In a certain village in a certain area, there was a legend: once upon a time, the village had a tradition of choosing two children from every generation, the last two born in a given year, a boy and a girl, who were designated as cursed children. Those born in the winter only had the weakest chances of survival; those who would come late after the harvest were clearly not even human — they must be demons, sent to bedevil and trouble the village by draining resources and leaving their mothers weakened and unable to work. These cursed children were forced to bear the burdens of the village’s evil karma, and with their bodies repay the price of the human lives they had stolen as demons, before their unfortunate rebirth.
This is a story that grandfathers tell and grandmothers whisper; this is a story that remains even today.
“Hide and don’t say a word.”
He looked up and had to squint against the brightness of the setting sun. Even when he closed his eyes, everything was red as blood. He made a questioning noise, trying to reach out. Small hands caught his and squeezed them so hard that his fingers ached for a moment.
“It’s all right. I won’t let them find you.”
Those hands slipped away from his, and he opened his eyes. He could see the other child’s disappearing back as she ran, small and pale among the dark trunks of the trees. He tried to get to his feet, but his knees failed him, buckling and sending him back to the ground. He braced both of his hands in the soft earth and took huge grasping handfuls of it, digging his fingers through grass and tangled roots. He wanted to call out after her, but all that came out was a labored echoing groan.
I didn’t want this, he thinks, and he drags himself forward hand over hand. I didn’t want this! Where are you going, why are you going? What are you doing? What’s happened?
Somewhere in the forest was a loud cracking noise. A flock of birds took to flight, chattering their fear. He tilted his head up to watch them, even when the sunlight burned his eyes. His mouth opened but he still could only bleat weakly before his arms gave out as well and he crumpled completely. His face pressed into the grass, which smelled hot and green and tickled his cheeks. His stomach churned, but he couldn’t summon the strength to do anything but cough a few times, the sound muffled by the earth.
I don’t want to be here, he thinks; I don’t want to be left behind. I wish I were still inside.
He closed his eyes and breathed in deep. With an enormous shove, he pushed himself up again, then staggered his way to his feet, swaying. His entire body ached, but he couldn’t make himself stop. Step after step, his arms outstretched in an attempt to keep his balance, he made his way into the forest, following her path. Every now and then he stumbled, catching himself on a tree, but he always always continued walking. Something was beating in his throat so hard and fast that it was hard to breathe around it.
Eventually he found her. She was lying in a bush with her arms outstretched. Her eyes were closed and her white dress was red on the shoulder. He stumbled to kneel beside her and took one of her hand in both of his.
Her eyes opened. She smiled.
“You’re very bad at this,” she said. “Hide and seek.”
He pressed her hand to his cheek. She laughed a little; the sound was pained.
“I wanted to play more. I thought maybe I was fast enough … I think I was wrong.”
He squeezed her hand hard and felt her fingers tighten for a moment in answer. They were weaker than before.
“I’m sorry. Maybe we should have stayed inside. But …” She looked up then, towards the sky, where the red sunset was fading into the deep violet blue of evening. There was a single bright light that wasn’t the sun or the moon, but he didn’t know what it was. It made her smile wider, though, her eyes half-closed. “But I’m glad. I had fun today.”
He made a low noise that wasn’t a name or even a word. She turned her head towards his and smiled.
“Let’s stay out here forever,” she said. “I would like that. Far away from everyone and everything … where no one could find us. It’d just be you and me and we’d be happy. I know we would.”
I know too, he wanted to say. I would be happy if you were there. But you’re already leaving me.
“That cell was always so cold,” she said. Her tone was soft, vague, barely more than a breath now. “I’m cold now. I wonder if I’ll wake up there again.” She blinked, and finally tears slipped from her eyes, sliding down her cheeks. “I don’t want that. I want to stay out here.”
He pressed her cool knuckles to his mouth clumsily. She blinked again, her eyes going wider for a moment. “–Oh. But you’re here too …”
I’m here, he thought, and pressed his mouth harder to her fingers.
“Then that’s fine. I’m glad. Thank you.”
She closed her eyes. He waited until her chest stopped moving, then closed his as well.