Size / / /

The trees are growing hollow here. The trees are long dead, striping the snowy land with dark shadows. The hag sits among shadows and trees alike. She is as hollow and withered as the trees, as dark as the shadows, hunching inward with her branch-arms resting in her stick-lap. The sky above is as blue glass and a low wind stirs old snow from branches.

I believed she would be ugly, but there is only a calming strangeness to her. She wears no cloak despite the cold, shrouded only in her ashen hair. She looks at me when I approach and does not smile. Her eyes should be hollow, I think, but they are not; within them, I see myself reflected. Her temple bears the scar my own does, hers softened and faded, mine still bright and true.

"Both paths end in death," she tells me. Her lips are dry and flaked by cold and her voice is the rush of river water beneath a crackling coat of ice.

"If this is a labyrinth," I say, "there is but one path."

Her lips split in a ragged smile, but there is no warmth within. She nods, her head unsteady upon the stalk of her neck. She watches me when I look toward the path through the trees. It looks no different from the path I walked to get here. I go in.

The trees are growing hollow here. Their rotted insides cascade over the snow, dark as slush but dry. There is no sign of anyone, only trees. No footprints in the snow, nothing to disturb the trees and their rot. There are no birds here, nor foxes, nor any living thing. It is the dead I have come for, but not even they show their faces.

I believed it would be frightening, but it never was. I have always possessed an affinity for the dead, even when beloved by me. Especially when beloved. Stories said those bonds should have made it impossible,  but I found the bond made it more possible, to set people to their rest, to sever the gossamer lines that tied them to this world they had finished with.

But the dead do not show their faces among the hollow trees, and I walk on. When at last there comes a face, small and round and pale, I stop walking. I crouch down so that I might regard the young girl on her own level. She is seven and was ill. One does not make the other easier. She does not bear the scar for I have not yet touched her.

"Both paths end in death," she tells me.

"If this is a labyrinth," I tell her, "there is but one path."

Her laughter should shatter the glassy sky above us, but it does not. The sky holds, the world resolute, but we are not. When I press two fingertips between her eyes, her laughter condenses, she scars, she fragments, blown aloft by the low wind until she vanishes amid snow falling from branches. She is nowhere and everywhere. I walk on.

The trees are growing hollow here. Moss and snow riot over broken trunks, trying their best to obliterate the branches that have fallen. The hag sits among them, hollow and withered as the trees, hunching inward with her branch-arms resting in her lap. The sky above is as blue glass and a low wind stirs old snow from branches.

The center of the labyrinth is nothing anyone would know on sight; it is a bone-deep feeling, a claw hooked into my collar saying here, here, yes here. I press my fingertips between the hag's eyes and as one thread is severed, another takes root. Even as she fragments into blowing snow, she is reborn, though withered and hollowed from all her long journeys. It is a relief to sink into the trees, to rest in the cradle of snow, to ease my branch-arms into my stick-lap.

I believed it would be frightening, but it never was. I believed she would be ugly, but there is only a calming strangeness about her. About me.

"Both paths end in death," I say.

"If this is a labyrinth," I say, "there is but one path."

The sky above is as blue glass and a low wind stirs old snow from branches. The trees are growing hollow here.




E. Catherine Tobler is a Sturgeon Award finalist and the senior editor at Shimmer Magazine. Among others, her fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Her first novel, Rings of Anubis, is now available.
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28 Sep 2020

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