It is winter, suddenly, and Agnete is stuck inside her cottage. She is running out of preserves. She is bored. Sometimes Agnete wishes her husband would return, but alas, he is locked away. He may even be dead. Most of the time she is glad to be rid of him and his sharp teeth and breath like rotted wood. The snowfall came as a surprise. It is only the third week of September, after all. The white blanket has obscured her captor, and Agnete does not know the protocol of escaping a fairy ring one cannot see.
When she woke up the morning after her husband was dragged away in handcuffs, Agnete knew something was wrong. As she sat up in her bed, finally comfortable now that she had space to stretch out, she saw a woman putting on her frock, doing up each button slowly, and walking into the kitchen. Agnete cried out, asking after the woman, but the woman continued on, performing every aspect of Agnete’s morning routine. She lit a fire on the hearth to boil the water. She opened the windows to let the sunlight in. She chopped vegetables for stew. Agnete followed the woman around, trying to jump in front of her. The woman’s long brown hair was held in the same braid that Agnete placed her own in each evening. The woman walked with the same small limp that Agnete had had since she was born with one leg shorter than the other. The woman, Agnete realized, was a perfect double of her.
The woman would leave during the day, going out to visit friends, collect mushrooms, sell the milk from the cows, and perhaps even stop at the prison to give her husband a quick peck on the cheek. Agnete stayed home, unable to cross the threshold of the doorway, as if a large pane of glass stood in her way. She drank warm milk with herbs in it and stared out the windows. She had little to do besides observe the mushrooms that grew in a circle around her cottage. They were about four feet tall by the first snowfall. When the woman returned each night, the mushrooms parted for her, and she went about her evening, dusting, humming, bathing, and, often, crying quietly to herself. Each night Agnete and the woman would share the same bed, the same bathwater, and the same air. The woman- the other Agnete- showed no signs of even noticing the real Agnete, who grew lonelier and thinner each day.
With the snow still falling, Agnete wonders how the woman will make it home. She has no sled, no snow shoes, no horse or donkey. She has been gone now for two days. Agnete pulls a box out of the bedroom closet. In the box are three porcelain dolls, gifts for her daughter, Inga. Inga did not live long enough to be able to pick the dolls up and cradle them. Inga did not live long enough to be able to kiss their foreheads and smooth their hair. Agnete kisses each doll on the forehead. She brushes their hair with the horsehair brush she now shares with the woman. She smoothes their frocks. Agnete wonders if the woman knows about the dolls. She worries that the woman will never return, that she has gone to live with Niko in the prison, like all wives are told to.
Agnete tucks the dolls into the waistband of her skirt and walks towards the door. The dolls act as a talisman, and Agnete manages to leave the cottage. To her surprise, the mushrooms quiver and the snow falls off of them. They part for her. Agnete does not feel the ice on her bare feet as she trudges through the snow towards the town.
Agnete finds the woman in the prison. She is not in a cell with Niko. She is in her own cell, weeping and clutching the same three dolls that Agnete clutches. Agnete rattles the bars, trying to get the woman’s attention. The woman does not hear her; she simply strokes the dolls’ hair with her fingers. The other prisoners mock the woman’s crying. They don’t appear to notice Agnete, either. The man in the cell across from her exposes himself, jeering. He calls the woman a slut. Agnete hears a familiar voice from a few cells down. It is Niko, her husband. He apologizes to her, but laughs all the way through it. The man in the cell across from the woman’s snickers, his pants around his ankles. Nobody can blame him for wanting a son, he says.
Agnete wishes to be back in her cottage, protected by the mushrooms, the fairy ring, Inga’s dolls. Agnete is the lucky one. She is invisible.
Erin Emily Ann Vance’s work has appeared in numerous publications, including Contemporary Verse 2 and filling station. Erin was a 2017 recipient of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts Young Artist Prize and a 2018 Finalist for the Alberta Magazine Awards in Fiction. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. She holds an MA in Creative Writing in and will begin an MA in Irish Folklore and Ethnology at University College Dublin in 2019. Her debut novel, ‘Advice for Amateur Beekeepers and Taxidermists’ will be published by Stonehouse in 2019 and she has two forthcoming poetry chapbooks: ‘The Sorceress who Left Too Soon: Poems after Remedios Varo’ (Coven Editions) and ‘Someday I Will No Longer Write About You’ (Loft on 8th Press). www.erinvance.ca
Featured photo credit: Amanda Ollinik @Allunderonemoon