Her voice was soft with a gentle confidence as if she knew where she stood and the entire world could tell her she was wrong, but she knew where she stood.
At seventeen, she was curved like the river, gentle and slow. Her hair, normally an aura of slow dancing chocolate electric, was tamed into a prim bun. Her eye were warm dark honey, welcoming and full of joy as she spun slowly around, her arms out to her sides, the suit was a dark blue, with black buttons down the front of the jacket and the skirt. Her elegant hands were covered in fine white doe skin gloves. As she spun, her new blue leather heels clicked on the smooth hardwood floor. Creamy pearls showed between the opening of the jacket, laying on her smooth coffee skin. Nearly giggling, she finished her turn, then did a little bounce. “Well? Do I look okay?”
I remember my Uncle telling me not to talk to the Will o’Wisp. Don’t look at him. Don’t talk to him. Don’t go near him. Don’t ever, ever go into his forest.
Her Uncle Alan was a large man with broad shoulders and hands bigger than her face. He was dark, his eyes nearer to the darker forest than any dark honey. He wore a greyish shirt that had been white once, rolled up his arms to large biceps. Sitting in his rocker, he smiled, let a fine trail of cigar smoke decorate the air. “You are a charming and witty young lady. Paris is going to be lucky to have you.”
She rolled her eyes, sighing. “But the suit! You had it sent from France. Don’t you like it?”
He smiled, shifting forward, cigar resting on dark lips. “Of course, Kat. It’s a lovely suit. When you get there, you can go pick up the other five so the dress maker can fit them to you there. I just wanted you to have something nice to travel in.”
“How can I go and leave you,” she said, lips tightening. “Can’t you come with me?”
“I can’t,” he said, standing up with the vigor of a much younger man. “My life is here. You’ll write to me though and tell me all about the life you’re building here, all about your classes and how you’re going to change the world.”
“I will,” she said, throwing her arms around him.
One arm around her, he lifted off the floor. “You better.”
“Or you’ll send the Will o’Wisp after me,” she teased. “When I leave next week how are you going to manage without me?”
“Girl, I was picking up eggs and watering the garden a long time before you were born. I’ll be fine.”
Feeling suddenly childish, she put her hands on her hips, cocked them to the side, lifted her chin and challenged, “What if the Will o’Wisp eats your heart? Uh? Had you thought of that, Uncle Alan?”
He winked, knocked ash from his cigar and gave a rare, brilliant grin. “Well, at least I’d get to see his pretty green eyes before I did. He can’t kill me. I’d just come right back and write you a new letter. Don’t you worry about me!”
Just as suddenly as the challenge had come, she threw her arms around his neck, holding tightly to him and for a moment it was just the same as that first moment that he’d pulled her from the river, out of the bag she’d been tied in and the moment she’d seen him, she’d known she was safe. In that memory she found some other little bit of fact that she hadn’t thought about pretty much since that moment. She pulled back just enough to look in his face as she asked him, “Uncle Alan, you’re not really my uncle, are you? I remember the ... river. My Mama didn’t send me on the train with a tag on my wrist like you said.”
“The river or the train,” Alan said softly a big thumb moving to smooth a tear away from her cheek, “You still came to me and I will always take care of you. Don’t you cry! Everything is going to be okay, Kat-kin. I promise. “
“Well, if you don’t, I’ll tell the Will o”Wisp on you.”
“Someday, maybe you’ll get to meet him. If the curse is every broken.”
When I was a little girl, I believed in the Will o’Wisp. Uncle Alan would take me to the edge and there just on the other side, green flames would float in the air. Sometimes I’d imagine it looked like a man with blond hair and the Devil’s smile. That was a long time ago and I’m not a little girl anymore.
“Now who are you going to tell stories to when I’m gone?” She focused on smoothing out her skirt.
“I got plenty to do,” he said, “Now go finish packing your truck, Kat-kin.”
“I should change and make some dinner,” she hedged.
“I’ll cook,” Alan said motioning for her to go up into the loft that was her room. “Go take care of your things. “A gentleman named Algir Fahaz will come to collect you. His father was a dear friend and he will see you safely to Paris.”
Half way up the ladder, she turned, on the ladder step perilously on just one pretty heel. “I am a grown person! I don’t need a childminder!”
“You’ll need someone to carry that trunk,” Alan snapped. “If I’m not mistaken.”
“Wull,” she said, eyes rolling back so she was looking at the ceiling. “That’s true, but that’s all I need.”
“Yes, fine,” Alan said as he tugged some food out of their small ice box. “Sliced ham and eggs for dinner. Sound okay?”
“Sounds great,” she said, slipping the rest of the way up into her loft.
As he was slicing the ham, watching out his small kitchen window, a red pickup truck rambled up the rough dirt road that lead to their little house. There wasn’t another house for more than ten miles in any direction. They weren’t lost and they weren’t black.
With a sigh, he folded the gingham fabric back over their ham and set it back in the ice box. “We have company, Katherine. Stay inside, stay quiet.”
She peered over the edge of the loft, eyes big. “Is trouble?”
“Don’t know.” He said, picking up a very solid cricket bat and stepping out onto the front steps.
Heart pounding, Kat peeked out her window, saw several rifles with the boys. The town had always been a strange place to her. They didn’t go there often. The people in the town treated some people like they were... less than. She’d learned very quickly not to talk to people with paler skin unless they spoke to her, to always let the pale ones go first, to try not to speak at all if they were there, because they didn’t like her.
Uncle Alan spoke differently around them, to them, taking his hat off, bowing nice, and sounding more like a big simple child. He’d told her that in time they’d all learn to get along, but it was going to take a long time. It would be better in Paris, he promised, but even there, he said it was going to take a little time.
She worried she wouldn’t be able to hear the town boys, but when the leader started talking, she had nothing to fear on that front.
Voice loud, pleased with himself, he about boasted, “So you fancy nigger man! You read the Bible much, nigger?”
“Yes, Sir,” Uncle Alan said.
“You know about the story of Sodom and Gomorrah then, right, old man?”
“Oh yes, Sir,” Alan said, “I do know that story!”
“We here the townsfolk,” the leader said smirking, his voice sending cold into the pit of Kat’s stomach. “We want you send out your virgin daughter, nigger. You wanna be a good man like Lot, right?”
“He was a man o’God,” one of the other boys said as he stood in the bed of the truck, leaning over the cab. “We brought blankets and everything, so’en she’ll be comfortable and all.”
Kat started crying, quiet as a mouse, her knees pressed together, arms around them, her stomach knotting.
“Now boys,” Alan said, losing all pretense of servility, his voice the voice she knew, a teacher, a wise man, proud, and the king of his words. “I have read the Bible. There aren’t any angels around here, except maybe the Angel of Death.”
“You talking about the Will o’Wisp,” a different boy with freckles and a black eye snorted. “Ain’t no such thing! It’s the boogie man. No such thing. Now give us that arrogant cunt of a daughter. She can go to Europe with our cum dripping down those pretty nigger thighs.”
“Boys, you need to leave. This isn’t going to come out well for you.” Alan tapped the thick oak cricket bat on the porch railing. “Everyone knows it’s dangerous out in this part of the woods. No one smart ever comes out here.”
Kat silently slipped off her pretty new blue heels and put on her normal boots, lacing them up over her stockinged feet.
“Nigger,” another boy shouted, “Are you threatening us?”
“Henceforth and for the duration of your miserable lives, you will address me as Mr. Jones. Now I understand you’ve been raised to believe you are better than people who look like me. If you desire to go on thinking this stupidity for some time yet to come, you need to back yourselves up and get off my property.”
“This nigger thinks he owns some land!”
“Here kitty kitty,” the freckled boy taunted, “We’re gonna make you a nigger woman tonight!”
Kat’s hair stood up on end, but she wiped tears from her face. It was one against ten. She reached under her bed and pulled a staff, just like the one that Little John had used. When she’d been younger, she’d spent hours practicing, pretending to be the mythical friar. Terrified, she crept down the stairs, disobeying her Uncle, but she couldn’t leave him alone to face them.
Her heart beat so loud, thumping in her ears, she could hardly hear anything else.
“Oh what a trumped up nigger,” one of them hooted as she came out, her staff under her arm.
“Leave us alone,” she said firmly, feeling courage as she stood next to her Uncle. “We haven’t done anything to you. Does it not also say in the Bible to love your neighbor as yourself, Mark 12:30-31.”
“Oh you little bitch, don’t say you can read,” the leader sneered. “Nigger bitches only good for sucking cock.”
“If you accept Jesus as your savior,” she said, “He’ll heal your hearts.”
“Oh you a preacher too!” Freckles said. Calm as cream, he picked up the rifle from the boy next to him, aimed at Alan and put a bullet through his forehead.
He fell slowly, blood already on the hardwood floor before he hit. It was so bright against the pale polished oak.
The scream ached in Kat’s jaw as her mouth opened, quaked there - half open - half closed, her heart suddenly turning to the void that Uncle Alan said was beyond the sky. The staff dropped from her hand and restarted time, but not sound.
They were all standing there, laughing, as if nothing had happened, as they’d shot a pig and there would be a party. And suddenly she didn’t feel human anymore. She felt as if she’d been magic’ed into a rabbit, a little brown rabbit and they wanted to skin her and carry her feet around on their belts.
Humanity, the will to reason, to choose, it didn’t belong to her in that moment, tears wet in her eyes, as her being washed away and she was a little rabbit, running for the ladder back into the loft, where she should have been.
She crouched on the far side of her bed, fists of soft linen in her hands as each footfall echoed in the home that had been hers. They spoke, soothing, kind words, the kinds of words you said to a chicken before you wrung it’s neck.
It was some rabbit part of her mind, terror and instinct that took her out her small window, up onto the roof.
“Come back, kitty,” one of them said, purring at her, his head stuck out her window, “Come one, honey. We just wanna have a little fun. You’ll love it!”
“Murderer,” she whispered.
“Kill’in an uppity niggers just taken care of things. You ain’t no uppity nigger, are you?”
“Podex perfectus es,” she hissed, feeling her humanity come back with the Latin words, “My Uncle Alan taught me to read and write in English, Latin, and French. What’d your daddy teach you?”
“Come here you uppity little nigger bitch,” he snarled.
She stood up straight, the twilight giving way to the first stars and with Mars and Venus glittering above her she sneered. “May the Grace of God be upon you.”
Not knowing if she could do it or not, she jumped from the roof, running towards the back. Some part of her was still the rabbit, running for the only safe hole she could even imagine.
It didn’t take long for them to be after her in their big red truck, hooping and hollering like they were chasing down a fox. A bullet kicked up the dirt next her and she ran faster, ran with all she had.
“Don’t do that,” one of the boys hollered. “Don’t wanna stick my dick in a corpse! Kill’er after we’re done!”
And then as if it were one of the stories Uncle told she was right up against an invisible glass. Warm under her hands, she remembered touching it as a child and being yelled at it for it.
Don’t look at him. Don’t talk to him. Don’t go near him. Don’t ever, ever go into his forest.
“Hello!” she called, sobbing again, banging on the warm invisible wall, “Hello! Are you there? Is anyone there? I need your help!”
There he was.
She stepped back, eyes wide, skin suddenly cold. As the wall dropped away like falling flour, there he was. Tall, with eyes like emeralds, angelic eyes that one mustn’t ever look into. His face was beautiful, sculpted of the palest marble like in the book of ancient Greek sculpture, but his lips were rosy, curved like a woman’s soft and she could imagine kissing them. There was a scent of roses, powerful as summer roses.
He wore strange clothes, like a man’s undershirt and then blue work pants that were too thin, flowy. When his lips parted, drawing breath to speak, she wanted to turn and run back towards the town boys, but somehow his moving hand, long elegant fingers, skin too pale to be alive, yet beautiful as a fairy king, he gestured and she walked to him, chest rising and falling with her panting breaths.
Those long fingers were cool as they brushed across her burning cheek, hot from running. “You were supposed to go to Paris.”
“Next week,” she whispered, breathless. “What are you?”
He leaned very close, so those cool lips could brush against her ear as he spoke, “I’m a bad man. Welcome to my house. Did they kill him again?”
“They killed him,” she said sobbing, hands on her face. “Oh god!”
“There, there,” the king of the fairies said awkwardly, patting her on the back. “Tomorrow this will all just be a bad dream, Katherine.” He gestured and she walked into the dark forest, past the tall pale trees. As soon as she was a few steps in, he gave his attention to the red truck, giving her back some of her free will.
He held out his hands to the boys, welcoming them. The rush of desire that came of the beautiful blond man hit her like a heat wave coming off an oven.
“Welcome to my house, boys. Come inside. We’re going to have so very much fun,” he said, summoning them with those long almost boney fingers. “Come boys, come inside. Everything you want is in here.”
Freckles seemed to hesitate, holding on to the mirror of the truck. “No! Shit! Don’t go in there!”
The rest of the boys had disappeared into the darkness between the trees, wandering forwards as if they were now little mechanical boys.
Fear held her in her place though, hands on the smooth birch tree.
The last boy outside of the Will o”Wisp’s forest was the freckle faced boy who had shot Alan.
“Katherine,” the Will o”Wisp said, turning to look at her, which somehow washed her in the sweetest calm, gave her peace that she’d never known could exist. “Did he do anything bad?”
“He shot Uncle Alan in the face,” she whispered so low she didn’t think anyone could hear, but apparently the Will o’Wisp could hear everything.
The calm held her, though it felt utterly unnatural. Just as she’d been a frightened running bunny, now she was the eagle so far away, detached,
His next words were ice, decaying flesh, they were the whisper of ache in a tooth before the pain starts, “Come here.”
The boy walked forward, eyes wide, so white that she could see more white than iris. He wet himself and he kept walking, the echo of those fetid words touching everything, drawing him like barbed wire puppet strings.
The invisible wall closed behind him and freckles spun, palms smacking against the impossible barrier. He started to bang on it, yelling for help, but there was no one. The only one that might even have been able to help was Uncle Alan.
The Will o’Wisp raised both hands, those long fingers so slender they were really more talons than fingers. He looked over his shoulder, face flinching as he tried to smile.
In that moment, Kat understood insanity, what it was to see it in someone else, those green eyes, that pained attempt at a smile, the hunger and barely contained rage. “You should run dear,” he said, the same strange accent that Uncle Alan had had.
Behind her the screams began.