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Short Story: Chrysalis

She doesn’t watch; she observes. Nobody knows for certain that she exists but they have always sensed that she’s there. For many years she has gone unseen, blending with the trees around her as she has learned the other people’s ways. She eats as they do, clothes herself as they do, but she is not the same.

The girls on the farm used to think she was a fairy, a spirit living in the trees. As they grew older they thought of her as a daughter of a witch, on the run from accusations and burning torches, but their parents’ warnings and superstitions meant they never got close enough to ask.

They know very little about her. They don’t even have a name for her. She knows them, though, and has names for them. The youngest has always had round, rosy cheeks that glow when she delights in something, and so the girl in the trees thinks of her as Rosy. The next, no more than a year Rosy’s senior, has endless tresses of blonde hair which never fail to group into knots, from which comes the name Tangle. The third and eldest daughter has wide, open eyes, the only eyes to ever look in the girl’s direction. They aren’t afraid when they search for the source of a sudden sound; instead they are full of hope. So Hope is what she is called.

But there is something different today. The little ones still splash about in the babbling stream, oblivious to the world and squealing with joy as their washboards and clothes baskets lie abandoned at the water’s edge. The girl in the trees, unseen, contemplates them from across the stream as Hope kneels by the water. She notices that Hope is focussed on scrubbing her face, occasionally pausing to inspect herself in the rippling surface. Hope’s skin, usually smooth and marble-like, is now blotched with red blemishes. Her scrubbing only makes it worse. She lashes out at her reflection, turning away from her sisters to rub at her eyes and the girl in the trees wants to reach out—

A twig snaps sharply beneath the girl’s feet and Hope’s head shoots up, her despair replaced by anticipation.

The girl in the trees holds her breath.

Tangle barrels into Hope, knocking her aside and breaking the spell. She shakes herself and channels her frustration once more, scrubbing the clothes furiously so her reflection remains elusive.

The girl remains unmoving until they head off. Hope ushers the younger two back towards their house, turning back to place a neatly wrapped parcel by the stream. She glances in the direction of the trees before finally turning home too.

The water flows undisturbed once more.

The girl creeps out of the trees’ shadows and down to the stream. She wades through the water, reaches across to retrieve the package and, holding it clear of the water, returns to the other bank. When she unties it, she finds a freshly baked loaf of bread. The aroma fills her with delight.

That evening, as the sun sinks through shades of orange and red, the girl in the woods curls up and drifts to sleep to the sound of the flowing stream. As she dreams she finds herself plagued by terrible images; she sees the people on the farm approaching the woods, silhouetted against the darkening sky. All of them carry burning torches. Hope is leading them. Her face is contorted in revulsion. She raises her arm towards the woods and shouts, pointing directly at the girl. The mob, like a pack of hungry dogs, hurtle at a terrifying speed straight towards her.

The girl in the woods starts awake, Hope’s hate-filled face seared onto her mind. She begins to raise her hand to her face but cannot move. She feels panic rise within her like a startled flock of birds. She looks down. Her limbs are bound with a sticky silken net. Her face is half-covered by a suffocating gauze. Terrified, she struggles. One hand is still free. She bites and tears wildly at the net. Her struggling breaks through it but she cries out in pain at where her nails tear her skin too. She hurls every bit of net far away from her.

As the final piece pirouettes gently to the ground, she sees it dry, then a gust of wind turns it to dust. She gags, nearly bringing up last night’s food. Her mouth feels dry—she runs to the water’s edge and submerges her face, opening her eyes to stare into the dark water. As she brings her head out, something catches in her throat, she coughs violently, and catches in her hand a piece of net. As she holds the gauze up to the light it disintegrates as if it was just a dream.

She runs away from the water and through the thinning trees towards the farm, faster than she has ever run before. Before she emerges from the trees she stops, seeing Rosy, Tangle and Hope. She calms herself and crawls into the long grass where the farm’s meadow meets the trees.

The girls are doing what they’ve always done: chores. Rosy and Tangle struggle with an unwieldy empty basket, holding it between them. They lurch steadily in the direction of the line of billowing clothes that’s tied between two trees on the edge of the woods. Hope follows with a stool clutched in one hand and another empty basket in the other. She gives the stool to her sisters and they drag it eagerly to the trees, Tangle hopping up onto it passing down the clothes and clips to Rosy with routine ease.

Hope sets her wicker basket down on a patch of less grassy ground not far from the girl where neat rows of sprouts shoot up. She kneels down, leaning forward to pull at the green tufts of carrot-tops. One by one they emerge from the earth, only to be plopped into the basket ready to be taken inside. The sun beats down through unclouded sky, hot and high, as she labours. Hope wears only a plain shift, all she can bear to wear in the heat. Before long beads of sweat are rolling down her temple. She scratches at her shoulders and back, the direct heat and the coarse material irritating her skin.

The wool pulls taut as Hope shifts in discomfort, frowning at the vegetables as though they are to blame. The girl in the grass notices Hope’s shape, how it has become more like her mother’s rounded figure than her sisters’ whose are straight, stick-like. The clothes are tighter in some places than they once were, and the girl in the grass wonders if it hurts, growing in any direction other than lengthways, if it’s adding to her scowls. She wants to be by her side, to ease Hope’s distress in any way she can…

She only moves a little, but with the grass so closely packed it sends a ripple of soft noise sailing towards Hope, who turns towards it.

For the first time, the girl meets another person’s eyes.

She is frozen, startled; suddenly her existence is tangible in the mind of another and she has no idea what to do.

Hope holds her gaze then lifts her hand to—to what? To grab? To grasp? To strike? Hope wouldn’t—but how does she know what Hope would do? This is new for both of them. All animals are born with a hard-wired defense system.

Panic courses hot under her skin and before Hope can do any more, the girl is darting for the safety of the trees and not daring to look back. She gasps deeply for air that doesn’t seem to reach her, rasping in her throat but not rejuvenating. She charges across the stream as her nightmare fills her mind.

She reaches the spot where she slept and huddles amongst the grass and leaves, arms over her head and knees tucked beneath her as though not seeing the world will free her from its perils.

As the minutes pass the and imagined threat fades, her heartbeat slows and exhaustion overcomes her. If she had only stopped running and turned back, she would have seen Hope wave before leaving a handful of the freshly-picked vegetables for her.

She awakes. Her eyes seem reluctant to open. She feels a yawn climb up her throat but it remains trapped in her mouth. She lifts her hands to her face and realises that her face is once again smothered in the sticky web. Her breath comes in panicked gasps as she tears at the web with ragged nails, freeing her face and hurling the thick pad of glutinous thread into the woods.

She knows her unremarkable days are over. Terror and uncertainty now mark the passage of each hour. She has survived this long by herself, but now that her circumstances are beyond her control perhaps she will no longer be able to. She has but one hope.

The girl in the woods creeps once more to the edge of the trees, taking shelter behind a sparsely-leaved bush as she hears the familiar noises of the girls approaching.

She has to choose the right moment.

Again she observes, careful not to move as she sees Hope coming over the crest of the small hill. Her mood looks dark today, clouding across her face like an oncoming storm. She lags behind the youngsters, shoulders slouched and arms hanging heavy at her sides. Before long she’s planted herself down in the grass unceremoniously, the skirt of her dress stiffly ballooning around her then settling as she pulls idly at the grass blades.

Her inactivity is unmissable; while the girls frolic and tumble in the fields, disappearing and popping up again all over the place with boundless energy, the young woman sits static and refuses to partake in the joy. Rosy and Tangle screech, their happy screams painful to the human ear, and Hope snaps; her voice is harsh, barking, like the dog that used to gnash at the girl through the bushes.

Hope surges towards Rosy and Tangle, gripping their arms and dragging the pair of them behind her as she storms back towards the farmhouse. She doesn’t even turn back, as the younger ones do, when the hidden girl makes a startled noise.

And then Hope is gone.

The girl feels empty. Nowhere is safe. Her head feels light, as if her brains have floated out of her head leaving her unbalanced. She collapses back at her camp and her eyes drift shut, despondent.

She sleeps longer than she usually does. Hunger, delirium and a new lethargy propel her into a deep slumber. Her feverish dreams overwhelm her and despair seems inescapable.

The girl’s eyes snaps open. A blurred pattern of light fills her vision. She is trapped again, her breath slamming against the mesh that now envelops her entire body. The heat inside the cocoon is unbearable. Sweat drips off her, pooling where her body touches the ground.

She tries to cry out but the thick net muffles her screams. She shouts herself raw before she feels faint again. Her eyes droop closed.

As she sleeps, her back shifts and moves. Bones wriggle under her skin. There’s a pressure between her shoulders that comes from inside her and where the skin slowly tears open, two growths force themselves out. They reach down her back, worming between her hot skin and the mesh. Once they settle, the cocoon begins to dry away.

The girl wakes and cries out, her back a sea of pain. It shifts and stutters, making her twinge and convulse. She sits up slowly, hearing the squelch of a sticky liquid under her back and feeling it trickle down as she rises. Her blood.

She looks up. She sees her.

Hope.

Hope stands holding her nose. She looks down at the naked girl in front of her, covered in blood. Her frame is small and slender.

But Hope only sees the wings. Two of them, beautiful and delicate, red patterned with swirling black lines. They open behind the girl, who cowers with tears streaming down her face, cutting lines through the grime caked on her cheeks.

Her wings stretch out around her, protecting her. Hope kneels down and offers the basket she holds in the other hand. Slowly, the wings retreat and two wide, wet eyes peer out. Hope approaches the girl, shushing her softly and murmuring comforts, and smiles for the first time in what seems like weeks. She extends a hand and it hangs in the air for a moment, uncertain. After a moment the girl takes it in hers. Hope’s smile spreads into a grin filled with such joy that it makes her face ache.

She inches a little closer and looks the girl over. Her pain seems to have subsided, but her wings still twitch every now and then. Hope marvels at them, hand hovering over their fine scales. The girls looks to Hope’s hand curiously and then gently touches the wing against her fingers, making both girls jump. The wing is soft and delicate, a natural beauty.

Hope reaches into her basket and offers the girl an apple. She digs into it hungrily, pausing to look up and smile back. The sun has sunk low in the sky, and bathed in its fierce red light, both girls look as strange as each other.

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Authored by Bethany White and Patrick Crellin