Art by Melissa Mead
by Melissa Mead
Sister knew about wicked stepmothers. No one warned her about wicked stepfathers. Stepfather only noticed Sister at night, in the dark.
When she saw Brother's bruises, Sister declared "Mother's too scared to help us. Let's go into the forest. We'll be safer there."
Hours later, their joy at leaving Stepfather faded as they grew footsore and thirsty. At last they reached a spring. Brother dropped to his knees to drink.
"Look!" said Sister. "Claw-prints. And listen to the stream's voice. If you drink, you'll become a bear."
The next spring had wolf tracks beside it. Brother eyed the cool water longingly.
"We could become wolves together. Wolves who aren't so thirsty."
Gently, Sister turned him away.
The next spring had dainty hoof-prints on the bank. Brother flung himself down and drank deeply of the cold, clear water. The air shimmered, and a wide-eyed young roebuck trembled where the boy had been.
Brother submitted meekly while Sister looped her sash around his neck.
"I'm sorry. I was so thirsty."
Sister eyed the rippling water. If they both became deer, they could browse on twigs. But she remembered the predatorial glitter in Stepfather's eyes, and straightened.
"Now you can eat sweet grass, but I still need human food."
"Don't leave me!" Brother cried. Sister hugged his velvet-soft neck.
"Never. You're my brother, on four feet or two."
Just beyond the stream they found a hut with a deep, cold, unenchanted well. Sister drank, ignoring the thought that if Brother had only waited he would still be a boy, not a beast.
The hut felt far more homelike than Stepfather's house. Brother browsed in clearings and sniffed out tasty mushrooms for Sister with his transformed nose. Sister collected edible plants for a garden. Birds perched on her shoulders while she worked. The glossy black snake that killed rats in the grain slept in her skirt pocket.
Then the days shortened, and the sound of hunting horns brayed through the golden forest. The roebuck fretted, battering the door with his hooves.
"Let me out, sister! The walls smother me. Put your blue ribbon around my neck, and the hunters won't bother me."
He pleaded and wheedled until she let him go. She worried all day, but he returned unharmed, prancing and jubilant.
"I saw the King! So tall and splendid, on a great white horse. His arrows had peacock feathers and silver tips…."
"Which could've pierced your heart! You're the prey now, remember?"
Brother pawed the dirt floor. "I forget."
Sister resolved not to let him out again, but when his wild-creature's spirit sickened she relented. That evening he returned limping, one leg bleeding from an arrow-wound.
"You followed them?" she exclaimed, gently cleaning and binding the wound.
"Well, at least tomorrow you won't be chasing after hunters." She stroked the back of his sun-warmed head and sighed.
But the wound was slight, and when Sister went out the next morning, the little roe bounded into the sunshine.