Across the border

Red Riding Hood

It is not simple line on a map, or a fence that pinches against our wispy plains like a monk’s belt.

No, our border is a wall: as high and thick as a mountain. It strangles, silences, mutes the cracks of truncheon on bone. No one knows what lays beyond; only that the clouds and birds that pass over head fly somewhere, and we cannot.

But there is the river: a trickle of life, which flows through a pore on the border’s obsidian hide. “The evil leaks into our lands like purulence from a wound,” the priests cry from their daises. Yet that quicksilver flux still pours into our land. Grandmother knew this. She knew that the bottle always swallows as it drains. She swam through the mud and weed, right up to that iron gate and waded through the current and across the border as a goat eats through a corn field. The people still whisper her name in the fields, as the warrior who will return to free us. I cannot wait that long.

Father told me the way. “Go alone, Red” he said, “by the moon through the mud forests, staying low, keeping your feet wet as you pass the turrets.” The turrets that now splash crossbow shadows on the boles of felled oaks. “Stay low until your knees burst!” Stay low I did, but go alone I couldn’t. A poacher some call him, or just ‘smuggler’. He has  a fiery beard and crooked teeth; he holds my elbow and feeds me through the trees. His price was fair, and he convinced me with stories of boats and marble landings and emerald grasses and sweet soils. Father did not like it, but I stole from the dwelling window anyway, with a tear in my eye and a tiger in my heart.

The smuggler’s cloak leads me around sentry posts and sniffing dogs, until the black towering band is only a stone’s throw from our feet. “Remove your cape,” he says over the gush of the river. “A little lady will have no prettier noose when it snags on a rock.” He takes my crimson cape and the wooden buckle carved for me by grandmother, then nods at a grey eddy.

“If you make it through, little lady, the innkeeper will help you.”

The water gnaws my ankles, my thighs, my womanly parts; it freezes my lungs. Before I take my diving breath, I see the smuggler skulk into the brambles. Submerged roots are my ladder and I climb right up to the rock face, where the water surges at me stronger than a winter gale. The iron bars are there, just as father had said, the gaps no larger than a farm girl’s neck. My breath is tugging at my cheeks as I cork my head into the blackness. Something slimy strikes my arm. An eel? Fingernails screaming, my eyes painted with thick tar, I scratch along crag and moss until my knee grazes against stone. I dive deeper, scrambling among the turbulant wisps. More bars. I punch a hole through weed and wood and unclog a hundred stings. My lungs are searing as I wedge into the green mist.

Air. I’m choking on it. With shredded limbs I drag myself to the bank. I’ve made it. I’ve made it to the beyond.

Lights sprinkled over a low hill are my guide as I run in the smoked moonlight between clearings and over hedges, not caring to look behind me. A lobstered innkeeper tells me that she’s expecting me; that she’s upstairs. My pain is subsides with each step.

Her face is the same as I remember–wizened cheeks and salted hair–but she’s wearing a mail vest, striped in orange and black, and is clutching at the pommel of a golden sword. She remains still.

“Grandmother,” I say, almost sobbing. “It’s me, Riada. I’ve need your help.” When I touch her cold hand, her head slumps forward and I see the dagger in her neck, blood glistening as black as the border’s walls.

“What a fine swimmer the little lady makes,” a voice says behind me. A line of crossbows emerge from the shadows and I don’t even manage to scream.

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