The pattern of your days is unbreakable, though you don’t think about breaking it. You are content leaving your thatched cottage at exactly midday, traveling around your village to the same places. You buy the same goods at the same store, making the same friendly greeting with the shopkeeper. You linger in the same tavern every evening, and walk home with your basket full and swinging, just as the sky stains the forest trees with purples and golds.
You have never thought about leaving. You never needed to.
One night, eating your basket of food before the fire, a man enters your house. You do not know him, but you know the dangers of a strange man. You want to scream, to back away. Perhaps you even want to fight, but whatever impulses you have, your body ignores them all. You take another bite of bread. You chew.
The man rummages through your house and slips an apple into his backpack, then one of your kitchen knives. You find you cannot even watch him only look at your plate. It is like he isn’t even there.
Something clatters to the floor. A shovel. The man has left it in your kitchen, under the bunches of dried herbs you cannot remember hanging.
The man approaches. His clothes are a patchwork of styles and wear. A breastplate that shines almost-new. A threadbare cloak. The scuffed boots of someone who has traveled long.
“Fine evening, isn’t it?”
Is that all he has to say? He who has barged in and taken what he likes from you? You choke out the only response you seem to have. “It is, stranger.”
He looks at you for a while as though thinking of what he wants to say next. You look back at him. He’s full of details. The stubble on his chin, the white crescents along his fingernails. Even his hair, which moves ever so slightly as though the cottage has a draft. The other villagers are drab in your memories, the same clothes that never need repair, the same faces, unchanging.
“Seen anything strange around these parts?” the man asks.
You! You want to scream. I have never seen anything quite as strange as you! But your mouth moves, unbidden. “Never in town, no, but if you’re looking for strange, the caves in the woods are said to be haunted.” Are they? You have never been to the caves. Your information surprises you, and the man turns to leave. Not even a goodbye. You want to slump against your chair in relief, but your back is stiff, unyielding.
You finish your meal after he leaves, and in the morning, you return to your pattern and tell no one of the man.
But you start to remember the strangers. A man with a mask, filigree goldwork like nothing you have ever seen. Another who’s pack bristles with swords. A woman in red, who jostles against you on your walk home, steals your food, and then jostles you again, now clearly on purpose, laughing. You want to stop her, to defend yourself, but you stumble, and stumble again. You cannot even lift your arms to protect your face.
The mud stains have vanished from your skirts by the time you return home, and you sit at your table as though you are eating, but there is nothing to eat.
Another man comes, this time when you are at the tavern, drinking the same drink you have drank since you began to remember things. He asks you question after question. You are compelled to your answers, the words unchangeable, and when he asks if you’ve seen anything strange, you give him the information about the caves in a cheerful, helpful tone, so opposite to the roil of confusion within you. You want to ask him about what he has seen, and where he is from, and why the air shimmers around him with a force like possibility. But you don’t have the option, and, even if you did, you don’t know how to speak like that.
He thanks you and rises, and you cannot help but notice the fine lines on his hands, even a pair of veins that trace along the backs like blue rivers. Your hands are soft and almost uniform in color, your fingernails all but blending into your fingers.
The man doesn’t try to steal anything and moves to sit beside your neighbor, demanding all the same answers from them.
That night, though you lay in bed, you don’t sleep. You refuse to. You wish you had followed the stranger out of town. You wished you had realized that was what you wanted.
When the sun rises and you’re pulled from your bed, you fight the pattern. You need to walk to town, like you always do, but you turn toward the woods. The morning light dances on the leaves, green and dark and threaded with mist like gossamer. It doesn’t seem haunted. It seems new.
Your pattern calls out to you, simple and comfortable. You need to go to the store, anyway. You might as well have a drink at the tavern.
Maybe tomorrow you will take a step toward the trees. Maybe then you will choose what to say.
About the author:
Greta Hayer received her MFA at the University of New Orleans and has work appearing or forthcoming in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Booth, Maudlin House, Cossmass Infinites, and Flint Hills Review. She received a bachelor’s degree in history from the College of Wooster, where she studied fairy tales and medieval medicine. Her column, “In Search of the Dream World,” can be found at Luna Station Quarterly. She lives in New Orleans with her husband and their two alien cats.