The ice cracked and began to cave under Sylvia’s weight, leaving her at the mercy of the frigid depths beneath the solid top layer. Horrific snaps rose into the frozen winter air, enveloping the surrounding trees in what sounded like muted breaking china. The fracture spidered in to each cardinal direction, as if the fissures themselves were trying to evade the frozen fate which lay underneath. The ice finally gave way as Sylvia tried to shift her weight in order to flee to the nearby river bank. Down she sank, below the ice which had tricked her in to walking on its surface, going against her better judgement. Chunks of ice rushed up back towards the surface as she descended farther down. The arctic water had put her body into a state of shock, paralyzing her from being able to swim up again towards the surface. She could do nothing but stare up at the perfectly her-sized hole that was left in the ice, allowing for the weak, pale light of winter to peak down into the hazy depths which now contained her.
This is it, this is how it ends? Sylvia was almost ashamed that this was how she was to die, having to do with a minuscule lapse in judgement as she carelessly ran through the woods in an effort to propel herself far away from her home. She felt as though she were a burden unto her family, being just another mouth to feed, further exhausting them of what little resources they had. Her younger brothers needed much more than she did, which was apparent in the way she was invisible to her parents. She felt it was easiest to simply disappear; however, she did not realize that death would be her means of vanishing.
Surrounded by water, Sylvia tried to scream for a reason unknown to her, which resulted in what little air she had left floating towards the surface, only to meet the underside of the ice. Sylvia closed her eyes and accepted what she thought she deserved for being so thoughtless and irresponsible. The stars she began to see behind her eyelids were a more comforting sight than the place in which she had come to know the water.
Sylvia awoke with the feeling of water rushing out of her lungs, through her throat, and out of her mouth. She looked to her left and saw what appeared to be a woman, cloaked and hooded. She seemed to be not much older than Sylvia, as she speculated the woman was probably in her mid-twenties.
“Are you okay?” the woman questioned arbitrarily as she leaned over Sylvia’s face to inspect her. She sighed in relief as she already knew the answer was an obvious affirmation.
“I guess so,” Sylvia said unsteadily as she still gasped for the air which had been kept from her lungs for some time. With the woman’s face so close, she noticed wispy, crimson curls that peaked out from under the woman’s hood. Her face was soft and round with pronounced features of a small, upturned nose and pink, thin lips. Nearly translucent eyebrows hovered just above incredibly large, dark eyes bordered by thick eyelashes.
“Who are you?” Sylvia questioned the anonymous woman with a thick, not yet fully conscious tongue.
“Nevermind that, let’s get you inside,” she answered as she draped Sylvia in an aged, scratchy blanket and effortlessly picked her up.
Sylvia awakened again, but this time cloaked in a warmth which she knew could only be delivered from a fire. Through sleep laden eyes, she noticed what looked similar to the interior of a log cabin home. The walls were an earthy brown with the texture of evened out dirt, the floor slightly darker and smoother from what must have been years of treading feet. There was one sheer-curtained window on the other side of the small room, just above the kitchen basin and foggy from the warmth that radiated within the house. The fireplace was about three feet to the right of the basin, ablaze with carefully dried wood that popped loudly as it was quickly devoured by the flame. Balanced delicately over the center of the flame was a small cauldron, heating something that smelled like home within its confines. A small table sat on the left side of the basin, neatly set with two chairs facing each other and basket of baby’s breath and unidentifiable, small light blue flowers. Flowers in the dead of winter? Sylvia thought absentmindedly, soon dismissing it once she realized she was no longer wearing her own dress and petticoat, but rather someone else’s nightgown. Peeling back the patchwork quilt which covered her on the small bed which she lay, she realized that someone must have taken the care to strip her of her soaked clothes and dressed her in this fresh flannel nightdress. Upon inspecting the garment, Sylvia looked up as she heard approaching footsteps from the backroom. She quickly threw the quilt back over her and squeezed her eyes shut, feigning sleep so as to not risking being discovered conscious. She peeked through the tiniest of slits between her eyelids, observing the figure which had entered. She instantly recognized it as being the same woman that had saved her from the river- the same loose, red curls and gentle demeanor being obvious giveaways. She had removed her cloak and Sylvia could see now that she was wearing a modest dark green dress, so dark it was nearly the color of the bottom of a burnt loaf of bread. She hummed softly as she fiddled with dishes in the basin, carefully scrubbing and rinsing them, setting them near the fire so they would dry quicker.
“Well, good morning! How was your sleep?” the woman asked Sylvia, beaming at her as she turned around to face her.
Sylvia was so shocked that this woman somehow knew she was awake that she could do nothing but open her eyes fully and sit up straight with the look of a bashful child smeared across her face.
“Fine, thank you,” she replied obediently. “If you don’t mind my asking, where am I?”
The woman walked over to the place where Sylvia sat, easing herself down on to the bed with delicate care. She began to lightly smooth down Sylvia’s hair, gingerly untangling the knotted sections which framed her pale face.
“My cottage, dear. Just a ways farther in to the woods than you already were at the river,” the woman smiled tenderly with each syllable she spoke. “I brought you back here to keep you from freezing.”
“Thank you,” Sylvia replied with a small, tottering smile. “Why did you save me?”
The woman smiled as she looked down at her lap. “I heard the ice breaking and thought it might be an animal, a deer. Much to my surprise when I saw it was you falling in!”
Sylvia gave a weak laugh as she idly picked at the fraying thread of the quilt. As she became more sure of herself in the comforting presence of the woman, Sylvia inquired, “Who are you?”
She paused in brushing Sylvia’s hair. Her grin faded only briefly as a look of nebulous confusion flashed across her face, virtually undetected. “I’m just a maid of the forest, I find more comfort amongst the wild than I do in a society of people.” The smile gradually returned to her face as she went back to combing Sylvia’s hair with her long, fluid fingers.
“I see. I like your cottage,” Sylvia commented, unsure how else to respond to the woman’s strange avoidance in introducing herself. Her eyes wandered around the main room once again.
“Thank you! It’s not much, but it’s a place to call home at the end of the day,” the woman giggled as she rose from her spot on Sylvia’s bed. “I hate to leave you so soon, but I must go to the neighbor’s house to borrow some thread for mending that quilt, along with one of my dresses. Do you mind? There’s stew over the fire there, it should be done soon if you decide you’re hungry before I return,” she began bundling herself in the familiar cloak, drawing the edges of the hood together once it covered her head. Sylvia replied that she did not mind terribly, and with that the woman patted her on the thigh and flew out the door into the bitterly frozen landscape.
Sylvia decided to take this opportunity of what she figured would be a lengthy amount of time alone to investigate around this strange little home to which she was guest. Rising from the bed and wrapping the quilt around her still thawing body, she found a towel by the sink with which to grasp and open the cauldron. She lifted the lid, allowing the steam to escape towards the ceiling, and observed it to be some sort of beef stew. Large chunks of meat swam among the thickening gravy, the smell enticed her. Minding her manners, she carefully laid the lid back down onto the cauldron and placed the towel back on the sink.
Exhausting what little excitement the main room had to offer, Sylvia ventured down the short hallway which led towards the room from where the woman had previously emerged. She came upon what appeared to be a small bedroom: a neatly made bed with another patchwork quilt spread across, with delicately fluffed pillows at the head, nothing out of the ordinary. Smells like dried herbs and oil, Sylvia thought. The smell was so strong it almost seemed to be employed for the use of masking the scent of something more offensive. She wandered over to the dresser against the wall, carefully fingering the sundries which were carefully arranged on top. There were strange little figures made of straw and dried, flowery herbs, most of which seemed to be uninterestingly generic people. One had brown hair made of dried leaves tucked under a bonnet of white fabric and a blue dress made of blue yarn wrapped around the body. Another was clearly a man, with a cap from the top of an acorn and clothes fashioned from left over bits of dark fabric. Several more decorated the top of the dresser, with varying colors of hair and clothing.
Sylvia also took note of various lotions and perfumes that seemed to decorate the dresser as well, lifting the lid to one of the jars, she recognized the scent of lard, crushed lavender blooms, and crumbled dried rose petals. She fumbled with the lid in an attempt to place it back on the jar, dropping it to the ground due to it being slick from the lotion’s lard base. The lid rolled quite a ways under the bed, forcing Sylvia to drop onto hands and knees in order to retrieve it. As she felt under the bed, she touched what felt like a wooden box. Out of reflex, she dragged the heavy thing out from its dark hiding place and pushed open the cover. Inside were countless pieces of hair- no, not pieces, bundles, tied together with small pieces of periwinkle ribbon. Sylvia picked them up one by one, rather horrified, and inspected each of them up close. It was immediately obvious that they were the soft, delicate fragments of human hair. They were all different colors, different textures, different people. Where would she get these… why would she even have these? Sylvia silently questioned as she felt her breathing quicken from inside her chest.
In an effort to keep herself from fully panicking, she quickly snapped the lid shut and returned the box to its place under the bed. She heard it knock against something solid as she slid it further back, which she assumed was the lid to the jar that she had dropped. Sylvia reached behind the estranged box and grabbed the presumed lid, only to meet the small, ivory skull of what had to be an infant. She let out a small scream, so quiet it could have been mistaken for even just a gasp. She immediately dropped the skull to the floor and quickly jumped to her feet, forgetting entirely about the lid of which she had been in search. Sylvia flew from beside the bed to the middle of the room where she paused to catch her breath.
After several minutes of calculated breathing, she opened her eyes and turned around, meeting her reflection in the mirror of a vanity. She noticed several beautiful necklaces hanging from pegs mounted into the wooden border of the mirror. She longed for a closer look at the beautiful jewelry and took a careless step forward, bashing her knee into the drawers of the vanity. The structure nearly toppled over on to Sylvia. In a panic, she instantly pushed the mirrored portion back upright and tried to stop anything that was falling over from spilling on to the vanity’s plateau. Vials of various sizes and varying degrees of crimson scattered from their respective holders. The ones in the back row remained in place, but the ones on the lower level scattered. The cork tops of the strewn tubes were released as they hit the surface, the smell of both fresh and semi-coagulated, stale blood filled Sylvia’s nostrils. Unadulterated fear and bewilderment flooded over her body, cultivating goosebumps on her forearms and raising the hair on the back of her neck.
Suddenly, Sylvia heard the unmistakable crunching of fresh snow from just outside the house. She’s back, was all Sylvia had time to process before she heard the protesting hinges of the weatherworn oaken door as it was pushed inwards.
“Hello?” the woman asked with a wavering voice of worry, whipping her head to and fro in search of her guest that was apparently missing.
“Oh, hello,” Sylvia said with a breathy laugh as she emerged from the woman’s bedroom. “I was just looking for… bowls for the stew,” she lied as best she could in such a state of fear.
The woman stared at her, the previously warm and welcoming smile was completely erased from her mouth. In an effort to understand what Sylvia’s business had been in her bedroom and why she was acting so uneasy, she studied her face for some time. Without moving, she stated, “They’re all in the cupboard under the sink.”
“Great!” Sylvia replied as she swiftly moved into the kitchen and towards the cupboard. She anxiously ladled helpings of the stew into bowls in an effort to conceal what she had found and done in her caretaker’s bedroom.
The woman began to take her cloak off and hang it by the door, deliberately and silently as she watched Sylvia, deciding how to take care of the threat now dwelling in her home.
“Did you rest while I was gone?”
“Oh yes, I feel quite better now, thank you.”
The woman joined her at the table with two spoons in hand, taken from a kitchen drawer. She handed one to Sylvia and watched her closely as she ate. Sylvia noticed a different taste and texture to the meat of the stew, dismissively making the mental note that it must have just be cured meat instead of fresh due to it being winter.
They ate in silence, Sylvia avoiding the woman’s intense and interrogative gaze. As she sliced large chunks of meat apart with the side of her spoon, Sylvia slowly realized this was not meat she knew. The texture was wrong, all wrong. It was too gamey, too chewy for even rabbit. What is this? She longed to ask, but was too afraid. She planned to run as soon as she had finished her bowl, or the woman left the room- which ever came first. Once Sylvia scooped and swallowed the last bite in her bowl, she looked up. The woman had completely transformed. She was no longer gentle, sweet, and brimming with youth and patience. Instead, she had a hideous sneer smeared across her now cracked, blistered lips. Her dark eyes were no longer a safe haven for the needy, but rather endless chasms eager to punish and consume. Sylvia was frozen in her place across the table. No… no, no. Please. She pleaded silently with whatever unseen power might feel they should intervene. She made a dash for the door, but tripped as she stepped on the quilt that was still swaddling her body. Sylvia fell violently to the floor, too stunned to get back up before the now disturbing woman pounced on top of her. She shrieked but to no avail, the woman had managed to grab the cauldron from the fireplace and lift it high above her head without struggle, smiling menacingly down at Sylvia before swiftly bringing the cauldron down upon her head, bestowing death upon this girl herself, whom she had delivered from the merciless and bloody hands of the river.
About the Author: Small town author Rebecca Fending works professionally as a Content Writer at Verblio while pursuing her career as a poet and author. She also specializes in freelance work in editing and proofreading. During her education in English Literature at Indiana University Bloomington, Rebecca fully embraced her passion for writing, both academically and creatively, through papers and short stories. She is currently working on self publishing a small collection of free verse poetry through Amazon entitled “Reticence”, and plans to later publish a work containing several short stories.