By Robyn Gill (18), Scoil Chaitríona, Glasnevin, Dublin
I can’t sleep.
My eyes are heavy with it, it’s fuzzy in my mind, it weighs down my bones yet refuses to wash over me. I could touch it, brush its feathery softness with my fingertips but it flutters just beyond my grasp, taunting me.
I stand up, untangling myself from the sheets. In the semi-darkness I can make out the figure of a girl. I blink. She flickers in and out of existence.
I squint through the dark and distinguish the familiar face. She smiles at me, a slow, sly smile. I remember the first time I saw that smile, from a distance, crowded around the window with everyone else. We all craned our necks, stood on our toes, struggling to get a glimpse of the stranger.
It was unusual for people to join us, a rare occurrence. Most of us had been born here, our parents too. She was undeniably different. Hair the colour of violets. Strange clothes, lurid and unnatural.
She was being led by my father, who had a guiding hand on her shoulder. I could imagine what he was saying, that she would have to earn her keep, to earn his trust. He was bringing her to the church, but as she passed the barn she turned and glanced at us, the figures in the window, smiling that slow smile of hers.
Now that smile taunts me through the darkness. I step closer.
She’s wearing the clothes from that first day, clothes that quickly disappeared and were replaced by our normal ones. Our carefully made shirts and skirts and meticulously knitted jumpers, their wool slightly scratchy against our skin. Even when wearing our clothes, her head shaved just like ours, we could still tell she was a strange and exotic specimen.
Her voice had a strange cadence and her hands were soft, not calloused like ours, as if she had never done a day’s farm work in her life. She didn’t know how to sew or knit or hunt, her cooking skills were sloppy, she fumbled through prayers, she had never killed a chicken.
I remember her arrival and I see an axe falling. Blood splattering on a fresh sheet of pure white snow. Despite my father’s orders that everyone make her feel welcome, we all couldn’t help staring, and whispers echoed in her footsteps. She was endlessly intriguing, a mystery to unravel.
I walk towards her. The floorboards creak beneath me. I try and shake the sleep from my head, to see clearly. She’s not standing in front of me, she can’t possibly be. As if reading my mind, she throws her head back and laughs, the sound echoing through the silence. I clench my fists.
Her laugh makes me think of those nights behind the barn, when I would sneak out to meet her in the darkness, breathless, heart pounding. I never knew why she chose me, out of everyone, to befriend. I guess I should’ve known she saw me as an easy target, with my naive and nervous gaze.The signs were there, that she didn’t really care about me, but I was willing to brush them aside, so unbelievably enthralled by her as I was.
I should’ve known.
She always showed up late, sauntering over carelessly, dismissing my queries with a nonchalant shrug of her shoulders.
I should’ve known.
Her eyes glazed over when I spoke, she would glance around, brush her fingers over the skin on her head, wander off in her own thoughts. I told myself that she had the right to be bored. After all, the world she came from was far more exciting than mine. I listened to her stories in wide-eyed, silent awe. I had never been past the fence that surrounded our land.
She told me about the strange customs of the outside world, how no one made their clothes themselves, but bought them in big places, where you could get anything you wanted, all kinds of strange foods and contraptions.
She told me that people danced, laughing at my shock, that they went to places where weird music blared and people let their limbs move with the rhythm and drank all night. She told me that the people outside could fly, in large metal birds that hurtled through the clouds.
I should’ve noticed that she never told me anything about her life, her family, how she had ended up here, with me, when the outside world seemed so strange and wonderful.
She steps back out of my reach, moving to the window and running her fingers along the thick, steel bars. I could strangle her, squeeze that sly smile from her face. How did I not see through her straightaway?
I was hopelessly oblivious, eager to impress, desperate to keep her attention, afraid that once she discovered how boring and mundane I was, she would move on. Toss me aside with a flick of her hand. So I showed her my secret.
I led her to the woods one night, ignoring her questions, relishing being the mysterious one for once. I showed her the patch of mushrooms I had so carefully concealed, ignoring my father’s orders to destroy them. She threw back her head and laughed and I felt delight spread through me, delight that she was laughing because of me, that, for the first time, she was slightly impressed.
I wasn’t sure what they were, I admitted, I was just intrigued when my father had asked me to destroy them. Usually we ate mushrooms, kept them if poisonous. I didn’t know what my father did with those ones, not then.
That night is stamped in my mind, a shimmering memory, hazy yet eternal. The cool dark air, the smell of the woods surrounding us, the shelter of the trees and my giddiness making me feel anonymous. Like I could do what ever I wanted. My last night of freedom.
She persuaded me to eat them, shrugging off my concerns, and the light-headed exhilaration made it seem worth it. Our laughter was hysterical, fluttering through the trees as she tried to teach me how to dance. She hummed under her breath, something that was strictly forbidden, as it implied laziness. She took my hands and tried to get me to move with her, to sway and twirl. My joints were stiff and frozen but began to loosen up, became a swaying frenzy of disjointed movement. All around me, I could see the trees dancing too, their roots untangling from the ground, freeing themselves from the soil and beginning to waltz with us.
Eventually we just lay down, side by side, among the grass and sleeping daisies, watching our breath come out like smoke in the cold night air. We fell asleep a tangle of limbs, the dew damp on our backs, as the birds began to sing the dawn chorus. When I woke from a deep sleep filled with vivid dreams, sick in my stomach, I was surrounded by people. I looked up and saw my father, his face twisted in disgust. She was standing by his side, smug, triumphant, that sly smile on her face.
I brush my hand against my withered cheek. I can almost feel the sting of my father’s hand striking my jaw. She smiles at me, like she knows what I’m remembering. I hate that smile. The last I saw of that smile was when I glanced back at her as they dragged me away, ignoring my desperate shouts.
They believed her story. That I tried to corrupt her, lead her astray, that everything was my fault. I bet she was convincing, crying as she spilled her tale and led my father to the woods where I was the proof, sleeping in the grass, beside a patch of mushrooms I was supposed to have destroyed.
They ignored my protests as they locked me up. In exchange for my freedom, she earned her place in our community, she earned my father, our leader’s trust.
I could kill her. I lunge forward, reach out my fingers to clasp her throat but my hands close around air.
I scream, shattering the silence and they come running through the door, flinging back the bolts, a flurry of skirts and woollen jumpers.
They firmly grasp my arms and legs, force me back on to the bed, push my head against the pillow.
For a moment I feel a strange relief, because at least she’s gone. At least for now her smile isn’t luring over me. Taunting me like my lack of sleep.
They wrestle up my nightdress and jab a needle in my thigh. Their grips loosen as my body begins to slacken and my eyes drift closed against my will. No.
This is not the kind of sleep I wanted, not the dreamless murky haze from the poisonous mushrooms, shadowy and painful. But I can’t fight it, as much as I try. I succumb to the impenetrable darkness.