The moon hid itself behind the clouds. The wind spat an icy snow at angles.
In the tall black wall of the palisade, through a slit too seeming thin for human passage, the girl climbed into the great and terrible wilderness.
Over her face she wore a hood drawn low, and she was slight, both bony and childish small, but the famine had stripped her down yet starker, to root and string and fiber and sinew. Even so starved, and blinded by the dark, she was quick. She scrabbled upright, stumbled with her first step, nearly fell, but caught herself and began to run, going fast and over the frozen ruts of the field and all the stalks of dead corn that had come up in the summer already sooty and fruitless and stunted with blight.
Swifter, girl, she told herself, and in their fear and anguish, her legs moved yet faster.
These good boots the girl had stolen off the son of a gentleman, a stripling half her age but of equal size, who had died of the smallpox the night before, the rash a rust spreading over the starved bones. These leather gloves and the thick cloak the girl had stolen off her own mistress. She banished the thought of the woman still weeping upon her knees on the frozen ground in the courtyard inside that hellish place. With each step she drew away, everything there loosened its grip on the girl.
Yet there was a strange gleam upon the dark ground of the field ahead, and as she moved, she saw it was the undershirt of the soldier who a fortnight earlier had been caught worming his body slow from the horrors of the fort and toward the different horrors of the forest. He had made it halfway to the trees when in silence a shadow that had lain upon the ground grew denser, grew upward, came clear at last as the fearsomest of the men of this country, the warrior two heads taller than the men of the fort, who made himself yet more terrible by wearing upon his shoulders outstretched a broad dark mantle of turkey feathers. He had lifted with one hand the creeping fearful soldier by his hair and had with a knife cut a long wet red mouth into the man's throat. Then he dropped him to spill his heart's blood into the frozen earth and there the dead man lay splayed ignoble. All this time, he had lain unburied, for the soldiers of the settlement had become too weak and too cowardly in their hunger to fetch the body back.
She had passed the dead man and his reek had drawn itself out of her nostrils and she was nearly to the woods when she stumbled again, for the thought of these two men gave rise to thoughts of other men who lurked perhaps in the woods, men out there hidden and awaiting her. And now, as she peered before her into the dark of the forest, she saw a man crouching in ambush in ever deeper blacker shadow of each tree, perhaps a man with a knife or an ax or an arrow and cold murder in his eye.
She stopped her running for a breath, but she had no choice, she took her courage up again and she ran on.
And as she ran each imagined man in passing revealed himself to be mere shadow again.
She had chosen to flee, and in so choosing, she had left behind her everything she had, her roof, her home, her country, her language, the only family she had ever known, the child Bess, who had been born into her care when she was herself a small child of four years or so, her innocence, her understanding of who she was, her dreams of who she might one day be if only she could survive this starving time.
Think not of it, girl, she told herself, think not of it, else you shall die of grief.
And she did not turn back to look upon the gleam of the fort's fires as they painted the night sky above in red. She was unlettered but was deep devout, a good and a pious girl, and she had listened when the ministers read from the holy book, she had tracked their words and taken them whole in long phrases into her knowledge. She had learned the lesson of only forward movement from the wife of Lot, who had glanced backward once as she was fleeing the destruction of sodom and by her weakness and the wrath of god had been transformed to a pillar of salt.
Only when she was inside the forest did the wind remove its hands from her cheeks and from under her skirts. It was warmer among the trees but by no means warm. She stopped and pressed her forehead to the rough skin of a pine and the harshness of it on her skin held her there. What light that could have fallen from the sky did not fall at all, as the heavens above were covered by a thickness of cloud. The forest before her was as dense as pitch, though pocks of snow did gleam in the pits of the trees. Her breath was ragged and with effort she quieted it. She let the silence seep back into her, into the forest, and it smoothed over the memory of her crashing footsteps, and she wondered if she had been loud enough to have waked the men of the fort or the original men of this forest. The men known, the men unknown. Either could be creeping near to her even now.
She listened over the scrape and bow of the wind, cold trunk rubbing trunk in a tuning of fiddles, but she heard no footsteps and no breaking twigs. Though the lack of sound was no real solace.
At last, when her blood calmed in her ears, she heard the stream not far from her, the water rasping under its shell of ice. She pressed forward as fleet and soft as she could, and when under her foot she discovered the slickness of the ice, then the narrow aisle of stony bank where the stream ran swollen in the spring, she followed it northward, grateful to escape the sharp grasping twigs and bushes that snatched at her face and her clothing.
Into the night the girl ran and ran, and the cold and the dark and the wilderness and her fear and the depth of her losses, all things together, dwindled the self she had once known down to nothing.
A nothing is no thing, a nothing is a thing with no past.
It was also true that with no past, the girl thought, a nothing could be free.
In time, her mind that had been shocked in flight began to move into thinking again.
She became aware of eyes upon her.
And though she imagined that they were the hostile eyes of men, they were in fact the eyes of the forest itself watching this new form of creature with its wheezing breath and crashing footfall and bitter human reek, all the night birds and the roaming creatures stilled in silent wonderment as the girl went past. And even when the creatures could no longer see or hear the running girl and the last scent of her distress faded in their immediacy from the noses of the crawling beasts, when only a trace of her could be scented upon the leaves and dirt and snow displaced by her feet, the forest's sense of time shuddered and jerked forward, and the rip that the running girl made became healed, and the ordinary business of the creatures' hungers was reawakened behind her. Only hours after she had passed through the forest, she became to them a strange dream barely remembered in the urgencies of the moment.
It was perhaps minutes, perhaps hours, there was no way to tell, but a long thick expanse of time spent running northward up the stream bank, when the girl saw a deeper darker shine near where her boot fell, a softness of the ice beneath, and she knew it to be water freed from its frozen crust, openly flowing. She bent and took off her leather gloves with her teeth and pressed her unworking hands between her legs until they had thawed enough to bend, then she opened the sack that she had been carrying in one stiff fist, reached in and took the pewter cup she had stolen, dipped it into the running water, and drank deep. The cold sliced down the center of her like the tip of a knife. It made her ache. Her teeth chattered in the bones of her skull. Her stomach, which had been empty these four days, protested at its new fullness of water. She replaced the cup and tied the sack to her waist, lifting her cloak and gowns to put it against her skin so she could feel it on the flesh of her body and would be comforted by having it always near. She wanted to sink down into the small heap of snow to sleep, her head swam and pounded, but she could not do this she knew, and she pressed herself on again, forward, away, farther.
And as she ran she prayed in her soul: O god, by whom the meek are guided in judgment, and light riseth up for the godly, grant me in all my doubts and uncertainties the grace to ask what thou wouldst have me do that the spirit of wisdom may save me from all false choices and that in thy light I may see light and in thy straight path may not stumble.
She listened for anything, for the low moan of a night bird as emissary of the divine, a shifting quality of wind that would speak its will to her, but in response there were only the noises of her passage and the cold wind playing against the disinterested forest.
And thus she ran again, and while running as soft as she could, she remembered the solace of song and thought perhaps it could heat the edges of her fear until it melted within her.
So only inside herself she sang as brightly as she knew how, the spring clad all in gladness doth laugh at winter's sadness fa la la la la la la la la la la and so on.
She knew many songs, of course, but this was the only one that came forth to meet her, quite a strange absence of song there was inside her mind, as once a lifetime ago she had been a dancing quipping singing little fool and hundreds of songs she had known. But she knew that a fool could only exist where there was indulgence and freedom enough for laughter and so it was natural that in flight all of her other songs had dissolved. Still, this one song gave what comfort it could, though in such exigency such comfort was small.
The moon had begun to show its face and the woods were bands of light and dark with snow passing in its streaks beneath.
Something tore in the skies above and the new downsifting snow was no longer needles of ice as it had been when she had first escaped the fort but had become now soft slow flakes that began to collect upon the old surface of snow and to obscure the steps she had made behind her.
Thank you good snow for your aid, the girl thought.
Press on, girl, the snow said, in falling.
It was not long afterward that the voices descended to her from the sky.
At first, she could not distinguish what they said, but soon they spoke to her louder and slid into the mistress's tones, scolding. Wicked sprite, verminous bit of stuff, thou last least unlettered Zed, who fled thy duty in thy mistress's worst need. For it is said thou must submit thyself unto the elder, yea all be subject one to another and be clothed with humility, for god resisteth the proud and giveth grace to the humble.
So the voice of the mistress hissed to her out of the dark forest.
And forgetting herself the girl said aloud into the falling snow, Ah but does the good book not say also to escape to the mountains lest ye be consumed?
And she laughed because she knew it did say this and that she had won the point.
But the forest grew wary at the laugh, this new noise made within its sleeping stillness, and the girl had to slap her own cheek to hush herself and goad her body forward.
The mistress's voice fell itself a flake and the girl in her running left it behind her.
Copyright © 2023 by Lauren Groff. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.