It had all begun in a forest. That was the story Ofelia knew, the thread, the story in all the stories—except the sea, but that had its own set of tales and it was farther away than anything in the books she carried to where her stepfather wanted to them to live. Her stories, Mama used to call them, even though she’d been the one to bring them to her, when things had been good. They were the world, and she knows they are still. How could her own have begun any differently, than to come here? If none of it was true, how did their lives change when they went to the forest and Mama married a cruel man?
She needed to see through to the end of it. That was the promise she’d made to herself, and to the Faun. Everyone could agree on this much—good children kept their word. Ofelia didn’t break promises. Good children made it home. She took off Mama’s lovely gift.
Her mother was the moon. She knew that. Her mother must too, even if she couldn’t say it. In all the fairy tales, mother was either dead or waiting for her. Her mother was here. She just needed to get them both safe.
Ofelia touched the crescent on her shoulder. The little drop beside it. There. Together. Once, the moon had a child and she followed her down, deep into the earth of another world, for she loved her so much she could not bear to leave her alone in it. The sun could blind but she could be gentle. She could guide her way at night, to the place where they could finally move on again. Where they could go, if they were careful, if they were wise. If Ofelia did her part.
She opened the book to the light, watching the red of the brightest stories fill the pages.
She’d failed, and failed again. Her mother in the earth, and not the kind to wander in. She couldn’t follow her there, or the story would end.
The tasks were over, and this was the point at which loss happened. Where girls who couldn’t do as they meant would find themselves stuck. Eaten.
In her case, get other people eaten. Blood of the fairies, more meat than air. Blood of Mama, as if her stepfather had come to punish her too, for what she’d done. Ofelia blinked the sun out of her eyes. She watched her mother enter the dirt.
Following was what other people did. What everyone did. How Mama went wrong.
But she’d gone wrong in not following, herself, and so she went with Mercedes, into the forest again. Mercedes had been right, not to follow her stepfather. Smarter too, going all unseen.
Sometimes children need to listen. If they have the right one to listen to. That was the chief part in the stories. Listening to the right ones, ignoring the wrong ones until they looked silly and died, putting everyone out of their misery.
Ofelia huddled under the drizzle, eyes untroubled by the mist of it, face turned to the closed air of the forest. She imagined how there would be no one left to hurt, back there. No one who he’d want to hurt. He was already so good at getting them to do the job for him.
So, another chance. Sometimes they just happened. Your allies surprised you. The world was on your side; the trees listened and wept and maybe that was the rain. Ofelia had no time for surprise anyway. She took the child, the one her mother had loved unseen by her light, and she left. The scent of earth led her through, and the moon, and she was in the forest again.
The man behind her didn’t matter. They never did in the end. She knew that. It was ending.
It wasn’t her task to stop him from following her. Let him. Let him go into the trees and never come out. She let him. Her brother shifted in her arms. Ofelia tucked him closer to her chest, setting his heartbeat at the pace of her own, swift, urgent, moving. Now. Deep as the forest in her.
The blood. The red in the book. She remembered—such a common element in the fairy tale. Even more than the fairies. Blood spilt, and that was never good. Except for Snow White; the blood had meant she was born—only her mother died then, at least some of the time, and that was how Mama had gone down. Wanting a child, dying for it. Even if she knew it was her stepfather’s fault. She could have saved them both, so that Mama would be happy.
Mama, dying for her brother.
Ofelia knew her Mama. She was good. And she had come to save her children. She’d touched the earth for them, been blinded as she had been, when she was Moanna. She could come back just the same.
So. Ofelia would be waiting for her. With her brother.
She felt the blood spill out of her own heart instead, and the pain. She had no reason for surprise. Her hands were loose, and wet.
She didn’t have him anymore. She didn’t have to do anything but wait.
Ofelia heard a sound, and she followed it into the dark.
It was stony as the labyrinth, spiraling, long. It smelled.
The smell was not of earth, or bark. It weighed nothing; it was light; it was water in the moonlight. It went up, and she couldn’t see how it ended. Only the forest of stars covering it, over the horizon.
Was this the sea?
She’d read that too, in the books she hadn’t gotten to keep. The sea in the sky. It was why the clouds sailed. It was where mermaids went when they were good, when they were more than any mermaid was thought to be.
The sea, with its pearls, the pretty things the princesses wore when they went up to look at what they didn’t have.
She’d spilt blood. Her choice, even though she hadn’t held the gun. Her blood was as good as any’s, to reach immortality.
What’s a stairway to that? Brighter than blood, bright as the moon unobscured by trees.
Ofelia began to climb.