The First, the Second, the Third
by Katherine Kendig
In the winter, the mornings are colder inside than out. Lily sings at the window, her voice wending its way toward the barn, the willow grove, the creek, as pure as the snow it floats over. Her breath frosts as she sings, her gaze fixed on the horizon where the church is the only part of town we can see. Margot huddles in bed, her hair tousled over her face, shivering. Margot has never been able to stand the cold.
“Celia,” she says to me, lifting the blanket a little so I can crawl in beside her. We lie side by side and listen to Lily sing until our stomachs rumble and we go downstairs to make breakfast. Lily refuses to sing while she is working, but she hums under her breath as she makes porridge, and in my mind I am humming too. Margot insists on having jam with breakfast every day, even though she knows the jam will run out long before spring. Lily insists on reserving a jar of rhubarb for herself, so that she can savor it on special occasions, long after Margot has devoured the rest of it.
I don’t care much about the jam. I begrudge my tongue its sweetness.
Three is that kind of number, isn’t it? If this were a fairytale – which it is – everything would come in threes, but only one of every three would be important.
My sisters and I each hope we are the important one. Lily with her voice like spun gold, Margot with her scars; and I, I with my silence. Our tale will be a tale of three sisters, and when it begins, we know that our fates will be cast and whoever is the last of us to seek her fortune will find it. That is the way of these stories.
There is a version of this tale where people think Lily is secretly a princess, or at least destined to be. In that version Lily’s sweet voice charms the birds and stills the villagers at their tasks, even miles away, where it should be too far to hear. Lily’s skin is pale, paler against her dark hair, and people say she sings like a mountain brook or a sunset. At our parents’ funeral, they say, people could hear the souls of the dead weeping at her song.
In this version Margot and I are merely younger sisters, burdens on Lily’s thin frame, distractions. Every morning she sings to us and makes us breakfast and watches us eat the food her work has earned us. Every afternoon she mends the villagers’ clothes – work they could do themselves; would do themselves, if it weren’t for her voice. At the end of each week Lily bundles the clothes on her back and walks into town in a threadbare cloak. When she returns, Margot asks her if she’s brought home any sweets, and I don’t look up from my drawings to greet her. And Lily, with her sore feet, and her cold hands, tries to imagine that one day things will be different but can’t.
Until: one day there is a snowstorm and Margot has eaten the last of the jam and begs Lily for some of hers, and they fight over the jar until it shatters on the floor, and wiping angry tears Lily bundles her mended clothes and goes out into the storm without thinking.
The snow is blinding, but Lily doesn’t notice because her tears, near-freezing, have already obscured her vision; and anyway, her boots know the way to town better than her eyes. And yet, when she has calmed down, she looks up to see how far she is from the church and cannot see the church at all; and when she spins in a slow circle, she still can’t see it, or anything else. At first she’s irritated at having to retrace her steps and go home to selfish, sullen sisters. But as she follows her footsteps they slowly disappear, until she can see nothing but whiteness, nothing but the swirl of the wind bearing more snow onto the ground.
Lily is too smart to strike out without knowing where she’s going, but as she stands still, shivering, with her pulse beating fast and loose, the snow is already piling up on her hood and her shoulders. It’s too cold to stay still, so she walks, trying to walk in circles so she won’t get too far away from wherever she is.
Every so often she calls out, in case someone can hear her. She calls to the cartsman who sometimes passes our way, to the priest, and even to Margot, but there are no answers.
Finally, Lily comes upon towering trees, maybe the woods near the miller, maybe the big forest, and she stumbles under the broad boughs of an evergreen where it is pitch dark and the silence echoes in her frozen ears, and the snow has not yet fully carpeted the ground. Lily puts on all the clothes she has bundled on her back and even though she knows she shouldn’t, she goes to sleep.
There is a version of this tale in which Margot’s scars matter more than all the rest of Margot. A version where Lily’s skin is pale and flawless, and my skin is rosy and smooth, and in town they say Ah, that Lily is a beauty, and young Celia will grow to be one soon. A shame about Margot, they say, looking at her sidelong or not at all. And just weeks after the accident, even before our parents are gone, Margot stops leaving the house, and lets her hair curl around her face like ivy. Bold, brave, curious Margot, who used to take me wandering — always further than our parents allowed — now takes refuge in warm blankets and sweet jam and the barn cat that roams the meadow, which cannot tell one human face from another.
Margot knows what she looks like, or thinks she does, even though she hasn’t used a mirror. She thinks she can see it in our eyes, the way Lily purses her lips and I unconsciously rub the same spots on my own skin where hers is puckered and raw. She still remembers yanking me into her arms and holding me close, tucking my head into her neck, and blood falling into her eyes as she ran and ran and ran, until we were home. She still remembers the feel of the cuts, although time and fear and silence have made her forget if it was wolves or men who tore her skin when she wouldn’t let them take me – wolves, or men, or both.
In this version of the tale winter passes to spring, almost, and the first of the snowdrops have made themselves known when Margot sees the gleaming white thread running from the young maple near the house into the meadow, where the grasses seem sad in the lingering snow. The thread seems to jump and dance, and over the whistle of the wind my sister thinks she hears the plaintive cry of a creature in pain. A cat, maybe.
Bold Margot, brave Margot, curious Margot, who has not been these things since she saved my life and marred her own, feels something jump to life in her blood. She glances over at Lily – sleeping in her chair mid-stitch – and puts aside her broom. Lily will yell at her later, but Lily always yells at her.
The thread is smooth and cold as it moves through her fingers, and as she walks into the meadow she feels the intermittent tug on it, a thrashing that grows more pronounced as she nears the edge of the grass, where the land slopes down to the creek. There are three – four – boys gathered on the bank, village brutes. They’re laughing, which is never a good sign.
Instinctively Margot has dropped to her knees, still in the grass. She hates these boys, whichever boys they are; if she turns around now, she can escape, run home, bolt the door, climb in bed. Unseen. Her body pulls her backwards. Quietly, she thinks.
But then she glimpses the cat, and her scars throb to life. Warning her. There’s nothing you can do, Margot tries to tell herself. But Margot knows better – bold Margot, brave Margot, curious Margot.
There is a version of this tale in which I am cursed.
My father went to the city to ply his trade of brick and stone one hot summer while my mother stayed home and I grew inside her, and when he returned with a face like a bolted door he was followed a day later by a girl whose hopes were bundled in a pack and whose eyes shone with the promises he’d made her each long, hot day. My mother opened the door, her body stretched tight around me, and in the girl’s shocked glance was everything she hadn’t known, and in her rage was everything my father hadn’t told her. She looked past my mother to where my father stood in the shadows and told him he would regret his loose tongue and easy lies, and long after that girl dried her tears and married another and forgot all about my father, my tongue was still, and I did not speak.
In this telling of the tale, Margot is hardly more than a shape under the covers, and Lily’s sacrifices are turning to anger, hardening her movements, and while she still sings, her voice has an edge that constricts it. And I know that if I do nothing, Lily will leave us, and I will be alone.
To be silent is to be ignored – is to learn to be invisible. Without speech I have no way to tell people who I am, so they decide for me. In town I was always sweet silent Celia, until our parents’ funeral when I did not cry, and they began to wonder if I was indeed cursed, and said my eyes could wither wheat on its stalk. At home I am crazy Celia, staring at walls, drawing strange drawings, eating my porridge plain in tiny, mechanical bites. Lily told me once that she was scared of me, when I stood still for so long, staring at nothing. Lily, whose entire being is bound to the pitch and lilt of her voice, has never been able to reach across the distance between us; to her I am odd, and solitary, and must have a voice, that I simply haven’t figured out how to use. To Lily a voice is a soul.
It is summer again and hot, sticky, vile during the day but bearable after sunset, and so one night when the moon is full I walk out into the meadow to break the curse under its pale light, where magic is strongest.
First I try saying my own name, over and over, my tongue dancing over my teeth, straining for sound. I sing Lily’s songs, the ones with high notes like stars, fragile and perfect, that could free anything able to be freed. Nothing.
Finally I scream. I scream with all the force of my lungs, face contorted, eyes tearing with the effort; but all that comes out is silence, so much silence that I choke on it.
Three times, three stories, Lily wakes up.
She wakes up in the darkness under a tree, bundled in other people’s clothes, frozen nearly half to death, her eyes too cold to weep.
She wakes up in the chair where she’s been dozing over a torn cloak and sees the broom propped against the wall and the back door left open, and when she calls Margot, there is no answer.
She wakes up in the middle of the night, startles to her feet, certain she hears screaming, even though the night is quiet. The moon is full.
Lily can still feel her fingers, dug beneath her arms, but she can’t feel the arms; and her toes are both numb and aching. In this version of the tale, she thinks she will freeze to death, and soon.
Lily thinks of getting up and moving but knows she can’t. A song comes to her lips, too cold to be sung; but her lungs remember how to prepare for the first note, and a little pitched breath comes out of her, and it feels like warmth. She manages a little hum, and it feels like light in the darkness. One last song, she thinks, and her voice starts to thread out of her, jagged and numb and stumbling. With each true note she is a little thawed, and with the thaw the notes get truer until finally her voice is soaring the way it usually does, rising up through the trees and making the wood hum, cutting through the wind like sunlight.
Lily is almost, almost, warm enough to stand. If she can make it to dawn, she thinks, she will be all right.
When she brought me home that first day, Margot felt like a savior, like a hero; her face stung but in her exhilaration it felt like pride, not pain. It wasn’t until Mother gasped in horror that Margot faltered, wasn’t until Mother slapped her bloody face and pulled me away that Margot felt sick inside.
It’s like that now, for Margot, in her version of the tale: the feeling that she has hit the ground, but her gut is still sinking, sinking, into some dark cavern where she wishes she could hide. The boys have tied the string around the cat’s neck, made it just long enough so that at full stretch the cat is in the creek, which is deep now, swollen with floodwaters. The tormentors are lined up on the bank, poking the half-drowned creature back into the current each time it tries to scramble onto dry land.
Margot likes to think she has a choice. That she could still go back and pretend she hasn’t seen this. It’s just a cat. It will be over soon. But of course she has no choice. She stands up, the breeze blowing in the worst direction, so that her hair is away from her face and her scars are full to the light.
“Stop,” she says, loud, frightened, and the boys turn to her, the smallest of them her size, the biggest of them as thick as a tree trunk. She knows they’ll throw her in the creek. She knows that will only be the beginning, sees it in the shock turning to delight on their faces as they take in her scars. She knows they’ll chase her if she runs.
Margot never cries. She hates the idea of tears running over her uneven skin, the idea of having to touch her own face to wipe them away. Since the blood first dried, she hasn’t wept, and she won’t start now.
I had never defended Margot. I was too young to separate terrors; when I looked at Margot I saw the places where blood still shone at the surface, the horrible way her skin wrinkled at the edges, and I cried and hid my face as if I were looking on the wolves that had attacked me. (I remember the attackers. They were wolves – but sometimes wolves are men, in lonely places, in difficult times.)
Our parents died believing that somehow Margot’s recklessness had put me in danger, her own carelessness had ruined her face. They couldn’t face any other truth, any greater fear. Bold Margot, brave Margot, curious Margot.
Lily shakes my shoulder to get my attention.
“Margot,” she explains, when I frown at her.
I get my cloak.
After Lily storms out, Margot spends an hour on her hands and knees, picking up the broken shards of the jar. She rescues what jam she can and puts it in a little bowl, scrubbing the rest off the floorboards. It will leave a permanent stain and she knows it, but still she scrubs at it, her face lowered and shielded by hair. I can see her shame at the back of her neck, where the smooth skin is flushed. I know she wishes she could grow more rhubarb, make the jam herself, give Lily a hundred jars and not ask for a drop.
When Margot finally gives up on the floor she glances out the same window I’ve been staring out all day and sees what I have not: that the snow is high, thick, swirling, and darkening the day prematurely. She frowns, squints out further, as if she might see Lily coming back just now – although it’s both too early and too late for that.
Her skin is pale, now, almost as pale as Lily’s.
When I stop screaming, my heart pounding and my head aching for breath, I drop to my knees in the tall grass. The wind stirs the meadow to a whisper, mocking me – even the meadow can say this much; even the wind can speak. The meadow shushes in the shape of my name.
I look up at the moon and see that it has darkened, its buttery light now ruddy, the color of dried blood. I look down at my hands, limp in my lap, bathed in bloody moonlight, and suddenly I feel a flutter in my throat, like a moth beating against a windowpane, wanting to be free.
I raise my fingers to touch that fragile movement and wonder if Lily has been right all along. Has my voice been caged in bone and blood, half-dead, woken now by the moon? Needing, perhaps, only a tiny tear – a hole just big enough to escape? A little bit of blood, for a voice; I would take that trade any day. Now, the wind says.
My fingers shake as I take out the little knife I use to sharpen my drawing pencils, hoping it is sharp enough, wondering for a moment if I should try tomorrow night instead – but I can’t. There is the moon, full, red, waiting. I will break the curse under this moon or not at all.
There are versions of this story where Lily is found by a wandering prince, who heard her song before even she sang it; where Margot is rescued by forest animals, and weeps away her scars; where my voice flutters free from me, a newborn spirit, and I catch it and swallow it and speak in tones of meadow and moonlight. There are versions of this tale in which Lily becomes a princess far away, I a storyteller, and Margot a hero; but I cannot see my way to telling these versions. This is a tale of three sisters, and only as a tale of three sisters can it be true.
Margot puts on her boots and then, hesitantly, reaches for our father’s snowshoes. None of us have ever used them – none of us have ever needed them. I help her tie the ties.
She stands up, face flushed around her scars, eyes wide. Lily should have been home hours ago, if she were coming at all. Margot grabs the lantern and gives me a swift, one-armed hug.
The sky is dark but the snow has lessened – with the lantern, Margot will be able to see her way to town. I watch from the window as she takes determined, ungainly steps, the lantern swinging in her hand, casting wild shadows. In the darkness, Margot will look grotesque as she approaches the town, ugly and clumsy and monstrous. She knows this.
I put my finger to the frosted pane and draw a little circle around Margot’s retreating figure. Protection. Then I draw another circle around the whole window. For Lily.
I’m the one who notices the footprints, because Lily is busy scanning the meadow for a glimpse of red hair. I’m the one who sees the string. I tug on Lily’s hand and we follow the thread until a sopping, terrorized cat runs past, nearly knocking Lily over.
Margot’s cries follow on the footsteps of the cat, and Lily and I push toward the creek with dread in our steps.
When we hear the taunts of the boys – the smack of the blows – Lily pulls me down and we crawl through the grass until we can see what’s happening.
Margot is dripping wet, as sodden as the cat, shivering in the wind, which still holds the bite of winter. They’ve surrounded her, one on each side, armed with sticks and insults. Witch. Hag. Monster. She tries to bring her arms up to defend herself as they take turns swiping and stabbing at her, but she can only move so fast, and her wet clothes drag. Her face is bleeding. Each blow brings a cry to her lips, no matter how tightly she tries to keep them pressed together.
Lily’s hand is on my shoulder, squeezing too tight.
“We need to get help,” she whispers, but I shake my head. What help could we get, that wouldn’t take too long? Lily knows this.
I remember being in Margot’s arms as she ran, my eyes tight shut. I remember that her blood ran down her neck and onto my face. Mother slapped her because she thought I was dead. She thought Margot had let me die.
I wish Lily would make a plan, but she’s frozen in place, her lips drained white with fear. As we watch Margot sinks to her knees and then sits back heavily. She lowers her head and covers it. This only lets them kick her.
For a little while, Lily had thought that maybe singing would give her the strength to find her way home, but the strength she thought she had was an illusion; her voice swallowed it as fast as it grew. Her throat is raw, her lungs are ice. Her eyes are frozen shut, or maybe they are open, and the blackness is still that complete. There is a sound coming from somewhere nearby – a thick, slurred, crusty sound. Lily does not recognize it.
Her mind wanders – to her first songs, to our mother’s face, to the eye of a needle and the tiny, tiny fibers that prevent her from threading it – her mind sways, confused, thinks there is a needle to be threaded. Her fingers try to move but can’t. The sound continues, in the background. Lily waits for sleep, knowing that a jar of rhubarb jam is broken, knowing that if only she could thread the needle she could show how to sew, she could show…
That can’t be Margot. There is a voice that sounds like hers, somewhere – probably in Lily’s mind. She has clothes to mend, she needs to focus on—
There is a rustling in front of Lily, and a light. Her eyes are open after all.
A lantern dips under the branches, followed by an arm and a person, and then another. The slurring sound stops, and Lily realizes it was the remnant of her own voice, still singing.
One of the figures throws herself down next to Lily, draws back her hood. Margot. Surely not Margot, not with the cartsman, Margot hates people, and where is Celia? Margot who can’t be Margot strips off her gloves and puts her hands on Lily’s face, a gesture which Lily cannot feel at first and then which feels like daggers and then which feels like love, and she begins to shiver again, violently, as the cartsman gently picks her up and puts her in the cart, and Margot wraps her in her arms and holds on tight.
I don’t have a plan, and even if I did, I couldn’t tell Lily about it. I run out of the grass and grab the stick from the boy with his back to me and fling it into the meadow, and then I climb on top of Margot’s frigid curled-up form and cover her with my body, my arms over her arms, my body curved over her back. I will protect you this time, I tell her silently, knowing I can’t. The wolves will take us both.
The boys laugh at their comrade, poke their sticks at me. I flinch, but I am silent. I’m smaller, and unscarred; they don’t kick as hard when they aim their boots at my side, not yet. Until they begin to not understand my silence, and I can feel them getting spooked. The jabs get a little stronger, and will get stronger still with each sound I don’t make. My breath is quick with pain, but I can’t leave Margot, not this time. Not until they drag me off. Underneath the onslaught, Margot takes my hand and squeezes it hard.
I raise my head and make eye contact with the boy whose stick I took, holding his gaze, not letting go. I mouth words and his eyes widen.
“She’s casting some kind of spell on me,” he says, his voice edged. The other boys jeer at him, but I can see them all now – they’ve moved closer together, a little unsure.
And then, suddenly, a piercing sound slices at all of us, sharp and unnerving. I recognize it as the highest note Lily knows, an icicle sound, a shard of glass. The boys clamp their hands over their ears and stare at me in wonder; the sound comes from everywhere and nowhere at once. It gets, impossibly, even higher, even thinner.
And then the stick I threw into the meadow comes whizzing out, and smacks one of the boys in the head, and I hiss at them, and they run. And when they are gone, past the willow grove, invisible in the tall grass, Lily rushes over to us and holds us, and we are one tangled lump, a mass of sisters.
Lily has never heard my voice before but somehow in the close summer night she knows the feel of its silent echo, and she’s out the back door in her nightgown before she can stop to question herself. He bare feet are eerily pale in the moonlight, hesitating behind the house, not sure where to go. The moon is bloody, a war moon lighting the meadow to an eerie daylight. She shouts my name, but there is no answering movement.
Lily looks out across the meadow, desperate, driven by a certainty that has no basis. There, far off, there is a hole in the meadow’s smooth coat, and she runs toward it.
I meant only to make a small cut. Enough blood to sate the moon, enough space for my voice to crawl free. But the knife was too dull, and when it finally pierced my skin, there was too much pressure, and it cut deeper than I meant. I put my hand over my neck to feel the bleeding, dizzy with the sharpness of the pain and the smell of it, and there is more than I thought there would be. The moon fills my vision, and I faint.
When Lily finds me she thinks I am dead. There is blood on my neck, my hands, my arms. She thinks I am dead.
She picks me up, never mind that I’m too heavy for her, and carries me back to the house, and sets me down. She takes a cloth and dips it in water and starts to clean the blood, methodically, dipping and wringing and wiping. Margot comes down the stairs, sleepy, her hair matted, wondering why she woke up alone. She is silenced by the sight of me; she backs against the wall and stands there, wide-eyed, afraid to ask. Lily knows, now, that I am breathing, but she can’t bring herself to speak.
I wake to find Lily’s face over me, lantern-lit, focused on gently wiping the blood off my neck, avoiding the cut. Her face is like stone, etched with hard, sharp lines. I realize how she must have found me – I realize she wouldn’t have understood.
“I’m sorry,” I say, but there is no sound, no voice; perhaps there never was one, or when I freed it, it didn’t want to come back. I am stunned by this silence, louder than all the silences before it; tears run hot to my eyes. “I’m sorry,” I say again, still mute.
But it doesn’t matter – Lily has heard me. She meets my eyes and smoothes my hair. “It’s all right,” she says. “It’s all right, Celia.” In the next moment she is weeping on my shoulder, and Margot walks over, tentatively, to comfort her.
She looks at my neck, gives me a small smile. “It’s not so bad,” she says.
On winter mornings Lily sings, and Margot and I listen to the rise and fall of her voice, shaping each song and sending it out whole into the air. Lily is teaching me to make porridge because Margot is terrible at it, and Margot is making Lily a new cloak because Lily hasn’t the time, with everything else she does. Overnight the wind has stiffened the meadow grasses, so that they are frozen at an angle, straining toward some uncertain longing. Lily steals a bite of jam from Margot and holds it in her mouth, eyes closed, savoring. I draw her face and then Margot’s, their looks nothing alike but their expressions the same, washed over with sweetness.
If this is a fairy tale – which it is – it is a tale of three sisters, and it has already begun. And whoever is the last of us to seek her fortune will follow in the footsteps of the two who have already found it.
About the Author
Katherine Kendig lives in Champaign, Illinois, where she spends most of her time reading and some of her time revising her novel on her extremely slow laptop. Her work has been featured in The Cincinnati Review, Shimmer, and PodCastle.
About the Narrator
Sigríður (also known as Sigga) is a professional computer geek with a keen interest in Science Fiction and Fantasy. She’s originally from Iceland but relocated from one windswept island in the North Atlantic to another and has now called Scotland home for many years.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.