There’s A Cottage In The Ferns
Updated: May 3
Hattie never had much imagination, was never one to sneak or get into trouble, so that day, when she side-eyed me all sketchy and said, “There’s something I have to tell you”, I stopped. Canted my head.
Her eyes got all shifty then, casting from the schoolyard we’d just left, to the trail through the trees. Jutting her chin that way, she spoke, but her lips were all stiff—the way they were when she was either really pissed off…or making sure no one else could hear. “There’s a cottage in the ferns,” she said.
“Huh?” The ferns, like, in the woods? No one lived in these woods. ‘Woods’ weren’t even what they really were. ‘Park’ was more like it, because these trees? Heck, they were just a copse of spruce and poplars covering maybe a couple of acres. They separated the commercial end of town from residential, and a paved footpath wandered through them, heavily trafficked by runners, dog owners—and school kids, like us.
“I’ve seen it,” she said, and I knew she meant it by the way her jaw still barely moved.
I squinted down at her. “Hats, we take this path every day.” Summer, winter, in between. “There’s no—”
“Yes. There is.” She glanced then, into the trees, and something almost like a shudder traveled over her face. “I’ve…been there.”
I stood there, gaping and leaning forward then back. I must have looked like a great, gangly car lot windsock. “You mean like, in a dream you’ve been there? Or—”
“No. Not a dream.” She cast another speedy, uneasy look into the woods, a look that spooked me far more than I would have admitted then—yet probably less than how spooked I feel now. “But not in real life either,” she added, then grabbed my hand. “Don’t walk too far ahead of me today—okay?”
As if I ever did, or wanted to. “Okay,” I said, and tried to sound nonchalant. But her hand, warm in mine, for the first time since I’d known her…? My heart was doing this crazy sort of bounce off my ribs.
I think I floated beside her all the way through the trees that day.
And the next day. And the day after that.
And all the others that came after.
For the first while, Hattie didn’t pinpoint exactly where, ‘in the ferns’, she was talking about. I’m not sure she even knew. She’d just squint, searching through all the fronds fanning out over the moss, and most times her shoulders would droop, disappointed—but other times her hand would suddenly strangle mine. I’d say “What? Did you see something?”
“N-o,” she’d say, but all slow. Hesitant, like she wasn’t sure.
I was sure. There was no cottage in the ferns. But as time went on, I also became sure about something else: my best friend—the girl I hoped, prayed, would be my girlfriend—was losing it.
Was it drugs? Hattie wasn’t the type, but that didn’t mean much. Kelvie Jones, the star point-guard on our basketball team, was so clean and straight you could use him as a ruler—so last year when he was picked up and charged for both under the influence and dealing, the whole town reeled, shocked for weeks.
You could just never tell.
Except in every other way, Hats was…well, she was Hats. Tutoring my dumb ass through Calculus. Caring enough about straight A’s to let me tutor hers in Geography. Her appetite was rock solid (that girl could eat her weight in cafeteria Tater-Tots), and she still went running with me every second night (which was fitness for her, and torture for me; in order for my long legs not to out-pace her—thus defeating the whole intent of ‘running together’—I’d have to shorten my gait so much I’d have shin-splints throughout the next day. Ah, the things we do for love).
So…to make a long story short, I don’t think it was drugs. But I never ruled it out.
And Hattie never once stopped insisting: “There’s a cottage in the ferns.”
She even drew it once, and it weirded me out. Hattie wasn’t one for imagination—that was me with my paper cranes and folded frogs, forever dreaming up a story with creatures who couldn’t really sing or talk in real life.
I kept it, though, the cottage picture, not knowing that there’d come a time when I’d want to crawl into the page, take the short steps up to the crooked porch Hattie’d drawn, sit in one of the two wooden chairs she’d included there. Or maybe go inside, peer out the long window on the side, the one that looked like a stretched, gaping mouth beneath the two tiny panes up top in the dormer. That peaked dormer was actually what gave the cottage its vibe. Tall, and narrow, and with those three windows positioned as they were, it looked like a face drawing its breath to scream. In fact, it reminded me of that freaky picture called ‘The Scream’.
I still see it sometimes when I dream.
That sketch ended up stashed in a box with some of my old basketball trophies and a couple of stories I wrote in Grade Nine, ones our lit teacher thought were real good. Patricia packed it in there when we moved into the bigger house we could finally afford an few years after we’d married, the one I’d started coveting long after Hattie was gone. It was a newer place, splashier, but what I liked most of all was how its windows looked into the trees.
Patricia liked it too, but she didn’t share my passion for it, and I didn’t expect her to. She did not, after all, have any history here. Unlike me, she hadn’t grown up here but had been totally okay with moving back with me once we got our degrees. Now—what’s that song lyric? ‘Now she’s small town, just like me’?—and it’s good. But, like anyone, she does have her limits. And when we were packing up to move into the dream house I’d insisted on, I discovered what one of those limits were when she happened upon Hattie’s sketch.
I guess Patricia thought my childhood deserved (or should maybe corralled in) its own tidy box.
She probably wasn’t wrong.
Before that, though, that picture had lived beneath the oldest t-shirt in my drawer; a Lynard Skynard motif cracked and faded on the front. Once upon a time it had been my running shirt, and all Hattie needed was to see it and she’d say “Aha. Time to lace ‘em up” and she’d grab her shoes. Or, on nights when I’d show up and she didn’t feel like pounding pavement—“Aw, crap. I was hoping you wouldn’t have it on,” she’d say. Buy get her shoes anyway.
It was jarring to see Patricia unearth it—the t shirt, then the picture—from the drawer, holding them in one hand and swiping hair that had stuck to her sweaty brow with the other as she turned to me, said, “I didn’t know you could draw.”
I stared at the picture. Hadn’t looked at it in years. It was only when Patricia’s “Ahem?” belatedly resonated that I answered by wiggling an ambiguous shoulder.
I didn’t know then and don’t know now why I lied by omission like that.
Still, she examined Hattie’s cottage, said “It’s magical”, then slipped it into that box of old trophies.
Magical. She had no idea.
I kept sneaking peeks of it while we packed, half hooked by nostalgia, but also half scared; heart looping the way it did when you crested a hill then descended too fast; a whoosh that went down and then up. Belly to chest. It was a relief when Patricia finally placed the lid on the box.
There’s a cottage in the ferns.
I didn’t start to unpack when we moved. The first thing I did was take a walk through those trees.
Hattie wasn’t sick back when she finally discovered (uncovered?) the spot, falling still like always, hand welded on mine. “Right here,” she’d breathed. “It’s here.”
There was nothing there.
Still, she insisted we mark it, a length of satin untied from her hair, a hot pink exclamation mark wafting incongruously within all the jade and emerald foliage. “Right here,” she repeated, tapping her foot amid the all the ferns. The movement made them dip and bow like they nodded.
I’d looked around, desperate to agree, but, as I rotated in a slow circle, the forest was …well, it was just forest. Spruce trees, a few errant pines. Poplars so ancient you couldn’t wrap your arms ’round their girth. Moss and ferns raced over the ground, and a scatter of spindly birch trees were fuzzy with swamp moss. Uninhibited. Undisturbed. “There’s nothing here, Hats.”
Her mouth scooted to one side and an expression of insolence (at least I thought it was insolence; it could’ve just been impatience) crossed her face. Then—“When the student is ready, the teacher appears,” she quipped.
She was trying to sound knowledgeable, I could tell, but the way the end hiked up, like a question, she came across as uncertain. Maybe even a bit scared. “We should go,” I said, because there was nothing there—but the way she seemed to believe that there was made my skin creep just as if that swamp moss had begun crawling all over it.
“But we’ll leave the ribbon, yeah?”
Why had she sounded so urgent? I still didn’t know, but was hella uneasy when I said “Sure”, twitching the same shoulder I’d give Patricia years later when she asked me about the picture of Hattie’s cottage. The cottage Hattie had found that day when I was right beside her…yet could see nothing at all.
I remember how she’d gnawed her lip, worried about where I’d put the ribbon. “Tie it higher, please Mike? Up where no one can get it.”
At 14 I was already a gangly mess of arms and legs and knees that looked like someone had tied my skinny legs into knots. It wasn’t hard for me to reach up, fasten the ribbon far higher than most people would ever be able to reach. Hattie still wasn’t satisfied, though, not till I actually shinnied up one of those spindly birch trees, tied it even higher. My jeans were all filthy with sagey moss dust once I wiggled back down—but the hot pink ribbon caught breeze, flapping far above any hand that could ever grab it without a whole lot of effort.
Over the years I watched that ribbon fade, the sun needing surprisingly few seasons to soak up its pigment. Decades later, it’s now mostly white and hella frayed. The elements haven’t been kind, yet a bit of it still hangs there, like a wild, forgotten thing, and it’s weird that what little color remains has faded into something more orange than pink, an incongruent hue reminiscent of how Hattie’s color changed at the end. Pink cheeks streaming with an undercurrent of olive green beneath. “Liver,” her mother had murmured to mine, and I wondered, then and now, how a 14 year old girl could develop a disease normally set aside for paper bag winos and seemingly more sophisticated whiskey drunks.
But she did.
God, she did.
For months before she was gone I sat, my bony ass growing numb on the wooden chair her mom positioned for me next to Hattie’s hospice bed; a seat she’d scavenged from some defunct-school auction ‘cause she’d always been crazy about re-purposing old crap no one else wanted. That hobby died as Hattie started to, so when I’d used that chair, instead of even being at least sanded raw, the letters F-U-C-K had remained carved on the arm, and over the weeks that I sat there, I became convinced it was the poor teacher himself who had sliced the word into the wood, stuck for hours on end with his tail losing feeling, marking drivel written by kids who didn’t care.
Not that I really cared how uncomfortable I was. I’d sit for hours. Day or years. Eternity, even, If Hattie would only get better again. “Hey lazy,” I’d tell her, showing up wearing Lynard Skynard. “Ready to run?”
Sometimes she’d smile, wan, other times there’d be no strength left in her cheeks to lift even the edges of her mouth. Didn’t matter. I’d fold myself into that stiff-assed chair and ignore the way her thermal hospital blankets stank of bleach and sour body fluids.
The sicker Hattie got, the blacker the smudges became beneath her closed eyes, and while I preferred her awake, I’d always wince at how now she looked like a reanimated corpse when I roused her.
“Hey…Mike,” she’d breath, and the room would all at once look, smell, and feel just like death.
I pretended not to notice. Fold origami frogs and paper cranes then chase them over her bed, making her wheeze laughter as the birds ate the frogs I’d then crunch into spit-ball sized shapes, a vignette I replayed day after day. Week after week, till—
“I’m….sneaking…out tonight,” she said.
Four words. Massive effort. I froze, cranes and frogs stiff in my hands. “Pardon?”
“There’s a cottage….in the…ferns.”
This last she had to push out with much force—‘Ffffffernss’—and my first inclination was exasperation. There was nothing there.
Still, that look on her discolored face was one that I knew. Steel. A completed decision.
Panic seized me and my gaze pitched then, involuntary and like a wild thing all over their cozy living room that had once been all chintz cushions and popcorn bowls. Something good on TV. Now Hattie was tethered here, and the couch had been pushed much too close to the fireplace so her IV poles had room to stand guard around the chrome, ugly hospice bed she could no longer get up from. So the shitty chair that said FUCK could fit too.
“Have…to,” she said.
How? Her body had become a ghoulish, bony husk. And moreover, “What for?”
“C-cottage,” she said, and her lips smacked, crusty dry. “Healers…there.”
What the—had she become delusional? I peered into her eyes.
Dopey. Drained. But…lucid.
A bolt of…well, fear, for sure, but also…also hope charged sparks through my gut. I shooed them away. There was no cottage in the damn ferns! And as for healers, what the hell was she even talking about? Did she mean people? Or…or did she maybe mean all the roots and berries out there, all the foliage the Native Elders taught us about in Cultures option, the same plants all the wizened Babas and Nonnies said had been remedies back in the Old Country?
Eerie that, how when people get really old it doesn’t matter if they speak different languages or if their wrinkles were different skin colors. All of them seemed to know the same stuff.
And their remedies worked.
So was that wisdom? Or magic? Or were they one and the same? A shiver cut through me, part hazard, part hope, and I said, “Should I come with you?” My heart revved, a trucking thunk in my ribs.
“No,” she whispered. “Not this time.”
“But, Hats, you’re really—”
“Sick. Yes, Mike.” She smiled then, big enough to break my heart. “I know.”
That night I left her side after supper; weak broth for her, and I’d choked down the same in solidarity. Her mom, out of thanks and pity, palmed me an additional handful of Oreos when Hattie’s eyes drifted shut, and as I crunched them down, she said “It’s so good that you sit with my girl.”
Her gratitude didn’t last.
’Cause Hattie was gone the next day.
“I don’t know!” I kept saying, enough times that my own Mom finally waded in, stopped the cops with their questions.
“Can’t you hear? He said ‘I don’t know’.” Her teeth bared as she filled in the rest: No, Mike was not out at any time in the night, and yes, she knew that first hand because (to my horror and embarrassment she told them this): “Mike slept on our floor last night in a sleeping bag. He gets nightmares.”
That screaming window. Its gaping mouth. It was true, still the way the cop looked at me made me bristle, ’cause I could tell he was deciding which way to play it: mockery or sympathy? “What’d you dream about?” he asked.
“A cottage in the ferns,” I told him. “Its window opens and swallows me whole.”
I think it was the way I shuddered, involuntarily, that convinced him, finally, that I was telling the truth.
After that it wasn’t Hattie’s cottage that swallowed me whole. It was grief—and that’s what finally convinced her mother I’d been telling the truth all along; my gaunt face where my cheeks had become blades. The sallow rings under my eyes that probably reminded her of Hattie. She found me one sunlit afternoon when, like on so many other days back when it was all still so fresh, I was hunting through the ferns. Had Hattie made me hang the ribbon in the wrong place? Was the cottage maybe off to its right or its left?
“Mike.” A voice in the trees. “Michael!”
Turning, I saw what Hattie would have looked like had she been able to age.
Her Mom approached me, a weird mash-up of stern and pity on her face. “You need to stop this,” she said.
I stiffened. Said “Stop what?” I’d never spoke back to her. Never taken tone.
She paid it no mind. “She’s not here, Mike. There’s no…there’s no here for her to be.” Her sad gaze penetrated my eyes.
I narrowed mine back. “I don’t know what you mean.”
She exhaled, a weary, sad sigh. “Yes, you do. A Cottage in The Ferns.” The way she put it in air-quotes gave it capital letters, a title. “There is no such place, Mike. Stop looking.”
I rocked back then, stared at her, and for many long minutes, maybe a whole hour, the only sound was squirrel rustles and bird song. Finally, I rasped “You knew?”
“’Course I knew.” Upside down smile. Exactly like Hattie’s.
I looked away.
“She was my child, Mike. You think she never told me? Showed me drawings?”
My heart caught, tripping on a rib the way an acorn fell and ricocheted through the trees.
“She thought her magic cottage could heal her,” her Mom said, voice a bottomless-well of sad.
“But—” I looked, just beyond her, to where the ribbon caught breeze. Back then it was still pink, but already a less vibrant hue then when Hattie had made me tie it way up there.
“But nothing, Mike.” Her Mom took my hand. Squeezed it the way mothers do. “This needs to stop, hon. Look in the mirror.”
I didn’t want to. I knew what I’d see. Me. All alone.
“It was a fantasy,” she said, but not harsh, and still with her sad upside-down smile. “Fanciful. Make-believe and I…” Her voice broke. “…I’m so glad you shared it with her. Mike, I’m sorry I blamed you. But Hattie…she’s gone, hon. She’s gone.”
‘Gone’. I knew what she meant. But she just didn’t get it. “Hattie—” I started, but had to stop, clear my throat.
“Hattie wouldn’t want you sick too,” she said. “Now come, Mike. Come with me. I’ll take you home.”
Her hand, warm on my bony elbow, steered me back onto the trail. But what she’d said—“home”. She was shepherding me the right way, but I looked back, at the ribbon over her shoulder, and suddenly my feet didn’t know which way to go.
At home, I asked my Mom if I could frame the colored sketch of the cottage, hang it up in my room.
The look she gave me made me feel daft. “Hattie’s mother drops by regularly for coffee,” she said.
So? “I’ll hang it in my room, Ma. Not the kitchen.”
A tart grimace.
“I’m not being a smart ass—er—aleck.” I flashed surrendering hands.
She looked at me, hard. “It’s morbid, Michael.”
I drew breath to argue, but “No,” she said, before I could speak and a look—distaste? disturbed?—lanced her eyes. “No.”
And that’s how the sketch came to live where it did, slid beneath my Lynard Skynard t-shirt first in my teenage dresser back home, then in the tiny dorm drawer where I mashed all my clothes back in college. After I married Patricia, and we bought that big, classy bureau a whole city block long, the sketch lived under Lynard Skynard there too, and up until we were moving, I’d never shown it to Patricia.
Didn’t want to show it to Patricia.
My mother told me, about a year after Hattie was gone, that one day I’d love someone just as much—maybe more—than I’d loved Hattie.
She was wrong.
Still, on my wedding day, Mom straightened my tie and, all misty, remembering, she looked me in the eye. “See?” she said.
“Yeah, Ma. I see,” I told her, yet I didn’t. I loved Patricia, but…
It is with no shortage of guilt that, all these years later, especially now—Patricia being so good to me, so caring and attentive as my own hospice bed now squats in our living room—it pains me that I have not, and never could, make her paper cranes or folded frogs.
I dreamed last night. Not an old nightmare; no screaming cottage. No vanishing Hattie. Instead folded cranes and paper frogs swept and leaped over my hospice bed, and distant laughter—not an effortful wheeze, but instead a musical score of joy—somehow sounded like it called my name.
I woke weaker than I’d felt in days. Could feel my blood creep through my veins instead of course. I pushed myself up, using elbows that had returned to being poke-bones after (finally, way back in my early 20’s) filling out and becoming bulky, limbs no longer looking like they somehow needed hinges. “I think I’d like to get dressed,” I gasped out to Patricia.
She fluttered next to the bed, an uncertain, worried bird. Origami crane, I thought, and was sad all over again that I’d never been stirred enough to make her one.
“I’ll be fine,” I told her, a lie stacked atop all that guilt.
She hovered all the same as I shuffle-stepped up the stairs, my poor creeping veins moaning with effort. It was like I could hear them.
I put my Lynard Skynard shirt on, hearing Patricia’s sob catch in her throat at the way my brittle hair broke off and drifted to the hardwood as I pulled the t over my head.
It was looser then even back in my human pipecleaner days, its bagginess confirming what I already knew. It’s time, I thought, and faced Patricia. My wife. Truly so beautiful. I placed my hands on either of her cheeks, wincing at how my fingers were the color of chicken fat compared to her lovely peach glow. “I’ve been so lucky,” I said.
Tears toppled out of her eyes. I relished how warm they were on my hands. It was like my own body couldn’t make heat anymore. “I’ll be fine,” I told her. It was not a lie.
It was also not the whole truth.
“I’d just like to go for a walk.”
This startled her, and “Michael!” she said.
I held up a hand. “Just a walk. I’ll be fine,” I repeated, and kissed her, a tender meeting of mouth upon mouth, and when I pulled back I was moved, finally—joyfully—to reach for the latest of my lab requisitions, kept by her side of the bed because she scoured them stubbornly, religiously, before surrendering to sleep, searching for answers we both knew were not there…and that she would not know how to interpret even if they were. Patricia was an accountant, not a doctor, and certainly not one of the many grim specialists who looked after me now. I flapped the requisition at her, as much flair as my exhaustion could muster. Then, with dexterity I’d assumed long forgotten, my hands moved, muscle memory folding and unfolding. Crimping and creating right angles. At last a frog squatted upon my palm, its paper legs crouching under its precisely folded body. “He’ll keep you company while I’m gone,” I told her.
Patricia held it as if it were a holy thing, full of reverence. I suppose maybe it was.
Outside it was overcast; not rainclouds per se, but a white pall across the sky that kept direct sunlight away. Probably good, I thought, squinting up into the bright. I’d been indoors for so long that my skin, with all the dying blood underneath, had turned into tissue. So I wouldn’t feel warmth from the sun. I’d feel burned.
Last summer, when my body first started to dapple with bruises I could not explain, the sun had felt like sweet relief on skin that had grown inexplicably cold no matter how warm the days were. The letter (or, as I thought of it: The Letter) had arrived as I shivered outside our mailbox, my senses shocked not by my name on the envelope, but rather by the script it was in, handwriting I’d never forgotten. I’d dropped onto a bench on the boulevard, my rear remembering, of all things, that unforgiving wooden chair next to Hattie’s hospice bed. Gripping the envelope with both hands, I tried to keep it from trembling as I scoured it like a sleuth. The postmark, an arc of stamped words in a circle, robbed my breath even worse than so many other routine things had started to do back then. I closed my eyes against dizzy stars. Re-opened them and read: You Know Where I Am.
I tore the envelope open.
A piece of pale parchment. A short, handwritten sentence that shocked me—scared me, really—just as much as the new bruise I’d just noticed that morning, a purple blotch leaking out from under my shirt cuff.
Will I see you soon?
My heart had pumped so hard it hurt, winding me, and I decided that day that maybe I should go to the doc.
That decision began a revolving door of many docs, each with a differential diagnosis more grim than the last, until at last it didn’t much matter. Regardless what they called it, I knew what I felt: my blood had gone rancid, a black, whispering thing creeping through my veins. Stealing my strength and wiping out even the desire to be awake or alert.
That’s why I shuffled now, into the trees, the letter and colored pencil sketch folded and tucked into my palm; while Patricia had petted and cooed to her folded frog I—
ever sleight-of-hand with anything paper—had slipped both out from where I’d put them after that letter arrived and I’d been compelled to dig the sketch out of my trophy box, replace it back under the Lynard Skynard t shirt I wore now.
When Hattie disappeared, folks all thought the worst thing, which they told each other using sugar-dipped euphemisms and loaded looks punctuating everything unsaid between the lines.
“She just went out looking for mercy.”
“Did away with the pain.”
“Any decent doctor would have assisted that process.”
“Such a shame.”
“Such a shame.”
Such a lie. Or maybe (to be kind) a group delusion. Either way, I’d always found it kind of sad that people found it easier to believe in suicide than magic.
Long ago I had asked her—“Can I come with you?”
She’d said: “No. Not this time.”
There’d been an inflection there. A tone I could not decipher, something that gnawed at me all of these years, playing and rewinding that last, lonely scene.
It wasn’t until last year, reading that shocking letter, that I finally understood what she’d said: “No. Not this time.”
But a time.
I shuffled through the trees. After Hattie was gone, I’d retraced our steps like a pilgrimage; daily at first, but then tapering off to once a week. Once a month. Then hardly at all. Still, my feet knew where to go, muscle memory delighting me with how familiar I was with every dip on the trail. Every nodule. My gaze moved, effortless and with no real need to search, attuned to the scrap of ribbon, limp yet still listing amid the birch leaves. I pushed forward, wheezing. It was so hard, sliding one foot in front of the other, yet as I neared the ferns, panting, my chest plummeted, the feeling joining the burn of exertion.
There was no cottage.
“But…how?” I croaked. “Why?” The letter. That postmark. My own knowledge—‘It’s time’—and the translation of that last, cryptic conversation: “Not this time.” But a time, right? Right? My breath stuttered, uneven. Hard to catch. The breeze picked up and the leaves moved, a whish within which I was certain I heard Heeeaaallll. It was disorienting, and all at once, I wasn’t sure if I was even really there, or if maybe I was at home, thrashing in my hospice bed, Patricia soon to come rouse me out of whatever fever dream I was in, cradle me and nurse me back to as well as her soft words and gentle hands could get me.
I took a stumbling step forward. Looked down to get my bearings.
Looked down. Got my bearings.
My foot—and half way up my shin—looked…I felt my jaw drop. Was aware that I’d begun breathing through my mouth. My foot and leg…I could tell they were my foot and my leg, except… Except they were distorted somehow. Bigger in some places, smaller in others. Wavy the way something looks when its submerged under water.
But…there was no water.
“Not a dream,” I remembered Hattie say. “But not real life, either.”
My heart hammered, working so hard, too hard, and I remembered then, that she’d said other things too. About the cottage—“There’s healers there.” I raised my eyes.
Straight ahead, a whole sheen of that water-but-not-water shimmered before me; a barrier.
Pulse fluttering, I looked through it, gaze latching onto the fray of ribbon in the trees.
And then I stepped forward.
There was a cottage in the ferns. How did I never see it before? Hattie’s sketch had captured it exactly, right down to the details—the rough-hewn porch, its steps slightly out of plumb. The big gaping window mouth and smaller, paned eyes up above in the dormer. The growth of moss over shingles, as if the woods were trying to lay claim to the building, make it one with the trees. Was that why I’d never been able to see it? Had the camouflage just been really good? I moved forward and behind me felt—or maybe heard—a great, sucking sound, like a suctioned boot being unstuck from mud. Like something had either just whooshed itself shut or released something and, looking back, I know I probably should have turned around, checked to see what it was, but…
But I could breathe better now. And shuffling—hell, walking—didn’t feel like it hurt.
“Healers here.” Were there? Hope lit my gut, and so did an old, familiar whoosh I hadn’t felt in what seemed like years. Euphoria. Like someone had just pulled a ripcord and a cloud punched me into the sky. It made me hurry forward. The cottage. Healers. Squinting, I was sure I could even see, on the windowsill next to that long, gaping one, cloudy vials of tinctures. Knew by instinct that the sill they were on would be all velvety with dust. Healers. Healing. Inside there’d be herbs and wildflowers hanging from the ceiling, long dry and crackly, yet still pungent when I got close. I didn’t know if I’d be able to remember a single thing all those old people had taught us about potions and remedies, but I’d sure give it a try. Couldn’t wait to try.
A hand appeared in the scream window, and my heart stopped. Exploded. “Hattie!”
She placed her palm on the glass and all at once the ferns wrapped ’round my feet, forced them to be still. “Hattie?” I said again, and looked at her. Really looked at her. Was she waving to me? Or cautioning me?
Will I see you soon?
Up till now, I hadn’t considered that it was a choice, so…
Her hand, splayed on the glass. A universal warning that meant ‘Stop’. But also a universal gesture that said “Hello.”
Will I see you soon?
“I…don’t know.” I stood there, immobile.
The cottage door swung open.
by Bonnie Randall
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