By Ben Serna-Grey
The man stood with one finger held to his lips in an unspoken hush. He pulled his other hand from behind his back and opened it in front of the two girls, revealing a tiny green feather that caught whatever small amount of light there was in the darkening sky and fiercely threw it back. The man smiled at the two girls, revealing a set of crooked, heavily yellowed teeth. Then, holding the feather between his thumb and index finger, he handed it over to the youngest of the two girls. She blushed and murmured a thank-you, quickly pressing the feather to her chest and closing her eyes as a strong arm of cold wind pushed past her. When she opened her eyes, the man was gone.
The sisters walked back through the woods toward the wagon, hoping dinner was ready. Once in awhile, they would look at one another. “I think we should hide this from Nana,” said Addie, the youngest. Ena, the oldest, gave a slow nod.
“Yes. Nana would take it and give us a speech on trinkets and their power.” Ena held out her pinky. Addie wrapped her pinky around Ena’s, and both girls put their mouths up to their hands, whispering a promise to hide and keep safe their little feather, tightening their pinkies’ grip for a moment before releasing their hands and smiling at each other.
Hot vegetable soup and fresh bread were waiting for the girls when they arrived at Nana’s wagon. The old woman was sitting inside, throwing dice and reading a young man’s palm. The girls walked over to the fire pit behind the wagon and served themselves. The bread was hot and crusty, the kind that steams when you tear it open and cuts your mouth as you chew. The girls smiled as they ate, and their Nana came and sat down with a groan when they were halfway done with their bowls.
“That boy’s going to get his heart broken. Girl doesn’t love him, just wants to use him. ‘Course young men in the throes of first love never listen to old hags like me.” She sighed as she reached over for her bowl and spoon, tearing off a hunk of bread and plopping it into the soup to soak. “So how was your walk in the forest?
“It was good, Nana. The flowers are wilting, but we saw the birds flying south and foxes beginning to turn white,” said Ena.
“That’s nice,” said Nana, drinking down her broth before chewing her soggy lump of bread. She swallowed and let out a relieved breath. “Alright girls, I’ll be heading to bed. Do the same soon, y’hear?” The girls nodded, walking up into the wagon and pulling out a book from a chest at the foot of their bed before sitting down and reading together until their Nana grumbled at them to put the candle out and go to sleep already.
The girls were woken by the hacking cough of their Nana, who occasionally leaned over and spat blood into a bucket near her bed. “Girls,” she said, beckoning them over with a weak motion of her hand, “I need to stay in bed today it seems. You go out and gather these herbs for me, for tea.” She pressed a sheet of paper into the Ena’s hands and shooed both of them out of the wagon before lying back down with a wheeze.
The girls walked through the forest, putting various herbs into a basket, scratching a line through each item they got on the list with a fingernail. Both girls knelt down on their hands and knees to pick several stems of wild mint. After they placed the mint in the basket, they looked up to see a boy and girl standing in front of them, wearing smiles that made both the sisters’ hearts pitter-patter. The girl held her hand out to Ena, who hesitantly took it, and likewise the boy held out his hand for Addie. They ran through the forest laughing and giggling and playing hide-and-go-seek before tumbling down into the leaves that carpeted the forest, out of breath. The girl leaned over Ena and tentatively planted a kiss on her lips. Ena returned the kiss in kind, her heart beginning to pound so hard she could feel her body lifting off of the ground with each beat. The boy leaned over to the Addie and kissed her, and she wrapped her trembling arms around him and felt her throat begin to tighten up as she smiled and closed her eyes. When the two sisters opened their eyes the boy and girl were gone, nowhere to be seen. The two girls looked at one another and Ena buried her face into her hands, utterly embarrassed and feeling a hot red flush rise to her face.
Shakily the two girls got to their feet, and found their basket. Addie pulled the feather out from a deep pocket in her apron. The feather was now a dull black on one half, the other side slowly dimming. She uneasily tucked the feather back into her apron pocket. The girls gathered the rest of the herbs and returned to the wagon.
When they returned, they were unable to find their Nana. They turned the wagon inside-out, calling for her. The bed, where she had been lying, was still warm, and a cup of tea was steaming on a table at the foot of the bed. The wagon had fallen silent, all the animals shivering in their cages and jumping with fright whenever the girls got close. The girls headed outside and started making their way to the back of the wagon, where a fresh, thin plume of smoke was rising. Standing at the fire pit, smiling with his crooked, yellowed teeth, was the man who had given the two girls the feather.