The dead girls sit in a row, each one with their blood still staining their hands. There’s a woman at the head of the line, pretty painted lips and flowers in her hair. She has dark skin, nails like claws and a ribbon around her neck. She smiles at them, tells them it’s going to be alright. But her teeth are sharp and the girls know to stay on her good side.
None of them look the same, the dead girls. None of them died the same either. Some were poisoned until they found themselves vomiting up their own insides. Others were gutted and still more were simply eaten. Each dead girl is different but as they sit in their line, they feel like one in the same.
It’s not that they are kindred spirits, not like sisters. Rather, each of them feels like the girl who couldn’t make it, the foolish girl who got lost in the woods. The girl that was caught by the witch, the bear, the trap, the poison. They are not the hero of the story. They are the bodies that were collected before the hero arrived.
Their names are lost in the wind even though they all had families. They are just ‘the girls’ now. Their individuality has been stripped from them, their stories vanished to the world at large. They didn’t save the day. They didn’t defeat the monsters. Instead, they are the ones who were defeated, the ones who were lost before someone else claimed the victory.
Here, sitting in a row, some of the girls are scared. They have fear running through their veins. They don’t know what happens next, don’t know where their stories go from here. Do they fade into the glow of the candlelight? Will their memories be lost to the sea?
The woman smiles at them, promises them they won’t be forgotten. She’s going to keep them, she says. She’s going to teach them.
The dead girls, all of them at once, watch her with wide, uncertain eyes. The last lesson they learned cost them their lives. What will be taken from them this time?
But the woman puts a finger to her lips, promises them that they’ve already paid for their lesson. She raises her hands, telling the girls to get to their feet. One at a time, they do, standing on shaky legs, legs that forgot how to hold the weight of a girl.
The woman nods, her eyes fire bright and approving. She gestures for them to follow her, each of the girls moving slowly and holding on to the one in front of her for support. None of them know what to expect, none of them know what to do. All of them, however, know that there is safety in numbers.
Each of them had died alone.
The woman guides them through dark halls lit only by lanterns. None of the girls can see any details but they whisper about shadows moving, about how they can hear faint voices if they listen closely enough.
They walk until they hit a set of large, ornate, wooden doors. The woman opens them and there’s a man waiting inside. He is surrounded by books. His face is round and kind, his eyes dark. His fingers are long and thin. He wears glasses and a ribbon around his neck.
He does not greet the girls, only studies thier faces, touches their hands, and then walks away.
They dead girls don’t know what is happening but they aren’t sure what else to do either. They wait, looking between the woman and where the man had been standing. Something in them wants to run, each of the girls shifting their weight from one foot to the other but the doors are shut behind them and they know there’s no escaping now.
The man comes back, books in his arms and ribbons wrapped around his wrists.
The woman takes a step forward, helping him unload the books onto a table. She takes the ribbons from around his pale wrists, holding them between her hands with care. The girls remain silent but curious, trying to be patient but itching with questions.
The man picks up one book, then the next, putting them in an order the girls do not understand. The woman stands beside him, holding the ribbons as he whispers something to her. She looks to the girls and beckons the first to join them.
The girls move forward, all of them at once, but she holds up a hand, and calls for only one girl at a time.
She uses their names.
None of the girls have heard their names since before they died. None of the girls realized they still had them.
The woman calls each girl up, one and then the next and then the next. She wraps a ribbon around their necks. The man hands them a book. Each of the girls goes through the same procedure until every one of them stands there with a ribbon around their necks and a book in their hands.
The first girl opens her book, looking at the page carefully. She reads and the words are familiar to her. She knows these words because they are her words, her life, her story.
The other girls open their books, each of them surprised when they recognize what is held within their hands.
The dead girls begin to cry, seeing their lives laid out before them. They shake and sob and clutch their books. There’s nothing in the world that made them think they would be remembered, that they would have enough story to be made into something such as this.
Then one of the girls, no one is sure which one, starts to read aloud.
She tells her tale, tells every part of it, until there is no story left and she has talked her way into the present moment. Then the next girl goes, and the next. They all stand there, the dead girls, listening to each other’s stories, all of them feeling like, for once, they had been seen, been heard. They do not feel like ghosts, like dead girls. They feel like storytellers, they feel like heroes.
The girls are no longer dead, no longer lost to time, no longer relegated to footnotes or half recalled thoughts. They have taken a hold of their own words. They have, each of them, turned themselves into legends.
Bio: V. Medina is a queer, non-binary, disabled, mixed race author casting words into the woods of Tennessee. Their fiction has previously been featured in Cast of Wonders, Capricious, Factor Four Magazine and other venues.
You can find them on Twitter (@howsweettheword) where they they do fits of microfiction, talk about whatever strikes them, and show off pictures of their cats.
V. Medina says: This is a story of what happens to the people who have to die before the hero of various stories makes it onto the scene. While I don’t cite any particular myth or legend, I did my best to try and honor the general feeling and themes.