by Kevin Brockmeier
It was ten years or more before I saw the girl again. The last of the trees were turning color with the end of autumn, and the air had the fine, dry smell of burning leaves that signals an early snow. I was resting against the edge of my stone, worn smooth from all my years of sitting,when a young woman emerged from the spinney of elm trees by the tavern. She walked swiftly but deliberately, turning occasionally to look behind her as though sweeping the ground for footprints. I crossed the river to be ready to meet her on the other bank.
"I need passage over the water," she said when she arrived. Her breath was coming rapidly, in thick white plumes. "Quickly. How much?" she asked.
"Four coins," I said.
She counted out the money from a leather satchel hanging at her side. A shirt that had been tucked neatly inside poked out from the broaching after she tied the straps down. "Is there anybody following me?" she asked.
The sky was hidden behind a single flat sheet of clouds, and the path into town was long and shadowless. Even the birds were resting. "No one," I said.
"Good." She handed me the silver, then shifted her satchel so that it fell over her buttocks and climbed onto my back. "Let’s go."
The water was frigid that morning. It rose around my stomach in a sealed, constricting ring, and I began to shiver. I couldn’t help myself. Even the year before, the chill of the water had seemed only the barest prickle to me, a tiny gnat to swat away with my fingers, but with each passing month,ever since the summer had fallen, I had noticed it more and more. The young woman tightened her arms around my chest and said, "I hate this — crossing the water. I feel sick inside."
"Don’t worry," I said. "I won’t let anything happen to you."
It was then that she made a clicking noise in her throat, and I could feel her seizing upon a memory or perception. You learn to recognize such things when you carry people as I do: it’s in their posture and their breathing and the power of their grip. In this case, it was as if all the heaviness drained from her body into mine,then gradually returned to her. "I remember you," she said. "You were here by the river on the day I came."
Whereupon I realized who she was.
Her body had spread open into its grown–up shape and become paler over time. Her skin was now a yellow–gold, like that of the spice merchants who travel through Woolpit from Far Asia. "Seel–ya," I said.
"You look — different."
She almost smiled. "I know. I lost most of my color a long time ago. The chirurgeon says it was the change in my diet, but people take on new colors all the time as they grow older, don’t they? They’re like caterpillars turning into butterflies." She tensed suddenly. "Tell me, is there anybody following me yet?"
I looked behind me. "Still no one."
"Good," she said, and her muscles relaxed. "Then so far he hasn’t realized."
I bent my thoughts to what she had said about people taking on new colors. It was not without its truth. The tillers and planters, for instance, were gray with a soil that would never wash out of their skin — you could recognize them by the stain of it on their hands and faces — and my own body had turned a rich chestnut–brown across the chest and shoulders from the hours I spent in the sun.Children were born with murky blue eyes, and only later did they become green or brown or hazel, or the lighter, more natural blue of the living. Old people faced with their last sickness turned white as tallow as they took to their beds. I caught my likeness in the water and saw the two long cords of silver in my hair. I deposited Seel–ya on the shore.
"Where are you fleeing to, child?" I asked.
"How do you know that I’m fleeing?"
I gave a snort of laughter, and her face sprang up in a slanting grin. "Very well," she said. "I suppose I have to tell somebody. I’m going to King’s Lynne. There’s a man that I intend to wed." She glanced over my shoulder, across the river. "In fact" — she dug into her satchel for another four coins — "if Richard de Calne or any of his servants come asking after me, will you tell them you haven’t seen me? Or better yet, will you send them the wrong way?"
"I will," I told her, and I pocketed the coins. "Good luck to you."
She nodded. She lifted herself carefully onto the shelf of the bank, then turned back to me. "You were kind to me that day. I haven’t forgotten. Thank you."
"You were in need of someone’s kindness," I said.
She set out along the southern road, moving at a steady trot, and soon she vanished from my sight behind the stables. That was the last I saw of her.
* * * * * * * * * *
What else is there to tell? De Calne and his men did indeed come looking for the girl, their pikestaffs held at the ready, and I directed them into the hills to the west of town, where a few meager paths had been trampled into the brush by the few travelers foolish enough to attempt passage. Packs of wolves and wild boar could be heard baying and grunting there at night, and great owls lifted from the branches of trees with a sound like someone beating the dirt from a mat.
I told de Calne that the girl said she was going to gather her strength there and make her way north when the weather cleared. He and his men came stumping back two days later, their garments split and tattered and their pikestaffs left behind them in the forest.
The winter that followed was the coldest I have ever seen. (It has been a long life, and I cannot imagine I will see one colder.) The river froze over for the first time in memory, assuming the blue–white color of solid ice, and the people of Woolpit scattered dirt across it in a continuous sheet, walking from one shore to the other as though it were simply a road. I spent the season hauling coal to the village from the mines. When spring came and the water melted,the chalk–haired boy who had visited Woolpit ten years before — I had never forgotten him — returned with the stonemason he had told me of. Together they built a bridge that spanned the water in a perfect arch. It stands there still, as sturdy and elegant as the bones of a foot.
I found new work as a lifter and plougher, and when my strength went, as a tavern–keeper. It was some few years ago that a man of Newburgh, a historian by the name of William, came to the tavern seeking reports of the green children, and I told him this story as I have told it to you. Afterwards, he asked me if I knew what had become of the girl. Had she married the man at King’s Lynne? Had de Calne ever managed to find her? Though I am certain she did not return to Woolpit,and de Calne soon gave her up as lost, I know nothing else for a certainty. Some say she did indeed marry, mothering children of her own. Some say she took work as a kitchen steward in a small town to the south of Norfolk. Some say she vanished from this world as suddenly as she appeared here, following a sound like the chiming of bells. I myself could make no guesses. It was very long ago, and I was not there.