Once upon a time, a little girl sat in a field releasing the fuzz from seeded dandelions and watching the wind gather the wisps into the sky as it tousled her hair. Sometimes, she danced with the wind, her blue skirt swishing to synchronize with its rhythm.
One day the whimsy of her dance led her to a crater blistered with brambles and dagger-length thorns. She stumbled over the precipice into the midst of them. Her dress tore, and her skin scratched.
A herdsman from the village nearby heard a child crying. He looked down and saw her caught in the briars. He leaped down into it, wincing as the thorns tore at him, but he struggled toward the girl.
When he reached her, he half-smiled and reached out to pull her up. But she was crying so much that his face was blurred, and all she could see was the blood covering his clothes and hands. Shrieking, she drew back from him, wounding herself further.
Finally, she let herself be carried out of the thicket. The herdsman tried to soothe her, singing her a lullaby. All she could hear was the painful undertone in the song.
By the time they returned to the dandelion field, the girl had cried herself to sleep. The herdsman laid her down under a tree, cleaned her scratches with a damp cloth, and kissed her forehead. And he went back to tend his flock.
The girl awakened the next morning. Glancing at her scabs, she sobbed again, remembering the herdsman’s wounds. She sat in the field all day staring at the dandelions. She had lost the dance.
In the evening, she crept back to the edge of the valley, grasping at the brambles.
She separated out the thorns from the stems of the plants, clenching them in her fist.
If she hadn't fallen into the crater yesterday, she wouldn't have cried out, and if she hadn't cried out, the herdsman wouldn't have come, and if the herdsman hadn't come, he wouldn't have bled. It was all her fault.
She used the thorns like claws across her arms. Surely she must hurt, because she hurt him. Only her own blood could satisfy this.
Every night for years, she returned to the crater. The bleeding was never enough. The craving to satiate the guilt was as fresh each night as the one before. Sometimes the coyotes came out to follow, nipping at her heels, licking up the warm blood dripping from her wounds.
She thought she must be an outcast, even though the villagers never mentioned it to her. A word or sharp look made her tremble, thinking they blamed her. Surely everyone knew what she had done to the beloved herdsman.
She sometimes would see him or other men leading their flocks over the distant misty hills. He tried to approach her on a street corner a few times, but she shuddered and turned away, lest she see his blood. The blood. She could never forget the blood.
But the coyotes never left. They became the girl’s companions when she felt like the village hermit. They walked with her when no one else would.
The girl grew into a maiden. A lonely maiden, wearing a ragged blue gown that barely covered the dried clotted mess covering her arms and legs.
One night at the crater, she returned to the top with her fist full of brambles. A coyote was waiting for her. She could smell him. He would lick her wounds before he'd let her pass by. She wondered when he'd just lunge for her throat and the pain would end. Coming over the edge, lantern light fell across her form and she shrank back into the shadows.
"Little girl. Don't be afraid. You aren't lost, are you?"
She trembled and clenched her teeth. Of all the villagers, he especially she could never face. Not with her scars.
He reached down for her hand.
"Come on. It's all right."
The coyote snarled in the brush nearby.
"Wait here." She heard his sandals crackle against the dry grass, and the swish of his club.
His footsteps returned, and he peered over the ledge down at her. "It's safe now." He smiled.
She dared herself to glance into his eyes. "Thank you." A girlish whimper.
She let him pull her up into the lamplight. They both sat down, each looking off into the distance. Her gaze wandered to the herdsman sitting beside her, to his rough cotton robe, to his ragged sleeves.
His arms. So many white echoes of pain. But just echoes. No blood.
Without thinking, she traced one of them lightly with her finger, then drew back. "I'm sorry."
He turned to her. His eyes twinkled in the dim light. "No need to apologize."
Pulling her arm closer to his, he drew it into the light. "Those look painful," he said as he traced the dark crimson lines on her arms.
One wet drop fell onto the lap of the blue gown.
"You know," he said, "If a little girl fell into the crater tomorrow, I would pull her out."
The sob couldn't be stifled. She looked down, eyes memorizing every hole and rip in her dress. His arm wrapped around her shoulder like a winter's cloak, warm and safe.
"I carry my own lambs high above the thorns when I pull them out of the crater. I can handle being scratched, but I don’t want them to bleed," he said.
Tears trickled, refusing to be shoved back. At last, she relaxed and lay against his shoulder.
He plucked a dandelion head and handed it to her. They blew it out together. And dandelion seeds floated past in the moonlit breeze, the wind gathering the fluff up into the stars.
He spoke again, his hand held out towards her. "Would you like to dance?"
—by Eleanor Skelton