The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror (Paula Guran) selection, 2013
There’s an armless maiden in the woods beyond the house.
She doesn’t wail or weep the way you’d think a ghost or a grieving girl would. Her footsteps are heavy—sometimes she loses her balance—but that’s the only way to hear her coming.
It happens in plenty of time that you can grab the bucket of golf balls you’re collecting (the golf course buys them back for beer money) and get out of the woods before she reaches you.
If you do see her, it’s because you lingered when the others ran, and you hid behind the largest oak, the one you and your dad once built a fort under, and waited for her.
The first thing you see is that her hair is loose. That strikes you as the cruelest thing, that whoever did this to her couldn’t show even enough mercy to fasten her hair back first, and cast her into the forest with hair so long and loose that it’s grown into corded mats down her back. The knots at the bottom are so twisted and so thick they look, when she’s moving, like hands.
(No, you think, that’s the cruelest thing.)
But her face is clean, as these things go. You imagine her kneeling beside the creek that runs all the way out past the golf course, dipping her face in the water.
There are dark stains down the sides of her dress, all the way to the ground, where she bled and bled and did not die after they cut her arms off at the shoulders.
The armless maiden has hazel eyes, or maybe brown.
She says, “Hello.”
There’s no telling what the armless maiden did.
It doesn’t matter now. To her father, it was offense enough to warrant what happened. To anyone else, what happened was a crime beyond measure; what happened to her was a horror.
(Where they were when her father picked up the axe, there’s no telling.)
She’s been living in the woods as long as you can remember, though no one talks about it much where you are. Live and let live. If she stays off the golf course, no one minds her.
Nobody in town talks about her to strangers, but still, word gets out.
Sometimes one of the news crews from a bigger city would get wind of her and send a crew to do a story about the woman who haunts the woods. Usually it was Halloween, but sometimes it was International Women’s Day, or something horrible had happened to a woman where they were from, and they wanted to find as many crime victims as they could to round out the story so it could last.
Once someone came all the way from Indianapolis to write her up; she asked if anyone had caught her, like she was a rabbit or a disease. The station could pay for testimonials, she said. She gave a dollar number that meant Indianapolis was serious about it.
She left empty-handed. The neighborhood didn’t like the implications.
The armless maiden has never spoken, that anyone has ever said, and someone would have said. There’s no need to tell strangers from Indianapolis about her, but she belongs to the town, sort of, and it’s nothing strange to talk about your own.
Suzanne from the hairdresser’s talked sometimes about how she couldn’t imagine how that poor girl was looking after herself, and how she’d go out to the woods asking if the maiden needed anything, except that it would be butting in. Usually she said this when she was cutting your hair; she said, “I hear she’s a blonde,” and then there was no sound in the whole place but her scissors, and you watched your hair falling and held your breath.
At least once every year, someone from the PTA stood up in a meeting and asked if she was still of the age where she needed to be in school, even though she’d been in the woods so long that even if she’d started out that young, she wasn’t now.
Tommy from the motel told everyone about the time the bird watchers came down to look for some warbler that was hard to find except in the forested region where they were, and ran into her, and got so frightened they left town without paying their bill. But they left most of their things in the room, too, so he sold the binoculars and the cameras and it came out all right.
He told the story like it was funny, how scared they had gotten, like any of them had ever really seen her and there was something to compare.
You start to think that you’re the only one who has ever seen her.
It’s a terrible thing to think, and you hope for a long time that it isn’t true, but in all the stories people tell about her, no one says a word about seeing her themselves. Maybe she’s just the kind of person whose privacy people respect, you think.
(But you know already, long before you admit it, that you’re the only one who’s ever seen her, and that she must be so lonely it makes your stomach hurt.
When she said hello, you’ve never heard anyone so surprised.)
That year, a researcher comes.
She isn’t like the newscasters, with their navy or pastel skirt-suits, and their hair that got blonder the farther south they came from, and their camera crews who said nothing and tipped poorly.
She comes alone, with a roll-along suitcase that Pete from the diner said was mostly just full of notes and books and a laptop. She read papers the whole time she ate, Pete said, and after she paid the bill she asked him if the rumor was true.
“I’m studying armless maidens of the American West,” she said. “I hear there might be one in the area. If anyone has any information about her, I’d like to meet her.”
Pete said it like she was the weird one, but some of the people he told the story to thought she sounded different.
Meet, she had said, which sounded very civilized, and which none of them, the more they thought about it, had ever really done.
You kind of hate Pete for not asking more about it. You worked Wednesday through Saturday; if she had come in a day later, you would have asked her plenty.
Because it was as though no one heard the part you hear, the part that sends you down to the motel after work Friday to leave a wadded-up note with Carla, who does the night shift, and who would be more likely to actually pass the word along. (Tommy works days, and he’d let it get lost out of spite, because some guys are just nothing but spite, aren’t they?)
She had said, armless maidens.
There are more.
There’s comfort in an armless maiden.
In the stories about one armless maiden or another, her suffering is finite; because she is a girl of virtue—or was, before her father got to her, but allowances are made—we know she won’t always wander the forest, bleeding and solitary.
While she does make the forest her home, angels part the water for her to walk through, so she’ll never drown, and drape their heavenly cloaks on her, so she’ll never freeze. It’s a comfort.
The birds drop berries into her open mouth, and the rain falls past her grateful lips, so that when the prince finds her she won’t be starved (princes in stories don’t like maidens whose bodies are eating themselves).
The comfort of the armless maiden is how well you know she’s being cared for; how easy it is to understand which parts of her are not whole.
When the researcher actually calls you back, you’re surprised.
“It was kind of you to contact me,” she says. “And yes, I’m still very interested in speaking with her, if it’s possible.”
You ask, “Why?” like she was the one who left you a note instead.
She says, “I’ll show you the structure of the study, if you want. It’s very respectful of privacy. It’s still at the research stage at the moment—we’re a little low on funding—but I hope that we’re doing important work.”
The guys at the golf course probably do important work, and you hope she’s after something besides golf-course money. (You feel like you wouldn’t even know what really important work was.)
“Sure,” you say.
The armless maiden is alone.
Even in dreams, no one comes near her; even if there are forests teeming with armless maidens, each one is in a world only she knows for certain.
If the woods were teeming with them, the armless maidens wouldn’t believe it, somehow; they would pass by and pass by, each thinking of the others, What a lonely girl, how like a ghost.
(In the good dreams, the world of an armless maiden is a world of silence; it’s a world filled with rings of silver; it’s a world where the axe couldn’t hold.)
The researcher comes in on a Thursday night with her roll-along, looking just like Pete described her, and orders a cup of coffee, and asks you to have a seat.
There are some people who stopped off on their way to the antique fair, so you can’t right away, but you stop by to refill her coffee about a dozen times, and finally she pushes a document toward you.
You flip open the first page, standing right there at the table because you can’t wait any longer to know what’s going on.
You scan the page quickly—the corner booth ordered omelets and the toast gets stone cold if it sits out for more than ten seconds.
It reads, “The armless maidens of the American West are not, despite the title of this study, a geographically-defined phenomenon. The concentration on this region merely allows for a reasonable sample size to be defined and, if possible, interviewed.”
Then, farther down, “For purposes of this study and in the interests of maintaining privacy for participants, all names have been changed.”
Then there are lists of names; there are charts and graphs full of more data points than you ever thought were possible to gather about anything.
(One axis is labeled “Age at Dismemberment.” You can’t breathe.)
Next to her, there are stacks of paper fastened with clips, with names like ANNA or CARLIE or MARIA written in large block letters across the front, maybe so they’re easy to find.
They’re not real names; you wonder if she picked them, or they picked their own.
“What happened to them?” you ask, finally, after you’ve decided there’s not enough money in the world to make you pick one up and read it.
(Your fingers are still resting on CARLIE. Underneath her name it reads: AGE 13.)
She considers her answer, like she doesn’t want to frighten you.
She says, “Different things.”
That’s sort of worse—you had tried to take comfort in the old story that only a father did this kind of thing. Your dad was okay; you thought you were fine.
You swallow. “Are they—are they all right?”
“Some of them,” she says. “It depends a lot on what happens to them afterward—who they know, how much they feel they have support to rejoin the world. Sometimes their arms even grow back, eventually, depending.”
You guess a little bit about what that depends on, but it’s not hard; the armless maiden has been around a long time, and nothing has healed, and everybody you know says things about her but never to.
“I’d like to speak with her, if you know where to find her,” she says. “It’s a good starting point. The more we talk to them, the easier it is to take note of their progress.”
There could have been progress already, if someone had ever walked out past the golf course and looked her in the eye, just once.
You don’t want to talk about this anymore.
“I’ll get your check,” you say, and fill her coffee cup too full, and clock out for your smoke break twice in a row by accident because your hands are shaking.
You suck the cigarette down to the filter, making up your mind about it.
You go back out to the woods, late in the day, when no one is likely to be on the course.
(You don’t like the golfers. They never come into the diner, even though it’s right down the highway and they have to drive past it, and it seems more trouble to avoid it than to stop.)
You wait near the tree. You’ve brought some things that make you feel stupider than you’ve ever felt, including the time you had to give an oral report on the French Revolution in history and blanked, and Tommy never let you hear the end of it.
(You’ve brought scissors, a comb, vitamins, a dress with sleeves.
You want to be prepared; when you tell her about the researcher, she might say yes.)
Near dark, just before it’s really night, she comes by all the same, with careful footfalls.
When she sees you, she stops.
“Hello,” says the armless maiden.
You say, “Hello.”
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