It was just one kiss. Nothing significant. A brush on the cheek. One kiss could do no harm. Except... Rose kissed me today, and now I can think of nothing else.
If I had a shiny piece of amber for each time I’d been warned to stay away from Rose and her family, well, I’d be able to buy that set of ebony needles I’ve had my eye on, at the very least. But warnings don’t come with amber, and I suppose I don’t come with much sense. Rose smiled, and I could not stay away. Not from eyes so bright and shining or dimples so entrancing. She laughed, clear and sweet, and I could do naught else but follow. Down to the stream, under the trees both heavy and light with blossoms. She wore no shoes, and she danced. Leaps and twirls at the edge of the water as if she were on some festival stage.
She looked startled when she saw me, as if she didn’t know I had followed. But I saw those dimples, and I knew her surprise was just an act. Then she laughed again and held out her hand. It would have been rude not to take it. She spun me around and pulled me close, so close the linen of our skirts brushed before she spun me back out. I laughed from the unexpected joy of it all, and when she pulled me close again, she did not let me go. Instead, she grabbed up my shoulders in her hands, stepped up on the tips of her toes and brushed her lips against my cheek. I gasped in surprise—and delight. Then I blinked, and with another haunting laugh she was gone.
I stayed there by the water for at least an hour, lost in a happy haze. Mama found me with a foolish grin on my face and my market basket still empty. “What’s gotten into you?” she chided me, taking the basket and sending me home. I didn’t tell her about Rose. I have a little sense, at least.
Rose kissed me today, just a brush on the cheek, and I’ve been smiling about it ever since. Mama thinks I’ve come down with something. She sent me to my room to rest, but who can sleep at a moment like this. I tried to knit, to lose myself in the repetition of knit, purl, knit, purl, knit. All I have to show for it are half a dozen dropped stitches and an incomplete row. I’ve been curled up in the window seat, staring toward the stream, smiling like the fool I am, and all I can think is just one thing.
Will she kiss me again tomorrow?
She looked different today, somehow. Less free but more real. Her hair was bound up tight, wrapped around her head instead of flowing loose. Her clothes closer fitting, firm and solid. But, oh, those dimples were still there. The eyes still sparked with the promise of mischief. Still the same Rose, under that guise of respectability. It took so little for me to convince her I should be stolen away again.
Not to the stream, this time, but the woods, full of golden-green light and oh so many inviting shadows. The leaves smelled clean and fresh. Summer was creeping up on our corner of the world, and with it comes heat. But the woods were still cool and comfortable.
Comfortable, that is the word, isn’t it? For how I feel with Rose. It shouldn’t be. I shouldn’t be. But oh, how I am. The whole village says she’s strange, trouble. Not just her; it’s her entire family they won’t take to.
I should be nervous, worried even. Or cautious, perhaps. What if we’re found together? What will people think? Mama won’t be happy; I know that much. She’s likely to stop letting me out of the house. If Rose really is trouble, then what might she try to get me to do? Something dangerous, perhaps? Something wrong, for sure. Improper.
Oh goodness, I hope she does have something improper in mind. I can scarcely wait to see what it is.
No dancing today, although the idea is appealing, with the ethereal light and the music of the breeze through the leaves. But the trees themselves are even more appealing, so we don’t dance. Rose has a better idea.
It is glorious. Modesty abandoned, we tie our skirts to free our legs so we can scramble up the nearest trunk, giggling as we challenge one another to races. Who can reach that branch first? Who can go the highest? Rose bests me by a hefty margin, but it’s of no consequence. She just grins at me, all dimples and challenge, and I find myself pushing past my unease so that I might reach her.
Her grin softens from challenge to welcome when I reach her branch, and I see it is wide enough for two. She slides over so that I can rest against the trunk, and she laces her fingers through mine, and I can no longer blame the height for the racing of my heart. We can see the village from here. It looks so different from this vantage, like something out of a painting. Something unconnected from my life. All I know in this moment is her. I can’t imagine wanting it any other way.
“Are you happy there?”
I glance at Rose, surprised she would break the enchanted silence. “Happy enough, I suppose,” I tell her. What an odd question. But, if it’s on her mind... I wonder aloud, “Are you?” She must know what they all think of her.
Her answer is a laugh, sweeter than the peal of bells. She grins again and shakes her head. One curl escapes from her bound up hair and I long to reach out, tuck it behind her ear. But I sit utterly still, unable to move, waiting for her to say more. I find myself overwhelmed with the need to know just what she’s thinking.
“I’m never happy in the village,” she says at last, as if understanding my need for more. She squeezes my hand, and her smile softens again. Not sad, though. Warm. “But I find my ways around it,” she assures me. “I’m happy more than not.”
“Oh,” I say, confused but glad all the same. “That’s good.”
She tilts her head, looks me over, and squeezes my fingers again. “Do you think you’ll spend your life here, then?”
Unasked but clear in her eyes is a second question. Do I want to? I rest my head against the tree trunk and look out over the village, giving both questions the serious consideration she expects. “I don’t know what else I would do,” I answer at last. There is a hint of a question in my statement, though. If she has a suggestion, I’m willing to hear it.
She either doesn’t see the hope on my face or chooses not to. Instead she looks back at the village and lets out a sigh. “You’ve been gone for a while. You’ll be missed.” Before I can protest, she swings herself off the branch and begins to make her way down, calling up, “Come!” so that I know to follow.
I feel as if something important has passed between us, but I cannot fathom its true nature. As I make my way back to the ground, I think that descending should be harder, slower, more arduous than the climb had been. A return to the everyday. But it’s no more difficult than the ascent. Nowhere near as much fun, though.
On the ground again, Rose is there waiting. She smiles, and any somber air I’d expected for this moment is gone. Reaching out, she holds her fingers near my cheek, just over the spot where she kissed me yesterday. It takes all of the restraint I possess not to close that space between us. Even without contact, I imagine I feel a warmth at that place on my cheek, spreading out through my entire body in time with the beat of my heart. “Will I see you tomorrow?” Rose asks, her smile spreading like the warmth.
My voice is breathy, I trip over the words, but manage to say, “I should like nothing more.”
“Good,” she says. Her hand drops to my shoulder and she leans forward, placing a kiss on my other cheek. My breath catches and my eyes drop shut. When I open them again, she is gone. I reach up to touch my cheek, warm all over now. I feel as if I must be glowing. A matched set of kisses, she’s given me. Are they meant to mark me? Am I hers now?
I think I am, whether she meant it that way or not.
I am no less blissful than I was yesterday, but at least today I manage to make it home on my own. I keep my smile hidden, a secret, just for myself.
See. I am learning. There is some sense in me after all.
Mama is still worried about me. Or suspicious might be a better word. Perhaps Rose really did mark me somehow. I am changed enough that Mama can see it, though she does not know the cause. After dinner she calls me to sit with her by the fire. She asks me about my day. I tell her that I walked to the woods. It is true enough, although I leave out the part about climbing trees. I can tell she would like to ask me who I walked with to the woods, but for some reason she doesn’t. Maybe she knows she won’t like the answer.
We fall into silence as we turn to our knitting. The click and clack of the needles fill the space left empty of conversation. I fare a little better than last night, but not much. In the quiet, my mind wanders back to the woods and to Rose’s question. Will I stay all my days here in this village? I had answered her truthfully: I do not know what else I would do. But now that the question has been asked, I cannot help but consider the possibilities.
After I ready myself for bed, I go to the window and look out, thinking the question over still. I’ve never been out of the village before. Never had a reason to. I press a hand to the cool glass. I know where I would want to go, if I wasn’t here. “With you, Rose,” I whisper into the glass, “I will go anywhere, so long as you are there, too.”
On the third day I notice the true change that has begun. Or rather, it is Mama who notices, and calls it to my attention.
“Are you feeling all right, darling?” she asks, lips pursed in concern as she peers at me over the table. “Are you over warm, perhaps? You look—” she pauses, tilts her head, finishes “—flushed.” But she frowns as she says it, as if she knows it is not the right word.
“I feel quite well, Mama,” I assure her, smiling to mask my confusion. “I am not too warm at all.”
“If you say so,” she returns, dubious. “Still, perhaps you had better stay inside today.”
I laugh at the suggestion. “Oh, Mama, do not be silly. It is too lovely out to be cooped up inside. The air will be fresher out there than in here, after all.”
This mollifies her, I see, but only a little. “I suppose,” she allows. She fixes me with a sharp look. “But if you do go out, you are to stay out of the sun, and you will not exert yourself. Is that understood?”
“Of course, Mama. I promise.”
She is satisfied enough with this answer that she takes her leave to her room to ready herself for her own outing. Today she is meeting with the other mothers in the village. Those with children my age. They are plotting something, I think. Perhaps a dance, so that we might mingle in an approved setting rather than contrive ways to go off on our own. I wish them luck. I’m proof enough that a youth in search of mischief will find a way.
After she leaves, I go into her room. Our only looking glass worth the name is at her dressing table. I pull back the curtain so there is plenty of light and I peer at my reflection. I was right that “flushed” was not the word Mama wanted, but I understand why it is the one she used. My face is brighter, somehow. There is a sheen to it. Not of oil or sweat; more of a shimmer, I would say. But it is my cheeks that draw my eye the most. They are rosy. Far more so than they have ever been on their own without the aid of embarrassment or exercise. I trace them with a curious finger. These bright spots, I think, are no coincidence. They are centered where Rose kissed me. I stare for longer than modesty can excuse, fascinated by the change. Baffled, but not displeased. She has marked me after all, in truth as much as spirit.
Whatever is going on, I am eager to learn more.
I quit Mama’s room and make my own preparations to leave. I pack a lunch, with enough for two. I also pack my knitting, for something to do while I wait. It is always Rose who finds me, wherever I am. Looking for her is a futile exercise. I learned that not long after her family arrived. But she said she’d see me today, so I know she will turn up, wherever I go.
Bend the rules though I might, I do not wish to break an outright promise to Mama. I do not go far. There is a stand of trees at the end of the lane. Nothing as grand as the woods, but a pleasant place to sit. I settle in under a tree with my wool and needles, out of the sun and engaged in a relaxing activity, and I wait.
She does not keep me waiting long.
“What are you making?” she asks, dropping down to sit beside me. She peers at my knitting with intent interest.
“It’s meant to be a shawl,” I say, holding it up with a sigh. “Though I don’t hold much hope for it at the moment. I’d do better to just unravel it and start again.” I have been rather distracted of late. I throw her a sideways glance and smile to myself. Not that I wish to complain.
She pulls her knees up to her chest and rests her chin on them. “I’ve always thought I’d like to know how to knit,” she tells me. “It seems a worthy skill of transformation.” She reaches over to finger the ball of wool.
“You never learned?” I’ve never met a girl who wasn’t taught to knit as soon as she was considered old enough to manage it. Not everyone excels at it, but it is too useful a practice not to at least try passing along.
She only smiles and shakes her head, fingers still on the wool. “There was no one to teach me.”
It seems an odd comment, but I let it go. “I could teach you,” I offer, thinking even Mama could not object to such an endeavor. “Oh! But not now. I didn’t bring any extra needles with me.”
“I would enjoy watching you work,” she says. “If it won’t bother you.”
“You could never bother me.” I laugh, the words out of my mouth before I realize I’ve thought them. Rose laughs in return, and it warms me through and through. I clear my throat. “Here, I’ll start over, so you can see how it’s begun.”
She pays close attention as I unravel the work, winding the wool back into a ball, then I make ready to cast on, explaining what I am doing as I go. We pass the rest of the morning in this way. She asks questions now and again but never when I am counting, which I appreciate. She has grasped that the counting is, as she remarks, “an important part of the process.”
“I wish I had an extra pair of needles,” I tell her with some regret as I tuck the shawl in progress—now much more presentable—back into my basket. “It would be good to let you try for yourself.” The sun has reached its zenith, so I pull out the lunch I packed, offering her first pick of the food.
“Next time,” she decrees, choosing an apple after careful consideration. She looks at it as if it is its own mystery before taking a deliberate bite from its flesh. “Oh!” Her eyes light up, and she hastens to swallow. “That is good!”
“One would think you’d never tasted an apple before,” I tease her.
“Not like this,” she murmurs around a mouthful of apple.
After we eat, I dawdle in packing back up. I know I should get home, but I am loath to leave Rose. She senses my hesitation, shifting so that she is sitting beside me against the tree. She slides an arm around my waist and leans her head on my shoulder. I let my eyes drift shut and take a few slow, deep breaths, relishing her nearness. Wanting to extend the moment just a little longer, I think back to yesterday and ask, “Where would you go, if not the village?”
I do not open my eyes, but I see her smile anyway, in my mind. I hear it in her voice when she answers. “There are so many places I might go. New discoveries, old haunts, empty places, and those bursting with life.”
I tilt my head, trying to make sense of this. “But where would you want to go? Where would you choose?”
“Anywhere!” She laughs. “Everywhere.” She is silent another moment, then says, “But if you are asking about my favorite place, well, I suppose there is one I might choose. The Emberfall.”
I have never heard of this place. “Tell me about it?” I ask.
She is quiet even longer, and when at last she speaks, it is in a whisper. “I could show you, instead. If you like.”
A thrill races through me at the suggestion. “Is it far?” I whisper in return, breathing fast despite how still I’ve grown.
“Very,” she answers. Disappointed, I open my eyes to find her mouth a wry twist. But she offers me a small smile and moves so that she is kneeling in front of me. “I don’t have to take you there to show you, though.” I start to ask what she means, but she reaches out and clasps both my hands in hers, lacing our fingers together. Fixing me with serious eyes, she asks. “Would you like to see it?”
I cannot speak, so I nod.
“Close your eyes,” she tells me, shifting closer. She leans her forehead against mine, and my skin tingles at the point of contact. My cheeks warm up, not as if flushed but as if answering some call in her own skin. “Breathe with me, and listen.”
It takes little effort to match my breathing to hers. When she begins to speak, I listen, but I do not hear the words. Instead, it is as if each syllable she utters is the stroke of a brush, painting a picture on the backs of my eyelids.
There is a pool of water, surrounded by tall lush grass. It is orange instead of green, like no grass I’ve ever seen. I think if I could touch it, I would find it smooth and soft. The pool ripples, and a sound reaches my ears now. Rushing water. I look for the source and find it: a waterfall, perhaps thrice as tall as myself. The water seems to sing as it pours off the brink and falls to the pool below. But when it reaches its destination, it does not crash or roar; it sighs, as if in relief, and flows in smooth ripples away. I can see now that there is a stream on the opposite side of the pool, carrying away these contented waters.
As I watch, the sun crests the edge of the waterfall. The light reaches the water, and I feel my breath catch as it reflects off the orange grass, filling in the ripples of the pool. It looks like nothing so much as the embers of a hearth, warm and inviting.
Movement catches my eyes and I see her. My Rose, dancing at the water’s edge, as we did together not so very long ago. Her hair is down again, a wild array of curls that swing and bounce as she spins. A memory, perhaps? Has she found some way to share her own experience with me so vividly that it feels as if I am there? I long to join her, but without being told, I know that I am not here. I am an observer only.
Her clothing is also like nothing I’ve seen before. Loose and sheer, draped upon her body in a manner that covers but does not conceal. Something sharp and hungry awakens in my center, and in reality, I clench my fingers around hers, wanting more than I ever have.
Rose gasps, and the illusion vanishes. I hastily loosen my grip and drop my head, afraid to look her in the eye lest she know my thoughts. She gives my fingers a gentle squeeze but does not let go, and says, voice low, “My family is leaving the village.”
I snap my head up. “When?”
“In two days,” she says, holding my gaze. “We will not be coming back. But—” she draws a slow breath, and there is a hint of anxiousness in her next words “—I am allowed to bring someone with me, if they choose to join us.”
“Me?” I ask, unable to believe the offer.
She nods. “I had hoped it would be you,” she says, now shy for the first time since I have known her. “From the moment we met. But I didn’t know if—” She hesitates. “It will change you, if you join us. Even if you decide to come back here, they won’t see you as you were. It wouldn’t be the same.” She sits back, watching me, waiting.
“I would have to leave everything. Everyone.” It is not a question, but she nods as if in answer.
I don’t know if I can do that. Mama. What would it do to her? But I look at Rose again, and my heart yearns.
“Think it over,” she says after a few moments of silence. “I will understand if you choose to stay. But I will need to know tomorrow.” She lets go of my hands and stands, leaning over to kiss the top of my head.
I sit under the tree for a long time after she is gone, trying to figure out what I want.
“Oh, there you are,” Mama says when I slip into the kitchen, still thinking. “Supper will be soon, go wash up.”
She doesn’t even look up from the carrot she is slicing. Her concern of this morning is long-since forgotten. I’d feared she would be worried to come home and find me still gone. But she has not even noticed my absence, it seems. She hums to herself as she works, the melody of a dance tune.
What will it do to her? If I vanish without a trace, will she be heartbroken? Can I do that to her? My breath hitches as I wash my hands in the basin and splash water on my face. What will it do to me, though, if I stay? I’ve seen the Emberfall now. I’ve seen the promise of a world I’ve never dared to imagine, outside of this village. To be with Rose is enough reason to consider leaving. Though the thought had never entered my mind before she asked; I cannot pretend otherwise. But to be shown how much more is out there, and to know I could go there with her... Can I remain behind, left only to imagine it and never see for myself? Can I let Rose leave, knowing I’ll never see her again, for the rest of my days? The twist of pain in my stomach is answer enough.
I’ve made up my mind, then.
This village is no longer enough for me. Now that I know that, the only thing to hold me here is Mama, and, love her though I do, that is not enough. She’s lived her life here without complaint. It’s my turn now, and I cannot take the same path she followed.
“Forgive me, Mama,” I whisper. I wish I could tell her I was going, explain why. I know better than that, though. She will be hurt either way. Better not to give her a chance to stop me.
Dinner is quiet. Mama continues to hum, lost in her thoughts. I take everything in, cataloging all of the details I wish to remember when I am gone. I should speak to her, engage her in conversation, relish the time with her I have left. But this comfortable silence seems right, so I leave it be.
As I ready myself for bed, I am startled by a glimpse of light in the windowpane. There is no moon out tonight. I approach the glass to investigate. It grows larger with every step I take. Even so, it takes me longer than it should to realize that the source of light is me. I squint at my reflection, puzzled. But no, it is no mistake. My face is glowing. Actually glowing—giving off a soft light like a distant star. I take a few steps backward and then forward just to be sure, but I am certain. I pull aside the neck of my sleeping gown, and in the dim blur of the reflection I can see that the light stops at my throat. I hold up my hands, but they are just ordinary, not luminescent.
It will change you. Is this what Rose meant, then? I touch my face in wonder. What is it I will become? Does my Rose glow like this? A light in the dark by which I might guide my steps? I smile at the thought. I should be surprised, terrified even, but I’m not. I have always known she was different. That was what pulled me to her, even as it drove the rest of the village away. Maybe that is what pulled her to me, too.
“My face glows now,” I say to Rose by way of a greeting the next day when she finds me in the square. It is not an accusation, just a statement. An invitation for explanation, perhaps. I keep my voice low. There is no one near, but we are not as alone as in our previous encounters.
Rose nods, eyes wide and solemn, but a hint of a smile plays across her lips. “My fault,” she agrees. “It will fade, with time. A few days. A week at most.”
“Will it fade if I go with you?”
She cocks her head, and her eyes sparkle with momentary triumph. “Have you decided, then?”
I meet her eyes and will my voice to be steady. “I want to go with you,” I whisper, “but I need to know—” I stop, glance around. No one seems to be watching us or trying to listen, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t. “I need to know whatever you can tell me, about what I’m getting myself into. I have made up my mind,” I hurry to assure her, “it is just—”
“Of course,” she says, her voice soft and warm. I meet her eyes and yes, there is understanding there. “To come with us you must become like us. The change is easy, and quick.” She takes a step closer, pretending to look at something in my basket, and whispers, “It only takes a kiss. A proper one, I mean.” She glances up, holding my eyes. “But it cannot be undone, and it must be welcomed. I cannot bestow the gift on one who is unwilling.”
I look down, knowing my face is scarlet. Oh, I am not unwilling in the least. “I see,” I manage to say. “But what, what exactly, are you, then? Are you not—” I clear my throat, lower my voice— “are you not human?”
Her answer for me is a chuckle. She reaches out, tips up my chin with a finger. “I am something else,” she says. “Something more. You will not grow old, or die. You will have the rest of eternity to see and experience, and learn.”
The rest of eternity. I swallow, staring at her, trying to wrap my mind around her words. It is a concept almost too large to grasp, but I cannot deny its appeal. She offers me the gift of time, and the chance to seek knowledge. It is a precious gift. Yet there is one I would value even more. “Will I be with you for all that time?”
Her smile takes over her face, brighter than the sun. She nods. “We would be bonded, if you allow the transformation. We can see the worlds together.”
I let out a sigh of relief and offer her a smile in return. I glance around the square again. A few days ago, this place was all I knew, and all I could imagine. But now I know that there is so much more out there, and I can’t comprehend staying here a moment longer. “When do we leave?”
“In the morning,” she tells me. “Leave your window open tonight. I will come for you before dawn. You may bring any belongings you can carry, if you wish to remember this place.”
I nod. “They’ll think you stole me.”
She laughs. “Is that what I’m doing? Stealing you?”
“No.” I laugh as well. “I suppose I am running away. Still. They will think it.”
“I know,” she says, a hint of sadness in her voice. “It is why we do not revisit places where someone joined us. Not until it has been long enough for everyone to have forgotten. They are happy here. They do not understand.” She gives me a knowing look, and I nod.
I leave a note for Mama, folded on my bed where she’ll find it in the morning after I do not come down. “I love you,” it says. “I will remember you, always. Do not fret for me. Your life is here. It always has been, but I know now that mine never was.” I want to tell her more, to give something in the way of explanation, but those are all the words I can find. They won’t do at all to comfort her, but they are all I can offer.
I pack very little. What I can carry, Rose said. What I want in order to remember: a sweater Mama made me last winter, a blanket my grandmother quilted for my parents when they were wed, the necklace my father gave me before he passed, my two favorite books. It seems like so little, yet I know it will keep this place, and the people I loved here, alive in my heart.
I pack it all in my knitting basket, along with as much wool as I can fit. I am sure I will find wool in my travels, but I don’t know when, or if it will be the same. Besides, Rose said she’d like to knit. Now I have all of eternity to teach her. I fold the quilt carefully and lay it atop the basket, through the hoops of the handles.
I should sleep, I tell myself, but I do not. I sit on the bed and stare out the window, waiting. My stomach rumbles and I frown to myself. “Perhaps I should pack some food,” I think aloud.
“There will be plenty to eat along the way,” Rose says, suddenly in my window, “though I won’t complain if you bring some apples.” She’s crouched on the sill like a sprite from the stories. Well, she has come to take me away from my home. Maybe she’s not so far off from a sprite, after all. I beam at her as she climbs, quiet as a cat, into the room. She crosses the distance between us and takes my hand. “Are you ready?” Then, “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” I tell her, in answer to both questions. I clasp her other hand.
“I am so glad,” she whispers, stepping even closer. She leans in and presses her lips to mine.
I gasp and then lean into the kiss, my fingers twisting with hers. A slow, delicious warmth spreads through me from her, like honey spilled from a jar, flowing into and over and around me.
“Oh,” I say, stepping back and trying to catch my breath. She watches me closely and I smile, grin really, to reassure her I am fine. I feel awake, aware in a way I never have. I can see the air. See the colors in the room despite the low light. I can taste the moonlight—it’s cool and crisp, like peppermint. “This is amazing.”
“It’s only the beginning,” she promises with a laugh. I catch sight of her dimples before she leans in to steal another quick kiss. “Shall we go?”
I nod and pick up my basket, then turn out the lamp. In the darkness I can see that she glows, every bit of skin a pale glimmer in the darkness. I hold up my arm and see that it glows too. I can’t recall ever feeling so excited! I know I’ve made the right choice. “Show me the worlds,” I say, and I lead the way to the window.
I am leaving behind a good life for nothing but the unknown. But I am content in a way I have never been before.
Rose kissed me today, and everything changed.
And I have her promise that she will be with me tomorrow.
Together we climb out the window and dance across the moonlit grass, into a future ripe with possibility.