“Daughter,” the Man in Blue said to the girl. “We have a guest.”
The girl stepped into the light, and I could finally see her. She was plain, but there was a kindness, a warmth in her clean face that made her pretty. She smiled at me.
I smiled back.
The Man in Blue rested his hand on the girl’s shoulder then. “Where is Mother?”
“A woman went into labor.”
The Man in Blue looked confused. “Who?”
The girl shook her head. “Not from here. A stranger, the husband, came for Mother. She said she would return as soon as she was able.”
The Man in Blue’s eyes tightened. “I must speak with you,” he said to her. Then he turned to me. “Wait here. Do not go outside. Do you understand?”
I nodded. He drew the girl away, out of the hut. I heard whispers but I could not understand the words. Moments later, the girl entered again. Alone.
She did not speak to me. Not at first. She took a step toward me, then turned up her palms. I did not move. She took another step, close enough now for me to catch her scent, earthy and intense. I liked it and I liked her warmth. She extended her arm then, and I let her touch me. She crouched in a corner and sat me down next to her. The girl drew me against her clean shift with the familiarity of someone who knew just the way I would fit. I wriggled, trying to get comfortable.
“You must not go out there,” she said, misunderstanding my movement.
I stilled. “Why?”
“So you can speak,” the girl said with a tiny smile. “It is not safe,” she added.
“It is too quiet.”
“People are sick. The noise hurts them.”
I did not understand. “Why?”
“Haven’t you ever been sick?”
I shook my head.
She smiled and shot me a sly look. “Everyone gets sick. You are full of mischief.”
I did not understand her meaning, so I asked, “The Man in Blue, he is your father?”
“The Man in Blue?” she asked, her eyes glittering. “That is what you call him?”
I said nothing.
The girl nodded. “Yes, he is. But you may call him Uncle and my mother Aunt, when she returns.” She paused. “And you may call me Sister, if you like.”
“Did my father and mother get sick?” I asked, even though I did not remember my father or mother. I did not remember having either.
“Perhaps,” the girl said quietly, and pulled me back against her. “But you are with us now.”
“Because we will take care of you.”
Her voice was gentle and soft, and suddenly I was frightened for her. “Are you sick?”
“Not yet,” she said, then stood.
I followed quickly. She was not like the others. I wanted her to stay.
She glanced back. “I was not leaving,” she assured me.
“I know,” I said, but followed her anyway.
We did not go far. We simply turned into another small room, this one with several mats on the caked straw floor. The girl ducked down behind one and held a bundle of fabric in her hand, as well as a needle and thread. She removed a jar full of something dark and withdrew a puff of it in her fist. She folded the cloth around the fluff and hummed a simple song—it consisted of only a few notes—as she began to sew.
I was hypnotized by her hands. “What is that?”
“A present. Something for you to play with, so you will never feel alone.”
I felt something like fear. “I want to play with you.”
She smiled, warm and bright. “We can all play together.”
This made me happy and I settled down on the mat, lulled by the melody and the rhythm of her fingers. Soon, the shapeless form in her hands became something else; I found a head early on, then two arms and legs. It grew eyes and eyelashes and a thin black smile, then rows of stitches of black hair. Then the older girl made a shift for it, and slipped it on over its stuffed head.
When she finished, I settled back into the crook of her arm.
“Do you like your doll?” She held it up to a shaft of light. There was a spot of red on the underside of its arm, where she held it. Where its wrist would have been.
I did not answer her. “What is that red?” I asked instead.
“Oh.” She handed me the doll and examined her finger. “I pricked myself.” She drew her finger to her mouth and sucked.
I was afraid for her. “Are you hurt?”
“No, do not worry.”
I held the doll close.
“What is her name?” the girl asked me gently.
I was silent for a moment. Then said, “You made it. You choose.”
“Her,” she corrected me. “I cannot choose that for you.”
“Because she belongs to you. There is power in a name. Perhaps once you know her better, you will be able to decide?”
I nodded, and the older girl stood, lifting me with her. My stomach made a noise.
“You are hungry.”
She caressed the crown of my head, smoothing my thick, dark hair. “We are all hungry,” she said quietly. “I can add more water to the soup. Would you like some before supper?”
She nodded and considered me. “Are you strong enough to fetch water from a well?”
“I am very strong.”
“The handle is very heavy.”
“Not for me.”
“It is a very deep well. . . .”
“I can do it.” I wanted to show her, but I wanted to be outside as well. The close air of the hut was pressing in, and my skin felt tight.
“Then I will tell you the secret to get there, but you must promise not to go any farther into the trees.”
“And if you see someone, you must promise not to tell them where it is.”
The girl smiled, and nudged the doll back into my hand. “Take her with you, wherever you go.”
I clutched the doll tightly and brought her to my chest before the girl showed me out. Her eyes followed me as I ran into the fading sunlight. The scent of charred flesh singed my nostrils, but the smell was not unpleasant. A thick haze of smoke hung in the air and stung my eyes even as it rose among the trees.
I followed the path I was told. The well was quite far, and nearly hidden by thick brush. It was large, too; I had to stand on my toes to peer down into it. It was dark. Bottomless. I had an urge to throw the doll in.
I did not. I set it down beside the worn stone and my thin arms began the work of drawing up the water when I heard a cough.