Every morning Ysma woke to their shadowing promises. When tasks brought her to the water - receiving a shipment of raw-cloth or some other errand for Mistress - she knocked barrels and crossed fingers two times two, a charm against those swaying tree trunk masts.
Every night Ysma slipped into hard dreams that belonged to another; full of salt and spume. Ships. Always the ships. She would see the world, trapped behind that stranger’s eyes and feel the full fear of volition lost. Sometimes, Ysma would surface. The shell holding her back would flinch as she banged up against the ice of otherness. For a moment it seemed that she would be able to retake her body. The other girl would nod in her direction and she’d sink once more.
Morning always came, washing away the dregs of the dreams. She’d put them out of mind with the repeated refrain: Dreams don’t make the dyeing any easier. By afternoon, when the weeping lengths of wool hung on the slatted wooden racks, she would imagine that instead of muddy brown or moss, the cloth was the bare white of albatross sails.
She knew what was owed. Mistress never let her forget. Ten years now; fed, clothed and taught the trade. Ten long years since Mistress caught little Ysma rooting through trash heaps in shit-ridden alleys. Mistress preached - often and loudly - how generous that act had been. Ysma would be dead without her. It was right to be thankful.
The dream-girl wasn’t concerned. Not with Mistress Herle or debts or dyeing. There was only one thought, one heartbeat that Ysma’s other craved.
Braten-town’s backwater imagination was set aflame for two full weeks before the criers descended their gangplanks. Shivering and gawking at the snow, no one could confuse them for locals. They came from Goganem and Senth. They came for the penniless and wanderlusting. Yarns spun from foreign tongues: new lands, wild women, riches beyond compare.
Mistress Herle answered their cries with snark and snide.
“Sailors are slick. If anything’s floating out in them waters, dontcha think we’d know it? Let’em sail over the edge for all we care. Bet you a coin they’ll be back in port by spring.”
Ysma knew she couldn’t tell Mistress about the pull. What would she say if she knew about the handful of times Ysma found herself at the quay - blank and blinking - running her hands along the ship’s barnacled boards?
No use staring at the goods if you don’t have coin to buy. Wisdom from Mistress, for there was never any coin.
Dyeing’s a trade to be proud of, Ysma reminded herself before the dreams came each night. It was the other girl who wanted; the ships and away, two hinges on which the other girl’s desire swung.
The morning came when Ysma couldn’t avoid the boats any longer. The white winter sky hung low, balanced on the top of Braten’s bean-pole buildings. Last night’s snows traced silver outlines on eaves that stretched low to the ground. The grey slush of the streets had already invaded her patched boots, leaving her with clammy toes. The clouds parted for a moment and sunbeams bounced from ice to her marigold eyes. Blinking through momentary blindness, she rounded the corner at Scissor and Flask and found herself face to face with the barker.
“Any and all,” the woman, no taller than a child, crowed. A skein of darkness enveloped her. Did it leach from her skin? Wrap around her like a cloak? They stood in a pocket of still, dead cold. The sounds of the city ceased.
Ysma felt a stirring behind her eyes.
“Any and all who yearn for the seas! Each and every with hearts tugged by the tide! Any who are torn, split by wanting, we have the balm to bind you.”
A sick tug stretched from her heart, reaching out toward the barker. Ysma shuffled left, then right, trying to avoid the dark Sentish woman. Predatory eyes made it clear, her quarry was cornered, and she had no intention of letting it escape. A shadowed hand - deeper in hue than all the indigo and sumac in Mistress’s reserves combined - grabbed Ysma’s upper arm.
“I can read you, child. Got an urge for going.” Her words thick with the slushy, drawn out sounds of the South.
“Yes. No. I mean, it’s her, not me. I have work . . .” Ysma fumbled, surprised by her honesty. Her tongue felt fat as a lamprey and flapped against her teeth just the same.
“Oh we know about her,” the woman’s smile thrummed a familiar note across Ysma’s soul, “your other girl.”
The barker took a conspiratorial tone, “No Mistresses where we’re going, my double dearie. There’s more to life than stained hands and cutting cloth.”
Ysma tensed. “What do you know about that?”
“More than I should say, chickadee,” the woman’s eyes bounced to the girl’s blue-stained palm. “You work hard for your Mistress, but there’s more for you. The sea pulls, through the night and into the day. Braten-town won’t be where you’re buried. Not you or your other, nor both together.”
“You don’t know a thing about her,” Ysma protested before she could stop herself. She’d never spoken of the other girl. There was no way this woman could know anything about either of them. Ysma’s dress clung to her spine; a straight line of sweat.
Stop thinking about her like she’s a real person. She’s not. It’s just . . . she’s just a dream. She isn’t real.
“Now that isn't true. She’s real, true as you and me. And I know what she needs.”
Had Ysma spoken aloud?
The woman’s hand became a vise.
“Enough. I’ve found you and it’s settled. A week at the most before anchors-up and the winds rush in. We’re riding the winter blowers all the way to the ends of the world.”
The Senthish woman produced a vellum scroll and unspooled it with a flourish. A stylus appeared from the depths of her sooty robes.
“You know about . . . her . . . but you don’t know my name?” A little laugh bubbled from her throat. “I’m not going anywhere with you.” Ysma could barely believe, despite her trembling voice, that she was resisting this woman. She was sick with fear, but managed to keep her feet planted firm, “I already told you.”
“Wrong. You will. Name?”
The dark pocket that surrounded the pair pulsated for a heartbeat. Ysma struggled to think. She felt herself slipping under the ice; her twin rising up.
“I . . .”
“NAME!” the woman bellowed. Her face twisted, a field of boles split by a wide expanse of rotten teeth where a motherly mouth lived moments before.
The ice spread out and Ysma was trapped.
The other girl answered, “Ysma.”
Ysma tried to shout that she had no second name, that she was just a girl from the streets who owed Mistress her life and then some, but her mouth was not her own.
“Safe bet.” A sharp nod. “Ysma Dyer it is. I’ll be seeing you.”
The midnight woman’s viridian eyes locked with Ysma’s before turning away. The sun broke through the clouds, banishing the halo of darkness around them, and the ice snapped. Ysma floated to the surface of herself once more.
The woman called back, not bothering to look over her shoulder, “Don’t you make me come find you girls. Won’t like what’ll come of that!”
Ysma took off running, errands forgotten.
Ysma had a plan. She needed to bind herself to Mistress, tighter than color to wool. And what did Mistress value more than anything in all of Braten-town? Work.
She would start her journey-work; pride of apprentice and boon to their teacher. A well made work not only brought a pupil to the attention of Braten’s craftsmen, but it lay some shine on the teacher as well. Mistress would love that. It could mean a boost in business for at least a season. Until today, the courage to broach the subject felt hundreds of leagues away.
Mistress would keep her safe, she’d have to, once the work began. The cost would be too high to do otherwise. She was an investment, ten years in the making.
That night, after she’d tidied the plates from the simple supper of beans and bread, she took the first step. Mistress would never say yes to anything outright, but every child knows a code to force a parent’s hand.
“Mistress,” she began.
The dyer pushed her long legs forward, tilting the chair back. Weight and angle threatened the turned maple legs. Blue smoke unspooled from her pipe, wrapping the low ceiling in cumulus wreaths.
“Mmmmhmm?” Eyes closed, lips locked around the pipe.
“I’ll be sixteen soon,” Ysma began.
“Yeah girl, seems to be so.”
“I’m thinking about what’s next for me.” Simple, straightforward, Mistress didn’t care for too much talk.
Mistress relaxed her taut legs. The chair thumped forward, her greasy blonde hair curtaining her face for a moment. She flipped her head back and opened her eyes. Ysma saw the burn building within.
“What’s next,” Herle repeated, slowly. “What would come next, Ysma?” Suspicion mingled with the spicy smoke.
At least she isn’t shouting yet.
“I was thinking, that it might be time to make my own way. Take a room, find a man, start thinking about babes.”
This was a hard lie and a hurtful one for Mistress. Staying closer to the truth would have been easier. Two folk couldn’t live together for ten years and hope to hide many secrets.
Mistress hated secrets.
“I’d still work for you, Mistress,” Ysma hastily added.
Mistress Herle looked at her for a long minute. She struck the table with her pipe. A glowing puck of spent tobacco was left behind to smolder the scarred wood, adding another stain.
“No.” Dead calm. Not a good sign.
“Mistress, there’s this b-”
A thunderclap of pain. Carnelian spit flew from Ysma’s lip, a constellation marring her white blouse.
“There’s no boy, Ysma, and we both know it. You hate every last boy in this town. Not a day goes by I don’t hear caterwauling about Sharp Jim or Penner, tweaking this or that. So don’t tell me you found some made-up boy to cover your tracks. You gonna lie to me, make it a good one.” She was simmering, the boil building before Ysma had a chance to temper it.
“Stupid girl,” Herle spat. “Who the rut are you? Take me for a fool? Ten years! How much coin have I spent on food for you; on clothes; those stupid books you gotta read every night before bed? Did you thank me for that?
“You tell true now, before I get the paddle.”
The paddle. Where there was once fear, she now held a sliver of pride - maybe more than a sixteen year old street girl who’d been rescued by a giantess with no family should - but she had it nonetheless. She could take a palm, but she thought the paddle might break her.
Silence seemed the safest bet. There’d be no paddling if she stopped lying. And if she stopped speaking, there’d be no lies. The first part of the plan had failed.
“Enough, Ysma, spit out the truth or you can spend the night in the shop.”
A better threat. Ysma knew Mistress hated hurting her, that she was the only love the lumbering woman could admit to. Mistress Herle kept the shop freezing in winter. She was too cheap to stoke the iron stove after business hours. The weather-watchers promised snow again tonight.
“I want to make my journey-work.”
Again, the sting of palm to jaw. Ysma opened her eyes and it was like seeing all the snow-covered roofs in Braten, dazzling and star-spinning. A whimper escaped her bloody lips.
“You know you’re my only family, Ysma,” Herle’s voice softened, her regret instantaneous. “Don’t you know I love you?”
The apprentice nodded.
“Only once did I lift the blankets in the night, looking for a diddle - even if you’ve been leading me on for years.”
It wasn’t true. Barely a night passed without Mistress’ fingers questing toward Ysma’s slender thighs.
“You told me never again and I put it aside. But we belong together, Ysma. And now you want your journey-work. So you can leave me.” Another hard crack of flesh to flesh.
“I won’t have it.” Herle’s words full of finality.
Ysma’s face throbbed. This was all wrong. Mistress should have been happy; that there was no boy, that Ysma wanted to stay and continue their work together. Couldn’t she see that Ysma needed her?
Mistress was up now, stomping around their tiny room. At the single cupboard she fished around, clinking bottles against tins, trying to mask her sobs. Ysma knew Mistress’s goal.
Rotting teeth popped the cork. Herle winced in pain. She spat the plug across the room, just missing Ysma’s eye. She laughed and took a long, hard pull on the green glass bottle.
“Ungrateful git,” her voice trembled. “Put it out of your head. You ain’t making a thing. I see what your at. You won’t be going anywhere.”
And I don’t want to. Help me! Help me stay, Ysma wanted to scream. But when she tried to open her mouth - to recount the woman and the scroll, all that escaped was a whimper.
Mistress moved towards the shop. Her favorite place to drink - alone and surrounded by modest successes. Before passing through the greasy sheet that divided the space, Herle spoke again,
“Don’t cross me, Miss Ysma Bite-the-Hand-That-Feeds-Her. Remember Omreth? Remember what happens to apprentices that try to leave their masters? We chased him down with every craftsman on this street.”
Ysma sucked air through numb teeth. That sweaty day came back to her. Feet pounding cobbles, salt stinging her eyes. The cat-trapped wailing when Omreth was flushed from the root cellar. The stumps, where feet had been and brown blood crusting the bandages. Omreth’s master, Fydoch, joking, “Footless boys can knead dough just as well.” The crowd laughing.
Mistress’ voice brought her back, “And don’t even think of reading tonight.” The lamp left with her.
In the dark, Ysma bit her lip swelling lip. She wouldn’t cry. No good would come from it. Mistress wanted her asleep, so she’d be asleep.
Before tonight, even before the barker and her pushy mouth and the vellum scroll with Ysma’s new last name on it, she’d hoped her journey-work would lead to some kind of freedom. Apprentices became yeomen who held a sliver of themselves separate. Ysma had dreamed of the day her life would become her own. That truth was long gone now.
Ysma fell asleep to the sounds of Mistress getting drunk behind the walls.
Her body was not her own. It belonged to the other girl. Her phantom sister wandered the tight streets of Braten.
It was dawn or dusk; the space between. Braten was empty. The girl, at once Ysma and never her at all, drifted like the silent snow.
Who’s feet brought her straight to the woman? Doubt burned her stomach. Ysma felt herself floating to the surface of the body she shared.
This time, she thought, this time, I’ll break through.
“She doesn’t want to come,” the Senthish woman emerged from mid-way murk, scroll rolled and raised like a cudgel.
Ysma couldn’t speak, couldn’t scream. Bile rose in the throat they shared.
“I know it ain’t you. I smell what you’re after. But she won’t let you through, will she?”
It was strange, being talked at but not to. Ysma felt the other girl nod. And then the woman’s voice changed and Ysma knew that the words were meant for her, “Told you once already, you’re mine. Your name sealed you to me and my ship. Even if I wanted - I don’t and I won’t, mind - there’s no turning back. She wouldn’t stand for it. Your other called me here. Felt her shining like a swath of lighthouse welcome.”
The scroll unfurled in a whip-crack. Stylus appeared once more. The midnight woman stabbed her list.
“See here?” She jabbed Ysma’s name.
The dwarf drew a slash through Ysma’s newly acquired name. The point made a deep furrow in the scroll, piercing the vellum. A moment passed.
Ysma’s mouth went wide. The line disappeared - the gash healing itself - leaving no trace of the offending mark.
“Now you both see?” The woman asked, not unkindly. “There isn't a thing to be done for it.” A heart swelled and Ysma could not tell if it was her own.
Hope, a thought from her other.
I don’t want to go, Ysma struggled.
More clearly now, stronger, We’re leaving, no matter what.
Ysma’s head spun. Things like this didn’t happen. Scrolls weren’t mordants that bound children to ships. Vellum didn’t heal before your eyes.
A smell hung in the air, sharp and acute, the air before a lightning strike.
Witch. Her mind throbbed with the word.
There are no witches on the Continent, not for thousands of years.
Slushy, Senthish words filtered through, “You still have your days, but see now, dearie, that your fate is already written. Take care of what needs care. Let her do it if you can’t.”
Ysma or the other girl, nodded.
“Good girls,” crooned the woman. “And don’t, dearie, don’t you dare make me come and get you. Four days. Be ready.”
The raven woman dissolved into shadow and Ysma awoke.
Two nights had passed and Ysma was still exhausted from the dream.
She straddled the whetstone set into the cedar bench, sharpening a pair of Mistress’ shears. Lost in the swish and snick of metal kissing slate, when Mistress placed a hand on her back Ysma started lashing out with the iron sickle moons.
“Whoa, Ysma,” hands out in defense, “So jumpy lately. I’ve something kind for ya. Don’t go cutting me up now.”
She was thankful for the lack of alcohol on Mistress’ breath. Shears went from hand to bench. Tension lingered in Ysma’s clenched fist. Time was short, only two days remained.
Raising an eyebrow in response, Ysma chose to adopt Mistress’ own method of silent punishment.
“Still the way of it?” Herle asked. “Fine, I’ll tell you all the same. The strangest woman came to see me this morning, said she had a very special task for us,” she drew out the news in an attempt to coax her ward into speaking.
Ysma nodded. Herle harrumphed.
“Oh come on Ysma! Aren’t you a bit curious?”
This was the way with her Mistress, cold then hot. Bearing gifts not freely given, demanding payment with compliment and thanks.
Ysma shrugged and turned back to the sharpening.
Herle grabbed her wrist, spun her apprentice around so their eyes met. “Special work, Ysma. Special, complicated, advanced work; just the kind of thing apprentices need for journey-work.”
It could still work! Mistress could protect her, the work could keep her safe.
“Funny timing, eh? Senthish, the woman was. Said that there was no time to waste, that she needed the cloth within the week.”
Ysma’s throat clenched tight. She wriggled from Mistress’ grip.
“It isn't just dyeing, Ysma,” she went on - gentle, easing - “but printing too. You’d cut the cloth, do the first washes, create the resists yours-”
“I’d have to do it all, or it won’t be my piece,” Ysma’ voice came out hollow.
Herle’s eyes sparkled, “Yeah, girl, that you would. No help from me. It’s a complex pattern, one that’ll take nimble fingers. The little woman gave me a rough sketch. Show it to you if you’re finished with your sharpening? You could start today.”
Pride stretched across Mistress Herle’s lumpy, never beautiful face. Ysma rarely saw the like but knew this for what it was. A bribe. A way to win her apprentice’s love.
Mistress is giving you what she thinks you want. She’s desperate to keep you.
The truth of it. The journey-work hadn’t fallen into her lap. It was her, the woman of the ships. She had been in their shop. Today. Ysma wondered if she should have felt something, some twinge of warning? Why hadn’t the other girl pressed up against their shared skin?
The witch knows. She’s telling me it won’t work - that I can’t stop her. Either of them.
“Well,” Herle prompted, smile faltering slightly.
Ysma thought about it a moment longer before she replied, “I’m done here.”
She had to hope.
They went into the workshop together to examine the drawings the witch left behind.
Preparations swallowed the rest of her day. Mistress would provide the dyes; the wax and wood for the resists. This was the help that could be given. The rest would come from Ysma alone.
Mistress believed in her and Ysma poured every ounce of attention she could muster into the piece. She held it, the hope in the deepest regions of her heart that once made, this beautiful journey-work would keep her safe.
Ysma had to believe.
The finished product would be glorious. Colored like the sky just after the sun had sunk into the ocean, nearly as dark as the Senthish woman; white waves cresting with foam and spume. Dolphins would hurl themselves from the crashing waves, repeating again and again across cloth so fine it threatened to tear with every touch.
The pattern is a promise; a foretelling for you, Ysma. She’s shown you this for a reason. Find your way to me, the waves whispered, shushing away her doubts.
She fell asleep that night with visions of the fabric unfurled before her, flapping in the breeze like a sail. The wind that drove it ever forward was a voice, syrupy with the accents of the South.
She woke to a dog’s lonesome howl. The sound of Mistress’ snores beside her, chuff chuff and clunky sputter, repeated in an endless cycle of night-noise. Her pillow was damp, her hair plastered across her forehead.
A dream, she slowed her breath, it was only a dream.
The witch had been in the workshop.
That damned woman! Is she everywhere?
In the dream pots of precious dye, purple and crimson, lay shattered on the stone floor. Spool upon spool of cloth had been unrolled by unseen fingers. It festooned the ceiling like holiday bunting. It stretched across the floor like carpets, marred by tiny scarlet footprints.
What woman has feet three-toed feet, splayed and webbed like a duck’s? The only answer. A witch.
In the dream, a voice, echoing as if from the bottom of a well, “She can’t protect you, double-dearie. Not from yourself.”
Ysma rose from the horsehair mattress Mistress insisted they share. For all the excitement of the day, there had thankfully been no night-games. Ysma would not have been able to resist her Mistress this night. Anything could put her plan in danger. Mistress needed to want to protect Ysma. She would have given in.
No need for a lamp, the waxing moon bestowed a silver-sight. Through the door, hinges creaking, and into the workshop Ysma crept. Her hand grasped the door frame, a feeble attempt to stop the momentum which dragged her forward.
A dream, she repeated, rubbing her eyes. The nightmare vision didn’t clear. Cloth was everywhere and the terrible footprints marched across it’s grimy weave. On the cutting table in the center of the room, shreds of Ysma’s newly started journey-work were positioned to spell a single word: Come.
She sank to her knees, letting a nest of grimey wool break her fall. There was no way to set this to rights before morning. Mistress would blame her. There would be no starting over for Ysma Dyer.
The witch had won. Ice crept in from the corners of her consciousness. The other girl stood, sure-footed, and began to play out the rest of their dream.
The shears were ballast, pulling the girl’s hand to the floor. The blades clicked open, then shut.
Mistress snored on. Night was near past, the dull creep of morning slinking through the grease-paper window. The girl inhaled the stale sweat of ten close years. Ten years of sloppy, probing lips and hands batted away in the night. As it had been in the dream, it was now. No more thoughts. The other girl moved her feet. The dark woman guided her hand.
My hand? Ysma wondered, shoved far to the back of herself. Are we different girls any longer?
Rabbit-grey light from the tiny window melted to pink. She floated like a ghost above the seascape of Herle’s fleshy, fat neck. Breath rolled her skin like waves.
This is the moment.
Ballast became anchor. The newly sharpened shears cut sure and straight, just the way Mistress trained her. A killing line, first a slim wire, quickly became a yawning flood.
Ysma plunged through the ice into reality’s morning. Half-moons clicked in trembling hands.
She emptied her stomach all over Mistress and the bed. Shears struck the wide plank floor, tip catching the soft grain. Pink warmed to orange. The rest of the shops on their crooked little street would open soon.
What would happen when Mistress didn’t hang the shingle? Would Fydoch come, ready to chop off her hands and feet? Did the witch have a plan for him as well?
The steady drip, drip prompted her.
Long past time for going.
Ysma left empty-handed. The other girl wanted nothing from the little room stained with all the reds a dyer could dream of.
The other girl strained against their skin when the behemoths came into view. A reverent sigh escaped her lips. Eyes locked on their rocking berths, she was oblivious to all she passed in her flight to reach them.
Mind wild and eyes blurred, the girl crashed into the witch. They pitched forward, the dyer’s apprentice pinning the barker to the cobbles, legs and arms akimbo.
No repercussion came. Instead, benign laughter.
“Ahhh,” she said, dusting her robes and rising from the ground, “you’ve come. And I know it’s not to wiggle your way out of our contract.”
She coaxed a deep whiff through flaring nostrils, “I can smell it on you.”
“Sm-sm-smell what?” Ysma asked, shame inching it’s way from ears to cheeks.
A pointed look, “You know what you’ve done.”
“What she did,” Ysma countered, embracing unexpected bravery.
“You were there,” her voice rose. “You showed me, in the dream, and then you were with me. She was with me. Was me! Every step, every snick of those shears, I felt . . . doubled. Trebled, with you inside me.”
“Dearie, it came by your hand.” She grabbed Ysma’s wrist and turned her palm skyward, “See!”
There, where none were before, spangled droplets spelled coppery truth.
“You were there,” Ysma repeated. “You brought Mistress the business. You spelled her, distracted her so I could k-”
“Yes. So you could. Consider it fee for passage. Your true journey-work.” The witch grabbed her wrist. “You are mine. Mine and destiny’s. All of this was by - your - hand.” She punctuated the last three words with finger jabs against the girl’s quivering palm.
“I felt you!”
“You felt no such thing,” the Senthish woman’s flat voice rebounded against wooden hulls.
Her arm ached from the witch’s wrist twisting. She felt hot and confused and exhausted. The world swam. White seeped in from the edges of her vision. She was slipping. The woman’s grip changed from painful clutch to supportive lift.
You came, child. That was the right choice. Another choice that you made. So I’ll protect you.” A pause and then her voice softened to that of a caring aunt. “I came to Braten for you.”
Ysma was silent as the witch half-dragged, half-coaxed her across the dew slicked cobbles. She exhaled. It was as if she had been underwater too long, holding her breath. Her lungs filled, the whiteness at the edges of her visions cleared and Ysma felt the girl, more present than ever before.
The little woman scaled the rope ladder dangling from the upper deck and Ysma followed. Half way up, she craned her neck and looked back over Braten-town. Mistress was dead, her life here destroyed beyond mending.
The ships would sail. Ysma was going to see the world.
©November, 2017 Alexander Leger-Small
Alexander Leger-Small makes his home in the green foothills of the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts, where he slings cocktails, chases myths and takes a lot of walks with his dog. His short fiction can be found in Not One of Us, Mirror Dance and The Literary Hatchet.