Sinfi’s mother bought the farm from a flat-eyed man with pale pink skin and a permanent sneer. It was late September and the weather was already getting cold, and the man said that this winter was going to be a bad one, and that they should go south while they still had the chance. Sinfi’s mother didn’t listen. People are always saying things like that to Sinfi’s mother, because her skin is dark and her eyes are soulful, and they think that means that she’s feckless and can’t be held down, that she can’t be trusted, that she came here to steal good people’s jobs. Nobody ever remembers that Sinfi’s mother’s family has been around these parts for centuries, longer than some of the old village folk.
Sinfi’s mother wants to settle down. She’s got a horse and a rusty old plough, two cows, five geese, seven ducks, a dozen chickens and three pigs. The pigs are friendly, not dirty at all, and they have mottled hairy skin and wrinkly eyes. Sometimes Sinfi sits with them and listens to their happy gabbling noises and pretends that she can understand them. Pigs aren’t difficult to understand, not like humans.
In October the leaves start to turn brown and orange and dead-looking, and by the end of November the trees are all skeletons rising up out of the mist, stripped of their pretty green jewellery. Sinfi feeds the birds and milks the cows and collects the eggs, while her mother goes out into the fields and plants wheat crops. They sell the chicken eggs in the market, but they keep the duck eggs for themselves. They taste better, and they’re bigger. Sinfi isn’t used to working on a farm, but she knows the value of hard labour, and her hands have never been soft like the village girls with their painted nails. By December Sinfi’s muscles are getting almost as big as her mother’s. It makes her feel strong, like she could take on anything. She’ll turn eighteen in a few months, and she’ll finish her correspondence course next year, and she can feel her future unfolding out in front of her.
The winter hits them hard. The smallest pig dies, and Sinfi’s mother cuts up the meat and makes a hot pork pie with soft golden pastry, and she puts the rest of it in the freezer. The pig was Sinfi’s friend, but she eats the pie anyway. They can’t afford to let things go to waste. They keep the cows in the barn, because the snow’s too thick for them to graze properly, and the frost freezes their eyelashes together. The barn smells like hay and horse dung. There are holes in the roof, so little bits of snow come drifting down through the ceiling to melt on the floor. It’s still cold but the cows don’t seem to mind too much.
Out near the boundary of their property there’s an old abandoned mill, and Sinfi likes to go out and sit on the crumbling steps and be alone for a while. Sometimes she takes a book, but when the weather’s bad she just wraps her coat around her shoulders and stomps through the slurry of mud and melted snow, getting away from the farm, away from her mother, away from everything. The millpond froze over a while ago, and the layer of ice is so thick that Sinfi can jump up and down on it and it won’t so much as crack. Shadows swirl beneath the surface, but the ice is clouded and Sinfi can only make out vague shapes. Sometimes she swears she can see fingertips pressing against the underside of the ice.
At night Sinfi clutches her blankets close, and counts her heartbeats. The wind howls like a dying beast, rattling the windows and shaking the skeleton trees. She wants to keep a light on, but they’re trying to save electricity, and she doesn’t need protecting from her own nightmares.
When the weather starts to warm up again Sinfi is relieved, because she’d begun to think that the winter would never end. Her mother doesn’t say anything, but the lines around her eyes are looser, and she starts to smile and laugh again. Sinfi’s mother has a weird sense of humour. She tells Sinfi not to stray too far into the woods, because there are monsters there that will gobble her up. Then she says that she’s joking, because the real monsters are human, and she laughs high and loud like the cawing of a magpie.
Sinfi isn’t stupid. Monsters are things that people invent so that they have a reason to be scared of the dark. Still, she rather fancies the idea, so for a while she goes exploring around the woods looking for gnomes and fairies. She doesn’t find any, but occasionally she hears an eerie chattering carried on the breeze, and once she found a set of tiny little footprints in the soil, shaped like a person’s but barely bigger than her thumbnail.
In the second week of spring, she meets Jenny.
The village is miles away, but there are a couple of little houses and huts dotted around the mountain near the farm, and Sinfi thinks that Jenny must have walked over from one of those. Jenny shows up one day knocking on the door of the barn. She was in the area, she says, and she wanted to drop by and say hello. Sinfi’s mother is out at the market, but Jenny doesn’t mind. Sinfi pours her a glass of milk, fresh from the cow, and they sit next to the pig-pen and chat about the wheat crops that they’ll harvest in the summer. Jenny suggests that they start up a veggie garden. They’ve got the soil for it, she says, and it seems a shame to waste the space.
The pigs are weirdly skittish around Jenny, and the cows start an awful bellowing when she goes near them, stamping their feet and rolling their eyes around. They’re not used to strangers, and it takes Sinfi a while to calm them down. She apologises, but Jenny just laughs, flashing teeth that are wickedly sharp and a bright blue-green. Sinfi blinks, and stares, but then Jenny turns and smiles at her, close-lipped, and she thinks that she must have imagined it.
Jenny comes back again the next day, and the day after that. She never does meet Sinfi’s mother; somehow it never comes up. They go walking through the woods together, and Sinfi shows off all of her favourite places, the trails and meadows and tiny streams, and the huge old oak tree with glistening spider webs strung between its branches. Jenny seems to enjoy it, but her face is so smooth and slick that it’s hard to read her expressions. Her skin is pallid, with an odd nacreous sheen, and her hair is thick and wild and dark. She’s taller than Sinfi, with long gangly limbs, but even though she looks awkward she moves surprisingly gracefully, as if she’s dancing. Her irises are pale blue, but her pupils and sclera are black as pitch. Her nails are long and sharp, like claws. She’s beautiful, but it’s a scary kind of beauty, like the sun. If you look at her for too long, it burns.
Jenny never dresses properly for the weather. Even though it’s springtime now, it’s still horribly chilly in the mornings and evenings, but Jenny only ever wears the same old tattered black dress. The fabric clings to her skin as if it’s wet, and trails along the ground behind her but never seems to pick up dirt or stains. Sinfi offers to lend her a coat, but the cold doesn’t seem to bother her.
Sinfi’s never really had a proper friend before. They always moved around too much and too quickly for her to make any real connections with the locals, and now that they’ve got the farm they’re too far away from everyone else to make friends. Anyway, the villagers disapprove of her family, and her background, and her clothes, and the way she does her hair, and it’s hard to befriend anyone who gets hung up on stuff like that. Jenny is different. Jenny’s sort of a space cadet, actually; she doesn’t keep up with the news, or with recent technology, or films, or books, or anything. She likes fairy tales, she says, and Sinfi buys a copy of Grimm’s Hausmärchen and reads it from cover to cover.
When Sinfi is with Jenny she feels like her heart is about to flutter out of her chest like a bird. The whole world feels brighter, filled with a sweet and unearthly light, and Jenny’s green-toothed smile is the centre of the universe. To be the subject of Jenny’s intense attention is dizzying, hypnotic, and Sinfi falls in love almost without realising it.
I-love-you becomes a secret phrase breathed between them, hung between their lips, wandering over their skin. The words are magical, but not because of any inherent special meaning; rather they are powerful because they resonate, echoing all the times the phrase has been uttered throughout history. Every time Jenny whispers I-love-you, a thousand fairy tale princesses mouth the words along with her; a thousand famous lovers touch fingers between bars; a thousand literary heroines sigh and clutch flowers to their hearts. Sinfi is intoxicated with love, and for once she has found something outside of books that feels vibrant and addictive.
The darkness leaches away with the dawn, and, slowly, as spring progresses, the nights become less lonely and less frightening. Jenny’s eerie gaze strips away all of Sinfi’s unspoken fears and doubts, and her clammy, bittersweet kisses sweep every other thought out of Sinfi’s love-addled mind.
They meet by the millpond every morning, and Jenny weaves tiny white flowers into Sinfi’s hair. They read poetry to each other; Sinfi reading Wordsworth and Jenny murmuring in a language that Sinfi doesn’t recognise, a language that fills her ears with a distant roaring, that makes her blood throb wildly in her veins. Sinfi presses cold kisses to the underside of Jenny’s bony wrists, and Jenny clenches her claw-tipped slender fingers and stretches her mouth out in a vicious grin. Her gaze is ancient and knowing.
Sometimes Sinfi arrives early, and she stares at her reflection in the water, and almost thinks that she can see Jenny’s pale face staring back out at her. Jenny’s hair fans around her like seaweed, and her eyes are black and endlessly deep, and her smile has sharp edges. She beckons, and Sinfi moves closer to the water, breaking the surface with hesitant fingers, reaching out for someone that isn’t there.
Good morning, says Jenny later, sitting down beside Sinfi and dangling her bare feet in the water. Were you waiting long?
No, not long, says Sinfi, and stares into the millpond as if it contains all the secrets of the universe.
Spring slides into summer, and eventually it’s time to harvest the wheat. Sinfi’s mother arranges to borrow a big creaking combine harvester, and she spends a couple of hours inspecting the engine for dust and dry crop debris before she’s happy with it. The tires are enormous, and when it rolls along it makes a huge, angry, rumbling sound, chewing up the wheat with sharp metal teeth. The raw, earthy wheat-scent is heavy in the air, accompanied by the tang of hot metal. The heat of the day seems like a tangible thing, settling around Sinfi’s shoulders like a cloud-tipped cloak.
As the weather gets warmer, Jenny’s mood seems to sour. On cloudless days she flops around on the mill’s stone steps like a beached fish, all waxy skin and wide, desperate eyes. Her movements are slower, more languorous. Her speech is slurred. Often Sinfi arrives to find Jenny already reclining in the millpond, fully clothed, with her arms curled through the spokes of the waterwheel and murky algae tangled around her body.
Sinfi asks if there’s anything she can do to help, but Jenny just snorts and sinks further into the water.
These days Sinfi always feels a step out of sync, like the world is ever so slightly out of alignment. Very gradually, her connections fall away; the heat of summer doesn’t even reach her, and worldly things like the blue sky and the burning fields seem detached and distant. The world feels unreal, or maybe it is Sinfi that is unreal. Something within her is changing, transforming. She longs for darkness, for the cool, damp, peace of the millpond. She longs for the comforting chill of Jenny’s arms wrapped around her, the soothing not-poems whispered in her ears. Jenny herself is lazy, languid; her blue-black eyes flicker in the waning light of dusk, and her every expression seems deeply seductive. She is different in the summer, more approachable, more familiar. It only makes the rest of the world seem all the more foreign.
When autumn comes, Jenny speeds up again. She is faster, sharper, brighter, and everything else seems slower and duller in comparison. Sinfi spends more and more time lying by the bank of the millpond, dancing her fingers across the surface of the water. She doesn’t bring a book anymore. Instead she stares into the depths of the millpond, into the depths of Jenny’s inhuman eyes, into the depths of her own unknowable soul.
She abandons her studies, her chores, her old life. She doesn’t feed the horse, or milk the cows, or collect the eggs, or sit with the pigs listening to their nonsensical squealing. None of that matters anymore. The only time she feels true peace is at the old abandoned mill, watching the ripples in the water, watching the reflection of the sky create a new internal universe just for her. She is changing, she knows. She is no longer indifferent to the heat; it stings her skin, and hurts her throat. The sclera of her eye is darkening, and her teeth are growing sharp, even a little green.
Sinfi’s mother watches her constantly, now. The lines around her eyes are tight and unhappy, and she often tries to coax Sinfi to eat something, to read something, to go outside and get a little sunlight. They have several screaming arguments before Sinfi’s rage just falls away, and her mother, like everything else, becomes dim and grey and unimportant.
On the first day of autumn, Sinfi takes her shoes off and leaves the farm, sinking her toes into the cold earth. There is frost on the ground, and the wind is biting. The coming winter is going to be a bad one.
At the millpond, Jenny is waiting for her, and her eyes are huge and black and loving. Her smile is sweet, and her lips are the dull colour of the algae that gathers in the pond, and her teeth are the bright blue-green of the water lit up by sunlight, almost glowing. She beckons.
Sinfi takes a step forward, and then another, and then she falls into Jenny’s arms, feeling the water wrap around her. She breathes in, and the water rushes into her throat, and Jenny’s eyes are luminous in the dark.