By Miranda Eng ’18

The deadline to submit for the Heintzleman Award is March 18th at 8am. Read the full story from last year’s first place submission below.

        The tongues of flame that had so eagerly lapped at the air before dwindled into faint flickers. Great logs of timber had burnt into blackened twigs that looked like bones that predators had stripped of all flesh. Perhaps it was only the light burning low, or the quiet rasp at which old Alka spoke that could scarcely be heard above the roar of falling water, but a coldness seemed to settle within Selah. Evidently, her brother Taavi felt similarly. He jerked upright from where he was curled beside the fire pit, eyes going wide at the sound of a sharp crackle.

        “Scared, child?” Alka grinned to reveal the few yellowed teeth that she had left. The story behind how she had lost her teeth changed as often as the shape of the moon – in fact, all her stories changed rather often. Sometimes, Alka would tell of how she had tried to steal treasure from giants as tall as the waterfall that Selah’s tribe lived behind, and then plucked out her own canines to trade them for her life. If she was feeling less outlandish that day, she might’ve said instead that she had been an eagle-eye for a hunting party once and knocked all her teeth loose when she fell from a tree, trying to sight some game.

        Taavi bristled. “After tomorrow, I’ll have seen ten summers. I’m almost fully grown, Nonna. Full grown hunters don’t startle at stories.” He settled down on his stomach once more and stared defiantly at Alka as if daring her to say otherwise.

        “Of course, of course, how could I forget?” Alka shook her head. “The time for my tales has long passed. I shouldn’t waste your precious time that could be spent on studying the art of the hunt. You won’t hear a peep more from me.” She said this solemnly, yet her green eyes glinted in a such a way that made her seem just as much a child as Taavi, despite being set in a face drooping with the weight of years.

        “Alka, I want to hear the story. Tell it for my sake if Taavi’s not enough a man –“ seeing Taavi’s pout, Selah snorted, “I apologize, too much a man, to admit he likes nursery tales.”

        The old huntress said nothing, continuing to stare into the embers nestled at the bottom of the fire pit. Selah leaned closer, and at this proximity, she could hear the rustle of the dry strips of bark as Alka’s quick fingers wove them together into a basket without needing a single glance downward. She knew that Alka enjoyed drawing out her words until they begged to hear more. She hid a grin behind her hand as she waited for Taavi to give in.

        After sitting in silence for a few heartbeats with nothing to listen to but the crash of the waterfall over the mouth of the cave, Taavi quickly cracked. “Nonna, it’s too dark and late to learn much else about hunting tonight. I might as well do something else, shouldn’t I? Just one more story would be alright.” He tried to puff out his chest and regain a semblance of dignity. “I have spare time.”

        Alka let her grin slip across her face once more. “Ah, so the great hunter yields to the storyteller?”

        “I surrender,” Taavi wailed, even though a grin curled his lips as he bowed his head to the stone ground.

        Something of iron slid up Alka’s hunched back and straightened it until Selah could see a shadow of the proud warrior she once was, with her hard eyes and the set of her jaw behind sagging skin. “Then listen well.” Her voice suddenly dipped low although her head was held high. Alka’s eyes fell closed.

        “You may think that Death excuses evil. Enough men have believed the same, attempting to take their own lives in the hope that in passing from this existence, both the good and the bad deeds they have done will be destroyed along with their bodies. That is not true.” Alka paused to clear her throat with an echoing cough. The wavering glow cast by the dying flames only lit her chin and the bottoms of her cheeks, making strange shapes and deep gashes of her wrinkles.

It was not only Taavi and Selah listening now; the small children at the other fire pits had put down the sticks they were play-fighting with, and the young men leaning against the cave walls had lowered their voices and tilted their heads in Alka’s direction. She continued, “The stars have watched all, and they do not have the leisure of forgetting. The spirits of evil humans are rejected from the skies when they try to rise, so they are forced to sink. Sink, into stagnant, stinking waters where no living creatures dare to disturb the surface.

        “Have you ever seen their fingers, curved and black and shining as ravens’ wings do, so long that they can wrap around your ankles even as you stand at the water’s edge? Have you heard their voices, like the grinding of stones? Their faces, bloated by stale water, blank spaces where their eyes should be and mouths hanging crooked–“

        A loud hiss pierced the air, causing Selah and Taavi and the rest of the children all to jump. The last embers had been smothered under a cascade of dirt, emitting a sound too similar to the call of a serpent for Selah’s liking. Dark, nearly human shapes rose from the smoke. Despite telling herself that she was not afraid, she shifted away from the smoke and closer to the mouth of the cavern, where only a rushing curtain of water separated her from the fall into rocky depths below. The sole light source left was the moon, which trickled its pale shine through the waterfall and into the cave. Mother stood tall in the weak light and cradled the basket from which she must have poured the dirt. A tough hide belt – the mark of the healer – was slung around her hips, with three raven skulls fastened to it, their bony faces peeking out amidst strands of beads and colored stones.

        “Off to sleep now, children. The spirits are waiting for your dreams,” Mother said sharply. At the children’s fearful looks, she sighed. “I meant the good spirits of your ancestors. It’s true, the world beyond the waterfall can be dangerous, but you will learn how to protect yourselves in time. While you are within our caves, there is nothing you need to defend against.” She paused as if debating whether to speak further. “In any case, it is not because of white-faced demons that you should fear still water.”

        “Then why should we fear still water?” asked one of the older boys, a defiant hunter-in-training called Etik. Even now he jutted out his chin as if to challenge Mother.

        “It is said that if you look into pools of still water, they can show you the exact likenesses of men and trees and animals, and anything that can imitate the living yet not be living itself should not be trusted.” Before Etik could open his mouth again, a new glint in his eyes, Mother cut in. “It is also the tradition of our ancestors to do so. Some things do not need reasons.”

        Alka remained silent and continued to braid her bits of bark, although she kept her gaze fixed on Mother.

        Face softening slightly, Mother bent to tug Taavi up by the hand. “You especially need your sleep. I thought you were to watch your first hunt in the morning?”

        Taavi jumped up, nodding his head. “I am, I am!”

        Mother crossed her arms. “Now, how will you wake up in time if you’re listening to stories for half the night?”

        “I’ll sleep right away, and anyhow, I know Selah will shake me and pester me to no end if I’m not ready to leave when she is.” He smiled to soften the blow, and Selah’s indignant reply died in her throat. However, it was not long before a mischievous look crossed his features. “Race you to our bedding pits!” With that, he took off, bare feet hitting the moss-covered ground while the high rock walls echoed his giggles.

        “You only ever win when you trick me!” Selah shouted, but she was laughing too.

        Distantly, the reply came: “Mother always says the smart ones learn tricks while the slow ones follow the herd, right?”

        Feigning a growl, Selah bounded after her brother’s voice into a tunnel that branched off from the main cavern, a familiar path that briefly shrouded her in darkness before a spill of candlelight gave away the low entrance to the healer’s den. “You’ll be sorry you said that tomorrow morning,” she called.

        Dropping to her stomach with no hesitation, Selah squirmed through the gap and into the small alcove at the other side. She found Taavi attempting to hide in the corner, under a shelf of rock on which piles of dried herbs had been precariously perched.

        “I’ve got you now,” Selah said, stalking towards her brother. “The spirits above condemn you to die by laughter!” She wriggled her fingers threateningly at him. Before her hands could even touch Taavi’s sides to tickle him, her brother began to flail and laugh. “Come on, I haven’t even done anything –“

        “Stop.” Their mother’s voice cut through their clamor. It was taut with worry that was usually absent from her confident demeanor. Selah’s arms fell to her sides and confusion began to replace the sparkle in Taavi’s eyes. “Close your eyes, both of you.”

        After Selah obeyed, she heard the patter of feet across the floor, dull clatters as items were picked up and shifted from place to place. The healer’s den was overflowing with trinkets and tools that hung on walls and rested on outcrops of rock: transparent crystals as varied in color as woodland flowers, sharp blades carved of animal bone, bitter- and sweet-smelling grasses, grindstones for crushing medicine and stretched pieces of hide for binding wounds. It could’ve been any of these things that Mother was busying herself with, but it dawned on Selah that the only item that could send her into such a frenzy was Taavi’s mask.

        Masks were the art of the healer, gifted to each member of the tribe when they came of age. Mother had been crafting Taavi’s for several moons now, often retiring to her den early in the nights to keep it from his view. After all, it was a bad omen for the intended wearer to behold their mask before it was finished. Selah herself had only caught a few glimpses of it. She knew the long hours of work that it took to make each mask, however.

        As a child, she had spent nearly all her time in this room, watching Mother commit herself to her art. Even with her eyes closed, Selah could picture the divots in the wall behind her that held small pools of pigment. The rusty red of deer’s blood had an awful sour stink, Selah remembered, from the time she had stuck her fingers into the sacred paints her mother had told her not to touch and marveled at how her skin stained the color of the setting sun. There was also a deep green that had been painstakingly harvested by pounding thousands of blades of grass at the grindstone, as well as a purple hue made from the juices of various berries.

        All these colors her mother used to draw strange imitations of human faces onto scavenged pieces of driftwood, or sometimes onto the skulls of large game, when she made masks for the elders and the best hunters of the tribe. When she finished, Mother would bless them with prayers that Selah had only recently begun to understand. They were pleas to their ancestors to let their people hide beneath the flesh of trees and the faces of hunted animals so that they would not see. Would not take, from the tribe. Who they were, Selah was not sure. Perhaps Alka had some truth to her stories of evil men and half-dead things in the water, but she knew Mother would scorn that thought.

        “You can open your eyes.” Mother’s voice was tired but calm once more.

        Selah blinked her eyes open to dimness. Mother had blown out most of the candles. The three large hollows in the floor at the far side of the wall were cushioned with ample furs and hides, ready for them to sink into.

        “I didn’t mean to startle you,” Mother was saying while smoothing a hand over Taavi’s hair. “You might not understand it yet, but…It would’ve been very unfortunate if you had seen your mask just now, when I’m so close to finishing it. You should sleep. I’ll come to bed too in just a little while,” she promised, after seeing Selah’s frown. “Don’t dream too close to the water’s edge.” A touch of old playfulness curved Mother’s mouth. Her face was the last thing Selah saw before the last candles were snuffed out and they were left alone.

        After Selah had made sure that Taavi was settled under his furs, she curled up in her own bedding pit. She soon began to fade out of consciousness. Just before her senses slipped completely under, however, Selah became aware of Taavi’s voice whispering through the blackness.

        “…Selah? Can you tell me what it’s like to be outside? About how the sky looks, and the huge trees.”

        “You’ll be able to go outside yourself as soon as the sun rises.” Selah’s voice was heavy with sleep. Taavi hadn’t asked her for stories about the outside in a long while, though she knew he always looked at her longingly whenever she accompanied the older tribesmen on hunts. After all, there were only so many ways to describe the landscape.

        “I know.” Taavi went silent for a long while. “I just want to hear about how you saw everything for the first time before I see it myself.”

        Selah sighed and acquiesced, only a little disgruntled. She would do nearly anything her brother asked of her, even if it meant sacrificing her sleep. “The sun was the first thing I noticed. Its color changes from time to time – it can be yellow, or more golden, or, sometimes, when it’s about to bow before night and fall out of the sky, it turns bloody red.”

        Even though Selah had said the same words about the sun many times, Taavi still gasped. Selah smiled to herself.

        “The trees – you know what green looks like, from the moss in our caves and the dried herbs Mother brings back, but their kind of green is brighter. More alive. Some trees grow straight and tall until they scrape the sky, while others have hunched backs and long, curling arms….”

        Selah did not know when she ran out of things to say, but it didn’t matter, because her quiet speaking paired with the constant pour of water over rock outside soon brought Taavi’s breathing to an even rhythm. She drifted off soon after.

        Selah was ordinarily an early riser. Though she could not see the rising of the sun from within the caves, her body was somehow attuned to the sky’s movements. This day, however, she woke to find herself alone in the healer’s den, both the bedding pits beside hers lying empty. The sound of people chattering and children squabbling and fires crackling carried through the tunnels and quickly cleared her head. The ritual for Taavi entering his tenth summer would begin soon. Selah scrubbed at her face with her palms, hoping she looked less tired than she felt, and made her way to the main cavern.

        There, she found her brother sitting by the fire and with a surprisingly solemn expression on his face. He stared like an elder would into the depths of the flame. Selah recalled the day of her own first hunt, the nervous excitement that twitched in her gut and would not let her limbs stay still. She shook her head, admiring Taavi’s restraint.

        “Are you looking for your future in the flames? You’re turning into Alka.” Selah said, ruffling his hair as she went by. “You’d best be careful. I hear you can go blind if you look at the sun like that.”

        The seriousness slipped from his face immediately, and he twisted around to tug at the end of the long braid that fell halfway down Selah’s back. “I thought you were going to miss the ceremony. You might’ve been dead, for all I knew, with the way you were sleeping,” Taavi retorted. He flopped back on the ground to throw his arm over his face and make unsightly, open-mouthed snores in imitation of Selah.

        Alka looked on from nearby with an expression of bemusement. “I see you haven’t lost your humor even as you prepare to enter the first stages of manhood.”

        “Nonna!” Taavi scrambled upright, the freckles on his face standing out clearly against a red flush. “I was only playing.”

        Alka grunted, waving a hand in his direction. “I wasn’t meaning for you to stop. It was only an observation. Though, perhaps it would do you some good to sober up now. Your mother has been preparing for moons for this day, painting your mask over and back, stringing bone necklaces and whatnot, and I doubt she would appreciate your humor as much as I might.”

        Selah went on to eat some of the meat that had been roasted over the fire along while Taavi could barely get down a couple handfuls of dried berries. Looking carefully at him now, she saw the tension in his neck as he chewed and swallowed, the dart of his eyes as he scoured his surroundings. He was anxious after all.

        As if with a single mind, the entire tribe of lean hunters of all ages with sun-browned skin and daggers at their hips suddenly lowered their voices. Some shifted their eyes to where Taavi was seated next to Selah, causing her brother to wriggle uncomfortably, but most were focused on the circle of elders huddled around the largest fire pit. Sometime during their morning meal, Alka had left their side and gone to join the others of her rank.

        Mother appeared from the tunnel that connected her den to the main cavern, throat draped in shells and stones that clinked with every step that brought her closer to the fire pit. Bringing her hands together, she clanked two large bones together over and over again, filling the air with a hollow sort of rhythm that complemented the music made by her jewelry. The grey-haired elders began to hum with their hands clasped together before their chests.

        “Taavi. Rise,” Mother commanded, dropping the bones with a muffled clatter.

        Taavi threw one last look over his shoulder at Selah, who tried her best to make an encouraging face. After the first few bounding steps, Taavi seemed to remember himself and slowed his feet to a walk. When he stood side-by-side with the elders, they all took a few steps back, leaving him enclosed within their ring. It was customary at first hunt rituals for each of the elders and sometimes even family members to tell the child who was coming of age a detail about their appearance, given that the ancestors above had given the tribe no tool to look upon themselves.

        “As the mother of this child who is coming into his tenth summer, I give the gift of my eyes, to he who does not know his own face,” Mother said. She knelt at the fire pit and dipped a hand in the warm ashes where flames had recently died. When she rose again, she held her blackened thumb to the center of Taavi’s forehead, tilting his face back until their eyes could meet. Even from where Selah sat, it was evident that Mother’s stare was so unwavering that it was a spell of its own, holding Taavi’s tongue captive and piercing his mind. When Mother spoke again, she still did not look away. Her voice came softly, unlike the stone sharpness of her gaze. “Your eyes are colored like earth, sometimes seeming old and fragile as dry dirt when it has not rained for days, other times dark and raw like the wet soil you’ve seen me put out fires with.”

        Mother pulled back her hand, leaving a black stain in the shape of her thumb on Taavi’s face. A faint trace of a smile appeared on her lips then, and she stepped back to the wall of the cave. One by one, the elders surrounding Taavi each approached him, smearing his head with soot and telling him of his chipped front tooth, his freckles like flecks of sand sprinkled on his body, the dimple in his cheek in the shape of a crescent moon. At last, only Alka remained.

        Alka did not put her sooty hand in the same place as those before her. Instead, she ran her finger down over Taavi’s eyebrow and down his cheek, drawing a thick line of black that made him look ridiculous. He seemed to know it too, because he caught Selah’s eye and they both tried to hold in their laughter. The old woman showed no such restraint and openly chuckled. “You have the look of a dirty child who’s been rolling in the fire pit.” After taking a moment to collect herself, she continued, “If I must say anything more, well…I’d say that your smile has the look of someone who will never truly grow old.”

        Mother returned when Alka dipped her head and took her place among the others in the outer ring. Lifted between both her hands was a mask of wood. Features were carved out of the surface; some were more human, like the arches of high brows and a solemnly set mouth, while others were beastly, such as the wolf snout that took the place of a nose. Around the holes that Taavi’s eyes would peer through were painted rings of violet so dark they were nearly black, and splatters of rusty red clung to every side of the mask to mimic a predator fresh from a kill.

        Mother placed the mask over Taavi’s face, and it was like Selah’s little brother had disappeared, either eaten by a wolf or becoming the wolf. She said nothing when she tied the strips of hide behind his head to hold the disguise in place, and then it was only the firelight dancing off his eyes and his skinny legs that marked him as a child. After Mother dropped her hands from Taavi’s face, it took barely any time for the rest of the tribe to resume its typical affairs; people scattered from their places and the volume rose once more, as if the ritual had never been.

        Taavi remained frozen and might have stayed so if not for Ragdus, the leader of the hunt, calling his name along with Selah’s and a number of others. While the other men and women gathered their weapons and masks, Selah managed to make her way to her brother through the crowd. She jabbed him in the side with her elbow. “You’re all grown up now, huh?”

        He was still subdued. “I am? It doesn’t feel the same as I thought it would.”

        Selah nodded along. “That’s true about most things. Once you’re beyond the waterfall, I think you’ll find that the outside isn’t as exciting and dangerous as the stories say it is.”

        Taavi did not answer, and there wasn’t anything else to say.

        By then, the hunting party had assembled into a single column. Each hunter brought their own mask down over their head, including Selah, whose mask was stained all green and etched with the shape of birds’ wings at the cheeks. Familiar faces became only painted wood and bone, fixed in a single expression. The leader at the head of the line walked ahead while the rest followed one by one, through a passageway that was half overgrown with thin vines that had burst through the rock. After making numerous journeys down this same path, Selah knew it ended at an opening in the stone that was a safe distance away from the heaviest rush of water from the falls. She motioned for Taavi to follow.

        “Remember the old rhyme now,” Alka called from where she was perched on a slab of stone, watching them leave. “Moving water, safe to remain–“

        “–Stagnant water, stay far away,” Taavi finished. He seemed to finally regain his cheerful air. “I know, Nonna.” He waved at both Alka and Mother before turning away. He held his thin frame in a prideful manner that Selah couldn’t remember seeing him wear before, along with a slight reserve in his eyes. His hair, however, was still as untamed as ever, tangling into the form of a birds’ nest atop his head, and that is what Selah would have told him if she was allowed to speak at the ritual earlier. She would’ve then told him, when he scrunched his nose the way he did when he was displeased, that she liked his hair like this and hoped it would not change.

        After walking the length of the tunnel in relative quiet, the tribesmen ahead of Selah and Taavi began their descent down the water-slick face of the rock. Each hunter clutched at the vines that grew in and out of the stone for handholds, digging their toes into small crevices that would stabilize them and keep them from falling into the turbulent depths below. They made it look easy, moving in swift movements, climbing down and sideways until they were low enough to leap to the riverbank. In reality, the journey was made daunting by the spray of the waterfall and the slippery algae that grew over the rock. Even single look downwards could make a brave man’s stomach drop to his knees. However, despite Selah’s initial worries about Taavi, he gritted his teeth and picked his way down with no incident, albeit taking a longer time than all the rest of the party.

        The area where they’d first landed was covered in coarse sand, beside which a fast-moving river flowed, fed by the waterfall. As Ragdus led the group further away from the stream, grasses, tall and swaying with the breeze, grew up around their feet, and the trees became denser and denser until their leaves let only a few drops of sunlight through to the ground. They would soon be in the heart of the forest.

        For the first time since they had left their caves, Taavi spoke. “The sun isn’t what I noticed first. I think the sun is what I’d forget first, to be honest.”

        “The sun is like a huge fire pit in in the sky,” Selah said defensively, “What would you do without heat or light? You’d die.” She made a slicing motion at her throat, like the cut that hunters made to let the blood out from the game they killed, then made her eyes roll back.

        Taavi’s eyes crinkled, and Selah knew he was grinning beneath his mask. “Don’t you want to know what I noticed instead?”

        “Well, don’t leave me in suspense.”

        “I noticed the water, how it shines in bright light. How silver the fish look in the river. How long white fingers would look if they slipped up from the water –“

        “Taavi.” Selah groaned. “And I thought you really appreciated the beauty of things for once.”

        The huntress a few paces ahead of them turned her head, fixing them with a sharp look. It was only then that Selah noticed the rest of the party was silent, and the only sounds that could be heard were those of the creatures around them. The whistle of birdsong, the whisper as trees murmured to each other. Sometimes Selah forgot how warm and alive the forest was, unlike the quiet of the stones in their caves.

        Taavi turned to her with a guilty look, but Selah only shrugged. It wasn’t her first time being reprimanded. They continued like that until the sun began sinking in the sky, speaking nothing and occasionally making funny gestures to pass the time. This first hunt was meant to be a demonstration for Taavi, a chance to see how experienced hunters lied in wait for fowl and shot them with arrows from their bows, how they stalked hulking antlered creatures and rushed them in groups of three or four. Selah ordinarily might have joined in, but she meant to keep a watch over her brother today.

        Taavi lagged at the back of the party, appearing more and more restless as he dragged his feet and watched the flight of insects rather than the hunt. No doubt, he still retained his childishness and short patience. Selah shouldn’t have worried; one day and a single ritual, no matter if it was meant to be an entrance into manhood, could not have changed that. She slowed her pace to match Taavi’s.

        “Hey,” she lowered her voice to a whisper, “You want to play a game?”

        Taavi jerked once, as if coming out of a trance, before the words seemed to finally sink in. Brightness flooded his eyes. “What kind of game?”

        Selah shifted her eyes towards the nearest hunters from their party. They were many paces ahead of her and Taavi on the trail by now, merely smudges of color in the distance. Grinning to herself beneath her wooden mask where her brother could not see, she crouched down in the dirt beside some leafy undergrowth. At Taavi’s confused look, her smile only split bigger. She put her hands at the sides of her head, wiggling her fingertips in poor imitation of rabbit’s ears. “You think you’ll be a better hunter than I am? Come and get me, then!”

        She stayed in her squatted position to bound a few steps before rising to her full height and quickening to a sprint, peeking over her shoulder all the while to ensure that Taavi was following. The mask clinging to his face was too large for his small frame, and the holes made for his eyes were not perfectly aligned, making it difficult for him to survey his surroundings. He turned about in small circles like a newborn fawn until he finally caught the movement of low bushes as Selah trampled through them.

        “I’m coming for you!” He tried to keep his voice quiet as to not scare off the game for the hunters ahead, so his shout came out hoarse and not nearly as threatening as he’d meant it. Selah stopped to giggle as Taavi mimicked shooting an arrow at her. Ducking out of the way as if to evade an imaginary projectile, she went on running until her breath came short, and then lay low in the grass right behind the trunk of an immense rotting tree that had been felled by a storm. After concealing herself under a blanket of fallen leaves, she strained her ears for the sound of her brother’s approach.

        Sure enough, the thud of feet against the earth came grew louder in the seconds since she hid, until they came to a stop only a few steps away from Selah. She raised an eyebrow in amusement. Taavi would surely need some lessons on the art of silence before he could become a hunter. “Are you here?” came Taavi’s uncertain voice.

        At that moment, Selah burst up from the ground, all dirtied with soil and damp leaves, wailing like a corpse resurrected. Taavi shrieked. Despite already wearing a mask that would protect him, his hands flew up to cover his face out of reflex. His fright quickly morphed into noises of delight once he recognized his sister, however, and he made as if he wanted Selah to chase him. He did not get far. In his excitement, his ankle had caught around a nest of gnarled roots, and he flew face first into the large tree trunk that Selah had hidden behind with a sickening crack. He stilled on the ground, limbs splayed out in all directions like he did when he slept.

        “Taavi?” Selah wiped at the dirt blurring her eyes, not quite understanding what had just happened. She waited for her brother to get up, and when he did not, she dropped down beside him. “Ancestors above…please, no, Taavi, I’m right here –“ Her hands went frantically to his head, trying to lift him away from the fallen tree. She gave up the attempt out of fear that she would make any injury worse and tried to listen close for the sound of breathing, cursing the incessant noise of the forest in that moment.

        “I’m not dead, you know.” Taavi’s voice was faint and muffled by his mask, but it was there. “I hate to bring the disappointing news.”

        Some of the tension bled out from Selah’s spine. The pain couldn’t be too severe if her brother could still find humor in him, though she suspected Taavi could find something to make light of even while lying on his death bed. “How would you know, you clumsy fool? If you couldn’t see that enormous root in the way, I doubt you’d notice if your own heart stopped beating.” She’d meant to sound scornful, but she was too relieved. “Can you turn yourself over?”

        “I think so.” Planting both hands on the rough bark of the toppled tree, Taavi gingerly pushed himself back to sit on his heels. A chunk of the ornate mask that had spanned his forehead and right cheek fell away, landing in the grass. At the sight of a line of bright scarlet where the wood had cracked and the edge had dug into flesh from the impact of Taavi’s fall, Selah stopped feigning nonchalance. She reached forward to peel off the remaining half of the mask with as little disturbance to the wound as possible, holding her brother still even as he tried to squirm away.

        “Listen to me,” she said once she’d picked out all the splinters from his skin that she could. Taavi’s face had been revealed to her once more, scratched in several places and starting to bruise in others. Yet, as pale as he was, he held his jaw tight as to not let out any sounds of pain. “The hunting trail is directly behind us. Once you reach it, you’ll follow it and call the attention of the others in the party. Make a ruckus if you have to, but get someone to bring you back to the caves as soon as possible, you hear? That cut is going to turn ugly if it not treated.” She winced at how she sounded so much like Mother.

        “No, it wouldn’t. It would be a scar, and all great hunters have those,” Taavi replied, and he tried to smile through bruised lips.

        Selah tugged at his hand before he could turn away. “Wait. It’s not safe to travel the woods bare-faced. There are still many things unknown to us, no matter how many times our tribe has hunted here.” She undid the straps on her own green mask and fastened it over Taavi’s face, catching a flash of uncertainty in his look.

        “I’ll return with the others later,” she said. “I have business to finish with this first.” She gestured wryly at the pile of debris that had once been a noble mask. Once Taavi’s form disappeared between the trees, Selah collected the bits of wood in her arms and began walking without any particular direction, hoping to come upon a running stream. From listening to Mother’s teachings about the ways of the ancestors, she knew that all things blessed with prayers needed to be returned to those above through water, whether they were stone amulets or broken masks.

        Caught up in thoughts of whether her brother had found help yet, Selah did not notice where her feet had taken her until the unfamiliar sight of a great glossy slab of stone greeted her in the middle of a clearing. Patches of green growth covered the stone, though the grey-brown color of it was still visible underneath. The trees nearby seemed to keep their distance from it, their gnarled trunks and branches rearing back like frightened deer frozen in midair. Indeed, Selah had been staring intently ahead without truly seeing for a great number of paces now, and she was in a part of the forest that she did not know.

        Despite the red and violet in the sky signaling the oncoming of night, she was gripped by curiosity about the large stone. As she came closer to it, something in her gut twisted at the unnaturally bright sheen of the rock. Still she did not stop. Only at the last step, when her feet came right to the stone’s edge, did the reason for her unsettled feeling become clear. She had kicked forth some pebbles as she moved, but the pebbles did not simply bounce off the slab of stone. They sank into it with a soft splash. The stone slab was no stone at all, but a pool of still water.

        The voices in her head that sounded like Mother and Alka mingled into a loud buzz until all Selah knew was that she should step away. Yet there was something hypnotizing about the pool that made it difficult to look anywhere else. Perhaps it was the brownness of it, so unlike the frothing white rivers by the waterfall, or perhaps it was how unspectacular it looked, as much a part of the forest as the night birds and wildflowers.

        Her breath caught in her throat. Just when she thought that Mother’s superstitions held no truth, Selah saw her. A young woman, barely more than a girl, was standing before her. So it was true: still water could imitate human life. It was impossible, but there the woman was, blinking owlishly back at her from within the pool. Whenever Selah tipped her head to one side, so did she; when Selah pursed her lips, she followed. It startled her so badly that she could hear her blood roaring in her ears when she glimpsed what was cradled in the arms of the woman in the water: two halves of a mask that bore a wolf’s snout.

        It was not a stranger’s face that the pool showed her. It was herself.

        Wind brushed her forehead like a cool breath on her skin, and Selah was grateful for the woods’ attempt to calm her breathing. The moment did not last long. The fact that she could feel open air on her face at all reminded her that she was barefaced and defenseless, and the previously refreshing crispness of the breeze became too cold. With clarity, snatches of Mother’s whispered prayers came to her. Do not let them see. Do not let them take. A shiver traced up her spine. She had not sensed that anyone was watching her, but it only chilled her more to think that they could do so without her knowing.

        Several calls broke the peace of the forest, some hooting and others bellowing yet all of them too loud for the dark of night. Interspersed among the noise were shouts of her name. “Selah! Selah!”

        She dropped the shards of Taavi’s mask into the pool without thinking. It was only after, when the clearing had sunken into shadows as she ran towards her tribesmen’s voices, that she wondered whether the spirits of her ancestors would be angry that she had returned blessed wood to still water.

        Selah did not speak of what she had seen. How could she, without announcing to the tribe that she could not obey the simplest of teachings that even the youngest children knew? Still water, stay far away. Another moon had passed. The wound across Taavi’s face had long since healed over. Though Mother had been furious at first when he returned without the mask she had so carefully crafted, Taavi had told Selah that it took only a short while of brooding alone in the healer’s den to come to her senses. Mother had later embraced him and Selah both, grateful that their ancestors had allowed Taavi to return safely with only a few scratches to show for breaking his mask. The consequences could have been far more dire.

        The only one who might have caught on to anything amiss was Alka, whose keen eyes watched Selah’s spine stiffen at their meals when she retold her tales about the condemned spirits living in still water. “You’ve such a way with words that you’ve finally frightened me,” Selah had said when she caught Alka’s gaze. She had gotten an indecipherable huff in response. These days, however, Selah was more wary of all people and things – it could very well be only her guilty conscience playing tricks.

        Putting all thoughts of muddy pools and dark forest clearings out of her head, Selah focused on the present. She had been tasked with fetching more moss to line the stone floors by the elders, who worried that as storm season set in, more water would drip through the cracks in the cave ceiling than before. It would not do for stagnant puddles to collect in the many divots in the rock, they said. She had found a woven basket and a lit candle in Mother’s den and was about to set off down the serpent’s mouth tunnel – aptly named for its resemblance to the gaping throat and curving fangs of a snake about to pounce. Despite the imposing nickname, if one could brave the pitch-darkness near the start of the tunnel, the passage would eventually widen into a wild garden of sorts that was open to the outside air, filled with hardy flowers and spotted toadstools and various other flora.

        “Selah!” Taavi scrambled across the main cavern, eyes bright and hair tousled. A new mask was in his hand, as close to his first as Mother could make it. “The elders have finally given me permission to go on another hunt! Are you coming?” He had not been outside for a moon since he had broken his mask – it was as much a punishment as it was for his own safety.

        Selah almost hesitated but shook her head. “The elders gave me some things to do here in the cave. I have to say, my task is probably an even greater adventure than your hunt. I hope you won’t feel as though you’re missing out.”

        “An adventure?” A furrow appeared between Taavi’s brows as he contemplated this. “Where? Maybe I can persuade Ragdus to teach me how to skin rabbits another day.”

        “Come here. We shouldn’t let the others hear.” She motioned until Taavi inched closer, and then pointed out the tunnel she would soon be entering. Into his ear, she whispered, “There, in the serpent’s mouth. My task of utmost importance is…to collect moss.”

        After a moment of confused silence, Taavi laughed and shoved her away. “I think I’ll go hunting after all. You have fun on your adventure.” A quick wave, and he was gone, bounding off to his own tunnel through which the rest of the hunting party was already disappearing.

        Midday light doused the little ledge with warmth. From here, Selah could see the tops of many trees and was level with the flight of some passing birds. It should have filled her with apprehension, or least a touch of worry, to step so close to where the garden simply ended in open air. No tunnel walls enclosed this area. A long fall awaited if she misstepped: if she was lucky, she could land on the sandbanks of the river below, and if she was not, jagged boulders at the foot of the waterfall would greet her. Yet all she could think was that this patch of greenery at the end of the serpent’s mouth trail, with its sunlight and fresh air, was a welcome change from the dampness of the caves.

        She couldn’t daydream idly forever, however. The candle she had brought with her was burning low and she would have to walk back in complete darkness if she did not hurry. With the candle in one hand and the basket full of moss in the other, Selah cast one last look over the ledge before setting off down the tunnel.

She had been walking for some time when she came to a curious crack splitting the cave wall. Selah hadn’t remembered passing it on the journey to the garden. The serpent’s mouth was known for distorting hunters’ senses, however. Perhaps it also distorted their perception of reality. A strange magnetism like what she had felt in the forest clearing drew her towards the wall, beckoning her to lay down her basket. After she did so, she began to pry at the crevice, which revealed itself to be much larger than she’d initially thought.

Selah reached into the gap in the rock, putting an arm through to the other side, then a leg, then her entire body. It was a tight fit with cold hardness at her back and her front, like a fist squeezing all around so that she was breathless when she tumbled out into an empty vault at the heart of all the stone. Brandishing the stump of her candle, Selah uncovered the vast chamber before her. Here the sun’s rays have never touched, jagged walls curving up until they disappeared and became one with the darkness. Beyond the reach of her candle light, the ceiling seemed so high it was nearly celestial. Thin fingers of stone hung down in columns from unseen places, dripping water with soft clinks.

        The sight of puddles collecting drew Selah’s attention to the bare rock beneath her feet, a translucent milky ore that seemed to pulsate. There was no moss blanketing the floor here, nothing to prevent cavities in the rock from filling with still water. It should have sent her heart hammering, but Selah was not frightened. She thought only of how the water droplets briefly glimmered as they fell. If she were any younger, she would have thought those were stars, spilling down when the sky grew too heavy, just as they did in stories that the elders told.

        A deep gash seemed to split the chamber from side to side, brimming with liquid of perfect black. If the earth bled the same as men, this was surely what it looked like. She stared on in wonder. Into the distance, darkness stretched on, and perhaps the water did too. She had seen water like this only once before, in that clearing in the forest. This kind of water did not roar. This kind of water shone, as if a fire were lit within it. It unsettled something within her bones.

Selah itched to smother her candle to see whether the pool would truly glow on its own, but she was too far from the tribe to dare. While you are within our caves, there is nothing you need to defend against, Mother’s cool voice echoed in her ears and soothed her trepidation. Mother would never say anything that she did not believe, but Selah wondered whether this particular vein of stone was truly within their caves at all.

        Still, Selah knelt to the edge of the great pool. Emboldened by the fact that no harm had come out of her last experience with still water, she stared straight at her double in the water. Unhurriedly, she studied her own features. The pool betrayed little color, but she could see that her eyes were narrow and dark. Sharp nose, thin lips. She touched each part of her face as she named it quietly under her breath. As her voice continued to echo back, it sounded less like her own and more like the cave itself, becoming more musical the longer it went on. Her mistake was leaning forth just a bit more, causing the end of her long braid to drag over the water’s surface.

        With a gasp, Selah snatched her hair back. “I’m sorry,” she said, unsure if she was apologizing to herself or the pool. When she looked back down, she caught the barest blur of movement in the water. The ripples from where her braid had disturbed the surface should have been long gone by now, but the pool stirred alive instead of stilling. Her face and the edges of her body were pulled this way and that by the water, until Selah’s image was bloated and unrecognizable. Beside her distorted face, the shape of something like another set of lips and teeth appeared and curved into a smile. She whipped around on reflex. She did not have enough time to see if anyone was behind her, because many wet fingers lacing between her own and latching onto her braid yanked her headfirst into the depths of the pool.

       

        She came to consciousness gasping and choking. Wetness clung to everywhere that Selah could feel, and for a wild moment she thought perhaps a flood in Mother’s den had woken her from sleep.

        “Now, now. There’s no need for such a show. You can breathe perfectly fine.” It was a woman that spoke, or a thing that took the sound of a woman, pleasantly high and on the verge of a giggle.

        As soon as the voice finished talking, Selah knew it spoke truly. Her lungs did not burn like the time she had toppled into the river as a child, although she was drenched all the same. Blinking open heavy lids, she took her first glimpse of the being before her. Their head was made huge by proximity, though Selah could feel no breaths being exhaled from it. With gold hair and wide blue eyes, the creature might’ve appeared completely human if not for the huge patch of color spreading from the center of its face. The blemish was a cross between a mask and a birthmark; it had all the vibrancy of the former and the skin-like texture of the latter. Shaped like a butterfly’s wings, the majority of it was golden as a setting sun and striped with black.

        Jerking back, Selah turned her head wildly from side to side in search of her tribesmen. All she found were more of the same creatures: all women-like, seeming like siblings with their matching hair and eyes, though their butterfly marks differed. Some had wings on their faces that shifted from blue to green each time they moved; others had long, thin yellow wings; one even had wings of pure bloody red, topped with two spots that looked like another pair of eyes across her cheeks. The scenery, too, was foreign; it was like the wingfaced women in that it appeared almost familiar at first glance, yet became stranger the longer Selah looked.

Wildflowers with petals larger than she had thought possible broke out of the ground, mimicking the shapes of raindrops and birds in flight and falling stars. Their colors were so vivid that Selah wondered whether she had been seeing the world through a veil before. There were towering, spindly trees whose canopies cast huge patches of shade and blocked out the sun, if there was such thing as a sun here. Groups of the women were perched by altars of rock on which they had balanced delicate plates like the bone ones that Mother had, and were eating – no, merely toying with – fruits she did not recognize.

        At her bewilderment, the wingfaced women made dry huffing noises as a sort of laughter. Their smiles, too, were a bit odd, because no wrinkles appeared around their lips or cheeks or eyes.

        “Please, sisters. Let us not scare her, or she won’t want to come back, will she?” Another round of laughter. The woman closest to Selah, with the golden mark, moved aside so that she could stand. She seemed to speak for the rest of them. “What’s your name?”

        “Selah,” she said without thinking. It was as if she no longer had control of her tongue. It had gone numb in her mouth.

        “Pretty name,” the wingfaced woman cooed. “Could be matched with a prettier human, however.” She looked thoughtfully at Selah. “No matter. That can be arranged in time.”

        Her head was too slow to even pick apart the meaning in those words. All Selah knew was that when the woman’s hand brushed her cheek, a coldness seeped into her, as sharp and painful as a blow. Then she heard the call.

        “Selah? Selah?” Taavi’s tone grew increasingly worried, but the sound remained no louder than a whisper. It reminded Selah of when they were children, hiding from each other in the cave’s tunnels, and they had heard each other’s laughter muffled by the stone between them. “If you’re here, say something! I can bring help if you’re hurt. Selah!”

        Selah came to her senses, and she began to run in the direction of her brother’s voice, much to the wingfaced women’s amusement. They did not stop her, but she felt their eyes tracking her movements. It was only then that she noticed the many pools embedded in the ground, like the precious stones that hunters sometimes found sunken into cave walls. The pools seemed to surround the platform at which the women ate. There were small ones, huge ones, ones in between, but all were perfectly round with still surfaces.

        “I don’t know where you could have gone. I’m scared, Selah. Come back.” Taavi’s voice came from her left, louder than before and clear enough for her to pick out a slight quiver as he spoke. A large black pool glinted beside her, a replica of the one she had fallen through. Somehow, her gut knew that this would take her home. Sparing a backwards glance, she saw that all the wingfaced women had stood up now and assembled into a long row, waving her off. Selah leapt into the pool. As the water came up to meet her, the image of blue eyes and the wings of an enormous gold butterfly burned in her mind.

        At first, Selah sank. The feeling was more like falling through thin air than like sinking; the water seemed to yield too easily around her body. When she felt her body beginning to rise to the surface once more, she desperately tried to fight it, fearing that she would emerge again in the wingfaced women’s cove. A gasp sounded above her, filling her with dread. She turned her head blindly at the sound. Water streamed into her eyes, blurring all that she could see.

        “I’ve been looking everywhere for you!” It was Taavi’s face that greeted her, pale yet relieved. Despite his small frame, he reached a hand into the pool without hesitation to help pull her out. As soon as Selah was safely sprawled on solid ground once more, Taavi’s words spilled out in a rush and did not stop. “Did you get lost? Or maybe you spent too much time at the garden? What kind of moss takes an entire day to harvest?! I’d already come back from the hunt and spent a good time helping Mother organizing her herbs, and then I saw the moon rising and I thought, ancestors above, you were still in the serpent’s mouth! I came down the tunnel to find you and – you scared me, Selah – all I found was your basket outside this great old crack –“

        The only thing that stood out to Selah was that the moon was rising. “That can’t be,” she said. It wasn’t enough to hear it once, so she said it again with vigor. “That can’t be. When I left from the garden, it was only midday. The sun was high in the sky, I saw it with my own eyes.” Perhaps time itself passed differently where the wingfaced women lived, such that mere minutes spent there stretched into hours in the caverns of her home.

        Taavi looked at her dubiously. “Maybe you remembered wrong. After all, you’ve been swimming in this cold water for who know how long.” His eyes shifted to the pool’s black surface.

        The water. Panic struck Selah, making her stumble to her feet and push Taavi away from the pool’s edge. She stretched her arms out around him, hoping to shield his gaze. It was too late. Taavi’s eyes widened as he realized that the pool was still water, the stuff of Alka’s tales. He peered around Selah’s body and huffed when she wouldn’t let him pass.

        “Why didn’t you tell me?” he said indignantly. “You really did go adventuring without me, didn’t you?”

        Selah flinched back at his accusatory tone. “It’s not – I didn’t plan this, alright?” After struggling to find words to explain what she had seen, it was all she could do to gesture wildly at the air.

        Taavi’s eyes shone with a mixture of unease and excitement. “Don’t tell me that you were helpless and long black fingers hauled you in. I’m not a child and you’re not nearly as good a storyteller as Alka.” Despite what he said, poorly veiled interest leaked into his questions.

        She stared him down for a long moment, debating what she should say. “They weren’t black.”

        “What?”

        “Their fingers. They were pale and rather human-like, in all honesty.”

        Taavi’s breath caught. “No. You’re serious.” He craned his neck to look around as if someone might overhear them. “Swear on it so I know it isn’t a joke.”

        “I swear it on my life, Taavi.” Selah grabbed her brother’s hand and squeezed until both their fingers went white. “There’s nothing in this world that would let me dream up such vivid lies. Now you have to promise me something. You can’t tell Mother or Alka, alright? You know their superstitions. Besides, Mother would have our skins if she knew that we were here.”

        “But didn’t you just prove their superstitions to be true? Or mostly so, anyhow.” Taavi narrowed his eyes at her. “Let me go in the pool too so I can see for myself.”

        The great golden butterfly flashed before her eyes again. She had seen many butterflies before on hunts and in the woods at the foot of the waterfall, but now their beauty turned her stomach slightly for reasons she did not know. “Don’t you dare,” Selah said. “If you knew what was good for you, you wouldn’t take a step nearer to that thing. It’s not safe.”

        “But you went in.” Taavi crossed his arms.

        “Not voluntarily I didn’t.” Selah sighed. “If I agree to tell you everything I saw in that other place – wherever I had gone – will you be quiet?”

        “I will!” He clapped his hands eagerly, then caught himself and put a hand over his mouth. “I’ll be silent as a mouse. You won’t hear another peep from me.”

        Without another word, Selah stood up and began to wring the water from the ends of her braid and the hides she wore. The candle she had brought had been long lost, and she had to put her palms out to feel along the rocky walls of the chamber. Once she reached the crevice they had entered through, she waited for Taavi to follow.

        “Come on now, we’ll talk as we walk back. I’m sure the tribe has noticed our absence already.” With the shadow of her brother’s form beside her in the tunnel, the knot in Selah’s stomach that had settled there ever since she fell into the pool slowly unraveled. In a low voice, she began. “The women-like creatures I saw, I called them wingfaces in my head. Think of the masks that Mother has painted. They had faces a bit like those, except the shape of butterflies seemed to be stained into their very skin…”

       

       

        The sun had risen and fallen in a few more cycles before Selah thought of returning to that crevice in the serpent’s mouth passage. Knowing what she did about the hidden pool, she could not let any other hunters stumble across it and possibly fall to a worse fate than she had. One night, before she fell asleep, she vowed that she would fill the crack in the tunnel with all the stones she could find. She awoke when the sun’s light had just filled the sky and went immediately to Mother to ask her permission to collect more moss. “To line the floors so that no water will collect in the stone,” she said, as she remembered the elders telling her.

        Her mother put aside her prayer crystals to look at her in surprise. “Why, have we already run out? It hasn’t even been a moon since you last went.”

        Taavi, who had been helping Mother with chores in her den again, overheard. When Mother’s back was turned, he flashed a knowing grin at Selah. “It’s better to have too much rather than too little, isn’t that what you always say, Mother?”

        Mother laughed at that. “I suppose you’re right. Go on, Selah. Don’t spend too long admiring the flowers in the garden.” She fixed Selah with a stern look. “I know that’s the real reason why you would volunteer to collect moss, of all things.”

        “Of course. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” Selah dipped her head.

        Taavi stilled his motions at the grindstone. Tell me everything, he mouthed, and turned away only after she gave him a reluctant nod.

        When Selah arrived at the spot along the serpent’s mouth tunnel where the rock parted from floor to ceiling, she was empty-handed except for the basket she had brought to keep up her guise. The pebbles that scattered every foot of the caves were too insignificant to hope to fill such a huge gap. She had known that without even needing to look. Perhaps this was her intention all along, perhaps she had been lying to herself, or perhaps it was the way the pleasantly high voice in her head would not stop repeating pretty – Selah slipped inside instead of even attempting to seal the crevice.

        Standing before the black pool, Selah was uncertain why her legs had brought her here. She no longer marveled at the sight of her own image that the water displayed. Out of all the tales that Alka had told and the suspicions that Mother held, everything that Selah had heard about still water had warned of creatures that physically pulled travelers in. Maybe there was something they did not know that Selah did; the true danger of still water was more like that of a poison that victims were made to crave, until they brought themselves near death time and again. Soft, dry laughter floated up from the pool as if the wingfaces could hear her thoughts. They couldn’t, really, she assured herself. Then she stepped into the water.

Selah knew better than to gasp and flail this time when she dragged herself onto land, surrounded once more by immense, vibrant flowers.

        “Welcome back, Selah.”

        She jerked, nearly falling back to the pool. She would have indeed slipped if not for the reflexes of the woman sitting at the opposite bank, who had been lazily swirling her bare feet through the water. The woman had glided into the water, agile as a fish, and pushed Selah’s body back up onto the grass.

        At a loss for words, a quiet “Thank you,” was all Selah could manage.

        “My pleasure, love.” This wingface had stained into her skin a butterfly as gold as midday sun, overlaid with black stripes. It was the same one who had greeted Selah on her first visit here. When the woman grinned, the white of her teeth was shocking, appearing between night-colored lips.

        More wingfaced women had gathered around, chirping to each other in excitement over her arrival. “Our apologies for forgetting our manners on your last visit. We’ll make this one much more pleasant if you’ll allow us.” It was the same one who had saved Selah from her fall, speaking again. Her perfect skin creased as her mouth twisted with regret. Not understanding the woman’s words as much as she was merely hearing them, Selah suddenly only wanted to smooth the crinkle from her face and make her smile again.

The wingface continued, “I realize that humans have a tradition of naming themselves, do they not? Frivolous, is what we think of it. But for your convenience…” She sighed and gave a playful shake of her head. “Call us by the color of our faces. I’m Gold. I’ve heard much about you.”

        The more Selah looked upon Gold’s face, the unhurried blink of her blue eyes and the bright colors leaping off her skin that matched the gold of her hair, the more she wondered how she could ever think these creatures were strange. They were beautiful.

        Gold’s smile only widened. “Come, there’s much to see.”

        As Selah followed Gold, and the ones she supposed she would call Blue and Red, she came to a stop by one of the many other still water pools in the ground. This one was tinged a clear, bottomless green and ringed with small rocks.

        “I see you’ve become familiar with our many looking pools,” Gold said with a note of pride. “Go on, take some time to study yourself. It’s what they’re there for. I know your kind tends to tell horrid stories about the things they don’t understand, but I promise you there is nothing to fear from still water. Nothing to fear at all, unless you despise the look of yourself.”

        “Is there anything you don’t know?” Selah blurted out.

        “There are many things we don’t know about you.” Gold cocked her head to peer at her curiously. “We plan to amend that.” She placed a hand on Selah’s, and it was just as damp and icy as the one that had first tugged her into the pool. “After all, we’re here to guide you. We can be guardians of sorts, like those – what do you call them?”

        “Ancestors’ spirits.” Blue’s voice differed from Gold’s as much as night differed from day. Where Gold spoke with the high tinkling of shells falling together, Blue had a low, soothing rasp.

        “Yes, that’s it,” Gold nodded. Her gaze shifted to Selah’s image on the green water, tracing from the crown of her head to the soles of her feet with sharp precision. “There’s your reflection, see? Our pools should always tell you the truth. And the truth is, well…” She trailed off, smiling faintly to disguise the end of her sentence, though she was clearly troubled by something.

        “You don’t have to say it. We can make her see.” Red sent Selah an encouraging look and motioned the other two wingfaced women closer to the water’s edge so that they all stood together. “Tell me, is there anything that seems different between us and yourself?”

        Selah stared on blankly. “Besides your faces?”

        They all tittered behind their hands as if she had made a particularly funny joke. “Look at our bodies, silly,” Gold said.

        At first, Selah could not find much in the way of differences. Their bodies were all fairly human-shaped, with a block of torso onto which a head, two arms, and two legs were attached. Then, when the pool began to stir, in gentle motions, she finally saw. The outward ripples pushed out the edges of her body, seeming to add fat to her limbs and roundness to her cheeks. Standing beside her, the wingfaced women were especially tall and limber, like the silhouettes of young saplings compared to the age-thickened trunk of an old oak. Thinness had never been a celebrated trait among the tribe; it was the sign of scarcity and bleak winters. But looking upon the women next to her, Selah wanted nothing more than to close the gap of differences between them until the pool showed her that they all had the same beauty, standing side by side.

        At her silence, or perhaps at the shadow that had crossed Selah’s face, Gold and Blue each took one of her arms and began to gently lead her to the stone altar where dishes of foreign foods had been laid out. “It’s quite alright,” Red said as she touched Selah’s shoulder in sympathy. “We all looked like that once. We can talk about it over some treats, would you like that?”

        Selah wasn’t sure if she particularly wanted to eat anything after seeing the truth that the pool revealed, but she nodded. It didn’t seem as if she had much of a choice.

        All the rest of the wingfaced women sat around the outcrop of rock, conversing in a light chatter that abruptly turned to silence as soon as Selah approached. They stared, many pairs of sky-colored eyes surveying her face. Selah squirmed in place, wondering if what they saw was a bloated creature intruding on them, a raven trying to hide amongst songbirds.

        “Go on, have a bite,” Gold encouraged, gesturing at the slices of purple fruit on the plate before her, and the motion brought the sweet scent of juice to her nose. “We prepared it especially for you. It would be a shame if you didn’t have a least a taste.”

        Selah’s stomach let out a long growl that interrupted Gold’s sentence. She flushed red and clutched her arms around her own middle, desperately wishing that her body hadn’t given away her hunger. Despite her efforts, her mouth was watering. She hadn’t eaten since the previous night, having been in such a hurry this morning to come to the serpent’s mouth tunnel. Ducking her head down to avoid the critical gazes that would surely greet her, Selah began devouring hunks of the fruit.

When she had nearly cleaned her plate and her hunger wasn’t quite so sharp anymore, it became obvious to her that the wingfaced women had not eaten a single bite. It was only the sound of her own mouth slurping that filled the air. Back in the caves of her home, hunters tended to eat together, whether it was in groups as few as two or as many as twenty – it was so that no one was left in solitude. Selah had never felt shame like this before for eating. The fruit in her gut turned over itself unpleasantly, and the taste it had left behind in her mouth was sickeningly sweet. She pulled her hands back from her plate, still sticky with juice.

        “Is that how you do it?” she asked, and the question seemed to burst from her chest. “Do you simply avoid eating to make yourselves like…” Selah wasn’t sure how to say it. Yes, she meant that they were slender, but it was also that they were beautiful, though the two seemed more and more like one and the same. “Like that,” she finished, gesturing at Blue’s torso where her waist nipped in.

        With those words, the wingfaces all broke out in smiles once more, a wise, knowing kind of smile like the ones Mother wore when she was showing Selah a new skill. “It is certainly one way. You’re learning fast,” Red said, beaming. “There are other ways, however, if you crave for the taste of food but want to be rid of the grotesque weight that comes with it. The sin without punishment, if you will. Gold?” She reached out a waiting hand until Gold placed a simple wooden bowl in it.

        “This you can only have while you’re with us.” Red lifted the bowl reverently towards Selah so that she could peer at its contents. “Your kind couldn’t hope to cultivate such rare and delicate plant life.” Red must have been referring to the tiny pink flowers floating in the milky liquid at the bottom of the dish. “We call this flower tea, made by soaking the petals in fresh water. Have a try; it’s really rather pleasant.”

        Tentatively, Selah lifted the bowl, urged on by the eager nods of the women sitting all around her. There was barely any taste at all to the so-called flower tea; if anything, it left a fragrant scent lingering at the back of her nose after she swallowed it down. When she put the wooden bowl down with a clack on the stone outcrop, the wingfaces all either clapped their hands together or pounded their fists to the rock, some even hooting in their high voices. Bewildered, Selah could only compare the strange show to her first hunt ritual. It must have been an initiation of sorts, a beginning to another phase in her life.

        The thought of rituals reminded her of her tribe. Mother. Taavi. They must have been waiting on her return. Selah stood up abruptly.

        “I’m sorry, I need to go –“

        Immediately the wingfaced women’s brows darkened. “You mustn’t yet.”

        When Selah opened her mouth to protest, to explain herself, no words came out. What came instead was a dry heave that sent her sprawling to the ground and clutching at her stomach. “What have you done to me?” she cried. If the women gave her an answer, the rushing of her blood in her ears was too loud to hear anything over. Crawling on her hands and knees, Selah struggled blindly to one of the many pools in the ground. As soon as she had put her face over the edge, she glimpsed her own sickly face for a heartbeat before her body was shuddering and emptying the contents of her stomach.

        Her head was buzzing with lightness when she finally pulled back. A sour taste lingered on her tongue and a slight burning afflicted the back of her throat, but otherwise, everything was just as it had been before. As her breathing slowed, Selah became aware that gentle fingers had been holding her hair back from her face as she vomited, and those same hands were now stroking over her temples.

        “How do you feel, love?” Gold’s face appeared over her shoulder, concern marring her pretty features.

        “I feel…alright.” As the words rang out in the open, Selah felt how true they were. She felt empty, and clean of shame, in a strange way. The rest of the wingfaced women cheered in the distance at her response.

        Blue pointed to a familiar black pool lying only a few feet away. “There you are. Your family must be waiting.” Her mouth pulled tight in an odd way as she smiled.

        Selah pressed her lips together, unsure of what she should say to encompass the gratitude she felt. “Thank you,” were the closest words she could find, but the wingfaces seemed to understand. They waved her off as cheerily as they did last time.

        “It’s our pleasure,” Red’s voice floated to her ears, ringing fainter and fainter as the black pool swallowed Selah up.

        That night, when Selah was given her helping of roasted game, she felt her hunger stirring again. It was there in the way her mouth watered at the sizzle of fat and how her stomach rumbled. Yet she hesitated before bringing the meat to her mouth. She remembered the wingfaced women and the secrets they had taught her. But there was no flower tea in these caves, and no one to hold her hair back while she retched up her meal. Any bite that she swallowed would eventually reappear as a chunk of extra fat on her own body, and the thought was enough to make up her mind.

        After quickly scanning the chamber to ensure that all her tribesmen were occupied with conversation or their own food, Selah took her bowl and sat at the lip of the cave where the waterfall’s spray touched her face. She was about to tip the contents into the rushing water when –

        “What are you doing?”

        Selah jumped, clutching her bowl back to her chest. “What do you think you’re doing?” she retorted. Her heart was still thudding.

        “As for me, I’m stopping you from wasting the hard-earned fruit of our hunters’ labors.” The sharp voice that had startled her before belonged to a girl only a few summers older than Selah. She wore her curly hair sheared short against her head, her skin as deep brown as the soil after a long rain. Selah had seen her on hunts before, and occasionally she had visited the healer’s den for wounds, but the most she knew about the other girl was from children’s whispers. About how this huntress was often emotionless because she had been left in the woods as a child, only saved when the tribe had taken her in. About the girl’s parents, and how they had neglected her to drink themselves full of an addictive plant poison that clouded their minds and killed them slowly.

        “I – well, I’m not hungry enough to eat, that’s all.” The other girl’s face was as unreadable as the rumors said. On the contrary, Selah felt as if her own mind was being peered into. She wondered how well this orphan could spot lies. “Do you want to have my share?”

        The orphan girl reached out slowly towards Selah’s bowl as if she could not believe the offer to be real, but as soon as she gripped the bone sticking out of the haunch, she pulled the hunk of rabbit towards herself as swiftly as one might expect of a huntress. “Ndumisa,” the girl introduced herself by way of thanks.

        “Selah,” Selah returned. She watched as Ndumisa tore into the meat. Some corner of her mind took on an ugly voice, whispering that she couldn’t have looked very hungry, could she, and that’s why Ndumisa had believed her so readily. If bears in hibernation could last a winter without food, she could easily do the same with a waistline like hers.

        “I know who you are,” Ndumisa said, interrupting her thoughts. “The healer’s daughter.” Her dark eyes bore into Selah in that way they always seemed to do, and then she was gone.

        Selah had barely a moment’s peace before she felt a different body slide next to her, taking the place that Ndumisa had just left. Taavi.

        He sat there grinning and cut her a sly look. “I’ve come to collect my payment,” he announced.

        “Hush, you,” Selah said, hand going to cup around her brother’s mouth. He shrugged her off impatiently. “Would you have the entire tribe listen to us talk?”

        “If that’s what it takes. Come on, Selah, be fair. Who knows if you would’ve even been able to slip away from Mother this morning if not for me.” He turned imploring eyes on her.

        “This is manipulation.”

        “What can I say? I learned from the best.”

        Selah bit down her smile. “I suppose it’s my fault you’re learning wrong instead of right, then. Alright, you little snake, what did you want to know?”

        “Everything. Don’t you dare leave out a single detail.”

        “Don’t be foolish. We’d be here all night if I tried to explain every bit of the things I’d seen,” she said with a roll of her eyes.

        “Then you’d better start straight away.” Taavi settled himself comfortably on the stone floor, propping his chin on his hands. “I’m not feeling particularly tired.”

        As much as Selah feigned annoyance with Taavi, her tongue was itching to tell someone about the day’s events; it was likely that she wanted to speak almost as much as her brother wanted to hear. So, they sat by the ledge by the waterfall while Selah painted a picture of clear green pools and lovely Gold with her yellow-and-black patterned butterfly wings and milky drinks called flower teas until the timber in the fire pits burned out. Taavi didn’t seem to mind, staying stiller and more silent than he ever had while hunting. It was only when Selah veered from descriptions – which, in her opinion, were too crude to represent the wonders she had seen – and began to explain the truths the looking pool showed her, that Taavi seemed to lose interest.

        “I don’t understand.” Taavi blinked slowly at her, partly out of confusion and partly out of tiredness. “You said the wingfaced women were kind.”

        “They are,” Selah said, just as puzzled as her brother was. “I haven’t suggested anything otherwise, have I?”

        “But they made you vomit.” Taavi had been speaking more and more like a grown hunter lately, leading Selah to treat him as such. She had forgotten that he had only just seen ten summers, but the naivety in this one statement reminded her.

        Selah laughed and shook her head. “They’re trying to help me, Taavi, and they’ve shown me things I’d been blind to before. I can see myself more clearly now. It’s not as simple as you think it to be.” She broke off, seeking the right words to describe how the air was punched from her lungs when the water rippled and revealed the soft, fleshy edges to her body, how she’d felt suffocated by her own skin and retching had let her breathe again. She caught herself before she spoke. Trying to put the sentiment into terms a child would understand, she said instead, “They’re my friends.”

        “Alright,” Taavi said with a sleepy smile. He seemed to be on the verge of unconsciousness despite the fact that he laid on hard stone without any fur covers. “I suppose you know yourself best.”

        At this, she was filled with a rush of affection for her brother and his staunch belief in her. If Selah had told Mother instead of Taavi, she undoubtedly would have heard no end to reprimands and cautions. She shivered slightly; the cavern seemed too vast when there were no bright flames to chase the shadows out from its jagged walls. She had not even realized that the other tribesmen had retired to their bedding chambers. Only the sound of Taavi’s soft snoring jerked her from her thoughts.

        Selah brushed her brother’s hair back from his forehead, fascinated with how peace settled into his features and softened them. He could sleep just a little while longer before she had to wake him and bring him to Mother’s den for some proper rest.

The tentative trust Selah had built with Ndumisa couldn’t be called friendship, but they had an arrangement now, at least. At every meal, Selah would sit by the waterfall and the unspoken signal would bring Ndumisa to her. It depended on the stone-faced huntress’ mood on a given day, but sometimes Selah could convince her to take her entire portion of roast meat, like she’d done on that first night. Usually, however, she had to consume about half the food in front of Ndumisa to prove that she had eaten all she could.

        In the past moon, she had found a new solution. As it happened, Ndumisa’s eyes were not always as eagle-sharp as they were on a hunt. As they settled into a routine and became somewhat comfortable with each other’s presence, Selah began to hold a few bites of her meal in her cheeks instead of swallowing. When Ndumisa left, she would turn and spit into the waterfall. It was only a small amount, she knew, but the wingfaced women had assured her when she visited them that even the choice to eat an extra handful of berries or not made a difference.

        She had joined a hunt today, feeling rather well and refreshed in the morning. As the day wore on, however, she found her strength dwindling. The climb down from their caves had been grueling on her limbs, and Selah thought that a nap was in order as soon as she could return to Mother’s den. Her head now felt as if it were stuffed with clouds, and her senses were not quite as sharp as they ordinarily were, which was perhaps the reason why Taavi was able to startle her.

        “Come on, the other hunters are far ahead of us now. They won’t notice if we explore the woods a bit.” Taavi’s eyes were shining brightly through the holes in his mask. He tapped her right shoulder, and when Selah turned, he had reappeared on her left side. “There, made you look,” he crowed. “Don’t you want revenge?” He waved his arms tauntingly before Selah’s face. “Come get me now!” He ran a few paces ahead before realizing that she was not following.

        At Selah’s blank look, his smile eventually slipped into a frown. “Selah?”

        “Sorry, Taavi, I must be getting old.” Selah put on a smile. “I didn’t sleep well last night. We’ll play another day, alright?”

        Taavi’s brown eyes bore into her own until she felt uncomfortably hot and looked away. Her brother had always been too curious for his own good. “If you say so. You better make good on that promise!” he said good-naturedly, but Selah felt him watching her once or twice more as they were hunting, tracking her motions.

        His gaze was especially sharp when Selah’s legs gave out in the midst of chasing a particularly spirited deer, sending her sprawling into damp soil. She refused the hand Taavi stretched out to help her up and assured him that she had simply been distracted by pity for the young doe. After all, she told him, she was struck by innocent the creature was before they charged. It was cantering after a butterfly that always fluttered just out of reach before it was about to catch it, reminding Selah of her own childhood pastimes. That was true enough, but the part Selah didn’t say was that a sudden dizziness had struck her and the forest had flashed white behind her eyes.

        Sleep, Selah decided. That was the remedy she needed.

        “Are you feeling well?” Selah turned to the sight of Taavi, who had just put a gentle hand on her arm. In the end, they had returned to the caverns later than expected, with the moon already on the rise when they lugged in their kills for the day. It was late enough that Selah thought she could wait to go to bed along with Mother and Taavi, but the fatigue and ache in her muscles made her irritable. The thought that even her little brother felt the need to treat her like a child did not sit well in her stomach. Where she ordinarily might have felt affection, she only felt annoyance.

        “I was well enough to hunt today, or have you already forgotten?” Taavi’s hand left her arm. He held up his palms instead and moved back, the way Ragdus had taught them to treat provoked animals. Despite sitting near enough to the fire tonight that the smoke stung her eyes, Selah immediately mourned the loss of warmth as her brother shifted away. Still, she did not call him back. From the corner of her eye, she saw Taavi chewing on his lip, a nervous habit of his, and she was all the more determined to continue staring into the fire.

        “Will you come to the tunnel by Mother’s den for a moment?” he asked. “Just the two of us could talk. Please.”

        Selah wanted badly to refuse, but knowing her little brother, he’d draw more attention if they stayed here in the cavern to talk. She made her way to Ndumisa’s spot near the waterfall and slid her unfinished bowl of roasted meat and berries towards the other huntress before she made her way to the mouth of the tunnel. Scrambling to his feet, Taavi quickly followed.

        “What did you want to talk about?”

        Taavi shrugged. “You’re the one who looked like you had something on your chest.”

        Selah stared at him for a moment. “I said I’m alright. If that’s all, I can go –“

        “No.” Taavi caught her arm. “Please, please, please,” he said, “I know when you lie, and I’m ready to torture the truth out of you if I have to.” He wiggled his fingers as if threatening to tickle her.

        It wasn’t her brother that she should be taking her irritation out on, she realized. After slowly letting out a long hiss of air, Selah finally spoke. “I’m just frustrated with the way I look.” She tried to say it with as little attachment as possible, but the honesty of it still stung. “It’s not that I’m upset with you.”

        “Why?” Her brother sounded more childlike than ever. “Did someone tell you something mean? I’ll fight them off for you if you tell me who.”

        “Don’t be silly, you won’t fight anybody,” Selah said. More reluctantly, she continued, “The wingfaced women just helped me see my flaws and the ways I could improve, is all.”

        “I think I’m ugly too,” Taavi jested after a pause. “You heard Mother at my ritual, she said my eyes were the color of dirt. Dirt, can you believe it?” He shook his head in mock offense. The smile he aimed at Selah was not like his usual crooked grins, but something hopeful, as if waiting for her reaction.

        Selah knew she should laugh, but she couldn’t. “It’s not the same, Taavi, and you know it.” Selah was tired. When did it become so easy for her to tire? She pulled her hides tighter around her shoulders as the chill of the tunnel was making her shiver.

        “You’re right.” Taavi, who rarely ever got angry and preferred to laugh rather than raise his voice, seemed to finally have difficulty keeping his tone level. “It is different. See, I don’t value myself more or less simply because of what Mother or the elders say about my looks.”

        “If you knew that you could change the way you looked, that you weren’t stuck with the way you are now, maybe you’d think differently,” Selah shot back. Her brother looked stricken. In an attempt to soften her words, she tried to think of some new detail to tell him about the looking pool and the wingfaced women. “They’re beautiful, Taavi. Big eyes, gold hair. They showed me how I could do it too. Look like them, I mean. It’s only a little bit of food that I have to give up each day, and my waist would –“

        “They?” Taavi’s brow crinkled in momentary confusion. “Oh.” Something unreadable came over his expression, and he became someone Selah did not know. “You mean the wingfaces. You talk about them and their looks too often, Selah. Is that why you’ve been doing this to yourself? Not eating, running until you collapse? Is that what they told you to do?” he demanded.

        “I chose to do it.” It was not exactly an answer, she knew, but she was angry too and felt that such questions didn’t need a reply. “My body feels better this way.” A lie. “It looks better, too.” The truth.

        “Better?” Taavi’s eyes raked down Selah’s body. “Thinner, you mean?”

        “That’s what they all look like!” Selah all but shouted, until she remembered that the other tribesmen could hear from just a chamber away and composed herself. “I’ll stop once I catch up to them,” she promised. “You’re thin too, you know,” she said, her voice sounding petulant and jealous even to herself, as if she were the younger sibling here rather than Taavi.

        Her brother’s eyes flashed with anger and then with something like pity. “But I don’t go hungry like you do. Selah.” Her name came out like a plea. “You look like you’re dying.”

        For once, there was no trace of humor in his face. It twisted bitterness in her gut, yet when his gaze dropped to where her ribs were beginning to show from under her skin, she still sucked in her breath a little to show off her new thinness with a bit of pride. People were noticing.

        “You lied before. I think you’re sick,” Taavi said.

        “You’re the one who’s sick. Sick in the head,” Selah spit out as a flash of hot anger emptied all rational thought from her mind. As soon as she said the words, she wanted to pull them back into her mouth. They sounded too harsh for her to ever think of, let alone say. Yet there her voice was, not yet finished echoing through the tunnel.

        Shock crossed Taavi’s face and hurt quickly replaced it. He gave a jerky nod as if to acknowledge what she said, and spun around to walk back to the main cavern.

        Selah wanted to find it within herself to apologize, but her mouth was dry as sand. “Don’t tell Mother,” was what she called out instead after Taavi’s retreating back. She didn’t want to beg, but one thought of what Mother might do made her put aside her pride. “Please don’t. You know that she would forbid us from going back to the looking pool.” She hoped that threat was enough to keep him silent.

        Taavi stopped. It seemed a hundred moons before he turned back, face half illuminated by the shifting orange flamelight coming from the chamber behind him. “You,” he said softly with a shake of his head. “You mean she would forbid you from returning to the pool. You’re the one who wants to go.”

        She had felt empty since Taavi had left her in the tunnel, alone with the cold and his accusations. If her brother had hoped to keep her away from the wingfaced women, his outbursts had only driven Selah to them more. It was a thought that brought her a measure of petty satisfaction. Now that Taavi wouldn’t speak to her and refused to even look at her whenever possible, Selah found refuge in the meadow through the black pool. Her visits became as much a routine as Mother’s daily prayers to the spirits of their ancestors. It had started one night when sleep would not come and the sight of Taavi’s form, pointedly turned away from her in the dark, was too much to bear. In the nights that followed, she slept less and less, lying awake in her bedding pit until Mother snuffed out the last candles and Taavi’s snores filled the air. Then Selah would slip away, knowing the location of the secret chamber behind the crevice well enough that she could navigate without a light or the use of her eyes.

        The wingfaced women had dried her tears; their meadow of green grass and perpetually blooming flowers filled the gap that Taavi left in her chest. They reassured her that she was so incredibly strong for standing up to her brother, praised her for staying good and empty even when the spirits of her ancestors sent obstacles like Taavi to break down her resolve. “You have us now. We can be your sisters,” Gold had whispered, her blue eyes soft. “And you know that we’ll always tell you the truth, right? What your brother said about your body – lies.” Her voice had chilled for a moment before melting into sweetness again. “You’re beautiful. This is beautiful,” Gold had repeated, tracing Selah’s ribs, “Now we only have to make you more beautiful.”

        Tonight, Red was fluttering her hands up and down Selah’s sides, cooing, “Oh, look at you, love.” Blue slid up behind her and tugged at the animal skins that Selah wore around her waist and torso. As of late, there seemed to be handfuls of extra fabric that hung loose no matter how she knotted them. With a yank, Blue pulled the hides taut across Selah’s chest to show off her narrowed shape and the new sharpness to her shoulders that had emerged from beneath layers of fat. When Selah turned so that only her side faced the looking pool, she thought she had vanished for all of a heartbeat. Her stomach was nearly as flat as the surface of the water, and it was the faint edges of bone that stuck out from it now, not a rounded gut. A thrill fluttered in her stomach. It was almost enough to quash the hunger roiling there.

        “You’re doing so well,” Gold said, clasping her hands together. “And to think that you used to be as wide as the trunk of a tree!” Her laugh tinkled through the meadow. “It feels sweet to look on yourself now, doesn’t it?”

        Selah nodded. In fact, her image in the water was what she drew strength from on most days. When she watched her tribesmen devour meat and her mouth went heavy with saliva, she had to close her eyes and think of how she looked. This – the satisfaction that came from the butterfly women’s praise, the knowledge that she could be as pretty as them if she staved off her hunger a little longer – was worth more than the temporary satisfaction that eating brought.

Sometimes, her mind still slipped. She was ashamed to admit it. Now and then, when the emptiness inside her was too much, she dreamed of sinking her teeth into a fat rabbit or licking the grease from a roasted bird. Those were the only times that a tiny part of her wondered if what she was doing was truly worth it. She could push that part aside with enough effort.

        The sting of a pinch made her yelp. She turned her head to find Blue standing beside her, squeezing a bit of Selah’s thigh between her fingers. “Yes, you’ve made great progress. But you cannot become complacent now,” Blue said in her low, stony voice. “You can surely make more space than that between your legs.”

        Selah’s heart dropped low in her chest. “I’m not done yet? Am I still not enough like you?”

        Gold frowned, and disappointment shadowed her face for the first time in a long while. The yellow butterfly on her skin became too harsh to look at. “Beauty is a process, Selah. It is not a race. You cannot only put in great effort at the beginning and expect to stop after crossing a finishing point. There is no finishing point. There is always more to do.”

        Gold exchanged a heavy look with Blue and Red. “We’ve become close over these past moons, haven’t we?” she asked. “I think we can show you this now. A truer form of us, if you will.”

        A sharp crack like the breaking of bones split the air, and perhaps their bones really did snap. With a cry caught in her throat, Selah whirled around to seek a reaction from the rest of the wingfaced women, who sat dining at their stone altar as always. They did not blink an eye. They merely stood, all in unison, and they began cracking too. They seemed to melt as frost did when the sun came out, their noses caving inwards, their eyes becoming liquid blue and trickling down to their chins, the colors of their butterfly marks bleeding together until they resembled the black mess Selah had made of Mother’s paints once when she mixed all the colors together. Their figures became more tall and white, stretching like animal hides rather than flesh and bone. Not knowing what to do, Selah dropped to the ground and squeezed her eyes shut. Even when the awful noises stopped, Selah was still shaking.

        A cold hand wrapped around her shoulder. Selah flinched without looking up, burying her face further into her knees. “Oh, don’t make a fuss,” Gold’s voice soothed. Selah thought she might have heard the barest note of irritation. “We’re still your friends, are we not? Does our mere appearance change what we have together? Come now, open your eyes.”

        There was another stretch of silence before the thunder of her heartbeat receded. Reluctantly, Selah did as she was told.

        She bit down a gasp. The most noticeable difference was their eyes. Where there was blue before now was pure black, as if the night sky had come into even the white parts of their eyes. They glinted from where they were set into the wingfaced women’s sockets. Even the meadow around them seemed changed. While it had always offered an abundance of comfortable shade, it seemed now to be more shadow than sunlight.

        “We thought you’d be ready for the next step of your own transformation,” Red swayed her head from side to side in distress. “Perhaps we thought wrong.”

        No!” Selah swallowed down her apprehension and forced herself to stare straight into those black shining eyes. “No, please, you didn’t think wrong. I’m still willing. Show me.”

        Just like that, the wingfaced women graced her with smiles once more. Without speaking a word further, Gold began scratch at her waist, as if getting at an itch. Soon scratching became kneading, and Selah watched in frozen fascination as Gold’s flesh yielded under her hands as easily as clay would. When the wingface was finally satisfied, her waist looked as if would snap in the breeze, and surely no stomach could fit in it at all. She seemed to have even pummeled away a few of her bottommost ribs to get the shape just right.

        All the pride that Selah had felt before when she looked out on her reflection bled out of her. Gold was even thinner than she had been before. From the corner of her eye she could see the rest of the wingfaces quietly begin to follow in Gold’s footsteps, prodding and pinching back their own stomachs until they went concave. Dread filled Selah first, and then a great weariness. Complacency, Blue would’ve called it, but Selah could only think of how after all she had done, it still wasn’t enough.

        The wingfaced women had been wrong before. This was every bit a race, and the wingfaces were always a few steps ahead, with a couple fewer handfuls of flesh on their bones.

        “Oh, that’s lovely, Gold.” Red clapped her hands in delight. “See?” She turned to Selah. “There are some things that you need us for. You couldn’t look like this on your own even you ate nothing for the rest of your life.” The other wingfaces that had circled around the spectacle giggled.

        Red must have taken Selah’s silence for agreement, because she pressed on. “That’s not all we can do, you know. If there’s anything else you’re not quite happy with –“ She didn’t finish the rest of her sentence, preferring to show Selah with her actions instead. Bringing a hand to her face, Red put two fingers to the rim of an eye and pulled at the bone sockets until they widened and her night-black eye grew larger to fill it.

        Selah took a step backwards.

        Red paid her no mind and began to work at her mouth instead, squeezing the wet pink flesh of her lips until they went red and swollen as if stung by a horde of wasps.

        “It doesn’t hurt,” Gold said. “Did it look like we were in pain?”

        “No, but I –“

        “Come here, Selah. Be good, now.” Red crooked a finger at her. When Selah stayed rooted to the ground, the three wingfaced women began to converge on her.

        Fear shot through her veins, spreading from her chest down to the tips of her fingers and pooling in her feet. The hot pounding of blood in her head was all she could hear, blurring into a single rhythm of leave leave leaveleaveleave. Blue’s fingers, long and thin and cold and more searing than any fire, curled around her wrist in a vice grip. “I’m sorry,” Selah said, the words spilling from her mouth. “Not tonight.” She tried to tug her hand away. When Blue’s grip only tightened, she wrenched away in panic. The trees became all a blur as she flew past them, and her heart hammered harder with every pool she saw that wasn’t hers, wasn’t black. She tripped, and then all she saw was black.

Selah didn’t remember fainting on the serpent’s mouth trail. But she apparently had, and she’d been unconscious since the sun had set. The tribe had sent a group of hunters on a frenzied search through all the trails leading out of the main cavern once they realized she had been missing since sunrise. That was all she could gather from the quick, whispered exchange that had awoken her. Even with their voices lowered, the sound rasped harshly in her ears. Blearily, she opened her eyes. Mother’s den came tilting into view.

        “You’re awake, thank the ancestors above, you’re awake.” Mother shooed away the other hunter and rushed to kneel by Selah’s bedding pit. “How do you feel?” she fretted. “That’s silly of me. You can’t be feeling too well if you can’t even get to your feet,” she said, as if answering herself.

        The concern in her eyes was almost too much to bear. She smoothed a hand over Selah’s forehead, the head emanating from Mother’s skin like a live flame. Surely it was uncomfortable to be so warm, or perhaps it was Selah who was too cold.

        Selah gave a weak smile in place of a reply. Fear suddenly gripped at her, but it wasn’t fear for her health. It was fear that Mother had found out what she had been doing with her food for the past few moons, that she knew about the looking pool. Had Taavi been angry enough to tell all? She was put to ease by what Mother said next.

        “I’ve had other hunters come to me with complaints that their stomachs had also not taken well to the deer meat from our last meal. It must’ve carried some disease, or been infested by some creature. I just wish you had come to me sooner.” Mother took a strained breath, as if her next words were lodged in her throat. “It’s alright to have weakness, Selah. I know I don’t show a good example of it, but…You don’t have to do everything alone and laugh away your hurt.”

        So Taavi hadn’t betrayed her, despite the ugly words she had thrown at him. It might have been a last shred of loyalty that kept him silent – she would rather believe that than think it was spite.

        “Look at me. It doesn’t seem as if I’m doing a lot of laughing at the moment.”

        Mother smiled faintly at that. “Oh, Selah.” She leaned down to press a kiss to her forehead, something she hadn’t done in many summers, since before her first hunt ritual. “Get some more rest. Call out for me when you feel well enough to eat, alright?”

        No, Selah thought. “Alright,” she said. She was soon alone again, bundled in layers upon layers of thick furs. Now that Mother was gone, she didn’t need to suppress her shivers any longer. Cold had made itself a permanent home between her bones. After staring at the ceiling for a while, she slipped in and out of dreams about cocoons – caterpillars curling themselves into them and butterflies emerging from them with heavy, inky wings.

        Selah did not call for her mother when she woke, but Mother seemed to know on instinct that she had risen from her bedding pit. After declining Mother’s herbal medicines and giving assurances that she was well with more vigor than she truly felt, Selah made her way to the main cavern. Control. She desperately needed it. No matter how much she had wanted to let Mother take care of her, Selah knew that the choice of what to eat, how much to eat, would be taken from her if she allowed such a thing. Those choices had been the only things keeping her sane in the past few moons, and now deprivation was nearly second nature.

        After she’d filled her bowl with meat from the fire pit, she sat at her usual place on the ledge by the waterfall. Almost immediately, Ndumisa caught her eye with one of her unblinking stares, fingers looping loosely around Selah’s wrist. It was not a strong hold, but she knew that the quiet huntress across from her was aware of the feel of Selah’s bones poking through her skin and the coldness of her fingers. Selah snatched her hand back, a wash of uncomfortable warmth tingeing her skin. It was rare that she felt warmth at all, whether from sunlight or embarrassment.

        “Eat,” Ndumisa said, no louder nor quieter than her usual speaking voice. She nudged the roasted pheasant breast back into Selah’s bowl and returned to pulling dark-colored berries off a mass of branches. For Selah, every moment that she had to stare at the meat only made the ache in her belly worse. There was the drip of grease down the burnt skin, the charred smell that made her crave for something between her teeth that would give reprieve from the bitter taste of her own mouth. However, the meat also shamed her with the thought that she still could not control her hunger, that she would even consider giving up the body that the wingfaced women had so carefully helped her to craft. Even now, her loyalty to them was difficult to shake. Besides, eating the whole piece would be too much all at once for her shrunken stomach.

        As if sensing her hesitation, Ndumisa finally looked back at Selah, wiping her juice-stained fingertips on the hides she wore. “Your mother will eventually know of where all your food has gone for the past few moons. Must she know tonight?” She looked pointedly at the uneaten bird and made as if to get up.

        Mother knowing would be a much worse punishment than simply having one bite. She would undo all the work that Selah had done and give her herbs that inflated her waist and wrists once more. Selah’s hand shot out, closing around the skin of the bird and ripping off a hunk of flesh, refusing to cry out even as the hot grease burned her skin. She slowly pushed the piece between her teeth, chewing with her eyes trained on Ndumisa’s unwavering brown ones. After she swallowed, Selah opened her mouth wide and folded her arms as if to say, You see? It’s gone.

        “Have another two bites now. Big ones.” At Selah’s hesitation, Ndumisa’s voice hardened again. “Or I tell the healer.”

        Selah sent a dark glare Ndumisa’s way. After a few tense heartbeats, she bowed her head and picked up the meat once more. “You’re awfully talkative now for someone who could barely find ten words to say to me in an entire moon.”

        Appeased, Ndumisa settled herself down once more to pick at her berries. Not bothering to reply to Selah’s barbed statement, she set out on a different course of conversation entirely. “I was with the group of hunters who found you in the tunnel.”

        “And you want me to thank you,” Selah said flatly.

        “I want no such thing.”

        “Then what do you want from me?”

        Ndumisa threw her hands down on the stone floor with a heavy smack that made Selah jolt. “Not everyone wants something from you. You think too highly of yourself.”

        Selah laughed, a dry, brittle thing that soon broke into a cough. “If only you knew what I thought of myself.”

        “What does a girl like you have to be unhappy with?” Ndumisa’s eyebrow twitched upwards; it was the first sign of interest she’d let slip. “You have your family. I’ve seen your brother and the way he clings to you. He cares for you as much as your healer mother does. You have your tribe. A place to call home. There are others who cannot claim the same.”

        All of that was true, but it didn’t change the bitterness Selah felt. It was a fire lit inside her, scorching at her guts until she wanted to let it swallow her; it wasn’t the kind of anger that sought to burn those around her, but undoubtedly it had slipped out and burnt them anyway. The fight drained out of Selah. “No one chooses to be sad. Besides, can only the most unfortunate person in the world be unhappy?”

        “I might say so,” Ndumisa retorted.

        “That’s ridiculous of you.” Selah turned her head. “I suppose you’d also say then that only the most fortunate person in the world can be happy. Where would the rest of the people fall?”

        A laugh was startled out of Ndumisa. “Looks like you have a decent head on those shoulders after all.”

        Even Selah managed a faint smile at the rare sight of Ndumisa laughing.

        Ndumisa leaned back and crossed her arms as her mirth quickly faded. “Where was that rationality when you decided to get yourself lost in the serpent’s mouth and knock yourself unconscious?”

        Standing up so abruptly that the bowl slipped from her lap, Selah walked away.

        Despite all that had happened today, the familiar itch to wander and to seek the company of the wingfaced women returned. In the choking silence of the night, Selah wanted to be anywhere but in Mother’s den. She could accept the strange new changes in Gold and Red and Blue, and she would let them mold her own body too if it meant that they would praise her again. After all, this was what she had left. Her body. Her thinness. Selah reached out a hand and almost brushed where Taavi was sleeping beside her, but she thought he wouldn’t want to be woken, especially not to talk to her. She held her breath for a long moment until she was sure that she would not cry.

        When she finally let out her breath, she carefully peeled off the furs she had wrapped around herself one by one, and then padded down the stone corridor from the healer’s den to the main cavern. Swathed in darkness, she walked the familiar path into the serpent’s mouth once more.

        Perhaps it was the clamor of thoughts inside her head that had distracted her from hearing the soft thuds of feet other than her own. It was too late by the time Selah realized; she had already led someone, maybe something, to the crevice in the wall that the still water pool hid behind. The stone at her back at least afforded her some cover. She hadn’t even brought a candle with her in the dead of night, much less a weapon. It was all she could do to straighten her back and clench her fingers into fists. She had never been the best at tackling game to the ground on hunts even before she had gotten thin and breakable, but now – she shivered all over merely from the cold, and no creature would hesitate to attack such an easy target.

        What she had not expected was for Ndumisa to slip out from behind a large outcrop of rock.

        “Go back to the caves,” she hissed, unsure whether to feel relieved or angry. “You should be in bed, not tailing me like a lost wolf cub.”

        Ndumisa said nothing at first, and instead shouldered past her to the large crack splitting the wall. “Don’t bother trying to warn me off.” She turned, eyes dark and serious. “The others hadn’t gone in.” She jerked her chin at the crevice. “But I saw the pool, all that still water. I dragged you out and let them think that perhaps they had overlooked your tiny body by the edge of the tunnel.”

        When Selah opened her mouth on reflex and no sound came out, Ndumisa held up a hand. “Save it. I said I wasn’t looking for your thanks.”

        Before Selah would even process her words or begin to feel grateful, Ndumisa slid between the halves of rock. Not knowing what else she could do, Selah scrambled to follow. Wrong, her mind chanted. Everything had gone wrong, and there was no way for her to fix it.

        On the other side of the wall, she found Ndumisa standing a good distance away from the pool, eyeing it warily. “Are the stories true?” she asked, keeping her gaze fixed on the water as if it were a wolf that might pounce at any moment.

        “Some of them.”

        A small shudder began in Ndumisa’s shoulders and rippled down her body. Fear, more than any other emotion, seemed to have no place on Ndumisa’s features, and the very hint of its presence frightened Selah. Only the dripping of the stone fingers high above made any noise while they both held their breaths. “Why do you come here?” Ndumisa broke the silence, as she was always able to.

        “I must,” Selah said. Even to herself, her voice sounded as hollow as the vast chamber they stood in. She settled herself down on the edge of the pool and curled her arms around herself to ward off the shivers that had returned now that the heat of her initial shock had worn off.

        Ndumisa grunted in distaste, her look full of pity as it dragged over her quivering form hunched on the ground. With Ndumisa’s strength and sinew and armor of pride that she rarely ever let any weakness show through, Selah must have looked like an infant flame to her, flickering with even the smallest exhale. Never before had Selah felt so small.

        “You must,” Ndumisa echoes lowly. “You must? There is no string tying you to that pool. Your own feet are taking you back. It’s choice. Be a grown woman and say it. It’s the least you could do.”

        Anger flared up before Selah remembered what the other children had said of the quiet huntress’ parents. The rage waned a bit, making way for guilt. Of course Ndumisa would think of this as a choice. She had likely seen the worst of choice in the way her mother and father drank themselves blind with poison, how time and again, they reached for sweet toxin instead of for their child. She had likely often heard the words I must by way of placating excuse.

        Still, Selah could not quite press back the words that were already building in her throat. It seemed that all she knew to do lately was to wreck everything around her. Sharp with teeth and bitter, more bitter than the worst fruit, Selah replied. “You mistake me for your mother and father.”

        “What do you know about my parents, girl?” Ndumisa’s tone dropped until it fell hushed and cold and low.

        “What do you think you know about me?” Selah spit out. As quickly as it had come, the burst of strength drained away. A flurry of yellow and red and blue exploded behind her eyes, replacing the dark shadows of the vault for a moment, and a laugh floated up from the pool as if to mock her. Selah quieted. Her shoulders wanted to crawl back into herself. Softly now, she muttered, “They want me to go back. I want to put my feet into the water and tell them I’m sorry. That would please them. It’s – It’s this pulling that I feel.”

        “Feel it where?” The other huntress was surprised enough that her tone was devoid of her previous rage.

        Selah struggled for a moment, hands gesturing in short, jerky movements. “Here,” she said. “Here.” She pressed the tip of a finger to the center of her forehead. Her skin was slick with sweat, she realized, even though she felt cold enough for her sense to be numbed. “I repeat their voices in my head sometimes, you know, so I don’t slip up and eat too much. It helps remind me what I need to do. But at least then I knew it was really just my mind’s tricks. It’s been getting harder to tell if I’m listening to my own voice in my head or theirs.” It felt good to say spill it out, even if it was to someone who likely did not care and did not even understand what she meant by them and voices.

        Ndumisa seemed to have put enough of the pieces together, however, between the many times that Selah given away her food and her sudden fainting earlier. She didn’t ask Selah to explain any further, and for that, Selah was grateful. “Show me what’s in the water,” the quiet huntress said instead, walking carefully closer.

        When they both had settled at the rocky rim of the pool, Ndumisa took her first glimpse of their twin images in the black water. Rather than gaze at her own figure, which was the last thing she wanted to see, Selah watched Ndumisa fix her reflection with the same unwavering stare that she gave everyone else. Even as the water rippled eerily, pulsating and distorting their faces in the water despite the lack of wind in these tunnels deep within rock, Ndumisa didn’t blink.

        “Don’t look at yourself too long,” Selah said, the words coming unbidden. “They – their hands will start to stir the water until it moves like it’s doing now, see. And then your face deforms and your waist expands –“ She gasped a little to catch a breath she didn’t know she needed.

        They waited with bated breath beside the water, a muscle jumping in Ndumisa’s tensed neck. As the moments dragged on, no white hands peeked above the water’s surface; no faint smiling faces appeared in its depths. Frustrated, Selah said, “They’re there. You just can’t see them tonight.”

        Ndumisa only furrowed her brows. “Have you ever thought that maybe only you see them – whatever they are? That it’s in your head?”

        “I know they are!” Selah cried, “That’s what I’ve been trying to say.” The way she had meant it was not the same as how Ndumisa surely meant it – she hadn’t gone mad. The meadow, the butterflies on the women’s skin, it was all so real, but she could not see a way to make Ndumisa understand.  

        “What do you see?” Ndumisa said, cutting through the quiet that had settled. The lines of her face were still sharp, but she was not readying for a fight anymore.

        Forcing her eyes back to the water, Selah was reminded of Red’s clammy hands smoothing over her skin and Blue’s fingers pinching at her belly. There was no movement disturbing the water, it was true, but she still saw the disgusting bloated form that the wingfaces had shown her all those moons ago. “There’s too much of me. I see too much flesh and not enough bone. I have always taken up more space than I should. My eyes are not blue enough nor big enough and my nose is too sharp for my face.

They gave me a chance to change – these beautiful women with skin like butterfly wings. They were teaching me, but I guess I was too slow and afraid to learn.”

        “Do you hate me too? Do you think I’m ugly?” The questions hit Selah like a slap in the face although there was only soft curiosity in Ndumisa’s dark eyes.

        “No,” Selah said. “Why should I?”

        “Why should you hate yourself?” And then there was silence. “I think you could do with someone to talk to. You look a bit more alive now than you did before, although also a bit more angry,” Ndumisa said, not unkindly.

        “Who would I talk to? My brother? He hasn’t wanted anything to do with me for moons. My mother? She’d have my hide –”

        “Talk to me.” There was no mocking in Ndumisa’s face. “I’ve heard a good deal already about butterfly women and things in the water and I haven’t run away yet. What harm could come from hearing a bit more?” Her voice sounded almost humorous if Selah listened hard enough.

        Selah jerked her chin up once to signal the other huntress to go on.

        “I’ll make a deal with you. I won’t say a peep to your mother or the rest of the tribe, whoever you’re worried about. You can yell and rage and spill your secrets at me all you want, just as long as you promise to eat at every meal.”

        Selah hesitated. “I can’t,” she said. Ndumisa began to turn away, so she hurriedly added, “I don’t think I physically can. It would make me sick.”

        “We can start small, then. A bowl of berries, half a leg of pheasant, whatever you can get down.” Ndumisa had already stood up, and her hand was slightly outstretched in Selah’s direction.

        It was suddenly hard for Selah to form a reply. She swallowed down the lump at the back of her throat, but it settled something warm in her chest instead of something painful. She caught her hand in Ndumisa’s instead of speaking.

        “Say it,” Ndumisa demanded. After that first night, Ndumisa had stayed true to her word. She sat by Selah whenever possible during meals, still at their spot by the waterfall, but now she watched Selah’s throat work around every swallow with an eagle eye.

In the beginning, Selah’s stomach often seized up with fear at the sight of food. Ndumisa was the only one she told about imagining the grease from the meat congealing into rolls of fat as soon as it passed down her throat. It was Ndumisa who had held Selah by the wrists until she could breathe again when she’d hurled her bowl over the waterfall, a moment in which she relapsed and wanted to be feel beautiful again rather than feel better. When the first signs of health returned to Selah, she had sobbed at how her ribs had disappeared from sight instead of rejoicing at her newfound strength. Ndumisa had been there, too, listening to Selah talk about the things the wingfaced women taught her, and then she had cursed every one of those creatures until Selah fell asleep with a smile.

Selah still often emerged from Mother’s den in the middle of the night with that familiar pull in her gut and butterflies seared into her mind, but she always found Ndumisa waiting by the dead fire pits in the main cavern. The other huntress would come to Selah’s side, and the two then set off towards the black pool together. Sometimes, Selah would tell Ndumisa a bit more about the wingfaced women and their horrible beauty, but other times they walked in comfortable silence.

        The silence now was not quite so comfortable. “Say what?” Selah asked. Her knees were drawn up to her chest and her arms wound around them to physically restrain herself from touching the water.

        “Say you’re pretty.”

        Selah turned back to look at Ndumisa. The quiet huntress’ face was even and devoid of much expression, but by now, Selah could read her features as fairly content. “You’re pretty,” Selah said, in Ndumisa’s direction. “Is that what you wanted to hear?”

        Ndumisa huffs out something close to a laugh. “No, and you know it. Fine, if you want to make this difficult: repeat after me. I’m pretty.”

        Selah stared back into the inky waters. The surface was so smooth and dark, unlike that of the pool she had first seen in the woods, which had been muddy and floating with green plant life. This one did not contain things that were alive. It did paint out every feature of her face with perfect precision, however. “I can’t say that honestly. Besides, it’s not the tradition of our people to be vain –“

        “But it is the tradition of our people to tell each other the good things that we cannot see ourselves. Go on, lie to yourself tonight if you have to. The ancestors above know we lie to others to spare their feelings often enough.” Ndumisa took a few steps closer and sat down by the water even though Selah knew that she hated to be near to the pool. It held something ancient and evil, she would say so seriously that Selah nearly believed her. “After saying it a thousand thousand more times, you might be able to say it honestly. Look at that stone, dripping water down. One droplet? It will do nothing but slide off the unyielding stone. But a thousand more, over a thousand years? That can change the shape of the rock.”

        “I don’t have a thousand years.”

        Ndumisa shrugged. She pushed herself up from the ground to stand, and it was then that Selah forced the words from her mouth. She said it with her eyes locked on those of the woman – herself – in the water. “I’m pretty.”

        Ndumisa stilled above her. After a moment of silence, she offered Selah a hand to help her up. “Let’s get some rest.”

        Another moon had passed before Selah could wolf down a whole rabbit haunch and keep from heaving it up. Ndumisa seemed especially pleased today because of that small feat. The pride that flickered in the other huntress’ eyes while she watched Selah eat was odd, so different from the wingfaced women’s scrutinizing stares, but it wasn’t unwelcome.

        “I’ll bring something to show you later by the pool. I think you might like it, you being the angry little thing that you are.” It had become easier and easier for Selah to discern when Ndumisa felt like joking. Ndumisa was attempting it now, if the lilt to her voice was anything to go by.

        Sure enough, when they visited the black pool that night, Ndumisa told Selah that she had something for her. “Keep your eyes closed. You know I can tell when you’re peeking through your fingers. You’ve waited all day; what’s a few more moments?” Ndumisa asked.

        There was a soft rustle like the movement of hide against hide, then a series of clacks as many hard objects knocked together. If she were playing with Taavi, Selah might have peeked despite being told not to simply to stir up mischief, but she had an inkling that Ndumisa had put some effort into whatever she brought. She would not make light of it.

        When she felt a nudge at her side prompting her to look, Selah opened her eyes to the sight of a large, flat pebble in Ndumisa’s palm. Behind the other huntress, she spied a buckskin sack brimming with more gray stones, all similar in size and shape.

        “Rocks,” she said dumbly. “You brought me rocks?” Selah couldn’t stifle her giggle. It bounced off the cave walls, and she realized she had never laughed like this before the pool. Suddenly, the darkness around her seemed not so dark, the silhouettes of the stone fingers above not quite so sharp. It filled her with a giddy sense of defiance that only made her want to laugh more.

        “Go on, laugh all you want. I lugged these up from the riverbed myself because I thought you’d like to see something from the outside after staying in these caves so long, but…” Ndumisa trailed off, making as if to snatch the bag of pebbles back. “If you don’t want them –“

        “No, no,” Selah assured her. She fought down her grin and picked up one of the thin stones. “It’s kind of you to think of me. These are nicer than the jagged ones I used to bring home from the forest.”

        Ndumisa scoffed. “Oh, I didn’t just bring you stones for the sake of them being pretty. Do you know me at all? I thought you’d want to have a bit of revenge on your wingfaced women.”

        “Revenge?” Selah went still. After all this time, a small part of her still blanched at the idea of turning on the wingfaces. Yet she didn’t owe them any loyalty, not after they had picked her body apart, not after they had taught her to starve herself. “How?”

        Ndumisa grinned, allowing her teeth to shine white in the darkness. “Let me show you.” She motioned Selah closer to the pool until both their faces appeared on its surface. With a sharp cry and a quick flick of her wrist, Ndumisa threw her stone in such a way that it seemed to dance atop the water, skipping several steps before it finally sank. Ripples appeared in its wake, temporarily shattering their images. “Now you try.”

        “Where is the revenge in this?” Selah had to ask.

        “The best revenge is always to show that you no longer care, isn’t it?”

        It was all Selah needed to hear. She raised to her own pebble to the air – only to be stopped by Ndumisa.

        “Wait. Say it first.” Ndumisa’s hand remained curled around Selah’s wrist. They had formed their own ritual of sorts over the times they had come to the pool together, and Selah knew exactly what Ndumisa wanted her to say. She had recited the words enough times, whenever the other huntress asked her to, in fact. Yet this time, she felt there would finally be a measure of honesty in her voice when she spoke.

        “I’m pretty,” Selah said. That was the truth she had struggled to believe in the past moons. She heard the echo of Gold’s voice in her ears: Our pools should always tell you the truth. Truth. She gritted her teeth. Ndumisa was the one who told her the truth. A noise ripped out from deep in her chest, halfway between a sob and a scream, and Selah looked into the familiar eyes of her own reflection before hurling her pebble so hard into the pool that the spray of water touched her face. The movement of her rock had none of the grace of Ndumisa’s, but it served its purpose well. The imitation of her figure in the water split into thousands of little waves.

        A strange anger seized Selah as she watched the water begin to calm once more, as if repairing itself. She snatched another stone from the bag beside her and threw that one too, hoping that the wingfaces could see her through their matching black pool. “I’m pretty,” she repeated. Then she took another stone. Then another. They hit the surface in quick succession and with such force that the water itself seemed to cry out, to Selah’s grim satisfaction. “I’m pretty,” she finally bellowed, with aggression and confidence alike behind her words. I’m pretty, I’m pretty, the cave walls returned.

        When the buckskin sack was empty and Selah thought she had no more stones to throw, Ndumisa pressed one more into her palm. The other huntress’ face didn’t betray any change in expression, but Selah could feel something different about this pebble without even needing to look. Where the other stones had been small and worn smooth by the rushing river waters, this one was thick and longer than the length of her hand. As she ran her fingers over the stone, a prick of pain startled Selah into finally glancing down. A cruel tip had been sharpened from the end of the slab of rock. Ndumisa’s work, no doubt.

        “What –“ she began.

        Ndumisa would not let her finish. “When you’re ready,” she said, “I will come back to the serpent’s mouth with you to patch this great crevice up, but I won’t come to this pool again. It is not a thing that the spirits of our ancestors have made. It’s not as if you need my company to brave this place anymore.” She gave Selah a faint smile.

        “And what of this?” Selah asks, holding up the crude dagger.

        Ndumisa refused to look at the sharpened stone and met Selah’s eyes instead. “Use it to leave this place behind you. Surely you know what to make of it. You have been on enough hunts.”

        Selah caught Ndumisa in a most peculiar embrace, with one arm around the huntress’ neck and the other clutching a bolt of stone.

        The next day, Selah woke up feeling stronger than she had in a long time. Her energy had still not completely returned, but the cold had receded from her limbs and it no longer fatigued her just to walk about the caves.

        After she had her morning meal with Ndumisa, she approached Ragdus and asked to join the hunt. Selah knew her brother would be among the same party, and perhaps she could finally speak to him alone. But when she was finally in the forest, walking as close to Taavi as he would allow, all the words she had wanted to say vanished from her head. There had never been many apologies between them. Nothing of the sort was needed to bring them back together after a squabble over who had won a race or who Mother favored more. She didn’t know how to start now. “Want to play a game?”

        Taavi kept his pace. Selah followed beside him until her hope that they could forget all that had happened slowly drained away. At the back of her mind, Taavi’s voice kept repeating, It is different. This was different from all the other fights. Selah shoved the thought away, biting hard on her lip to keep the wetness in her eyes at bay. It was only then that Taavi spoke to her, for the first time in several moons.

        “I’m tired of games.”

        Selah whirled around in surprise. His tone was bitter, but she jumped at the chance to keep him talking, if only to hear his voice. “What do you want to do, then? Whatever you want, I’ll –“

        It was still unexpected when Taavi cut through her words to answer. “I want you to tell me the truth. I want you to admit that Alka’s stories were right. I want you to stop going back to those wingfaced creatures because they’re hurting you, can’t you see?” His voice suddenly quieted and the tension left from his shoulders. How could Selah have missed it before? Her brother’s voice sounded gruffer now, carrying heavier burdens in it than she had ever heard before. He was more of a hunter than a child. “I want to help. I just don’t know how.”

        The helplessness that bled into his words filled her with strange gratitude that he was still, in some ways, the young boy who had always looked to her for guidance. Taavi’s look was different now, however. His skin was sun-browned from many hunts outside and even the way that he held himself – chin up, back straight – had become foreign, despite Selah seeing him every evening when they went to bed. She was comforted by the mess of his hair, which had stayed the same. She wished he would look at her.

        She squared her own shoulders. “If I ever return to the pool again, I give you my word, it will be to end those wingfaces myself.”

        Taavi finally faced her. “It’s hard for me to believe you.”

        It stung. He was within his rights to say so, but it stung. “I feel better now,” is all she offered. Taavi stiffened and something began to close off in his eyes. Those were the exact words of the lie she had told in the tunnel, the last time they had spoken. It was no longer a lie, but Taavi could not have known. She hurried to amend her mistake. “I’m eating,” she said.

        A wary kind of hope crossed Taavi’s gaze. “Eat with me after the hunt, then. Sit by the fire pit like we used to, instead of the ledge by the waterfall.”

        “Of course,” she said, relieved. When she thought of Ndumisa, she added, “I’ll bring someone else to sit with us too, if that’s alright with you. A friend.”

        Taavi’s eyes crinkled under his wooden mask as if with a smile. “You can bring whoever you like. I don’t care, as long as they don’t say nonsense about how you should look.” After a pause, he went on. “I’ll go with you to knock down those wingfaces. Just say the word. I’ve spent moons hunting now, so don’t you say that it’s any more unsafe for me to go than for you.”

        Selah caught her brother’s hand as it swung to the rhythm of his walk. Squeezing it hard between her fingers, she said, “I know you’d go with me. But there are some things I need to fight that you can’t see, in places that I have to go alone.”

        Taavi only shook his head. “You always want to do things alone.” When he saw Selah opening her mouth to interrupt, he pressed on, “But I understand this time.”

        They walked in silence through the woods, not looking for game or bothering to keep up with the other hunters. Suddenly, Taavi disappeared from Selah’s side. When she turned to see where her brother had gone, she spotted his form, crouched on the ground. Despite the wooden mask in the way, she could tell that Taavi was in a mischievous mood. He put his hands to the sides of his head like rabbit’s ears and wiggled his fingers at her.

        “Who’s the better hunter now? Bet you can’t catch me!” he called, before dashing away through shrubbery and tall grass.

        With a growl that surely scared away all the fowl from the trail, Selah ran in his direction, suppressing giggles all the while. It had been a while since she had run like this, feeling free rather than fatigued. She halted her chase for a moment to glance at the canopy above and the sunlight that slipped between the leaves. With a start, she realized how clear her mind was without thoughts of counting the bites of meat and berries she ate, without the clutter of voices whispering about her body. She reveled in the peace and continued running.

        She did not wait for night to fall before she went to the looking pool. It was no longer a secret she wanted to protect, no longer a refuge. The sun was beaming brightly through the curtain of water that fell over the mouth of the cave when Selah told Taavi she would meet him by the fire pit to eat once she returned. “I’m going to collect moss,” she joked, even as she hid a dagger in the folds of the pelts she wore.

        Today was the last day she would look upon black water. She had vowed it to herself as she stood in Mother’s den that morning, taking in the bustle of her tribe that she been too pensive to notice for many moons. When she found herself in front of the pool once more, surrounded by cold rock and looking into even colder water, Selah felt as if the otherworldliness to the chamber had died. Or perhaps it was not the things around her that had changed, but a part of her that had died, the self-hating part that the wingfaced women tugged at and whispered to and fed on. The walls here did not bring fear; instead, they summoned memories of Ndumisa’s rare laughter and Selah’s own mutters of I’m pretty at the water that had made her believe she was anything but. With these thoughts ringing in her head and the sharpened stone in her hand, she slipped into the pool.

        There were no winds in the meadow today. The trees stood silent without a single rustle of leaves. Everything held a hue of gray: the huge flowers that lay rotting with their stems twisted up from the ground, the sliver of sky beyond the trees, even the pools that ordinarily glinted as bright as crystals. Selah’s eyes went first to the altar of stone in the clearing. It was empty of any dishes, and none of the wingfaced women were sat around it. Nearly everything hinted at an abandoned world, but Selah was not fooled.

        Across the meadow there was a small boy that she had never seen before on any of her previous visits, a child even younger than Taavi. His appearance took Selah by surprise – she had not expected to see anything so human-looking here. In his hands he held a long rod, at the end of which many strings were attached. Selah followed them with her eyes until she found where they led. In the moment between seeing and fully understanding what she saw, Selah’s stomach twisted. The strings were attached to the faces of the wingfaced women, who were crouched like wolves in the tall grass beside the boy on their hands and knees. When the boy jerked once on his rod, their faces lifted so easily it was not even like removing a mask, much less like removing skin. They were more like the leaves that turned red, orange, and gold after summer and turned so brittle even a whisper of wind could carry them off their trees.

        Without their vibrant faces, the wingfaced women were not nearly so beautiful. Their heads appeared white and smooth and round as birds’ eggs, and the only things marring the surface were their bulging black eyes. Thousands of tiny facets glinted in each eye like looking pools embedded in their sight. Their skin was even more pale now than she had last seen. In sickly contrast, the wings that sprouted from slits in their hunched backs dripped with dark ink as they dragged on the soil behind the women. Selah felt almost betrayed, looking upon the creatures she had idolized in this grotesque form, but a voice in her head whispered – her own voice – that maybe they had never been truly beautiful to begin with.

        Selah’s hand gripped hard around the sharpened stone that Ndumisa had given her. Too hard, she gripped, because the edge of the dagger dug into her palm and drew blood that slid warmth down her hand.

        Even with no nose nor nostrils in the blank slate of her face, one of the wingfaces turned their head from side to side as if tasting the air for blood. With inhuman quickness, the creature stilled and trained its huge black eyes on her palm. One by one, as if a frost were spreading over them and holding their limbs captive, the rest also froze with their faces turned towards the drip of her blood. Selah still did not unclench her hand, unwilling for them to see what was enclosed within it.

        Selah stepped closer. The one that had turned to her first was the wingface that had once been Gold. She could not say how she knew, but the knowledge came from the same place in her gut that told her this was the last time she would come to this meadow. She put her hand on the creature’s chest almost soothingly and then squeezed her own eyes shut before pressing the dagger over where the heart was. She was on a hunt, she reminded herself, and this was her kill. Selah pushed in and twisted her wrist.

        Selah was afraid to open her eyes, afraid to see the damage she had done and look up into those empty black eyes once more. But all she saw when she peeked out was a fog made of butterflies, gold and blue and red. Selah stayed rooted to the spot in the dirt that she’d planted her bare feet in when she first revealed her weapon. As the crowd of insects parted around her, they seemed to buzz in a thousand voices while their soft wings brushed her skin in farewell.

        The little boy was still clutching the strings on which the butterfly faces were attached. Surprisingly, the strings were no longer slack but quivering, as if there were movement on the other ends, and when Selah looked to the ground, the skins were no longer resting on the soil. The boy met her eyes with a disconcerting blue gaze, but she had no fear left to give him. The butterflies and the faces seemed to be travelling in the same direction, deep into the surrounding woods. In the past, she might have felt the itch to follow where they went. She turned away now.

        She did not even spare the darkened meadow a last glance before she leapt back into black depths.

        After Selah hauled herself out from the water, she stood by the edge of the pool. She was soaking wet, and the cool air around her only made the chill worse, yet she did not shiver. She stared at the image that had held her captive for so long. Narrow eyes, sharp nose, thin lips. She shut her eyes to listen as the drips of water falling to the ground counted out the beats of silence. She finally felt clean.


The tongues of flame that had so eagerly lapped at the air before dwindled into faint flickers. Great logs of timber had burnt into blackened twigs that looked like bones that predators had stripped of all flesh. Perhaps it was only the light burning low, or the quiet rasp at which old Alka spoke that could scarcely be heard above the roar of falling water, but a coldness seemed to settle within Selah. Evidently, her brother Taavi felt similarly. He jerked upright from where he was curled beside the fire pit, eyes going wide at the sound of a sharp crackle.

        “Scared, child?” Alka grinned to reveal the few yellowed teeth that she had left. The story behind how she had lost her teeth changed as often as the shape of the moon – in fact, all her stories changed rather often. Sometimes, Alka would tell of how she had tried to steal treasure from giants as tall as the waterfall that Selah’s tribe lived behind, and then plucked out her own canines to trade them for her life. If she was feeling less outlandish that day, she might’ve said instead that she had been an eagle-eye for a hunting party once and knocked all her teeth loose when she fell from a tree, trying to sight some game.

        Taavi bristled. “After tomorrow, I’ll have seen ten summers. I’m almost fully grown, Nonna. Full grown hunters don’t startle at stories.” He settled down on his stomach once more and stared defiantly at Alka as if daring her to say otherwise.

        “Of course, of course, how could I forget?” Alka shook her head. “The time for my tales has long passed. I shouldn’t waste your precious time that could be spent on studying the art of the hunt. You won’t hear a peep more from me.” She said this solemnly, yet her green eyes glinted in a such a way that made her seem just as much a child as Taavi, despite being set in a face drooping with the weight of years.

        “Alka, I want to hear the story. Tell it for my sake if Taavi’s not enough a man –“ seeing Taavi’s pout, Selah snorted, “I apologize, too much a man, to admit he likes nursery tales.”

        The old huntress said nothing, continuing to stare into the embers nestled at the bottom of the fire pit. Selah leaned closer, and at this proximity, she could hear the rustle of the dry strips of bark as Alka’s quick fingers wove them together into a basket without needing a single glance downward. She knew that Alka enjoyed drawing out her words until they begged to hear more. She hid a grin behind her hand as she waited for Taavi to give in.

        After sitting in silence for a few heartbeats with nothing to listen to but the crash of the waterfall over the mouth of the cave, Taavi quickly cracked. “Nonna, it’s too dark and late to learn much else about hunting tonight. I might as well do something else, shouldn’t I? Just one more story would be alright.” He tried to puff out his chest and regain a semblance of dignity. “I have spare time.”

        Alka let her grin slip across her face once more. “Ah, so the great hunter yields to the storyteller?”

        “I surrender,” Taavi wailed, even though a grin curled his lips as he bowed his head to the stone ground.

        Something of iron slid up Alka’s hunched back and straightened it until Selah could see a shadow of the proud warrior she once was, with her hard eyes and the set of her jaw behind sagging skin. “Then listen well.” Her voice suddenly dipped low although her head was held high. Alka’s eyes fell closed.

        “You may think that Death excuses evil. Enough men have believed the same, attempting to take their own lives in the hope that in passing from this existence, both the good and the bad deeds they have done will be destroyed along with their bodies. That is not true.” Alka paused to clear her throat with an echoing cough. The wavering glow cast by the dying flames only lit her chin and the bottoms of her cheeks, making strange shapes and deep gashes of her wrinkles.

        It was not only Taavi and Selah listening now; the small children at the other fire pits had put down the sticks they were play-fighting with, and the young men leaning against the cave walls had lowered their voices and tilted their heads in Alka’s direction. She continued, “The stars have watched all, and they do not have the leisure of forgetting. The spirits of evil humans are rejected from the skies when they try to rise, so they are forced to sink. Sink, into stagnant, stinking waters where no living creatures dare to disturb the surface.

        “Have you ever seen their fingers, curved and black and shining as ravens’ wings do, so long that they can wrap around your ankles even as you stand at the water’s edge? Have you heard their voices, like the grinding of stones? Their faces, bloated by stale water, blank spaces where their eyes should be and mouths hanging crooked–“

        A loud hiss pierced the air, causing Selah and Taavi and the rest of the children all to jump. The last embers had been smothered under a cascade of dirt, emitting a sound too similar to the call of a serpent for Selah’s liking. Dark, nearly human shapes rose from the smoke. Despite telling herself that she was not afraid, she shifted away from the smoke and closer to the mouth of the cavern, where only a rushing curtain of water separated her from the fall into rocky depths below. The sole light source left was the moon, which trickled its pale shine through the waterfall and into the cave. Mother stood tall in the weak light and cradled the basket from which she must have poured the dirt. A tough hide belt – the mark of the healer – was slung around her hips, with three raven skulls fastened to it, their bony faces peeking out amidst strands of beads and colored stones.

        “Off to sleep now, children. The spirits are waiting for your dreams,” Mother said sharply. At the children’s fearful looks, she sighed. “I meant the good spirits of your ancestors. It’s true, the world beyond the waterfall can be dangerous, but you will learn how to protect yourselves in time. While you are within our caves, there is nothing you need to defend against.” She paused as if debating whether to speak further. “In any case, it is not because of white-faced demons that you should fear still water.”

        “Then why should we fear still water?” asked one of the older boys, a defiant hunter-in-training called Etik. Even now he jutted out his chin as if to challenge Mother.

        “It is said that if you look into pools of still water, they can show you the exact likenesses of men and trees and animals, and anything that can imitate the living yet not be living itself should not be trusted.” Before Etik could open his mouth again, a new glint in his eyes, Mother cut in. “It is also the tradition of our ancestors to do so. Some things do not need reasons.”

        Alka remained silent and continued to braid her bits of bark, although she kept her gaze fixed on Mother.

        Face softening slightly, Mother bent to tug Taavi up by the hand. “You especially need your sleep. I thought you were to watch your first hunt in the morning?”

        Taavi jumped up, nodding his head. “I am, I am!”

        Mother crossed her arms. “Now, how will you wake up in time if you’re listening to stories for half the night?”

        “I’ll sleep right away, and anyhow, I know Selah will shake me and pester me to no end if I’m not ready to leave when she is.” He smiled to soften the blow, and Selah’s indignant reply died in her throat. However, it was not long before a mischievous look crossed his features. “Race you to our bedding pits!” With that, he took off, bare feet hitting the moss-covered ground while the high rock walls echoed his giggles.

        “You only ever win when you trick me!” Selah shouted, but she was laughing too.

        Distantly, the reply came: “Mother always says the smart ones learn tricks while the slow ones follow the herd, right?”

        Feigning a growl, Selah bounded after her brother’s voice into a tunnel that branched off from the main cavern, a familiar path that briefly shrouded her in darkness before a spill of candlelight gave away the low entrance to the healer’s den. “You’ll be sorry you said that tomorrow morning,” she called.

        Dropping to her stomach with no hesitation, Selah squirmed through the gap and into the small alcove at the other side. She found Taavi attempting to hide in the corner, under a shelf of rock on which piles of dried herbs had been precariously perched.

        “I’ve got you now,” Selah said, stalking towards her brother. “The spirits above condemn you to die by laughter!” She wriggled her fingers threateningly at him. Before her hands could even touch Taavi’s sides to tickle him, her brother began to flail and laugh. “Come on, I haven’t even done anything –“

        “Stop.” Their mother’s voice cut through their clamor. It was taut with worry that was usually absent from her confident demeanor. Selah’s arms fell to her sides and confusion began to replace the sparkle in Taavi’s eyes. “Close your eyes, both of you.”

        After Selah obeyed, she heard the patter of feet across the floor, dull clatters as items were picked up and shifted from place to place. The healer’s den was overflowing with trinkets and tools that hung on walls and rested on outcrops of rock: transparent crystals as varied in color as woodland flowers, sharp blades carved of animal bone, bitter- and sweet-smelling grasses, grindstones for crushing medicine and stretched pieces of hide for binding wounds. It could’ve been any of these things that Mother was busying herself with, but it dawned on Selah that the only item that could send her into such a frenzy was Taavi’s mask.

        Masks were the art of the healer, gifted to each member of the tribe when they came of age. Mother had been crafting Taavi’s for several moons now, often retiring to her den early in the nights to keep it from his view. After all, it was a bad omen for the intended wearer to behold their mask before it was finished. Selah herself had only caught a few glimpses of it. She knew the long hours of work that it took to make each mask, however.

        As a child, she had spent nearly all her time in this room, watching Mother commit herself to her art. Even with her eyes closed, Selah could picture the divots in the wall behind her that held small pools of pigment. The rusty red of deer’s blood had an awful sour stink, Selah remembered, from the time she had stuck her fingers into the sacred paints her mother had told her not to touch and marveled at how her skin stained the color of the setting sun. There was also a deep green that had been painstakingly harvested by pounding thousands of blades of grass at the grindstone, as well as a purple hue made from the juices of various berries.

        All these colors her mother used to draw strange imitations of human faces onto scavenged pieces of driftwood, or sometimes onto the skulls of large game, when she made masks for the elders and the best hunters of the tribe. When she finished, Mother would bless them with prayers that Selah had only recently begun to understand. They were pleas to their ancestors to let their people hide beneath the flesh of trees and the faces of hunted animals so that they would not see. Would not take, from the tribe. Who they were, Selah was not sure. Perhaps Alka had some truth to her stories of evil men and half-dead things in the water, but she knew Mother would scorn that thought.

        “You can open your eyes.” Mother’s voice was tired but calm once more.

        Selah blinked her eyes open to dimness. Mother had blown out most of the candles. The three large hollows in the floor at the far side of the wall were cushioned with ample furs and hides, ready for them to sink into.

        “I didn’t mean to startle you,” Mother was saying while smoothing a hand over Taavi’s hair. “You might not understand it yet, but…It would’ve been very unfortunate if you had seen your mask just now, when I’m so close to finishing it. You should sleep. I’ll come to bed too in just a little while,” she promised, after seeing Selah’s frown. “Don’t dream too close to the water’s edge.” A touch of old playfulness curved Mother’s mouth. Her face was the last thing Selah saw before the last candles were snuffed out and they were left alone.

        After Selah had made sure that Taavi was settled under his furs, she curled up in her own bedding pit. She soon began to fade out of consciousness. Just before her senses slipped completely under, however, Selah became aware of Taavi’s voice whispering through the blackness.

        “…Selah? Can you tell me what it’s like to be outside? About how the sky looks, and the huge trees.”

        “You’ll be able to go outside yourself as soon as the sun rises.” Selah’s voice was heavy with sleep. Taavi hadn’t asked her for stories about the outside in a long while, though she knew he always looked at her longingly whenever she accompanied the older tribesmen on hunts. After all, there were only so many ways to describe the landscape.

        “I know.” Taavi went silent for a long while. “I just want to hear about how you saw everything for the first time before I see it myself.”

        Selah sighed and acquiesced, only a little disgruntled. She would do nearly anything her brother asked of her, even if it meant sacrificing her sleep. “The sun was the first thing I noticed. Its color changes from time to time – it can be yellow, or more golden, or, sometimes, when it’s about to bow before night and fall out of the sky, it turns bloody red.”

        Even though Selah had said the same words about the sun many times, Taavi still gasped. Selah smiled to herself.

        “The trees – you know what green looks like, from the moss in our caves and the dried herbs Mother brings back, but their kind of green is brighter. More alive. Some trees grow straight and tall until they scrape the sky, while others have hunched backs and long, curling arms….”

        Selah did not know when she ran out of things to say, but it didn’t matter, because her quiet speaking paired with the constant pour of water over rock outside soon brought Taavi’s breathing to an even rhythm. She drifted off soon after.

        Selah was ordinarily an early riser. Though she could not see the rising of the sun from within the caves, her body was somehow attuned to the sky’s movements. This day, however, she woke to find herself alone in the healer’s den, both the bedding pits beside hers lying empty. The sound of people chattering and children squabbling and fires crackling carried through the tunnels and quickly cleared her head. The ritual for Taavi entering his tenth summer would begin soon. Selah scrubbed at her face with her palms, hoping she looked less tired than she felt, and made her way to the main cavern.

        There, she found her brother sitting by the fire and with a surprisingly solemn expression on his face. He stared like an elder would into the depths of the flame. Selah recalled the day of her own first hunt, the nervous excitement that twitched in her gut and would not let her limbs stay still. She shook her head, admiring Taavi’s restraint.

        “Are you looking for your future in the flames? You’re turning into Alka.” Selah said, ruffling his hair as she went by. “You’d best be careful. I hear you can go blind if you look at the sun like that.”

        The seriousness slipped from his face immediately, and he twisted around to tug at the end of the long braid that fell halfway down Selah’s back. “I thought you were going to miss the ceremony. You might’ve been dead, for all I knew, with the way you were sleeping,” Taavi retorted. He flopped back on the ground to throw his arm over his face and make unsightly, open-mouthed snores in imitation of Selah.

        Alka looked on from nearby with an expression of bemusement. “I see you haven’t lost your humor even as you prepare to enter the first stages of manhood.”

        “Nonna!” Taavi scrambled upright, the freckles on his face standing out clearly against a red flush. “I was only playing.”

        Alka grunted, waving a hand in his direction. “I wasn’t meaning for you to stop. It was only an observation. Though, perhaps it would do you some good to sober up now. Your mother has been preparing for moons for this day, painting your mask over and back, stringing bone necklaces and whatnot, and I doubt she would appreciate your humor as much as I might.”

        Selah went on to eat some of the meat that had been roasted over the fire along while Taavi could barely get down a couple handfuls of dried berries. Looking carefully at him now, she saw the tension in his neck as he chewed and swallowed, the dart of his eyes as he scoured his surroundings. He was anxious after all.

        As if with a single mind, the entire tribe of lean hunters of all ages with sun-browned skin and daggers at their hips suddenly lowered their voices. Some shifted their eyes to where Taavi was seated next to Selah, causing her brother to wriggle uncomfortably, but most were focused on the circle of elders huddled around the largest fire pit. Sometime during their morning meal, Alka had left their side and gone to join the others of her rank.

        Mother appeared from the tunnel that connected her den to the main cavern, throat draped in shells and stones that clinked with every step that brought her closer to the fire pit. Bringing her hands together, she clanked two large bones together over and over again, filling the air with a hollow sort of rhythm that complemented the music made by her jewelry. The grey-haired elders began to hum with their hands clasped together before their chests.

        “Taavi. Rise,” Mother commanded, dropping the bones with a muffled clatter.

        Taavi threw one last look over his shoulder at Selah, who tried her best to make an encouraging face. After the first few bounding steps, Taavi seemed to remember himself and slowed his feet to a walk. When he stood side-by-side with the elders, they all took a few steps back, leaving him enclosed within their ring. It was customary at first hunt rituals for each of the elders and sometimes even family members to tell the child who was coming of age a detail about their appearance, given that the ancestors above had given the tribe no tool to look upon themselves.

        “As the mother of this child who is coming into his tenth summer, I give the gift of my eyes, to he who does not know his own face,” Mother said. She knelt at the fire pit and dipped a hand in the warm ashes where flames had recently died. When she rose again, she held her blackened thumb to the center of Taavi’s forehead, tilting his face back until their eyes could meet. Even from where Selah sat, it was evident that Mother’s stare was so unwavering that it was a spell of its own, holding Taavi’s tongue captive and piercing his mind. When Mother spoke again, she still did not look away. Her voice came softly, unlike the stone sharpness of her gaze. “Your eyes are colored like earth, sometimes seeming old and fragile as dry dirt when it has not rained for days, other times dark and raw like the wet soil you’ve seen me put out fires with.”

        Mother pulled back her hand, leaving a black stain in the shape of her thumb on Taavi’s face. A faint trace of a smile appeared on her lips then, and she stepped back to the wall of the cave. One by one, the elders surrounding Taavi each approached him, smearing his head with soot and telling him of his chipped front tooth, his freckles like flecks of sand sprinkled on his body, the dimple in his cheek in the shape of a crescent moon. At last, only Alka remained.

        Alka did not put her sooty hand in the same place as those before her. Instead, she ran her finger down over Taavi’s eyebrow and down his cheek, drawing a thick line of black that made him look ridiculous. He seemed to know it too, because he caught Selah’s eye and they both tried to hold in their laughter. The old woman showed no such restraint and openly chuckled. “You have the look of a dirty child who’s been rolling in the fire pit.” After taking a moment to collect herself, she continued, “If I must say anything more, well…I’d say that your smile has the look of someone who will never truly grow old.”

        Mother returned when Alka dipped her head and took her place among the others in the outer ring. Lifted between both her hands was a mask of wood. Features were carved out of the surface; some were more human, like the arches of high brows and a solemnly set mouth, while others were beastly, such as the wolf snout that took the place of a nose. Around the holes that Taavi’s eyes would peer through were painted rings of violet so dark they were nearly black, and splatters of rusty red clung to every side of the mask to mimic a predator fresh from a kill.

        Mother placed the mask over Taavi’s face, and it was like Selah’s little brother had disappeared, either eaten by a wolf or becoming the wolf. She said nothing when she tied the strips of hide behind his head to hold the disguise in place, and then it was only the firelight dancing off his eyes and his skinny legs that marked him as a child. After Mother dropped her hands from Taavi’s face, it took barely any time for the rest of the tribe to resume its typical affairs; people scattered from their places and the volume rose once more, as if the ritual had never been.

        Taavi remained frozen and might have stayed so if not for Ragdus, the leader of the hunt, calling his name along with Selah’s and a number of others. While the other men and women gathered their weapons and masks, Selah managed to make her way to her brother through the crowd. She jabbed him in the side with her elbow. “You’re all grown up now, huh?”

        He was still subdued. “I am? It doesn’t feel the same as I thought it would.”

        Selah nodded along. “That’s true about most things. Once you’re beyond the waterfall, I think you’ll find that the outside isn’t as exciting and dangerous as the stories say it is.”

        Taavi did not answer, and there wasn’t anything else to say.

        By then, the hunting party had assembled into a single column. Each hunter brought their own mask down over their head, including Selah, whose mask was stained all green and etched with the shape of birds’ wings at the cheeks. Familiar faces became only painted wood and bone, fixed in a single expression. The leader at the head of the line walked ahead while the rest followed one by one, through a passageway that was half overgrown with thin vines that had burst through the rock. After making numerous journeys down this same path, Selah knew it ended at an opening in the stone that was a safe distance away from the heaviest rush of water from the falls. She motioned for Taavi to follow.

        “Remember the old rhyme now,” Alka called from where she was perched on a slab of stone, watching them leave. “Moving water, safe to remain–“

        “–Stagnant water, stay far away,” Taavi finished. He seemed to finally regain his cheerful air. “I know, Nonna.” He waved at both Alka and Mother before turning away. He held his thin frame in a prideful manner that Selah couldn’t remember seeing him wear before, along with a slight reserve in his eyes. His hair, however, was still as untamed as ever, tangling into the form of a birds’ nest atop his head, and that is what Selah would have told him if she was allowed to speak at the ritual earlier. She would’ve then told him, when he scrunched his nose the way he did when he was displeased, that she liked his hair like this and hoped it would not change.

        After walking the length of the tunnel in relative quiet, the tribesmen ahead of Selah and Taavi began their descent down the water-slick face of the rock. Each hunter clutched at the vines that grew in and out of the stone for handholds, digging their toes into small crevices that would stabilize them and keep them from falling into the turbulent depths below. They made it look easy, moving in swift movements, climbing down and sideways until they were low enough to leap to the riverbank. In reality, the journey was made daunting by the spray of the waterfall and the slippery algae that grew over the rock. Even single look downwards could make a brave man’s stomach drop to his knees. However, despite Selah’s initial worries about Taavi, he gritted his teeth and picked his way down with no incident, albeit taking a longer time than all the rest of the party.

        The area where they’d first landed was covered in coarse sand, beside which a fast-moving river flowed, fed by the waterfall. As Ragdus led the group further away from the stream, grasses, tall and swaying with the breeze, grew up around their feet, and the trees became denser and denser until their leaves let only a few drops of sunlight through to the ground. They would soon be in the heart of the forest.

        For the first time since they had left their caves, Taavi spoke. “The sun isn’t what I noticed first. I think the sun is what I’d forget first, to be honest.”

        “The sun is like a huge fire pit in in the sky,” Selah said defensively, “What would you do without heat or light? You’d die.” She made a slicing motion at her throat, like the cut that hunters made to let the blood out from the game they killed, then made her eyes roll back.

        Taavi’s eyes crinkled, and Selah knew he was grinning beneath his mask. “Don’t you want to know what I noticed instead?”

        “Well, don’t leave me in suspense.”

        “I noticed the water, how it shines in bright light. How silver the fish look in the river. How long white fingers would look if they slipped up from the water –“

        “Taavi.” Selah groaned. “And I thought you really appreciated the beauty of things for once.”

        The huntress a few paces ahead of them turned her head, fixing them with a sharp look. It was only then that Selah noticed the rest of the party was silent, and the only sounds that could be heard were those of the creatures around them. The whistle of birdsong, the whisper as trees murmured to each other. Sometimes Selah forgot how warm and alive the forest was, unlike the quiet of the stones in their caves.

        Taavi turned to her with a guilty look, but Selah only shrugged. It wasn’t her first time being reprimanded. They continued like that until the sun began sinking in the sky, speaking nothing and occasionally making funny gestures to pass the time. This first hunt was meant to be a demonstration for Taavi, a chance to see how experienced hunters lied in wait for fowl and shot them with arrows from their bows, how they stalked hulking antlered creatures and rushed them in groups of three or four. Selah ordinarily might have joined in, but she meant to keep a watch over her brother today.

        Taavi lagged at the back of the party, appearing more and more restless as he dragged his feet and watched the flight of insects rather than the hunt. No doubt, he still retained his childishness and short patience. Selah shouldn’t have worried; one day and a single ritual, no matter if it was meant to be an entrance into manhood, could not have changed that. She slowed her pace to match Taavi’s.

        “Hey,” she lowered her voice to a whisper, “You want to play a game?”

        Taavi jerked once, as if coming out of a trance, before the words seemed to finally sink in. Brightness flooded his eyes. “What kind of game?”

        Selah shifted her eyes towards the nearest hunters from their party. They were many paces ahead of her and Taavi on the trail by now, merely smudges of color in the distance. Grinning to herself beneath her wooden mask where her brother could not see, she crouched down in the dirt beside some leafy undergrowth. At Taavi’s confused look, her smile only split bigger. She put her hands at the sides of her head, wiggling her fingertips in poor imitation of rabbit’s ears. “You think you’ll be a better hunter than I am? Come and get me, then!”

        She stayed in her squatted position to bound a few steps before rising to her full height and quickening to a sprint, peeking over her shoulder all the while to ensure that Taavi was following. The mask clinging to his face was too large for his small frame, and the holes made for his eyes were not perfectly aligned, making it difficult for him to survey his surroundings. He turned about in small circles like a newborn fawn until he finally caught the movement of low bushes as Selah trampled through them.

        “I’m coming for you!” He tried to keep his voice quiet as to not scare off the game for the hunters ahead, so his shout came out hoarse and not nearly as threatening as he’d meant it. Selah stopped to giggle as Taavi mimicked shooting an arrow at her. Ducking out of the way as if to evade an imaginary projectile, she went on running until her breath came short, and then lay low in the grass right behind the trunk of an immense rotting tree that had been felled by a storm. After concealing herself under a blanket of fallen leaves, she strained her ears for the sound of her brother’s approach.

        Sure enough, the thud of feet against the earth came grew louder in the seconds since she hid, until they came to a stop only a few steps away from Selah. She raised an eyebrow in amusement. Taavi would surely need some lessons on the art of silence before he could become a hunter. “Are you here?” came Taavi’s uncertain voice.

        At that moment, Selah burst up from the ground, all dirtied with soil and damp leaves, wailing like a corpse resurrected. Taavi shrieked. Despite already wearing a mask that would protect him, his hands flew up to cover his face out of reflex. His fright quickly morphed into noises of delight once he recognized his sister, however, and he made as if he wanted Selah to chase him. He did not get far. In his excitement, his ankle had caught around a nest of gnarled roots, and he flew face first into the large tree trunk that Selah had hidden behind with a sickening crack. He stilled on the ground, limbs splayed out in all directions like he did when he slept.

        “Taavi?” Selah wiped at the dirt blurring her eyes, not quite understanding what had just happened. She waited for her brother to get up, and when he did not, she dropped down beside him. “Ancestors above…please, no, Taavi, I’m right here –“ Her hands went frantically to his head, trying to lift him away from the fallen tree. She gave up the attempt out of fear that she would make any injury worse and tried to listen close for the sound of breathing, cursing the incessant noise of the forest in that moment.

        “I’m not dead, you know.” Taavi’s voice was faint and muffled by his mask, but it was there. “I hate to bring the disappointing news.”

        Some of the tension bled out from Selah’s spine. The pain couldn’t be too severe if her brother could still find humor in him, though she suspected Taavi could find something to make light of even while lying on his death bed. “How would you know, you clumsy fool? If you couldn’t see that enormous root in the way, I doubt you’d notice if your own heart stopped beating.” She’d meant to sound scornful, but she was too relieved. “Can you turn yourself over?”

        “I think so.” Planting both hands on the rough bark of the toppled tree, Taavi gingerly pushed himself back to sit on his heels. A chunk of the ornate mask that had spanned his forehead and right cheek fell away, landing in the grass. At the sight of a line of bright scarlet where the wood had cracked and the edge had dug into flesh from the impact of Taavi’s fall, Selah stopped feigning nonchalance. She reached forward to peel off the remaining half of the mask with as little disturbance to the wound as possible, holding her brother still even as he tried to squirm away.

        “Listen to me,” she said once she’d picked out all the splinters from his skin that she could. Taavi’s face had been revealed to her once more, scratched in several places and starting to bruise in others. Yet, as pale as he was, he held his jaw tight as to not let out any sounds of pain. “The hunting trail is directly behind us. Once you reach it, you’ll follow it and call the attention of the others in the party. Make a ruckus if you have to, but get someone to bring you back to the caves as soon as possible, you hear? That cut is going to turn ugly if it not treated.” She winced at how she sounded so much like Mother.

        “No, it wouldn’t. It would be a scar, and all great hunters have those,” Taavi replied, and he tried to smile through bruised lips.

        Selah tugged at his hand before he could turn away. “Wait. It’s not safe to travel the woods bare-faced. There are still many things unknown to us, no matter how many times our tribe has hunted here.” She undid the straps on her own green mask and fastened it over Taavi’s face, catching a flash of uncertainty in his look.

        “I’ll return with the others later,” she said. “I have business to finish with this first.” She gestured wryly at the pile of debris that had once been a noble mask. Once Taavi’s form disappeared between the trees, Selah collected the bits of wood in her arms and began walking without any particular direction, hoping to come upon a running stream. From listening to Mother’s teachings about the ways of the ancestors, she knew that all things blessed with prayers needed to be returned to those above through water, whether they were stone amulets or broken masks.

        Caught up in thoughts of whether her brother had found help yet, Selah did not notice where her feet had taken her until the unfamiliar sight of a great glossy slab of stone greeted her in the middle of a clearing. Patches of green growth covered the stone, though the grey-brown color of it was still visible underneath. The trees nearby seemed to keep their distance from it, their gnarled trunks and branches rearing back like frightened deer frozen in midair. Indeed, Selah had been staring intently ahead without truly seeing for a great number of paces now, and she was in a part of the forest that she did not know.

        Despite the red and violet in the sky signaling the oncoming of night, she was gripped by curiosity about the large stone. As she came closer to it, something in her gut twisted at the unnaturally bright sheen of the rock. Still she did not stop. Only at the last step, when her feet came right to the stone’s edge, did the reason for her unsettled feeling become clear. She had kicked forth some pebbles as she moved, but the pebbles did not simply bounce off the slab of stone. They sank into it with a soft splash. The stone slab was no stone at all, but a pool of still water.

        The voices in her head that sounded like Mother and Alka mingled into a loud buzz until all Selah knew was that she should step away. Yet there was something hypnotizing about the pool that made it difficult to look anywhere else. Perhaps it was the brownness of it, so unlike the frothing white rivers by the waterfall, or perhaps it was how unspectacular it looked, as much a part of the forest as the night birds and wildflowers.

        Her breath caught in her throat. Just when she thought that Mother’s superstitions held no truth, Selah saw her. A young woman, barely more than a girl, was standing before her. So it was true: still water could imitate human life. It was impossible, but there the woman was, blinking owlishly back at her from within the pool. Whenever Selah tipped her head to one side, so did she; when Selah pursed her lips, she followed. It startled her so badly that she could hear her blood roaring in her ears when she glimpsed what was cradled in the arms of the woman in the water: two halves of a mask that bore a wolf’s snout.

        It was not a stranger’s face that the pool showed her. It was herself.

        Wind brushed her forehead like a cool breath on her skin, and Selah was grateful for the woods’ attempt to calm her breathing. The moment did not last long. The fact that she could feel open air on her face at all reminded her that she was barefaced and defenseless, and the previously refreshing crispness of the breeze became too cold. With clarity, snatches of Mother’s whispered prayers came to her. Do not let them see. Do not let them take. A shiver traced up her spine. She had not sensed that anyone was watching her, but it only chilled her more to think that they could do so without her knowing.

        Several calls broke the peace of the forest, some hooting and others bellowing yet all of them too loud for the dark of night. Interspersed among the noise were shouts of her name. “Selah! Selah!”

        She dropped the shards of Taavi’s mask into the pool without thinking. It was only after, when the clearing had sunken into shadows as she ran towards her tribesmen’s voices, that she wondered whether the spirits of her ancestors would be angry that she had returned blessed wood to still water.

        Selah did not speak of what she had seen. How could she, without announcing to the tribe that she could not obey the simplest of teachings that even the youngest children knew? Still water, stay far away. Another moon had passed. The wound across Taavi’s face had long since healed over. Though Mother had been furious at first when he returned without the mask she had so carefully crafted, Taavi had told Selah that it took only a short while of brooding alone in the healer’s den to come to her senses. Mother had later embraced him and Selah both, grateful that their ancestors had allowed Taavi to return safely with only a few scratches to show for breaking his mask. The consequences could have been far more dire.

        The only one who might have caught on to anything amiss was Alka, whose keen eyes watched Selah’s spine stiffen at their meals when she retold her tales about the condemned spirits living in still water. “You’ve such a way with words that you’ve finally frightened me,” Selah had said when she caught Alka’s gaze. She had gotten an indecipherable huff in response. These days, however, Selah was more wary of all people and things – it could very well be only her guilty conscience playing tricks.

        Putting all thoughts of muddy pools and dark forest clearings out of her head, Selah focused on the present. She had been tasked with fetching more moss to line the stone floors by the elders, who worried that as storm season set in, more water would drip through the cracks in the cave ceiling than before. It would not do for stagnant puddles to collect in the many divots in the rock, they said. She had found a woven basket and a lit candle in Mother’s den and was about to set off down the serpent’s mouth tunnel – aptly named for its resemblance to the gaping throat and curving fangs of a snake about to pounce. Despite the imposing nickname, if one could brave the pitch-darkness near the start of the tunnel, the passage would eventually widen into a wild garden of sorts that was open to the outside air, filled with hardy flowers and spotted toadstools and various other flora.

        “Selah!” Taavi scrambled across the main cavern, eyes bright and hair tousled. A new mask was in his hand, as close to his first as Mother could make it. “The elders have finally given me permission to go on another hunt! Are you coming?” He had not been outside for a moon since he had broken his mask – it was as much a punishment as it was for his own safety.

        Selah almost hesitated but shook her head. “The elders gave me some things to do here in the cave. I have to say, my task is probably an even greater adventure than your hunt. I hope you won’t feel as though you’re missing out.”

        “An adventure?” A furrow appeared between Taavi’s brows as he contemplated this. “Where? Maybe I can persuade Ragdus to teach me how to skin rabbits another day.”

        “Come here. We shouldn’t let the others hear.” She motioned until Taavi inched closer, and then pointed out the tunnel she would soon be entering. Into his ear, she whispered, “There, in the serpent’s mouth. My task of utmost importance is…to collect moss.”

        After a moment of confused silence, Taavi laughed and shoved her away. “I think I’ll go hunting after all. You have fun on your adventure.” A quick wave, and he was gone, bounding off to his own tunnel through which the rest of the hunting party was already disappearing.

        Midday light doused the little ledge with warmth. From here, Selah could see the tops of many trees and was level with the flight of some passing birds. It should have filled her with apprehension, or least a touch of worry, to step so close to where the garden simply ended in open air. No tunnel walls enclosed this area. A long fall awaited if she misstepped: if she was lucky, she could land on the sandbanks of the river below, and if she was not, jagged boulders at the foot of the waterfall would greet her. Yet all she could think was that this patch of greenery at the end of the serpent’s mouth trail, with its sunlight and fresh air, was a welcome change from the dampness of the caves.

        She couldn’t daydream idly forever, however. The candle she had brought with her was burning low and she would have to walk back in complete darkness if she did not hurry. With the candle in one hand and the basket full of moss in the other, Selah cast one last look over the ledge before setting off down the tunnel.

        She had been walking for some time when she came to a curious crack splitting the cave wall. Selah hadn’t remembered passing it on the journey to the garden. The serpent’s mouth was known for distorting hunters’ senses, however. Perhaps it also distorted their perception of reality. A strange magnetism like what she had felt in the forest clearing drew her towards the wall, beckoning her to lay down her basket. After she did so, she began to pry at the crevice, which revealed itself to be much larger than she’d initially thought.

        Selah reached into the gap in the rock, putting an arm through to the other side, then a leg, then her entire body. It was a tight fit with cold hardness at her back and her front, like a fist squeezing all around so that she was breathless when she tumbled out into an empty vault at the heart of all the stone. Brandishing the stump of her candle, Selah uncovered the vast chamber before her. Here the sun’s rays have never touched, jagged walls curving up until they disappeared and became one with the darkness. Beyond the reach of her candle light, the ceiling seemed so high it was nearly celestial. Thin fingers of stone hung down in columns from unseen places, dripping water with soft clinks.

        The sight of puddles collecting drew Selah’s attention to the bare rock beneath her feet, a translucent milky ore that seemed to pulsate. There was no moss blanketing the floor here, nothing to prevent cavities in the rock from filling with still water. It should have sent her heart hammering, but Selah was not frightened. She thought only of how the water droplets briefly glimmered as they fell. If she were any younger, she would have thought those were stars, spilling down when the sky grew too heavy, just as they did in stories that the elders told.

        A deep gash seemed to split the chamber from side to side, brimming with liquid of perfect black. If the earth bled the same as men, this was surely what it looked like. She stared on in wonder. Into the distance, darkness stretched on, and perhaps the water did too. She had seen water like this only once before, in that clearing in the forest. This kind of water did not roar. This kind of water shone, as if a fire were lit within it. It unsettled something within her bones.

        Selah itched to smother her candle to see whether the pool would truly glow on its own, but she was too far from the tribe to dare. While you are within our caves, there is nothing you need to defend against, Mother’s cool voice echoed in her ears and soothed her trepidation. Mother would never say anything that she did not believe, but Selah wondered whether this particular vein of stone was truly within their caves at all.

        Still, Selah knelt to the edge of the great pool. Emboldened by the fact that no harm had come out of her last experience with still water, she stared straight at her double in the water. Unhurriedly, she studied her own features. The pool betrayed little color, but she could see that her eyes were narrow and dark. Sharp nose, thin lips. She touched each part of her face as she named it quietly under her breath. As her voice continued to echo back, it sounded less like her own and more like the cave itself, becoming more musical the longer it went on. Her mistake was leaning forth just a bit more, causing the end of her long braid to drag over the water’s surface.

        With a gasp, Selah snatched her hair back. “I’m sorry,” she said, unsure if she was apologizing to herself or the pool. When she looked back down, she caught the barest blur of movement in the water. The ripples from where her braid had disturbed the surface should have been long gone by now, but the pool stirred alive instead of stilling. Her face and the edges of her body were pulled this way and that by the water, until Selah’s image was bloated and unrecognizable. Beside her distorted face, the shape of something like another set of lips and teeth appeared and curved into a smile. She whipped around on reflex. She did not have enough time to see if anyone was behind her, because many wet fingers lacing between her own and latching onto her braid yanked her headfirst into the depths of the pool.

       

        She came to consciousness gasping and choking. Wetness clung to everywhere that Selah could feel, and for a wild moment she thought perhaps a flood in Mother’s den had woken her from sleep.

        “Now, now. There’s no need for such a show. You can breathe perfectly fine.” It was a woman that spoke, or a thing that took the sound of a woman, pleasantly high and on the verge of a giggle.

        As soon as the voice finished talking, Selah knew it spoke truly. Her lungs did not burn like the time she had toppled into the river as a child, although she was drenched all the same. Blinking open heavy lids, she took her first glimpse of the being before her. Their head was made huge by proximity, though Selah could feel no breaths being exhaled from it. With gold hair and wide blue eyes, the creature might’ve appeared completely human if not for the huge patch of color spreading from the center of its face. The blemish was a cross between a mask and a birthmark; it had all the vibrancy of the former and the skin-like texture of the latter. Shaped like a butterfly’s wings, the majority of it was golden as a setting sun and striped with black.

        Jerking back, Selah turned her head wildly from side to side in search of her tribesmen. All she found were more of the same creatures: all women-like, seeming like siblings with their matching hair and eyes, though their butterfly marks differed. Some had wings on their faces that shifted from blue to green each time they moved; others had long, thin yellow wings; one even had wings of pure bloody red, topped with two spots that looked like another pair of eyes across her cheeks. The scenery, too, was foreign; it was like the wingfaced women in that it appeared almost familiar at first glance, yet became stranger the longer Selah looked.

        Wildflowers with petals larger than she had thought possible broke out of the ground, mimicking the shapes of raindrops and birds in flight and falling stars. Their colors were so vivid that Selah wondered whether she had been seeing the world through a veil before. There were towering, spindly trees whose canopies cast huge patches of shade and blocked out the sun, if there was such thing as a sun here. Groups of the women were perched by altars of rock on which they had balanced delicate plates like the bone ones that Mother had, and were eating – no, merely toying with – fruits she did not recognize.

        At her bewilderment, the wingfaced women made dry huffing noises as a sort of laughter. Their smiles, too, were a bit odd, because no wrinkles appeared around their lips or cheeks or eyes.

        “Please, sisters. Let us not scare her, or she won’t want to come back, will she?” Another round of laughter. The woman closest to Selah, with the golden mark, moved aside so that she could stand. She seemed to speak for the rest of them. “What’s your name?”

        “Selah,” she said without thinking. It was as if she no longer had control of her tongue. It had gone numb in her mouth.

        “Pretty name,” the wingfaced woman cooed. “Could be matched with a prettier human, however.” She looked thoughtfully at Selah. “No matter. That can be arranged in time.”

        Her head was too slow to even pick apart the meaning in those words. All Selah knew was that when the woman’s hand brushed her cheek, a coldness seeped into her, as sharp and painful as a blow. Then she heard the call.

        “Selah? Selah?” Taavi’s tone grew increasingly worried, but the sound remained no louder than a whisper. It reminded Selah of when they were children, hiding from each other in the cave’s tunnels, and they had heard each other’s laughter muffled by the stone between them. “If you’re here, say something! I can bring help if you’re hurt. Selah!”

        Selah came to her senses, and she began to run in the direction of her brother’s voice, much to the wingfaced women’s amusement. They did not stop her, but she felt their eyes tracking her movements. It was only then that she noticed the many pools embedded in the ground, like the precious stones that hunters sometimes found sunken into cave walls. The pools seemed to surround the platform at which the women ate. There were small ones, huge ones, ones in between, but all were perfectly round with still surfaces.

        “I don’t know where you could have gone. I’m scared, Selah. Come back.” Taavi’s voice came from her left, louder than before and clear enough for her to pick out a slight quiver as he spoke. A large black pool glinted beside her, a replica of the one she had fallen through. Somehow, her gut knew that this would take her home. Sparing a backwards glance, she saw that all the wingfaced women had stood up now and assembled into a long row, waving her off. Selah leapt into the pool. As the water came up to meet her, the image of blue eyes and the wings of an enormous gold butterfly burned in her mind.

        At first, Selah sank. The feeling was more like falling through thin air than like sinking; the water seemed to yield too easily around her body. When she felt her body beginning to rise to the surface once more, she desperately tried to fight it, fearing that she would emerge again in the wingfaced women’s cove. A gasp sounded above her, filling her with dread. She turned her head blindly at the sound. Water streamed into her eyes, blurring all that she could see.

        “I’ve been looking everywhere for you!” It was Taavi’s face that greeted her, pale yet relieved. Despite his small frame, he reached a hand into the pool without hesitation to help pull her out. As soon as Selah was safely sprawled on solid ground once more, Taavi’s words spilled out in a rush and did not stop. “Did you get lost? Or maybe you spent too much time at the garden? What kind of moss takes an entire day to harvest?! I’d already come back from the hunt and spent a good time helping Mother organizing her herbs, and then I saw the moon rising and I thought, ancestors above, you were still in the serpent’s mouth! I came down the tunnel to find you and – you scared me, Selah – all I found was your basket outside this great old crack –“

        The only thing that stood out to Selah was that the moon was rising. “That can’t be,” she said. It wasn’t enough to hear it once, so she said it again with vigor. “That can’t be. When I left from the garden, it was only midday. The sun was high in the sky, I saw it with my own eyes.” Perhaps time itself passed differently where the wingfaced women lived, such that mere minutes spent there stretched into hours in the caverns of her home.

        Taavi looked at her dubiously. “Maybe you remembered wrong. After all, you’ve been swimming in this cold water for who know how long.” His eyes shifted to the pool’s black surface.

        The water. Panic struck Selah, making her stumble to her feet and push Taavi away from the pool’s edge. She stretched her arms out around him, hoping to shield his gaze. It was too late. Taavi’s eyes widened as he realized that the pool was still water, the stuff of Alka’s tales. He peered around Selah’s body and huffed when she wouldn’t let him pass.

        “Why didn’t you tell me?” he said indignantly. “You really did go adventuring without me, didn’t you?”

        Selah flinched back at his accusatory tone. “It’s not – I didn’t plan this, alright?” After struggling to find words to explain what she had seen, it was all she could do to gesture wildly at the air.

        Taavi’s eyes shone with a mixture of unease and excitement. “Don’t tell me that you were helpless and long black fingers hauled you in. I’m not a child and you’re not nearly as good a storyteller as Alka.” Despite what he said, poorly veiled interest leaked into his questions.

        She stared him down for a long moment, debating what she should say. “They weren’t black.”

        “What?”

        “Their fingers. They were pale and rather human-like, in all honesty.”

        Taavi’s breath caught. “No. You’re serious.” He craned his neck to look around as if someone might overhear them. “Swear on it so I know it isn’t a joke.”

        “I swear it on my life, Taavi.” Selah grabbed her brother’s hand and squeezed until both their fingers went white. “There’s nothing in this world that would let me dream up such vivid lies. Now you have to promise me something. You can’t tell Mother or Alka, alright? You know their superstitions. Besides, Mother would have our skins if she knew that we were here.”

        “But didn’t you just prove their superstitions to be true? Or mostly so, anyhow.” Taavi narrowed his eyes at her. “Let me go in the pool too so I can see for myself.”

        The great golden butterfly flashed before her eyes again. She had seen many butterflies before on hunts and in the woods at the foot of the waterfall, but now their beauty turned her stomach slightly for reasons she did not know. “Don’t you dare,” Selah said. “If you knew what was good for you, you wouldn’t take a step nearer to that thing. It’s not safe.”

        “But you went in.” Taavi crossed his arms.

        “Not voluntarily I didn’t.” Selah sighed. “If I agree to tell you everything I saw in that other place – wherever I had gone – will you be quiet?”

        “I will!” He clapped his hands eagerly, then caught himself and put a hand over his mouth. “I’ll be silent as a mouse. You won’t hear another peep from me.”

        Without another word, Selah stood up and began to wring the water from the ends of her braid and the hides she wore. The candle she had brought had been long lost, and she had to put her palms out to feel along the rocky walls of the chamber. Once she reached the crevice they had entered through, she waited for Taavi to follow.

        “Come on now, we’ll talk as we walk back. I’m sure the tribe has noticed our absence already.” With the shadow of her brother’s form beside her in the tunnel, the knot in Selah’s stomach that had settled there ever since she fell into the pool slowly unraveled. In a low voice, she began. “The women-like creatures I saw, I called them wingfaces in my head. Think of the masks that Mother has painted. They had faces a bit like those, except the shape of butterflies seemed to be stained into their very skin…”

       

       

        The sun had risen and fallen in a few more cycles before Selah thought of returning to that crevice in the serpent’s mouth passage. Knowing what she did about the hidden pool, she could not let any other hunters stumble across it and possibly fall to a worse fate than she had. One night, before she fell asleep, she vowed that she would fill the crack in the tunnel with all the stones she could find. She awoke when the sun’s light had just filled the sky and went immediately to Mother to ask her permission to collect more moss. “To line the floors so that no water will collect in the stone,” she said, as she remembered the elders telling her.

        Her mother put aside her prayer crystals to look at her in surprise. “Why, have we already run out? It hasn’t even been a moon since you last went.”

        Taavi, who had been helping Mother with chores in her den again, overheard. When Mother’s back was turned, he flashed a knowing grin at Selah. “It’s better to have too much rather than too little, isn’t that what you always say, Mother?”

        Mother laughed at that. “I suppose you’re right. Go on, Selah. Don’t spend too long admiring the flowers in the garden.” She fixed Selah with a stern look. “I know that’s the real reason why you would volunteer to collect moss, of all things.”

        “Of course. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” Selah dipped her head.

        Taavi stilled his motions at the grindstone. Tell me everything, he mouthed, and turned away only after she gave him a reluctant nod.

        When Selah arrived at the spot along the serpent’s mouth tunnel where the rock parted from floor to ceiling, she was empty-handed except for the basket she had brought to keep up her guise. The pebbles that scattered every foot of the caves were too insignificant to hope to fill such a huge gap. She had known that without even needing to look. Perhaps this was her intention all along, perhaps she had been lying to herself, or perhaps it was the way the pleasantly high voice in her head would not stop repeating pretty – Selah slipped inside instead of even attempting to seal the crevice.

        Standing before the black pool, Selah was uncertain why her legs had brought her here. She no longer marveled at the sight of her own image that the water displayed. Out of all the tales that Alka had told and the suspicions that Mother held, everything that Selah had heard about still water had warned of creatures that physically pulled travelers in. Maybe there was something they did not know that Selah did; the true danger of still water was more like that of a poison that victims were made to crave, until they brought themselves near death time and again. Soft, dry laughter floated up from the pool as if the wingfaces could hear her thoughts. They couldn’t, really, she assured herself. Then she stepped into the water.

Selah knew better than to gasp and flail this time when she dragged herself onto land, surrounded once more by immense, vibrant flowers.

        “Welcome back, Selah.”

        She jerked, nearly falling back to the pool. She would have indeed slipped if not for the reflexes of the woman sitting at the opposite bank, who had been lazily swirling her bare feet through the water. The woman had glided into the water, agile as a fish, and pushed Selah’s body back up onto the grass.

        At a loss for words, a quiet “Thank you,” was all Selah could manage.

        “My pleasure, love.” This wingface had stained into her skin a butterfly as gold as midday sun, overlaid with black stripes. It was the same one who had greeted Selah on her first visit here. When the woman grinned, the white of her teeth was shocking, appearing between night-colored lips.

        More wingfaced women had gathered around, chirping to each other in excitement over her arrival. “Our apologies for forgetting our manners on your last visit. We’ll make this one much more pleasant if you’ll allow us.” It was the same one who had saved Selah from her fall, speaking again. Her perfect skin creased as her mouth twisted with regret. Not understanding the woman’s words as much as she was merely hearing them, Selah suddenly only wanted to smooth the crinkle from her face and make her smile again.

The wingface continued, “I realize that humans have a tradition of naming themselves, do they not? Frivolous, is what we think of it. But for your convenience…” She sighed and gave a playful shake of her head. “Call us by the color of our faces. I’m Gold. I’ve heard much about you.”

        The more Selah looked upon Gold’s face, the unhurried blink of her blue eyes and the bright colors leaping off her skin that matched the gold of her hair, the more she wondered how she could ever think these creatures were strange. They were beautiful.

        Gold’s smile only widened. “Come, there’s much to see.”

        As Selah followed Gold, and the ones she supposed she would call Blue and Red, she came to a stop by one of the many other still water pools in the ground. This one was tinged a clear, bottomless green and ringed with small rocks.

        “I see you’ve become familiar with our many looking pools,” Gold said with a note of pride. “Go on, take some time to study yourself. It’s what they’re there for. I know your kind tends to tell horrid stories about the things they don’t understand, but I promise you there is nothing to fear from still water. Nothing to fear at all, unless you despise the look of yourself.”

        “Is there anything you don’t know?” Selah blurted out.

        “There are many things we don’t know about you.” Gold cocked her head to peer at her curiously. “We plan to amend that.” She placed a hand on Selah’s, and it was just as damp and icy as the one that had first tugged her into the pool. “After all, we’re here to guide you. We can be guardians of sorts, like those – what do you call them?”

        “Ancestors’ spirits.” Blue’s voice differed from Gold’s as much as night differed from day. Where Gold spoke with the high tinkling of shells falling together, Blue had a low, soothing rasp.

        “Yes, that’s it,” Gold nodded. Her gaze shifted to Selah’s image on the green water, tracing from the crown of her head to the soles of her feet with sharp precision. “There’s your reflection, see? Our pools should always tell you the truth. And the truth is, well…” She trailed off, smiling faintly to disguise the end of her sentence, though she was clearly troubled by something.

        “You don’t have to say it. We can make her see.” Red sent Selah an encouraging look and motioned the other two wingfaced women closer to the water’s edge so that they all stood together. “Tell me, is there anything that seems different between us and yourself?”

        Selah stared on blankly. “Besides your faces?”

        They all tittered behind their hands as if she had made a particularly funny joke. “Look at our bodies, silly,” Gold said.

        At first, Selah could not find much in the way of differences. Their bodies were all fairly human-shaped, with a block of torso onto which a head, two arms, and two legs were attached. Then, when the pool began to stir, in gentle motions, she finally saw. The outward ripples pushed out the edges of her body, seeming to add fat to her limbs and roundness to her cheeks. Standing beside her, the wingfaced women were especially tall and limber, like the silhouettes of young saplings compared to the age-thickened trunk of an old oak. Thinness had never been a celebrated trait among the tribe; it was the sign of scarcity and bleak winters. But looking upon the women next to her, Selah wanted nothing more than to close the gap of differences between them until the pool showed her that they all had the same beauty, standing side by side.

        At her silence, or perhaps at the shadow that had crossed Selah’s face, Gold and Blue each took one of her arms and began to gently lead her to the stone altar where dishes of foreign foods had been laid out. “It’s quite alright,” Red said as she touched Selah’s shoulder in sympathy. “We all looked like that once. We can talk about it over some treats, would you like that?”

        Selah wasn’t sure if she particularly wanted to eat anything after seeing the truth that the pool revealed, but she nodded. It didn’t seem as if she had much of a choice.

        All the rest of the wingfaced women sat around the outcrop of rock, conversing in a light chatter that abruptly turned to silence as soon as Selah approached. They stared, many pairs of sky-colored eyes surveying her face. Selah squirmed in place, wondering if what they saw was a bloated creature intruding on them, a raven trying to hide amongst songbirds.

        “Go on, have a bite,” Gold encouraged, gesturing at the slices of purple fruit on the plate before her, and the motion brought the sweet scent of juice to her nose. “We prepared it especially for you. It would be a shame if you didn’t have a least a taste.”

        Selah’s stomach let out a long growl that interrupted Gold’s sentence. She flushed red and clutched her arms around her own middle, desperately wishing that her body hadn’t given away her hunger. Despite her efforts, her mouth was watering. She hadn’t eaten since the previous night, having been in such a hurry this morning to come to the serpent’s mouth tunnel. Ducking her head down to avoid the critical gazes that would surely greet her, Selah began devouring hunks of the fruit.

When she had nearly cleaned her plate and her hunger wasn’t quite so sharp anymore, it became obvious to her that the wingfaced women had not eaten a single bite. It was only the sound of her own mouth slurping that filled the air. Back in the caves of her home, hunters tended to eat together, whether it was in groups as few as two or as many as twenty – it was so that no one was left in solitude. Selah had never felt shame like this before for eating. The fruit in her gut turned over itself unpleasantly, and the taste it had left behind in her mouth was sickeningly sweet. She pulled her hands back from her plate, still sticky with juice.

        “Is that how you do it?” she asked, and the question seemed to burst from her chest. “Do you simply avoid eating to make yourselves like…” Selah wasn’t sure how to say it. Yes, she meant that they were slender, but it was also that they were beautiful, though the two seemed more and more like one and the same. “Like that,” she finished, gesturing at Blue’s torso where her waist nipped in.

        With those words, the wingfaces all broke out in smiles once more, a wise, knowing kind of smile like the ones Mother wore when she was showing Selah a new skill. “It is certainly one way. You’re learning fast,” Red said, beaming. “There are other ways, however, if you crave for the taste of food but want to be rid of the grotesque weight that comes with it. The sin without punishment, if you will. Gold?” She reached out a waiting hand until Gold placed a simple wooden bowl in it.

        “This you can only have while you’re with us.” Red lifted the bowl reverently towards Selah so that she could peer at its contents. “Your kind couldn’t hope to cultivate such rare and delicate plant life.” Red must have been referring to the tiny pink flowers floating in the milky liquid at the bottom of the dish. “We call this flower tea, made by soaking the petals in fresh water. Have a try; it’s really rather pleasant.”

        Tentatively, Selah lifted the bowl, urged on by the eager nods of the women sitting all around her. There was barely any taste at all to the so-called flower tea; if anything, it left a fragrant scent lingering at the back of her nose after she swallowed it down. When she put the wooden bowl down with a clack on the stone outcrop, the wingfaces all either clapped their hands together or pounded their fists to the rock, some even hooting in their high voices. Bewildered, Selah could only compare the strange show to her first hunt ritual. It must have been an initiation of sorts, a beginning to another phase in her life.

        The thought of rituals reminded her of her tribe. Mother. Taavi. They must have been waiting on her return. Selah stood up abruptly.

        “I’m sorry, I need to go –“

        Immediately the wingfaced women’s brows darkened. “You mustn’t yet.”

        When Selah opened her mouth to protest, to explain herself, no words came out. What came instead was a dry heave that sent her sprawling to the ground and clutching at her stomach. “What have you done to me?” she cried. If the women gave her an answer, the rushing of her blood in her ears was too loud to hear anything over. Crawling on her hands and knees, Selah struggled blindly to one of the many pools in the ground. As soon as she had put her face over the edge, she glimpsed her own sickly face for a heartbeat before her body was shuddering and emptying the contents of her stomach.

        Her head was buzzing with lightness when she finally pulled back. A sour taste lingered on her tongue and a slight burning afflicted the back of her throat, but otherwise, everything was just as it had been before. As her breathing slowed, Selah became aware that gentle fingers had been holding her hair back from her face as she vomited, and those same hands were now stroking over her temples.

        “How do you feel, love?” Gold’s face appeared over her shoulder, concern marring her pretty features.

        “I feel…alright.” As the words rang out in the open, Selah felt how true they were. She felt empty, and clean of shame, in a strange way. The rest of the wingfaced women cheered in the distance at her response.

        Blue pointed to a familiar black pool lying only a few feet away. “There you are. Your family must be waiting.” Her mouth pulled tight in an odd way as she smiled.

        Selah pressed her lips together, unsure of what she should say to encompass the gratitude she felt. “Thank you,” were the closest words she could find, but the wingfaces seemed to understand. They waved her off as cheerily as they did last time.

        “It’s our pleasure,” Red’s voice floated to her ears, ringing fainter and fainter as the black pool swallowed Selah up.

        That night, when Selah was given her helping of roasted game, she felt her hunger stirring again. It was there in the way her mouth watered at the sizzle of fat and how her stomach rumbled. Yet she hesitated before bringing the meat to her mouth. She remembered the wingfaced women and the secrets they had taught her. But there was no flower tea in these caves, and no one to hold her hair back while she retched up her meal. Any bite that she swallowed would eventually reappear as a chunk of extra fat on her own body, and the thought was enough to make up her mind.

        After quickly scanning the chamber to ensure that all her tribesmen were occupied with conversation or their own food, Selah took her bowl and sat at the lip of the cave where the waterfall’s spray touched her face. She was about to tip the contents into the rushing water when –

        “What are you doing?”

        Selah jumped, clutching her bowl back to her chest. “What do you think you’re doing?” she retorted. Her heart was still thudding.

        “As for me, I’m stopping you from wasting the hard-earned fruit of our hunters’ labors.” The sharp voice that had startled her before belonged to a girl only a few summers older than Selah. She wore her curly hair sheared short against her head, her skin as deep brown as the soil after a long rain. Selah had seen her on hunts before, and occasionally she had visited the healer’s den for wounds, but the most she knew about the other girl was from children’s whispers. About how this huntress was often emotionless because she had been left in the woods as a child, only saved when the tribe had taken her in. About the girl’s parents, and how they had neglected her to drink themselves full of an addictive plant poison that clouded their minds and killed them slowly.

        “I – well, I’m not hungry enough to eat, that’s all.” The other girl’s face was as unreadable as the rumors said. On the contrary, Selah felt as if her own mind was being peered into. She wondered how well this orphan could spot lies. “Do you want to have my share?”

        The orphan girl reached out slowly towards Selah’s bowl as if she could not believe the offer to be real, but as soon as she gripped the bone sticking out of the haunch, she pulled the hunk of rabbit towards herself as swiftly as one might expect of a huntress. “Ndumisa,” the girl introduced herself by way of thanks.

        “Selah,” Selah returned. She watched as Ndumisa tore into the meat. Some corner of her mind took on an ugly voice, whispering that she couldn’t have looked very hungry, could she, and that’s why Ndumisa had believed her so readily. If bears in hibernation could last a winter without food, she could easily do the same with a waistline like hers.

        “I know who you are,” Ndumisa said, interrupting her thoughts. “The healer’s daughter.” Her dark eyes bore into Selah in that way they always seemed to do, and then she was gone.

        Selah had barely a moment’s peace before she felt a different body slide next to her, taking the place that Ndumisa had just left. Taavi.

        He sat there grinning and cut her a sly look. “I’ve come to collect my payment,” he announced.

        “Hush, you,” Selah said, hand going to cup around her brother’s mouth. He shrugged her off impatiently. “Would you have the entire tribe listen to us talk?”

        “If that’s what it takes. Come on, Selah, be fair. Who knows if you would’ve even been able to slip away from Mother this morning if not for me.” He turned imploring eyes on her.

        “This is manipulation.”

        “What can I say? I learned from the best.”

        Selah bit down her smile. “I suppose it’s my fault you’re learning wrong instead of right, then. Alright, you little snake, what did you want to know?”

        “Everything. Don’t you dare leave out a single detail.”

        “Don’t be foolish. We’d be here all night if I tried to explain every bit of the things I’d seen,” she said with a roll of her eyes.

        “Then you’d better start straight away.” Taavi settled himself comfortably on the stone floor, propping his chin on his hands. “I’m not feeling particularly tired.”

        As much as Selah feigned annoyance with Taavi, her tongue was itching to tell someone about the day’s events; it was likely that she wanted to speak almost as much as her brother wanted to hear. So, they sat by the ledge by the waterfall while Selah painted a picture of clear green pools and lovely Gold with her yellow-and-black patterned butterfly wings and milky drinks called flower teas until the timber in the fire pits burned out. Taavi didn’t seem to mind, staying stiller and more silent than he ever had while hunting. It was only when Selah veered from descriptions – which, in her opinion, were too crude to represent the wonders she had seen – and began to explain the truths the looking pool showed her, that Taavi seemed to lose interest.

        “I don’t understand.” Taavi blinked slowly at her, partly out of confusion and partly out of tiredness. “You said the wingfaced women were kind.”

        “They are,” Selah said, just as puzzled as her brother was. “I haven’t suggested anything otherwise, have I?”

        “But they made you vomit.” Taavi had been speaking more and more like a grown hunter lately, leading Selah to treat him as such. She had forgotten that he had only just seen ten summers, but the naivety in this one statement reminded her.

        Selah laughed and shook her head. “They’re trying to help me, Taavi, and they’ve shown me things I’d been blind to before. I can see myself more clearly now. It’s not as simple as you think it to be.” She broke off, seeking the right words to describe how the air was punched from her lungs when the water rippled and revealed the soft, fleshy edges to her body, how she’d felt suffocated by her own skin and retching had let her breathe again. She caught herself before she spoke. Trying to put the sentiment into terms a child would understand, she said instead, “They’re my friends.”

        “Alright,” Taavi said with a sleepy smile. He seemed to be on the verge of unconsciousness despite the fact that he laid on hard stone without any fur covers. “I suppose you know yourself best.”

        At this, she was filled with a rush of affection for her brother and his staunch belief in her. If Selah had told Mother instead of Taavi, she undoubtedly would have heard no end to reprimands and cautions. She shivered slightly; the cavern seemed too vast when there were no bright flames to chase the shadows out from its jagged walls. She had not even realized that the other tribesmen had retired to their bedding chambers. Only the sound of Taavi’s soft snoring jerked her from her thoughts.

        Selah brushed her brother’s hair back from his forehead, fascinated with how peace settled into his features and softened them. He could sleep just a little while longer before she had to wake him and bring him to Mother’s den for some proper rest.

The tentative trust Selah had built with Ndumisa couldn’t be called friendship, but they had an arrangement now, at least. At every meal, Selah would sit by the waterfall and the unspoken signal would bring Ndumisa to her. It depended on the stone-faced huntress’ mood on a given day, but sometimes Selah could convince her to take her entire portion of roast meat, like she’d done on that first night. Usually, however, she had to consume about half the food in front of Ndumisa to prove that she had eaten all she could.

        In the past moon, she had found a new solution. As it happened, Ndumisa’s eyes were not always as eagle-sharp as they were on a hunt. As they settled into a routine and became somewhat comfortable with each other’s presence, Selah began to hold a few bites of her meal in her cheeks instead of swallowing. When Ndumisa left, she would turn and spit into the waterfall. It was only a small amount, she knew, but the wingfaced women had assured her when she visited them that even the choice to eat an extra handful of berries or not made a difference.

        She had joined a hunt today, feeling rather well and refreshed in the morning. As the day wore on, however, she found her strength dwindling. The climb down from their caves had been grueling on her limbs, and Selah thought that a nap was in order as soon as she could return to Mother’s den. Her head now felt as if it were stuffed with clouds, and her senses were not quite as sharp as they ordinarily were, which was perhaps the reason why Taavi was able to startle her.

“Come on, the other hunters are far ahead of us now. They won’t notice if we explore the woods a bit.” Taavi’s eyes were shining brightly through the holes in his mask. He tapped her right shoulder, and when Selah turned, he had reappeared on her left side. “There, made you look,” he crowed. “Don’t you want revenge?” He waved his arms tauntingly before Selah’s face. “Come get me now!” He ran a few paces ahead before realizing that she was not following.

        At Selah’s blank look, his smile eventually slipped into a frown. “Selah?”

        “Sorry, Taavi, I must be getting old.” Selah put on a smile. “I didn’t sleep well last night. We’ll play another day, alright?”

        Taavi’s brown eyes bore into her own until she felt uncomfortably hot and looked away. Her brother had always been too curious for his own good. “If you say so. You better make good on that promise!” he said good-naturedly, but Selah felt him watching her once or twice more as they were hunting, tracking her motions.

His gaze was especially sharp when Selah’s legs gave out in the midst of chasing a particularly spirited deer, sending her sprawling into damp soil. She refused the hand Taavi stretched out to help her up and assured him that she had simply been distracted by pity for the young doe. After all, she told him, she was struck by innocent the creature was before they charged. It was cantering after a butterfly that always fluttered just out of reach before it was about to catch it, reminding Selah of her own childhood pastimes. That was true enough, but the part Selah didn’t say was that a sudden dizziness had struck her and the forest had flashed white behind her eyes.

Sleep, Selah decided. That was the remedy she needed.

        “Are you feeling well?” Selah turned to the sight of Taavi, who had just put a gentle hand on her arm. In the end, they had returned to the caverns later than expected, with the moon already on the rise when they lugged in their kills for the day. It was late enough that Selah thought she could wait to go to bed along with Mother and Taavi, but the fatigue and ache in her muscles made her irritable. The thought that even her little brother felt the need to treat her like a child did not sit well in her stomach. Where she ordinarily might have felt affection, she only felt annoyance.

        “I was well enough to hunt today, or have you already forgotten?” Taavi’s hand left her arm. He held up his palms instead and moved back, the way Ragdus had taught them to treat provoked animals. Despite sitting near enough to the fire tonight that the smoke stung her eyes, Selah immediately mourned the loss of warmth as her brother shifted away. Still, she did not call him back. From the corner of her eye, she saw Taavi chewing on his lip, a nervous habit of his, and she was all the more determined to continue staring into the fire.

        “Will you come to the tunnel by Mother’s den for a moment?” he asked. “Just the two of us could talk. Please.”

        Selah wanted badly to refuse, but knowing her little brother, he’d draw more attention if they stayed here in the cavern to talk. She made her way to Ndumisa’s spot near the waterfall and slid her unfinished bowl of roasted meat and berries towards the other huntress before she made her way to the mouth of the tunnel. Scrambling to his feet, Taavi quickly followed.

        “What did you want to talk about?”

        Taavi shrugged. “You’re the one who looked like you had something on your chest.”

        Selah stared at him for a moment. “I said I’m alright. If that’s all, I can go –“

        “No.” Taavi caught her arm. “Please, please, please,” he said, “I know when you lie, and I’m ready to torture the truth out of you if I have to.” He wiggled his fingers as if threatening to tickle her.

        It wasn’t her brother that she should be taking her irritation out on, she realized. After slowly letting out a long hiss of air, Selah finally spoke. “I’m just frustrated with the way I look.” She tried to say it with as little attachment as possible, but the honesty of it still stung. “It’s not that I’m upset with you.”

        “Why?” Her brother sounded more childlike than ever. “Did someone tell you something mean? I’ll fight them off for you if you tell me who.”

        “Don’t be silly, you won’t fight anybody,” Selah said. More reluctantly, she continued, “The wingfaced women just helped me see my flaws and the ways I could improve, is all.”

“I think I’m ugly too,” Taavi jested after a pause. “You heard Mother at my ritual, she said my eyes were the color of dirt. Dirt, can you believe it?” He shook his head in mock offense. The smile he aimed at Selah was not like his usual crooked grins, but something hopeful, as if waiting for her reaction.

        Selah knew she should laugh, but she couldn’t. “It’s not the same, Taavi, and you know it.” Selah was tired. When did it become so easy for her to tire? She pulled her hides tighter around her shoulders as the chill of the tunnel was making her shiver.

        “You’re right.” Taavi, who rarely ever got angry and preferred to laugh rather than raise his voice, seemed to finally have difficulty keeping his tone level. “It is different. See, I don’t value myself more or less simply because of what Mother or the elders say about my looks.”

        “If you knew that you could change the way you looked, that you weren’t stuck with the way you are now, maybe you’d think differently,” Selah shot back. Her brother looked stricken. In an attempt to soften her words, she tried to think of some new detail to tell him about the looking pool and the wingfaced women. “They’re beautiful, Taavi. Big eyes, gold hair. They showed me how I could do it too. Look like them, I mean. It’s only a little bit of food that I have to give up each day, and my waist would –“

        “They?” Taavi’s brow crinkled in momentary confusion. “Oh.” Something unreadable came over his expression, and he became someone Selah did not know. “You mean the wingfaces. You talk about them and their looks too often, Selah. Is that why you’ve been doing this to yourself? Not eating, running until you collapse? Is that what they told you to do?” he demanded.

        “I chose to do it.” It was not exactly an answer, she knew, but she was angry too and felt that such questions didn’t need a reply. “My body feels better this way.” A lie. “It looks better, too.” The truth.

        “Better?” Taavi’s eyes raked down Selah’s body. “Thinner, you mean?”

        “That’s what they all look like!” Selah all but shouted, until she remembered that the other tribesmen could hear from just a chamber away and composed herself. “I’ll stop once I catch up to them,” she promised. “You’re thin too, you know,” she said, her voice sounding petulant and jealous even to herself, as if she were the younger sibling here rather than Taavi.

        Her brother’s eyes flashed with anger and then with something like pity. “But I don’t go hungry like you do. Selah.” Her name came out like a plea. “You look like you’re dying.”

For once, there was no trace of humor in his face. It twisted bitterness in her gut, yet when his gaze dropped to where her ribs were beginning to show from under her skin, she still sucked in her breath a little to show off her new thinness with a bit of pride. People were noticing.

“You lied before. I think you’re sick,” Taavi said.

“You’re the one who’s sick. Sick in the head,” Selah spit out as a flash of hot anger emptied all rational thought from her mind. As soon as she said the words, she wanted to pull them back into her mouth. They sounded too harsh for her to ever think of, let alone say. Yet there her voice was, not yet finished echoing through the tunnel.

Shock crossed Taavi’s face and hurt quickly replaced it. He gave a jerky nod as if to acknowledge what she said, and spun around to walk back to the main cavern.

Selah wanted to find it within herself to apologize, but her mouth was dry as sand. “Don’t tell Mother,” was what she called out instead after Taavi’s retreating back. She didn’t want to beg, but one thought of what Mother might do made her put aside her pride. “Please don’t. You know that she would forbid us from going back to the looking pool.” She hoped that threat was enough to keep him silent.

Taavi stopped. It seemed a hundred moons before he turned back, face half illuminated by the shifting orange flamelight coming from the chamber behind him. “You,” he said softly with a shake of his head. “You mean she would forbid you from returning to the pool. You’re the one who wants to go.”

        She had felt empty since Taavi had left her in the tunnel, alone with the cold and his accusations. If her brother had hoped to keep her away from the wingfaced women, his outbursts had only driven Selah to them more. It was a thought that brought her a measure of petty satisfaction. Now that Taavi wouldn’t speak to her and refused to even look at her whenever possible, Selah found refuge in the meadow through the black pool. Her visits became as much a routine as Mother’s daily prayers to the spirits of their ancestors. It had started one night when sleep would not come and the sight of Taavi’s form, pointedly turned away from her in the dark, was too much to bear. In the nights that followed, she slept less and less, lying awake in her bedding pit until Mother snuffed out the last candles and Taavi’s snores filled the air. Then Selah would slip away, knowing the location of the secret chamber behind the crevice well enough that she could navigate without a light or the use of her eyes.

        The wingfaced women had dried her tears; their meadow of green grass and perpetually blooming flowers filled the gap that Taavi left in her chest. They reassured her that she was so incredibly strong for standing up to her brother, praised her for staying good and empty even when the spirits of her ancestors sent obstacles like Taavi to break down her resolve. “You have us now. We can be your sisters,” Gold had whispered, her blue eyes soft. “And you know that we’ll always tell you the truth, right? What your brother said about your body – lies.” Her voice had chilled for a moment before melting into sweetness again. “You’re beautiful. This is beautiful,” Gold had repeated, tracing Selah’s ribs, “Now we only have to make you more beautiful.”

        Tonight, Red was fluttering her hands up and down Selah’s sides, cooing, “Oh, look at you, love.” Blue slid up behind her and tugged at the animal skins that Selah wore around her waist and torso. As of late, there seemed to be handfuls of extra fabric that hung loose no matter how she knotted them. With a yank, Blue pulled the hides taut across Selah’s chest to show off her narrowed shape and the new sharpness to her shoulders that had emerged from beneath layers of fat. When Selah turned so that only her side faced the looking pool, she thought she had vanished for all of a heartbeat. Her stomach was nearly as flat as the surface of the water, and it was the faint edges of bone that stuck out from it now, not a rounded gut. A thrill fluttered in her stomach. It was almost enough to quash the hunger roiling there.

        “You’re doing so well,” Gold said, clasping her hands together. “And to think that you used to be as wide as the trunk of a tree!” Her laugh tinkled through the meadow. “It feels sweet to look on yourself now, doesn’t it?”

        Selah nodded. In fact, her image in the water was what she drew strength from on most days. When she watched her tribesmen devour meat and her mouth went heavy with saliva, she had to close her eyes and think of how she looked. This – the satisfaction that came from the butterfly women’s praise, the knowledge that she could be as pretty as them if she staved off her hunger a little longer – was worth more than the temporary satisfaction that eating brought.

Sometimes, her mind still slipped. She was ashamed to admit it. Now and then, when the emptiness inside her was too much, she dreamed of sinking her teeth into a fat rabbit or licking the grease from a roasted bird. Those were the only times that a tiny part of her wondered if what she was doing was truly worth it. She could push that part aside with enough effort.

        The sting of a pinch made her yelp. She turned her head to find Blue standing beside her, squeezing a bit of Selah’s thigh between her fingers. “Yes, you’ve made great progress. But you cannot become complacent now,” Blue said in her low, stony voice. “You can surely make more space than that between your legs.”

        Selah’s heart dropped low in her chest. “I’m not done yet? Am I still not enough like you?”

        Gold frowned, and disappointment shadowed her face for the first time in a long while. The yellow butterfly on her skin became too harsh to look at. “Beauty is a process, Selah. It is not a race. You cannot only put in great effort at the beginning and expect to stop after crossing a finishing point. There is no finishing point. There is always more to do.”

        Gold exchanged a heavy look with Blue and Red. “We’ve become close over these past moons, haven’t we?” she asked. “I think we can show you this now. A truer form of us, if you will.”

        A sharp crack like the breaking of bones split the air, and perhaps their bones really did snap. With a cry caught in her throat, Selah whirled around to seek a reaction from the rest of the wingfaced women, who sat dining at their stone altar as always. They did not blink an eye. They merely stood, all in unison, and they began cracking too. They seemed to melt as frost did when the sun came out, their noses caving inwards, their eyes becoming liquid blue and trickling down to their chins, the colors of their butterfly marks bleeding together until they resembled the black mess Selah had made of Mother’s paints once when she mixed all the colors together. Their figures became more tall and white, stretching like animal hides rather than flesh and bone. Not knowing what to do, Selah dropped to the ground and squeezed her eyes shut. Even when the awful noises stopped, Selah was still shaking.

        A cold hand wrapped around her shoulder. Selah flinched without looking up, burying her face further into her knees. “Oh, don’t make a fuss,” Gold’s voice soothed. Selah thought she might have heard the barest note of irritation. “We’re still your friends, are we not? Does our mere appearance change what we have together? Come now, open your eyes.”

        There was another stretch of silence before the thunder of her heartbeat receded. Reluctantly, Selah did as she was told.

        She bit down a gasp. The most noticeable difference was their eyes. Where there was blue before now was pure black, as if the night sky had come into even the white parts of their eyes. They glinted from where they were set into the wingfaced women’s sockets. Even the meadow around them seemed changed. While it had always offered an abundance of comfortable shade, it seemed now to be more shadow than sunlight.

        “We thought you’d be ready for the next step of your own transformation,” Red swayed her head from side to side in distress. “Perhaps we thought wrong.”

        No!” Selah swallowed down her apprehension and forced herself to stare straight into those black shining eyes. “No, please, you didn’t think wrong. I’m still willing. Show me.”

        Just like that, the wingfaced women graced her with smiles once more. Without speaking a word further, Gold began scratch at her waist, as if getting at an itch. Soon scratching became kneading, and Selah watched in frozen fascination as Gold’s flesh yielded under her hands as easily as clay would. When the wingface was finally satisfied, her waist looked as if would snap in the breeze, and surely no stomach could fit in it at all. She seemed to have even pummeled away a few of her bottommost ribs to get the shape just right.

        All the pride that Selah had felt before when she looked out on her reflection bled out of her. Gold was even thinner than she had been before. From the corner of her eye she could see the rest of the wingfaces quietly begin to follow in Gold’s footsteps, prodding and pinching back their own stomachs until they went concave. Dread filled Selah first, and then a great weariness. Complacency, Blue would’ve called it, but Selah could only think of how after all she had done, it still wasn’t enough.

        The wingfaced women had been wrong before. This was every bit a race, and the wingfaces were always a few steps ahead, with a couple fewer handfuls of flesh on their bones.

        “Oh, that’s lovely, Gold.” Red clapped her hands in delight. “See?” She turned to Selah. “There are some things that you need us for. You couldn’t look like this on your own even you ate nothing for the rest of your life.” The other wingfaces that had circled around the spectacle giggled.

        Red must have taken Selah’s silence for agreement, because she pressed on. “That’s not all we can do, you know. If there’s anything else you’re not quite happy with –“ She didn’t finish the rest of her sentence, preferring to show Selah with her actions instead. Bringing a hand to her face, Red put two fingers to the rim of an eye and pulled at the bone sockets until they widened and her night-black eye grew larger to fill it.

        Selah took a step backwards.

        Red paid her no mind and began to work at her mouth instead, squeezing the wet pink flesh of her lips until they went red and swollen as if stung by a horde of wasps.

        “It doesn’t hurt,” Gold said. “Did it look like we were in pain?”

        “No, but I –“

        “Come here, Selah. Be good, now.” Red crooked a finger at her. When Selah stayed rooted to the ground, the three wingfaced women began to converge on her.

        Fear shot through her veins, spreading from her chest down to the tips of her fingers and pooling in her feet. The hot pounding of blood in her head was all she could hear, blurring into a single rhythm of leave leave leaveleaveleave. Blue’s fingers, long and thin and cold and more searing than any fire, curled around her wrist in a vice grip. “I’m sorry,” Selah said, the words spilling from her mouth. “Not tonight.” She tried to tug her hand away. When Blue’s grip only tightened, she wrenched away in panic. The trees became all a blur as she flew past them, and her heart hammered harder with every pool she saw that wasn’t hers, wasn’t black. She tripped, and then all she saw was black.

Selah didn’t remember fainting on the serpent’s mouth trail. But she apparently had, and she’d been unconscious since the sun had set. The tribe had sent a group of hunters on a frenzied search through all the trails leading out of the main cavern once they realized she had been missing since sunrise. That was all she could gather from the quick, whispered exchange that had awoken her. Even with their voices lowered, the sound rasped harshly in her ears. Blearily, she opened her eyes. Mother’s den came tilting into view.

        “You’re awake, thank the ancestors above, you’re awake.” Mother shooed away the other hunter and rushed to kneel by Selah’s bedding pit. “How do you feel?” she fretted. “That’s silly of me. You can’t be feeling too well if you can’t even get to your feet,” she said, as if answering herself.

        The concern in her eyes was almost too much to bear. She smoothed a hand over Selah’s forehead, the head emanating from Mother’s skin like a live flame. Surely it was uncomfortable to be so warm, or perhaps it was Selah who was too cold.

        Selah gave a weak smile in place of a reply. Fear suddenly gripped at her, but it wasn’t fear for her health. It was fear that Mother had found out what she had been doing with her food for the past few moons, that she knew about the looking pool. Had Taavi been angry enough to tell all? She was put to ease by what Mother said next.

        “I’ve had other hunters come to me with complaints that their stomachs had also not taken well to the deer meat from our last meal. It must’ve carried some disease, or been infested by some creature. I just wish you had come to me sooner.” Mother took a strained breath, as if her next words were lodged in her throat. “It’s alright to have weakness, Selah. I know I don’t show a good example of it, but…You don’t have to do everything alone and laugh away your hurt.”

        So Taavi hadn’t betrayed her, despite the ugly words she had thrown at him. It might have been a last shred of loyalty that kept him silent – she would rather believe that than think it was spite.

        “Look at me. It doesn’t seem as if I’m doing a lot of laughing at the moment.”

        Mother smiled faintly at that. “Oh, Selah.” She leaned down to press a kiss to her forehead, something she hadn’t done in many summers, since before her first hunt ritual. “Get some more rest. Call out for me when you feel well enough to eat, alright?”

        No, Selah thought. “Alright,” she said. She was soon alone again, bundled in layers upon layers of thick furs. Now that Mother was gone, she didn’t need to suppress her shivers any longer. Cold had made itself a permanent home between her bones. After staring at the ceiling for a while, she slipped in and out of dreams about cocoons – caterpillars curling themselves into them and butterflies emerging from them with heavy, inky wings.

        Selah did not call for her mother when she woke, but Mother seemed to know on instinct that she had risen from her bedding pit. After declining Mother’s herbal medicines and giving assurances that she was well with more vigor than she truly felt, Selah made her way to the main cavern. Control. She desperately needed it. No matter how much she had wanted to let Mother take care of her, Selah knew that the choice of what to eat, how much to eat, would be taken from her if she allowed such a thing. Those choices had been the only things keeping her sane in the past few moons, and now deprivation was nearly second nature.

        After she’d filled her bowl with meat from the fire pit, she sat at her usual place on the ledge by the waterfall. Almost immediately, Ndumisa caught her eye with one of her unblinking stares, fingers looping loosely around Selah’s wrist. It was not a strong hold, but she knew that the quiet huntress across from her was aware of the feel of Selah’s bones poking through her skin and the coldness of her fingers. Selah snatched her hand back, a wash of uncomfortable warmth tingeing her skin. It was rare that she felt warmth at all, whether from sunlight or embarrassment.

        “Eat,” Ndumisa said, no louder nor quieter than her usual speaking voice. She nudged the roasted pheasant breast back into Selah’s bowl and returned to pulling dark-colored berries off a mass of branches. For Selah, every moment that she had to stare at the meat only made the ache in her belly worse. There was the drip of grease down the burnt skin, the charred smell that made her crave for something between her teeth that would give reprieve from the bitter taste of her own mouth. However, the meat also shamed her with the thought that she still could not control her hunger, that she would even consider giving up the body that the wingfaced women had so carefully helped her to craft. Even now, her loyalty to them was difficult to shake. Besides, eating the whole piece would be too much all at once for her shrunken stomach.

        As if sensing her hesitation, Ndumisa finally looked back at Selah, wiping her juice-stained fingertips on the hides she wore. “Your mother will eventually know of where all your food has gone for the past few moons. Must she know tonight?” She looked pointedly at the uneaten bird and made as if to get up.

        Mother knowing would be a much worse punishment than simply having one bite. She would undo all the work that Selah had done and give her herbs that inflated her waist and wrists once more. Selah’s hand shot out, closing around the skin of the bird and ripping off a hunk of flesh, refusing to cry out even as the hot grease burned her skin. She slowly pushed the piece between her teeth, chewing with her eyes trained on Ndumisa’s unwavering brown ones. After she swallowed, Selah opened her mouth wide and folded her arms as if to say, You see? It’s gone.

        “Have another two bites now. Big ones.” At Selah’s hesitation, Ndumisa’s voice hardened again. “Or I tell the healer.”

        Selah sent a dark glare Ndumisa’s way. After a few tense heartbeats, she bowed her head and picked up the meat once more. “You’re awfully talkative now for someone who could barely find ten words to say to me in an entire moon.”

        Appeased, Ndumisa settled herself down once more to pick at her berries. Not bothering to reply to Selah’s barbed statement, she set out on a different course of conversation entirely. “I was with the group of hunters who found you in the tunnel.”

        “And you want me to thank you,” Selah said flatly.

        “I want no such thing.”

        “Then what do you want from me?”

        Ndumisa threw her hands down on the stone floor with a heavy smack that made Selah jolt. “Not everyone wants something from you. You think too highly of yourself.”

        Selah laughed, a dry, brittle thing that soon broke into a cough. “If only you knew what I thought of myself.”

        “What does a girl like you have to be unhappy with?” Ndumisa’s eyebrow twitched upwards; it was the first sign of interest she’d let slip. “You have your family. I’ve seen your brother and the way he clings to you. He cares for you as much as your healer mother does. You have your tribe. A place to call home. There are others who cannot claim the same.”

        All of that was true, but it didn’t change the bitterness Selah felt. It was a fire lit inside her, scorching at her guts until she wanted to let it swallow her; it wasn’t the kind of anger that sought to burn those around her, but undoubtedly it had slipped out and burnt them anyway. The fight drained out of Selah. “No one chooses to be sad. Besides, can only the most unfortunate person in the world be unhappy?”

        “I might say so,” Ndumisa retorted.

        “That’s ridiculous of you.” Selah turned her head. “I suppose you’d also say then that only the most fortunate person in the world can be happy. Where would the rest of the people fall?”

        A laugh was startled out of Ndumisa. “Looks like you have a decent head on those shoulders after all.”

E        ven Selah managed a faint smile at the rare sight of Ndumisa laughing.

        Ndumisa leaned back and crossed her arms as her mirth quickly faded. “Where was that rationality when you decided to get yourself lost in the serpent’s mouth and knock yourself unconscious?”

        Standing up so abruptly that the bowl slipped from her lap, Selah walked away.

        Despite all that had happened today, the familiar itch to wander and to seek the company of the wingfaced women returned. In the choking silence of the night, Selah wanted to be anywhere but in Mother’s den. She could accept the strange new changes in Gold and Red and Blue, and she would let them mold her own body too if it meant that they would praise her again. After all, this was what she had left. Her body. Her thinness. Selah reached out a hand and almost brushed where Taavi was sleeping beside her, but she thought he wouldn’t want to be woken, especially not to talk to her. She held her breath for a long moment until she was sure that she would not cry.

        When she finally let out her breath, she carefully peeled off the furs she had wrapped around herself one by one, and then padded down the stone corridor from the healer’s den to the main cavern. Swathed in darkness, she walked the familiar path into the serpent’s mouth once more.

        Perhaps it was the clamor of thoughts inside her head that had distracted her from hearing the soft thuds of feet other than her own. It was too late by the time Selah realized; she had already led someone, maybe something, to the crevice in the wall that the still water pool hid behind. The stone at her back at least afforded her some cover. She hadn’t even brought a candle with her in the dead of night, much less a weapon. It was all she could do to straighten her back and clench her fingers into fists. She had never been the best at tackling game to the ground on hunts even before she had gotten thin and breakable, but now – she shivered all over merely from the cold, and no creature would hesitate to attack such an easy target.

        What she had not expected was for Ndumisa to slip out from behind a large outcrop of rock.

        “Go back to the caves,” she hissed, unsure whether to feel relieved or angry. “You should be in bed, not tailing me like a lost wolf cub.”

        Ndumisa said nothing at first, and instead shouldered past her to the large crack splitting the wall. “Don’t bother trying to warn me off.” She turned, eyes dark and serious. “The others hadn’t gone in.” She jerked her chin at the crevice. “But I saw the pool, all that still water. I dragged you out and let them think that perhaps they had overlooked your tiny body by the edge of the tunnel.”

        When Selah opened her mouth on reflex and no sound came out, Ndumisa held up a hand. “Save it. I said I wasn’t looking for your thanks.”

        Before Selah would even process her words or begin to feel grateful, Ndumisa slid between the halves of rock. Not knowing what else she could do, Selah scrambled to follow. Wrong, her mind chanted. Everything had gone wrong, and there was no way for her to fix it.

        On the other side of the wall, she found Ndumisa standing a good distance away from the pool, eyeing it warily. “Are the stories true?” she asked, keeping her gaze fixed on the water as if it were a wolf that might pounce at any moment.

        “Some of them.”

        A small shudder began in Ndumisa’s shoulders and rippled down her body. Fear, more than any other emotion, seemed to have no place on Ndumisa’s features, and the very hint of its presence frightened Selah. Only the dripping of the stone fingers high above made any noise while they both held their breaths. “Why do you come here?” Ndumisa broke the silence, as she was always able to.

        “I must,” Selah said. Even to herself, her voice sounded as hollow as the vast chamber they stood in. She settled herself down on the edge of the pool and curled her arms around herself to ward off the shivers that had returned now that the heat of her initial shock had worn off.

        Ndumisa grunted in distaste, her look full of pity as it dragged over her quivering form hunched on the ground. With Ndumisa’s strength and sinew and armor of pride that she rarely ever let any weakness show through, Selah must have looked like an infant flame to her, flickering with even the smallest exhale. Never before had Selah felt so small.

        “You must,” Ndumisa echoes lowly. “You must? There is no string tying you to that pool. Your own feet are taking you back. It’s choice. Be a grown woman and say it. It’s the least you could do.”

        Anger flared up before Selah remembered what the other children had said of the quiet huntress’ parents. The rage waned a bit, making way for guilt. Of course Ndumisa would think of this as a choice. She had likely seen the worst of choice in the way her mother and father drank themselves blind with poison, how time and again, they reached for sweet toxin instead of for their child. She had likely often heard the words I must by way of placating excuse.

        Still, Selah could not quite press back the words that were already building in her throat. It seemed that all she knew to do lately was to wreck everything around her. Sharp with teeth and bitter, more bitter than the worst fruit, Selah replied. “You mistake me for your mother and father.”

        “What do you know about my parents, girl?” Ndumisa’s tone dropped until it fell hushed and cold and low.

        “What do you think you know about me?” Selah spit out. As quickly as it had come, the burst of strength drained away. A flurry of yellow and red and blue exploded behind her eyes, replacing the dark shadows of the vault for a moment, and a laugh floated up from the pool as if to mock her. Selah quieted. Her shoulders wanted to crawl back into herself. Softly now, she muttered, “They want me to go back. I want to put my feet into the water and tell them I’m sorry. That would please them. It’s – It’s this pulling that I feel.”

        “Feel it where?” The other huntress was surprised enough that her tone was devoid of her previous rage.

        Selah struggled for a moment, hands gesturing in short, jerky movements. “Here,” she said. “Here.” She pressed the tip of a finger to the center of her forehead. Her skin was slick with sweat, she realized, even though she felt cold enough for her sense to be numbed. “I repeat their voices in my head sometimes, you know, so I don’t slip up and eat too much. It helps remind me what I need to do. But at least then I knew it was really just my mind’s tricks. It’s been getting harder to tell if I’m listening to my own voice in my head or theirs.” It felt good to say spill it out, even if it was to someone who likely did not care and did not even understand what she meant by them and voices.

        Ndumisa seemed to have put enough of the pieces together, however, between the many times that Selah given away her food and her sudden fainting earlier. She didn’t ask Selah to explain any further, and for that, Selah was grateful. “Show me what’s in the water,” the quiet huntress said instead, walking carefully closer.

        When they both had settled at the rocky rim of the pool, Ndumisa took her first glimpse of their twin images in the black water. Rather than gaze at her own figure, which was the last thing she wanted to see, Selah watched Ndumisa fix her reflection with the same unwavering stare that she gave everyone else. Even as the water rippled eerily, pulsating and distorting their faces in the water despite the lack of wind in these tunnels deep within rock, Ndumisa didn’t blink.

        “Don’t look at yourself too long,” Selah said, the words coming unbidden. “They – their hands will start to stir the water until it moves like it’s doing now, see. And then your face deforms and your waist expands –“ She gasped a little to catch a breath she didn’t know she needed.

        They waited with bated breath beside the water, a muscle jumping in Ndumisa’s tensed neck. As the moments dragged on, no white hands peeked above the water’s surface; no faint smiling faces appeared in its depths. Frustrated, Selah said, “They’re there. You just can’t see them tonight.”

        Ndumisa only furrowed her brows. “Have you ever thought that maybe only you see them – whatever they are? That it’s in your head?”

        “I know they are!” Selah cried, “That’s what I’ve been trying to say.” The way she had meant it was not the same as how Ndumisa surely meant it – she hadn’t gone mad. The meadow, the butterflies on the women’s skin, it was all so real, but she could not see a way to make Ndumisa understand.  

        “What do you see?” Ndumisa said, cutting through the quiet that had settled. The lines of her face were still sharp, but she was not readying for a fight anymore.

        Forcing her eyes back to the water, Selah was reminded of Red’s clammy hands smoothing over her skin and Blue’s fingers pinching at her belly. There was no movement disturbing the water, it was true, but she still saw the disgusting bloated form that the wingfaces had shown her all those moons ago. “There’s too much of me. I see too much flesh and not enough bone. I have always taken up more space than I should. My eyes are not blue enough nor big enough and my nose is too sharp for my face.

They gave me a chance to change – these beautiful women with skin like butterfly wings. They were teaching me, but I guess I was too slow and afraid to learn.”

        “Do you hate me too? Do you think I’m ugly?” The questions hit Selah like a slap in the face although there was only soft curiosity in Ndumisa’s dark eyes.

        “No,” Selah said. “Why should I?”

        “Why should you hate yourself?” And then there was silence. “I think you could do with someone to talk to. You look a bit more alive now than you did before, although also a bit more angry,” Ndumisa said, not unkindly.

        “Who would I talk to? My brother? He hasn’t wanted anything to do with me for moons. My mother? She’d have my hide –”

        “Talk to me.” There was no mocking in Ndumisa’s face. “I’ve heard a good deal already about butterfly women and things in the water and I haven’t run away yet. What harm could come from hearing a bit more?” Her voice sounded almost humorous if Selah listened hard enough.

        Selah jerked her chin up once to signal the other huntress to go on.

        “I’ll make a deal with you. I won’t say a peep to your mother or the rest of the tribe, whoever you’re worried about. You can yell and rage and spill your secrets at me all you want, just as long as you promise to eat at every meal.”

        Selah hesitated. “I can’t,” she said. Ndumisa began to turn away, so she hurriedly added, “I don’t think I physically can. It would make me sick.”

        “We can start small, then. A bowl of berries, half a leg of pheasant, whatever you can get down.” Ndumisa had already stood up, and her hand was slightly outstretched in Selah’s direction.

        It was suddenly hard for Selah to form a reply. She swallowed down the lump at the back of her throat, but it settled something warm in her chest instead of something painful. She caught her hand in Ndumisa’s instead of speaking.

        “Say it,” Ndumisa demanded. After that first night, Ndumisa had stayed true to her word. She sat by Selah whenever possible during meals, still at their spot by the waterfall, but now she watched Selah’s throat work around every swallow with an eagle eye.

        In the beginning, Selah’s stomach often seized up with fear at the sight of food. Ndumisa was the only one she told about imagining the grease from the meat congealing into rolls of fat as soon as it passed down her throat. It was Ndumisa who had held Selah by the wrists until she could breathe again when she’d hurled her bowl over the waterfall, a moment in which she relapsed and wanted to be feel beautiful again rather than feel better. When the first signs of health returned to Selah, she had sobbed at how her ribs had disappeared from sight instead of rejoicing at her newfound strength. Ndumisa had been there, too, listening to Selah talk about the things the wingfaced women taught her, and then she had cursed every one of those creatures until Selah fell asleep with a smile.

        Selah still often emerged from Mother’s den in the middle of the night with that familiar pull in her gut and butterflies seared into her mind, but she always found Ndumisa waiting by the dead fire pits in the main cavern. The other huntress would come to Selah’s side, and the two then set off towards the black pool together. Sometimes, Selah would tell Ndumisa a bit more about the wingfaced women and their horrible beauty, but other times they walked in comfortable silence.

        The silence now was not quite so comfortable. “Say what?” Selah asked. Her knees were drawn up to her chest and her arms wound around them to physically restrain herself from touching the water.

        “Say you’re pretty.”

        Selah turned back to look at Ndumisa. The quiet huntress’ face was even and devoid of much expression, but by now, Selah could read her features as fairly content. “You’re pretty,” Selah said, in Ndumisa’s direction. “Is that what you wanted to hear?”

        Ndumisa huffs out something close to a laugh. “No, and you know it. Fine, if you want to make this difficult: repeat after me. I’m pretty.”

        Selah stared back into the inky waters. The surface was so smooth and dark, unlike that of the pool she had first seen in the woods, which had been muddy and floating with green plant life. This one did not contain things that were alive. It did paint out every feature of her face with perfect precision, however. “I can’t say that honestly. Besides, it’s not the tradition of our people to be vain –“

        “But it is the tradition of our people to tell each other the good things that we cannot see ourselves. Go on, lie to yourself tonight if you have to. The ancestors above know we lie to others to spare their feelings often enough.” Ndumisa took a few steps closer and sat down by the water even though Selah knew that she hated to be near to the pool. It held something ancient and evil, she would say so seriously that Selah nearly believed her. “After saying it a thousand thousand more times, you might be able to say it honestly. Look at that stone, dripping water down. One droplet? It will do nothing but slide off the unyielding stone. But a thousand more, over a thousand years? That can change the shape of the rock.”

        “I don’t have a thousand years.”

        Ndumisa shrugged. She pushed herself up from the ground to stand, and it was then that Selah forced the words from her mouth. She said it with her eyes locked on those of the woman – herself – in the water. “I’m pretty.”

        Ndumisa stilled above her. After a moment of silence, she offered Selah a hand to help her up. “Let’s get some rest.”

        Another moon had passed before Selah could wolf down a whole rabbit haunch and keep from heaving it up. Ndumisa seemed especially pleased today because of that small feat. The pride that flickered in the other huntress’ eyes while she watched Selah eat was odd, so different from the wingfaced women’s scrutinizing stares, but it wasn’t unwelcome.

        “I’ll bring something to show you later by the pool. I think you might like it, you being the angry little thing that you are.” It had become easier and easier for Selah to discern when Ndumisa felt like joking. Ndumisa was attempting it now, if the lilt to her voice was anything to go by.

        Sure enough, when they visited the black pool that night, Ndumisa told Selah that she had something for her. “Keep your eyes closed. You know I can tell when you’re peeking through your fingers. You’ve waited all day; what’s a few more moments?” Ndumisa asked.

        There was a soft rustle like the movement of hide against hide, then a series of clacks as many hard objects knocked together. If she were playing with Taavi, Selah might have peeked despite being told not to simply to stir up mischief, but she had an inkling that Ndumisa had put some effort into whatever she brought. She would not make light of it.

        When she felt a nudge at her side prompting her to look, Selah opened her eyes to the sight of a large, flat pebble in Ndumisa’s palm. Behind the other huntress, she spied a buckskin sack brimming with more gray stones, all similar in size and shape.

        “Rocks,” she said dumbly. “You brought me rocks?” Selah couldn’t stifle her giggle. It bounced off the cave walls, and she realized she had never laughed like this before the pool. Suddenly, the darkness around her seemed not so dark, the silhouettes of the stone fingers above not quite so sharp. It filled her with a giddy sense of defiance that only made her want to laugh more.

        “Go on, laugh all you want. I lugged these up from the riverbed myself because I thought you’d like to see something from the outside after staying in these caves so long, but…” Ndumisa trailed off, making as if to snatch the bag of pebbles back. “If you don’t want them –“

        “No, no,” Selah assured her. She fought down her grin and picked up one of the thin stones. “It’s kind of you to think of me. These are nicer than the jagged ones I used to bring home from the forest.”

        Ndumisa scoffed. “Oh, I didn’t just bring you stones for the sake of them being pretty. Do you know me at all? I thought you’d want to have a bit of revenge on your wingfaced women.”

        “Revenge?” Selah went still. After all this time, a small part of her still blanched at the idea of turning on the wingfaces. Yet she didn’t owe them any loyalty, not after they had picked her body apart, not after they had taught her to starve herself. “How?”

        Ndumisa grinned, allowing her teeth to shine white in the darkness. “Let me show you.” She motioned Selah closer to the pool until both their faces appeared on its surface. With a sharp cry and a quick flick of her wrist, Ndumisa threw her stone in such a way that it seemed to dance atop the water, skipping several steps before it finally sank. Ripples appeared in its wake, temporarily shattering their images. “Now you try.”

        “Where is the revenge in this?” Selah had to ask.

        “The best revenge is always to show that you no longer care, isn’t it?”

        It was all Selah needed to hear. She raised to her own pebble to the air – only to be stopped by Ndumisa.

        “Wait. Say it first.” Ndumisa’s hand remained curled around Selah’s wrist. They had formed their own ritual of sorts over the times they had come to the pool together, and Selah knew exactly what Ndumisa wanted her to say. She had recited the words enough times, whenever the other huntress asked her to, in fact. Yet this time, she felt there would finally be a measure of honesty in her voice when she spoke.

        “I’m pretty,” Selah said. That was the truth she had struggled to believe in the past moons. She heard the echo of Gold’s voice in her ears: Our pools should always tell you the truth. Truth. She gritted her teeth. Ndumisa was the one who told her the truth. A noise ripped out from deep in her chest, halfway between a sob and a scream, and Selah looked into the familiar eyes of her own reflection before hurling her pebble so hard into the pool that the spray of water touched her face. The movement of her rock had none of the grace of Ndumisa’s, but it served its purpose well. The imitation of her figure in the water split into thousands of little waves.

        A strange anger seized Selah as she watched the water begin to calm once more, as if repairing itself. She snatched another stone from the bag beside her and threw that one too, hoping that the wingfaces could see her through their matching black pool. “I’m pretty,” she repeated. Then she took another stone. Then another. They hit the surface in quick succession and with such force that the water itself seemed to cry out, to Selah’s grim satisfaction. “I’m pretty,” she finally bellowed, with aggression and confidence alike behind her words. I’m pretty, I’m pretty, the cave walls returned.

        When the buckskin sack was empty and Selah thought she had no more stones to throw, Ndumisa pressed one more into her palm. The other huntress’ face didn’t betray any change in expression, but Selah could feel something different about this pebble without even needing to look. Where the other stones had been small and worn smooth by the rushing river waters, this one was thick and longer than the length of her hand. As she ran her fingers over the stone, a prick of pain startled Selah into finally glancing down. A cruel tip had been sharpened from the end of the slab of rock. Ndumisa’s work, no doubt.

        “What –“ she began.

        Ndumisa would not let her finish. “When you’re ready,” she said, “I will come back to the serpent’s mouth with you to patch this great crevice up, but I won’t come to this pool again. It is not a thing that the spirits of our ancestors have made. It’s not as if you need my company to brave this place anymore.” She gave Selah a faint smile.

        “And what of this?” Selah asks, holding up the crude dagger.

        Ndumisa refused to look at the sharpened stone and met Selah’s eyes instead. “Use it to leave this place behind you. Surely you know what to make of it. You have been on enough hunts.”

        Selah caught Ndumisa in a most peculiar embrace, with one arm around the huntress’ neck and the other clutching a bolt of stone.

        The next day, Selah woke up feeling stronger than she had in a long time. Her energy had still not completely returned, but the cold had receded from her limbs and it no longer fatigued her just to walk about the caves.

        After she had her morning meal with Ndumisa, she approached Ragdus and asked to join the hunt. Selah knew her brother would be among the same party, and perhaps she could finally speak to him alone. But when she was finally in the forest, walking as close to Taavi as he would allow, all the words she had wanted to say vanished from her head. There had never been many apologies between them. Nothing of the sort was needed to bring them back together after a squabble over who had won a race or who Mother favored more. She didn’t know how to start now. “Want to play a game?”

        Taavi kept his pace. Selah followed beside him until her hope that they could forget all that had happened slowly drained away. At the back of her mind, Taavi’s voice kept repeating, It is different. This was different from all the other fights. Selah shoved the thought away, biting hard on her lip to keep the wetness in her eyes at bay. It was only then that Taavi spoke to her, for the first time in several moons.

        “I’m tired of games.”

        Selah whirled around in surprise. His tone was bitter, but she jumped at the chance to keep him talking, if only to hear his voice. “What do you want to do, then? Whatever you want, I’ll –“

        It was still unexpected when Taavi cut through her words to answer. “I want you to tell me the truth. I want you to admit that Alka’s stories were right. I want you to stop going back to those wingfaced creatures because they’re hurting you, can’t you see?” His voice suddenly quieted and the tension left from his shoulders. How could Selah have missed it before? Her brother’s voice sounded gruffer now, carrying heavier burdens in it than she had ever heard before. He was more of a hunter than a child. “I want to help. I just don’t know how.”

        The helplessness that bled into his words filled her with strange gratitude that he was still, in some ways, the young boy who had always looked to her for guidance. Taavi’s look was different now, however. His skin was sun-browned from many hunts outside and even the way that he held himself – chin up, back straight – had become foreign, despite Selah seeing him every evening when they went to bed. She was comforted by the mess of his hair, which had stayed the same. She wished he would look at her.

        She squared her own shoulders. “If I ever return to the pool again, I give you my word, it will be to end those wingfaces myself.”

        Taavi finally faced her. “It’s hard for me to believe you.”

        It stung. He was within his rights to say so, but it stung. “I feel better now,” is all she offered. Taavi stiffened and something began to close off in his eyes. Those were the exact words of the lie she had told in the tunnel, the last time they had spoken. It was no longer a lie, but Taavi could not have known. She hurried to amend her mistake. “I’m eating,” she said.

        A wary kind of hope crossed Taavi’s gaze. “Eat with me after the hunt, then. Sit by the fire pit like we used to, instead of the ledge by the waterfall.”

        “Of course,” she said, relieved. When she thought of Ndumisa, she added, “I’ll bring someone else to sit with us too, if that’s alright with you. A friend.”

        Taavi’s eyes crinkled under his wooden mask as if with a smile. “You can bring whoever you like. I don’t care, as long as they don’t say nonsense about how you should look.” After a pause, he went on. “I’ll go with you to knock down those wingfaces. Just say the word. I’ve spent moons hunting now, so don’t you say that it’s any more unsafe for me to go than for you.”

        Selah caught her brother’s hand as it swung to the rhythm of his walk. Squeezing it hard between her fingers, she said, “I know you’d go with me. But there are some things I need to fight that you can’t see, in places that I have to go alone.”

        Taavi only shook his head. “You always want to do things alone.” When he saw Selah opening her mouth to interrupt, he pressed on, “But I understand this time.”

        They walked in silence through the woods, not looking for game or bothering to keep up with the other hunters. Suddenly, Taavi disappeared from Selah’s side. When she turned to see where her brother had gone, she spotted his form, crouched on the ground. Despite the wooden mask in the way, she could tell that Taavi was in a mischievous mood. He put his hands to the sides of his head like rabbit’s ears and wiggled his fingers at her.

        “Who’s the better hunter now? Bet you can’t catch me!” he called, before dashing away through shrubbery and tall grass.

        With a growl that surely scared away all the fowl from the trail, Selah ran in his direction, suppressing giggles all the while. It had been a while since she had run like this, feeling free rather than fatigued. She halted her chase for a moment to glance at the canopy above and the sunlight that slipped between the leaves. With a start, she realized how clear her mind was without thoughts of counting the bites of meat and berries she ate, without the clutter of voices whispering about her body. She reveled in the peace and continued running.

        She did not wait for night to fall before she went to the looking pool. It was no longer a secret she wanted to protect, no longer a refuge. The sun was beaming brightly through the curtain of water that fell over the mouth of the cave when Selah told Taavi she would meet him by the fire pit to eat once she returned. “I’m going to collect moss,” she joked, even as she hid a dagger in the folds of the pelts she wore.

        Today was the last day she would look upon black water. She had vowed it to herself as she stood in Mother’s den that morning, taking in the bustle of her tribe that she been too pensive to notice for many moons. When she found herself in front of the pool once more, surrounded by cold rock and looking into even colder water, Selah felt as if the otherworldliness to the chamber had died. Or perhaps it was not the things around her that had changed, but a part of her that had died, the self-hating part that the wingfaced women tugged at and whispered to and fed on. The walls here did not bring fear; instead, they summoned memories of Ndumisa’s rare laughter and Selah’s own mutters of I’m pretty at the water that had made her believe she was anything but. With these thoughts ringing in her head and the sharpened stone in her hand, she slipped into the pool.

        There were no winds in the meadow today. The trees stood silent without a single rustle of leaves. Everything held a hue of gray: the huge flowers that lay rotting with their stems twisted up from the ground, the sliver of sky beyond the trees, even the pools that ordinarily glinted as bright as crystals. Selah’s eyes went first to the altar of stone in the clearing. It was empty of any dishes, and none of the wingfaced women were sat around it. Nearly everything hinted at an abandoned world, but Selah was not fooled.

        Across the meadow there was a small boy that she had never seen before on any of her previous visits, a child even younger than Taavi. His appearance took Selah by surprise – she had not expected to see anything so human-looking here. In his hands he held a long rod, at the end of which many strings were attached. Selah followed them with her eyes until she found where they led. In the moment between seeing and fully understanding what she saw, Selah’s stomach twisted. The strings were attached to the faces of the wingfaced women, who were crouched like wolves in the tall grass beside the boy on their hands and knees. When the boy jerked once on his rod, their faces lifted so easily it was not even like removing a mask, much less like removing skin. They were more like the leaves that turned red, orange, and gold after summer and turned so brittle even a whisper of wind could carry them off their trees.

        Without their vibrant faces, the wingfaced women were not nearly so beautiful. Their heads appeared white and smooth and round as birds’ eggs, and the only things marring the surface were their bulging black eyes. Thousands of tiny facets glinted in each eye like looking pools embedded in their sight. Their skin was even more pale now than she had last seen. In sickly contrast, the wings that sprouted from slits in their hunched backs dripped with dark ink as they dragged on the soil behind the women. Selah felt almost betrayed, looking upon the creatures she had idolized in this grotesque form, but a voice in her head whispered – her own voice – that maybe they had never been truly beautiful to begin with.

        Selah’s hand gripped hard around the sharpened stone that Ndumisa had given her. Too hard, she gripped, because the edge of the dagger dug into her palm and drew blood that slid warmth down her hand.

        Even with no nose nor nostrils in the blank slate of her face, one of the wingfaces turned their head from side to side as if tasting the air for blood. With inhuman quickness, the creature stilled and trained its huge black eyes on her palm. One by one, as if a frost were spreading over them and holding their limbs captive, the rest also froze with their faces turned towards the drip of her blood. Selah still did not unclench her hand, unwilling for them to see what was enclosed within it.

        Selah stepped closer. The one that had turned to her first was the wingface that had once been Gold. She could not say how she knew, but the knowledge came from the same place in her gut that told her this was the last time she would come to this meadow. She put her hand on the creature’s chest almost soothingly and then squeezed her own eyes shut before pressing the dagger over where the heart was. She was on a hunt, she reminded herself, and this was her kill. Selah pushed in and twisted her wrist.

Selah was afraid to open her eyes, afraid to see the damage she had done and look up into those empty black eyes once more. But all she saw when she peeked out was a fog made of butterflies, gold and blue and red. Selah stayed rooted to the spot in the dirt that she’d planted her bare feet in when she first revealed her weapon. As the crowd of insects parted around her, they seemed to buzz in a thousand voices while their soft wings brushed her skin in farewell.

        The little boy was still clutching the strings on which the butterfly faces were attached. Surprisingly, the strings were no longer slack but quivering, as if there were movement on the other ends, and when Selah looked to the ground, the skins were no longer resting on the soil. The boy met her eyes with a disconcerting blue gaze, but she had no fear left to give him. The butterflies and the faces seemed to be travelling in the same direction, deep into the surrounding woods. In the past, she might have felt the itch to follow where they went. She turned away now.

        She did not even spare the darkened meadow a last glance before she leapt back into black depths.

        After Selah hauled herself out from the water, she stood by the edge of the pool. She was soaking wet, and the cool air around her only made the chill worse, yet she did not shiver. She stared at the image that had held her captive for so long. Narrow eyes, sharp nose, thin lips. She shut her eyes to listen as the drips of water falling to the ground counted out the beats of silence. She finally felt clean.

 

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