My family worshiped the Beautiful People who came from the woods, but we couldn't talk about it, because then we'd get hanged as witches.
We weren't the only ones who did. The collier's family, and the butcher and his sister, and a lot of the older farming families all worshiped them. And they were right to do it.
Because the Beautiful People are the loveliest creatures to ever walk the world, and they only walk it sometimes. When they aren't being beautiful, they can look like animals, or leaves, or gusts of wind. But every autumn, on the last day the leaves fall from the trees, we have the Joining and the Beautiful People come from the woods looking like people, and They dance with us and play their music.
The music is as ugly as they are lovely, but we crave it all the same. It drills into our heads and fills us and clouds us and we don't even notice when the dancing starts-- I certainly never notice-- and then they're there, among us, playing their games.
Some of the games shouldn't be fun, but are. Sometimes they make us see things that aren't there, and laugh when we run or hide or try to kiss them. The best is when they do it to someone else, and then you can join in laughing while Old Rory eats leaves he thinks are cakes, or when Sean goes wee in front of everyone because he thinks he's away in the trees. Sometimes they talk to us in voices that aren't real, and they sound so reasonable that they don't need to make us see the rocks as cakes, the rocks themselves look delicious enough, and we fight each other to have them. And they use those sweet voices to tell us to do things, to cut ourselves open so they can admire the color of blood, or make little ones cry so they can lap up the tears, or make the adults dance and touch, even with people they normally wouldn't want to.
It sounds awful when I say it out loud, but you have to be there. Because no matter how bad the games ought to be, while you're doing them, it feels like the only right thing in the world, and when it's over the next day, we sigh and look sadly to the woods, because we know if we played them by ourselves, it would only hurt and not be the same, and we know we have to wait a year for it to come again.
They bring food during the Joining. I don't know where it comes from, aside from Them, of course. But when They come from the woods, I never see them carrying anything. The same goes for the music; they appear and suddenly music is there. They appear, and suddenly there are strange drinks in our hands that we can't get enough of, and strange fruit they feed us by hand (unless they're playful, in which case they'll throw it on the ground for us to eat, or make it float in the air just out of reach),and strange meats that taste better than any animal on Earth, and little cakes that make normal food taste like chalk in comparison for weeks after.
We worship the Beautiful People, because after one night of them, it's impossible not to.
The Headwoman-- that's our Headwoman, not anyone else's. The normal people in the village had a headman instead-- is the only one who talks to Them through the year. My older sister, Saskia, had said she'd heard this was because the Headwoman had the Beautiful People's blood in her somehow, but our parents had refused to speculate.
Whatever the case, the rest of us have to wait for the Joining to see Them again, and then we all spend the rest of the year dreaming and pining for Them to come back.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The Joining is called the Joining, because that's when the Brides get taken. The Briding is when they get chosen.
The Beautiful People aren't there for the Briding ceremony, at least not in any way I can see. The Briding is always on the big hill by the woods, the same hill as the Joining, and it's always a month before. That's when all the girls who've come of age get to take a bath in fancy perfumes while the Headwoman says strange words over them, and they all dress up in shimmering cloth that smells like the sunshine and looks silver, or white, or gold, or all at once in a way that makes my head hurt if I look at it for too long.
The girls all sit down on the grass in front of giant white-stone bowls, and each have a lump of wood that doesn't look like the wood from any tree around our area, and a knife whose metal sings when it touches blood. And, while the families eat and talk and periodically check in, and while the Headwoman watches them with sharp eyes, the girls carve a doll.
They have until the sunset to do it, and most spend the time trying to make it the best doll they can. I've known girls in the past so serious about it (or whose families, at least, were serious) that they would take up whittling as soon as they were old enough to hold a knife. At the sunset, the girls would have to relinquish their dolls and put them into the bowls, and the Headwomen would come around, speaking her strange words and filling the bowl with flowers and powders, and one by one, the dolls would catch on fire.
Each fire would produce thick, black smoke, but no matter how windy it was, the smoke always rose directly up and did not spread, and the Headwoman would talk to the smoke and listen as though it were talking back. Sometimes, it seemed like she was haggling. Other times, she would merely look at the smoke and smile-- or frown-- before passing on.
Then the girls would stick their hands inside the fire to retrieve their dolls.
Most girls got burned. They'd stick their hand in for a moment, cry out, then pull their hand back. Those ones were instructed to leave the doll and go to their families, who had to comfort them.
But other girls, maybe one or two or sometimes even three per group, would stick their hands into the fire and they would not burn themselves, and when they drew out their wooden doll, it would be unburned and looking like new, with exquisite details as though carved by an artist. And though the wood could never truly capture the otherworldy beauty of them, no matter how magical a wood it was, any who looked at the dolls would know they were meant to be men of the Beautiful People.
Those girls usually break out into tears of joy, their families rushing forward to congratulate them and admire the doll that had been made. Then the chosen girls would spend the next month, all the way up until the Joining, with the Headwoman in her cottage, learning secret words and tricks and games and everything they would need to know about the Beautiful People that the rest of us were not permitted to learn.
And for that month, they would wear the wooden doll against their bare skin, tied on with a cloth, or belt, or tucked into their shirts or on their arms, so that their husbands would feel their presence.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"I already know who my husband is," Saskia told me as we did laundry at the stream. "He is brother to one of their headmen, and he visited me as a snake."
I was six years old, and I believed every word she said. "A snake?" I said. "That's awful!"
"No," she said, and she stared off in a dreamy way. "He was beautiful, even as a snake. I was walking home, and he slithered up my leg, and he wrapped around my waist, and did not bite me, and stayed with me a full night before leaving."
I scowled, because I still did not think a snake would be a good husband, but I held my tongue because Saskia had been chosen, and chosen long before her Briding ceremony.
"Will you tell?"
"No," she said. "He told me it should be a secret so that his brothers don't get jealous and try to claim me first." She smiled a little at that, and I marveled at how fortunate she was. Not only had she been chosen at all, and then chosen early, but she might have Them fighting for her?
"But you told me," I said.
"He said I could tell you, because you're little and no one would believe you."
She laughed and we began splashing one another in the water before realizing that we were kicking up mud, and wound up having to go upstream.
"Can I tell Colm?" I asked, since I told him everything.
She stopped and looked at me. "No. No, you can't tell him anything."
Later, when we were home, she spoke to our mother and father in urgent whispers, and when they had done talking, my mother sat me down and said I was not to speak to Colm anymore, because if I told him about the Beautiful People, his uncle would have us hanged.
I cried and forgot all about my sister and her snake, and when I finally remembered many days later, she appeared confused and told me she didn't know what I was talking about, and she seemed so sincere that I thought I must have made it up.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
A bride does not grow old and die, the Headwoman had told us. A bride of the Beautiful People will live forever in happiness with her Husband-- or his, she added, because sometimes they chose a boy. And sometimes it was not a Beautiful Man who chose, but a Beautiful Woman, but that was uncommon, and in any case, she said, it didn't matter because she was talking to us young ladies, and none of the Beautiful Women she had spoken to seemed interested in us except as playmates in the usual way.
I didn't ask what that meant, because I had seen the games They played with us every year, and I already knew.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
It was two years before Saskia's Briding. Two years of smiling and staring off into the distance when she thought no one was looking. Two years of her hugging me for no reason. Two years of speaking in her sleep and waking up crying. But still, she denied the snake when I brought it up.
And then the day came. She took the special bath, and drank the special wine, and while the others in our congregation, our coven wandered around socialized, our family stood by and quietly watched Saskia work. There were five girls turning of age this year, each eagerly hacking away at their block of wood, and I knew it was the most important day in their lives. Just as I saw Saskia's look of concentration, and knew she was thinking of the snake-who-was-not-a-snake.
When the sun finally set, and the girls threw their dolls into the fire, I wasn't surprised to see the Headwoman smile at the smoke from Saskia's bowl, or see Saskia's look of triumph when she pulled her doll from the fire. I ran to her and wrapped my arms around her, and my mother wept and my father beamed proudly when the Headwoman told us all that we should be honored.
Saskia showed off her doll proudly and let us admire her husband. And though he was beautiful, even as a wooden doll, I thought I could still feel something of the snake in him.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Though I'd been instructed to distance myself, at least until I became a good enough liar, I still saw Colm when I could. When our families were at the big church, listening to Colm's uncle preach about a god we didn't believe in, pretending that we knew nothing of the Beautiful People, I would sneak away and find him, and we would go play in the gardens, or run to the cemetery in the back of the church where we played hide-and-seek, too little to be afraid of ghosts or to be respectful to the dead. My parents wouldn't care that I had snuck out, and he had no mother or father to notice his absence.
"My sister's going to get married," I told him after Saskia's Briding.
He blinked. "With who?" He looked around, as though her fiance might pop out from behind a gravestone.
"No one from here," I said, resting against a large, cut rock that served as a grave marker. "She' going to live with them."
"Oh," he said, and sat next to me.
Colm was my age but smaller-- my father said boys were like that, most times, and I shouldn't get cocky because Colm was bound to spring up like a weed when I least expected it. He had black hair and gray eyes and the freckliest face, but only on his nose, which I had thought was funny when we were littler.
"Are you going to go with them?" he said.
"No," I said. "I probably won't see her again."
And there it was, the truth I'd been ignoring. It burst like a dam, and then I was crying, and in my head the thought spun around and round, I'll never see my sister again.
Colm tried to comfort me in the awkward and sincere way children do-- which mostly consisted of sitting with his arm around my shoulder while looking around for an adult. But everyone was inside still, singing hymns from the sound of it, and we were alone until--
"Aiofe," said a voice like sunshine, "What's wrong?"
I stopped crying immediately and saw the Headwoman looking down at us. She didn't look like her usual self-- her hair was knotted back in a respectable braid, her clothes were demure, with no colorful feathers or flowers growing out of them.
"Tell me," she said. And because she used her special voice, the voice like honey and sun-warmed water and the feeling of being warm in winter, I told her. She listened and nodded, not surprised in the least, and she told me, "Do not worry for your sister."
But I would never--
"If she has been chosen, then that's the end of it," she said. "Your sister will be happy. You should be happy for her."
And I felt it, inside me, a little bubble of joy that wasn't mine, but was going to fill me anyways. I felt it rising inside.
But I want to be with my sister.
"She will be with her husband. She will be happy forever, and she will miss you sometimes, but things will be as they are meant to be. You must be happy for her, and must not try to stop her otherwise."
And that was it. It a final note of command-- a rod of steel mixed with the honey, I was suddenly happy for my sister. I cried again, but out of joy that she should be chosen.
Colm watched this all with confusion quickly growing into worry.
The Headwoman, noticing, said, in the same voice, "There is nothing out of the ordinary here."
Colm visibly relaxed.
The Headwoman smiled at us and, when I had settled, escorted us to the church doors, though she did not follow us inside.
That night, I didn't sleep, but hatched a plan. I was happy my sister was going-- truly I was, thanks to the Headwoman. It was a great honor to be chosen, and I could only wish to be so lucky. But that didn't mean I couldn't see her off.
Or even, I thought, my heart pounding, go with her.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The chosen girls get a month to prepare. A month of wearing the doll on their skin, a month of saying goodbye, a month of giggling and worrying and bragging and crying, and then the Beautiful People come.
Saskia spent her month mostly at the Headwoman's cottage with the other two girls who had been chosen, learning all the things a bride should know, doing secret rituals and ceremonies that only the ones chosen are meant to learn. But she did come home, and when she did, she spent her days with us laughing and crying and giving away her things and holding our mother and father.
But the month ended, and it was time for the Joining.
When the night came, we stood with Saskia, who wore the same shimmering dress as she had on the Briding, and we watched the Beautiful People come from the trees, and heard the music shatter the air. And though I knew that they were coming to take Saskia away from us, I could not help but be happy to see them, because I had longed for that music, and their food, and the sound of their laughter all year long. The yearning had burned inside, painful and numbing all at once, and the sight of them was a sudden and overwhelming relief.
And then, though it seemed as though I had only blinked and they were still by the tree line, suddenly they were there.
It's hard to think when the Beautiful People are among us. It's like having too much wine, or sleeping too late and forgetting the world, and waking up and trying to remember a dream. I had just been standing beside Saskia and my family, but in an instant, they were gone, and I was dancing in a throng of people.
I realized what I was doing and tried to stop, but couldn't, so I danced my way out of the crowd until I could control my arms and legs again. All the while, I tried my best to think and keep thinking, Saskia, Saskia, Saskia, and even when I was picked up and spun around, and when people I knew and people I didn't called me to dance some more or fed me fruit that looked like grapes but shone like the sun and tasted like starlight, I still thought Saskia, Saskia, Saskia.
And then I was on the grass running, and though I did not know where too, I was certain it was the right direction. But I was not really running, because I was so slow, and it was so hard to stay upright, and my eyes did not want to look where I told them. My hands and face were sticky with juice I did not remember drinking, and my legs were tired, as though I had been dancing all night. But still I pressed on.
One of the Beautiful People stopped me. He grabbed my hand, and he did not make any noise, but I heard him laughing in my head. When I tried to see his face, I wanted to cry from how lovely it was, so lovely it seemed to shine in the dark, though I know it did not. He never opened his mouth, but I saw his orange eyes and heard in my head him asking where I was going.
Saskia, I thought. My sister.
And in my head there was laughing again, but not the sound of it, only the feeling of it, and the next thing I knew I was being carried up to the top of the hill, scooped like a baby, and I saw, in the distance, several people walking to the woods. I saw Saskia with a man who was beautiful like the sun for a moment, but the next he was not-- but then he was lovely again, and then he wasn't, and then he was, and then he was both at once. And I watched Saskia take his hand that was shaped like a hand, but still wrong in words that don't exist, but also more beautiful than any hand had ever been, and the two of them disappeared into the woods with the others.
And some part of me knew that I should still be able to see them, that Saskia's white dress should have still stuck out, even among the brambles and trees, at least for a while, but I was equally certain that if I were to run screaming into the trees at that very moment, I would find no sign of her.
I did not realize I was weeping until the one holding me carried me back to the rest of the party, and a flock of people-- both Beautiful and not-- hovered around and touched my face, wiping the tears with their fingers so that they could taste them, and in my head I heard the one holding onto me say and not-say that I should not fear for my sister, because he had decided that I would go with him once the Headwoman said I was old enough.
That news worsened my crying-- I was so happy!-- and he held me out so that the others could better get to my tears, which they stopped using their fingers to get, but instead crowded around and lapped them directly off my face.
And in my head, I heard my husband-to-be laughing.
* * * * *
I was not old enough to be married. Not for a very long time. But my husband-to-be had not told me not to tell, as Saskia's had, and so I told my parents of the Beautiful Man who said he would be my Husband, and they did not believe me until the Headwoman herself came and told them. Then, they were thrilled, and wept with joy. It was an honor; they had produced not only one, but two daughters the Beautiful People wanted.
Life in the village went on normally for a long time, with our pretending to care about church and ordinary things, and I was always searching for some sign that my husband-to-be was visiting. I watched the birds in the trees and inspected the hens in the yard. I greeted dogs and cats politely, then realized that if my Husband were going to take the shape of an animal, it would likely be a wild animal, and so I started following squirrels and rabbits and whatever other creature I could find.
Saskia had said her snake-husband had come straight to her, but mine never did, so I wondered if he was hiding himself, like some great game. Perhaps he wanted me to find him. And so I took to exploring the wood-- which other people in the village, those who did not worship the Beautiful People as we did-- were afraid to do. They were certain demons lived there, and only the bravest hunters ever went in alone. But I knew they were wrong; the Beautiful People came from the woods, but they did not live there.
The only one who might be there was my Husband, and even then, only maybe.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Not long after, I began to dream.
In the dreams, my Husband was a bird.
Usually a crow, sometimes not. Sometimes a bigger, blacker bird, Sometimes, I was certain he was supposed to be a bird, and I called him a bird, but his shape was assuredly not bird-like, with too many teeth, and talons, and eyes. Eyes that floated around him like moons. Eyes that were his, but would appear on my body, the skin on my arms or legs suddenly splitting open into an eyelid. Though this ought to have frightened me, it did not, and in the dreams I was pleased to have him watching me.
In the dreams, he did not speak, but I understood him, as I had on the hill. He told me strange secrets that chilled me or made me laugh or cry, though I could not remember what they were when I woke, and he showed me alien landscapes that could not fit properly into my head.
Places where trees were made from living stone and climbed up to the sky, but the sky was low and the stars could be touched if you reached high enough, and how the ground was white and the mountains were white, but not with snow, with some kind of white rock, and the leaves on the branches and brambles were black and like glass, but the air warped and waned and towers of bone naturally grew from the white rock and grew tall enough to poke through the sky, and in those places black metal like blood dropped down and we had to be careful not to step in it, but my husband drank it from his cupped hands.
And when we walked through deserts with statues of things that were like people, but not quite, who screamed in rapturous agony, I screamed with them and cried tears of joy, because I felt their pain and it was beautiful, and I wanted to join them so badly that I grabbed the sharpened metal sprouting from the earth and slashed my arms while my Husband laughed. But we left the deserts so that I would not lose all my blood at once, and in the woods again my cuts healed over, but the blood remained and whatever it touched sprouted flowers of jagged metal, the same I had used to cut myself.
Creatures there shifted and changed while I was looking at them, and I could not tell how they were different, though I knew they were, and my Husband was one of them, becoming hideous and beautiful over and over despite staying the same-- though he wasn't the same, he was changed somehow, I just didn't know how--
And sometimes we would sit together, and I would feel part of myself slipping away, like forgetting a dream, or why you entered a room, and when it was gone, I did not miss it and did not know what it was, but my Husband would thank me, because whatever the missing-but-not-missed part of me was, he had eaten it.
Don't worry, he told me. It grows back.
And when it does, I will eat it again.
And I was so happy.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Years passed before Colm became a problem.
"You shouldn't keep going into the woods," he said. "My uncle says it's dangerous."
"Your uncle doesn't know everything," I said.
This was a familiar argument, and I knew what he would ask before the words had left his mouth.
"What do you even do in there?" he said.
"I just walk," I said.
I did not tell him that I went there now at my Husband's instruction. That he and I had developed games over the years; he would tell me where to search, and I would try find him in whatever shape he took. Or he would ask me to do a task there, and I would, and then I would find some small treasure he had left behind. Or how sometimes I would go there and find nothing, but feel a strong gust of wind that made me feel warm all over and I would know that was him.
I wouldn't have told Colm these things, even if his uncle wasn't the reverend. My parents let me talk to him again, now that I was old enough to lie well and had motivation to do it.
We walked in silence for a while, past the stream where Saskia and I had done laundry together and stopping beneath a lone oak that towered above us.
"I heard you were talking to animals," he said.
He shrugged and kept his eyes down. "People are worried you're going odd."
"Let them think what they want," I said primly. "I don't have time to care about what gossips think--"
"I'm worried too," he said.
I stared, and he flushed, making his freckles match the rest of his face for once. "You've been acting strange ever since Saskia ran off," he said.
Right. That's what we had told our neighbors. She'd run off with some young vagabond, and we hadn't heard from her since.
"So what?" I said. It was all I could think of. "Is that anyone's business?"
I regretted it almost immediately. Colm winced a little, like I'd hit him, but then he said, "If you were in trouble, you would tell me, wouldn't you?"
And at that moment, I hated him, just a little. I hated him because something wonderful had happened to me, and I couldn't tell him. I hated him because he was my friend, and if I told him the truth, he'd stop me, but even as I lied to him, he was still trying to help.
I told him it was fine. I told him not to worry. I could tell he didn't believe me, but Colm was always worried about something or other, and he dropped the subject.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The next morning, I went to the woods.
The woods were never quiet, despite what some people said. There was always the noise of birds and squirrels and other creatures, all calling to one another, fighting, or simply rustling around in the underbrush.
In the dream night before, my Husband had said that today, he did not want to play hide-and-seek as we usually did, but that he would rather I practice dancing. I had asked what kind, and he had assured me I would know what to do when the time came.
He was true to his word, and as soon as I broke the treeline, I knew exactly where to go, and what to do when I got there. I strode through the woods with confidence, knowing that my Husband was watching me that very second, and for moment that, I thought I felt his eyes opening on the skin of my arms, as they did in dreams, but disappointingly, they were not. Or at least, not in any way I could see.
I climbed up the steeper area, through the brambles, and when my skin was scraped by thorns, it made me smile, because I knew my Husband found the color of blood to be beautiful, and I let it well up on the cuts instead of wiping it away.
Through the thicket I went until I came across a flat, stony place that had beside it a small spring. A small tingle went up my back as I learned what game my Husband wanted my to play, and I found myself smiling.
I began undoing my dress, and had just gotten the top undone and was wriggling out of the rest when Colm sprang out of the thicket.
"Aiofe?" he said. "What are you doing?"
"What are you doing?" I shouted back, covering myself up again. "Did you follow me here? Were you spying on me?"
"I didn't-- I was worried!" he said. "You've been acting so strange, and people said they saw things in the woods, and you've been coming out here to-- what? Dance around with your clothes off?"
"No!" I said.
His eyes widened. "You're lying, Aiofe! You're lying to me!"
My face burned, because he was right, and because I could feel my Husband laughing at me and the trouble I'd gotten myself into.
"What do you care?" I said. "I'm not breaking any rules."
"This is what witches do, Aiofe," he said, his voice panicked. "Are you a witch?"
"No," I said, and that time he saw I was telling the truth.
"Aiofe, you can't do this. If my uncle finds out--"
"Are you going to tell him?"
"No!" he said. "No, I wouldn't. I don't want you to get into trouble, but if I found out, then someone else will too." A thought seemed to occur to him. "Do your parents know?"
"You can't tell anyone," I said.
"Aiofe. . . " he said, his voice despairing.
While I tried to think of something to say, a thorny vine suddenly dropped from the tree behind him, draping around his shoulders. Colm screamed and flailed in a way not-entirely like how we dance at the Joining, and tried to pry the vine off. I hurried to help him, and it seemed to me like the vine was creeping over him, growing longer and tighter and trying to cover more and more of him.
"Stop!" I screamed. "Please! He's my friend!" Still, the vines writhed and tightened, and part wrapped around his throat. The world seemed to slow for a moment, and I saw the vine tighten again, and saw where his skin stuck out around the vine, and how the thorns were dug so deeply in that he wasn't even bleeding yet-- there wasn't any room for the blood to come out.
"Stop, please!" I said, crying. "You're killing him!"
And then the vines loosened. Not only did they loosen, but they flung themselves away from him, and slithered away on the ground like snakes, back into the brush. Colm dropped to his hands and knees, coughing and rubbing his neck. I dropped down beside him and held onto him, crying that I was sorry. He couldn't speak, but he didn't throw me off, and we stayed huddled into each other like that for what felt like ages.
A leafy vine dropped from the tree, just behind Colm's head. I wanted to scream and pull him away, but something held me frozen in place, and I could only watch, terrified that it would all happen again.
But there were no thorns on the vine, and though it did reach out to Colm, all it did was lightly brush his head so gently that he did not even notice. A crow's caw broke the silence, and when I looked up, I saw a bird that I knew was my Husband (or at least serving as his eyes) watching us with keen interest.
"We need to leave," I said.
We helped each other to our feet and left the wood in silence.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Colm refused to speak to me the next day. When he saw me coming that morning, he looked away and said he had to help his uncle clean up the rectory, then he hurried off like he was afraid I would chase him. I wondered how he had managed to explain away the scratches all over his face and hands. I wondered if his neck felt alright.
I wondered if he would ever speak to me again.
My Husband had not sent me a dream that night, and I wondered if he, too, was angry with me. Was it because I had got caught? Was it because I had stopped him from killing Colm? So deep was I in thought that I didn't see the Headwoman when she approached me.
"Come," she said, guiding me down a less-used path. "I wanted to talk to you."
"Aoife," said the Headwoman. "You know the reverend's boy, don't you?"
My heart leapt in my chest. Had I made my Husband mad? Did he not want me anymore? Had he told the Headwoman to tell me? Was he so angry that he couldn't even tell me himself?
"It was an accident!" I said, already near tears.
"Aiofe! Aiofe, nobody is angry! I just need information."
It took a few minutes of reassurance before I could answer her properly.
"So, the boy. You're friends, aren't you?"
I told her I was.
"Been friends for long?"
Since we were babies. Less so lately, I thought miserably.
"What's he like?"
What did she mean?
"He's not one of us," she said. "So I don't know him like I know all of you. And he's tied too closely to the church for me to try to speak with him. What is his temperament? Is he cruel? Kind? Soft, loud, brave, a coward, a blowhard? What does he like? What does he fear?"
He was quiet. He was soft, though he wouldn't like me calling him that. Thoughtful, too much so. He liked the winter better than summer and autumn better than both, and the color blue more than red, and the color of silver more than gold--
"What else? Tell me everything you can."
Where were his parents? She wanted to know. Why did he live with the Reverend? Does he like it there? Was he particularly religious, or was it a family obligation? His favorite food? Animal? Least favorite? Was he curious, complacent? Loyal? How loyal? Could he handle keeping secrets? Was he a slow learner or fast? What smells did he like? Hate? Did he hate anything? Was his face always freckly like that, or was that a summer thing? What color would I say his eyes really were?
And on and on and on.
I should have thought it odd, but the Headwoman asked me questions in her special, soothing way, and before I knew it, the sun had nearly gone down, and the Headwoman was walking me to the front door of my house and thanking me for the help.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The Beautiful People feared the church.
It didn't matter that it was small, the way our village was small, or that only four people worked there and two of them were just Colm and his Uncle. The fear of the church, and the fear that the normal people would rise against them at the church's behest, kept the Beautiful People away from the village.
Before Saskia had left, she had told me that it was because in other places, places where they didn't have proper worshipers like us, the churches would drive away any of the beautiful people who came near with iron. If they caught one, they would burn them alive, and some places were so adamant that they burned people even when they hadn't actually caught a Beautiful Person. That was why the Headwoman was so important; she could manage us all and keep the Church or the non-worshipers from finding us out and killing us too.
So it was unthinkable, then, that a month or so later, a few days before the Briding, the church should burn down.
When I got there, smoke of it filled the air, thick and black, and it seemed the whole town was there already to help put it out, handing off buckets of water from the stream in a long chain of people. My mother and father joined the chain, and tried to pull me along with them, but I tore away and began screaming where's Colm?
I ran around, though the men and women nearest the fire told me to get back, this was no place for a child, and someone grabbed my arm and dragged me away, but still I screamed for Colm. They sat me across the road with the other spectators, and a cluster of women with their own children said they'd watch me. By then I was crying too much to care; Colm was gone.
I sank to the ground and curled my knees beneath me, watching the church. Chunks of wood and stone splintered and fell, caving in what was left of the roof. Guilt gnawed in my stomach. This was because of the day in the woods. It had to be. I thought of the vine that had nearly choked him to death. Had Colm's presence angered the Beautiful People so badly that they would venture into the village and attack the church, just to hurt him?
Did my Husband do it?
At some point, after the worst of the fire was put out and only smaller, scattered ones remained, I noticed the Headwoman standing beside me.
The Headwoman watched the fire intently. She said nothing to me. She didn't even look in my direction, and I wanted to ask her if this was my fault, but I was too afraid of what the answer would be.
Just as I was getting up the nerve to say anything at all, she smiled suddenly and moved back towards the fire.
"Wait," I said, intending to follow after, but she made a gesture, and I fell back against the wall again. I watched helplessly as she weaved her way through the crowd, unhindered by anyone, and calmly walked into the burning building.
Time seemed to slow down, just as it had when Colm had been attacked by the vines in the wood. I didn't breathe, didn't blink, terrified of what would happen if I broke the stillness that had suddenly fallen. And then, she was out, and she walked through the smoke carrying a boy in her arms.
I think I screamed. I know I ran to her, and as I did some part of me noticed that nobody else was doing the same. Nobody offered to help her carry him, or to take him somewhere safe.
"Is he--?" I said, approaching her.
She smiled at me and lowered him a little, like a mother showing off her newborn baby. He sickly pale and smudged all over with smoke, and for a moment I thought him dead despite her smiling, but then he coughed and began to open his eyes.
"Sleep,"the Headwoman said in her honey-voice, and he closed his eyes with small sigh.
"What about--?" I started.
"The reverend is dead," she said. We started walking down the road, and nobody stopped us. Nobody noticed.
"He can stay with us," I said. "He knows us. I can--"
"No," she said. "I'll keep him. Go home and tell your parents when they arrive, and tell them to meet me at my cottage."
I wanted to ask why, but she gave me a look, and I found my mind going blank, and I could not for the life of me think of what I wanted to ask. So instead I leaned over and whispered to Colm, "Goodbye," and went home to do as she asked.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The next few days were a blur of Briding day preparations, funerals, church repairs, gossip, guilt, and dreams from my Husband that I couldn't remember upon waking.
Nobody who didn't worship the Beautiful People knew what had happened to Colm. They gave me pitying looks when I asked about him, and they told me that he and his uncle both had burned up in the fire, with nothing but ashes left of them both. There was a huge funeral that everyone attended because it would have looked suspicious not to, and though I knew Colm was alive and (hopefully) safe with the Headwoman, I cried real tears as though he were actually gone, and no amount of thinking could stop it.
Then it was Briding day.
We all arrived at the hill before dawn and started the preparations. The white stone bowls were brought out, the Headwoman produced the lumps of unusual wood and the strange knives, and someone lit the fire pit and started cooking. By the time the sun had come up, all the congregation was on the hill, and the of-age girls had arrived in their shimmering dresses.
Since we had no girls doing the ceremony, my family was once again one of the lighthearted ones eating food and socializing, but I watched the older girls in their lovely dresses prepare for the doll ceremony and couldn't help sighing. I wouldn't be old enough to marry my Husband properly for another few years, but at least, unlike them, I had the dreams he sent to tide me over.
The girls all knelt down in a row before their bowls the way Saskia had, and each looked eagerly at their lumps of wood, sizing it up in their minds. But the Headwoman wouldn't let them start yet.
"We are waiting for the last one to join us," she said.
Then they dragged Colm to the top of the hill.
Between the two men holding him, he looked even smaller than I remembered, and I thought to myself, he can't do the Briding, he's too young. And then, they don't need two to bring him, one would be enough to just carry him, but they held him and pulled him, kicking and screaming, forward.
He was dressed in white clothes I had never seen him in, but that looked like the same shimmery material as the dresses the girls wore. His wrists had been bound together, and there was a cloth over his mouth so that when he screamed, it was muffled and we could not hear anything he said. His face was red in what could have been mistaken for anger, but I knew it was from him crying.
When he saw me and my family, he stopped fighting and stared, and if there hadn't been a cloth in the way, I'm certain his jaw would have dropped.
But before he or I could do anything, the men brought him forward and dropped him in the empty place before the last bowl. The girl nearest to him scooted aside to make room, and there was a murmur in the crowd of watchers. I looked up at my parents, and saw them smiling proudly, and I knew that they had already known.
The Headwoman knelt by Colm. I couldn't hear what she was saying, but I recognized the honey-sweet tone, and I saw Colm looking down at the grass and shaking his head, no, but even as he did, he slowly, so slowly, like with great effort, picked up the wood he was supposed to carve a doll out of. His hands were shaking so badly, I had no idea how he was going to carve a doll, sweet talk or no, but in the end he didn't even try, he chucked the wood into the fire without so much as looking at it.
The moment it was in, the fire in the bowl roared upwards, and thick yellow smoke poured out. Colm hunched over, shielding his head as best he could with his bound hands. We all stared. Even the girls who had only barely started carving their dolls froze, and the Headowman beamed. She told Colm to stick his hand into the fire, and I could see him shaking his head, even as he shoved both hands in. He didn't scream, and I knew he must not have been burned.
The doll that came out was as beautifully carved as any other of the chosen bride's dolls. I would have liked to get a closer look, but rather than showing it off, the Headwoman and the men held Colm down and tied it to his bare arm. He fought them wildly, lashing out like a feral cat, but he was still small, and there were three of them. People clustered around him, congratulating him, trying to comfort him, but he was having none of it. All the while, the Headwoman spoke to him in the soothing voice, and when they carried him past me, back towards the cottage where she lived, I heard her saying how lucky he was, and how honored he should be, because the Beautiful People tended not to take an interest in humans who didn't already worship them.
When they had carried him off, she returned to us and asked the girls, "What are you waiting for?"
And each of them began feverishly carving their dolls again.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
There were three brides again for the Joining that year, and one of them was Colm.
The brides stood with their families on the hill, except for Colm, who was on his knees and tied to a post. He'd been there before my family and I arrive, and upon seeing him, I immediately went towards him. Before I had made it a few paces, the Headwoman was there, and she told me to stay back.
"You'll only upset him," she said. "He's only just quieted about all this, and if he sees you, he'll beg you to let him go, and that will only make the both of you unhappy."
And she said it in such a reasonable voice that I believed her and didn't think of going to him again. But I did watch him, the same way I had watched Saskia years ago. Even when the Beautiful People came from the woods, and their music filled the air, I watched Colm. I saw his head jerk up when the music started playing, and saw him thrash against the post, trying the break the ropes around him.
And then I saw Colm's husband. I could tell him apart from the others, because while the others approached with a lazy grace, he strode ahead of them straight for where Colm was tied up. He was tall and broad and beautiful and horrible and somewhere in the confusing, shining beauty, I thought I could see burning orange eyes like my Husband's own.
The Beautiful Man smiled at Colm, who refused to look at him, and when the Beautiful Man reached out to stroke his hair, Colm started like a frightened cat and tried to get away, which made the man smile more. He crouched down beside him and, though Colm tried to shake him off, he held him and cooed and preened Colm's hair. Colm screamed through the gag, and part of me wanted to go to him, but I could not move. His husband, still smiling, grabbed Colm's head in his hands and forced him to look at his face.
The screaming stopped.
Colm's Husband grinned widely. I didn't see him cut the ropes, but they fell away anyway, and he helped Colm to his feet, and though I could not hear it, I felt whispers in my head, and I knew that Colm's husband was speaking to him the way mine did to me. I expected Colm and his husband to join the festivities, but while other Husbands and Brides were dancing and drinking and playing games, Colm's Husband scooped him up and took him to the woods. I nearly followed them to see, but I didn't have to. I knew that they'd reach the treeline and vanish, just as Saskia had done, and all the others who'd come before and after.
And then the next thing I knew, I was seated by the bonfire, my hands and face sticky with something I didn't remember eating.
My husband-to-be sat beside me.
"They left in a hurry," I said.
He laughed without laughing. Colm's husband, he told me, was afraid Colm would run away somehow, or that church militants would arrive from the capital and take him back. He wanted to get Colm into their lands as quickly as possible.
"It's not fair," I told him.
"Colm doesn't even want to go, and yet your people took him before you took me, and I've been waiting years for you."
The smile left his eyes then, though his mouth continued. His brother, he told me, was impatient and fearful. He had been with him in the woods that day-- my husband in the mood to show me off-- and when he had caught sight of Colm, his heart had nearly burst with love and wanting and hunger.
"Was he the vines?"
Yes. He hadn't been able to control himself, he wanted Colm so badly. And after, he had been adamant that the Headwoman bring him the boy as quickly as possible. Even if it meant challenging the church.
My Husband, I could feel, disapproved. I asked him why.
It was reckless and pointless. It was better to let our kind grow. The world beyond the woods was frightening and alien, and even the brides who worshiped the Beautiful People from childhood suffered at first. We would live ageless in the other world, so why not let us prepare first? But now Colm, unprepared, would suffer for that much longer-- though my Husband assured me that his brother would shower him with adoration and the sincerest love, even as he fed from him.
I thought of the burning church and the ashes of the reverend being buried in two boxes, and how Colm's husband must have been the one to arrange that. But instead of being outraged, I felt only an increasingly sleepy sort of happiness for my friend. Colm didn't know how lucky he was to have a Beautiful Person as a husband, much less one who would storm the church to claim him.
"I'm sure Saskia will keep him company," I mumbled. "If they can find each other."
And if not, Colm, I thought, resting against my Husband. I'll find you when I go over. It'll only be a few more years now.
And I fell asleep in the warmth of the fire, and the arms of my Husband-to-be, and dreamt of nothing.
What do you mean this isn't a happy story?