Lorelei

The dust had settled around Lorelei’s form and she burrowed her toes into the soft, brown powder. She had been sprawled out on her stomach, a stick, the end stripped of bark, clutched in her hands. Lorelei stabbed at the earth and moved the stick, creating forms in the dust. Each time the shape was the same: a vertical line with a circle attached to the right side. This figure was intuitively in her mind, burned there by some unseen iron.

The padding of footsteps bringing up clouds of dust made her throw her stick as far as she could.

“What are you doing?” She turned. It was one of the local boys, Clae. Clumps of filthy blond hair had covered his forehead. He was a stupid-looking boy who often asked irritating, prying questions. He stood only 4 feet tall, but spoke with the authority of someone older.

“Nothing,” she replied, crawling away to cover the marks she had made.

“What are those?” he asked, pointing to the shapes she was sitting on. His pink cheeks had streaks of dirt running down them like tears.

She bit her lip.

“Let me see,” he demanded.

“No! Stop it!” Lorelei shrieked, but he pushed her down. She lay sprawled on her side, half her face devoured by dirt. In her muddled, lopsided vision, she saw Clae studying the shape intently. She pounded the ground in fury. Stupid Clae had no right to peer nosily at her things. Why wouldn’t he just go back to the village?

Just as she pulled herself up to her knees, she saw Clae grab the stick. He raised his head sharply when she got up, as if hearing her knees hit the ground.

“What is this?” he asked, pointing the stick, now clutched in his grubby hands, at her symbol.

“Nothing.”

“What is it? A drawing of a ‘p’?” he asked.

“No,” she said. “It looks like this!” She drew it in the air with her index finger, pointedly nudging the circle against the center of the line. Her hand whipped in front of her so fast it was almost like she was tearing the air before her.

“That looks like a ‘p’,” he insisted.

“No.” She sighed with exasperation. She was sick of his stupidity. “Like this!” She grabbed his forearm and drew the mark.

Blistering white lines emerged where her finger had been. She pulled away, frightened, but her finger felt fine. Clae, however, had fallen, his face against the earth. She felt a burning haze surround her face. Lorelei took a few leaden paces towards his still body. Gingerly, she turned him over, her lip quivering. His eyes were glazed and specks of dirt were held captive between his eyelashes. She shook him vigorously, but his body felt rigid to her touch.

How did this happen? Was he really…? She couldn’t bear to finish the sentence. Not even in her own head. No, this couldn’t be possible. Then she remembered how she had burned the shape onto his arm. That mysterious shape. That P. Her hands shook as she lifted his arm. The line was now faded and pink, like a scar. It was real. It didn’t feel or seem real, but she held the proof in her own hands. A shiver ran down her spine and she rooted herself next to Clae’s body, unable to comprehend leaving for some reason.

Will anyone ever find him? she wondered. Will his parents, later tonight, call into the street for him to stop playing and come inside? Will they find out that he wasn’t playing, but instead…She wished she couldn’t think about it anymore, that she could banish the entire event from her memory, but, like the horrible shape, it had burned itself into her mind.

It was still there eleven years later. She sat alone deep in the woods, knees clutched to her chest, the world drowned in the rich navy of dusk. She clasped her hands together. They were long and bony and pale with chipped nails extended like claws. They belonged to a killer. A killer who couldn’t control herself…just like a monster. She couldn’t feel pity or sympathy when her mad fever took hold of her, but after it was through, all the energy drained from her, leaving her feeling exhausted. Defeated. Disgusted.

An easy solution would have been to forget all about her powers and live her life without ever using them now that she had figured out what they did. But Lorelei couldn’t forget about them; she felt a burning need to use them, a tingling at her fingertip that she simply could not ignore.

At first she thought that she could hunt on sly at night and drag the meat back to the village. Only catching the animals and pinning them down long enough to trace the mark onto their fur proved to be more challenging than she had originally thought. Plus, the mysterious shape burned into their hide would provoke questions. Instead, she banished herself to the dark heart of the forest, left to kill in solitude.

A soft skittering in the dead leaves of the forest made the tiny hairs on the back of Lorelei’s neck stand up. She turned her head to find the tiny form of a rabbit, the moon extending its shadow far beyond the the boundaries of the trees. Instantly, she felt her blood pump faster, her hand ready and waiting for the killing move. Before her mind could even process what she about to do, she had pounced, the animal writhing in her hands. She pressed her finger to the base of its neck and traced the symbol. Its warm body went limp.

Lorelei exhaled as her murderous fever subsided. She hated herself when her horrible instincts took over, but they couldn’t be contained. The caught the scent of death wafting from her hand and she tightened her grasp around the rabbit’s velvety fur.

The mark taunted her from where it had branded the skin. She inhaled shakily, strangely more upset about this death than the others, and retraced the marking. It glowed just as it did when she killed. Suddenly, her hands jumped, and opening the bonds that were her fingers, she released the once dead rabbit. It leaped from her clutches and scrambled through the brush, its white tail bobbing behind it.

Lorelei could only stare at the empty space that the rabbit had just fled from. She moved her fingers slowly, not daring to look at them. Could the cold hands that only caused death also restore life?

Her amazement was quickly doused by the heavy sound of footsteps. The soft thuds sent her scrambling up the large tree that doubled as her bed. Her sleeping branch had heavy furs thrown across it and her trusty skinning knife.

The stranger came closer and Lorelei perched on the edge of the branch to stare down at him. This was the first time she’d seen a human in years. From his lips came whistling even sweeter than the birds she heard every morning. To her dismay, he held the rabbit she had saved earlier in his right hand and a bow in the other.

The man looked up and Lorelei dipped farther back into the shade of the leaves.

“Hello?” he called. “Is anyone up there?”

She bit her lip, not daring to move. The wind picked up and flapped wet leaves against her face. Her fingers slipped on the rain-slick bark and, in desperation, she grabbed the trunk with a thud.

His eyes widened. “Show yourself,” he demanded.

Lorelei sighed. She didn’t really see a reason to. The entire purpose of living in the forest was seclusion. No one was supposed to know she even existed anymore. Although he stood his ground, the fear was evident on his sweat-studded brow and rigid back. He didn’t look like much of a threat.

She breathed in, tucked her knife into the folds of her clothes and shimmied down the tree.

She landed and moved her center of gravity low. The man’s rigid posture flickered in fright and he stepped back. Perhaps her stance or wild, matted black hair was threatening to him.

He narrowed his eyes. “Who are you?”

Keep quiet and things will be fine, she thought.

He approached tentatively. “Do you live here?” She felt prickles of heat on her face as he scrutinized her with molten brown eyes. The wind ruffled his neat hair.

Keep quiet, she reminded herself. The knife’s cool touch against her leg reassured her.

He kept approaching. “You don’t need to be afraid.”

Afraid? She had the power of life and death at her fingertips. If anything, he should be afraid of her. “Why would I be afraid?” she returned, breaking the silence.

He stumbled at the sound of voice. “I…don’t know. Maybe you thought I was…the thing.”

The wind brushed against her face and her chapped lips stung. She had trouble forcing her words out. “The thing?”

The confusion was apparent on his face. Lorelei wished she could wipe that stupid look off. So what if she didn’t know about this “thing?”

“You don’t know what it is?” He paused to read her expression and continued. “There’s a creature who lives in this very forest and terrorizes all the people in the village nearby. Surely you’ve heard of it. It kills for the sake of killing. My hunting party found lots of perfectly good game…but they had been dead for some time. The work of the notorious monster, no doubt.

“The bizarre part is…how did they die?” he asked himself, finger poised on his chin. “The bodies were fully intact, no signs of internal damage. All we saw was a P–or something–burned into their furry little coats…”

And then all Lorelei could hear was buzzing as blood rushed up to her face. She was this thing–no longer a person, no longer a being at all. The village had ripped her from existence and replaced her with a complete monster.

“Come,” he said with his arm outstretched, lifting her out of her shock. “Let me save you from this vile beast.”

“No!” she yelled, without thinking. “I mean…you can’t!”

Unsurprisingly, he looked confused again. “Surely you can the leave the forest? Come, we have warm beds, fresh food and clean water. You needn’t be afraid any longer.” His voice had taken on a haughty, chivalrous tone. “I insist.”

She wanted to say that she wasn’t afraid and that she really shouldn’t leave the forest, but everything the man just said was so enticing…so human. Food that hadn’t been burned and blackened by her clumsy hands. A big, soft bed stuffed with goose down. Her mouth opened and she gave a him a slight nod.

“Oh, wonderful,” he gushed and took her hand. Lorelei was surprised by its softness. She hadn’t seen or felt another person in years. The feeling was both overwhelmingly familiar and foreign at the same time and sent trickles of cold down her spine.

He led her into a clearing with a single brown horse. He helped her on first, then got after and sent it shooting towards the village.

She didn’t know whether to welcome or fear everything that was happening. The sensation of flying through the trees. The touch of the man’s hand around her waist steadying her. The surge of life that she could feel running through the horse, which stayed very much alive even after she touched it.

After some time, they broke out of the woods and into the bizarre openness of a sunlit trail. It was just so oddly…stark. Fortunately, the bustling town they entered next was not empty like the trail, but full and lively instead.

A wave of memories from her childhood surged into her mind. The worn cobblestone streets that stank of manure, but were wonderful all the same. The warm smell that emanated from the kitchen as her mother drizzled golden honey onto fresh, steaming cornmeal cakes. Buying bouquets of wildflowers from the old women at the market place. Tying knots in the stems and weaving them into simple crowns, speckled with green, yellow, purple and red. This was her town. No, she reminded herself. You can’t go back here as Lorelei. There’s too much pain. You’re someone else now.

“What do you think?” came the man’s voice from behind her, and her back stiffened. For a moment, she thought she was alone.

“It’s…fantastic,” she answered honestly.

“You’re not from here originally, then, are you?”

“I’m…from the south.”

They left the rustic outskirts that she was familiar with behind and forged on to the central town. The man had them halt in front of a house that was larger and more luxurious than one she had ever encountered before. She could count four whole rows of windows on the massive brick building.

“Here we are,” the man told her, as he reached out to take her hand.

She dismounted and, still in awe, tripped on her way to meet the ground. A crowd of people came out and began to fuss over the man.

His held his arms over his head in triumph as he proclaimed, “You sent me out, and I did as I was told.”

A regal man with cold purple eyes and a hooked, aquiline nose, flanked by a few stiffly-dressed guards, hadn’t joined the welcoming party, and merely stood with his arms crossed near the front door’s entrance. “So, you’ve killed the beast then?”

The young man didn’t make eye contact, but responded anyway. “Well…not exactly, Father…but I rescued this fair maid, who was held hostage in the forest by it.” Despite it being an utter lie on his part, Lorelei nodded. Perhaps it was not truly. Here, she could shed that title. The beast of the forest would never harm a soul again. The man looked pathetic under the cold eyes of his father.

“Bah! Anyone can take a young girl out of the forest on horseback, Frederick. It’s not as if she would refuse,” he spat.

“I–I’m sorry, Father. Next time, I promise I’ll make you proud.” He bowed his head in respect.

“Hmph. You’re the second-eldest brother and you have yet to prove your worth. All of your brothers–your younger brothers–are still hunting for this beast night and day. It seems to my that the courage that runs through my blood, through their blood, does not run through yours.”

The warm party turned cold and awkward as Frederick’s father turned inside the house. Lorelei felt the same way. She was the beast. She had only to tell him and he would gain his father’s respect.

Frederick continued to pat each person who approached him on the shoulder with leaden hands. Even so, once he remembered Lorelei, he forced a smile. “Come. The house is all yours. I’ll have two women sent up to tend to you.”

She hesitated for a moment. If she said a word, it would all be gone. Frederick’s unhappiness. His father’s constant scorn. The hiding she had endured. All the people she met would leave her. All the compassion. All the kindness that awaited her here. She had only to let the truth spill from her lips. This thought turned them to ice.

“Are you alright?”

She nodded stiffly and was shown upstairs.

And everything she imagined in that moment when they arrived was true. She dined in the long hall with Frederick and his family. She took strolls through the small enclosed gardens that brimmed with the smells and sounds of the forest, only smaller and sweeter. She was given rich velvets and furs to wear, and although they didn’t suit her needs, she enjoyed the privilege of having options.

Frederick was usually occupied with frequent training sessions: horseback riding, fencing, archery. Often he would leave to hunt for sport. There was something very queer about it. Something she recognized. Even with all this, they would converse at time over meals or when they saw each other in the halls. Small talk mostly. He liked cloudy days. His favorite color was green. He knees would ache during the winter. Sometimes the talk was bigger. His father would sneer at him at every opportunity. In his family, a man without honor was no man at all. Some days he wanted to die.

On a clear, pleasant morning, as Lorelei ambled through the garden and shook the sleep from her body, she saw Frederick’s silhouette in the stable. She entered, and he was kneeling in a stall, his bay horse lying panting on the floor.

“Is he alright?” she asked quietly. Since she wasn’t involved in those affairs, she hadn’t seen the horse since the day they had met.

“I…I think he’s dying.” She could see the fat tears brim in his eyes. The horse’s, on the other hand, were going blank. Lorelei knew death and this was it. The air felt dry and bitter as the weak soul sucked up all the energy before its last breath. This was the only time she had feel it last for more than a second, though, and it was excruciating.

“I remember the first day I saw him. I was…very impressed,” she told him, piling as much joy onto the good memory as she could.

“That’s not true…”

“Of course. He’s such a sweet horse.” She patted his damp forelock.

“I’m sorry about that day. I–I lied to make myself seem like a hero.”

“You did nothing of the sort. I really was petrified,” she said honestly. She didn’t realize how terrifying it was to live alone with only herself and her murderous deeds until she came here.

“I have to admit…I’d do anything to make myself look good before my father. I’ve done…I’ve done things I’m not proud of.”

“You did?” she asked. Everyone must have their dark secrets. I’m not alone. Not entirely alone… she thought.

He sighed. “Ten years ago, there was this boy. He…he died in the woods. It was the infamous beast who did it…but I should have let the dead lie. Instead, to make myself look like a hero, I proclaimed that we had found a dangerous beast and, despite the fact that the child, who admittedly was only a few years younger than I at the time, meant nothing to me, I promised to avenge his death and find the beast. I couldn’t, and every shred…of dignity was ripped away from me. I…” His last words were swallowed up by his horse’s dying noises and they both turned their attention to it.

Lorelei felt cold all over. Frederick was the reason she had been called a monster, the reason she was being hunted. She deserved it. She was no better than a monster. Frederick deserved more.

She placed her hands over the horse’s corpse and traced the P with her finger. She felt the energy radiating out of her and into the body of the stallion. It began to stir and Frederick’s gaze felt like her skin was being torched.

She looked him dead in the eyes. “Frederick, I’m the beast.”

He shook his head. “You…you can’t be. You…?”

“Do it,” she demanded. “Do it and show your horse as proof. As proof that I can give life and death.”

“I can’t. You’re…” he fumbled.

She pulled her skinning knife the slouchy pocket in her dress and curled his fingers around the blade. “It’s in your hands.”

He looked down at the blade with fear and fire. She smiled as the fire devoured the fear.

Anjali Raghunathan
Age 15, Grade 10
The Dalton School
Gold Key

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