“Why do you do that?”
I watched as her fingers ran through the thick waves of her auburn hair, turning it to silvery white wherever she touched. Capturing the moonlight, playing with it, wearing it like a crown she had forgotten was hers until in a moment of boredom she decided to rule again a land she had long ago left behind in search of more amusing pastimes. She wore sunlight often, a shimmering golden red. She had worn a storm once, I still remembered how it had frightened me and how grateful I had been when she decided that its dusky purple-gray didn’t suit her and she had brushed it off. It amused her to wear the world like that, draped across her shoulders and falling down her back. I sometimes wondered if it amused her to frighten me.
When the last strand had fallen under her spell, I asked her again. “Why do you do that?”
“You ask the wrong question, Miss Merricat. Ask how, not why.”
She had been calling me that for as long as I could remember. It was from one of the books, she said, and perfectly suited to an inept yet well-intentioned thing like me. I didn’t remember the books, they were already gone long before I was born. I didn’t remember my real name.
“I can’t know how, not yet. Can I?” If I could, I thought I would already, but I had been wrong about thoughts before. It was a strange thing, the learning, and could still sneak up on me when I least expected it. I hadn’t known the fire was mine until the night I had awoken from a bad dream and realized that I was alone in the dark. The wall next to my bed still bore the marks of that learning, and in my pocket was a scrap of singed fabric from the nightgown I had been wearing. She insisted that I carry it with me always. Remember your fear, she had said, remember it so that you will recognize it when it comes again. For three days after that, my learnings had consisted of nothing but practice in lighting candles without lighting anything around them.
“Not yet. Soon perhaps, but not yet.”
“Then why did you tell me to ask?”
“I didn’t. I merely said that if you were going to ask a question, the one that you asked wasn’t the one that you should be asking.”
“I shouldn’t know why?”
“The how will keep you safe. When you know how, you will then know better why. The why alone is a dangerous thing, Merricat. Melody Gloucester Pegasus, that was the why without the how. It did not keep her safe.”
She was talking about the book again, of Merricat Blackwood who had believed in those words, believed that if they were never spoken aloud she would be safe. Merricat herself had spoken them aloud, but only after she had realized that she wasn’t safe anymore.
“Safe from what?”
She smiled then, a smile I had never seen before, a smile that seemed to wonder why it had taken me so long to ask that question.
“Safe from what she feared most. Safe from the world. She feared the world, Merricat did, as you do, my Merricat. She burned her house down to keep herself safe. You almost did the same. You both wanted the same thing. Illumination. That was the why. Light in the darkness was the why. What did you dream of that night that frightened you so?”
“A room. I thought I was alone. But there was something, someone, I couldn’t see.”
“It is not worth setting yourself on fire as means of seeing into the darkness.”
“I was frightened.”
“And that is the why without the how. Fear is the why, seeking light is the why, lighting a single candle is the how. You knew why to light a candle before you came to me. It was of very little use to you without the how. Now you have both. Remember your fear of the darkness, Merricat, so that you will recognize it when it comes again, then remember that you have the means to banish what it is that frightens you.”
“Is that why you wear the world? Because it frightens you?” I regretted the words almost before I had spoken them, thinking they would make her angry. Instead, she laughed.
“I wear the world because I can. And because I can, it no longer frightens me. That is the how and the why of it. Light another candle, Merricat.”
We did not need another candle, but I brought one to the table and lit it the way I had been taught.
“Are you still in fear of the darkness, my Merricat?”
“It isn’t dark now.”
“No, it isn’t, is it?”
Later that night, the rains began. She opened the door and went outside wearing nothing but the moonlight she had gathered earlier. I watched her from my window, standing there as a part of the night until she became the night itself and I couldn’t see her outline any longer, only a lighter sort of darkness where she had stood a moment before. I knew well enough where she had gone, and I somehow both longed for and dreaded the day when I would be able to follow, wondering how it must feel to become the thing you once most feared.
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