The Handless Maiden
When the sky feels like rock salt rubbed on your sunburned skin and cold water tastes like stones in your mouth and in the woods you smell ether, and you fall dangerously asleep, but wake up in an old woman's cottage, I ask you to look at her cat and if the cat is white and sleeps warming your feet, and if a small dog naps near you on the bed, then you are lucky indeed and no harm will come to you on your journey.
If the old woman cooks chicken soup for you and you are a vegetarian about to say no thank you, be sure to look out the window first to see if the chickens live a happy life in a yard with a rooster and if they do, you must eat the soup, melt the stones in your mouth and feed your soul. Give one bite of chicken to the dog and one to the cat. Then you must take your red coat and leave immediately.
For if you stay, never mind how long, the rocks will return to your mouth. You'll feel you're missing something dear but you won't know quite what it is. The ether will not clear from behind your eyes for some time, but when it does, the cottage will suddenly seem familiar in every way. You'll find yourself under a quilt sewn with random fabric shapes pieced together the way you'd piece them yourself. Looking around for what's missing, you'll see that next to you on the bed is a hand—your hand, and you recall losing it while reaching out to save someone.
A big blue-black dog looks at you from the floor. She stands up, threatens to paw at you or claw you, and barks at you. You are frightened but know not to express it. Even if she bares and gnashes her gigantic teeth at you, having seen such a dog and survived your fear with a quiet spirit, you need no longer worry about things like bears sneaking up on you to eat you alive in the forest.
Soon the old woman is soothing your burning forehead, pulling the rocks from your mouth, rinsing the salt from your skin with warm water one limb at a time and when you come to, the hand on the bed is gone. You put your arms on top of the quilt and one of your hands is now hers—dry, wrinkled, skin like crêpe.
When you wake up again, the white cat's on one side of you and the big black dog has slowly come close to you, having jumped on the other side of the bed while you slept. Her slow breathing comforts you. You have not been alone. She gazes at you with soulful brown eyes, almost human. When you are fully awake, she greets you with lips pulled back in a dog smile, teeth closed, as if you've been out all day and she's welcoming you home. She barks a bright hello and lifts a paw to greet you. You can't help but shake her paw with your young hand, smiling back at her.
Feeling brave enough to scratch her chest, she lets you enjoy having found her kick-spot, which also makes her sing, so you know it is safe to pull her warmth close to you. So you can spoon her, she rolls over, resting her huge paw on the wrist of your old hand and she begins to lick it. It is this dog, then, who sleeps so lightly beneath your fear. The dog tenderly puts her other paw in your young hand to hold.
Washing up the dishes, the old woman sings something melancholy in a language you don't understand. But you have always known this song.
At her table, the old woman sits, rubbing potions on your hand, attached now to her arm, spreading your youth like oil from your hand to her wrist to her arms and neck and face and hair and all the way up to her head. You feel destroyed. The dog licks your hand and face, singing quietly, We'll go, we'll go, at sunrise we'll go.
In the morning, you'll leave your young girl's cape behind, because you've grown and the color no longer becomes you. The white cat will lead you through the forest, leaping from branch to branch, zig-zagging ahead of you. There is nothing the blue-black dog can do to change the way time has passed for you, though she will walk beside you all the way through the forest and through whatever lies ahead.
Jennifer Woodworth studied creative writing at Old Dominion University. She is the author of the chapbook, "How I Kiss Her Turning Head," published by Monkey Puzzle Press. Her stories and poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from Gone Lawn, The Citron Review, Bending Genres Journal, The Eastern Iowa Review, *82 Review and The Inflectionist Review, among others. She's also a nominee for a 2020 Micro Fiction. She knows how lucky she is anytime she gets to write.