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Dec 30

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“The Girls of the Forest” by Margaret Ronald

Her sisters are waiting for her. They don’t judge, at least not in front of Mammana, but she recognizes the look in their eyes. She had it herself, seeing cousin after cousin return, sometimes to collapse weeping on Mammana’s breast, sometimes stone-faced, sometimes refusing to meet anyone’s gaze. I would never be so stupid, she had thought then, and she sees the same assured superiority in their eyes.

But it’s been a long flight, and her legs are cramping again, and her belly is a round stone of pain, and she is tired from the act of leaving as much as from the journey itself. And so she lets them help her as she descends into the forest, nods her thanks as they guide her in. Her pride will ache later, but it’s already been maimed.

When she lands on the lowest branches, the ones so gnarled that they’ve formed their own paths, her feet stutter on the bark before finding purchase. She shifts, and the long, graceful crane’s feet become the swollen, weary lumps she’s walked on for far too long. The old ash is strong enough to hold her weight—strong enough to hold all of the crane sisters and all the cousins no matter their chosen form. Strong enough even to hold Mammana herself.

Mammana is the same as ever, and there is no judgment as she takes Cynthia’s hands. “Oh my dear,” she says, and this is as close as she will ever get to saying I told you so. “Oh, my dear. Did he hurt you?”

Cynthia shakes her head, but even that small movement hurts after the long flight, cramps from the crane’s shape translating to outright pain in woman’s shape. “Not . . . like that.”

“That’s good.” Mammana puts one hand to her cheek, the palm of it soft like the silks Cynthia used to make for the street fairs and art shows. Soft as moonlight, Peter had called them, but even that simple magic is nothing compared to the bright robes her sisters wear, the one she cannot quite bring herself to weave round her aching body just yet. The bright chaos she remembers from those days is so far from the forest’s high cathedral silence that for a moment the world outside seems like the dream. “That’s good. Now,” she continues, ever practical Mammana, “how far along are you?”

Cynthia puts one hand over her belly, and sore as she is she still feels the answering flutter. “About seven months.”

Mammana sucks air slowly through her teeth, but it’s a thoughtful hiss, not a worried one. “That gives us a little time. Let’s get you off your feet.”

She follows Mammana down the steps, past her sisters, who do not offer to help this time. “I hope at least he was worth it,” one mutters just low enough that Mammana can pretend not to hear. Cynthia lowers her gaze, unable to reply.

#

She’s given her old place, overlooking the marshy patch by the stream, cradled in the ash’s branches. There’s even fresh straw, brighter than golden wool, though a good deal scratchier. It’s suited more to her crane shape, but after the long flight she has no stomach for changing back. She’s not sure her body could take another such change now.

To her surprise, there’s a steady stream of visitors. It takes her only two visits to figure out why: these are the ones like her, who went outside and got themselves hurt as well. They’re here to hear her story, to confirm that yes, someone else has been as foolish as they were. Some sisters, more often cousins—swans, herons, even crows—and because it’s a story as old as the forest, the other girls of the forest as well, even from the realms that cannot even truly be called forest.

Even Mellie comes up from her half-flooded house, dripping on Cynthia’s clean straw, carrying a string of trout. Cynthia at first demurs—only one serving of fish per week for pregnant women, think of the baby—but it’s been ages since she’s had fresh-caught fish from a river that didn’t have the sheen of oilslick on it, and she downs them one after the other, scales slipping coolly down her throat. “I guess you were hungry,” Mellie says in her deepwell voice, and Cynthia pauses, remembering how Peter said the same thing after she first got cravings. She’d polished off a pint of strawberries in five minutes flat, and he’d laughed and upended the change jar to buy more. The next day she’d found a masking-tape label across the empty jar: STRAWBERRY FUND.

“What did he do to you, sweetie?” Mellie asks, and when Cynthia looks up she knows Mellie’s guessed her train of thought. She shakes her head, hands curled over her belly, straw crackling under her.

Mellie shrugs, the eloquent movement of her white shoulders translating all the way down to her scales, the undulant coils winding past the edge of the nest and down to the water. “Mine refused to give me a little alone time once a week. A woman needs that, you know? And then it was the body issues.” Cynthia looks up at that; it’s a phrase from outside, a phrase meant more for Cosmo or Elle than Mellie’s damp lips. “I couldn’t always look presentable for him, and he didn’t understand that.” She shakes her head; water droplets scatter across Cynthia. “There was a lot he didn’t understand.”

After she leaves, it takes Cynthia hours to bail the water out of her nest, and even after that there’s a heavy, damp clinginess to the straw. The long streamers of sunlight that reach down this far only glance across her nest, never warming nor drying it.

More visit, sometimes with gifts, sometimes just to see her. Mistress Blanche from the cold lands drops by briefly, though she doesn’t come up to the branch for fear of hurting the tree. “He couldn’t keep a secret, could he?” she asks, her voice cracking like ice on an unsafe crossing. “For all that they call us gossips, they’re worse. Even when he knew there’d be consequences, he had to talk.” She casts a covetous and scornful glance at Cynthia’s belly, and when she leaves her footprints are brown under a thin layer of frost.

And still others: Honeychild whose husband gabbed about her to his boss, Lupita whose husband damn near nailed her hide to the floor, and, coming up through Mellie’s house, Kelsey whose husband hit her—though it was only the three times, she says, twisting her heavy-callused hands in her lap, and never very hard. “Didn’t it go right for any of us?” she finally asks Mammana, exasperated after a long day of visitor after visitor. Each of their stories matches hers in shape if not in detail—the girl of the forest, the human lover, the promise broken—and each of them regards her with the same mix of disdain and longing. If it were the old women of the forest, like Mammana, Holly, or the Yag, she’d be more certain of what they said, but it’s always the young ones, or the ones who chose to stay young.

Mammana, because she is Mammana, only shrugs. “If it did, they didn’t bother coming back.”

It makes sense—obviously, the ones who came back are the only ones whose lovers broke their promises—but it doesn’t mitigate the weight of their stories. Sample bias, she tells herself. A term from outside, a concept from outside, where stories bear less strength, and so one that’s harder to hold on to. It’s easier to believe that all of their stories are the same, all of their husbands were the same, just as one crane-girl is much the same as another.

As she was once the same. As the growing difference in her flesh tells her she is not.

As the days pass it’s those sisters who visit, usually without warning, drifting down through the trees in a moon-pale glimmer to land, swaying, on the branch of the old ash tree. They stare at her, one eye then the other, before shifting form and joining her in the nest. Like her, they know both flight and the world outside the forest, but unlike her they have returned to what they were: unencumbered, pure.

Only one, Yoko, comes to her as a woman, and Cynthia dimly remembers that this is because Yoko can no longer fly. Perhaps this is why Cynthia finally tells Yoko what happened.

“I sold painted silks,” she says, the words accreting slower than threads on a loom, and Yoko bows her head. “I’d made them the—the traditional way, you know?—but then I painted them myself. It was just for fun, right?” She thinks of the feathers softer than silk, the pluck and weave of construction, and then the touch of ink on the completed canvas, like a single cloud across the moon. The silks didn’t bring in much money, enough for maybe a nice dinner now and then, but neither did her work in the coffee shop or Peter’s three part-time jobs. “But after we’d moved in together, I told him to stay out of the workroom when I was weaving—we were going to turn it into the nursery, we’d even put the crib together and moved my worktable to the far end—” She bites her tongue, hard. “I made him promise not to look, not while I was working.”

Even now, she remembers the hesitant creak of the floorboards, the realization that she hadn’t latched the door, the sweep as she’d spread one wing in a useless, stupid attempt to hide the silk she’d woven of her own feathers. She’d been in the shape between, fingers and feathers both, in that monstrous space that was neither one nor the other. She could still hear his gasp and the one thing she’d thought to say: You broke your promise.

And then she was gone, out the window and in flight, no time for explanations or discussions or even argument.

“It was the only promise I ever asked, even joking,” she says finally, after the long silence that Yoko refuses to break. “He wasn’t—wasn’t supposed to see me.”

Yoko finally rises, but when she approaches it’s not to embrace Cynthia but to lift up her arms, to sweep one knotted hand over them, checking for scars that are not there in either form. “You’re lucky,” she finally says in a whisper like wind through tight-stretched threads. “You didn’t have to keep weaving. I wove too long, drew too much from myself. Now . . .” She shrugs. “I should have told him no, but a woman didn’t, in those days.”

The thought of Peter forcing her to weave is ridiculous. But so was the thought of him breaking his promise.

Of course the story will make it through the forest in no time, no matter how discreet Yoko is. Of course her sisters will hear, and shake their heads, and promise themselves that even if they do go out into the world, even if they do take the risks that Cynthia did, they won’t be that stupid.

Still, Cynthia lies awake, more often now that seven months has grown to eight and then eight and a half, and no amount of rearranging the straw of the nest or building little forts out of pillows will relieve the pressure. She thinks not of Peter, but of the coffee shop where she worked before meeting him, the little apartment, the half a stall she shared with a shifting roster of jewelers and potters and cranks at farmers’ markets and art shows with her painted silks.

“I didn’t make them for him,” she says aloud, but only the old ash tree hears.

#

The birth is excruciating and messier than she could ever have imagined, even more so than the albumen-sticky births of her younger sisters. This is not how it was supposed to be, she thinks, and in the seemingly never-ending cycle of push and breathe and push again the thought skips like a damaged recording. Not how it was supposed to be, not the joyous experience she and Peter had discussed with the doula, not the careful clinical birth that she had steeled herself for after one too many labor horror stories at the coffee shop, not even one of those horror stories. Not how it was supposed to be, the simple laying of an egg, the long hungry days with food brought on the wing and Mammana coming by to tap the shell and tut at her for not eating right. None of the first crack of the egg tooth breaking through, the slow breach of the dome while she and her sisters sing the chick into sunlight.

Instead Mammana grimly copes, brings hot water and salves that help only in that they make it slightly less awful, and instead of singing there is pain and horrible squelching noises followed by a frail cry. And at the end of it all Mammana puts the little pink weakly wriggling thing in her arms, and all she can think is all that work for this?

It doesn’t even have the charm of a day-old chick.

“She’ll need a name,” Mammana says, stripping off her smock stained with blood and worse. “This isn’t a good place to go without a name.”

“We hadn’t talked much about names,” Cynthia says absently, still trying to see the charm in this—in her daughter. “We thought we’d have more time . . .”

“Then she’s named Ash for now, for the tree she was born in, and we’ll swap it out later.”

The little grub opens its eyes, looks at and past her, gums faintly at the air. Cynthia tries to see some trace of Peter in her, some trace of herself, some trace of flight. She tries, and fails.

#

Long nights follow, broken into too many short spans. The little chirpy cries—the only thing avian about the thing demanding her attention as much as it demands her body—ring out again and again, till Cynthia thinks she will go mad. Mammana approaches it with the same attitude as the birth, swapping out cloth for soiled cloth, neither the silk that is not silk that her sisters wear so finely nor the packs of Pampers that Cynthia had eyed nervously in the supermarket. “You wouldn’t have guessed birth would be the easy part,” she says at one point when Cynthia is in no mood to be encouraged. “It wasn’t that way for me.”

The harsh words Cynthia has prepared fade, the same words that have, lately, been preempted by storms of unexpected tears. “You did it too?” she asks, turning in place to stare at Mammana. “You went outside and—and fell in love?”

“Oh, love, call it what you like. He had a nice set of shoulders. But yes, I went outside, and the same thing happened as always happens to one of us, only in my case he spilled the beans just before I came to term. Twins, too, mind you, and I ended up birthing them both right after a race.” She shakes her head, smiles with a hard edge. “They regretted making me run.”

The grub cheeps and wails again, this time pushing away from her breast, too angry and tired to eat. Cynthia makes another attempt to soothe her, then lets Mammana do so, and this time notices the half-second of lingering gaze that Mammana gives the squawking bundle. “And the twins?” she asks.

“Oh, I left them behind. I expect they had their own lives.” But her smile has a different, broken edge now, and she turns back to the heap of laundry.

For the first time, Cynthia understands why Mammana does this for all the girls who come back from outside heartbroken and heavy. But that understanding draws out a new question, one that slowly comes into focus as she gets more sleep, as the grub becomes less of a sessile object and more of a constantly flailing, goggling creature. “Where are the other children of outside?” she asks, and asks again.

“Gone,” says Mellie, and spits between forked fingers. “Left them with their worthless father, who couldn’t wait two months before finding a nice dry top-heavy girl to cradle his cock.” Blanche says much the same, minus the invective, and adds that they were the one thing that made her spare that old gossip. Lupita tells her a long story that veers into the stuff of horror movies, ending with just the assertion that her son is a good boy, but has a bit of a temper. Kelsey, true to form, doesn’t say anything beyond assuring her that it was just the three times. And Yoko clams up even tighter, her silence heavy as her missing wings.

It’s one of the other close cousins in their fine silks (held out of reach of the waving fingers of a baby who’s recently realized that she can drag things to her mouth) who tells her. “They can’t fly,” she says bluntly. “And they know it. Maybe when they’re little, they entertain thoughts of sometimes getting wings like Mommy, but down deep they know that doesn’t happen. Some of them go back outside where they came from. Some of them—” She shrugs, the gesture as eloquent as a brushstroke. “They can’t handle it. Jump out of the nest.”

Ash shouts with laughter, and the cousin startles as if she’s just heard the hunter’s gun. But it’s only that Ash has managed to catch the trailing end of Cynthia’s sleeve. It’s not the luminous garb of her cousin, but Ash is happy enough to gum at this and stare at the other silk.

Her cousin twitches back, even though she’s untouched. “It’s for the best,” she says, cool as snowmelt again, pretending that her moment of panic never happened. “Not that they fall, not that, but that they’re gone. With their fathers, if they can.”

Unspoken in the question and if they can’t is the assumption that finally blazes through like stray sunlight through an open window: it is easier to come back, to rejoin the sisters and cousins and the forest as a whole, without some child hanging off of her. “How long?” Cynthia asks, the words becoming a whisper.

Her cousin shrugs. “Depends. Not very long.”

She doesn’t understand what that means until after another long night when Ash will not suck and will not sleep and will not quiet. Cynthia huddles on the far side of the nest, hands over her ears, and for a moment everything comes clear. It would be so easy to push her out, say she rolled, trying to fly like her mother. And no one would question it. Crane girls die all the time in the forest, many saplings wither for one tree to thrive, and no one would even think twice or, if they did, no one would bother to condemn her.

It is not quite a rebellion against that knowledge that makes her instead grab Ash and pull her close, so close her cries rattle Cynthia’s eardrums. Ash howls, farts, and finally vomits into Cynthia’s hair, after which the cries come again, but weaker and tired, and this time she does not turn away from feeding.

She can feel the clean white silks of her sisters slipping out of reach. “Ice cream trucks,” she mutters against the little bald head, weariness slurring her words. “Thai iced tea. Street music. Big green fuzzy slippers like monster feet. Apple crisp.” She tries to say aloud, but doesn’t quite do so, that these are all things Ash can have even if she can’t fly.

“Fireworks,” she goes on as Ash roots against her, drowsing as she reaches fullness. “Free Thursdays at the modern art museum. Countertenors.” Even after Ash has finally fallen asleep, after speech is impossible and Cynthia hovers on the edge of dream, the litany continues, all the things that drew her outside, all the things that she loved, with one important exception.

#

She rigs a sling for Ash, unwieldy and with too many buckles but secure, based partly on her memories of the baby-harness thing that Peter had brought home just before everything went wrong. She looks ridiculous wearing it, and even more so with Ash in it, and the first time she attempts flight her wings are so weak they barely bring the two of them to safety on the next branch. Ash sleeps through it, waking only when they return to the nest and Cynthia collapses, exhausted.

But her muscles remember long hours lifting boxes and carting trays of dishes, and she knows the potential for strength is there. So she tries again, taking it more slowly this time, and though the wind fights her at every turn eventually she rises above the treetops, Ash making little warbly noises against her feathers. It’s the first time she’s been properly aloft since the long horrible flight from Peter.

When she lands, just in a treetop this time, Ash fusses even after feeding. It’s not till they’re back in the air that the little girl is quiet again. Cynthia curves her neck around to see her face more clearly, and at the sight of her wide wondering eyes the memory of Peter’s face crashes in on her. How wide his eyes were when seeing her for the first time, how many times he came into the coffee shop before getting up the nerve to talk to her, the joy when she’d said yes and yes again.

It sends a chill all the way to her pinions, but they’re too far from home to walk, and by the time they’ve flown back the memory has settled in, like a glove shaping itself to a hand.

“You look a proper fool,” Honeychild says when she lands. “She’ll never fly, and you’ll only be able to do that for so long before she’s too big.”

Mellie nods from the stoop of her waterlogged house. “It’s a matter of aerodynamics. Simple physics.” And the others agree, sagely.

Cynthia shifts from crane to woman, unbuckling strap after strap so that she can change a decidedly ripe Ash. More words from outside, like the ones Mellie came away with, and they’re even more out of place than the baby carrier. They brought the wrong things back, she thinks, and shakes her head. “Simple physics says that a human and a bird can’t change shape from one to the other. Simple physics says we’re impossible.” She nods to Mellie. “And simple physics says you should have drowned long ago.”

That shuts them up, but only in the way of the sisters: silent when she’s around, chattering like gulls when she turns her back. Mammana, though, laughs when she hears Cynthia’s response, laughs till the tree shakes.

So she keeps flying with Ash, changing the harness as little baby legs get too long, turning her around so that she can see more than just her mother’s feathers. And yes, it gets more difficult as Ash gets heavier, but Cynthia’s muscles compensate, and she continues. Her white silks are far too impractical, and she switches to the old maternity clothes she’d worn on the flight over, washing them every night till they’re even more shapeless on her frame, bleached paler than fog. And she continues.

Which is what makes it all the worse when, one morning in early summer, the two of them are coasting across the meadows and Cynthia looks down to see a lone figure making his way across the threefold stream. His clothes look like they’ve been chucked out of the bargain bin for being too close to rags, a heavy blindfold hides his eyes, and there are scratches and scabs all along his arms, but she knows his stride anywhere, the straight line of his back.

He’s here. Where he’s not supposed to be.

#

She may be the first to notice him, but rumor flies faster than cranes and certainly faster than cranes with baby carriers. All the women who came to meet her are there to see how her story has deviated from theirs. Mammana’s even there too, in Cynthia’s nest, watching as Peter stumbles over roots and through swampmoss. “He’s got a bit of sense,” she says as Cynthia lands. “Can’t remember when someone from outside even thought of wearing a blindfold.”

Cynthia knows Mammana is fishing for some remark about Peter, whether this sort of insight is normal for him. Instead of rising to it, she changes, her wings shivering as the feathers sweep away, and begins to unbuckle Ash. “How did he find his way here?”

“Oh, there are paths, same as there are paths out. Tougher to get in than out—you know that, even flying it was bad for you—but there are paths. Although,” Mammana says slowly, “usually it’s a princess, come seeking her Brown Bear or phantom bridegroom, and I can count on my hands the number of times that’s happened.” She flicks a glance at Cynthia. “For what that’s worth.”

Below them, Peter trips over a log, catches himself before he goes face-down in Mellie’s stream, shakes mud and slime off his hands as he gets up. One of the cousins, probably the one who moved the log, giggles. He cocks his head just slightly at the sound, then turns away, boots clumping and clanging against the stone. They’re not his old steel-toed ones, and they’ve worn through at the soles.

He’s singing under his breath, she realizes, one of the old songs that he used to play at open mic nights at the coffee shop, maybe even the one he sang the night she agreed to go out with him. His enthusiasm far exceeded any musical talent he had, but that enthusiasm’s now drained to a whisper. She puts her hands over her ears. “Can’t you make him go away?”

I can’t.” Mammana’s meaning is clear, but still Cynthia keeps her hands up, unable to watch him, unable not to. After a moment Mammana sighs. “I suppose I could always get one of the singers to lead him astray. Not likely he’d find his way back here, but not impossible.”

The stream below bubbles, and with a flicker of scales Mellie glares up at them through the water. “Oh, just give him the girl and let him go. That’s all he wants, something to prove it really happened.” A flutter of white from the trees around them—no more than a ripple, like an errant breath of wind—lets her know the sisters have heard Mellie, and they’re waiting. They miss her.

Cynthia bites her lip, then leaps to the ground. Before he can muddle out of sight, she strips off her old maternity clothes and stands naked as a newborn chick. Drawing on the oldest magic of the crane girls, known as deeply as she knows her own bones, she weaves her white silks around herself, taking the time to make them as new and brilliant as any cloth she ever imagined. She puts a dozing Ash behind a bush and rises to meet Peter.

He knows something’s changed, even if he can’t see it, and his voice keeps faltering, going off-key, losing the words. Hardly a song to lead a bride back from this world, she thinks, and stands in front of him, so close he could touch her if he only raised a hand. Perhaps knowing this, he doesn’t yet, instead questing back and forth like an aged hound.

Instead she is the one who reaches out and tears off his blindfold so violently his head rocks back. He blinks like an owl in sunlight, his eyes going wide as he sees her. And he is seeing her, she knows, her and the forest all at once, and so when he drops to his knees it’s not a compliment so much as a foregone conclusion.

“One thing,” she says, and there’s too much of a crack in her voice. “I only ever asked one thing from you, and you couldn’t give it.”

Peter swallows, unable to look away, as he’d been unable to look away in the workroom, the nursery, the coffee shop. “I know,” he said. “I was wrong. I was an idiot. I’m sorry.”

Is this what she wanted? She’d given him no time, only fled. There was no room in the story for apologies. “Only one thing,” she repeats, looking away and past him, blinking fast.

Peter only nods. There’s a scar above his right eye now, not quite healed, where there was only smooth skin when she left. Like the scratches and the rags and the beard, it’s a change she didn’t expect, and she vaguely wonders whether time is the same outside as here. She’s not sure what she’s supposed to say now, what’s supposed to happen. There’s no precedent, or none that she knows of.

A disgruntled cheep breaks the silence between them, and though the forest is anything but silent, Cynthia knows this sound and turns before thinking. Peter’s eyes widen, and, when she does not forbid him, he pushes back branches. Ash is there, not quite fussing, and she looks up, her dolphin-trill fading. “Hey,” he whispers. “Hey there. Is this—”

“Her name is Ash,” Cynthia says, and Ash decides she’s had enough of this and bursts into a reedy wail. Sighing, Cynthia picks her up, bouncing the harness as if preparing for flight, and that soothes her. Peter swallows hard, the corners of his eyes bright with tears, and without knowing why she does it, she tries to comfort him. “It’s your beard,” she says. “She’s not used to seeing someone with a beard.”

“I’m not really used to it either,” he admits, scratching it self-consciously. At that she smiles, remembering how careful he was about shaving, the jokes about itchy mornings, and before she can stop herself he’s smiled back.

Abruptly she holds Ash out to him, and he takes the girl as if she were made of straw. Ash, still uncertain, garbles a few times but eventually sighs and snorts against him. Cynthia’s arms suddenly feel light, too light. “She likes to fly,” she says to drown out her sisters’ silent scrutiny. “So do I. I’d forgotten—I had missed it so much, and I didn’t have the chance back then—”

She makes herself stop, but Peter is listening, waiting, and though he tries not to let his hope show it’s still there like light under a basket.

“If I go back with you—” she says finally, tasting the words, not sure yet she likes them.

Peter shakes his head. “I don’t want you to.”

At that Cynthia looks up, her breath catching.

“Not like that—I mean—oh, damn.” Ash snorts and butts her head against his chest, and he laughs weakly. “I mean, I want to be with you, but I don’t know about going back. It’s . . . after all I’ve seen on my way here . . .” His free hand goes up to the scar involuntarily, and she feels the same changes in herself, the muscles that aren’t quite right for either a human or a crane. “Couldn’t we . . . is there maybe another place, somewhere you can fly and I can, can keep my promises?”

No, she wants to say, all of her upbringing wants to say. There is the forest, and there is outside, and the rules of one don’t apply to the other. No place in between.

“I don’t know,” she says finally, and it’s an answer to all the sisters she knows are listening. “Maybe. But I’ll go with you for a little while.”

Peter looks up from their daughter, and this time when he holds out his hand she eludes it, stepping into his arms instead. “Thank you,” he says, muffled against her shoulder where the silk is rapidly becoming salt-damp. “Thank you.”

“And I won’t promise anything.” Even that I’ll stay, she thinks, remembering Mellie and Yoko and Kelsey and all the others. Maybe this is the wrong choice. Maybe she’ll be back. And of course no matter what, her sisters will say they’ll never be so stupid, they’ll never do what she did, but this is not their story.

THE END

Margaret Ronald is the author of Spiral Hunt, Wild Hunt, and Soul Hunt, as well as numerous short stories. Originally from rural Indiana, she now lives outside Boston. This story is dedicated to her daughter Johanna.

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