Leaves scraped across the path. The door of the house didn’t close until her feet hit the ground below the bottom step of the veranda, and Lyn didn’t look back at its darkened windows. The covered cage felt more affixed to her person than it did accepted as the gift it looked like when the old woman pushed it gently into her hands. Her empty basket hung from the crook of her elbow, and she carried a curious, unsteady feeling in her belly. Whether it was the strange tea she’d been fed or the conversation with the house’s patron, she couldn’t be sure, but she knew that she didn’t want to be on the property any longer than she absolutely had to.
The trouble was, after all of that, she didn’t want to go straight home, either. Arriving would mean, more than likely, telling Marm June how everything had gone, and she’d already made up her mind that she wasn’t going to share the truth. Coming up with a viable evasion was going to take some time, with her head so full of ghosts. She hesitated at the end of the path, looking up and down.
Your mother died. In the river. She meant to take you with her.
While she was inside the house, a cold wind had picked up and blown in low clouds from the west. The path away from the town went up a small rise, wheel-ruts worn deep but weeds growing high between them. Lyn had a sense that the town used to be a lot bigger than it was now. She didn’t know if anyone drove a vehicle in it, really, spare a couple of ancient tractors that sometimes rambled through fields skirting the city proper, if you could call it that. She used to sit on the back porch of Marm June’s house and watch them kick up great plumes of chaff in their harvesting. Everyone else went on foot, and there were a few mules whose owners were happy to lend for an occasional hand here or there when something heavy needed to be moved.
Not a lot of things moved in the town, though.
A gust of wind carried a thin film of dust over the toes of her shoes. She leaned toward the path leading away from town but her head turned on a string back toward it, waiting to see Marm June’s sturdy figure silhouetted by dusk with her hands on her hips, full of disdain and expectation and the warm, sticky aroma of blooming yeast.
There was no Marm June, but there was a black dog in the middle of the path, sitting still with attentive, glossy eyes on Lyn and tail gently thumping up small breaths of dust from the ground.
Lyn frowned. The beast wasn’t one of the farm animals that she was accustomed to. There were armies of surly, stray barn cats and plenty of mutts loping along the streets from time to time, ears and tongues lolling, brown or white flecked fur gathering burrs and dust until someone sent them back to the house where everyone had come to consensus that they belonged. It was a small enough town that you could do that. This dog had a fine long head and pointed nose, the fur so black it would have vanished in the dark spare the animal reflectiveness of its eyes. She hadn’t seen it before, and it was watching her with a disconcerting steadiness.
One more reason not to head back for town just now. She tucked the dusty thing the old man had given her into her basket to free up her other hand and pulled her coat tighter around her throat, turning for the incline in the road.
She walked by the last few lots on this edge of town, houses which hadn’t been occupied since she arrived here sagging under their own empty weight, their windows blown out by storms and wood washed clean of any color but the grey-brown of the road dust. In their settings of verdant weeds and trees boasting bright autumn mantles, they looked austere, places where the whole world had just worn thin and all the richness of life had bled out.
Marm June had quelled Lyn’s curiosity about the abandoned houses, sternly forbidding her from going into them. She said they weren’t safe, that children had been hurt playing there because the floors and ceilings rotted, and things could cave in at a moment’s notice. Marm June told her she mustn’t go onto the properties at all, and the one time as an adolescent that she’d disobeyed and wandered into the wildly overgrown yard of one, her guardian’s prophecy fulfilled itself almost immediately. Her leg got tangled in a fallen snarl of rusty barbed wire concealed by tall plants and she limped home bloody and crying.
The other house she could see clearly from the vantage of that rise was the Autricht mansion, which looked much more huge and impressive from here, where she could see how it pressed up from the tree line, than when she stood beneath the bulk of it waiting for someone to come to the door. Opal and Ladon Autricht had lived in the town as long as she’d ever heard anyone remember, and were firmly its elders. The town housed an unspoken understanding that Ladon controlled many of the community’s affairs, whether directly or indirectly, and it was his goodwill that made her a home here. There were agencies and systems in place elsewhere, in the city, but their town was so out of the way that they didn’t brook much intervention. And that was fine with the people here, especially for the elderly Autricht couple, who preferred to see things done their way.
The Autricht house wore a face much like its patron, tall and condescending, and Lyn’s early impression that the house was leaning somewhat was not wholly incorrect. The building seemed a little crooked, as though one part of the foundation had sunk over the long years and the upper levels had strained another direction to compensate.
The wind kicked at her, stinging with dust. She blinked into it, realizing that the upper windows of that tightly shuttered house were not covered like the lower windows were. Lyn couldn’t be sure if she had or had not seen the pale oval of a face staring out at her from one of the high floors. The apparition was easy to imagine, with as strange as the day had already been, and when she rubbed the dry grit out of her eyes and looked again, as far as she could tell, all the glass was empty.
Before she turned her back, she noticed that the dog had moved down the road after her, and was sitting again, at about the same distance as before, just at the bottom of the hill, tail thumping.
Lyn was having some difficulty feeling warm in her coat, and hurried on down the road in order to keep her blood flowing.
Ramshackle lots gave way to the ragged edges of fields. Stiff stalks of dry corn watched her pass from the left, remnants of a drought which had hampered the harvest. They would be plowed down eventually in a roar of crunching vegetation and screaming, rusty machinery. Those things howled like something from another world, Lyn thought when she was a child. Before she’d grown a little fascinated with watching them work from afar, they’d frightened her.
Way out across the fallow field on the left side of the road, a grand old windmill creaked in the breeze. Its blades stood out against the sky, a warmer, dirtier white than the chilly clouds. The fins of some kind of awful beast, she thought. It was another feature of the town’s periphery that she’d been very curious about as a youth and Marm June had forbade her to speak of or visit. She said Lyn had never been close to it, when she asked once, but Lyn wasn’t sure that was true because she had so clear an imagination of what the inside of that building looked like, dark and dusty and filled with constant noise.
The ghost of its moaning voice drifted through the back of her mind as she watched the blades turn against the grey.
A small noise from behind pulled her around sharply, and there was the dog, closer than he’d been before, sitting straight and expectant with his pointed ears pricked forward. A tiny thread of fear wormed its way through her. Strange dogs were not the best companions when one was alone on the outskirts of town. Then again, it didn’t look aggressive, and despite only moving when she wasn’t looking at it, had not charged or approached at anything like a threatening pace.
Keeping her eye on the animal as long as she could before she was facing forward again, Lyn turned slowly and kept walking.
Over the slow pulse of the windmill in the distance, clicking and grinding sleepily, she began to be aware of the sound of the river that bordered this end of the territory. Despite the fact that the town’s edge was a mile or maybe two miles from its bank, the river marked the boundary of their area, and Lyn had never been across it. At least, not in her memory.
The story went that she was found out there, cold and wet on the riverbank, too far from anything to be from anywhere obvious, and unfamiliar to everyone in town. She couldn’t have been from the village anyway, because as soon as a woman was pregnant enough to show, everyone knew about it, and had seen her, and had wished her well. Certainly if a child went missing, that knowledge would develop of its own volition in the community consciousness, and if they were found again, who they belonged to would be known immediately.
Lyn couldn’t remember coming from anywhere but here, though she had not been an infant when she arrived. Everything before town was blank and shapeless. And now that she thought back on it, which she did infrequently because Marm June discouraged her questions, she didn’t know who had found her by the river and brought her back into the town. Perhaps that was just a story they told, perhaps they had not found her on the riverbank at all.
Nothing distracted her from the path, and the wind didn’t turn her around, and eventually some half hour later she stood on the gravel bank staring down at the running water. It looked cold, absent of detritus spare the occasional fallen leaf struggling to stay afloat on its surface.
Lyn lowered herself, folding her legs up under her coat to stay as warm as she could. She put the basket and the strange gift from the Autrichts in her lap and gazed at the running water, trying and failing to make much sense of the afternoon as the light threatened to fail around her. It was probably inadvisable to walk back in the dark, but the longer she sat the less she cared.
There was a little huff of breath behind and above her where the ground dropped away toward the riverbank. She looked up; the dog sat on the top of the hill. After a moment under her eyes, it got up, paced for a second, and sat again, thumped its tail, pricked its ears.
“Oh all right,” Lyn grumbled to herself, reaching out and gently snapping her fingers. “Are we to be friends? Is that what I’m meant to understand?”
The animal sauntered down the incline and sat down beside her.
“Maybe you fancy me because we’re both strangers here,” Lyn said, only realizing about halfway through the sentence that she was speaking at all. She looked down at her hands, down to the bundle in her lap. She hadn’t uncovered the thing yet, whatever it was, because something about it frightened her. She didn’t really want it, and she didn’t really want to know what was inside.
Her new companion set its dark, shiny eyes out across the river, though she couldn’t tell what it was staring out at. No motion caught her eyes on the far bank, which was wooded more heavily than the cultivated backdrop that supported the town.
Wherever the beast had come from, it seemed to be well taken care of. Its fur wasn’t mangy, its ribs didn’t stand out under its skin, and all together it was glossy and lean as a shadow. Lyn reached up and stroked the short fur behind its ears, which made the dog flick them, squeezing its eyes shut for a moment but not otherwise moving to respond.
“I’d better go,” Lyn said to the dog. The beast turned to her, ducking its head, momentarily a little soulful, and she climbed up to her feet. The cold ground had already made her legs ache, and she resented a little the walk that it would take to get her home.
The dog paced along at her side as she climbed back up the steep hill and then set about the long, slow decline back toward town. Dusk settled in over the fields, painting their dun and grey in charcoal and black as the shadows deepened. Out across the whispering sea of neglected prairie plants, the windmill was reduced into a two dimensional cutout with great arms wheeling and wheeling, stuttering to itself in a language of squeaks and pops. As the distant sunk sank down behind the horizon, Lyn hurried the last stretch toward home, practically cantering down the hill that dropped toward the end of the lane leading to the Autricht house, past the dead farmsteads, toward the cross-street that described ‘downtown’ where a few businesses were just putting out their lanterns for the night. Marm June wasn’t going to like it that she’d been out after dark, but the night seemed less threatening than it usually did, especially with her long-legged companion jogging contentedly along beside her.
A short, huffed bark alerted her to the fact that the dog had stopped when she got across the square and approached the cottage where she lived with Marm June. She could already smell the baking bread, and stood for a long moment at the edge of the house’s light feeling as though she were meant to do something. After a moment, she picked up her hand and waved, as one might goodbye rather than to shoo the creature. With a small toss of its pointed head, the dog got up and trotted off into the dark, and Lyn wandered to the door of the cottage where Marm June’s lantern flickered gently.