One spring night a young woman named Emily decided to go to the dance at the town hall that evening after all.
That was her first mistake.
She tied her copper hair up in a soft brown bow. Her hazel eyes sparkled as she twirled in the dress the rusty color of old blood. And, at the last moment, she chose the velvet shoes with the wobbly heels instead of the sensible grays.
That was her second mistake.
Her house was just out of the small town of Standish and only a few minutes’ walk through the woods to the hall on the hill. The warm air swirled around her, playing with the flounces of her dress as she walked, sighing mournfully because it knew what the night had in store for Emily.
When Emily arrived the town hall was ablaze with the new electric lights. Couples were swirling, stomping on the dance floor, while the widows and the wallflowers and the rest looked on. A table along the west wall held a cut glass punch bowl full of sunset red liquid with a wooden dipper beside a stack of tin mugs, three different kinds of pie, and a large heap of Mabel Worthy’s cookies that were as hard as tombstones.
Mose Brattenburg stood in a corner at the east end of the hall playing his old fiddle, bouncing and grinning with his two front teeth, the only ones he had left. His brother Frank stood beside him plucking his banjo. He was missing his two front teeth from a fistfight in his early youth, but you’d never know because he never smiled. Folks joked they made quite a pair between them. Rounding out the group was Gus Hill whaling on his perpetually out of tune guitar and Junior twanging on his mouth harp. Their boisterous music filled the hall and leaked out of the cracks into the night air.
Emily smiled coyly at all the familiar Adam’s and John’s and Ben’s before her eyes met his – a stranger in town, just passing through. Tall, dark, and handsome, everything the fairy tales swore a prince should be.
Emily sat down beside a friend on a bench along the wall. They talked of this and that, and all the while Emily watched the handsome stranger dressed in black. He was still dusty from the road, his dark eyes sliding around the room until they met hers. Emily’s heart beat a little faster. She pretended a little laugh at something her friend was saying when she heard a voice as rich as Midas and smokier than a campfire full of green wood call her name and ask her for the pleasure of a dance.
It was he, the stranger. Paul, he said his name was. He had a white scar gleaming through the stubble on his left cheek along the jawbone that made him look very distinguished. Emily imagined a thousand ways he acquired the scar while they twirled on, deep into the night. They danced with no one else but each other while the stars twinkled with tears outside. The wind had told them what was to happen that night.
Finally the dance was done, the last notes of the night packed away with old Mose’s fiddle. Paul asked Emily if he could walk her home, and she said yes.
That was her last mistake.
The trees groaned as the wind whispered its tale while Paul and Emily walked beneath their canopy. The trees waved their bud-swollen branches in protest, but Emily did not see. She only had eyes for Paul.
Paul smiled when she pulled him off the path and underneath a pine tree so tall it had clouds stuck in the uppermost branches. He smiled when she looked up at him in the moonlight with bright eyes and red lips begging to be kissed.
Then the moon covered her face because the gossipy wind hand told her his tale of woe and she couldn’t bear to watch.
In the sudden darkness Emily tripped on her wobbly shoes and dropped to her knees. Paul expressed concern and crouched to help her up.
That was his mistake.
Emily pulled the knife from her dress pocket and stabbed the handsome stranger in his neck, fresh red blood erupting onto her old blood colored dress. His smoky voice squeaked and burbled between his fingers as he fell to the ground like a freshly butchered hog.
She held him as he died and told him her sad tale of how her mother was murdered by a handsome stranger fresh from the road three years ago today. Emily wept a little as she talked of finding her mother’s body in this spot, and now, every year, she takes the life of a stranger so he can never harm another. Every year she digs a grave, and every year she fills it.
The man’s eyes were glassy as she buried him beside the first two under the pine tree that scraped the clouds from the sky. She cried and whispered her mother’s name to the wind as she covered the stranger with dirt, but he was too busy telling stories to hear.
The young woman named Emily took the bloody knife from her pocket and began to clean it. She took two steps towards home, three, still cleaning when her shoes betrayed her for the last time. As she fell on the knife, the wind howled, the trees shuddered, and the stars tried to console the moon while Emily bled to death in the cold spring dawn.
The locals all assumed she had tried to fight off the stranger and fell on her knife in the struggle. She was buried beside her mother in the graveyard behind the church on a day when even the wind was still.