When the winter snows melt and the snub-nosed flowers begin to push their way out of the muck, the Tattermoll begins her slow, pained walk.
So the stories said. Solly had heard them all: the man who answered the Tattermoll’s question wrongly, the woman who had got it right. The problem was, no story could agree on which answer was correct. It was better not to be asked the question at all. Children were taught to run at the sight of her, to hide if she moved among them.
Solly and her siblings shared the stories during the heavy nights of spring, when the trees scratching the walls could be just trees, or the Tattermoll’s ribbon-braided staff tapping to say she’s come.
“It’s her!” the youngest squeaked, pulling the covers up tightly.
“Buy or sell?” Solly whispered, and everyone screamed until Mother came in and threatened to lock Solly outside until morning.
“They’re just stories,” Solly grumbled.
Spring turned to summer and the year went ‘round again, and again. The stories faded for Solly, until one mud-scented day found her dawdling on the bridge into town. The first daffodils were poking their blunt noses through the grass.
There was movement on the road. Solly saw the top of a stick first, brightly coloured and hung with ribbons. The colours were bright after a winter of dun and white, and she enjoyed the way they moved in the breeze. The ribbons come closer. Solly saw that the stick was a staff, and then she saw the top of a wild-touched head, a face round and pale, and eyes like burrows in the snow. The wind shivered.
She ran, just like she was in a story herself. “She comes!” she screamed. People scrambled. The story that had never touched them had got them in its fist at last. Doors slammed shut.
The Tattermoll never left a village without taking something.
Solly found her house open, Mother airing the last dregs of winter. The little ones played at kneading dough. Solly slammed the door shut, shoving home the little-used locks.
“She’s come,” Solly gasped, sinking back against the door.
Mother went still, then pulled the curtain shut. “Where?” Her voice was deliberately calm.
“You saw her?”
“And did she see you?”
Solly’s heart fluttered. “I think so.”
“Ah.” Mother’s gaze dropped to the floor. Her hand reached for Solly’s. Squeezed.
The little ones wailed, knowing something was wrong.
“Sh,” Solly said. “Remember your lessons?”
And they fell perfectly silent, like children learned to do in spring when the Tattermoll walks.
Then the scratch of her staff on the door, or was it the branches of a tree? The youngest burst into tears. Solly tilted her head up and pressed it against the door. And sudden-intense, she remembered the look of the sun on the ribbons, and the scattered, tattered ends of the Tattermoll’s hair in the breeze.
“Buy or sell?”
The Tattermoll’s voice was a voice like any other. Solly breath fell thick and heavy. Mother backed away, gathered the little ones to her. “Don’t answer!” she hissed. But the space between Mother and Solly was much greater than the width of the room and the question demanded she answer.
Solly got to her feet, unlocked the door, heedless of the screams of the little ones. She pulled the door open. The Tattermoll stood in her rags, staff at an angle, ribbons dangling.
“Buy or sell?”
Solly looked up and down the street. Doors were locked tight, curtains drawn. It had never looked so empty. Behind her, Mother had dragged the little ones into the other room. The discarded dough slumped on the hearth.
It was spring, and the Tattermoll had come to her.
One of her sisters cried her name. She thought of the emptied villages of those who’d answered incorrectly. She eyed the ribbons hanging from the walking stick. Layers deep, they were, some bright and new, others frayed and aged to colourlessness. Centuries of springs. A millennium of renewal.
“Sell, I guess,” Solly said.
The Tattermoll’s hand whipped forward, tugging on Solly’s long hair. It turned velvet in her grasp, gleamed obsidian as Solly unravelled. She felt her heart go light, and for a brief moment only it was hard to breathe. The Tattermoll clicked her tongue in satisfaction and added the black ribbon to her staff. Then she turned, a droning hum of satisfaction coming from her throat, and left the way she’d come.