I was going to run away, but then I saw Robbie bathing in the river.
It was a few hours shy of midnight. The village was asleep. I’d snuck out and gone walking, trying to plot how to run away. Where to go.
I took the path down to the river, ducking cobwebs glowing in the full moon, wondering how long it would take me to walk to the city. How much food I’d need. How many pairs of shoes. An owl hooted and took off just over my head. I startled, stumbled and, when I righted myself, I was gazing at Robbie splashing water over his head and shoulders.
His skin shone. It was only the drops of water reflecting the moonlight and the contrast with his dark skin, but I think I forgot to breathe.
For the first time I looked at someone and wanted to touch them. My hand half lifted towards him.
“Jean!” he called, turning towards me and smiling. “Jeannie.”
My hand dropped to my side and the skin across my face tightened and grew hot. I wasn’t dizzy but I still wondered if I might faint. I don’t think I’d ever heard him say my name before.
“Robbie,” I said, stepping closer to the river bank.
“Will you be on the hill tomorrow?”
I nodded though I couldn’t believe he was asking me. He was so—not beautiful or handsome—but there was something. Something that made me want to touch him. I’d heard other girls talking about him.
Robbie was asking me to handfast with him. Me, who he’d never spoken to before. I shivered. I know it sounds like fancy, but I could feel my left and right ventricles squeezing blood out from my heart and into my tissues, my lungs. Robbie’s words made them pump faster. Handfast? Me with him?
Tomorrow was Lammas Day. First day for bread from the new harvest. You take two fresh loaves to church as an offering—one for inside, for Jesus, and one to place outside for the fairy folk—and if you’re young and not married you can handfast. A trial wedding. If it sticks come next Lammas Day you make it proper. If it doesn’t, you don’t.
The girls sit on the hill and wait for the boys to come ask them. I’d just agreed to sit there and wait for Robbie.
They don’t handfast anywhere but the villages around here. The tourists come to watch and take photos of the couples with the handkerchiefs tieing them hand to hand. They think it’s quaint and adorable. They think we are quaint and adorable.
I didn’t think Robbie was quaint or adorable. I thought he was dangerous and wild and not just because my parents didn’t like him, but because there was something in the air around him, something that made me shiver. A shiver that was both warm and cold.
Lammas Day was the day I’d chosen to run. Because my parents had decided it was well past time for me to be ‘fasted. They’d given me the whole day off. Plenty of time to get away.
“I’ll see you there?” Robbie asked.
I watched the way his mouth moved, his lips, his tongue.
“Yes,” I said. “On the hill.”
I’d decided to stay.
On Lammas Day the cattle tails are bound in red and blue ribbons to keep the fairy folk from stealing them. To keep them out of our houses there are crosses above all the doors and windows. Lammas Day is when the green folk like to come calling.
Our bakery was no different, crosses nailed to all the lintels. I lived there with my ma and pa, my two brothers, Angus and Fergus, and their wives, Sheila and Maggie. All of us lived redfaced, sweaty and floured, making and baking from midnight til dawn then over again. Before Lammas Day the work is longer and harder as we baked enough loaves to fill every corner of hell.
It was a horrible life.
The tourists loved it. They loved us, leaving coins and notes in a tin on the front counter. Large chunks of it foreign. It was my job to gather it up, sort it, and take it into the bank to turn into real money. Not to put it in the bank. Oh no.
My parents didn’t believe in banks. Or in foreign countries. Or in anything but our little tourist-trap village, though they called it “traditional” and our ways “fitting”. Our money was kept under my parents’ mattress. That mattress was filled with straw. Like mine. The straw scratched.
The bakery was at the front of our house, and the living quarters in back, and up the rickety stairs the bedrooms. There was no television, no radio, no electricity. The ovens ran on coal and wood. In the dark we used candles and the fire of the ovens to see. In summer we went to bed long before the sun set and in winter not long after. Summer or winter we were always up before it rose.
My parents were obsessed with maintaining the old ways, but I read in a book that in the old days everyone made their own food. They didn’t have bakeries. There weren’t any tourists to feed. You only provided food for your neighbours when they came visiting.
My parents’ version of the past rarely matched what my teachers told me or what I read in books. They believed in the fairy folk, the green men, and that the old ballads were history not story. They believed in a world that stayed the same from day to day, year to year, century to century.
That tourists came to watch them be the same day after day, week after week, didn’t strike them as odd.
“Were there tourists a century ago? Two centuries?” I asked.
My ma told me I was insolent; my pa ignored me. Angus said he’d hit me if I ever said such a thing again and Maggie giggled. We do not get on my brothers and their wives and me.
For as long as I could remember I’ve wanted to run away. I did not love my family. I didn’t even like them. I wanted to live with a real family. One that would have let me stay at school past the age of fifteen. A family that would let me go to university, study to become a doctor. A family that would allow me a real life in the real world. A family that would let me leave.
NOTE: The rest of this story can be found in the anthology Love is Hell along with stories by Scott Westerfeld, Melissa Marr, Laurie Faria Stolarz, and Gabrielle Zevin.