Before sunrise, she woke to a murder. Crows talked amongst themselves on the old apple tree and picked away the petals of the roses that grew above her. She climbed out of the six foot deep plot of earth. Her tattered, filthy dress dragged across the ground as she passed by two engraved stones. Her bare feet sunk slightly into the soft dirt. As always, when she woke, the sky was gray and the fog thick. Rain was always on the way, and always passing over. She picked one of the untouched roses and broke the petals off one by one to decorate the stones. The door of the house was unlocked, but she did not go inside. Her feet led her on into town. Time seemed to have stood still in that place. No matter how many times she woke, nothing changed. The sky, the wind, the fog, the cold stares--it was always the same. She didn't know what day it was or what season, or how many days passed since she last woke. Her dreams were no different from her waking time. Every morning was another empty blur. Like a ghost, she stayed on her pre-determined path. The townspeople, their names and faces long lost to her, whispered behind her back. Everything else she forget, but their words she kept tucked away inside her heart. A collections of needles and knives, shining beautifully in silver and piercing deep into ruby--the pain reminded her she hadn't met the spectre of Death in her sleep. They whispered, "The witch has come into to town. Hide your children." "One day she'll do us in. We should get rid of her like the old man." Another said. "It's all his fault. Our town's fallen apart since he brought that woman here. The Devil took her and left him with the hellspawn. I hope he's strung up on a rack in the pit of fire. See how much he likes the Devil then." To the last one, she stared at. The man shook and shuffled away from her. The others cowered and huddled into their shops and stalls. She couldn't discern their words anymore, but their whispering was relentless. At the end of the long road through town, she held on to the bars of the great gate that locked out the rest of the world. The iron bars surrounded all of the town and the land just outside it, coming together in a perfect circle. It was built before she was born. Her father passed through the gate long ago, escaping with her mother and her not yet born, unaware of the dangers around them from the safety of her mother's womb. Strangers were rarely allowed in, but the villagers' superstitions saved them that day. The great wall around the town was made of iron for a reason--to keep out those who "dwelt with the Devil", as they put it. In their minds, they believed no monster could pass through so long as the iron was there. That lasted for a few years, until the fog came. When she was four, the sky turned gray. Everyone expected rain, but it never came. For days on end, it was gray. Then a little girl went missing and the fog rolled in. It never left. After a month, the whispers started, then the rumors. Her family was the last to move in. Four years may have passed, but they took that as a deception to gain their trust. They knew her mother had been targeted before her parents arrived, though her parents never gave them all the details. They suspected she was the cause. Father wanted to leave, but they would not let her family pass through the gates--not until they were absolutely positive her mother's presence was the cause. Six years of scorn, "accidents", and fog passed. Her mother grew weak from worry and sadness, for all the suffering she saw herself as causing the family. Her mother's condition worsened, fading slowly in her garden sanctuary, until one day her mother was gone. She found her mother's corpse in the garden one morning when she was six, sprawled out underneath the apple tree. The wind adorned her snow white dress and black hair with blood red petals. Jagged braids of crimson crawled along her wrists, throat, and ankles. Crows kept the body company while her father cried and dug. That morning, the fog thickened. When she was under the earth, her father told her the story of how they met. Her mother was a beautiful maiden from a neighboring town and he was a travelling shoemaker. They met at a festival. He couldn't take his eyes off of her, and he wasn't alone. The man who owned both their towns also had his sights on her. After only a short while, her parents were already attached to each other. They used to meet at night in the forest and dream about the future--about the garden she wanted to grow, the little house they would build together, and the warmth it would be filled with in winter when the snow blanketed their roof. Before her father could speak to her parents about marrying her, the wealthy man had already beaten him there and demanded her hand. Her mother was heartbroken, but her father was determined to make their dreams come true. They met in secret and ran away, and married in the forest with the birds and trees as their witnesses. For a year, the man pursued them until they crossed into a different country and found the town surrounded by iron. There, he hoped they could finally be happy. She was his princess, his angel, and now she was gone. Her father debated leaving, but he couldn't bear to have his wife's corpse buried in that town that hated her, left alone without his company. After a year, he decided they had to stay. For another six years, she watched the sands of time cover her father's earth brown hair with strands of snowy white until no streak of darkness remained. Within a year from when his hair lost all its color, her father joined her mother underground. The fog thickened once more. As with her mother, she found him in the garden. His body was posed like a marionette, dangling from the limbs of the old apple tree. A splotchy carpet of red drenched the ground beneath the branches. The knots were too tight and complicated for her to undo them, and she had nothing sharp enough to cut through the ropes with. She starting digging, planning to try again with the ropes when she finished. She dug two rectangular plots that day. One was directly beside her mother. Before she finished it, the branches where the ropes were tied around snapped. His heavy corpse hit the ground with a thud and missed her by less than a foot. Her body shook from the red splash that washed upon her. Slowly, she dragged him into the first hole. The freshly dug earth was gently returned to its original place and a large stone put at the top of the plot. When she finished covering the first plot, she completed digging the second hole where both her parents bodies met their end, underneath the apple tree. There, in that cold place, she lay every night. The moon, crows, and apple tree kept her company from above. The rose bushes crept over the sides down into the depths with her. Within that uncovered grave, she dreamt of waking in the morning to the fog and town, wandering through until she lay to dream again. There was no ending to it. Whether she was dreaming or waking, the truth was lost to her, as was time. Nothing mattered anymore. She was a spectre that hadn't cast aside its corporal form. There was no life within her. As she traveled her usual path through town to the great iron gate and the townsfolk's cruelty echoed in the heavy fog, an unfamiliar sound from outside the gate disturbed all within the circular barrier. Just outside the entrance, a young man in tattered, stained clothes called out to her. He said, "Excuse me, could you tell me where I am?" She didn't know what to say. No one had spoken to her directly since her father died. No one new ever came. Nothing changed. A stranger shouldn't be there before her. He called out to her again. "Please, I need to know. I...can't remember how I got here." "How do you not know?" She asked. "I don't remember...any of last night." He nearly touched the bars, but kept his hands back moments before making contact. "What is this made of? Is it silver?" "No, it is iron." "Oh, I see." He held onto the bars. "Could I come in? I don't want to be out here...What is this fog?" "The fog is always there." She unlocked the gate and opened it for him. He cautiously walked inside. "Why is everyone so silent?" She did not answer him. She closed the gate and walked toward home. The man followed along behind her while the townspeople stared and whispered. "Did I do something wrong?" He asked. "Yes. You came. That's reason enough." She said without looking at him. He followed her back to her home. "I'm sorry to inconvenience you, but would it be too much trouble if I could have a bit of your food? I haven't eaten in days. I will do work to repay my debt." "It is indecent for a man to be alone in the home of an unmarried woman." She shut the door on him. He banged on the door. "Please, I won't come inside. I'll stay out here. I only want a bit of bread and water. I can help you in your garden, or repair something for you. I'm a carpenter by trade." She opened her window and held out a piece of bread and a cup of water. "Pull up the weeds in the garden." "Thank you. You've saved me." He bowed while taking the food. When he was done eating, he made good on his promise. Not a single weed remained. For dinner, she gave him another task. The man worked diligently throughout the day. At sunset, he had one more request. "I know I have asked much of you already, but could I stay here tonight? I don't have anywhere to go and it doesn't look like anyone else in this town wants to speak to me." He spoke to her at the window. "You're not coming in here or sleeping in my garden." She said. "What about your cellar? You could lock it until morning if you're worried. Actually, I'd prefer to be locked in. Sometimes, I wake up in the strangest places." His words stirred both curiosity and fear in her, but she allowed him to stay. After sunset, she locked him away in her cellar. She sat in the garden for a while, watching the moon, before settling down into her six foot under bed of dirt. Sleep came easy, and in her dreams, she did not find the man there in the cellar. At the end of the dream, when she lay down to rest and rise again, she expected the same--that he would be gone. She woke to the man banging on the cellar door to be let out. She wondered what it meant. There were never differences in her days and nights before. Was she truly awake now, or were the times she saw the man when she was truly dreaming? Like the last time, he asked for food in exchange for work. He said nothing about himself nor what his plans were. For four weeks, they continued on like that while the townsfolk's whispers grew louder. Every morning, she checked for him in the cellar. Half the time she woke, she found him. In the fourth week, he suddenly grew weak. He stayed in the cellar all day. She went to check on him and brought him food, but he did not stir from the floor. "Are you ill?" She asked. "Yes. This happens every month for a few days, but it passes. I usually end up wandering then, in my sleep. Please make sure the cellar door is locked for the next four nights." He begged her. She felt his forehead. His body was burning and his skin was pale. She brought him a bowl of broth before locking him in the cellar that night. High above her, the full moon pierced through the fog and comforted her into her dreams. As had been the pattern, she didn't find him in the cellar in the morning, nor anything unusual. It was the following waking when things changed again. When she rose, the fog was thicker than ever. It was so thick, she couldn't see more than four feet in front of her. The cellar door was wide open and the lock broken on the ground. As for the man, he wasn't inside. Where he usually slept and along the door, she found deep claw marks. They couldn't have been made by a human. When she turned around, she saw him standing in the doorway covered in blood. She ran to the other side of the cellar. "What's wrong?" He asked. "You...you're soaked...." She cowered in the corner. He looked down at himself. Frightened by his own appearance, he fell back. "What is this? Again? What did I...? No..." "Again? What did you do?" She asked as she grabbed a shovel to protect herself with. "Please, forgive me for not telling you...I thought the cellar would contain me..." He grabbed his head. His entire body shook. "What are you hiding?" She carried the shovel over towards him. Just as she was drawing close, she heard noises in the garden. She closed the cellar door and blocked it with a crate. She yelled, "Who's here?" The oldest man in town appeared through the fog. "We've come for that man, Witch." "We know you're keeping him." The baker said. "Why do you want him?" She asked. "He's a beast. He's taken at least ten lives last night." The wife of the blacksmith said. "He's taken one of my children from me." "Did you see him do this?" She asked. The butcher chimed in. "I didn't see him, but I know it was him. A white wolf rampaged through town, tearing anyone down it could sink its teeth into. No monster can get through the iron bars. Someone must have let it in. The last person to enter was him. It stands to reason..." "It stands not to any reason. If you did not see him, you did not see him. A wolf isn't a demon. One must have slipped through the bars. Those bars hold no magic over ordinary animals." She pushed the butcher. "You delusional fools think I'll let you spill blood in my garden again. Be on your way or I'll give you something to fear." "We'll leave for now, Witch. But mark my words, if we ever catch that man outside of your tiny plot of land, we will rip him apart, limb by limb." The old man said. With that, they disappeared into the mist. She moved the crate and went back inside the cellar. The man was still on the ground. He looked up at her with watery eyes. "You protected me. Why?" He asked. "It's nothing to do with you. I simply hate them." She walked to the back of the cellar and opened a small chest. Inside it was a silver dagger. She held it up high. "Who did you kill, Wolf?" "I didn't mean to hurt anyone...I don't remember anything...Why does this keep happening?" He cried as he clutched his head. "Crying about it won't undo what you've done. If you were really feeling so guilty about it, you shouldn't have come to a place with humans or you should have killed yourself." She said. "I don't know why I keep ending up with humans. Before this started, I was living as a hermit." She narrowed her eyes. "I thought you were a carpenter by trade." "I was, until my town was destroyed in a fire. After that, I wandered aimlessly, not knowing what to do with myself. I came to live in a forest for a while. I planned on staying there. I made friends with a pack of wolves there. I was content with their company." "Why did you leave?" She asked. The man stared down at the dirt floor, lost in his own mind's torments. "I didn't want to, but one morning...I woke up somewhere else drenched in blood." "Do you know why this started?" "A man came to the woods and asked to stay with me. He said he was a traveller. I found myself strangely drawn in by him. " He showed her a thick scar on the nape of his neck. "One night, he bit me--here on the neck. A deep bite, broke through the skin." "What happened to the man?" "He apologized for biting me, but didn't give me a reason why he did it. The next morning, he was gone and all my wolf friends were dead." The man was on the verge of tears. "About a month later, I found myself outside a small village, covered in blood and surrounded by bodies. So many bodies...I thought I was dreaming, having some sort of nightmare. I ran, but for the next three days after that, I found myself somewhere different in the morning from where I'd gone to sleep. Every month, it repeats, and I find myself at a village or town or an inn." "Why did you stay here?" She asked. "I don't know. It's always like this. I keep hoping it will stop and I can go about normal life." He buried his face in his hands and weeped. "You endanger people by being near them." She stood over him with the silver blade pointed at him. "I know. I can't stop myself. I..." He clutched his head again and fell to the ground. He clawed at the ground, then looked up at her with blood red eyes. He lunged for her. Caught off-guard, she froze. He slammed her against the wall and tried to bite her. She snapped out of it and pressed the tip of the dagger against his neck. He stopped. "Forgive me...I don't know why I did that..." He spoke in a sad, soft voice. "Yes, you do." She pushed him off. "Never touch me again, Wolf, or I will slay you. Now, fix my door." "You're not throwing me out?" "I don't care what you do. But if you set foot outside my garden, you should know well you will die. Live here in isolation or die in the fog. It's your choice. Nothing leaves that enters through those gates." She walked out of the cellar and into the garden. He followed along behind her. "They called you a witch. Are you really? Can you cast a spell on me to make it stop?" "I am no witch. I am nothing but a wandering ghost." She took an apple from the tree and tossed it at him. "A wandering ghost...I think that's what I am too." He caught it and laughed. "It's a shame you aren't a real witch. I'd have liked to be transformed into a real wolf." "Such nonsense." She cut a few roses from the bushes and spread the petals across the two stones. Then she locked herself away inside the house and watched the strange man from the window. The next three nights, he escaped again. The fog thickened as four children, two men, and a woman were found dead in their beds. Each morning, the townspeople came to her door, and each morning she sent them away. When they left, the man came out from the cellar and worked on fixing the door again. Three weeks passed and nothing happened. The townspeople's suspicions did not wane. She paid them no mind and went about her business, walking through town and watching the stranger from the window until she locked him in the cellar and slept in the moon's light. At the beginning of the fourth week, the man grew weak again. He did not stir in the morning. She came to him with broth and bread. He stared up at her, too weak to sit up. "Why haven't you killed me? Why do you allow me to stay? I'm as much a danger to you as I am to them." "I'm a ghost. That is what I am. You can't take me from this place. I'll still wander the streets. Only Death himself can walk me through that gate." She helped him sit up to eat. "Death...when will he come for me?" The man asked. "You can kill yourself whenever you want." "That won't free me anymore than killing you will free you. He'll have to take me as well." His hands shook as he held a spoon to his mouth. "I wonder, Wolf, if you are real at all." She laughed. "Real? Why wouldn't I be real?" "Because I am always dreaming." She cracked a smile, but her heart was empty. At night, he whispered to her. "It's time. Please lock me away." In the morning, the cellar door was broken off. It lie there in two pieces on the ground. The fog was so thick she barely noticed it there. Shrieking voices of the townspeople revealed their coming presence before their silhouettes appeared in the gray. "Witch! Bring the beast out here!" The old man yelled. "What do you want?" She approached them calmly, like ice in a dark winter night. "Give him to us." The blacksmith's wife demanded. Her face blank, she asked. "Why should I?" "Twenty-five are dead. We won't stand for any more!" The baker's wife cried. "I'm not letting you have him. You have no proof he's done anything. Bring me proof!" She yelled back at them. "It must be him. There is no one else." The physician said. "That is not proof. Bring me proof and I will give him to you." She crossed her arms. "Soon, Witch. We'll catch that wolf. You can't protect him forever." The old man drew close to her. "Leave my land before I curse you, you wretched monsters." Her voice dripped with venom. The townspeople's rage seeped away from them into fear. They sulked and left. For all the cruelty they inflicted on her parents, by words alone, she held power over them. She wondered how long that power could last. She went into the cellar to see the strange man. He lunged at her immediately and pinned her against the ground. No fear resided within her. This, she was prepared for. She pressed the silver dagger against the side of his head. His canines slid across the nape of her neck. He forced himself not to sink in. "I'm sorry...I want to bite you...I don't know why..." His tears fell upon her face and slid off into the earth. "Your body wants to spread it." She slid the dagger down to his neck. "But why?" "To survive." She drew a drop of blood with the tip of the blade to show her intentions if he failed to control himself. "That's why you haven't killed me. Your body has decided it wants to give it to me." "That sounds indecent." He commented. "Could be. Will that be your next tactic to get your fangs in me?" His blood dripped on her skin. "I would never." "What worked on you? What trick did he use to get so close to bite you?" She kicked him off. He hit against the door frame. As he rose to his knees, he said under his breath, "I was lonely." She stood up and grabbed him by his hair with one hand and the dagger pointed at him with the other. "Do you think I'm lonely?" He looked her straight in the eyes. "Yes." "I'm not." "Then why do you protect me?" He asked. "I'm very petty. There's nothing more to it than that." She let go of him and walked away. "Fix my door." After he fixed the door, she brought him lunch and a bowl of water to clean his neck. She diligently wiped away the blood and dirt, then bandaged him up. She sat beside him in silence as he ate. He watched her and smiled. "I don't think you're as cold as you project yourself to be. Snow Witch, what are you burying deep in your garden?" "There is nothing buried." She turned away from him. "Nothing?" "Nothing. I am empty. You won't find anything within." He rose from the ground and picked a red rose in full bloom. The stranger returned to her side and offered her the rose. "No one has nothing to hide." She took the rose and looked away from him again. "Thief. Now you're stealing roses from my garden." "Tonight, don't lock me up. There isn't a point." He said. "Planning on killing me tonight?" She asked as she pulled the petals off the rose one by one, invoking some ritual long lost to her. "I doubt I'd kill you. And the door doesn't stop me. It's meaningless to avoid it. Perhaps, tomorrow, I'll let them have me." He kicked at the dirt, though he could barely see his feet before him. "Very well." She said. Sensing her dreams would return her to the old unchanging routine she kept for years, she let her voice flow unreserved for once. "You told me before you wished I could turn you into a real wolf. Why is that?" "Wolves are beautiful, pure creatures. They're not monsters like us, but we cast them as such. When I stayed with them in the woods, I saw it--their innocence and how different they were from us. Beasts, nothing more. Nothing mystical, nothing monstrous--merely simple beasts with simple hearts and simple wants. If I could cast aside my humanity for that ancient state, I would." He noticed as he spoke, there was a slight hint of light in her dull eyes. He smiled at her. "Why do you ask?" "No reason. Tell me, what were your wolves like?" For the rest of the day, they sat together in that deep fog. The Witch was full of questions, and the Wolf of answers. There they stayed until the night was upon them. In that thick darkness, only the moon guided them. She rose and walked on to her bed of earth. The man followed her. He watched her as she started to climb down into it. "What are you doing?" He asked. "Going to sleep." "This is where you sleep?" He got down on the ground and looked into the deep hole. "Yes. I've slept here since Father died." She dropped down into it. "How long ago was that?" Now it was her turn to give answers. "I don't know. When he died, the clock within my mind stopped alongside my heart." "You should sleep in your bed." "You can sleep there if you wish." "Come inside tonight." He offered her his hand to pull her out of that prematurely dug grave. Her body flinched and she raised her hand slightly. The coldness of the earth on her feet pulled her back down. "There's no reason to." He brushed his hand against her face. "You mustn't do this to yourself. Those people, they're hiding in their homes now because of me. Let's go. You know how to open the gate." "I cannot leave this space. I am a ghost." He jumped down into the hole with her. "Then I'll carry you out. Let's go." Her heart pained her more than it ever did when she walked through town or decorated her parents' graves. Again, she lifted her hand--only for her other hand to pull it back down. "I cannot." "It doesn't have to..." He froze, then fell to the ground. He clawed at his skin. He bore fangs at her and cried. "No, not now..." She did not move. He crawled to her and tugged at the edge of her dress. "Please, end it. Kill me. I can't...I can't go on like this..." He begged her. It took every bit of his strength to hold himself back. "It must be you, your blade. Then Death can free me. And you--you must run..." She ignored the last of his words. "What if you descend below?" "It will free my mind. I will take any punishment for what I've done." He balled his fists as claws protruded from his fingertips. "I do wish, I could start again. Toss aside my humanity and run free in the woods with the wolves." "Then I cast a spell on you, Wolf. When you are born again, you will wear that fur." She said. "Again?" He forced a smile through his agony. "Will you join me, Snow Witch? Let's roam the wintry mountains together, lost in white and coldness." "If Death can free me, I may see you there." She drew the silver blade she hid in the sash around her waist and walked behind him. The blade slid with an impossible smoothness across the delicate flesh as the earth was painted with a crimson that matched perfectly with the roses that crept down into her darkest dreams. His body fell from her, dropping softly in the black earth. Her heart was as warm as the blood on her hands. She lay down beside the stranger as the fog blocked out the moon. Cool on her skin, the earth tempted her along to sleep, but she would not close her eyes so long as his body kept warmth. She held his hand until his skin chilled hers more than the dirt beneath them. The red pool around them grew as she dropped the silver dagger between them. In brief darkness, she slipped away into morning. She lifted herself out of the grave. The fog was gone, and no one dwelt in her cellar. Her feet led her on her old path through town. There were no whispers, no voices, no one. She thought nothing of it, and made her way down to the great gate. On the other side of the gate, a black wolf with horns stared at her with fiery red eyes. Her eyes widened. She reached out to the beast through the bars. The wolf's ears perked up. At the gates of the empty town, a single figure stood behind her. A stranger with a long beard wearing a black robe and carrying an old scythe greeted her. She could not see his face. "Hello, Child. I see you've met one of my servants." "He's yours? I thought he might've been someone I knew." She said sadly. "Oh, that one has been mine for a long time. He won't move on, that one." The cloaked figure stood beside her. "The one you are seeking is gone. What a stubborn one. Wouldn't go on where he should. Demanded I let him come back again. I didn't stop him. One less I have to ferry along." "I can return?" She asked. "Not with the same appearance, but yes. You shouldn't. Your heart will remember a desire your mind will not be able to name. It may drive you mad. Best to move on. But I will not stop you, whatever you choose." The robed man put his thick leather gloves on the iron bars. "Come with me and I will show you eternity among the stars, or you can walk on through this gate and we will me again another day." She stared at those big iron bars. They'd been there all her life, shutting her in. No more, she decided. She opened the gate and stepped forward. When she walked through, the town, the man in black, and the wolf disappeared. All around her, there was only darkness, but she was not afraid. She walked on alone, knowing her heart was enough to guide her.
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