In the light of the gibbous moon, beneath the thick boughs of ancient oaks, a girl pulled her brother from the gingerbread house, trailed by smoke that stank of burned sugar and flesh. She found the path of white pebbles, and she led her brother down its sloped curve. She kept to the middle of the path, away from the oaks, for their leaves whispered, wordless hisses. A warning, a foretelling.
The young boy didn’t seem to hear the whispers. He dropped her hand and, laughing, he dashed over the stones.
The oaks bent and swayed and moaned.
“Wait,” the girl called to the boy in a whisper. “Take my hand.”
“We burnt that witch up! All to ash. I’m not even scared of the dark anymore,” he called to her, running backward. “I’ll get us home to Papa. He’s missing us. I know he is.”
“But not Stepmother,” she warned.
He dashed to the girl. “You think she won’t let us in? I’ll make her.”
Branches clacked, the loud snap of bough striking bough. “We’ll hide,” the girl said. “We’ll try to see Papa alone first.”
This they did, crouching at the forest’s edge. The oak they leaned against was thick as a barrel and so tall it brushed the sky. The girl had hidden at the foot of it before, for games of hide and seek. Later the girl grew too old for silly games, and Stepmother arrived with her little glass fish and fowls, which she placed all over the cottage but didn’t allow anyone to touch. The girl didn’t like the glass eyes of the creatures staring at her, and so every day she hid at the oak. It had two huge roots, arches that she could lie in, her head resting against its trunk. Now, in the dawn, she nestled there with the boy. “We’ll wait here for Papa.”
But she squeezed handfuls of her skirt with her numb fingers. Why was she so frightened? Maybe Papa and Stepmother had shut up the cottage, and they had gone searching for work? Maybe they had starved.
The girl’s brother fidgeted. She said, “Stop.”
“Where is he? What if he isn’t here anymore?”
“He’s here, stupid,” she said. “Where else would he be?”
Her brother didn’t answer, for the cottage door was finally, finally swinging open. And their too-thin Papa was walking out onto the step. The girl’s brother dashed from their nest, yelling, “Papa! Papa!”
“Wait,” whispered the girl.
“My boy,” her papa said, dropping to his knees on the damp grass. He hugged her brother, clutching the boy’s head and shaggy hair. “Where’s your sister?”
“I’m here.” She rose from their nest, and she walked toward Papa. He was here and alone and alive, but her feet slowed, then stopped. “Where’s Stepmother?”
“She’s gone. She was ill, and she’s gone. I’m sorry.”
“But you don’t miss her,” said the girl’s brother.
“I know you won’t miss her,” Papa said. “I’m so sorry.”
The oak whispered, but the girl couldn’t tell what it was trying to say. It didn’t seem to urge her forward. It didn’t seem to call her back. She began to walk slowly toward her papa.
Papa rose, picking up the boy, whose face tucked against his neck. As the girl reached them, Papa said, “I’m so glad to have you back. We’ll never leave each other again,” he promised. “Never.”
The oak whispered so loudly that the girl almost could make out what it said, but not quite. If only she could. If only it would tell her whether she could believe her papa or not.
She followed Papa to the little cottage, which smelled of wood fire, not burned sugar and flesh. Inside, on the windowsills and hearth, the tabletop and the shelf of spices perched all the little glass fish and the little glass fowls. Her brother reached toward the top of the doorframe, to touch the fowl sitting there, and Papa said, “Don’t,” catching the boy’s hand and pulling it away from the glinting glass.
The girl stopped in the doorway, her numb fingers clawing her skirt as if to rip it to tatters.
Glass eyes stared from the spice shelf, where Stepmother’s apron still hung. Glass eyes stared from the doorframe, the window, the table. Lidless, unblinking eyes.
“You haven’t packed away Stepmother’s things,” said the girl.
“They’ve been companions of a kind since she’s been gone.”
“We could pack them away today.”
“They catch the sunlight and brighten the room,” said Papa.
Those glimmering, gaping eyes.
Papa stroked her brother’s hair, saying, “You’re home. You’re safe.”
No. That’s what the oak must have been whispering. No, no.
But the girl stepped all the way through the doorway and closed the door behind her. For she had nowhere else to go.
“My brave girl,” Papa said to her.
That night, while Papa and her brother slept, the girl rose from her pallet near the fire, and she walked slowly around the room, staring back at each fish and fowl as it stared at her. In the firelight, a serpentine fish on the table flickered yellow orange. The girl hesitated, and then she grasped the fish so tightly its sharp curves dug into her palm.
With the fish trapped in her hand, she fled the cottage, out across the yard. She paused in the garden to grab the shovel, and she ran into the forest. She placed the fish on a rock, and standing before it, she raised the shovel.
With all her strength, she brought the metal down on the fish. It smashed: half a head; a tail; a broken curve and splinters; shattered eyes that couldn’t stare at her ever again, the blind shards milky white in the light of the gibbous moon.