We all had bruises; some outward, many inward. Jilla was more than simply coated with them, she was a product of them. There was nothing of Jilla that I could ever imagine was there before the fighting broke out – she became herself because of what happened. Looking at Jilla was a stinging slap on raw flesh – she was pain, something we had all had an aching gutful of. There it was, in a tatty dress with tangled hair, orbiting the shouting groups that kicked a football or chatted over fences.
So Jilla was swept under the carpet by Granma’s broom, never invited in, but tolerated as a sad presence, the way people live when there’s a ghost in the house. And what was one more ghost? I kept her to myself and consulted her privately; a hidden book. I never expected her to have any answers, but I waited until she began her stories, and then disappeared into them.
* * *
“In the oldest part of the greatest forest there’s a wooden hut. An ancient man lived in it, so far away from life that for years he didn’t see another soul.” Jilla’s voice was pale and tear-stained that day. I noticed and ignored these things. “Snow fell deep, deeper than it ever had before, and his lamp at the window was the only light the ravens in the sky could see, for a thousand miles around.” Fat drops of rain spotted the fence posts a darker brown.
“The old man felt that death had come for him at last, and so he opened his door to welcome it, knowing that nothing else on this night could be knocking on his heart so hard to get in. As he looked out at the forest he saw a girl in a red coat turn from where she had been looking at his hut, and run under black shadows.” I could hear the sound of a rug being shaken outside Jan Creusel’s place.
“The man left his door wide open and followed the girl into the snow, and his feet froze into blocks. He knew that when he stopped, he would never walk again. As he limped into the darkness, the pine needles jabbed his numb feet. The red coat was far away from him now and he saw that he would never reach her. As his eyes closed and he fell to his knees, the ancient man suddenly knew what death is: a girl in a red coat and silent snow settling on a rug as it drifts through an open door.”
* * *