We live on the Moor. Grandma used to say that water flowed here in the olden days, stubborn river water with strong fists. She knew everything about fists, Grandma did. The river was a storm beast, a blind rage, but now it is nothing at all and Grandma has ended up in the same dense dark earth it once tore apart. We buried her on the southside of the Church Rock, because that was how she told Dorte that it should be done. Every Sunday Dorte, my sister Dorte, stands in front of the Rock and sings. She does it at dawn and when I explain to her that it disturbs my sleep, she replies that things can’t be done differently. Tyra sleeps like a corpse and can show the whites of her eyes like a corpse, too. My sister Tyra has white eyes and Dorte sings God-songs before anyone else has risen.
Tyra takes care of the rabbits. The grindstone stands in our shed, made of sandstone from the old quarry where Granddad and Great-granddad and all the other men used to work. The tools belonged to Granddad, too, the longknives and the hammer and the wood axe. Tyra is out in the shed a lot, but never Dorte. Tyra likes things that are sharp and things that are downy. Dorte sews clothing from most of the pelts, but sometimes Tyra hides parts and keeps them with her in the shed. She strokes the fur when she thinks no one is looking. The rabbits push through the earth that was once river—they are their own river in endless tunnels under my feet. I think that the rabbits should stay in their tunnels but I only ever tell Dorte, never Tyra. Maybe it’s one of those thoughts I forget to tell anyone at all.
There is a road across the Moor but the ground is hilly between it and us, ridges with hunching trees and thickets lit up by poisonous yellow berries hiding the road from sight. A stranger knocked on our door once, when Grandma was in charge. I’m glad it happened then and not now when it’s just Dorte, Tyra, and I. My singing sister and my sister with corpse-like eyes.
Granddad started working at the sandstone quarry when he was eight years old. That’s what the men do, they break in the middle, and that’s why we are girls and wouldn’t have it any other way. The boy-Granddad bled from his hands and turned ugly and crooked. Grandma married him out of pity and had many children, who spread themselves out over the Moor. They are called Erid and Halvar and Meta and Laren and they are our kin. They have children who are our kin. I don’t think any of them are as skilled at trapping rabbits as my sister Tyra.
When the Moor was a river there was salmon and trout and maybe pike—I’ve read the species’ names in Granddad’s book about animals. Salmo salar. Salmo trutta. Esox lucius. Maybe they didn’t exist at all. Dorte says that the world looked different then and that Grandma liked making up stories. Dorte’s head is as grown-up as her body, and sometimes I get very tired of her.
I’m good at hammering nails and at hiding. Sometimes I run all the way up to the cairn, and before they’ve reached me I’m hidden among the stones and invisible.
“Mei,” Dorte says. Her voice is pointy and heavy, and her head jerks like an animal’s. She’s a large brown bird, my sister is, and I have to press my hands over my mouth to keep from giggling.
“Stupid brat,” Tyra shouts and kicks into the dirt with Granddad’s boots. This is why I like the cairn—no one dares to go near the rocks except me. Granddad never talked about the cairn and never looked at it. It has to do with death, but I’m too small to die.
“We’ll go home without you,” Dorte says. “Mei, do you hear? We’ll leave you alone now.”
“You won’t get any food until tomorrow,” Tyra adds. “Just sit out here. I hope the spirits take you.”
I hear the slap when Dorte’s palm hits Tyra in the face.
“Come out now,” Dorte begs. Tyra stands behind her, covering her cheek—I see them through cracks and cavities. “You can’t be in there. You know that.”
The river flows forth when I close my eyes. I’ll sing to it once Dorte and Tyra have gone.
I return to our house once the ground inside the cairn has gone cold and the earth has started squeaking. Dorte pretends as though I haven’t been away but Tyra glares. Meat juice runs from her mouth, shiny with grease. She’s scrawny everywhere except for her swollen lips. After eating we pray, our mouths moving around the words at different speeds. It’s forbidden to open your eyes during prayer, but they don’t know that I do it so it doesn’t matter. Once Tyra peeked, too—we looked at each other. Murmured the words like Dorte does and sat there with our eyes open.
“You’ll help me with the dishes, Mei,” Dorte says and looks straight at me. Prayer is over. I lower my hands into the dishpan and wonder if the water in our well is river water. Fairytale water. I stay there longer than I need to just to feel it between my fingers.
We sleep in the room that has always been ours. Sometimes Tyra sleeps out in the shed and sometimes Dorte doesn’t sleep at all. I’m always where I’m supposed to be. My eyes are heavy but I hear that hum from the earth, and I listen to it. I sink, cold and blue and lonely.
It’s morning. We eat greasy bread, and drink, and go to the hole behind the house. Dorte has a tiny brush to clean her nails with. Tyra sits with her legs spread and carves at a piece of wood, her face as rough and knotty as Granddad’s. She aims longlegged kicks at me when I ask her to tell me a story. Summer mornings, fall mornings—the year takes giant leaps around the house, and sometimes I run to the cairn. Their voices follow, Dorte’s tired and Tyra’s angry. Tyra wants to throw sharp sticks at the cairn but Dorte stops her. The river murmurs through the night and I wonder if Tyra would let me have a woolly little rabbit to tame. No, I don’t wonder. I know.
The road lies splayed out beyond the hills, ugly and uneven. Dorte goes to the road sometimes but Tyra and I never go with her anymore. We went with her once but we never do it now. There is a woman who sells fabrics, Dorte waits for her. Returns with thin strips of colored linen that’s no good for anything but mending tears. The woman is old, as thin as her fabrics, but with a swollen lump of a stomach. She walks very slowly. Dorte comes back with her colors and the woman’s chatter like fluttering bird wings in the air around her. When the words flutter in my ears I search the river instead. We live on the Moor. We don’t need anything but the Moor.
It’s from the road he comes. The stranger. He comes on Fabric Day and Dorte stands by the road beyond our hills with her basket. I’m in the kitchen and Tyra in the shed when she returns, without fabrics but with the stranger in tow. He’s a man with long legs and boots. There hasn’t been any man here since Granddad. And Dorte claims to revere the Church Rock! She throws her braids around, and the basket hangs empty and forgotten over her arm. Tyra comes inside and puts her knife away on the window sill. Blood dribbles over the wood—she’s been busy. No one is as skilled at trapping rabbits as she is.
“It’s ruined now,” Tyra says, watching Dorte and the stranger.
I want to run to the cairn and hide, but now Tyra is here and would catch me if I tried. She never scrubs her nails like Dorte does and they are black, thick and long. She’s quick and mean most of the time.
Dorte enters together with the man. Her voice is light and syrupy, false. The man has to hunker down inside the house—he’s taller than Granddad. Taller than Granddad’s sons, the ones that spread out over the Moor.
“Matteus,” Dorte says and he grins with a too-wide mouth and too-white teeth. “His name is Matteus. Will you make the tea, Mei?”
The stranger’s head moves in all directions as he surveys the lamp and the rugs and the knife on the sill. “You hunt?”
“It’s just Tyra,” Dorte tells him. “This is my sister Tyra, and that’s Mei.”
“Not what I’d expected out here on the Moor.” What does he know about the Moor, this stranger? “I’ve passed this place many times, but your cottage isn’t visible from the road. There are people further down, towards the woods. I usually speak a word with them when I walk past, but up here I’ve never seen a living soul until today.”
I slam the cups against each other in the cupboard. Dorte doesn’t seem to notice.
“Granddad built away from people,” she says as if we talk about Granddad with anyone. “It’s a good house, it’s been here for a long time. So has the shed.”
The stranger looks a fool when he smiles. His lower lip isn’t beautiful like Tyra’s, just fat and spongy. “To think that you live out here alone, three girls. Not bad.”
I drop the tea tin on purpose, crushing the leaves between my fingertips. The counter turns grey and grainy. “We’ve only got three cups,” I say, and Dorte’s eyes sharpen.
“We have five, so you just take four of those.” She’s impatient, not as sweet-voiced as when she’s talking to the stranger.
We only have three cups. The two at the back of the cupboard belong to Grandma and Granddad, and we never use them. When Granddad passed, Grandma pushed his cup to the back of the cupboard, and when Grandma passed, Dorte did the same with hers. The Granddad cup is blackened on the outside from all the fires he’s heated it over. The Grandma cup has a dent on one side. They are Granddad’s and Grandma’s, and that’s why they can’t be used by anyone else.
“Not the Grandma cup,” I say.
“Grandma knew what hospitality meant.” Dorte comes up to me and takes the cups out herself. Places them on the table. “That’s more than you know.”
I’m not trusted with a single thing after that. Dorte pours steaming tea into the cups and shows the stranger to the seat of honor. Tyra sits by the window, quiet. I’m by the door, though Dorte tries to push me around with her glares.
Dorte wants to know why the stranger walks across the Moor. He tastes his tea. His hands are too big for the Grandma cup—they cover it until it’s gone.
“I’m from a village far away from town, so I go there once in a while to see my old mother. The bus fare is too costly for me, and even if you take the bus you have to walk the last mile or so. I’ve always been fond of the Moor. There’s a sort of serenity here, I like that. No sounds, nothing. It allows you to think.”
I have to speak. “There are plenty of sounds on the Moor. The earth squeaks, it whines, it lives. The soil buzzes because of the river but I bet you can’t hear it, since you don’t belong here.”
Dorte flies from her seat. “Stop it with that river talk!” Her voice is loud, almost a scream. “It’s a story, Mei, don’t you understand? Don’t you understand anything?”
Tyra laughs. She draws her knees to her chin and laughs, low and croaky like a bird.
“I do understand,” I say and go outside. Once I’ve closed the door I run, past the shed and the Church Rock, toward the cairn. I fight my way inside and I’m hidden. Invisible.
The door to the house opens. Their voices trail toward me, mingling with the sound of stomping feet.
“…just a child,” the stranger says. Some words reach me but not all. “Could get sick…the earth is cold.”
“Damn kid!” Tyra calls, and Dorte looks like she wants to do the same. They come up to the cairn, all three of them, stopping in front of it. One tall, black shadow and two little ones.
“Sorry, but I don’t see what the problem is.” The stranger laughs. “The girl is right there. I can see her watching us.”
Dorte turns her eyes away from the rocks. Murmurs, “She’s not allowed…it’s no place for us. She’s not supposed to be there.”
“Damn kid,” Tyra says again, but this time her voice is almost sad.
The stranger’s laughter hits us again. “What, you believe such old nonsense? It’s just a heap of stones, nothing more. You can’t be serious.”
Dorte tightens her hands to fists. “It’s the resting place of the fathers. It’s the sacred place. The women can only touch the stones when a man of the family is to be buried—the men can’t ever go up here. The spirits watch, they make sure things are done correctly. Grandma taught us that night when it was Granddad’s turn to rest. We have tools in the shed—hoes and spades. We have what we need.”
“Mei ruins everything,” Tyra says. “Mei doesn’t know how things are supposed to be.”
The stranger steps forward. “You’re lucky that I came by. I’m not afraid of any old superstition. Your spirits may do their best to fight me.” He comes all the way up to the cairn. I don’t have time to back away before he reaches into my hole and grabs my ankle. His other hand comes for me too and he pulls, stronger than me and the cairn together. I’m dragged into the open, aiming kicks at him but he laughs, pinching my arm.
“There she is. See, that wasn’t so hard. The spirits must be asleep.” He watches me with his wide face that is far above mine, halfway to the heavens. “You need to be nicer to your big sisters from now on. They know what’s best for you.”
Back in the kitchen, the tea has gone cold and bitter. I sit opposite Tyra because they’ve made me.
“You have to agree with me now that there are no spirits.” The stranger eats—Dorte has brought out honey cakes. He’s had three already.
Dorte shakes her head. “The spirits can’t reach you since you don’t belong to the family. You’re not from the Moor.”
“And little Mei?”
“Mei hasn’t become a woman yet. No blood. Once you have your blood you’re a woman, and then the spirits know what you are. Tyra and I can’t touch the stones—they won’t let us. Mei can.” Her eyes harden. “But she shouldn’t.”
I have never heard the bit about blood before. I don’t like it. “It’s the river,” I say. “It’s because I can hear the river, and you can’t.”
The stranger laughs with his fat lips and pearly teeth. “Water out here? I’d like to see that. Dry as dust it is, drier than any place I’ve seen.”
I watch him. Still, I don’t see him.
He stays in the house that night. It’s the kind of night when Dorte doesn’t sleep. He doesn’t sleep either. The bed thumps and screeches, and they make vile noises that slice through my head. He goes still after a while and Dorte rises. Her nightgown hangs off one shoulder, unbuttoned. I hear her walk out of the house and to the Church Rock. She’s singing. The stranger sleeps but Dorte is singing. Tyra’s in the shed, caressing silky furs with unwashed hands. She does it in her sleep.
It roars and rushes. I hear it over Dorte’s song, over all the songs in the world. The river, the fairytale water—Grandma’s promise. There has been a river once, and there shall be a river again. What once was will exist again.
It lies on the window sill, forgotten. The wood under it is dark and sticky. I grab it in my hand and it only weighs a little, is as light and soft as an animal.
My feet move over the floor toward the bed where he sleeps. I turn the knife this way and that in my hand. The earth laughs. The earth lives and breathes and waits for me to set things right.
Once you have your blood you’re a woman.
Maybe it’s the flowing blood I’m hearing?