Stars bright overhead, tide in with a whisper, and Magda Fishbone wakes in her riverside bower, three full-moons rested. She stretches, pointing her toes long towards the brackish tidal water to her right. It has retreated, that fog that wormed its way over her eyes, slowed her steps and thoughts three months ago when she first fled to the bower. Now, after her enchanted sleep, she’s all clear again. She breathes in the pine-smell of the clearing. She’s glad, so very glad, to be back in the world.
She shrugs off her thick fur blanket, sewn of six different pelts. She picks from her hair the sodden cranberries from the plants that cradled her in the bower and wobbles between the trunks of the scrub pines and maples that surround the clearing. The maples are autumn yellow, half-shedded, leaves falling constantly from their spiked branches like enchanted rain, the sort of enchantment that her sister Katry once tried to concoct before marriage claimed her and she put away her magician’s books.
Magda sets off up the dirt path to the village: hemmed in on one side by the treacherous river, on the other three sides by a high wall of stone and thorn. Her heart lifts at the squelch of wet dirt beneath her sleeping slippers, at the rustle of a night magpie lifting from a roof. She hurries towards her own cozy stone house with its dark windows and, no doubt, cobwebs in her healer’s cupboards of herbs and fishbones and berry vials. She wasn’t glad to see any of this before she went to Sleep—not at all. Then, only one thing penetrated her fog: tearing her own hair out, one coarse auburn piece at a time. She had a bald spot the size of a gold coin before she made the necessary preparations and retreated to her bower.
But, no matter, she Slept among her restorative furs and plants, and now the world, the blessed world, looks fresh and new again. She reaches her front door, and that’s when she sees that there’s a figure waiting on her doorstep.
“Fishbone.” It’s Katry. She looks thinner than last time Magda saw her, and she’s wearing a new green-stone brooch on her mantle, joining the collection of six other brooches that she’s worn for years. Something else has changed about her too: her eyes are creased with worry, her thumbs fiddling together. “Fishbone, you’re awake.”
Magda lightly squeezes her sister’s upper arm, which has always been their private greeting. “Yes, and well rested, dear Kat.”
“I have to tell you—”
“Don’t tell me you’ve another suitor.” Magda taps the slick surface of Katry’s new brooch. Despite Katry’s marriage, she’s forever receiving attention from the village men, a fact her husband tolerates with remarkably good humor. It feels wonderful, post-Sleep, to care about topics such as Katry’s brooches and suitors again.
Magda’s about to swing open the door, put on a kettle of tea, and sit down with Katry to discuss all matters suitor- and village gossip-related, when someone else comes thudding up the path. It’s Joseph, fisherman by trade. When they were children he was liable to rib Magda and the other Sleepers in their schoolroom, asking her if she was such a Sleeping Beauty then why wasn’t she more beautiful, but a few whacks from their schoolmaster taught Joseph to keep his mouth shut, and soon he and all the other children learned that the Sleepers of their village were to be accorded respect and care. After a few years of resentment Magda forgave him, and helped cook for his wedding, and now always chats with him in the marketplace or at the festival.
Now, though, Joseph looks concerned, his brows drawn over his sun-browned face, his hands fiddling in much the way Katry’s were fiddling. “Healer Magda. Something strange has been on since you’ve been Sleeping. Will you come with me?”
“Something strange? Now you’ve got me curious,” Magda says, but then her gaze falls on Katry’s drawn face and Joseph’s nervous hands. She wonders just what’s transformed her sister and her friend in her absence.
Upriver from the bower where Magda slept until an hour ago, three weathered docks jut into the river’s narrows. Magda and Katry follow Joseph there, down the stone steps cut into the hillside thick with goldenrod and autumn dunegrass. Katry’s not talking, her face sloped in anxiously, lip chewed—almost the haunted face of a Sleeper, although Magda knows that Katry’s never needed any kind of Sleep except the usual dusk-to-dawn rest of most of the villagers. If Katry’s this upset, then whatever’s happened might very well be awful. Magda’s glad she herself is bright with Sleep, glad that the likelihood of a fog descending on her now is as remote as blizzards in August. Still, though, she takes Katry’s hand and squeezes it tight.
When they reach the dock, Joseph points at a bone-white coracle, its rope looped around the dock-post.
“It floated down the river a week ago,” he says. “It’s—well, go look.”
Magda steps onto the dock and peers into the coracle.
She’s not sure, at first, what to make of the thing that lies within. It’s made of clay, the black clay of riverbeds. It has the crude form of a human, just human enough to make Magda’s stomach turn with the similarity. Its eyes are rusted coins, and it’s wrapped in a time-worn cloak. Magda’s practiced healer’s eye, falling on the shiver of pulse in its clay neck, shows her that it’s on this side of life. So it’s sleeping. She knows it can’t be so, but the motionless death-like sleep reminds her awfully of that of a Sleeper.
“We’ve been waiting for you to wake up,” Joseph says. “Some of the men in town are saying—they’re on about saying that it’s a Sleeper.”
“Well, that’s just absurd,” Katry says indignantly. “That, a Sleeper? It’s clearly a monster of some kind. It’s made out of clay. It’s—it’s not anything that—”
Joseph holds both hands up in defense. “You don’t have to convince me. I think it’s fairly clear that this, whatever it is, doesn’t have anything to do with our Magda, for example. I mean, it...it took a swipe at one of Godfrey Lucas’ little ones, it did, during a waking moment. But still....” He glances around. “We don’t know what to do with it.”
“Perhaps we could send it back down the river,” says Katry.
Magda frowns at Katry. Since when was her sister so quick to dismiss? Marriage has truly taken her far from the curious girl in the schoolroom demanding lessons in the ancient languages of magic that none of their other classmates harbored the patience to understand.
Magda kneels and presses one finger against the creature’s clay cheek, equal parts fascinated and repulsed. It’s clammy and cold. It doesn’t stir.
“Do you think it’s dangerous?” she asks.
“Yes,” says Katry, at the same time as Joseph says, “Possibly.”
“Well,” Magda says. She is village healer, after all, responsible for all creatures that live in the village, from squirming river mackerel to humans. Of course this clay monster isn’t of the village, but still, it’s a creature that needs help, and so shouldn’t she look after it anyway?
“Help me bring it to my house, Joseph and Kat, would you? Maybe it’d be easier if we carried the whole boat up there?”
Katry’s mouth sets into a thin line, but Magda ignores her. She and Joseph heft the coracle out of the river and haul it up the stairs and through the stone streets to Magda’s house. After they set the boat down and Magda wipes her hair from her forehead and thanks Joseph, she turns to ask Katry to come in for that cup of tea, keep her company while Magda examines this strange clay creature. But Katry is nowhere to be found.
The next day dawns into humid autumn, steel-wool skies and heavy clouds, the sort of weather that heralds winter. Magda skips breakfast and heads outside to the coracle listing by her front door. The clay figure is unchanged from the previous night.
Magda steps back inside and scrutinizes her meticulous shelves. What medicines does she possess to wake a clay-monster, to reveal the true nature of a beast? Her mind keeps returning to the restorative herbs and charms to heal a Sleeper while he or she Sleeps. This creature can’t be a Sleeper, it simply can’t, despite her initial thoughts, despite what some of the ill-informed villagers say. But still, for lack of anything better to try, she pulls down herbs and ground bone, squat jars of river pearls and whorls of riverweed, spiky dried peppers and bright shriveled seeds. Outside, she drops a handful of the seeds onto the creature’s chest. She arranges riverweed around the crown of its head. She passes her hand over its clay thighs, and feels a coldness there, and so drops the peppers onto the boat-bottom.
She waits. It’s not going to work, of course. This special restorative concoction that she makes for the five other Sleepers in the village, as well as for herself—it could never work on this creature.
“Magda Fishbone.” It’s Alexander the carpenter, lilting by on the street in his felt cap as he does every Tuesday and Thursday. “Ah, you’re awake. And I see you’ve been alerted about the creature. You know, I seem to remember something.... It’s strange, because it’s all rather vague, but, maybe you remember too? Something about some similar creature showing up here, a few years ago when those new trading routes opened upriver—but I can’t seem to recall any more details.”
Magda hasn’t the slightest idea what he’s referring to. She doesn’t much care about the trade wars and adventures of the world outside the river and the wall. She’s about to tell Alexander as much when the creature shifts in the coracle. Its clay thighs and ribs and half its face flake away to reveal human skin, full hair on a brow, the slight shoulders of a boy. The half of his face freed from the clay is worried in sleep, dreams churning by beneath a translucent eyelid.
“It’s—” Magda says, but then the boy’s exposed eye snaps open and he jerks up in the coracle. Something rumbles within him, a scream that can’t escape because of the clay that still traps his mouth. He swings one arm, half-human, half-clay, wildly and wide. Magda leaps out of the way, and he collapses back into the coracle with a thump of crumbling clay.
Magda wipes her hands on her woolen trousers. The clay-boy is sleeping again, his chest rising and falling in fits and bursts.
“He is a Sleeper,” she says, something closing in around her heart. “I truly think he is.”
Alexander agrees quickly, and she notices he doesn’t quite make eye contact with her when he turns to go.
She spends the afternoon with the clay-boy, watching for signs of wakefulness, sprinkling a few more seeds onto his chest. She feels as though she’s woken up into a world that’s slightly off-kilter, as though everything has taken one step to the left in her absence. Everyone’s acting a bit odd. She catalogues Alexander’s abrupt departure—why did he leave so suddenly, when they’ve always gotten along famously?—as well as Katry’s disappearance last night. Besides that, there’s this creature, this half-human, half-monster, this not-quite-Sleeper who nevertheless is Sleeping just as Magda does.
When storms sneak in over the village mid-afternoon, Magda stops her pondering and watching and drapes the boy in a spare blanket, erects a tarpaulin over him. She takes her barley bread for supper and crawls into bed.
She awakens to a cold, clean autumn morning, the storm washed downriver overnight. She steps out of her house and stretches her back and beholds the dew of coming winter on the sere grass by her step. What should she do today? Start preparing winter capsaicin treatments, perhaps. It’s a bit early for that, but it never hurts to be prepared. Then perhaps she’ll head over to Katry’s house, cook her fierce and too-skinny sister a full meal.
Magda nods, satisfied with this day’s plan, but as she turns to go back inside, she notices an empty coracle listing in the road, just off her front stoop. She frowns, kneels beside it. It appears to be an ordinary coracle, made of weathered pale bark. But who saw fit to leave a coracle here, and why?
Katry surveys Magda from across the town square, positioned in the shadows so that Magda would have to scrutinize the sunlit square in order to spot her. Magda is examining the coracle in puzzlement. Katry waits, watches. The villagers trot by with fishing nets and schoolbooks and a kind word for Magda as she scrutinizes the coracle. Katry watches Alexander enter the square, smile confused at the coracle, and stop at Magda’s side. “Morning, Magda, and tell me, why do you have a boat by your front step?”
“I haven’t the slightest.” Magda stands, wiping her hands on her trousers.
Katry expels a relieved breath. Good. It worked, on Magda, on all of them. She fingers the brooches on her mantle, made of ox-stone and butterfly powder, horse heart and roe, stones that only magicians—never healers—ever study. She presses her stomach, concave below her ribs. Then she hurries back to her house. Her work is done, for now.
Autumn churns towards winter, and afternoons find a long line of villagers outside Magda’s lintel, coming in for their yearly dose of winter capsaicin. Magda welcomes each of them to her kitchen, bids them strip to their shirt sleeves, and wields a jar of the special capsaicin mixture, which she makes of Northern Peppers grown in her back garden greenhouse. As she always does, she coats their ears and arms and backs with the filmy carmine powder, which will keep them warm and looking forward to spring through the deadly winter.
Every afternoon, Magda finishes with the line of villagers about an hour before sunset. One day, she is about to close up shop and meet Katry for a walk along the river-reeds when who should come in but Dorothy, a bright-minded girl who’s still in school, accompanied by her mother, Lilita, a freckle-faced woman with moles on her collarbone and a pretty, soft face. Dorothy is a chipper girl, but today, she looks as though she’s being chased by something, and Lilita’s usually fluttering hands lie still on Dorothy’s shoulders.
“I’m sorry to bother,” Dorothy says, lacing and unlacing her fingers. “I know this afternoon’s for administering the pepper-powder, but—but I—”
She doesn’t have to say any more; Magda already can see in her twisting hands and nervous gait the manners of someone whose mind is growing foggy, tired. Magda will never forget her first fog, her first Sleep, when she was just barely older than Dorothy is now. She remembers that she told the old village healer she felt as though someone had taken out her eyes and wrapped them in a fine poisonous gauze before slipping them back inside her.
“You can help her, can’t you, Magda?” Lilita says.
“Of course.” Magda knows Dorothy must be frightened, and Lilita too, and she reaches out her hand to comfort them, to tell them not to worry, Sleeping is just part of the ordinary rhythm of life for some people, there’s no need to be afraid or ashamed, the village will take care of her.
But just then someone bangs at the front door, insistent, shouting. Four village men—Joseph, Alexander, Godfrey, and Jonas—stream into the house, hauling three other people. She doesn’t recognize the three people that they’re hauling; they seem to be dressed up, in costumes of some sort.
Her breath catches when she realizes they’re not costumes.
No, they’re monsters, some kind of monsters, here in her house, their skin made of loamy dirt, their mouths pine-needle slashes, fern-hair drooping over their eyes. They wilt from the hands of the men who have marched them into her house. Has she seen something like this before? Did she dream it once, when she was sleeping or even in a Sleep, ensconced in fur and berries?
“We found them scratching at the gate not an hour ago,” Alexander says, more harshly than she’s ever heard him say anything before. “They must have been loose in the upland forests and stumbled on our village.”
“They’re Sleepers,” Godfrey says. “Isn’t it obvious? Look at them. Their Sleep isn’t natural, is it? No one normal would be able to Sleep through us hauling them down from the gate and talking right now.”
Magda hears a sharp intake of breath behind her. “Normal?” Dorothy says.
“They’re not Sleepers,” Magda says, even though she can’t deny the way they hang from the men’s arms as though dead to the world. But they are nothing like her and Dorothy. “They’re monsters.”
“Aren’t they?” Godfrey’s looking at her sharply, in a way that makes her stomach ache. “They look like Sleepers and monsters to me. Maybe the two are one and the same.”
“Pardon me?” Magda says.
“Now, look,” Joseph says, “we really don’t know. We’ve never seen anything like them before, and we don’t want to jump to any conclusions.”
“I’ll prove that they’re not Sleepers,” Magda says. “I’m sure they’re not. You’ll see.”
The men glance at each other, and agree, and make to go. “Sorry to interrupt,” Alexander says to Dorothy and Lilita. “We’ll let Magda get on with treating you.”
Dorothy looks from Magda to Alexander to her hands to Lilita. She opens her mouth to speak, then closes it, and before she can open it again, Lilita jumps in.
“She only came in for the winter capsaicin,” Lilita says, firmly, finally. “She didn’t come in for any other reason at all.”
“But she needs....” Magda trails off as Lilita and the men stare at her, and she realizes that somehow this conversation has veered into an unfamiliar direction, one she can’t understand, and doesn’t want to.
Katry kneels in her bedroom. Her husband is downstairs; she must be quiet. Before her sits a milk pail. It’s full of everything Katry’s eaten so far that day, melted by her stomach acid and vomited back out past her gullet. Her eyes are watering and her throat aches, and she’s dry-heaved three times. No matter. Now that she’s emptied out everything from her stomach, she’ll be able to bring out what matters.
She sticks two fingers down her throat and bends over the bucket. She’s sweating and trembling and her gullet heaves and then, yes, the green comes out, the deep whispery green of magic, thick as fog drifting over the winter river. It swirls from her mouth into the bucket.
Truthfully, a sick little corner of Katry likes doing this, likes making this pact between herself and her memories. Part of her has always envied Magda’s need to Sleep, the fragility that haunts her broad shoulders and capable exterior. With this ritual, Katry has her own secret. Her own haunted fragility.
But that’s not really why she does it. Not the main reason. She remembers Magda, her little sister, age fourteen, holding back tears as she shoved blankets and trousers into a burlap sack. She grits her teeth, and plunges her hand into the bucket, rooting around, plucking at strands and strings. She gathers up them all, all the memories of the past few days: the fern-hair girls and needle-mouthed boys who appeared in their village; the sneers that have started creasing the faces of the villagers she’s known her whole life; the worries that have started to darken eyes. She gathers them all, weaves them, presses them hard in her palms. When she draws out the bundle it has coalesced into a stone, this one the color of tiger lilies. She brings it closer to the window, studying it against the light. It’s bright and slick with the acid from her stomach. She holds it up. She’s already calmer; peace always descends on her after she scoops away the village’s memories of the monsters and binds them for herself.
And so her grip is lighter, less rigid, and she is less alert, and when the slippery stone slips from her idling grasp, she fails to snatch it from the air. It falls hard and smashes sharp on the floor.
Magda sidesteps a monster asleep on one of the wide paver stones around the fishers’ monument in the central square. In the past two weeks, dozens of the monsters have crept down the river or appeared at the gate behind the village, and a few, like this one, have snuck into the village. Most of them congregate here, in the central square, as though they long for the warm beating heart of a village. The men take turns standing watch over them; today, Alexander is observing with a steely eye. The cleaners have stopped the weekly street-washing around the monument, and mud from errant boots and scraps of newsprint and rotten fruit cores are building up in the streets’ seams and creases.
Magda hurries until she stands on Dorothy’s doorstep, knocking knocking knocking. She’s been trying to speak with Dorothy ever since Lilita marched her out of Magda’s kitchen two weeks ago. If the girl really is a Sleeper, she needs treatment, soon. Magda won’t sit by and let a Sleeper languish without treatment. She made that vow when she first fell victim to the Sleep herself. She’d spent her childhood watching clever fierce Katry plunge herself into her arcane magician’s books, and when Sleep came for her, Magda promised she would bring the same determination she’d always admired in her sister to helping other Sleepers. It’s why she became a healer.
At last, Lilita slits the door open. “Yes?”
“It’s Magda Fishbone. Why haven’t you and Dorothy returned for her treatments? If the Sleep symptoms are truly coming on her, she needs to—”
“My daughter, a Sleeper? That’s nonsense.”
Magda stares at her. Lilita has drawn herself up to her full height and presses her hand against the moles on her collarbone, as though she can’t believe Magda’s allegations, as though she’s never heard something so absurd.
“You came to my house, you were there when Dorothy—”
Lilita scoffs. “Meaning no disrespect, Healer Fishbone, but we were mistaken. My daughter is an industrious girl, a clean one, nothing peculiar or off-kilter about her. You understand?”
“Is this—is this because of what Godfrey said? About Sleepers being....being mon—“
“I’m awfully busy,” Lilita says, and the door eases shut.
Magda steps back, reeling. Lilita was one of her teachers in school. Lilita taught her how to make a winter capsaicin, tried to teach her the geography of the ports at the mouth of the river. A reasonable, kind, learned woman. How could she willfully ignore the truth about the care Dorothy needs? How could she snidely imply that Sleepers, that Magda, lack something in their character?
It’s because of the monsters, isn’t it?
“I just don’t understand,” Magda says, later that afternoon, as she and Katry walk through the marshes along the river. “How can they believe that those monsters are Sleepers? I mean, I suppose they do appear to be Sleeping, but—” She lets out a laugh, to conceal her unease. “—I’m not a river monster or a forest monster or whatever they are. I don’t have reeds for hair. I don’t sleep all the time and—and wander into strange villages where I’m not welcome.”
Katry is silent. Sere reeds swish and whisper before them, jade-colored water eddying downstream to faraway ports. Katry’s even skinnier today than she was last time Magda saw her, brooches hanging heavy off her woolen cloak as though they’re going to topple her over. Why is she so thin? Magda adds that worry to the fears already percolating about the monsters, and turns to Katry to toss those fears and worries into the airy space between them that they’ve built since girlhood, but Katry speaks first.
“Maybe they were once Sleepers,” Katry says, “but now they’re something else.”
“I mean—” Katry fiddles with one of her brooches and stares out over the gleaming river “—that if someone’s a Sleeper but not allowed to Sleep, or doesn’t have access to any of the cures and remedies that a healer provides, well then, maybe they turn out...they turn into monsters.”
Magda’s taken aback. She’s been studying Sleepers for nearly seven years: their habits, their needs, their wants. She’s never heard of any such thing.
“Kat, is this something you suspect, or something you know? Did you possibly find information about Sleepers that I don’t have? How did you learn so much about these creatures?”
Katry clenches her mantle tight over her chest, pressing her palms over the brooches. “Think about it. If a Sleeper is exiled because they’re peculiar or lazy or odd, and they need a Sleep, well, if they’re a man who falls asleep they’ll be set on and robbed, and if they’re a woman it’s that much worse. They have to stay awake to protect themselves. But they need Sleep. They need it, or they’ll die. So what do they do? They start to change. Their bodies become earth if they’re exiled into the forest, or clay, or reeds or something such in the rivers. They stop being human so no one can know that—”
“But how do you know? These creatures just showed up here a few weeks ago, how could you possibly—”
“If you cracked a book once in awhile or showed any interest in the outside world, you’d know too, Fishbone,” Katry says, a flush crawling up her cheeks.
“Kat. ‘If I cracked a book once in awhile?’ I’m town healer, for goodness’ sakes. Look—” Magda swallows her hurt, pushes on. “I don’t know how you know all this, or how you think you know it. It goes against everything...everything I’ve....” She thinks back over her twenty-one years, how the people of the village have always respected hers and the other Sleepers’ need for pauses in quiet glens or river-side bogs, as much as they would respect anyone’s need for food or water. How could there be places where Sleepers were mocked and scorned? Persecuted and reviled? Cast out until they became—monsters?
“It just doesn’t square,” she says. “How could anyone think that a Sleeper is....anything but a person who needs a bit of help?” It comes out before she remembers her recent conversation with Lilita.
Katry lets out a short sharp laugh. “Farmers Sleeping through the harvest? Mothers who Sleep instead of caring for their children? I suppose not every place is like our village.” Katry scoffs. “But, Fishbone, now that I’ve explained that these creatures, these monsters, used to be Sleepers, surely you’ll agree that we need to get them out of the village post-haste and send them back up the river or into the forest on the other side of the wall and—”
“Why?” Magda says, rubbing her arms.
“What do you mean, why?”
“Well, if they—” Magda can hardly bring herself to say it. “If they really were Sleepers, then maybe we can help—”
“No, Magda, absolutely not. No. They’re beyond the pale. Aren’t you listening? There’s nothing you can do for them.”
“But we don’t know—”
“You haven’t any responsibility to them.”
Magda wants to believe it, wants to believe that there’s some strict barrier between her and the monsters, some reason why she’s not like them, some reason why she could never be like them.
But if what Katry says is true, then there’s only one reason she can think of: an accident of geography and time, a happy coincidence that she was born into her benevolent village protected by their wide river and stern wall. And that’s not very much of a barrier at all.
“I have to get back to work, Kat,” she mumbles. She needs to be alone, needs to think, needs to ponder what Katry said, and what she, Magda, is going to do about it.
“Fishbone. Fishbone.” Katry seizes her arm. “Remember what I said. They’re not Sleepers anymore. They’re not. They’re monsters. You can’t help them, and we need to get rid of them. Before—before—haven’t you noticed that people have been treating you differently?”
Of course she’s noticed. But she was able to ignore it until Katry said it. Katry saying it makes it true.
She notices, dimly, that her sister is not just thin but also pale, bags under her eyes, her cheekbones sharp as knives. Ordinarily she would ask after her sister’s health, drag her over for a cup of tea. But today she hurries away from her along the path.
Magda spends the rest of the afternoon in her kitchen, waiting for the stragglers who haven’t yet had their doses of winter capsaicin. None come knocking. She hopes it’s a coincidence, but she knows it’s not. She’ll have to track them down, make them see sense, when her mind is clearer, when she’s not occupied with what Katry said earlier. How is she to know if anything her sister told her was true? After all, Katry, bright Katry, is lost to marriage and bored in its grasp. And Magda has trouble believing that Katry knows something about these creatures that she, the expert on Sleepers, doesn’t know. Yet Katry seemed so sure, her voice as rough and insistent as when she’d convinced their parents to let them stay up to watch the constellations change in the sky when they were children.
A part of Magda still can’t imagine that they are Sleepers, but another, rawer part of her understands the truth. Her fellow villagers are clearly afraid of them and want to simply send them back on their way, but if the so-called monsters really are just like her, could she help them? And in helping them, could she show the other villagers that they aren’t to be feared?
Will she ever be able to forgive herself if she doesn’t try?
Night falls as she sits at her kitchen table, clenching and unclenching her hand as she stares at her collection of remedies on her kitchen shelf.
Then, at eight-strike, she stuffs some healing ginger into her anorak pocket and leaves her house.
She knows most of the monsters inside the wall are clustered around the fishers’ monument, under watch, and she doesn’t want to have to ask permission or argue with her friends. So she climbs paths and half-staircases to the top of the hill behind the village, where the stone-and-thorn wall separates them from the forest, where Joseph heard the Sleeper-monsters scrabbling at the gate two weeks ago, when this all started.
The gate is closed and barred for the night. Magda hooks her hands through a tangle of thorns and climbs the wall and peers over the other side. A moment passes, while her eyes adjust away from the candlelit windows and bright constellations in the sky over the village. Then the darkness resolves itself, and the morass behind the wall becomes a tangle of scrubby pines and jagged rocks and silty soil.
She waits. She fingers the healing ginger in her pocket and watches for signs of movement. If she gives the ginger to them and it eases their pain, brings humanity back to their faces, well then, she’ll know.
The crescent moon shifts in the sky. The breeze catches her hair, chills her hands as they grip the wall’s rough stone.
She is about to give up, about to return to her warm hearth and empty kitchen, when something rustles. She clenches the wall, and then they appear. Monsters, slinking along stoop-backed, passing through the scrub-pines.
But they’re not really monsters, are they? As soon as Magda sees them, she also sees this: they’re really just girls. Three underfed girls, clad in the strange cloaks and voluminous skirts of other villages, their hair shorn or tangled, or on one of them, made of thorns and briars. Their mouths slashes of grass.
As Magda stares at these girl-monsters, or monster-girls, one of them spots her. She breaks off from her group, hurries towards Magda, clambers up her side of the wall until her face is mere inches from Magda’s. Her eyes are the gleaming yellow eyes, thick-pupiled, of an animal. Her hair is long, and ragged.
“Hello?” says the monster, the two syllables of the word dripping with hope and expectation. “Hello?” says the girl again.
Magda reaches into her pocket and draws out the thick chunk of healing ginger. She reaches forward, her arm trembling, and presses it against the girl’s cheek.
The girl closes her eyes. She smiles, tenderly. When she opens her eyes again, they are markedly less yellow, and markedly more brown.
Magda lets go of the thorn-wall and drops to the ground, crouching, breathing hard.
Katry was right, except for one thing: they aren’t irredeemable monsters at all. That girl responded to her ginger. Magda’s cures could help that girl, could help the other two with her, could help all of these so-called monsters who are just children, just people, boys and girls, the same kind of girls that she and Katry once were.
The only difference between them is that Magda has always been cradled in the safety and comfort of her village, while for whatever reason, this girl lost hers. Perhaps because of war. Perhaps because of famine.
Or perhaps because she was cast out, exiled by the people who were supposed to take care of her.
Magda’s breath quickens. The line between her and this girl is so, so thin. Her whole life she has churned along, always a part of her village and its happy routine: toddlers taking first steps children learning primers and eel-fishing, throwing knobbly pieces of ginger, their parents scooping them up, not angry. Adults harvesting pearls and marrying and dancing the fairy-reel and coming to terms with dying. Smiling men washing the paver stones in the streets every week, river water slopping from their buckets. Among them all, she Slept, she woke, she danced with Katry and the others round the square. All those happy and rich markers of a normal life, because her village had always accepted her and the other Sleepers. And all that time, other people, from other villages—these boys and girls, these so-called monsters—were exiled from that ordinary rhythm. They were denied the warm hearths and joyful patterns that everybody deserved.
But they could be helped.
She could help them.
Magda the healer is not one for rash and impulsive decisions. She has not married, because she hasn’t yet performed a calculation showing that the benefits of taking a man into her life and bed would outweigh the costs. Whenever a sick villager crosses her lintel, she carefully and properly determines the best treatment for him or her. She is a weigher, a counter.
And so Magda weighs, and counts. It would take time and effort to help these Sleepers, and even more time and effort to also help the other Sleepers who have come down the river and through the gate in the past weeks. It would take half the ingredients in her storeroom, and it would take space in the village, and some of the villagers would balk, and it would take time to convince them.
But what’s that, weighed against these lives? Weighed against keeping the vow she made when she became a healer?
Magda makes for the thick stone gate, wrenches up the bar, and pulls the gate open.
Katry is loitering at her front stoop, arms tight over her brooch-covered mantle. Her body can feel the absence of the tiger lily brooch that slipped from her stupid errant hand a fortnight ago. How could she have been so clumsy? And worse, worse—now, even when she’s emptied her stomach of all food, her gullet comes up empty. Once, last week, she managed to expel a handful of memories into the bucket: memories of three Sleeper-monsters collapsed on the docks, and another memory of Lilita and Alexander muttering to each other in the apothecary while Magda browsed the dried goods. But the handful of memories was so small she couldn’t gather up the threads, and it evaporated before she could finish her task. She’ll need to wait until more memories pile up before she can gather them again. And by then, it might be too late. She tried to stave off disaster by telling Magda some of the truth, during their riverside walk today. She has the sneaking suspicion it didn’t work.
She’s still on her front stoop when she sees that her suspicion was correct, when two monsters amble into the village, their arms looped together, leaning on each other in the light of the flickering torches that hang on the walls of the fishmonger’s across the way. The monsters have long fern-hair and flat animal eyes. They limp past her, heading towards the town square.
Katry turns from her stoop and flees upstairs to her bedroom past her husband’s inquiring eyes. She kneels before the bucket, because Magda’s done it again, the same thing she’s done four times before. Katry sticks two fingers down her throat, because she remembers, because all the brooches pinned to her mantle mean that of everyone in the village, she alone remembers. Her gullet wrenches, and she tries to vomit, because she will never ever forget the year Magda was fourteen, the year after she was first diagnosed with Sleep, and the wars up north sent the Sleeper-monsters shambling into their village for the first time, clogging their streets and lurking round the village square, and the town elders, which included their own parents, wringing their hands as they tried to decide what to do, and whispers about the peculiarities of Sleepers crept down the village alleys and through the marketplace, and then one of the village children prodded a Sleeper-monster awake with a stick and the monster bit the child.
Then, then they started talking about locking them up, locking them all up, including Magda, Katry’s little sister. Katry will never forget how, on the night before the edict was to go into place, Magda didn’t even dare to cry when she came to Katry’s bedroom because she didn’t dare show any weakness. Katry will never forget how she realized, if only those monsters had never come to the village, my little sister wouldn’t be struggling to hold back tears as she folds up clothes and blankets to take with her to her new home behind locked doors. And Katry fled to her bookshelf, and she tore through her books, and she found a solution. Katry remembers all of it, that first time it happened, and every time it’s happened since, in all its iterations. And Katry will never, ever let it get that far again.
But no matter how many times she jams her fingers down her throat, no matter how many times her gut heaves, the bucket remains empty. And now the shouts are starting outside.
When Magda opens the gates, the three Sleeper girls amble into the village. Two of them dodge around her quickfooted before she can tell them to come to her kitchen to receive treatment there, but the one who said hello to her pauses at her shoulder.
She’s short and wrapped in bark; her eyes a swirl of animal yellow and human brown. She hesitates, but Magda holds out her hand and the girl takes it. Magda leads her down crooked stairs, past silent houses. As they walk, lights flare in windows, and then the fire bell begins to clang in the village’s heart. Are they ringing the alarm because of these three new Sleepers? Do the other villagers think they snuck in of their own accord, uninvited? She quickens her pace. She must explain to them that they are guests, that she can help them.
Someone charges round the corner towards her. It’s Joseph, the whites of his eyes showing. He rears back when he sees Magda.
“You,” he breathes. “I always defended you. I always told them you were a good girl, our healer, no matter how many monsters came into the village. Even when everyone started looking at you and those other Sleepers askance, I defended you. And now, now you’ve gone and made a fool of me.”
“What are you on about?” Magda says. The Sleeper behind her is shying away, trying to pull her past Joseph, her head down, but Magda steadies her arm. “Have you had too much ale? I’m—”
“Then I suppose you’re going to try to tell me you didn’t let more of these monsters in.”
“Of course I let them in. Listen Joseph, I can help them.”
“Oh, help them? Are you going to Sleep them in your kitchen? Are you going to watch them round the clock to make sure they don’t injure our children, dirty our streets, make trouble in—”
“If I help them, they won’t be a threat anymore. They’re just Sleepers. Just like...just like me.”
Joseph looks her up and down. She’s never seen contempt like that in someone’s face before. It makes her draw back, towards the shadows. “Exactly,” he says, and he packs sadness into the word, as though he doesn’t want to believe it. “Just like you.” He stalks off.
She hurries with the Sleeper to her house, suddenly not so eager to rush to the village square and tell everyone about her plan and what she discovered. The streets are alive with eyes, with whispers. The torches on the houses have adopted a sinister patina. She leads the Sleeper inside, shuts and locks the door, and sinks down at her kitchen table.
It’s as though a sweet dog has turned on her, as though a patch of the river that’s always been pleasant for sailing has suddenly sprouted eddies and whirlpools. This is her village, her home. These are the men and women and children into whose life-pattern she’s woven, who she belongs to. How could Joseph speak to her that way? How could he think that of her?
But it isn’t just Joseph, is it? She thought she could convince them, thought they would listen to her, since she’s of them, part of their tribe. But is she?
The Sleeper has curled up and fallen asleep on Magda’s bed, leaving trails of dirt on the freshly washed quilt. She feels a stab of annoyance, and then guilt. Hands trembling, she turns to her cabinet, pulls down a stack of envelopes, and starts filling them with bright berries and nettles, dried seeds and swatches of fur. Ingredients to help the Sleepers, to help them transition out of their disguise. Once the other villagers see them transform, maybe—
Someone’s rapping on the door and shouting her name, but she ignores it. For the first time in her life, she feels fear, not curiosity or joy, at the sound of someone knocking on her door. Or is it not the first time? Something stirs in her gullet, something moves in her chest, some hazy memory jogged, of the sick feeling of hiding, of hoping that a knock will pass over you, of wishing you could remain unseen.
She thinks of this Sleeper-girl losing her village, possibly through exile. She wonders if that’s ever happened to a Sleeper from her village. An hour ago, it seemed impossible. It doesn’t anymore.
Her hands are trembling as she stuffs the berries and nettles into their envelopes. She can see them, and she knows logically that they are different objects, but she feels nothing in her heart while looking at them, no gladness at the sight of her favorite berry or worry that the nettles aren’t dry enough. Nothing. They mean as much to her as one of the languages in Katry’s books, scribbled in a foreign alphabet.
She drops the envelopes, leans her forehead on her hands. It’s the fog. The fog is coming over her, and she needs Sleep. It hasn’t come on her this suddenly, this insistently, in—how long? It’s happened before, hasn’t it? Why does she feel as though all of this has happened before? She swivels to her cabinet to fetch the ingredients she needs to bring with her to her riverside bower, but then, the knocking and shouting outside shakes her house and she slams the cabinet shut. She can’t Sleep now, can she?
She seizes a strand of her autumn hair and yanks. The twinge in her scalp penetrates the fog, barely.
More knocking, this time on the back door. Magda wrenches herself from the kitchen and wobbles through the house. It’s Katry, her face drawn. She shoulders past Magda. “Fishbone. What did you do?”
“I let...” Magda seizes another strand of her hair, clenches it in her shaking fingers. Katry. She still feels a jump of love in her heart for Katry. The fog can’t be that bad, then. Maybe she can fight it off. She clears her throat, searches for words. “They’re the same as us. As me. They’re still just Sleepers, Kat, just as you said. I found these in the forest behind the village and I let them in because...because....”
“Because it was the right thing to do.” Katry sounds ancient, weary when she says it.
“Exactly! But I ran up against Joseph on my way home, and the way he talked to me, it was—I’ve never heard someone speak to me that way before. I don’t understand.”
“Don’t you?” Katry sweeps through the room, brushes past Magda. She opens the cabinet beneath Magda’s washbasin. “Listen, Magda. Listen to what I’m about to say. I’ve never explained this to you before.”
“Why would you have explained this to me bef—”
“Those monsters aren’t safe, any of them. They come from villages we’ve never seen, with customs we don’t know. They’ve experienced horrors we can only imagine. They are unpredictable. They are dirty.” Katry gestures at Magda’s quilt, where the Sleeper curls.
“But you don’t know—”
“Oh, it doesn’t matter what I do and don’t know.” Katry pulls a washbucket from a cabinet. “It matters what they think.” She jerks her chin at the door, where torches flicker, where shadows mill past Magda’s windows. “And when you show allegiance to these Sleepers, when you stand up for them, when you let them into our village, you make them think that you are on these Sleepers’ side.”
Magda seizes her hair again, and she yanks. All the love and care and respect given her by the village all these years—it all feels like a lie. As though they were all wearing masks, and the masks have come off to show the devils beneath. She would care, except for the fog. She cares logically. Her heart cannot wrap itself around anything at all.
“Listen.” Katry kneels before her, takes her hands. “What if I told you there was a way to take it all away? To banish the monsters, to make you and everyone in the village forget that they were ever here?”
Magda shakes her head. Her gaze falls on the Sleeper curled up in her bed, dirt-streaked. She’s snoring, lightly, as though she’s relaxing for the first time in her life. “No. No. Those people have known me my whole life. I’m going to go out there and explain—”
“Truly, Fishbone?” Katry traces her thumb over Magda’s right cheek. Magda feels, as though from a long way off, that Katry’s thumb isn’t tracing over flesh but rather over the raised spine of a fish’s skeleton embedded in her skin. Katry’s index finger falls to Magda’s forehead and Magda feels she’s pressing something hard there too. “Do you want to go out there and show them that in the end, you and every other Sleeper in this village are no different than that one? Is that what you want?”
Magda stares at her sister.
“Please, Fishbone,” Katry says. “Please.” And then Magda realizes that Katry is crying, her thin tears falling on the sparkling brooches on her mantle.
Magda lets her gaze linger on the Sleeper, on the monster, in her bed. She listens to the shouts outside. She looks around her kitchen, its neat cabinets, the stool where she’s taken so much pride in treating so many villagers over the years. The whorls in the floorboards. The sister kneeling before her. The rise and fall of her whole life in the village. She touches the fishbones, the beginnings of her Sleeper’s disguise, on her cheekbone. She thinks of what she may have to give up. Of what she may already have given up.
And she sinks to her knees too and peers into the bucket. When Katry whispers to her what must be done, she sticks two fingers down her throat.
It’s a cold, clear night, the sort of starbright, breath-hiss evening when winter’s fingers freeze the river. Magda walks up from Katry’s house, where she just bade her sister goodnight. Katry has eight brooches now. Magda chuckles and shakes her head, thinking of it. She waves at Joseph the fisherman as she climbs the stairs to her house, then lets herself in. She thinks that she really must have her sister over for tea tomorrow. Katry’s so thin, clearly not eating enough, and Magda aims to set that straight and right.
She’s about to change into her nightdress when something in her usually spotless kitchen catches her eye. It’s three brown envelopes, paper-thick, lying on her table’s burled wood. Frowning, she slits them open. Each contains a different combination of herbs and seeds, fur tufts and nettles and the fine bones of fishes. When did she put these here? What had she meant to do with them?
Magda is a weigher and a counter, and rarely comes to a decision without spooling it out logically and soundly first. But staring at these envelopes, she harbors a growing firm conviction that she packaged them up because she wanted to take them to the forest. She scoops them up and carries them out into the frozen night. It would be a terrible bone-chill night to spend outside, she thinks.
She walks to the edge of the wall that hems in the village and hesitates. She listens to an owl hooting. She listens to something rustling on the other side of the wall.
Then she hefts the envelopes and heaves them over the wall into the darkness. How strange, she thinks, the compulsions that come on us for no reason. How strange to follow one, for once.
She wipes her hands and hurries back to her village. Clocks chime the early hour, and families play out their nightly rituals behind warm-lit windows. Magda waves to them as she passes, and they wave back at her. The village breathes, in, out, as it always has, the fish caught, the tides up and down, the festivals and dances, the three months of Sleep here or there, the sacred and immutable rhythms of their lives. I hope nothing will ever change it, thinks Magda, but then, she knows that nothing ever will.