She has become more grave than girl: that’s what the legends say. All those bedtime stories that raise more nightmares than sweet dreams. We were warned as children not to go into the woods. She lives in there, you see. It is where she died, centuries ago, and where she is said still to roam. Some say she is a ghastly sight, but more say she is lovely.
She was beautiful in life. In death, the stories deviate. That happens when people die. The ones left behind all remember them differently, and they all tell their conflicting stories, and somehow all those stories create a lasting memory - perhaps even a legacy.
“She comes looking for the old woman,” they say, “who killed her in that woods.”
I used to ask my father why someone would kill the girl, but he never liked to answer.
“Don’t worry yourself with nonsense,” he’d say. “There’s no girl out in those woods.”
I am ten years old when he tells me this. There’s no such thing as ghosts, he says. The girl is just an urban legend. She is meant to scare you. “She does scare me,” I said, and my father says that means she’s doing her job. He says that because the woods are dangerous, parents want their children to stay out of them, so they made up the story of the girl whose awful step-mother killed her. They say that she roams the woods and will eat anyone who crosses their path. “Why would she eat people?” I ask my father, and he says that it’s part of the legend. All the old monsters in all the old stories eat the children who disobey the rules.
This is what I tell my friends on the very first day of summer.
We hang out near the woods. Not in them, of course, because no one is supposed to go in them. There are bears and hunter’s traps in the depths of those woods. “And the dead girl,” Ben reminds us, and I tell him that she isn’t real.
“Bullshit,” says Joey.
“It’s true,” I say. “My dad said so.”
“Your dad’s a liar,” says Joey.
“Is not,” I say. “My dad doesn’t lie.”
“Well I’ve seen her!” Joey says, and he cross-his-heart swears that it’s true.
“That’s a lie,” I say.
“I have!” says Joey.
“When?” I ask, and he says it was two years ago when he snuck into the woods with his brothers. They knew about an old hunting post with a cabin that the older kids sneak into. It’s supposed to smell like cigarette smoke and cheap booze, but I don’t really know what makes cheap booze smell different than the expensive stuff my father keeps in the back of the liquor cabinet for special occasions. It had been near dusk, when the sky gets purple-hazy and porch lights start to flick on one by one down the streets.
“I heard something,” Joey says, “and I thought it was a deer. But every time I turned around, there was nothing there. It was like some...some invisible person was following me.”
“Then you didn’t see it,” I tell him.
“I’m not done,” Joey says. “It kept happening, and I started walking real fast, and my brothers are making fun of me for being scared. But when we got to the cabin they locked all the doors, because they were scared, too. And they had this case of beer their friends stashed, so they were drinking, and I tried some, and we didn’t hear anything until later. Then we heard something. Like...like, tap tap tap.” Here, he taps his fingernail against the lens of his glasses. “On the glass,” he says. “On the windows. And we all looked at each other. Like, like what the shit, right? And we all turned around and no shit. We. All. Saw. Her. She had her dead face all pressed against the window. And she was tapping on the glass.” Again, he clicks his nail against his glasses.
“What’d you do?” asks Ben.
“Turned out all the lights,” Joey shrugs. “Waited for her to go away.”
“That’s bullshit,” I say.
“Is not!” says Joey. “My brothers don’t even go out there anymore. To that cabin? Their friends all go out still, but they won’t go. They think she’s waiting for ‘em to come back.”
“Why doesn’t she get their friends, then?” I ask. “If she’s waiting?”
“I said that’s what they think, asshole,” says Joey. “Point is we all saw her.”
The conversation shifted from there- to the new machines at the arcade, the summer reading we didn’t want to do. The shadows grow long and the sky goes from pink to purple to deep, deep blue. We all walk together to the split between Peony and Verbena. Joey turns left, and Ben and I walk right until we reach his house.
“Do you believe it?” I ask before he goes inside. “The dead girl?”
“I don’t know,” Ben shrugs. “I believe Joey.”
“Why?” I ask.
“He’s never lied before,” says Ben.
I think about this all through dinner. I think about it when I wash the dishes and when I brush my teeth, I think about it when my father says goodnight and that he loves me. I think about it when he turns out the lights. Every small gust of wind outside sends the tree branches bending and bowing and rattling against the roof and against each other. I think about a whole forest full of those sounds. I think about the dead girl, lost out there, wandering around. I think about Joey tapping his glasses, and about how he swears she tap, tap, tapped on the cabin window in the woods.
In the morning, I get up early, because in truth I had not slept.
I tell my father that I am going to Joey’s. This is a half-truth, because I will go see Joey after I walk the woods and tell him about how the dead girl isn’t real. I walk to the woods and I watch them for a moment, or two moments, perhaps even three, because they are as deep and dark as the stories even in the golden daylight. Then, I step inside.
I don’t know how long I walk.
The woods are quiet. There is soft grass growing off the beaten path, the one the hunters walk, and the hikers when they want to see the leaves turn fire-colors in the fall. I stick to the path as best as I can and listen for the footsteps that Joey swears he heard. They do not come.
Satisfied, I turn around.
I realize I am lost.
I thought that I had stuck to one straight path, but when I turn around I cannot find my way. There are forks and deviations I cannot make sense of. I walk down one way and hit a copse of trees. I go down another and find a stream. I turn around and around and still I cannot find my way.
That is when she comes.
She is shadows first, and then she is a girl.
She is porcelain-doll pretty. She is ghastly. She is beautiful. She is dead.
She stands at the end of the path and I am frozen stiff. I want to turn into one of those many trees tower all around me; I will myself to grow roots, beg my skin to turn to bark, but it does not happen. She watches me with her glass marble eyes. She smiles. I stare at her, and I as I star at her I think with fascination how none of the legends ever mention she has fangs.