, using it to paint a door. He swayed as he spoke the words, his face, a mirror of their father’s, going pale.

The blood turned into a door that glowed with wicked green light at the seams. Anya dropped the stone from her eye as it swung open. The boy disappeared, and the light turned into the warm golden lamplight of home. As Anya walked through the door, she could feel the faintest brush of her half-brother, stepping past her into the lifeless place that Death had made. Then she was standing in her father’s house, alive and alone, and Death didn’t feel cheated because she’d traded him one prisoner for another. She lifted the stone just long enough to peep through it at the boy standing in her place, his face terrified, before putting it into her pocket. She went to the kitchen and ate spoonfuls of honey, wolfed up fistfuls of meat, let wine run down her chin. Then she climbed the stairs to her father’s bedroom, where he lay sleeping next to his wife. She felt the bone knife she’d snatched back from the lost boy twitching where it lay against her breast. She didn’t cut her father’s throat.

She cut his wife’s. She laid the stone in the dead woman’s hand, where her father would be sure to find it. And hold it to his eye, to see the dead world that crouched beside his own, and the son who would call to him, always, but whom he could never retrieve.


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