You are a girl alone on a prairie.

You hunt alone and you sleep alone. You sleep alone, with your thighs clamped tight on nothing at night, but not too tight. You carry a rifle and a dream of a white dress. You sleep under the stars. You hunt.

You were a farm-girl once. You fell in love at a husking bee, your heart flipping open like a broken-clasped locket, showing a hidden face to the world ’til you scrabbled to snap it shut once more.

You walked to church every Sunday morning thereafter and sat modestly with the other maidens in the middle pews. With your mouth full of hymns, you could angle your head to spy Roland Schmidt from the corners of your eyes. His blue-checked church shirt always glowed against the backdrop of the half-married women’s rust-red dresses.

Josie Speight caught you looking about three months after the husking bee, and you knew you had to act.

You are a girl alone on the prairie, under the blue bowl of the sky, and you have run out of hardtack.

You ignore the jackrabbits and hunt for pronghorn. Rabbit starvation is a term you learned twice as a warning, first from your pa’s war stories and later during your ma’s womanhood teachings. You don’t have to learn things a third time.

You bring a pronghorn down easy enough, but the season’s on the cusp of winter and spring. You know enough to take your ‘corn knife and chop through a foreleg. You inspect the marrow and find a good fat ring there. You won’t starve through improper feasting.

You eat and you eat, too hungered to fuss over the blood scent in your nose. Though what’s a little blood between you and the prairie? Blood is the binding between hunting and womanhood, and yet, and yet, the dress the virgin bride wears is white, no matter how much she hunts or menstruates.

White dresses are impossible to keep clean on the prairie.

White dresses lie.

You are a girl alone on the prairie, on the flat but surprisingly uneven prairie, on a prairie whose grasses hide secrets.

You are a girl alone, and you fall alone. You fall into a fissure in the earth, into darkness, losing consciousness when you land, or maybe before.

You wake a few times, but waking is painful, particularly in your head and your left leg, and walking? Walking is just out.

You are alone, delirious, and you are broken.

When you turned sixteen, your classmate, Nan Eberhardt, marked a kiss on the forehead of Boone Irvine and left to hunt with the spring. She didn’t return.

When you turned sixteen, your neighbor, Thalia Gendregske, told you she burned for Granger Hedgepeth. She forswore the hunt and turned up round-bellied in a shame-red dress before the magistrate, taking her man, her civil union, and her seat forever in the back of the church.

At sixteen, people paired off. But you didn’t pair off, though it worried your pa. You waited, although for what, you couldn’t say. There weren’t so many young men with good futures to go around in a town this small and lonely. Always plenty of old men with grave-wives out there, though. Always plenty of young men with bad intentions. There were opportunities if all you wanted was a seed to bear.

But that’s not all you wanted.

You dream a hundred times of returning home in triumph, in some dreams a ‘corn slung over your shoulders, in others a velvety pelt tucked in your knapsack. Ma greets you always, sometimes never dead, sometimes telling you that her time buried ‘neath the mockernut tree was just a dream you all shared. Always, she is proud of you for obtaining the white dress, for carrying back the single horn to her to carve into your wedding crown.

Every time you wake, sweating and panting, you feel the dress slip a little further away, falling away like you fell into the earth.

You dream of the hunt, too, of luring the ‘corn in through one of the doorways of the world with your sweet, pure scent. You dream of your sweetheart welcoming you home. Nothing is so sweet as these dreams, and waking from them is even harder. You’re sure you’ll never see Roland’s face again.

Then you dream of the town’s schoolchildren singing you a song:

Tabitha, Tabitha, where have you gone?

I’ve got to Laramie to harvest a ‘corn

Tabitha, Tabitha, what have you done?

I’m home to marry, a murderer born.

When Roland Schmidt returned busted from some lawless gold rush town, gone a boy but returned a prodigal son, he’d smiled at you in just such a way that your waiting made sense. You froze in the warm bright whirl of the husking bee, fingers twined in cornsilk, and that moment when you fell in love is one you will carry across the threshold of death, to the storm beyond the quiet.

You kept your love quietly, while you made your secret preparations. You did your work. You churned butter and colored it with carrot peels, the way Ma taught you. You practiced shooting your rifle, the way Ma taught you. You mended fences side-by-side with Pa during the day and mended stockings by lamplight in the evenings, the way Ma taught you. At night, you lay wakeful on your narrow pallet, afire.   

Your prey was always sparse on the prairie, and any town spinster who caught wind that Tabitha Müller was in love—oh the traps that would be laid for you at watering holes and river crossings by the unlucky who hoped to steal your kill. Planning a proper wedding was the greatest danger a frontier girl faced.

But time kicked at you, made you worry. Someone else might see the good in Roland Schmidt, and waiting longer wouldn’t make the prairie suddenly teem with ‘corn so you chose to stop loving Roland Schmidt through half-opened doorways and went to him.

Roland worked late, as smiths often do. You stole to the smithy door, breathing in the scent of charcoal fire. His anvil was lower than the others, you noticed, but his height made no difference otherwise. His muscled forearms made you eager, but the crinkles at the corners of his eyes reminded you of the kindness he’d always possessed, even as the wildest boy in school, and this steadied you.

“Evenin’, Tabby,” he said at long last, not seeming when he noticed you.

You became graceless, a stump of a girl. You unknotted your handkerchief and showed him your silver. “I’m commissioning a knife.”

His smile faded. He took the coins into his broad palm and looked them over, calm and professional. “This will buy you a fine knife.”

“My ma’s broke in the field. I want one I can pass to my girls, should I bear any.”

“Ah,” he said, his face shuttering like a house awaiting a storm. “A wedding knife.”

“Yes. A knife suited to unicorn hunting and butchering.”

He grunted and fished a tinder of paper and a kindling of pencil from his pocket. He wrote Tab. M. ‘corn knife on his paper and looked up. “Any specifications?” His eyes were dark, the promise in them gone.

“I—I—maybe this was a mistake.” You back away, feeling sore ashamed. Ma never talked you through this part, before she passed last winter, so it wasn’t your fault you made such a hash of it; it wasn’t your fault.

Roland relented. “Wait, Tabby. I apologize. That wasn’t proper of me. I should offer you felicitations and ask the name of your intended.”

No amount of chalk could’ve hidden the blood that rose to your cheeks. You looked at the ground. You hoped you would be braver, facing a ‘corn.

“I have the cart before the horse. I know most maidens purchase a knife after speaking to their intended, but today is not going as well as I’d hoped.”

Roland’s fingers slackened and his pencil tinkled against his anvil as it fell. He ducked to fumble after it. “I don’t understand.”

Your cheeks went oven-hot. “I’d like to court you, Roland Schmidt,” you whispered to the top of his fine head.

As he rose with his pencil, his eyes stopped at your hands. “Your bonnet!”

You glanced down. You’d bent the stiff brim of your new bonnet clean in half and now creased it with disastrous efficiency. You gave up then, crushing the whole useless thing between your hands. “The bonnet’s not important.”

He met your eyes square. “All right then. Why me?”

You wake alone, alone with a fever in a fissure on the lonely prairie.

You prepare yourself for an ending. You pray. You get right with God. You close your eyes and try to will yourself to sleep, hoping sleep carries you through to death, where you might meet your ma again.

The song from your dream stays with you. You hum to yourself: Tabitha, Tabitha, where have you gone?

Morning breaks, casting enough light for you to see there’s nothing of use in the fissure with you except your pack, which landed nearby. You drink what water you have, mixing it with headache powders from the apothecary. You splint your leg with your ‘corn knife, which is long and tough as your shinbone. Tougher, maybe, and made by your beloved.

Your head steadies. When the sun reaches a point just shy of noon, it shines right down into your fissure. It is like being trapped in a dry well, you think; dry wells have long terrified you, for different reasons. You aren’t staying here another minute, no matter what shape your leg is in. You clench the sheath of your ‘corn knife twixt your teeth, and you claw your way out of the damned fissure, dragging your leg behind you.

You are not without grit. You’re a farm-girl after all, and there’s a good man pining for you, back in a small town on a wide prairie.

You looked into Roland’s eyes and said, “I choose you because I have always liked talking to you better than I’ve liked talking to any other person. Because when I look at you, and you look at me, my heart rings like a bell.”

Promise glowed in his eyes again, sunlight remembering a darkened world. “Maid Müller, I accept your courtship.”

You let a smile seep from one corner of your mouth to the other. “Tabby will do as a name for everyday, if you will. We should kiss, if you will that too.”

“I will,” he said, and you leaned down, your heart thrumming with two words—him, yes, him, yes—with a thresher’s rhymeless rhythm.

Your courtship lasted the brief weeks it took for Roland to stretch out the making of your knife. Love grew, in secret snatches of time. You feared the eyes of the town’s restless spinsters.

“You don’t need to go,” Roland said in an urgent quiet voice, when you met on the street one day. You stood far from him, as though you exchanged strangerly how-do’s instead of secret ‘corn hunting plans. His eyes cast a long glance up the street to the magistrate’s house.

“Go about in rust-red? Confess to sinning? I might sin, Roland, but I won’t wear red forever if I can help it.”

Roland’s brow beetled. You gentled your approach.

“I may be half an orphan and have no hunters left in my family to train me, but my Ma taught me what she could, and I can find a ‘corn. Don’t you fret.”

“She trained you so long ago, Tabby. And so many girls never come back from the hunt.”

You forced a confident smile. “I will, though.”

You are a girl alone on the prairie, and you are broken. You have climbed from a crack in the earth, but you cannot walk. You drag yourself along for a while, but you tire. You must find water. You build a fire instead.

You lie still, listening to the wind, watching the purpling sky bear up a moon so luminously silvered it echoes the pictures of white-dressed brides in your memory. You wonder if you will see the moon rise again.

You think you are dead when a red-haired woman looms out of the silver light and hoists you to her shoulder. You are not dead. You are just in pain, thirsty, confused. Fortunately, you faint.

You wake a time later. The red-headed woman tells you her name is Salvia, that her wife is Petra, and that you have slept a long day in their tar-paper house on the prairie after they set your leg. Your leg alternates feeling snug and secure and screaming to aching life. You sleep, you wake, you drink broth.

Salvia and Petra tell you the prairie is too dangerous for a girl alone. They hunted together, and they brought down two ‘corns, though they never found any sign closer than sixty-five miles away. “It was a long hunt, and a lonely hunt, and would have been lonelier still if we had not been Sapphic.”

“How long? A week?”

“Three months,” Silvia says. “A season.”

You swallow hard, trying not to taste decay on the back of your tongue. “My ma found a ‘corn in a week.”

“Sure, twenty years ago, back East, a wedding hunt often took less than a week.”

“In Appalachia, they could knock it off in a single afternoon,” Petra agrees. “The ethereal doorways are more numerous east of the Mississip, most plentiful in the mountains. Out here in the flat, there just aren’t enough transits.”

It makes sense. Your pa and ma came out from Philadelphia, shortly after they wed. Your ma hunted the Poconos. After she passed last winter, all else you learned about the white dress came from hearing the town’s venerable ladies complain about their old hunting wounds. This is the first you heard about the transits being slimmer out here, though of course you understood some limiting factor must be at work.

Salvia turns to attend the porridge on the stove. “I must know, Tabby. Why not woo your beau and go stand before the magistrate if you get with child?”

Answering that directly feels like a weakness, so you challenge her. “What made you choose to hunt?”

Petra touches Salvia’s shoulder, looks at you, speaks. “We did it so no one can ever say our union doesn’t count. None can gainsay a white dress.”

“Well, the same,” you say. “My beau ain’t... average. I want the town and Roland to know he’s worth the white dress.”

Salvia swings back around. “Roland, son of the Shutter Creek blacksmith?”

“The same.”

“He’s a beautiful man, Tabitha, for all he lacks in height.” Salvia glances at Petra.

Petra says, “But ain’t he worth the red dress, too?”

Your jaw works as your mind works too. You bite back word after word. You know there’s a rightness to Petra’s question, but you also know the shape of your own stubbornness, which has been your bosom friend your whole life.

“I regret our dresses,” Petra says in a slender voice.

You dart a glance at Salvia, who doesn’t look surprised. “Wh-why? You just said—”

Petra’s voice is burnt coffee brewed in tin. “I know. But I’m angry I believed that wearing white would make it better for us. It didn’t. Oh, they have to let us sit up front in the church, call us ‘missus and missus’ when the fancy strikes, but it’s a varnish of respect, not ingrained.”

Salvia says, “I disagree. It would be much harder without those things.”

You speak slowly. “My ma used to say, ‘a girl in white respects herself, and the world knows it.’ I don’t want to be one of those half-married women in the back of the church.” You lick your lips, chapped from the dry hours in the fissure. “One of those women who don’t care enough about being clean to get a clean dress, the ones who decide bearing children is better than bearing pride.” You’re amazed and a little sickened by the depth of scorn in your own voice.

“One of those women who choose happiness over what other people think?” Petra’s scorn matches your own, and she slices bread like the bread is Holofernes and she’s Judith. She has surprised you speechless; now she scowls at the breadboard. “I don’t know how killing an innocent beast makes you clean, either.”

Salvia says nothing, but you think she agrees. Your ma’s voice is a weak thread in your head, so you latch onto it more firmly, with both hands. “Just like the Lamb’s blood washes us clean,” you say virtuously.

That ends the conversation handily.

He came for you by starlight, the dawn before you left. You sat together in the haypile out back of the barn, holding each other.

“My mother wore white, and both my sisters too,” he said. But he also said, “It makes no difference to any of their unions what color they wear at church.” And, “What would their bravery have served, if they lost their lives?”

“They proved to all their esteem for their husbands. The world saw their bravery and chastity and dedication.”

“At least let me come with you. Let me guard your back. Make sure no townswomen ambush you in your hunt.”

“That—that’s not done. Women must face the hunt alone.”

“That’s never how it was supposed to be,” Roland said. “My grandmother’s hunt in Bremen, back in Europe, the whole town came, and it was concluded in an hour. An hour, Tabby. She knelt beside a fountain in a gold dress, wept for a few moments, and a unicorn crawled into her lap! That’s not possible here. This is a different place, a harder place.”

He was so adamant, so hard, so certain that you weren’t making the right choice.

He tried another tactic, a dangerous one. “Besides, who would you give the horn to?”

Throwing Ma’s death at you was an unkindness. You couldn’t see his face clearly in the darkness, and where that bothered you earlier, now you are glad. When you kissed him the first time at the husking bee, the noise and the light of the Stürmers’ big barn had faded away and you had known in the moment of that kiss three true things: you would fall in love with this man; you would marry him; and you would wear white at the wedding.

But maybe you hadn’t known anything true, after all.

He would take me in the red dress, you thought. But I wouldn’t take him.

He knew he’d gone too far, so he pulled you close and gentled your feelings. You clung to him. You wouldn’t give up the white dress. Not even for him.

You write a letter in Salvia and Petra’s tar-paper house and wait. Pa comes ten days later, bringing precious silver to pay Sal and Pet for all you ate under their roof. It won’t compensate for their time lost from hunting and farming, but it’s something.

You lie in the back of the wagon, your healing leg bolstered by Ma’s last quilt. You sway and drowse, until Pa stops for the night. You eat sausage rolls together, and he makes you beds next to a fire fed with dung and twists of grass.

“What’s next, daughter?” Pa asks.

“I’ll heal up and I’ll go back out.” Your teeth ache with clenching. It’s too hard to kill the vision of yourself in white, too hard to love the vision of yourself in red.

He just nods. He knows you for Martha Müller’s daughter.

You drowsed all day, so you lie awake on the cold prairie.

A chilly wind whistles through your camp, flattening the fire. You’re grateful for Ma’s quilt. Pa doesn’t even stir. You nestle deeper in the quilt, and for a time you sleep, in that wide-awake way where you don’t know if you’re dreaming or thinking. But you must have slept, for when you are truly aware of being awake, you are entirely comfortable and cozy, with a heavy warmth pressed along your side, a whole body’s worth of warmth. Pa still snores across the fire.

You tilt your head to look. What lies next to you is winter-moon white, gleaming softly like Christmas tinsel.

What lies next to you breathes in comforting puffs, like a family’s guardian dog.

What lies next to you is the thing you came to the prairie to kill.

Your hand creeps to your knife. A dozen stories crowd in at you, none so clear as Roland’s story of his grandmother in Bremen. A unicorn crawled into her lap.

Your hand stills on your knife and leaves it where it lies. You reach out, fingers descending slowly to the ‘corn’s beautiful hide.

Warm, living fur envelops your fingers. You are stroking a unicorn.

The beast snuggles closer, making a contented sort of sigh, warm breath soughing over your neck. Its breath smells of crocus pollen in autumn, cold spruce boughs draped in snow, the first asters of spring. Its breath sounds like the snores of children that would never be born and the hums of elders who were children long ago. Everything possible and everything alive is in the unicorn’s hot, fragrant breath, and breathing it in makes you dizzy and open-hearted.

What would Ma say right now? You wonder. Kill the unicorn. Take the dress. Ma died last winter. No—not last winter. She died when you were twelve; she died four years ago! And yet it is always last winter, just last winter, that she died, and always you are reaching for her in your memory and not finding her where you left her.

Leave the unicorn. Leave the dress.

Truth is, you knew your Ma as the ma to a child. You didn’t know her as an adult. You don’t know what she would say in this circumstance, with the knowledge of you now and the world you choose to live in.

You reach for the knife, this time to throw it away. But you misjudge, maybe. The handle isn’t where you thought it was. Your hand closes on the blade. A sting—a cut. You hiss and throw the blade far. And you reach again for the unicorn. True to the stories, you’re healed by touching him. Your wound closes up. But now there’s a wide dark streak of blood across his flank.

Eventually, the unicorn stands and shakes himself, looking down on you with eyes of sunrise. Behind him, you can see the doorway that opened for him and the whole of his harmonious realm beyond. You think of your mother again, always gone last winter, always alive the winter before that.

You let the ‘corn go, to slip through his doorway back home. Tiny insensate pieces of you slip into the beyond with him: the piece that dances on your wedding day in a white dress; the piece that almost died in a fissure on the prairie; the piece that’s always reaching for your mother and never touching her.

The doorway slides shut, and the moon sets. You turn your yearning heart towards home.

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Merrie Haskell grew up half in North Carolina, half in Michigan. Her first three novels are The Princess Curse, Handbook for Dragon Slayers, and The Castle Behind Thorns. She has won the Schneider Family Book Award (Middle Grades) and the DetCon1 Middle Grade Speculative Fiction award, and she was twice a finalist for the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature. Merrie lives in Saline, Michigan and works in a library with over 7.5 million bound volumes.