“It had always gone on, ever since that horrid day. She had not, as a young wench, understood why the whole village, nay, the whole world, didn’t stop for Cynthia.”
An elderly woman basked in a rare patch of sun, tipping her face up to it. Her position at the moment was quite similar to the tabby and white cat that had curled up beside her, occasionally batting at the long skirt that seemed to be mostly made of fabric that everyone else had forsaken, but that she had deemed valuable enough to clothe herself with. The cat stretched, then in one fluid movement, jumped to its paws, eyes wide with alarm and tail bristling. As she watched, it darted off into the hedges behind her. She sighed. It was a chill autumn afternoon; winter hadn’t gotten its cold claws into the last truly warm autumn days that her village rarely saw, but it would soon, as it always did, and the villagers would suffer for it as they always did. She tucked her knees up to her chest and rocked softly, gazing out on the busy clearing proudly; the villagers were busy harvesting corn, pumpkins, and the rest of the hay to keep the horses fed through the winter, so come next spring and summer, they would be able to work again. And so life went on, she thought. But, why shouldn’t it? It had always gone on, ever since that horrid day. She had not, as a young wench, understood why the whole village, nay, the whole world, didn’t stop for Cynthia.
The cat poked a curious head out of the bush it had been hiding in and mewed loudly at her, interrupting her pondering. “Why’d you run off, pretty one?” she asked, rubbing it under the chin. “What’s there to be scared of here in this quiet, little village?” It rolled in the dust at her feet, loudly purring, and then wandered off to grab a scrap of fish from a fisherman, who stroked the soft tabby ears. Again, she glanced up at the rising sun — it was halfway above the skyline now. Turning her nut-brown face up to the sun, she dozed off. But her peace was soon to be disturbed.
“Granny! Granny!” Granny wasn’t really her name, but that was what the children called her. She did not know what her name had been and could not remember it. Perhaps the wind had swept it away, where it would never be heard again, she mused. She did not know why they called her Granny, for she wasn’t really their granny; she had never had children or a partner. However, they had dubbed her that, and she didn’t mind. Feet pounded the dusty ground, sending clouds of dust her way. Refusing to open her eyes, she heard an insistent clamor of childish voices.
“Is she dead?” That voice belonged to a little girl of about ten. Without even opening her eyes, she could picture the children. They were standing in a ragged semi-circle around her, legs covered in the red dust they’d kicked up, shredded clothing hanging off their bodies. The ten-year-old was dressed in a torn blue sweater that had holes in it, most likely made by moths. The rest of the children were dressed in no better condition, and she worried that the cold winter would take a toll on their frail bodies.
“No, she’s just sleeping. My father says old people sleep a lot,” said an arrogant voice. It tried and failed to take away the worry that the urchins had for her, she thought with a sigh. The child who had spoken was Nikolai, the healer’s son. Despite his arrogance, he made creams for her aching joints when it turned colder, without asking for a few coins in return, like most of the village. He was a sturdy boy of twelve and a hard worker. They’d need that in the winter, she thought. When so many fell ill, there was always a need for another healer. She had fallen ill with a cough last winter, and the healer, Gavrill, had been run ragged trying to treat everybody. It was good that he had another pair of hands. Too bad that his daughter, Kalista, would never be a healer. Once, when Nikolai had scratched his hand on a bit of wood and bled, she had panicked at the sight of his blood and fled. To the rest of the village, that was proof that she was not cut out to be a healer.
“Can I poke her, Nikolai? Can I?” That voice belonged to Kalista. Unlike her brother, she showed no interest in healing, and since she could walk, had been tottering after the hunting parties, leaving Granny to amuse and entertain the child. Not an easy task, even when she was somewhat less energetic at eight — only yesterday, she had dared Nikolai to walk along the fence of the hog sty, and then when he refused to, she’d attempted it herself and fallen in. It had been up to Granny to fish her out and wash her mud-stained clothing as the girl squirmed like a fish, complaining that the hogs were her friends, and that she wanted to be put down, and she didn’t mind being dirty. Granny could imagine the child, already dirty finger pointed at her, green eyes wide with excitement, sunset-red hair in a muddy tangle. She sighed again. And no doubt the girl would have fresh scabs on both knees, compensating for the ones just healed.
“Let’s get her to tell us a story!” Nikolai said, poking his sister and edging closer to Granny, along with the rest of the children. They sat down around her, heedless of the mud and worms that wriggled in the dirt.
“Yes, Granny!” the ten-year-old said, reaching for the cat, which gave a loud hiss and hid behind Granny. “Tell us a story, do!” Opening her eyes, she looked down at the begging girl, her brown eyes staring imploringly up at Granny. With a hand as gnarled as the thick brown tree roots that grew in the forest, she reached down and stroked the girl’s thick, dark hair, eyes still closed. She had been the one to name Galina. It meant “light,” and her thankful parents had allowed her to pick the name; Galina’s mother had struggled to birth her, and Granny had helped as best as she could. She had attended births before. When even the healer could not help, Granny would step in and occasionally receive a pence or two for her troubles.
“I have no more stories, my pretty ones,” she said. “Why don’t you leave this poor old woman alone and go look for rolly-pollies under that massive rock?” Finally opening her eyes, she saw that instead of looking upset about the lack of stories, they looked expectant and had moved still closer.
“There are no rolly-pollies under that rock, Granny.” Kalista stood up, hands on her hips and glared, the sun illuminating her hair. “Galina already looked, and, besides, we want a story, not a rolly-polly!” She concluded this sentence with a loud stomp on the ground with her right foot, sending more red dust up and causing the surrounding children to cough and splutter.
“Now look what you’ve done,” Granny scolded, thumping Galina on the back. She was still coughing, and she had always been a delicate girl. “Apologize, Kalista, or your father will know the reason why Galina’s coughing.” Indeed, Gavrill was circling ever closer, looking worried as Galina continued coughing.
Kalista considered her father, Granny, and her friend. Taking a step closer towards Galina, she spoke: “I’m sorry, Galina. I really am. Now, can we please have a story?”
“Yes, Kalista,” Granny murmured, watching as the children pulled Kalista down into the circle. For once, they were silent, and she watched some of the adults glance at the silent group and let out relieved sighs; it was quite a rarity for the children to be so calm. “Thirty days ago — or was it thirty weeks ago?” she began. “In this very village, there were two young girls. They were twins, and they loved each other dearly, but as siblings do, they fought.” Here Kalista gave her brother a vicious poke and seemed disappointed when he did not respond in kind. “However, one day they were disagreeing, and they had been sent down to the stream to gather wool… ”
The two girls clambered down the bank. It was slippery, and the grass was wet underfoot as they walked towards a bubbling stream. It was a lovely spring day, and the girls could see that the forsythia bush the village had planted from the top of the incline was blooming, on account of the blossoms being bright yellow. They both wore homespun dresses and carried baskets of wool, which they occasionally had to stop and adjust to a different place; sometimes they balanced them on their sides, other times they held them in front of their chests. They were twins, but you would not know it, had you ever the chance to look at their faces. One had curly dark hair, and striking brown eyes; they had more purple in them than brown. The effect was that they looked quite a bit like a rare crystal and drew much admiration. The other twin had completely straight brown hair and pretty hazel eyes. She had a few blades of grass that had stuck in her hair, as well as one green leaf.
“Zia, come on!” the purple-eyed twin called, ignoring her sister’s annoyed grunt. “If we keep moving at this rate, we won’t ever make it to the stream!”
“Your basket is lighter than mine, Cynthia!” Zia spat. “Don’t blame me if we don’t get this done on time and get scolded; you never took your fair share of it!”
“No, I did not,” Cynthia retorted. “If you hadn’t spent so much time dreaming in the field, you would have been able to take as much wool as you wanted, but the truth is that I got there first, so I took less wool.”
“Ha!” Zia crowed. “You admit it!” Glaring at her twin, she sprang forward and began to run towards her, waving her fists in a menacing fashion.
Cynthia began running faster down the incline, pausing once to stick her tongue out at her sister. Once she had reached the bottom, and seeing her sister running after her waving her fists, she shrieked: “Help! I’m being beset upon by a wild beast! Help!” Zia, at the bottom of the incline, tackled her sister, knocking both baskets full of wool into the stream and causing them to start floating downstream.
“CYNTHIA!” Zia yelled, watching the wool move away from the girls, wool that they had carefully gathered from the herd of sheep the village kept. It had been their responsibility to wash out this wool, to make sure that it was ready for dying and then felting. After that, clothing would be made out of it for the whole village. And now it was gone. They would both receive a beating for that, at best. At worst, they would receive a beating and be told to look after the crowd of village children — a task they both hated, as the children were little hellions. “This is YOUR fault!” she hissed like a cat.
“MY fault? You’re the one who made me and the baskets fall in!” Cynthia retorted, angry tears springing to her eyes. She had always been the one who was the first to cry during arguments, and Zia knew it. “Look, we can get them out.” She bent over the stream, and fished out a dripping skein of wool for her twin to examine, then bent down to grab another. Looking up at Zia (no easy task, Zia was quite tall whereas Cynthia was smaller), she smiled at her. “You tackled me. Help me with this accursed wool, or I’ll tell.”
“Why should I?” Zia asked, turning her back on Cynthia as if she would start climbing back up the incline. “I’m not afraid of what the village will say, but you should be. You’ve always been the darling of the village — everybody prefers you to me.”
“That’s not true,” Cynthia objected. “The village likes you… ” But there was doubt in her voice, as if for the first time, she was really considering Zia, her reluctance to do chores, to enjoy the company of the other village girls around their age, and her seemingly genuine dislike of the inhabitants themselves. Whereas Cynthia was the opposite of Zia, with her kind behaviors, her willingness to work hard, and her happiness in general with her charmed life. The village did dote on Cynthia and spoiled her terribly, but the girl was none the worst for it.
“You can pick up the wool, Cynthia,” Zia said. “I’m not going to, as Mother will just blame me for it and let you off.” Cynthia’s mouth opened and closed in indignation, but she’d already returned to picking up the wool. Zia sat down on a rock and considered a fat toad hopping towards her, unhappily thinking of the scolding that would come her way.
Quickly and nimbly, Cynthia scooped up every scrap of sopping wet wool, hopping over stones in the river and humming merrily. As young girls, both of them had loved playing in the water, but Cynthia had been faster than Zia in hopping across stones and swimming. Soon, she had filled both baskets with wool, quickly fishing the baskets out of the stream too. A large skein of wool wafted tauntingly past her, and she reached for it, but it slipped out of reach of her fingers. She followed it downstream, and Zia, alertered by the sound of her twin’s splashy footsteps fading away, looked up.
“Cynthia, be careful!” Zia yelled, now standing up and squinting at the forsythia bush, which was a few feet away from her twin. “It’s slippery down there!” Cynthia did not respond, but Zia could see her figure, uselessly trying to pull the wool from the water. Well, if Cynthia wanted to ignore her, that was fine with her, she thought. The stream had a bend that was deeper and faster than the rest, and Cynthia had almost reached it. Zia tried and failed to stop worrying about the water. They were old enough now to ford it — she’d be fine.
As she watched, Cynthia slipped and fell. The rocks were slippery indeed, Zia thought. Or, maybe Cynthia was playing a trick on her and would grab her ankle or splash water in her face when she approached. Yes, that was it. There was nothing to worry about. Moments later, a piercing scream split the air, and Zia’s head jerked up. Almost instantly, she turned and ran toward the area from where she’d heard the scream, her heart thumping in time with her footsteps, dreading what she would find, but knowing she had to go.
“Cynthia? CYNTHIA!” Zia bellowed, desperation taking over as she ran towards the forsythia bush.
The children were spellbound, staring at Granny, as two tears slid down her wrinkled cheeks.
“Did she die?” Kalista asked, for once speaking in a voice below a screech. “That girl — Cynthia?”
Granny raised her head, now weeping entirely silently. “Yes. She hit her head on a rock and then drowned,” she somehow managed to say, scrubbing at her face with one wrinkled hand. “And the village blamed Zia for it: They asked her why she couldn’t have pulled Cynthia out of the water, why she hadn’t helped her pull out the wool, why she hadn’t run for help — but by the time I got there, she was already gone.” Realizing what she had said, her eyes widened in fear.
Galina leaned over, putting her head on Zia’s wrinkled shoulder. “It wasn’t your fault,” she said. “You tried to warn her, but she didn’t want to listen.” But there was a bit of fear on her face, as if she had realized what had gone on that day, and why, exactly, the village had blamed Zia.
“Ah, but it was,” Zia said. “If I had gone with her, maybe…” Her voice trailed off as she considered what might have happened.
Nikolai blinked. “So, you’re Zia? And Cynthia was your sister?” He seemed unable to believe her, that the kind, wrinkled woman who had been there to watch him take his first steps, greet his baby sister after her birth, and comforted him after his mother’s death was also Zia — a former outcast who had been too late to save her sister.
Zia nodded. “Yes, I am, and yes, she is.” With that, she turned a serious, hazel-eyed gaze on all of the children. “My sister will always be my sister, no matter if she is with me or not.” Suddenly, her face brightened for an instant. “Did you children notice that there have been more and more forsythia bushes around the village? I planted them each year that Cynthia has been… gone. I planted them for her. For Cynthia.”