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       Hare Moon, p.2

           Carrie Ryan
 
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  The light from the tiny flame of the candle barely reaches past the fences bordering the path, and it throws cruel shadows across the Unconsecrated who follow her. Their eyes seem more hollow than during the day, their cheeks sharper, their teeth and tongues black maws.

  Moans surround her, peel away her flesh until she feels bare and raw. The Unconsecrated bang against the fence, claw for her so hard their fingers snap and bones protrude, gleaming and sharp. She can’t rush because the candle will go out and so she’s forced to walk slowly, unable to outrun the death on either side of her.

  The gate is as it always is: impassive and sturdy. As she expected, the path on the other side is empty. She stands in the darkness and tries to decide what to do next. Go back? Go forward? Curl up on the path and let time take its toll?

  Her shoulders fall, her fingers go limp and the candle drops. Just before the flame sputters out against the damp earth, she catches sight of something lying on the ground on the other side of the gate. In the middle of the path is a small basket covered by a scrap of material.

  The moon is fat but waning, and she doesn’t bother relighting the candle before opening the gate and crossing through it. She pulls back the fabric to find a spray of wilted flowers, their petals black in the darkness. Nestled amid the limp leaves rests a piece of paper, and it takes her three strikes of the flint until her candle’s bright enough to read the words.

  “My Tabby,” she whispers aloud to the dead around her. “My family has grown sick and my father is on the verge of death. I couldn’t bear to leave my mother and sister so soon. Forgive my absences. Please forgive me. I have missed you and I promise that nothing will keep me from you after the hare moon. I hope that you remain mine, as I remain yours. Always, my love, Patrick.”

  She presses the words to her lips, hoping for a taste of his skin on the paper. She holds her hand against her chest, wanting to rip out her heart and leave it in this basket among the wilted flowers for him. Because she now understands that it belongs to him and always will.

  Tabitha keeps the note on her person at all times, tucked into the binding for her breasts, next to her heart. She doesn’t care that the sweat of the day blurs his words; she needs them against her. She needs to remember the feel of him.

  She continues her search for the key in a feverish daze. She finds herself staring off into space in the middle of mundane tasks, and she’s late for services more than once. As punishment she’s tasked with spending nights alone praying in the Sanctuary for the Midnight Office and Matins.

  Her eyes begin to look a bit hollow, the bones in her cheeks a little sharper and her jaw more defined. There are confusing moments when she thinks she almost feels the comforting heat of God in her deepest prayers, and she stumbles to her bed muddled and hazy.

  She’s so lost in her thoughts one afternoon that she doesn’t realize at first what it means when she comes across a large key while dusting the shelves and stacking papers on the desk in the oldest Sister’s chambers.

  She holds the key in her hands, feeling its weight. Something warms in her chest, loosens along the small of her back. She slips the key next to Patrick’s letter in the binding around her breasts and spends the rest of the day itching for the time to pray.

  She’s standing in the middle of the Cathedral, staring at the altar and trying to decide if she believes in prayer, when a little girl comes and stands next to her. The girl’s name is Anne, and Tabitha recognizes her as a friend of her little brother’s.

  Anne stands next to Tabitha quietly for a moment, and then she shyly looks up at her. “Are you praying?” she asks.

  Tabitha thinks about this for a moment and answers, “I don’t know.”

  The girl looks puzzled. “Why don’t you know?”

  “Because I don’t know what to believe in right now,” she answers.

  The little girl takes a short breath and then shoves her slightly damp hand into Tabitha’s, squeezing her fingers. “I know what to believe,” she says. “My mother told me and her mother told her.”

  “What’s that?” Tabitha asks.

  The little girl scrunches her face. “You won’t get me in trouble for saying?”

  Tabitha shakes her head.

  The little girl motions for Tabitha to bend down and she obliges, getting on her knees so that she’s face to face with the child. The girl leans forward, her dark hair falling against Tabitha’s cheeks. “My mother says there’s a world outside the fences. She told me about the ocean, and when I get older, I’m going to find it. If you want, you can go with me.”

  The little girl pulls back, her eyes shining and her little body almost trembling with energy. Tabitha thinks about telling her that it’s true, that there’s something greater beyond their gate. That she’s touched the very edge of it. But when she opens her mouth nothing comes out.

  Tabitha starts the Midnight Office early and races through the words, baldly reciting them hot and fast without thought to their meaning or significance. After the last Amen she slips from the pews past the altar and toward the secret door.

  She’s just pulling back the curtain when she hears the whisper of feet over stones. “I thought we would keep you company tonight,” Ruth says, carrying a candle into the Sanctuary, a yawning Ami at her heels. They pause when they see Tabitha and the hidden door.

  Tabitha’s heart beats fast and wild. There’s a certain thrill, she realizes, in getting caught. “I finished early,” she says.

  Her two friends drift closer. “What’s that?” Ruth asks.

  Ami tugs on her sleeve. “It’s not our place to know if they haven’t told us,” she says. The whites of her eyes almost glow in the darkness.

  “Where does it go?” Ruth asks Tabitha.

  Tabitha grasps the key tightly in her hand, its dull teeth digging into her palm. “I don’t know,” she says.

  “Ruth?” Ami’s whine is tinged with anxiety. She glances over her shoulder, as if expecting someone to come upon them at any moment.

  “You’re going to explore it?” Ruth asks. Tabitha recognizes the hint of a thrill in her voice. Knows that Ruth is like her—that she craves the knowing.

  Tabitha raises her chin. “I am.”

  “Ruth …” Ami is now close to panic, scrabbling at her friend’s arm. Ruth looks from Ami to Tabitha, and Tabitha knows the moment she makes up her mind, because her shoulders droop a little. She places a hand over Ami’s.

  “We’ll pray for you,” Ruth says to Tabitha. Ami sags with relief. “And we’ll make sure no one asks about your absence.”

  Tabitha nods. “Thank you,” she says, thankful to be left alone but more grateful to know that her friends will be looking out for her.

  Ruth tugs Ami toward the rail and together they kneel. Alone, Tabitha slips through the door, and before the curtain falls back into place, she sees Ami’s head bowed low and Ruth’s glittering eyes following Tabitha’s movements with both lust and resignation.

  The basement is the same as before: dark and damp. She slides back the curtain and pulls out the key. The lock on the door doesn’t even protest, just slips to the right, and the door cracks open, revealing a long low tunnel.

  There’s a flutter in her chest like the first time she opened the secret gate between her and Patrick. On a small table just past the door she finds a stash of old candles, but she ignores them, cupping her hand around the flame on the taper she brought with her and pushing into the darkness.

  She can tell she’s underground: the walls are slick with moss and sweating with moisture, the floor is a hard-packed dirt. Her steps are slow and hesitant not because she’s afraid, which she is a little, but because, until recently, with her forays into the Forest, it is so rare for there to be something new in her life, rare for her to have a feeling she’s never experienced or a thought she’s never shared, and she still isn’t used to such a novelty. She always assumed she knew this village and this life and everything about them, and now she’s found something new and
she wants to make it last.

  Down the low tunnel she finds a series of doors, most of them with locks that her key won’t budge. But one door opens easily after she twists away metal bars that hold it closed in the stone wall. In the room beyond, the glow of her candle illuminates a low bed piled with mildewed blankets, and a rotted mat on the floor.

  Against the far wall sits a rickety table with a thick book resting on top. She knows even in the dimness that the book is a copy of the Scripture, and she’s about to return to the hallway and her explorations when something about it calls to her.

  She wonders if this is what it was like for the prophets she’s learned so much about, this pull toward some offering of a truth. She places a hand on the book, thick dust sliding smoothly under her fingers.

  With a reverence she’s never before felt, she opens the cover. The printed text is as she expects. What she doesn’t expect is the cramped handwriting covering the margins. She sets down her candle and leans closer to the page, reading the first line: In the beginning, we did not know the extent of it.

  She immediately recognizes the writing for what it is: a history of the village, beginning with the Return. She carries the book to the bed and begins to read. When her candle burns too low, she gets another from the table by the door.

  Time ceases to exist for Tabitha in that room. All that matters is the words, the memories. The horrifying facts of her world. Stories she has never heard, about the brutality of the pre-Return existence, about the sacrifices those who came before her made to keep her village safe.

  It feels as though the words crawl from the page and eat their way under her skin, infecting her with a fever that causes her head to pound and her blood to burn.

  She begins to understand the precariousness of their existence. The delicate balance of knowledge and ignorance, of what to pass down to the general populace of the village and what to keep locked up safe in the Cathedral.

  And she learns the reason the paths are forbidden. She reads about the bandits who attacked the village in the early years. About the men who would leave and never return, who would alert the outside world to the village’s existence, who would incite a fresh wave of refugees that overwhelmed the village’s resources.

  There were times when the Infected from other villages would try to invade. There was a year when her village almost perished because a small child wandered from the Forest and turned Unconsecrated in the middle of the night, sparking infection that raged.

  In a desperate act, those who’d come before her closed off the paths. Sent word that their village was infected and broken, would never survive. They started to tell the next generation that they were all that was left. They killed any who dared to tip this delicate balance.

  They did it out of love. Out of loyalty. Out of a desire to continue the existence of humanity in the service of God. They did it with a passion born of conviction.

  This, Tabitha realizes, is what she inherited. This is what she jeopardizes every time she steps into the Forest.

  As she closes the book, Sister Tabitha understands that she has to decide what she will stand for: her own desire for love or devotion to her village and the people within it.

  Tabitha has just stepped back into the Sanctuary, weak and trembling, her face pale, when the oldest Sister comes upon her. “You’re late for the Midnight Office,” she scolds. “Your face is streaked with dirt and your hair is uncombed. This is no way to come before God.”

  In the past Tabitha would have seethed inside at being treated like a child, but tonight she merely nods and walks stiffly to her room. She has been in the tunnel chamber for almost an entire day, and her eyes burn, dry and painful.

  She washes her face and plaits her hair and returns to the Sanctuary half asleep for the midnight prayers. It’s hard not to weave on her knees, not to rest her head against the altar railing and slip from the world.

  Ruth and Ami join her. Ami keeps her head bowed, her fingers laced so tight that her knuckles blaze white, but Ruth looks Tabitha straight in the eye. “We covered for you,” she says.

  Tabitha nods. “Thank you.”

  “What did you find?” Ruth asks. Ami closes her eyes tightly, mumbling prayers as if trying to drown out everything around her.

  Tabitha thinks of the Scripture with the journal written in the margins. She thinks of the burden of her knowledge and wonders what it would be like to share it. To seek counsel.

  She thinks of telling Patrick. Of lying in the spring grass with his fingers tangled in her hair.

  “A basement,” Tabitha says truthfully. “Old dusty bottles and broken shelves.” She turns her attention to the altar and the cross, though she still feels Ruth’s heavy gaze.

  “That’s it?” Ruth sounds disappointed, deflated.

  Tabitha nods and joins in Ami’s mumbling prayers, reciting the words without thinking or hearing or feeling them. In her mind she’s begging God to tell her what to do, what choice to make.

  Tabitha sneaks back to the room underground whenever she can, each time with a growing sense of dread and apprehension rather than excitement and joy. She sits on the old bed surrounded with the taste of mildew and she stares at the book lying on its rickety table.

  There hasn’t been an entry recorded in it for seven years. Since the last-oldest Sister passed on in her sleep. Tabitha wonders if the Sister simply forgot to mention the book to her successor or if its loss was more purposeful. If maybe the Sister meant for the village to forget its past and start anew.

  Tabitha understands that this determination rests in her hands now. She’s suddenly become the keeper of her village, and she must decide whether to accept the mantle.

  One day Tabitha ventures down the long dark hallway past the rows of locked doors, past the tiny room with its bed and book and rot. She stops at the end of the tunnel farthest from the Cathedral basement and sits on a narrow set of steps carved into the earth.

  Above her, set flush with the ceiling, is another locked door. Another taunting gate. She’s tired of all the secrets, tired of them chasing her in her dreams. She pulls useless keys from her pockets and shoves them into the lock, but none of them will turn.

  She trembles with the rage of it and storms back to the basement, ripping apart one of the old empty shelves until she has a pile of dry splintered wood cradled in her arms. For good measure, she swipes a few candles from the table just inside the door and piles it all haphazardly under the lock on the door at the other end of the tunnel.

  She strikes her flint, letting sparks fly until everything begins to smoke darkly. Eventually the wood catches and the flames lick the old wood around the lock on the door. She stumbles back down the tunnel seeking fresh air and watches the blaze, her eyes burning and her lungs protesting while heat sears her face.

  She’s never been one for patience, and when she thinks the fire’s done enough damage, and when she starts to fear that the smoke might be drifting too far down the tunnel, she wraps one of the moldy blankets around her arms and scatters the charcoaled wood, stomping it out with her feet.

  Not even caring that the steps are burning hot and that stray embers sear her skin, she kicks the lock until it breaks free.

  Fresh air rushes in through the opening, bathing her face with its pure sunlight. It’s like an epiphany, this rising from the ashes and into an outside world.

  She climbs out and crouches in a tiny clearing, nothing but fresh clover spread around her, white flowers dotting it. An old fence circles her, woven through with blooming vines that make Tabitha feel like she’s stepped into another world.

  A frayed rope tied to a gate trails across the ground, and she realizes that with one tug she could open the gate and escape into the unbounded Forest. For now she leaves it be and pulls herself out into the grass, feeling the caress of the soft earth against her burned face and fingers.

  For a few moments, nothing exists in her world except her breath and blood and pounding heart and the belief that she’
s been reborn here for something important: something greater than herself.

  The hare moon is pregnant in the sky. Tabitha watches it from her little clearing in the woods. She doesn’t care that the dead have sensed her and wandered from the Forest to trace their fingers along the old links of the fence. She sits cross-legged, old pilfered tools that she’s used to repair the door to the tunnel scattered around her.

  She has two days to decide what to do about Patrick. The words about duty from the journal rattle around in her head, but her body remembers the feel of his fingers wandering down her spine.

  She prays to God but He’s silent. She searches for guidance but the Forest only moans.

  Two days later her hands tremble so badly she has to replait her hair several times before it will lie flat along her back. Her face is scrubbed clean, her tunic freshly washed, and she pretends to gather wildflowers from the cemetery while she waits for the Guardian patrols to rotate off so that she can sneak through the gate and down the path.

  It’s an achingly beautiful spring day, one whose soft air whispers into Tabitha’s ears about love, and she smiles as she listens. It’s been too many months since she’s seen Patrick, and as she makes her way to him her body almost vibrates with excitement and anticipation.

  In her arms she carries the basket he left for her, this time with fresh flowers hiding a change of clothes underneath. Pressed against her breast is his letter.

  If he asks her to leave her world for him, she will say yes.

  She practices saying it as she walks: “Yes, yes, yes, yes!” But when she arrives at the gate he’s not there and she has a moment of uncertainty. She sets the basket on the ground and then picks it up again. She runs her hands over her tunic, smoothing nonexistent wrinkles. She holds her breath and blows it out and tugs on her braid and paces.

 
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