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Rachel McCallister and her sister, Helen, lived together in the home they grew up in, and as far as anyone could tell (Rachel and Helen included), this is where they would die as well. Though they were both quite young—Helen was twenty-five years old, and Rachel was only eighteen—their paths seemed clear and predictable, each girl so closely bound to the other that to imagine even a day apart was a pointless foray into fantasy. You might as well imagine building a cabin on a cloud.
They lived in a town called Roam, a town founded a hundred years ago by their great-grandfather Elijah McCallister and his Chinese friend and hostage, Ming Kai, where they hoped to make the finest silk the world had ever known. Bordered by a great mountain on one side and a bottomless ravine on the other, and shadowed by dark green forests full of bears and wild dogs, the town—even after a century’s existence—felt like the abandoned capital of an ancient civilization: still a wonder to behold, out here in the middle of nowhere, but worn down, broken, nearly empty. One day the vegetable world would reclaim it and all the evidence of every man and woman who had called it home, and those who still lived there (227 people at last count, though the number grew smaller by the day) could only serve as witnesses. The dead outnumbered the living tenfold now. There were so many dead their spirits could no longer be contained in the darkness, and, like deer, their population had spilled over into parts of the town reserved for the living. Sometimes they formed a cool shaft of stray light that leaked into dark rooms, beneath closet doors, into alleyways. There was nowhere you could go in Roam without feeling them, but only rarely would they actually allow themselves to be seen.
Then there was Rachel and Helen.
Rachel and Helen were known simply as the girls. That’s what people called them. Have you seen the girls? they might say. Or, There go the girls. For the last seven years, ever since their parents had died, they had never been not together: never. Helen had been taking care of her sister all this time—but it was more than that. It was as if their common losses had brought them so close that a biological metamorphosis had occurred, fusing them forever at the metaphorical hip. The wonder of it was that they were thought of as girls at all, and not simply girl, so close were they, so much had one come to depend upon the other.
As inseparable as they were, though, they were more different than alike. One was blind, the other could see; one had the face of an angel, and the other—the other did not.
Rachel was the sweet, the beautiful, the blind one. Her eyes were the color of honeybees, dark eyes with an amber light glowing softly behind them. She wasn’t completely blind. She saw shapes and sudden colors, a flashing shadow-world. Her eyes showed her the dark mystery-forest where we get lost in our dreams. If she brought something very close—so close she appeared to be kissing it with her eyes—then she could view that very, very small part of it. In a book she could make out a letter or two at a time. O n c e u p o n a t i m e. This is how she learned to read. She read part of an entire book this way—a small book with pictures called Mark the Magical Dog—but it took her weeks and completely exhausted her. She never read a book again. Still, she liked letters. She traced them in the bare dirt at the end of their driveway the way other children etched houses or trees.
She’d been blind since she was three, when one night she was overcome with a strange fever so intense the town doctor, Dr. Carraway, refused even to use a thermometer. He had seen a fever like this years ago: the thermometer had burst in a boy’s oven-hot mouth, and the tiny shards of glass sliced his throat open, the mercury flowing into the wounds. The boy died. Old Dr. Carraway—who still wore a bowler hat and was never without a bloodred rose pinned to his lapel—had seen it all. Combustible hair, earworms, the sudden and inexplicable loss of a man’s entire face. He was there the day Roam was besieged by a flock of poisonous butterflies, the night the vines snatched a baby from its crib. He knew Rachel would most likely die from this fever. She was too hot to touch; the edge of her sheets dripped with sweat. The only sound she made was a soft, melodious moan—a death song. But after three days the fever broke; miraculously, she recovered. And, as if it had never happened, as if she had not been halfway to the hereafter, she was soon back to her sweet, happy self. It wasn’t until she wandered off into the woods and fell into a gulley that anyone even knew she was blind. Dr. Carraway returned, examined her, and determined that her optic nerves had been singed by the fever, or frayed perhaps; the truth was he had no idea. But if he was right (which he wasn’t), it was possible, though unlikely, the nerves might, with time and prayer, grow back together again.
“I was hoping for something having more to do with medicine or science,” Rachel’s father said.
Dr. Carraway smiled. “Science is a good thing. But prayer is a great thing. After all,” he said, “what harm can it do?”
So Mr. and Mrs. McCallister began praying every day for Rachel’s eyesight to return. They made Rachel pray as well, though she had even less an idea of what she was doing than her parents did. This was the first of their two fruitless attempts at restoring their child’s eyesight. They would literally die trying.
As the years passed, however, it was clear that Rachel was going to be an extraordinary beauty, as if, unable to see herself, she would make the most of being seen. Her mother trained her eyes to remain relatively steady, and used tape to keep her eyelids open, in an effort to avoid what she called “that unfortunate blind girl look.” She even taught Rachel to blink, and Rachel blinked quite well, and at all the right times. At seventeen Rachel had lava red hair flowing in curls to her shoulders, and smooth almond skin, light brown freckles, and lips—full and fresh, deep orange—that were almost too big, like her mouth, into which it appeared you could fit a tangerine when she smiled. She smiled not because she didn’t miss what she’d lost from life, but because of what she still had: her parents, a home, and, most of all, her sister, Helen.
Helen. Her story was even sadder than Rachel’s. She was ugly from the day she was born. Dr. Carraway, who by his own account had seen everything, had never seen anything like this. Even one-day-old Helen must have known, as she felt the effect her little face had on those who viewed it. Only her mother smiled when she saw Helen; only a mother could. Her parents did their best to love her, but Helen was the one who went to sleep every night with that face and woke up every morning the same, and no one would know what that did to her.
In town, people turned away when they saw her coming, or walked past her without a word: it was easier for them to pretend she was invisible than it was to pretend she was pretty. Shopkeepers—forced to speak with her—asked after her parents, after her little sister Rachel, but they never looked directly at Helen, not unless she tricked them. “Watch out!” she’d say, and sometimes they’d look her way. Smiling she’d say, “Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?”
Helen was eighteen years old when her parents died, and her first act after burying them was to cover every mirror in the house with old grocery sacks. They were covered to this day, the tape yellowed and peeling at the edges. Without a mirror to reflect herself back at herself, there were moments Helen forgot she was the way she was. But the moments were brief. She only had to look at Rachel to remember: I have this face, and she has that one—the faces they were born with. Helen wasn’t evil, but there was a part of her that certainly was. She discovered this part almost accidentally, with her sister on a rainy summer’s day.
Helen remembered, would always remember, how it all began. They were alone together in the room they shared—not because the house wasn’t big enough for them to have their own room; they could have had two rooms each if they wanted—but because, back then, they loved each other. They’d planned to go outside and play that morning, but all of a sudden a storm blew in, and they were stuck inside. The rain made a gray noise as it fell. Helen brushed Rachel’s hair. Rachel’s little hands were folded in her lap, and she was thinking, worrying a thought like a river washes over a stone until it becomes smooth and round: Helen knew these things about her sister, knew sometimes exactly what was going on inside her sister’s head. But not today. Usually, after these long quiet moments, Rachel would ask Helen something everybody else knew—what rain looked like (she’d forgotten), or what color dirt was, or why people wore hats, and Helen would patiently describe and explain these things, because she thought that was her job.
But that’s not what Rachel wanted to know today.
“Helen?” she said.
Helen sighed. “Yes, Rachel?”
“What do I . . . look like?”
Helen stopped brushing midstroke. The idea that Rachel didn’t know what she looked like—well, of course she wouldn’t know. But it had never occurred to Helen. Rachel knew faces—she could feel them—but she didn’t know what they meant. She was only six years old.
“What you look like,” Helen said. “Well . . . that’s a big question, isn’t it? Have you tried the mirror?”
“It doesn’t work for me,” she said.
“I know. I was only having fun.”
Rachel let this thoughtless admission drift away.
“I ask Mother,” she said. “A lot.”
“And what does Mother say?”
“She says, ‘You shouldn’t concern yourself with it,’ ” Rachel said. “She says it doesn’t matter what the outside parts look like.”
Helen absentmindedly finished the stroke, and smiled. Smiles were so rare to her face she’d almost forgotten how to make them. “You really want to know, Rachel?” Helen said. “That’s what you want?”
Rachel nodded, and in her smallest voice asked, “What am I? Pretty, or—something else?”
“Keep still,” Helen said. “I can’t brush your hair when you’re fidgeting.”
Rachel sat up straight.
“I just,” Helen started, “I don’t know what to say.” But she did know; she knew exactly what she wanted to say. This was how it began, all of it, as just a bit of fun—a made-up story.
“I’m not pretty,” Rachel said. “If I were pretty, that’s what you would say.”
“No.” And Helen made herself sound so sad that Rachel took her hand. “No. I’m afraid you’re not.”
“That’s okay,” Rachel said quickly, though there was water welling in her eyes.
“Good then,” Helen said. She gave her sister’s lovely hair one more stroke. “Then you’re not sad?”
She sighed. “Some. A little.” A tear fell.
“It’s okay to be sad,” Helen said. “It is sad.”
“But you’re pretty?”
“Yes,” Helen said. “I am. I’m blessed. Blessed as much as you are cursed.” Oh, this felt good! She almost believed it herself—even though the truth was that they were both cursed, each in their own way. “I’m as pretty as the first day of spring, people say. I wouldn’t say that about myself, of course. But people say that. I’ve heard them.”
Rachel gently touched her sister’s face. “So this is what pretty is,” she said, and Helen nodded. Then Rachel touched her own face. “And this is not.”
“Oh, my sweet dear Rachel,” Helen said, taking her sister’s little hand in her own. “Why would you even want to know this? Can’t you think of your blindness as a good thing?”
“I mean because you don’t have to look at yourself, sweetheart.”
Rachel was waiting. “So . . .”
“All right,” Helen said. “But know that when I tell you this I’m not being mean. I’m only—”
“I know,” Rachel said.
Helen took a deep breath and picked up the silver-stemmed hand mirror on the bed beside them. She looked—not at Rachel—but at herself. “Well, it’s kind of hard to describe.” She brought the mirror closer. “But I would say that your face is just a bit . . . not right. It looks like a face made of little pieces, a face stitched together from the discarded odds and ends of other people’s faces.”
“Oh. That’s not good.”
“No, it’s not. At the place where they make faces? The face factory? These are the pieces they didn’t use, and they gave them all to you.”
“The face factory is God, isn’t it?” Rachel said. “God made my face.”
“That’s right. God did this to you. No one else.”
“Maybe that’s why He took my eyes away. So I wouldn’t have to look, like you said. It’s a gift.”
“You’re such a strong little girl.”
Rachel, though she was still crying a little, said, “Keep going.”
Stop, Helen heard a voice telling her. But she didn’t. “Does your face feel pretty? When you touch it?”
“I knew you would ask me that,” Rachel said. “I don’t want to say it but—yes. A little. I thought—”
“That’s because you don’t really know what pretty is. Because you went blind before you figured that out. Your face is soft but—honestly, Rachel—people turn away when they see you.”
“Because they’re afraid of you. They’re afraid of your—”
“That’s enough!” Rachel said. She grasped her sister’s hand, because she was shivering like a struck bell. “I don’t think I like you very much now.”
“You asked,” Helen said.
“I know. I know I asked. I still don’t feel like I like you.”
But Helen wasn’t through. “People will tell you that you’re pretty, Rachel,” whispering now. “I’m sure you’ll hear that all the time. Oh, you’re so pretty, Rachel. Aren’t you the pretty one? I’ve never seen a face more lovely in my entire life! But they’re just saying it to make you feel better about yourself. People do that: they lie to make other people feel better.”
“That’s nice,” Rachel said. “If you’re going to tell a lie, I mean, better a good lie than a bad lie, right?” She smiled.
“And when they do say that, just say Thank you very much. It’s not polite to tell them they’re wrong. They know they’re wrong.”
Rachel and Helen sat together for a long time, quietly, their legs hanging off the side of the bed. A moth banged against the window screen; another flew in and out of the lampshade, unable to rest. Helen could have told her then that it was all just a story, that really it was Rachel who was the beautiful one, and Helen who was not. But she didn’t. She liked this story, and she liked that there was someone who believed it was true. She wanted the world to be like this, just for a little while longer.
“Don’t tell anybody,” Rachel said, almost too softly to hear. “But if I had to choose between getting my eyes back and being pretty, I’d choose pretty.”
Helen kissed her sister on the forehead. “Wouldn’t we all,” she said.
This is how Helen changed everything, sowing the seeds of the rest of their lives together, and, eventually, their lives apart.
The next day passed, and the next, and Helen still didn’t tell Rachel the truth. She knew she should, but what was the harm in it, really? Rachel didn’t know any better and she never had to. Helen never had to tell her the truth. It was a ruse that never had to die, so long as she kept Rachel close. And as one day passed, and then another, she wondered: how much further could she take it? What other stories could she tell, just for fun? That’s how older sisters can be sometimes. It was almost in the job description.
Three days later, their mother asked them to go to town for some flour. Helen didn’t want to: she never liked going to town. And she resented having to cart her sister around with her everywhere she went.
But not today. She had an idea today.
Helen and her family lived in the biggest house there was in Roam. At one time it had belonged to Elijah McCallister, the man who built the house and the town around it. But that was almost a hundred years ago, and since then a lot had changed; everybody said so. Helen didn’t know or care anything about that; she only knew what she saw with her own eyes, which was a town that was not much of anything now. A few shops, a grocer, a bar, the shadow of the old mill blocking out the sun. A car came by now and again, but really, the town wasn’t big enough to drive in: there was no reason to. Helen figured she could throw a rock from one end of it to the other, if you didn’t count the old mill houses littering the outskirts; there were a hundred of those at least, most of them abandoned, empty, and dark. Helen would have been surprised if there were a drearier place than Roam on Earth.
“I hate people,” Helen said as they turned a corner and walked into the main square. In the middle of it was a stone statue of Elijah McCallister, who looked like he was about to fall off his pedestal, leaning dangerously to the left. Three of the fingers on his right hand were gone, broken when a tree fell on it years before. “I hate the way they look at you, like your face is the worst thing they’ve ever seen! That’s why you need me, Rachel. To protect you, to tell you the truth.”
“Protect me from what?”
“From this town,” Helen said. “This town and the things in it.” Old Mrs. Branscombe passed them without so much as a nod, as if they were beggars. Look at my face, Helen thought. Could it be that bad? But it was. She knew it was.
“What things?” she asked again. “Tell me.”
“Are you sure you want to know?”
Rachel nodded. Helen was buying time, trying to think something up. Rachel was thinking, too. When Rachel was lost in thought her eyes shivered and pinged in their sockets. Normally they didn’t move much at all, and when her pupils were steady they could be piercing, and it made Helen wonder whether Rachel could see a great deal more than she let on. Just to be sure Helen would test her sometimes: she’d put the salt in the pepper shaker, or move a chair into her walking path. How many times must she see her sister trip over a chair leg before she could be assured Rachel was totally blind? There was no certain number.
A dog wandered past them, rubbing against Rachel’s leg: dogs loved Rachel. Helen shooed it away.
“Okay then,” she said. “I’ll tell you.”
They came to the old Yott House first, and the stories began to flow. Ghost stories. Helen didn’t know where they came from. It was as if the stories were already out there somewhere and she was capturing them, like a butterfly in a net, so real that as she told them they felt true even to her. The Yott House, Helen told Rachel, they called . . . the Yott House of Death. Everyone knows what happened there, she said, though no one likes to speak of it. Helen could only say in a whisper: Caleb Yott built a lovely sandstone home on the corner. It used to be a grand house (which, in truth, it still is)—grand enough, he thought, to get him a wife. He needed something more than what he brought to the table himself, what with a drinking problem, a bad temper, and a clubfoot. He found a wife, a Chinese woman named Bao, and they were married and had children—a boy and a girl, Franklin and Anita.
But it wasn’t a happy marriage. Caleb had that temper, and as the years passed, he drank more and more. The story goes that one night Caleb came home drunk and began to argue with Bao, and one thing led to another and he hit her in the head with a brass candlestick. He cracked her head wide open; worse, the children were watching the whole thing transpire from the top of the stairwell, and when Bao was hit Anita screamed and fell down the flight of stairs, and by the time she got to the bottom her neck had broken and she was dead, too.
But it turned out Bao wasn’t dead—yet. She had enough life left in her to run her husband through with the fireplace poker. But then she died, and the little boy Franklin was alone, his family’s bodies scattered across the living room floor like firewood.
“What happened to Franklin?” Rachel asked, spellbound.
“Franklin ran out into the street for help—and was run over by a horse and buggy. Crushed beneath the hooves.”
“That’s terrible,” Rachel said.
“It is. But it gets worse. After their bodies were cleared away and the blood was cleaned up and the brains shoveled off the living room floor, another family moved in. Husband, wife, son, daughter. And they all died as well, in a fashion too grisly to even describe.” Helen held her sister’s arm tight and pulled her closer, so her lips were touching the side of Rachel’s ear. “And ever since then, every family who has moved into the Yott House has died—by their own hands or by somebody else’s, or by the hand of God Himself.”
“But why would people do that? Move to a place where they know something like that’s going to happen?”
“Because people always think it could never happen to them,” Helen said. “Then it always does.”
They kept walking.
Beyond the Yott House was the Hanging Tree. “Ah! Here we are,” Helen said. “The Hanging Tree. From this tree—from this beautiful chestnut—over a hundred people had been hanged, and they’d been left hanging there until the meat fell off their bones. A hundred people: one every year for a hundred years!”
Rachel stiffened, but her curiosity always got the better of her. “Hanged?” she asked. “Why?”
“Who really knows anymore?” Helen said. “At first, they were actual criminals. People who did terrible things. In the early years, before Elijah McCallister civilized them, someone would always do something bad enough to be hanged for. But over time people became better. They followed the rules. But hanging had become something of a tradition, and so every year the town voted, and someone was hanged. Usually it was someone people didn’t like, or . . .”
“What? Or what?”
Helen paused. “People with some sort of . . . problem. Some sort of physical problem.”
“Something wrong with them. Something that made them . . . different.”
They stood there for a long time.
“But they’ve stopped doing that?” Rachel said, hopefully. “I mean, we’ve stopped doing that. Right?”
“Of course,” Helen said, laughing. “Of course we have. I can’t remember the last time someone was hanged from this tree.”
They kept walking.
They walked past the Poison Fields, where nothing had ever grown, not even dirt, and then to the Boneyard where—and again, this was a long time ago, Helen told her—the dead weren’t even buried. Their bodies were simply discarded there and left to rot. The people of the town were so busy making silk they didn’t have time to bury the dead! The poor, the unknown, the evil, and then those unlikeable people they hanged from the tree—they all were left here. The bones are still there.
And after the Boneyard, Helen took Rachel to the most dangerous and deadly place in Roam there was.
The Forest of the Flesh-Eating Birds.
“Where these birds came from, nobody knew. Maybe they weren’t even birds at all; maybe they were the last of the flying dinosaurs, with long sharp beaks and teeth like ice picks. They had a magic that allowed them to blend in with the trees. And they were so quiet, so quiet that even if you had eyes you wouldn’t be able to see them. But they can see you. They can see everything. They’re part of the darkness all around them, and if you come too close or linger too long—even here, where we’re standing right now!—they’ll fly out in a great flock and before you have a chance to turn away they’ll be upon you, and all that will be left of you is nothing, not even a bone to clatter against the sidewalk. Very few people have walked through the Forest and lived.”
“I might,” Rachel said. “Birds like me. Remember that time—”
“Not these birds, Rachel,” Helen said. “These birds don’t like you at all.”
“Oh.” This set her back, Helen could tell. “Is the whole world like this?”
“The whole world? No,” Helen said. “There are better places than Roam. There’s a place I’ve heard of not far from here. It’s a land of light and honey. The sun comes up in the morning and paints the town all daffodil yellow, warming the porches and the windowsills. The dew clings to the grass until the sun melts it, and the air smells of pine needles—fresh like that. The sky is a milky blue and at night every star comes out to shine on the perfect little houses and the happy people inside them.
“Everyone goes about their day with joy in their hearts; they do honest work. Laughter: sometimes that’s all you hear. People laughing. Everyone’s happy. It’s a clean place. In the morning the streets themselves look like they’ve been swept, but it’s just the natural wind, taking away with it what it needs to, but leaving all the beauty behind.”
“Oh,” Rachel said.
“I could go on, but I won’t. Just know that everything about it is wonderful, more wonderful than you could ever imagine.”
“How do you know about this place?” Rachel said.
“Why wouldn’t I know?”
“You never said anything about it before.”
“Because you weren’t old enough before,” Helen said. “I don’t know that you would have been able to understand.”
“Have you been there?”
“Of course I haven’t been there! There’s only one way to get there from here. And it’s dangerous. Very dangerous.”
“There’s more than one way to get anywhere,” Rachel said.
Helen flicked Rachel’s arm sharply with her index finger: it’s how she gave her blind sister a stern look. “How is it you know so much all of a sudden?”
“I don’t,” Rachel said and rubbed her arm. “Why is it so dangerous to get there?”
“Because to get there,” Helen said, “you have to go through the Forest of the Flesh-Eating Birds. And if somehow you were lucky enough to get past the birds, which you wouldn’t be, there’s a ravine, a ravine so deep you can’t see the bottom of it. You’d fall in and no one would ever find you.” This was actually true—there was a ravine—but if there weren’t she would have invented one. “They built a bridge across it a long time ago, our ancestors, but it was almost impossible to build and it didn’t last much longer than it took for them to get over it the first time.”
“Because it was made of twigs and pine straw and spit is why,” she said. “And hope. Which the world is sorely in need of these days.” Helen took a deep breath and sighed: telling stories was hard. “But if you got past that, and then walked for days and days, you would come to the river.” Helen had heard her parents talk about a river, after they came back from seeing the doctor in Arcadia where they went to get medicinal water for Rachel’s eyes. “Oh, the river is a wondrous thing, unlike any other river in the world. It’s magic. Everyone who bathes in it changes. Whatever ails them is cured. It’s what people say, anyway: no one from Roam has ever been to it. Not for lack of trying, of course. The bones at the bottom of the ravine are proof enough of that.”
“Whatever ails them,” Rachel said.
It made Helen sad to look at her. Not just because she was so pretty and all that prettiness was wasted on her, but because Rachel wanted so much to be something that she wasn’t, and could never be. Her world was a small dark box, and the only thing outside of the box was the world Helen created for her. The sad part was watching her struggle against the sides of the box. Helen tried to love her, but there were just too many things that got in the way.
“That sounds like such a wonderful place,” Rachel said.
The sighs of the dying brushed past them, and Helen turned away from her sister.
“I just thought you’d want to know,” Helen said. She brought her sister close in a tight hug: the lies she told—and that’s what they were, she knew that—made her feel empty, lost, and alone. At least for a moment or two. And that’s when she needed her sister most of all. “I’m sorry if it hurts. I’m sorry that I told you. Sometimes I tell you things I shouldn’t. Just don’t think about it.”
“I just don’t understand,” Rachel said. “Why hasn’t anybody built another bridge?”
“I said don’t think about it, okay?”
“Okay,” Rachel said. “I won’t.”
But Rachel would think about it. She would never stop thinking about it. Helen had spoken to some deep need inside of her sister, and this picture Rachel had conjured—of this faraway town and the river, the beautiful river—would live inside her mind and grow, and over time—especially after their parents died, not too many years from now—it would become as real as anything else in her world. It was a failure of Helen’s own dark imagination, however, that she never for a moment thought that Rachel—her blind little sister—would actually try to go there on her own.