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by L. S. Johnson

Because Leslie had been told not to, she of course went to the clearing at the first opportunity. It wasn’t hard to find: right at the signpost and a ways down the road as her mother had warned her, then along a narrow path worn deep, until just past the point where a young lady of excellent character would start to think the place didn’t even exist.

The clearing was quiet and filled with drowsy insects. It was ringed with tall pines like columns. She felt a delicious tremor like anything might happen. Save, of course, nothing would, because nothing interesting ever happened. Leslie had mastered life in childhood: her handwriting was copperplate-perfect, her needlework and cooking blue ribbon quality, her complexion clear, her smile charming. All that was left now was for her to live out her life, day by day, marching through a progression of offices: wife, mother, grandmother.

But oh, to feel for a moment that anything might happen.

What had her mother said? She had said: girls have disappeared from that place. They come back different. And Leslie had said: which is it, do they disappear or do they come back? Her voice laced with bitter triumph at having caught her mother in such a stupid lie. As if she hadn’t known full well what her mother meant, what a girl might be up to in a clearing without a chaperone. As if Leslie would ever do such a thing, as if Leslie was that kind of girl.

Lately it seemed as if her mother thought she was some kind of girl, though exactly what kind, Leslie wasn’t sure. Since they had moved back to her mother’s town, Leslie had received nothing but criticism. She was simply too Leslie; too aware of how good she was, how talented, how pretty. A little humility wouldn’t kill you. Because her father couldn’t afford the city anymore, Leslie was supposed to be grateful for what they had. Because her mother was economizing, Leslie was supposed to let her dresses become worn and stop asking for the latest catalogs at the store. Because they had lost their savings, Leslie was supposed to stop making eyes at the richest boys in town, to keep modest friends, not to accept invitations to dances or parties.

But look! Here was Leslie, in the clearing, unsupervised. Anything might happen.

* * *

If her mother had really wanted her to stay away, all she had to do was tell the truth: a girl shouldn’t go to the clearing because the clearing was boring.

Leslie stomped around, kicking at the crisp pine needles that lined the bowl of the hollow; she found a thick, knobby stick and shoved it into the ground, stabbing it over and over with a vicious energy she couldn’t explain. She muttered to herself, she gnashed her teeth and whacked the stick against the pine trunks, slashing at the underbrush.

This town. Counting out pennies just to get a new hat. Her mother’s perpetually grim expression. She had made Leslie look at the accounts, holding the numbers before her face until Leslie had agreed, yes we’re damn poor, and gotten a slap for her language.

This town. Only one week at school and already the slack-jawed farm girls were whispering about her, the loutish boys were talking about what city girls do. They had laughed at her when she admitted to knowing nothing about crops or animals; they dropped insects in her collar and put dead mice in her desk.

This damn town. She mouthed the damn, feeling the delicious curve of the word, the decisive crush of her lips over the mn.

At last she let go of the stick. Everywhere she saw the marks of her frustration: clods of dirt tossed about, the stick’s deep gouges in the soil, the bent and broken branches of the younger pine trees. In short, the same boring clearing as before.

Though the very thought naturally repulsed her, Leslie could see how a girl might invite a boy here, just out of sheer boredom, just to do something exciting for once.

Things are different here, her mother had said. There are things here that you’ve never heard or read about, things you won’t understand. Always ask your school friends before going anywhere, and always do what they tell you to do.

Leslie sat down, splaying her legs as she never would in public, letting her posture slump until the tight waist of her dress constricted her. Oh yes, there were things here she didn’t understand, like hog butchering parties and why there was hay everywhere, making her eyes and nose run. In the city, she had gone to exhibitions and concerts; she had been addressed by fine young gentlemen. This year was supposed to have been her debut—

The ground gave way beneath her, so suddenly she didn’t even have time to scream.

Dirt and darkness. She flailed, she scrabbled in every direction and felt only dry sandy soil, soil sliding around her, soil pressing in on her. And weight now, a terrible weight, her heart was pounding so it felt about to burst, tears pushing out from her clenched eyelids. She clawed and clawed—

there was no more air she couldn’t breathe she couldn’t—

everything flashed white in her mind and her body contracted one last time—

And with a great tremor, she was propelled up and out into the world once more, landing face-first among the pine needles.

She crawled blindly away from the hole as fast as she could, swallowing great mouthfuls of air; and then she vomited, fistfuls of earth coming up from her belly, stinking of bile and rot. Her eyes were caked shut with dirt. Her whole body was shaking; she couldn’t stop shaking. She had been sitting. She had just been sitting.

At last, her breathing slowed and her senses returned. The air felt chilled and damp; her skirts were sticking to her legs. She raised her hands to her face, to wipe her eyes, only to hit herself with something wet and hard.

She blinked, her eyes filling with crumbs of dirt. She blinked and blinked again, wiping with her left hand. What was wrong with her right?

And when she finally could see, she found herself staring at her right forearm.

Her hand was mangled, the fingers stumpy and twisted, the skin gouged nearly to her elbow, the whole thing glistening with blood that ran fresh and bright.

Only then did she start to scream.

* * *

It was as if a great haze had fallen over the world. Or perhaps it was Leslie who lived in the haze, while the rest of the world continued on bright and crisp, practicing its penmanship and its flirty looks, winning ribbons and moving with steady steps into its future. She forgot heat, forgot cold, forgot how it felt to grip solid objects. Hands had carried her from the clearing and laid her in her bed piled high with eiderdowns and when she rose again, the world was soft and hazy.

The only vivid object was her useless right hand, a mess of jagged scar tissue ending in fine ripped edges like torn leaves, nubs of white bone jutting out from her stunted fingers. All healed, as if it had happened long ago, as if she had been born this way.

Cocooned in the haze, everyone seemed to look through her. She couldn’t blame them, for she couldn’t even see herself. Mirrors were cloudy, water seemed to reflect only a dark outline, as if a hand had smudged everything that had been Leslie. She had difficulty uttering her own name; her letters looked like a child’s, her stitches were lumpy and erratic, her cooking sloppy.

All that she had been, embodied in one fine-boned hand, lost.

Her father borrowed money and bought her a custom glove, a lumpish leathery thing that she threw aside. When her mother slapped her, she could not even feel the blow for the haze.

Sometimes she heard a strange noise, like an insect’s drone, only to realize the buzzing was coming from her own throat, an unconscious articulation that she lacked the will to investigate.

Pity, sympathy, mockery: all flowed over her. Her parents’ misguided love, her mother’s recriminations, they seemed directed at a host of Leslies just to the right, just where her hand should have been. There, a Leslie had learned from her mistake; that Leslie was going on with her life a better person, raised up by her tragedy, a kinder soul that a kind man would one day clasp to his breast. There, a Leslie had given in to despair and plotted to remove herself from the world. There, a Leslie had accepted her injury as a divine punishment; that Leslie was devoting her life to humility and charity, viewing her scars as a testament to her place in the world. There, a Leslie had run away to the city, giving herself over to a bohemian lifestyle; men sought her out for her injury, for the thrill of being with a woman who had fought off highwaymen, or wild animals, or whatever story she decided to tell that night.

So many Leslies crowding beside her, jostling for her place in the world. So many Leslies, yet not a one felt real to her. There were only the scars, their patchwork of numbness and tingling when she touched them, the brute reality of absence.

Rise above it, the pastor advised her. Accept it, the women told her. It’s over, her mother stated. As if saying things made them so.

She couldn’t feel the ground beneath her feet. She hit herself repeatedly, reaching with that hand turned stump, until the bruises too became part of the foreign body that she found herself observing from this newfound distance.

At some point, people stopped visiting her, inquiring after her. Her father no longer looked at her when he returned home, her mother moved around her like she was furniture.

There was only the blessed haze, lightening at sunrise and dimming at twilight.

* * *

Each day her mother put her outside to get the air, like a cat. She would wander through their tiny garden, or take small steps up and down the lane. Buzzing to herself, her arm tucked like a broken wing. She’s making a meal of it, the women said now, shaking their heads. Leslie could hear them, she knew what they meant, but she couldn’t speak for the haze.

They were only words, anyway.

They come back different. But no one had come back the way she had. Her mother, one night in a fit of rage when Leslie wouldn’t eat again, wouldn’t help again, wouldn’t do a thing but simply sit, floating in her soft cloud: you always thought you were special, well now you bloody well are!

Each day she was put outside and she walked. Buzzing, her arm tucked. She was starting to think of herself as us, we. All the Leslies that might have been. We are walking. Our mother is calling us.

She started walking further down the lane, past the edges of the garden. She left no footprints, but she couldn’t feel the ground so this didn’t surprise her. The world was soft and buzzing and humming and now she hummed too, she hummed and trilled and whistled, she opened her mouth and let the wind blow in and out. We are the wind, we are insects on the wind, we are a nest teeming with life, we are nest and wind both.

At night, when she was back home among the eiderdowns that barely bent under her weight, she turned her forearm one way and another in the lamplight and fancied that the scars were moving, the ragged edges undulating, little puckers in the flesh opening and closing like mouths. What would they eat, if she could feed them? What might sprout, in the soil of her flesh? She took her pen and teased them with the dried nib, feeling the indentations; she jabbed at the tissue with a needle, pleasantly intrigued when she found she could work the needle deep and there would only be the dark hole in her flesh, not a hint of blood. Like the finger-holes the farmers made, before dropping in the seed.

What might grow again, if she could find something to bury in the soil-flesh beneath?

* * *

We don’t know how we got back here. The clearing is a ways down the road, right at the signpost, and we did not pass the signpost. We went north, not south; we kept the sun to our right the better to warm our fertile arm. Yet we are back and we are not surprised.

Now we see what we missed: how utterly black and loamy the dirt is, far different than anything for miles. How the needles have combed themselves into even hillocks, the better to mulch what lies beneath. All that lies beneath. The whole of the clearing seethes, it pulses. Its sides rise up to cradle Leslie and Leslie and Leslie and Leslie as we fill the space with all our selves, all the girls who came back different, we who rose and we who sank, we who went back to the city and we who spent long nights tonguing their scars and tasting the life within.

We fell: here. The center of the world is a pucker exactly the size and shape of us. It is here we crouch, dribbling spittle into the hole and watching the liquid trickle into the precise center; it is here we plant ourselves, pushing our hand down and down until we’re buried to the elbow-notch. The sweet tickling of roots sliding forth, the swelling and budding of a hundred nodes rising up on our skin, bursting free beneath the fabric of our dress and seeking the cracks of seams until green tendrils of life slide forth. Blooming and blossoming, we press face to dirt and inhale. We are the fledgling returned to our nest, we are the ant who has scented home, we are the seed-cone fallen on the most welcoming ground. At last, nourishment. At last the haze lifts. At last, to debut for the greatest of audiences. Our sighs fill the clearing and set the trees trembling. At last, life.

* * *

L. S. Johnson was born in New York and now lives in Northern California, where she feeds her cats by writing book indexes. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Strange Horizons, Interzone, Long Hidden, Year’s Best Weird Fiction, and other venues, and she has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and longlisted for the Tiptree Award. Her first collection, Vacui Magia: Stories, is now available. Currently she’s working on a fantasy trilogy set in 18th century Europe.

What advice do you have for other writers?

Keep your eyes on your desk—that is, focus on your own work, not what others are doing or what the current “trends” are. All of that is just a waste of good writing time.