I wink at myself in the water and watch it wink back.
All the children know you are not to play with your reflections. That letting them become familiar with you is how children get stolen away. Sliding through the reflection and fading to nothing.
I watch and it watches me back. With a small sigh I dip my hand into the water and break myself into glittering shards of light. Fetching the pail waiting on the bank I quickly fill it and head back to the house. Mother would be mad with me for playing with my reflection but Mother is not here. She left and has not written or visited like she said she would. I am stuck here with Father and the new woman who says she wants me to call her mother. I will not. It makes her lips pinch and thin when I refuse.
I have learned to escape the house as soon as possible or she gives me chores to do for the rest of the day. I run to the creek or to the abandoned farm that is on the other side of the hill. I play alone because the closest child my age lives on the other side of town and it would take us both half the day to walk to see each other. Plus Jane is obsessed with dolls and neither of us like the other very well.
When my mother left I worked hard to help my father with the farm but an eight year old can only do so much. Too often I was in the way so I started disappearing till dinner time. I was never missed.
Now I like playing alone. I talk to my shadow while picking berries or hunting for the hard kitchen apples that fall from the trees near the abandoned farm. I talk to the bees and birds that watch me wander. Overall I probably talk too much, but at home I don’t talk at all. The grownups are too busy talking to listen to me anyway.
I have a secret person I talk to. A boy who disappeared into the reflections. When we were little we played together at ball and jacks. When he left, his family moved away before I could tell them he was still there. He sits in the shadows on cloudy or mist filled days watching. I talk about what is happening on the farm or in town and sometimes we play ball like we used to.
He is pale, like all the color has been sucked from his skin. He watches me mute as I talk. He never answers. I roll the ball to him and wait for him to roll it back. His movements are always slow like he is underwater. I tried to bring him food for a while but he never touched it. I don’t think he needs it there. He ages alongside me and his clothes change from time to time. Sometimes he is gone for days or all I catch is a flicker of movement in the shadows if the sun is too strong.
Today the sun is too strong and I can see Simon pacing through the shadows flickering at the edge of my eye.
“I wish you could talk.” I say.
“Is it nice there? Is it better than here?”
He stops pacing and watches me from a corner, a thin shaft of light cuts a hole through his chest.
“It has to be better than here.” I mumble.
“No one sees me here.” I tell him, straining to see his expression. He watches me, impassive.
“If I was in the reflection could you talk to me then?”
He shifts, back and forth like a rock under moving water and then gives a small nod.
“Is it nice there?” I ask again.
Again he shifts and wavers in the light for a moment before shaking his head.
“Are there people who see you? Talk to you?” Simon gives a slow nod. His dark ringed eyes watching me as I shred a piece of straw.
“If I went into the reflection we could talk and be together. We could do whatever we wanted. Play any game, go anywhere we wanted.” I insist. He gives a slow shake of his head at this.
“We couldn’t?” I demand. “I wouldn’t be able to stay with you?”
He shakes his head again, eyes boring into me.
I mull this over for a moment, talking it out to myself.
“We could talk, but I could not stay with you. There are others to talk to but it is not nice there.” I trail off watching Simon flicker like a pale candle as the shadows move with the clouds skidding across the sky.
“I don’t want to stay here.” I whisper to him.
“If I cannot stay with you then I have to go somewhere. Have you been there?”
He nods after a moment.
“Can you go with me?”
He slid down the wall to sit in the deeper shadows there, after a moment he shakes his head again.
I fiddle with the hem of my dress. The woman has been making me wear them, saying I am too much of a tom boy and that I need to start acting my age. If it means wearing dresses and playing with dolls I don’t want to get any older. I was happy helping mother and father on the farm and wearing overalls, I did not need to change for her.
“If I go in the reflections can you tell me where I need to go?”
He nods quicker now. I nod back with a grin, “Then I will go in and you can explain it to me. I will go where I need to go and then come back and we can play.” I announce with finality. Getting up I brush off my skirt and grab my basket of berries.
“I will see you in the morning then.”
I grin as I trot through the morning mist the next day. I said I would feed the chickens, which I did, but I also retrieved the small bag and basket I had hidden earlier. I changed out of the hated blue dress and into my overalls at the barn, leaving the dress in the hay. I won’t need it. Now it is just after dawn and I am heading toward the creek. I am going to cross over and then I will find Simon and see where I have to go.
It seems like I have sat forever staring at my reflection in the water. With a sigh I start talking to it and now and then reach out like I am going to touch it. Nothing has happened so far. I am still sitting on the bank of the creek.
A flicker of movement draws my eye. For a moment it looked like my reflection turned away from me. I wait and am rewarded a moment later when it shivers again, like Simon does in the shadows. I feel myself grinning as I grab my bag and basket and reach toward the water.
For a moment my hand rests against the water like it is a bag before sliding in with a ripple. It is so cold. I try and pull my hand out, it’s too cold. Something grabs my hand and pulls, with a yell I hit the water.
I wake up on the ground, ice coating my eyelashes and hair. Everything around me is grey or black. A thick mist floats blocking everything more than a few feet away from view.
I don’t like this. Simon was supposed to be here.
“Simon!” I yell turning, trying to see. There is no response, only the soft sighing of the mist as it shifts and moves.
I yell for Simon again before sitting down. I will not cry, I will not. I hug my bag to me for a moment before pulling out my doll. Mother gave her to me before she left. She used to be hers. Brown yarn hair framed a cloth face. Dressed in a faded red skirt and yellow top the doll watched solemnly as I struggled to breathe. Pulling it close I gave it a fierce hug before getting up and picking up my things. Simon was at the barn. I just had to find the barn. If I was still by the creek I should be able to find the barn. I could walk there blindfolded from the creek or home. I just had to let my feet head there. Determined I kissed my doll and cradling her in one arm with my basket on the other I set off.
She had been wandering for what seemed like hours but the scenery never changed. In every direction was a sea of mist with the occasional dead tree or shrub to go around. Well, Simon had said that it was not a nice place. If she could find him then everything would be ok.
Faintly she realized that she could hear something, a thin thread of sound humming in her ears. Heading in that direction she tried to follow the sound. It slowly grew louder depositing her in a small clearing of the mist. An old man sat under a dead tree whistling a jaunty tune. It was full of ups and downs and trills, making her smile. The man saw her and gave her a nod, making his tune even more elaborate as she drew near. With a final trill he came to a stop. She clapped happily.
“That was wonderful.”
“Glad you enjoyed it, Miss. Could you spare something to eat or drink for a whistler down on his luck, Miss?” He is thin and wears clothes full of rips and tatters. His hair is a mop of white curls hanging down into his blue eyes. The girl happily hands him half a ham sandwich she had made.
“What is a child like you doing out here in the mists?”
“I am looking for Simon; you don’t know him do you?”
“No, I know no one by that name.”
“Oh. I guess I will have to keep looking but it is so hard to see where you are going in the mist.”
“Has no one taught you how to travel the roads, child? For another sandwich I will tell thee.”
“Oh yes, please.” She said hurrying to hand the man the other half of the sandwich, which he quickly polished off along with the first.
“You must leave a token to the Road Keeper. Then you concentrate on where you want to go. A path will open before you. You must not look back, no matter what, because the path will leave you behind and you will again be lost in the mists.”
“Oh, thank you, sir!” she cried.
“Hsst! Do you know nothing, child! Never thank someone here. It is an insult. Also never give your name to another, only tell them what you are called. Keep your true name locked away tight!” He turned away at this watching the walls of mist surrounding them.
“Once you have lost your true name, you are lost beyond all saving. Not even the Gods may help you then.”
“I never believed in God, sir.”
“Whether you believe or not, here they still walk. Some will help if you ask politely but only for a price and most will hurt you simply because they can. Be wary, child.”
“Sir, what may I call you?”
“I have no name, child. I lost it long ago. The paths are closed to me. I will wander these mists till I die.”
“I will call you Whistler then. Goodbye, Whistler.” She said turning to face the shifting mist. Taking a biscuit out she set it at the edge of the mist.
“Please, I need to find Simon.” She whispered.
A path in the mist opened as if a sudden wind had blown straight through. She quickly hurried on, not looking back as Whistler had advised. She did not see the old man smile as tears ran down his face.
“Whistler.” He whispered, his new name. Nor did she see the small pale hand snatch the biscuit and pull back into the mists.
The path went on and on, never turning or changing. She walked till her legs gave out from under her, crumbling in the dust she let out the tears she had been holding back fall. Hiccupping, she wiped her tears some minutes later. Hugging her doll she gazed at its face with the crooked black thread smile her mother had sown.
“Simon must be very far away, Sarah.” She whispered. Digging in her basket she pulled out a biscuit and ate it while counting out her other supplies. Four biscuits, one ham sandwich, one apple, six cookies, and two sets of clothes, her sweater and a basket with a bag to hold everything. That was all. It had seemed so much when she was packing her bag, now she doubted it would last.
The mist had rolled back in while she cried till she could have touched it if she reached out her arms.
“It might take a lot of biscuits if I need one every time I stop. I didn’t bring anything to drink either. Maybe we should find some water first. What do you think, Sarah?”
The strange blue-white light of the mist seemed to reflect in Sarah’s button eyes. For a moment she thought the doll nodded. Shaking her head at her wandering mind she tucked Sarah into the front of her overalls so that she was facing the mist in front of them. Pulling on her sweater she tucked her bag back into the basket. Pulling out a biscuit she paused, how should she word her request?
Finally she simply said, “I need to find someplace near I can get a drink of water.” Adding a soft please, she set down the biscuit. Again the mist rolled away in front of her, this time she felt a faint breeze brush the skin on her neck and forehead.
A while later the path ended at a small brownish pool. She sighed, setting her basket down.
“I guess it does matter how you ask.”
Scooping up a bit of the foul water she managed to swallow several sips before her stomach rebelled. Clamping her lips shut she refused to throw up. She needed water, she needed food. After a moment her stomach settled but the thick sour flavor of the water stayed on her tongue. It had to be close to bed time. Scooping out a hollow in the grey sand near the pool she lay down, wrapping her blanket around her. She was so tired she slept without dreaming.
When she woke, she used the bathroom in a hollow and ate half a sandwich and made herself drink as much of the water as she could stand. Once her stomach had settled back down she pulled out another biscuit. Two left, that would never do.
“We need someone who can take us to Simon. Or someone who can tell us where it is or how far.”
Pulling out Sarah, she regarded the doll.
“What do you think, Sarah? Ask for someone to take us to Simon or someone to tell us how to get there. Or should we be looking for a way to travel that does not take so many biscuits?
The doll lay mute in her hands. Taking a step she turned trying to see through the mist.
“Or someone who would teach us to see through the mists?”
The doll seemed to twist in her hands. Scrabbling at catch the doll she dropped the biscuit which rolled into the mist.
“No!” she lunged after it but it was already gone. A breath later the mist began to open in front of her.
“But where are you leading me?!” she demanded, tears pricking her eyes. Rubbing her face with the back of one hand she quickly picked up her things making sure to always face the path.
“Well, you have to be leading me to the answer to one of my questions.” She muttered, walking down the path with a determined stride.
She talked to Sarah as she walked.
“Whistler said Gods, no God. I only ever heard of the God they talk about in Church.” She said with a frown. The New Mother wanted them to go so they did but the preacher yelled and moaned about how bad they all were and how they must repent to be able to see heaven. Well, she did not know what repent meant but she was not sure she wanted to go to heaven if people like the new mother and preacher were there. He had said they were damned without God’s grace but that was a bad work she was not supposed to say. Papa had tanned her bottom when she asked what it meant.
“But Whistler said there was the Road Keeper and Gods, not God.” She murmured. “Maybe there are more than just the baby Jesus and a God who loved people like the new mother and preacher. Maybe they were even nice. Well, Whistler said some might help but there would be a price. That’s fair. We would just have to see what they wanted. Grandma Rose used to tell us stories, remember Sarah? Stories about people who were animals who played tricks on everyone they tried to help. They tried to do good but always mixed everything up since they were not people. Maybe the questions have to be like that, we have to word it so the Road Keeper understands everything.”
Stopping to tie her shoe, she looked up to see the mist closing across the path.
“That’s not fair!” she cried, stomping one foot. “Ugh!” It felt good to scream.
She sat down where she was with a huff, “Fine,” she began ticking things off on her fingers, “I have to always watch the path. I must ask the right question. I can never look back. I must leave something for the Road Keeper. How many rules does this place have?”
“I need someone who can answer my questions, who is nice.” She added as an afterthought before setting down her biscuit. After marching down the path that never wavered, she was just starting to get tired when the path widened and opened into a clearing.
The mist hung like silvery walls around a barren field, the dark soil lay plowed and waiting to be planted. A simple wooden plow lay to one side. Carefully walking the rows, running her hands through the soil a round cheeked woman muttered to herself.
“Not yet, not yet, when will they start believing again? Are we always to be forgotten?” Tears tracked unnoticed down her face and into the dirt at her feet. “Why does nothing grow?” she murmured.
The girl walked carefully across the lose ground to the edge of the field.
“Mame?” she called. The woman started, blinking at the child. She quickly wiped her checks with dirt covered hands and walked to where the child waited.
“What are you doing walking the paths, Child? Your kind has not walked the paths in a very long time.”
“I am looking for my friend, Simon. Have you seen him?”
“No, Child. I have seen no one from your world in a very long time. Your kind has forgotten the Gods and we are left to the mists till we give up and sleep. I am one of the few who have refused to succumb to the mist. You may call me Rosemarta.”
“Are you a God, Rosemarta?”
“Not any longer, Child. Your kind has forgotten me. Once I was the Goddess of Spring and growing crops and tender shoots. Now I am the Goddess of a barren field. I cannot help you find your friend, child. I am sorry.”
“Can you at least explain a few things for me?”
“Yes, but you must pay a price for the answers.”
“I don’t have much.” She said, opening her bag. She eyed the biscuit and cookies with frown. A goddess of spring would not want stale cookies, an edge of green drew her eye and with a smile she drew out the small apple. She had forgotten she had packed it. She handed it to Rosemarta.
“How many questions can I get for this?”
Taking the apple the Goddess drew a knife and split the apple, digging out the seeds.
“Five questions for five seeds. Since you are a new Walker I will say this before we begin, Child. Ask your questions carefully because I can only answer what you ask, no more no less.”
Saying this she left the child to think as she planted her seeds, one each at the head of five bare rows. She then pulled a brown leather flask from the folds of her skirt and watered each seed before sitting down in front of the child. The girl held her doll cradled against her chest, regarding the Goddess with wary eyes.
“May I see your doll, child?” When she hesitated, the goddess added, “It will come to no harm and I will return it to you.” Taking the doll from the girls outstretched hand she inspected it, regarding the solemn faced doll for a moment before handing it back.
“It is a wise doll, child. Listen to it. Now, we begin. What are your questions, child.”
“I know you said you cannot help me find Simon, but can you tell me where he is?”
The woman sighed, “You are too young to this life to ask the right questions, child. Most other gods or goddesses would have smiled in your face and told you yes or no and nothing more. I will show you where your Simon is and answer your questions but I doubt you will be happy with your answers.”
Pulling out her flask she spilled some in a small dip in the ground. Stirring the mud with her hands, she withdrew a shallow clay bowl from the wet earth. Setting it down between the both of them, she added the left over apple and a splash of sparkling water from the flask. Swirling the water with one finger, the water sparkled and clung to her finger like honey. The goddess drew her knife and pricked her finger adding one drop of blood. With a flash the liquid became still and pulsed with a soft golden glow.
“Look, child. Tell me what you see in the water.”
“I see Simon!” She said leaning over the bowl.
“What else do you see?”
“Someone in red is yelling at him. There are other kids there, lots of them, all jammed in a room.”
“The man in red, what does he look like?”
“He looks young, the same age as Simon but so mean, his face is twisted by it. He has bits of something shiny sewn into his coat. Oh, there is someone behind him, older but not an adult playing a pipe or something.”
“That is enough, child.” Rosemarta said grasping the bowl and tossing it to one side. It struck the trunk of a tree and shattered, an apple tree.
“The seeds.” She whispered, gazing at the five strong trees that spread branches over their heads.
“Your friend Simon has been very unlucky here. It will be hard to win him back.” Rosemarta, held up a hand, silencing the child. “You have four questions left. Use them wisely.”
“How can I rescue Simon, Rosemarta?”
“He has become one of the child takers. They slink through dreams and nightmares and tempt young children away from their beds, to a life of eternal servitude for the Piper. His jailer and task master to the children is the boy in red. The shiny things they wear are silver mouse and rat skulls, the mark of the Piper. You will need powerful friends to win him free, more powerful than I.”
“Who is powerful enough to help me..and is willing to do so?” She asked in a rush of breath.
Rosemarta gave her a smile and a half bow, “You are learning child.”
“The one powerful being here that might help you is Jedza. She is powerful but she will not help you willingly. You must earn it. She lives in a forest of fir trees deep in the mist.”
The child waited for the goddess to continue but she just watched the child with a small smile tugging the corner of her mouth. With a huff the girl fiddled with the dolls dress before asking her next question.
“How do I get Jedza to help me?” she asked finally.
“You must find Jedza and bed to work for her. She will refuse but you must insist. She will try to pay you for your work, but you must refuse payment until she offers you three boons. Only then can you head off to find your Simon.”
“How do I use the boons to save Simon,
“That is your final question, child, and the one I have no true answer to. The boons mean that Jedza is bound to do what you ask of her, a favor. It is up to you to see which favors you should ask of that will help you save your Simon. Think hard child, for she will try to trick you.”
“Why is everything a riddle? I just want to find Simon.” The girl demanded, tears filling her eyes. With a sigh, Rosemarta pulled the child into her lap, letting her cry.
“I am sorry I cannot do more but everyone here is bound by the rules of the exchange. You must give to receive. Some paths cannot be walked for you, child. Some you must walk alone. Your journey to find your friend may be one such path, but even walking alone you can be helped by the friends you make along the way. I fear you may be too young to walk such a path, but I hope you can prove me wrong, child.”
Standing she pulled the girl up next to her.
“Come, child. Come rest under the apple trees till you are ready to continue on your way.” Rosemarta sat next to her, stroking her hair and humming bits of nameless tunes till she fell asleep, the scent of apple blossoms filling her dreams.
In the morning she woke curled around her doll under the apple trees, Rosemarta was nowhere in sight. Gathering her things, she ate a quick breakfast of a sandwich half. Gathering her things she laid down her biscuit and set out to meet Jedza.
Something loomed before her in the mist. Slowing she approached the first one to the side. Only when she was right next to it could she see what it was, a massive fir-tree, its trunk larger round then she could wrap her arms around. The path narrowed yet continued on through the trunks, a forest of fir trees. Continuing on the mist began to slowly thin until she stood in a large clearing of both mist and trees.
A strange house stood in the center of the clearing.