Again, the children called for me to join them. “Come, Eva,” they urged, patting their dirty hands against my skin, pale and unfreckled.
“I cannot.” I shook my head to emphasize the point I had made every day, as if that would finally convince them of the truth of my words. But children, being children, are full of the possibilities inherent in impossibility.
Innocence is beauty.
“Why can’t you play? Just this once?”
I was an oddity. Never permitted to feel the kiss of the sun on my face. Never allowed to run or jump or play on the banks of the stream that flowed through our village. I spent my days seated upon a wooden bench made at the occasion of my birth, Workers tending to my every need. “It is forbidden,” I replied, as I’d been instructed.
“She’s just scared.” A Borrowed One, a child taken from the outside world, pinched my arm. “Afraid you’re going to get hurt?” He had no idea about getting hurt. But he would.
“Oh, look,” Lilly said, as a Worker dabbed at the corner of my eye. “Now you’ve made her sad.”
I blinked three times.
“She’s pathetic. Can’t even wipe away her own tears.”
It was true: My muscles had been encouraged to atrophy.
“What do you know?” Lilly turned towards the Borrowed One, fists clenched. “You’re so stupid you got lost in the woods.”
The children gathered in a half-circle around my chair, watching Lilly and the Borrowed One.
“They’ll find me,” he said. “I know they’ll find me.” He looked to the west, peering into the woods, as if, at any moment, his family would come rushing down the path, joyous and relieved.
“You will return home,” I said.
He turned to me and offered me a watery smile. We were, for the time being, allies. Yet, I was a traitor: This child had been brought into the village to teach the children the dangers of the outside world. He would return home, yes, but only after the villagers had stoned him to death for declaring an Untruth.
The last Borrowed One had told of buildings that touched the clouds and birds so large three hundred people could ride on top. He told of a square window with miniature people trapped inside, living their lives while other people watched. The one before that had spoken about a band of musicians so small you could carry them in your pocket.
“Why do you sit that way?” The Borrowed Child said. “Don’t you get tired of it?”
“It is my destiny.”
“You make your own destiny, that’s what my father says.”
The child was getting into dangerous territory. It would be a shame to see him gone so soon. I liked the tales the Borrowed Children brought. “Hush,” I said. “The Elders listen.”
“There are no Elders,” the boy said. “You’re just a pack of kids. Runaways, probably.”
“Our parents are the Elders,” Lilly said. “Except Eva’s.”
Heedless Lilly. We had no need of Borrowed Children as long as we had her, declaring Untruths Truth and Truths Untrue.
“Your parents aren’t Elders?” The Borrowed Child said. “Then why are you here?”
“She bears the mark of Wisdom.” Lilly touched the mark that began at my ear and ran along my jaw bone to my chin.
“Sit, children,” I said. “I will tell you the story of my birth.”
“Why do you call them children?” The Borrowed Child said, still standing. “Some of them are older than you.”
“She’s spent her entire life studying.”
“She’s cursed.” Lilly said, then immediately clasped her hands over her mouth.
“That’s an Untruth,” I said, knowing she spoke the truth. I was cursed. Had been cursed by birth. When the pangs alerted my mother to the impending inevitability, she took brought herself to the village whose tales of magic were carried on the fragile wings of butterflies.
When it had ended, when she had expelled me from her body, the Workers tucked me into her stiffed arms. “Take it away,” my mother said, staring across the dusty path and into depths of the forest from whence she had come.
Hooves on the dusty path. Eyes widened. “They’ve come for Lilly.”
Children stood and backed away from my chair as eleven Elders rode in on elegant horses. Eleven. I was to be the twelfth.
Sticks and stones, they broke her bones, and called her a liar, while we children watched and the tears leaked from Lilly’s eyes, no Worker bothering to wipe them away.
“Stop!” The Borrowed Child said, you’re hurting her. He looked at me. “Can’t you do something Eva?”
“No.” Another untruth. I continued to watch, Lilly’s eyes staring into mine, until the light began to fade and the children, encouraged by the violence of the Elders, began to cheer and scream.
“Wait!” My shout was rusty with disuse. I called again. “Wait!”
The Elders paused, sweaty hands still gripping their weapons. “My pocket,” I told a Worker.
She reached into the pocket of my tunic and withdrew a small flat box. I nodded at it. “Push that red spot.”
The village filled with music as the tiny singers gave voice to the beauty in innocence.
The eyes of the children widened. “Untruth!” They set upon the Elders, who scattered to the woods.
“Help her,” I said.
I stood tentatively, grasping the hand of a Worker as I took a step toward Lilly.
While Lilly recovered, we danced until the musicians in the box refused to sing.
Lilly said that they were angry with us for chasing away our Elders.
But the Borrowed One said they were merely tired. He recited an incantation over the box, chasing out the tired spirits, encouraging new energy to revive the musicians.
The music played. The Borrowed One was led to my seat. The Workers fed him pieces of biscuit dipped in honey.
Thus freed, I stepped from the path.
“Come Eva,” the children said.
And I did.