A Strange Sister

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Ute had been an only child before she made a horrible mistake and invited a sister into her life. She had been half-asleep when she did it. It was the night of the Spring Veil. The day had been filled with puppet shows and jugglers and food and music, so packed with entertainments that nine-year-old Ute was nodding off shortly after dusk. She remembered falling asleep to a puppet show, the crisp air against her cheeks a sleep-inducing contrast with the warm, cozy blanket tucked around her and her cousin, Oliver.

The puppet show seemed different after dusk, the lamplight deepening the shadows in the puppet box, making the puppets seem more alive. The story had been about a cat and a mouse. The cat made Ute think of Sooty, the cat who came and went from the cottages like she owned them. The cat in the puppet story had just convinced the mouse to let it into the mouse's burrow when Ute's eyes closed.

She woke the first time when Da tucked a thicker, warmer blanket around her. She was on the pallet in their cozy cottage, in her night dress, but she didn't remember coming home or undressing. The blanket was a little scratchy, and it smelled like smoke and sheep and home. The single, small room was very dark, the hearth fire banked to coals, but still comfortingly familiar.

"Where's Papa?" Ute's voice felt distant and muted, like she was speaking into a thick fog.

Da smoothed her hair. "Still at the festival, string bean."

"I want my song." Papa always sang the same song when he tucked her in.

"He'll sing it for you when we get back." Da kissed her forehead. "Stay in bed, and don't open the door."

Ute tried to say that she wanted to go back to the festival, too, but sleep was already pulling her back down.

She woke the second time to the sound of tapping on the door. Mind still woolly with sleep, Ute slid out from under the blanket. Her parents weren't home yet, and her sleep-addled mind thought that Papa was trying to get in so that he could sing her to sleep. The swept-dirt floor was gritty and very cold under her bare feet. When she got to the door, the leather latch cord was out through the latch hole. Ute hazily wondered why Papa hadn't just let himself in, but she was at the door, now, and she wanted her song.

Ute pushed the smooth-worn wooden latch-arm up from its slot and pulled the door inward. Cold air rushed into the cottage, snaking up Ute's night dress and freezing her legs. The air felt so thick that she thought the melt-swollen brook at the edge of the hamlet had flooded. But it didn't smell like water. It smelled like Oliver had shoved a handful of rotting leaves up her nose.

The shadowy form outside was much too short to be Da or Papa, and strangely shaped. Suddenly, Ute was very awake. A thought as icy as the wind shot through her mind: nobody was supposed to open the door to a stranger on the night of the Spring Veil. Da had even reminded her not to open the door. And yet there she was, standing with the edge of the door in her hand, staring over the threshold at a stranger.

Ute tried to push the door closed, but it was like trying to push against waist-high water. The shape came closer, and no matter how hard Ute pushed on the door, it moved far too slowly. It was like a nightmare, but Ute was wide awake. She pushed with all her might, but the shape flowed in.

The draft stopped suddenly, the pressure on the door eased, and it slammed closed.

It wasn't a monster that stood in Ute's cottage, but a little girl. She was maybe seven years old. The strange girl looked a little like Ute, in a superficial way. She was skinny, with stringy brown hair and freckles, and her night dress just the same as Ute's. But there was something wrong with her eyes. They were like garden beetles, sheened iridescent blue one moment and black the next, not like Ute's eyes at all.

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