Imogen had given birth. She’d had a daughter. She had pushed for hours, from the time the sun rose until it crept back down and disappeared beyond the horizon, like an animal burrowing into the earth. Just after midnight, her daughter was born — slick with blood, screaming, and perfect.
Her daughter lived for six days, her voice a constant wail, full of rage at being thrust into the world. And then, on the seventh day, she fell silent.
Imogen told no one her daughter had died. She lay in her bed and held the tiny body until it went cold.
The window was open. A robin flew in and landed on the headboard. Another alighted on the windowsill. A third flitted into the bare branches of the tree outside.
The robin that had landed on the headboard flitted down onto the bed beside Imogen and cocked its head curiously at Imogen’s tears. It hopped toward her, head moving back and forth, studying her, first with one eye, then the other. It came closer, unafraid. Unconsciously Imogen held out her hand. The robin darted forward, landing in her palm, no heavier than a leaf, and then, unexpectedly, pecked her palm and drew blood. Imogen flinched away, but it remained in her palm. It studied her with one eye. The blood welled in Imogen’s palm and suddenly, she knew what to do. She understood what the robin was offering her.
She’d heard the stories when she was little, and again when she’d been pregnant. Midwives whispered them to each other — stories about babies taken too soon and how the creatures of the forest sometimes saw fit to bring their souls back.
Imogen smeared her bloody palm on her daughter’s forehead and whispered words that crept through her mind like shadows. Her world glowed golden like the dawn when her daughter opened her eyes.
But after that, her daughter was different. She no longer cried. Gone was the rage she’d been born with and in its place was something quiet and sinister. The midwife told Imogen to be thankful that her daughter had settled, that Imogen would be able to get more sleep now and recover from the birth.
Imogen was ashamed of what she’d done, and kept it secret. She’d known better than to trust the robins. There were some forest creatures that could be trusted — rabbits and crows and frogs. But animals red like blood were never to be listened to. Her own mother had told her that.
Imogen wandered the edges of the forest, spending less and less time with the child that was no longer her daughter. This girl who never laughed or cried, but merely watched everything with wide, dark eyes.
After a time, Imogen began to turn away from the people around her. She didn’t like the way they looked at her. The way they grew quiet when she entered the room. She stopped bathing so that she wouldn’t have to see her body. The still loose skin of her stomach was a terrible reminder of what she’d lost every time she undressed. She refused to hold the baby and the nurse watched her warily. The woman would rise and stand in front of the baby, as though she were just checking her blankets, but Imogen knew better. The nurse was afraid of what Imogen might do.
But Imogen couldn’t have touched the child even if she wanted to, not with her skin so pale and her hands like tiny paws, with nails sharp as glass. Sharp as little claws.
Spring turned to summer, summer to winter. The child learned how to roll over and how to crawl. Her hair grew in, colorless as snow. She began to babble. She never cried. Everywhere the girl went the robins followed. They flitted from tree to tree so that they could always see her through the windows.
Imogen often dreamt of a small white creature that followed her through the dark corridors of the house, its teeth shining blue in the moonlight, its claws ready to tear her throat so that she couldn’t scream.
One winter morning, while watching the child play before the fire, an ember popped and landed on the girl’s tender skin. She merely stared at it, and Imogen sat, frozen, waiting for a cry that never came. When the nurse returned she gasped at the red welt on the girl’s arm and cast a fearful look at Imogen. Imogen, not wanting to see the look in the woman’s eye, instead turned her face away to watch the snow fall outside. There were robins in the tree outside. They were looking in, watching everything with small, black eyes.
That evening, after the nurse was asleep and her daughter had been tucked into her blankets, Imogen rose from her seat and walked into the forest.
Around her the trees gathered close, their branches pulling gently at her hair and clothes. Around her the world grew wild, but no more hostile than the world she’d left.
The forest had its own beasts — wolves and snakes and bears. But out here there were no beasts so pale they looked like snow.
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