You wouldn’t notice it if you weren’t looking for it. Perhaps you’d see it, but you wouldn’t know you had. You would walk by it as if it weren’t there. But if you did, for some reason, stop, and look a second time, even then, you’d likely think nothing of it. A pile of stones, maybe, beneath the snow. Or a fallen limb. Perhaps you’d think it was a deer. But then you wouldn’t know that deer don’t just fall down like that, out in the open. You’d have to know that when they die they die in the dark, alone, and hidden away. Even if you looked twice and thought even one of these things, you wouldn’t look a third time, and you certainly wouldn’t go over.
If you did go over, you wouldn’t notice the hair, just one, and black, sticking out from beneath the snow. You wouldn’t see it, so you wouldn’t think to brush the snow away. If you did brush the snow away, you wouldn’t see the skin, at first. You wouldn’t notice it, cold and pale as the snow that buried it. You wouldn’t start to see the blood. First on the neck, in spots. Then gathered and dried on the breast. You wouldn’t see the wounds. You wouldn’t count them. You couldn’t count them, there would be so many. You wouldn’t imagine the knife that made them. Or the hand that held the knife. Or the mind that told the hand to put the knife into the heart, carve it out, and remove it from the body. And you wouldn’t imagine where that heart was now. You wouldn’t imagine these things, because you wouldn’t see the blood, or the pale skin, or the black hair sticking out from the snow, because you wouldn’t have gone over in the first place. You wouldn’t have known that deer don’t just fall down like that, or that it wasn’t a limb, or a pile of stones. You wouldn’t have thought anything of it, because you wouldn’t have noticed it at all.
The girl hit the snow.
Get up, the man said.
The girl got up. She wiped the snow from her face.
The girl kept walking. She had been crying. Her face was red from this, and from the cold.
The man walked behind her. He pushed her along if she got too slow. Sometimes she fell. The snow was deep and her legs were small. The man was impatient.
The sun was beginning to go down, but it was still bright off the snow. The man squinted and looked ahead through the trees.
We’ll be there soon, he told her.
She asked him where they were going. She cried as she asked. She looked again at the knife at his side. The man said nothing. She was frightened.
The girl scrambled ahead a few paces. She didn’t want to feel the man so close behind her.
The man sighed. He pulled himself forward on a tree branch. It was getting late. He’d have to turn around soon.
Not much farther now. He wasn’t sure if she’d heard.
He breathed heavily. The girl ran on ahead.
She looked down beneath her at the tracks in the snow. A bird had passed. She couldn’t make out what kind. To her right, a rabbit. She saw their prints and thought of them. Where they were. If they had enough food. If they cared, could care at all, for her as she did for them. She whistled like a bird she knew. Nothing came.
She heard the man’s voice. He was farther behind her than she’d thought. She thought she might keep going, but she stopped and looked for him.
She found him leaning on a tree, his hand reached out toward her. Stop, he said. She stood still. Stop for a minute.
He walked toward her.
Tell me where we’re going, said the girl.
Would you just hang on, he said. Just hang on a minute.
She watched him while he gathered his breath. He looked tired.
The man brushed the snow off of a fallen tree and sat. He breathed and looked up toward the sun. Clouds had begun to form. Night would come early.
Tell me where we’re going, she said.
The man smiled to himself. He did not look at the girl.
Tell me, she said.
The man shook his head. He took the knife from his side and turned it in his hands. He breathed deeply.
Your mother doesn’t want you, he told her.
I know, she said. Light flicked off the knife as it turned, but she didn’t look at it. She watched the man. Tell me where we’re going.
The man looked up at her. She was young, he knew. She was pretty, like they said. She reminded him of his son. She had his fair complexion and his night-black hair. She looked a bit older than him, he thought.
The man took a breath and pointed through the trees. Through the trees, he said. On the other side of the mountain. There’s a house there.
Some men live there. Nice men. Good men. They will take care of you. They keep a warm house. There’s food enough for you, and a bed, as well. You’ll lack nothing.
She watched his eyes as he spoke. They searched off behind her, as if he were trying to find this place behind the trees.
You’ll tend the house for them, he said. While they’re at work beneath the mountain, you’ll do the washing and the cooking. They will keep you safe.
The girl began to cry.
One day, he said, a young man will come along. A king’s son. He will see you and, at the sight of you, fall in love. You will wake to this love as if from sleep. You will feel this love grow inside you until you would have nothing else in the world. Then, the king’s son will ask you to marry him and you will be wed. You will leave the warm house and the good men to be with king’s son in the king’s castle. And when you are older, the king will pass. The king’s son will become the king and you will become the queen. You will have children. Princes, they will be, and princesses. They will each look just like you do now. There, with your family, in love and happiness, you will grow old. And when you pass, and the king passes, your children will reign. And theirs after them. There will be songs and stories written about you. About how fair you were, and kind. In this way, you will live though you be dead.
The girl nodded and looked down. When she wiped the tears from her face, she could see, just in front of her feet, a path of deer prints that led off into the trees. She followed them with her eyes. In the distance, she saw the deer. It had stopped and turned and was looking back at her. It didn’t scare. It held her eyes for a moment and turned away and made prints up the mountain.
As the clouds overtook the sun, the man stood and made himself tall.
The queen wants your heart, he said.
The girl would not look at him. Her eyes were fixed on something in the trees.
The man turned and saw the deer. He gripped the knife tighter. The deer was young. No bigger than the girl. But it was far and would outrun him.
My family, he said. He searched for something more to say.
The girl did not move. She looked, for a moment, as if her life were leaving her as she stood.
She did not steel herself to the feeling. She did not take a heavy breath, or cry. She did not look afraid. She awaited each moment as it came, took it calmly with the wind, and let it go as it passed, each in succession, as if she stood dead center in the path of a parade. The man had never seen something like that.
Away with you then, he said, and dropped his knife to the ground. The snow caught the blade and held it upright like a hilt. Let the wolves or the weather have you. I cannot do it myself.
The girl did not speak.
The man pushed past her and started back down the mountain. The girl watched him for a moment as he walked. She saw for the first time the black of his hair, the broadness of his shoulders. He had a lumbering gait. He looked pale and tired from the climb. His feet, she noticed, were large, and dragged long holes through the snow. If she were to step, carefully, into each one, all the way down, no one would ever know she had returned.
As the snow began to fall, the girl picked up the knife.