When the soldiers came to our village, it was not yet our village. Back then, it was still our great-grandparents’ village, until the soldiers came and with them, fire. Then, for a time, it was only fire’s village. The soldiers burned down schools and bakeries. They burned houses and grocery stores and the town hall. They set the crop aflame, and wheat fields rippled with heat like great flags.
After the library burned, the librarian went home to her lover. When she kissed him, her mouth tasted of smoke. She eased open her blouse, button by button, and as she did, ashes of “Ozymandius,” and Great Expectations and Macbeth floated up from her skin and settled at her feet. The librarian took her lover’s hands and placed one over each breast, and they nearly scalded him, but he did not pull away. The librarian’s lover looked to the bedroom, but the librarian shook her head. Here, she told him. They made love on the floor, ashes fluttering up from their bodies like moths.
The following week, the librarian left her lover. First, she stocked the kitchen. She hung onions in bunches from the ceiling and lined the pantries with fruit preserves. She grilled cornmeal cakes with small pats of butter in the center. She scrubbed every skillet clean and then kept scrubbing until the oils wore down and the metal began to bend, and when she could not scrub anymore, she turned her back, put on her shoes, and was gone.
The townspeople rebuilt the schools and bakeries and grocery stores and the town hall. They replanted the wheat. They built a new library, but it remained bookless, as all the books in the village had burned. The librarian returned to work regardless. Since the night the library burned, her stomach had been growing rounder and wider, and she slept until noon each day. She bored of sleeping. She wanted to work. In the new library, she dusted empty bookshelves. She painted each shelf a different color, and glued on genre labels: Fiction on the blue shelf, Biographies on the orange one, Poetry & Drama on the green shelf. She bought more and more shelves and more and more paint colors until there were no new colors left, so she started making plaid shelves and striped shelves and one shelf painted with lipstick and another covered in her own footprints. She had long since run out of traditional genres, now labeling the shelves things like Turnip, Stone Wall, Shoelace, Thimble, Sarsaparilla. It had grown difficult to reach her arm and the paintbrush around her belly, which had bloated like the wind-fed sail of a ship.
After nine months of painting and labeling, the librarian gave birth on the library floor. She was taping Plume Thistle onto a shelf speckled to look like a robin’s egg, and then she was on the ground and, soon, so were her children. There were seventeen of them.
The librarian’s children had paper skin. Beneath their skin was a tangle of paper veins, and beneath those were crisp origami organs and paper-pulp bones. The children had fine wisps of paper curls atop their paper heads. When they yawned, their mouths made a crinkling sound. The only color on their bodies was a black ink spot in the center of each paper eye.
The librarian raised her children in the empty library. She folded clothes for them out of old newspapers, and they slept on the many painted bookshelves. They grew quickly. They cried over the rapidity at which their paper bones stretched within their wrappers. The librarian comforted them as best she could, running between them to cradle away their ache. In the quieter moments, a soft rustling wafted up from them, and the librarian was sure it must be the echo of their crisp bodies settling into themselves.
When the paper children grew old enough, their mother let them play outside and go into town to run simple errands. They never ate, so they bought no meat or bread, but enjoyed picking long-stemmed flowers to weave through the buttonholes on their paper coats. As the children began going out into the world more and more, the librarian began to worry. Despite their growth, they were fragile. They ripped their shins on tree bark and came home with crumpled elbows after long days of play. After three children were almost pulped by August rain, their mother went to the hardware store and bought seventeen silver bells and seventeen lengths of twine. She tied a bell around each child’s neck, so if any of them got lost or hurt, she could find them and bring all seventeen of them safely home.
After that, there were no more silences. A chiming trickled in and out of the house at all times, lingering in the doorway, bouncing off tulip heads and windowpanes. Sometimes the whole house boiled with bells, like hailstones dancing on a tin roof.
The paper children grew more adventurous each day. Soon townspeople began to find paper children in their cupboards and silos and hiding under hedges. The owner of the general store found one in a bag of flour. The baker caught three of them in his kitchen staring into the bread oven as if gazing into a wolf’s open jaw. What do you want? he asked them, and they looked up at him in tandem, their inked eyes blue with heat. What do you want? the baker asked again. One of the children held up its hands. Its fingertips were raw with soot.
Any time they were caught, the paper children would stare up with those unblinking eyes until their mother came to fetch them. Later, the villagers would sit for a meal with their families. It seemed as if they wanted something, they would explain over a bowl of stew. What? The children and mothers and husbands would ask. What did they want? But no one could say. It was simply agreed upon that the paper children wanted, and that was all.
It wasn’t long before the villagers erected fences on their properties. Too many paper children had been found in gardens. Too many townspeople fell asleep envisioning their pale paper skin and paper curls and creased limbs and, most of all, that vast and untamable wanting. So the villagers felled trees to sharpen into posts. They pounded holes into the soil and drove a post into each hole. Then they tightened wire between and nailed it taut until fencing lined every owned acre of land.
When the paper children were teenagers, a tree fell and took down a length of wire. One of the paper children crossed over. It walked for over three miles until it found a young woman resting on a hillside. She was filling a diary. The paper child approached the woman and asked to sit with her. The diary pages were clean and layered with geometrical precision, and as the girl dragged her pen across them, the paper child felt the swell of some strange new heat. A page turned, and a small breath sighed up from the book and coaxed a ring from the child’s silver bell. Embarrassed, the child clamped its hand over it to muffle the sound. The girl did not notice. Careful so as not to disturb the writer, the paper child pressed closer until it grazed the edge of the diary, letting its own skin and the skin of the journal blend into each other. The child waited there motionless, and when the girl reached the end of the page, she kept on writing. Ink darkened the paper child’s shoulder and the ink twisted into words and the words twisted into meanings, which soon stung sweetly along the full length of its arm. Then the meanings became thought, and the paper child felt as though it had been struck by lightning and survived.
The paper child walked the three miles back towards home. As it did, the writing on its arm began to smoke. By the time the child reached the rift in the fence, the words had smoldered into a deep wound.
Back at the library, the librarian was folding last week’s newspaper into a new set of coats. Winter was coming, and her children must be warm. A bell sang, and knowing one of her offspring was near, she laid down her handiwork and opened the door. When she saw the gouge in her wandering child’s arm, saw the char still carving down through the fibers and filaments and saw the sharpness of her child’s eyes, she seized its hand and ran to the garden. The librarian packed handfuls of soil into the hole. The burning muffled. She asked her child what had happened, but the child would not say. It just packed the soil down into its shoulder and thanked its mother for her troubles. The following month, once the fence had been mended, violets needled up from the wound. They spread across the shoulder like a bruise.
They say that when the librarian died, her children carried her into the yard. They emptied inkwells onto her eyes, but her eyes remained closed. They tore off scraps of their own hair and held it to her lips, but no breath moved the paper to stir. They shook their silver bells into her ears, but she did not turn towards the sound. When they realized she would not wake, that their mother was now a closed book, the paper children built a small paper house from the clothes their mother had made for them and placed her inside. Careful to not set their own arms ablaze, they tossed a match through the thin paper window. Despite itself, the house burned slowly. In the end, cinder was all that remained. Much of it took to the air. Some say that, in the days to come, singed scraps of long-lost novels skittered across the streets and floated onto picnic tables with a passing breeze—novels that had not been seen since before the soldiers came.
It has been three generations since their birth, yet the paper children remain. They do not return to the library. The library is now a convenience store, and the bookshelves hold lottery tickets and snack-sized pretzel bags. Instead, the children reside in the forest. There are no wire fences in the woodland, and the paper children are free to wander amongst the roots. Often, they wait by the tree line, watching the village. All day, we can hear bells among the tall grasses. The only silent hours come when it rains, as the children must seek shelter in caves and hollowed trees to wait for sun. Otherwise, the bells ring high and hollow. We hardly notice it now. We have grown so used to the sound; it blends with the breeze and the birdsong and our own breath.
Once in a while a house in the town will catch flame. The neighbors will run to fill buckets with water and sling hoses through living room windows. Sometimes the building will be saved. Sometimes the fire will blaze until the roof collapses. No matter the outcome, one aspect is always the same: just on the other side of the nearest fence, seventeen paper children gather. Their ashen faces glow orange in the firelight. Their paper arteries open and close on bloodless veins, like hands grasping for something ever out of reach. Their eyes, still black with ink, are open.
GennaRose Nethercott is a poet, playwright, performer, and folklorist residing in the forests of Vermont. Her recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Rust + Moth, The Salon, and others. Her poem “Departures” won the 2014 Holland Park Press poetry competition, and her play-in-verse, “Ghostmaker,” was produced in Massachusetts and Vermont. She serves as the poetry editor at Mount Island Magazine. She knows more about shape shifters than she does about being a person.
She can be found at http://www.gennarosenethercott.com