A Song for the Season
by Eliza Hirsch
The sun came out today, and for the first time in five months our song returned. It changes once every three years. This time, the melody sounds slower, a little bit sad. Long, low notes shake my chest when I stand too close to the forest’s edge. The last song was a bright, energetic tune; before that it was like water tumbling over rocks in a wild river. Each song was as unique as the girl who gave their life for them.
I worked in the garden, stringing twine for a pea trellis, listening to the song and basking in the warmth of the sun. Louder than the wistful tune was the sound of my younger brother, Allard, chopping wood along the side of the house. Our parents were in town, mother checking on the winter’s newborns while father delivered bread to neighbors. Spring had come at last, and we were happy to be outside.
We were not the only ones. Allard’s axe stopped swinging and fell to the ground with a thunk. I looked up from my knot work as he shouted out a greeting. A familiar voice answered him and I dropped my twine, eager to see the face I had missed so much during the cold months.
“Lily!” I shouted, running to meet my friend, nearly colliding with Allard. She had a basket of onions in one hand, and a brilliant smile on her face. She wore a plain white dress and a brown shawl wrapped around her shoulders, but her golden hair caught the sun and shimmered, so she looked topped in precious metals. I wiped my hands on my skirt and pushed around my brother.
“You’re so pale,” Lily exclaimed, and kissed me on the cheek. I tried not to blush at the feel of her lips. Failing that, I turned away from Allard’s prying eyes and instead took Lily’s basket.
“And you’re so pink,” I said, brushing some of the dirt from the onions’ papery skin.
“Ho, there, Lily,” Allard walked over to us, swinging his axe in a casual, low arc. “Glad to see you haven’t frozen this winter.”
“No one ever freezes, Allard,” I said, moving to go inside.
As we passed him I noticed his eyes linger on Lily, and I thought I saw a trace of flush on his cheeks. He glared at me and muttered, “You might freeze if I lock you out in the snow.”
“He’s grown,” Lily said once we were inside. I shrugged; I didn’t care what Allard did, as long as he stayed more or less out of my way. I set the onions on the kitchen table and crossed to the window where I could see my trellis and the fat, gloating sun. I closed my eyes and sighed.
“Isn’t it lovely?” I said. “It feels like the final frost came a week early.”
“You say that every year,” Lily said, joining me at the window. Her arm brushed against mine. I unlatched the window and pushed it open to let in the air; with the air came the song, lilting over us like a cool wind. Lily slipped her arm around my waist, and I felt myself stiffen. But Allard’s axe was back at work, and I needn’t have worried about him walking in, seeing her so close to me. I allowed myself to relax into Lily’s embrace.
“It sounds so sad,” she said, leaning her head on my shoulder. I nodded, short of breath. I smelled the sweat on her skin, a slight tang that seemed to make the spring air that much sweeter.
“Neva didn’t want to go,” she said after a while, speaking of the girl who’d run away in the dead of winter. Lily tightened her grasp on my waist and turned her head, so her lips pressed against my neck. “I don’t want to go, either.”
A twig snapped outside and I jolted away from Lily, realizing that I could not hear the rhythmic thumping of Allard’s axe any longer. I peered out the window, but the only movement I saw came from the chicken run at the far end of the garden. I turned my attention to Lily, who was grinning at me as if I’d made a joke.
“Neva was silly and selfish,” I said, swallowing hard when my voice came out wavery. “It’s an honor to be chosen.”
Without one girl’s sacrifice, we would have no song; without the song, we would have no water and no crops. We would have no spring.
We would have no life.
“Do you believe what the elders say, about what happens to the girls?” Lily asked after a while.
“I have no reason not to trust them,” I said as I brushed a stray piece of hair off her forehead. They said that the chosen girl would protect and cultivate the village’s crop for three years. Then, when her time was through, she would be released into the body of a woodland creature, free to come and go as she pleased.
They also said a man loving another man, or a woman loving another woman, was a thing most unnatural. But I loved my parents, and I loved my people; if I could not have Lily for my own—and I could not, even if she craved me, too—then I wanted to serve the village. I hoped I would be chosen.
Lily nodded, still gazing into the garden. We would blossom into womanhood this year, along with several others. When the first snow came one of us would be taken. Lily’s father, the smithy, would craft a statue in the chosen girl’s form, to be placed in the clearing on the outskirts, near the edge of the forest. I’d never seen him work on the statues, or seen them delivered to the clearing, but every year, without fail, a new statue would be erected. My mother still left flowers at the statue of the girl taken in her year. I wondered if Lily would leave flowers for me.
“Come on,” Lily said, pulling the window shut a bit harder than necessary. “Lets put away those onions, and then you can show me this project you’ve been working on all winter.”
We put the onions in the pantry and I led her back to the room I shared with Allard. It was simple: two narrow beds, a few shelves tacked into the walls near the ceiling and a crude dresser full of clothing and towels for the kitchen. Lily sat on my bed and watched as I stepped up next to her, incautious of my dusty shoes, and took my bag of embroidery off the shelf.
“Here,” I said, pulling out a length of dark blue cloth as I sat next to her. “It isn’t finished, yet.”
She took the bundle, stood, and shook it out. My hoop was still secured to one corner, needle and thread dangling close to the floor. I’d stitched tiny starbursts around the edge, and a series of waxing and waning moons in the center, all from the off-white thread the village’s shepherdess spun. I tucked my hands beneath my thighs, waiting for Lily to say something.
“Oh, Charlotte,” she said finally, sounding breathy. “It’s beautiful.”
I felt my cheeks warm and, before I could think better of it, spouted: “I made it for you. Making it…I mean, because…” I made a helpless motion toward my embroidery hoop.
Lily lowered the cloth and stared at me with wide eyes. I met her gaze for half a heartbeat, and then focused on the floor, on the renewed sound of Allard’s axe, on the weight of my legs against my fingers; anything that wasn’t Lily.
I shrugged. Then she was on me, the tapestry clutched in one hand as she hugged me, hard. Her hair tickled my nose. I closed my eyes, etching the moment in my memory before she released me. Her lip quivered when she looked at me next. She rubbed the cloth between thumb and forefinger. “I might…what if I’m taken? You shouldn’t have–“
“You won’t be chosen,” I said, sounding only slightly more sure than I felt.
The odds were in favor of her being left untouched by the collector. Despite her golden hair and her sky-blue eyes, Lily was rather plain. Her mouth too wide, her jaw too soft. She was vivacious, but the collector would not know that, since he–or it, I wasn’t quite sure–stayed in the woods except for the night of the first snow. The other girls had all been beautiful and slight. Which, I thought, made my own chances fairly good.
Lily didn’t see things this way.
“You can’t know that” she said. “And besides, it would be just as bad if he stole you. How could I live without you around?” She sat back on the bed and rolled her eyes, while my heart beat in my throat. “I would be so bored.”
I laughed, and threw the bag with my thread and needles at her, all the while wondering if her chest ached as deep as my own.
That night, like most nights that winter, I dreamt about Lily.
I stood in the clearing, surrounded by the statues of the song girls. The different metals they’d been cast from gleamed red and gold and orange. They wore wraps about their shoulders; similar to the embroidery piece I’d been making for Lily. These cloths, however, were all different colors and designs. To my left a statue with long, moss-covered hair wore a green shawl decorated with blooming irises; past her, on a statue wearing a long, flowing skirt, hung a wrap the color of the sky, covered with fish and odd designs that looked like spiraled rocks.
In my dream the sun was just setting, turning the sky into a riot of colors that rivaled those of the song girls. The air was warm and dry, like it got during August and September. I had my embroidery piece in my arms; the thread glinted and shimmered with real moonlight.
Behind me, I heard the sound of footsteps. I did not turn. Soon I felt cool hands sliding over my shoulders and moist breath on my neck.
“You came,” Lily said. I nodded. Even in my dreams she stole my voice. She turned me around gently, took the cloth out of my hands and wrapped it about herself so she looked like the statues. She stepped close, her bare toes covering my own, and leaned in. Her lips parted, her breath holding the sweetness of spring. I smiled, knowing what came next. It had been these dreams that held me through the cold months; the possibility that one day I might have courage enough to kiss her while we were awake.
This time something was different. A chill wind whipped up, making the wraps on the statues–and on Lily–crack like gunfire. Above us, the sky began to change, the pink and crimson streaks swirling into a colder gray. Dark, ominous clouds rushed in, threatening rain or snow.
Lily’s lips brushed mine. I wanted to drink in that kiss, but she pulled away and looked at the sky, mouth open. A single, prefect flake of snow spiraled down between us and landed on her tongue.
“He wants me,” she said, her eyes fixed on the path to the forest. Another flake fell and caught in her eyelash. It melted into a tear on her pale cheek. I reached out to her, wanting to comfort her, but my hands found only steel. When she spoke, her voice sounded like the clank of her father’s hammer on his anvil.
“Save me, Charlotte.”
I was helpless, unable to move; I watched Lily become one of the statues, her golden hair worked from strips of brass, her eyes shining like copper coins.
When I woke, Allard was glaring at me, propped up on his elbows.
“You were talking in your sleep again,” he said.
I rolled onto my side, put my back to him. The tendrils of the dream still caressed me, turning my heart cold and fearful. My dreams were usually so sweet, full of Lily’s touch–forbidden though it was–and ending always with a kiss as sweet as nectar. Had Lily’s words the day before affected me that much? Surely she did not mean them. It was natural to be worried about being chosen, but–
“What do you dream about, anyway?” When I didn’t answer, he said: “You kept saying Lily’s name.”
“Shut up, Allard,” I snapped. His laughter filled the room.
“Does Lily know you dream about her?” He got out of his bed and came to kneel on mine. “I bet she doesn’t. I bet she’d be disgusted if she knew what you did to her while you’re asleep.”
“Get off!” I pressed my hands to the wall and kicked out backwards. My heels connected with his ribs and he yelped, scrambling away from me.
“I hope you get chosen, you stupid brat. With you out of the way Lily won’t have anyone around to give her such faithless ideas.”
I turned to him. He wore only a nightshirt and a pair of linen sleep pants; his straw-colored hair was in disarray, his mouth set in a leering grin.
“Oh, I heard everything. She doesn’t want to be chosen. She’d rather us all die–right now, anyway. You’re a bad influence, I think. You–“
“I told her she shouldn’t feel those things,” I protested. Allard shook his head.
“I didn’t hear anything like that.” He glanced at the door as our mother walked past, her shuffling gait so familiar to us both. He crept closer to me, and lowered his voice. “I could get you both in a lot of trouble. But you’re my sister, so I’ll be nice.”
He held up his hand to silence me. “On one condition. You tell her…” He paused, his thumb pressed to pursed lips. Then, “Tell her I’m strong and capable and–and kind. She’ll like that. It will make things easier when Pa arranges our marriage with the smithy.”
“What?” Lily hadn’t been promised to any man, much less Allard.
“Don’t act stupid,” he said, pulling his shoulders back and sneering down at me. “I was supposed to have Neva, but she ran off. I need someone to fill my house with children.”
I could scarce understand his meaning. Allard bore no hair upon his chin or chest; his arms were still thin, lacking the strength of manhood. And yet he spoke of Lily like they were already betrothed.
But he was right. I’d been stupid not to see. And it only made sense, since Lily was my friend, and closer to Allard than any other girl in the village. The thought made my eyes burn. I pressed my face to my pillow, hoping in vain he would leave me.
“You should just leave her alone,” he said. “I’ll show her myself what a good husband I’ll make.” He smacked my shoulder. “Yeah. You don’t talk to her anymore, unless I’m around, or I’ll tell Papa you’re planning to run.”
“That’s not true!” I flipped over. Allard fell off my bed. He scrambled to his feet, face red, hand raised as if to hit me.
Then our mother called from the kitchen, summoning us to breakfast. Allard turned on his heel and strode out, leaving me shivering beneath my blankets, which felt suddenly too thin, despite the warm sun pouring through the window
I avoided Lily that day, and the next. On the third day she cornered me in our barn, stepping into my light as I cleaned out the damp hay.
“Why doesn’t Allard do this?” she said. I stabbed my pitchfork into a pile and together we watched it droop to the ground.
“Allard went in with our father to prepare for planting,” I said. Lily snorted.
“Sure, and they won’t come back smelling like spirits, right?” She yanked the pitchfork out of the hay and twirled it about, looking at the tines. They were dull; Allard had taken the newer pitchfork and his axe to town for sharpening, leaving me the blunted fork for chores.
Lily let out a low whistle, and I had to look away so I didn’t stare at those lips. The dream of her, and the statues, and her cold metal skin hadn’t returned; the dreams of her kissing me…her hands in my hair–those returned in force. I woke every morning to Allard’s warnings.
“I’m real busy, Lily,” I said, nudging the hay with the toe of my boot. “If I don’t get this done before–“
“Oh, hang ’em,” Lily said. She dropped the pitchfork and grabbed my hand. Her skin was dry, warm; I knew in that instant I would betray my word to Allard, and gladly. “Let’s go to the river. It’s climbing up the banks, since the snow’s melting.”
We would have to walk straight through the center of the village, past the mill and the public house alike, to reach the river. I had to think fast.
“The statues,” I blurted, when she’d started to drag me away. The clearing was just a little ways from the house, far enough to be away from my work, but not so close to town as to risk running across Allard’s path. Lily frowned.
“Why there? It’s so gloomy,” she said. I smiled, remembering my dreams, and their utter lack of gloom.
“The water will be ice cold,” I said. “And I think there will be songbirds in the trees around the statues.”
Her expression lightened a little. “Birds? So soon?”
I nodded. “I heard some this morning when I woke.” Though in truth, it hadn’t been birds, but the sound of the girl’s song grown unnaturally loud. It had faded in the hours since; still, the melody hummed in my ears.
We walked together, a little ways apart, down the muddy path that led from our house toward the village. We passed a shabby red cottage after a few minutes, and paused to exchange a few words with the woman of the house, Lettie Perkins, before hurrying on. We saw no one on the path between the Perkins’ house and the turn off to the statue garden. By the time we reached the edge of the clearing our boots were caked in mud, and the hems of our skirts were heavy with damp and dirt. I stripped down to my shorts, and Lily did the same. We left our skirts and boots and stockings to dry in the sun, draped across the outstretched arms of the statue nearest the path. We wandered in silence through the outer rings of girls and I was reminded of my dream.
Here was the statue of the girl whose hair had been shorn close to her scalp before being chosen; her head was smooth and gray. A little further along was a girl who looked like she must have been eight when chosen, so short she was—her head not even to my shoulder; when I’d asked my mother about her youth she’d laughed and told me only girls of age were ever chosen. In the center of the clearing, set apart from the other statues by a few yards on every side, stood the first song girl.
She wore a skirt that draped around her legs, the folds of the cloth so finely rendered it looked as if it might in a soft breeze. Upon her brow lay a wreath of holly, each leaf stamped with veins and imperfections. Her cheeks were smooth and full, her eyes closed in serene acceptance, her hands upturned as if taking–or giving–something divine. I stood, arrested by the sight of her gleaming in the sun.
“She’s glowing,” Lily said, coming to stand by my side. Her hand brushed against mine; I held very still. Again, she brushed me. “Charlotte…”
I turned my head very slowly. She wasn’t staring at the statue; she was staring at me. My mouth went dry, and I struggled to swallow past the sudden knot in my throat.
“I can’t be like them,” she said. I opened my mouth, meaning to speak, but Lily shook her head. “My mother says it’s an honor, and it wasn’t long ago that I believed that–embraced it even. Charlotte…” She closed what little distance there was between us. I smelled her sweat where it clung to the thin fabric of her underclothes. I shivered; my hands clenched into tight fists. “There are some things I cannot leave behind.”
“You would not be…” Unthinking, I rose up on my toes so our eyes were level, then leaned in and kissed her.
The world disappeared. My dreams were mere shadows of this moment. I had always imagined her lips would be soft, but this was like pressing warm silk to my mouth. Her hair tickled my face, wafted toward me in the breeze. My hands unclenched and slid around her full hips and onto her back, which she arched against me. I felt my sanity drain away. In that moment I understood with sudden, crystal clarity that I could not leave her. Not for Allard or the village or for anyone else. Not even for my own parents, who’d bred me and borne me.
I belonged to her.
It was not until I felt a searing pain in my calf that I realized we were not alone.
Lily screamed; I collapsed, an odd tugging sensation in my leg. I twisted as I landed and saw Allard standing behind me, his hands wrapped around the handle of the pitchfork he’d taken for sharpening. His face was flushed, his mouth hung open and his eyes were wide with–fear? Or triumph?
“Lettie told me I’d find you here.” He yanked the pitchfork out of my leg. I felt the metal tine scrape against bone, and a flood of black threatened to overcome me. I held on to the sound of Lily’s cries, trying to stay conscious. If Allard went after her–I wrenched my eyes open and saw Allard lower his weapon.
“I didn’t mean to…I told you to stay away from her.” He spoke as if pleading with me, staring at my leg. I rolled onto my back, teeth clamped together to hold in a scream of pain.
“And I told you–you can’t threaten me,” I said, though it took most of my strength to do so. Allard’s mouth twisted. He tightened his grip on the pitchfork and brought it up, threatening me. A flutter of movement to my side caught my attention, and his as well.
Lily was a blur of white cotton, a streak of rage. She threw herself at Allard, hands twisted into claws. He reacted with what I assume was instinct, raising the pitchfork to ward her off. The tines split her flimsy shirt and sank into her stomach without resistance.
Allard let go of the handle. He stumbled back, his skin ashen, until his feet hit the bottom of the statues. Lily’s breath was shallow. She blinked up at the clear blue sky. She smiled, sort of; more a twist of her lips–which I saw now had never been too wide or too full or anything other than perfect. Around us, the song grew louder. The tune surged through us, Lily and I, connecting us like a weaver connects strands of thread to make cloth. I moved carefully, adjusting until I held Lily in my lap. The pitchfork leaned ominously and I wrapped my hand around that wicked handle to hold it still.
“Oh, god…oh, god–she wasn’t–” Allard’s voice came out shrill. “You shouldn’t have–“
“Quiet,” I said. “Just be quiet.”
Lily took one last, shuddering breath, and grew quite still. I began to shiver, cold seeping from my belly into my heart, into my limbs. Allard had said he might freeze me come winter; his threat had not taken so long to bear fruit. I was ice. Lily’s warmth was my own, and without it I was sure I would die. My brother would bring the village council and find us motionless at the feet of the first song girl. I kept my gaze on Lily’s face; if I was going to die, I wanted her to be the last thing I saw.
Through the rising melody, I heard footsteps; I did not look up. I heard a screaming wrench of metal; I did not look up. I heard a hundred voices join in the song that poured forth from the forest, and still I did not look away from Lily’s clouding eyes. Not until I heard Allard shriek did I tear my eyes from her face, and what I saw forced a gasp of astonishment into my frigid lungs.
All around me the clearing was moving. The girl we’d passed with the smooth head walked by me; her copper arms jerked as she closed in on my brother. All of them, from the oldest rusted statue to the gleaming steel of the current song girl, moved into an ever-smaller circle around him. They did not move as a human might, but twitched their limbs slowly, like ancient gears Still, I saw in them something of the girls they’d once been; a hint of a smile, a turn of the wrist. The smithy had not made these statues at all.
Soon, their skirts and arms and hair enveloped him, and the only thing I had left of my brother was his screams, which I could not enjoy.
I buried my face in Lily’s hair. My chest felt heavy, as if a leaden weight had been placed upon my heart. This was love, I knew, and guilt, in equal measures.
I don’t know how long I stayed there, unmoving. Allard’s cries had ended, at least, and my back was sore from crouching over Lily. When I felt her stir, I was sure I’d lost my mind. My arms contracted around her as I wrenched my head up so that I could see the life twinkling once again through her eyes. I had been betrayed. She was dead. What, then, had happened? My gaze travelled away from Lily, over the clearing. I saw that the statues had resumed their normal positions, except for one difference. Before, they had faced in seemingly random directions, their orientation left up to the whim of their creator. Now, however, they all faced inward, toward Lily and me and the original song girl, who knelt before me.
She moved with the same unnatural trembling I’d seen in the other statues as she pulled the pitchfork from Lily’s abdomen and tossed it aside. Blood pooled in the open wounds. I watched without moving and without protest as the song girl slid one arm beneath Lily’s shoulders and the other into the bend of her knees. Then she stood, taking Lily with her, and walked the few steps back to her home, in the middle of the clearing.
The transformation happened much the same way it had in my dream: Lily’s skin hardened and took on a silvery sheen; her hair froze into tangles of thin wire; the folds of her clothes became rigid and immutable. She was steel, gleaming and perfect but for the stain of rust on her stomach, which I feared no amount of scrubbing could remove. The statue settled into her final position, with Lily in her arms.
That summer, Lily gave us her song.
The flowers that bloomed were streaked with red, but my peas grew sweeter than ever.