Anne Wilkins lives in New Zealand with her husband, two teenage daughters and the ghosts of three cats. She has written two children’s novels (currently unpublished) and many short stories, some of which are published. Anne recently won the Cambridge Autumn Short Story Festival Competition. Her love of writing is fueled by coffee, reading, and hope.
A Numerical Revelation
by Anne Wilkins
If you look very carefully you’ll see them. The numbers. That’s what Gretel told me: They’re up high. Higher than a man can climb.
She’d used a stick and showed me what numbers were, drawing them into the soil. I was used to solid lines, like when I was counting the number of eggs the hens had laid. Lines, just like my fingers, so I could hold them up and show Ma and Da how many eggs we had, but Gretel told me in the old days they were different. They look like this, she said, and she had drawn peculiar things that looked half finished—strange squiggles that made no sense at all. She didn’t know the names for them, she just called them numbers.
Do they mean anything—the numbers? I’d asked Gretel, but she’d just shrugged her shoulders.
Find the numbers Abi, that’s all I know. Find the numbers and you’ll find Her.
I wish Gretel was with me now, my older sister, leading the way, holding my hand, but the journey must always be made alone.
The villagers look at me knowingly as I approach the forest. Some stop what they are doing to wave a friendly goodbye or to call out good luck, while others quickly avert their eyes.
I am half girl-half woman, only II hands and IIII fingers old, and this journey will be the first of many I will take over my lifetime.
Not all return.
There is a path of sorts at the beginning and for this I am thankful. A collection of stones sprinkled here and there, ferns broken and trodden from many others that have gone before me. But soon there is nothing to guide me and I must only look for the elusive numbers.
The deeper I go, the darker it becomes, the shadows longer and the air colder. I draw my shawl tighter over my body and keep walking, looking up tall trunks for any signs of the squiggles Gretel had drawn.
After a while the trees all start to look the same, the forest floor unchanging. It is as if it has been copied, a reflection, upon a reflection, upon another reflection, mirrored in a pool and I am merely treading upon the ripples. The thoughts jumble in my head. It is silly to think this way, it is just a forest, I tell myself. Yet there is no wind, the trees make no rustling noises, and not a single bird flutters among the branches.
I feel like I’ve been looking for an age, my neck is stiff from so much looking when a ray of sunlight shines through the trees into my eyes, momentarily blinding me. When I open my eyes again I see them. Right in front of me, like they’d always been there, just waiting for me. Two lines of squiggles running down the silver trunk of a tree.
And then just behind the numbers is a small hut, its door wide open.
She is waiting.
There are many stories of the lady in the hut. She has no name except “She” and “Her.” She knows all, sees all, determines all. Some say she has the power to heal, like when young Jenny ate the toadstools and was foaming at the mouth. Her mother took her straight into the forest as far as she could go, left her crying and screaming and told her to look up, always look up. The next day Jenny came skipping out of the forest, beaming like sunbeams, like it had all been some wicked dream.
And it was the same with Tommy and his broken arm. Fell down the well, and the bone was popping right out. Taken to the forest and came back new the next day, with not even a scar, as if the fall had never happened at all.
Still, for every happy story, there are other stories of those that were not so fortunate.
The ones that are never seen again.
Perhaps She was hungry, whisper the old folk, so low that they think the youngsters won’t hear. But we hear, and at night when we are meant to be asleep in our beds we all wonder if She is a God to be loved or a monster to be feared.
I stand now at the wooden door with all the old tales churning in my head.
“Come in,” calls a soft female voice from behind the door.
A young woman with old grey eyes sits at a wooden table. I can’t imagine she is much older than my fingers and toes all put together, and yet her head moves slowly as if requiring great effort.
“Abigail, come… in, sit… down.”
I should not be surprised that She knows my name, yet I am.
“People call me Abi,” I say in a small voice.
She smiles, oddly, as if someone is pulling the corners of her lips upwards, and motions towards a stool. I sit down uncomfortably, twisting my hands together.
“Abi, this is your first… time. Are you… nervous?”
“It is normal to be… nervous, but you have no reason to be… scared.” She gives a fuller smile this time, that shows all her teeth. They are so white and perfect, straight and gleaming. Good, strong teeth for eating.
“Do you know why you are… here… Abi?”
Do I? The elders in our village would say it is because I am ready. But I don’t know what that means exactly. What am I ready for?
A hand of hers reaches out for mine. My instinct is to flinch away, but I do not want to displease her. Gods and monsters alike can be fickle. She holds my hand and strokes it with her own. I think she does this to appear kind, but my legs tremble under the table at the coldness of her touch.
“It is because you are almost a woman Abi. Almost ready to carry a child and we must check that… all is as it should be. That you are functioning… as you should be.” Her head tilts a little to the side. “Do you understand?”
I nod, but in truth, I do not know of what she speaks.
“Good. First, you must drink the… water.”
She pushes a bowl to me.
My mind clouds over as I drink.
I awaken sometime later and I’m lying down on a single bed, still in the hut. I have no memory as to how I got here. From stool to bed. My lids are heavy, as if I have been caught in the middle of a dream and my throat feels itchy and dry. I start to cough. She stands over me, watching with her grey eyes and her white gleaming teeth.
“I have good news Abi… you are functioning well. All your systems are operational. You will be able to create many healthy children. Does that make you… happy?”
I nod even though my head still feels heavy with fog.
“What… what would happen if I wasn’t… well?” I dare to ask.
The grey eyes blink as if She is pausing to reach an answer from some great depth. “Then, that would be… sad.”
My birthing season is in Spring, and so every Spring I go back to visit Her, even though I don’t want to. It is just to see that you are well, my parents say, so that you may be a mother one day. You do want to be a mother, don’t you?
I’m not sure that I do, but I nod my head and go.
Everything is always just as it was on that first day. Even the forest seems unchanged on my visits as if the trees themselves haven’t grown. I always look up, the light always shines, and the numbers appear as if from nowhere. Double lines. A shorter line and a longer line. Each time I study them a little more, standing at the base of the tree trying to remember every curve, every individual line, and what order they appear in. With my hand, I sweep the numbers in the air imagining I am burning them into the tree with my own hand.
She always tells me I am well, that I will have many children and then I rush home. There I take my black ink squeezed from berries and rewrite as many of the numbers from my head onto pieces of bark before they fade from my memory.
My parents say nothing. They leave me to my oddities, a little too confused to question, but Gretel has no such qualms, she thinks I am mad.
“There is no point to it Abi,” and she gestures with her hand across my collection of black-inked squiggles dismissively. “You should be worrying about finding yourself a mate rather than all of this.”
“Do you not wonder what the numbers are for?”
“No. They are an old way, from the time before.”
“But, She uses them.”
“We have our own way of counting Abi, straight lines, our fingers, our hands, our feet.”
“It is not enough.”
Gretel’s brow wrinkles. “Of course it is, we only need the numbers to count the chickens, the cows, the pigs, the–”
“We can’t even count how many people are in the village Gretel, or the number of hairs on a head, or the leaves on a tree.”
She laughs then, “We have no need to count those silly things, and besides your numbers are wrong.”
“Of course. That squiggly mark with two circles on top of each other, it’s at the top but it also appears again at the bottom.”
I look at my numbers closely. I am not wrong.
But perhaps Gretel is not wrong either.
I ask others about their numbers, and what they can remember, and after a time I come to see that our numbers are all different. What I see burned into the tree when I visit Her is not the same as what Gretel, Tom or Mary or even my parents see.
“So?” says Gretel. “It still means nothing.”
“Isn’t it odd Gretel that the numbers all appear differently for us? As if we are a number?”
“How can I be a number?”
“I am this,” and I point to the numbers I always see 8 4 1 1 0 9, “and you are this 8 4 1 0 0 8. Everyone I’ve asked has a different number.”
“So it is our name then? In numbers?”
“Perhaps. But there is always another line of numbers, running down the right side of the tree. They change slightly every visit and I don’t know why.” I point to my squiggles laid out on the table. “Do you see Gretel?”
And she does see, even though she doesn’t want to. It’s just that the numbers are unimportant to her. She is only interested in hearing the words that she is healthy and will bear lots of children. Just like the men folk are told when they visit; that their seed is fertile, that they will have many offspring.
“Why don’t you ask Her then?” my sister suggests. “Maybe she will tell you about the numbers and you will be able to count all the hairs on your head. Will that make you happy?” She gives a little laugh and leaves me alone to my thoughts and my nameless numbers.
Gretel is married not so long after, and soon her tummy is bulging with a baby. She coos like a proud chicken and when she comes to visit she struts around our small farm with a belly like a watermelon. Like the chickens, I wonder how many eggs Gretel has inside her, and how many babes she will bear for her husband. I wonder if her milk will be plentiful like the cows and if her husband’s seed is as fruitful as the seeds we plant in our soil.
She has no real need for numbers and she’s forgotten our last discussion. Even though I have not.
Another IIII seasons have passed and I am now due another visit to Her. I will do as Gretel last advised in jest. Today I will ask Her about the numbers. I am not sure if she will give me the answers I need, but I need to know. For every day, I see a need for numbers beyond the limit of my straight lines. Perhaps, they are silly things: How far does a bird fly? How old is our village? How many trees line the IIII walls of our forest?
But there are also important questions: why do I have my own number? What do the numbers burnt into the tree mean? And how many villagers have not returned from Her?
Last week, there were II that did not return.
It is a day like any other when I head to the forest for my visit. What was once odd has now become familiar. The path. The trees that never grow. The sunlight that douses my eyes. And the numbers.
4 19 07 reads the numbers running down the right side of the tree trunk. Last time it read 4 20 06 and the time before 4 10 05.
Then on the left, running down is my number that never changes: 8 4 1 1 0 9.
The numbers are all as I expect them to be.
But She is not.
I did not realise Gods or monsters could become unwell, but there is something deeply wrong with Her. Barely a greeting rings out from her mouth as I enter the hut. Her head rests wearily on the table and Her grey eyes flicker on and off, as if she is halfway between living and dying.
“A…b…i,” she mouths. Her body makes strange sounds, like the pull of a chain at our well. I rush to her side, but it is too late. The greyness in her eyes suddenly twinkles to nothing but a tiny black dot, and then so do my surroundings.
There is a great flickering as if I am blinking rapidly. Then the hut I am standing in fades away in fragmented images. I clutch onto the table and the wood grain changes before my very eyes to a smooth, white material. The colors from the bed, the stool, the bowl all bleed out, changing to a strange white. Walls vanish, pulled away as if by some magic hand to reveal I am not in a forest but in some strange bubble of whiteness.
“Wake up!” I yell. And I shake Her shoulder. Harder each time as more and more of my world disappears.
It is on the III shake that I see a tiny reluctant spark come back into her eyes.
A strange voice, not from her lips, but inside of her speaks, “System reboot.”
And then gradually the greyness starts returning to her irises. The forest springs up all around me; followed by the walls of the hut; finally the table, stool and bed change to what they once were. The familiar returns.
She sits up, and smiles as if nothing has happened, even though I am sobbing and shaking.
“Don’t be scared Abi,” she says. “I was asleep, but I am awake now.” She pushes the bowl to me. “Please, drink the water.”
I push the bowl from the table where its contents splatter and fragment the floor, exposing the whiteness beneath; what has always been there, hidden under the surface.
And then I run. Home. With no answers, only more questions.
No one believed me when I returned and told them of my last visit. That our eyes are deceiving us. That there is no forest, no hut, but instead a white bubble that we enter.
The elders shook their heads. My father struck me in the face for lying, and Gretel didn’t speak to me for a while.
III visits have passed and I have refused to return, but I have learned much since then.
Hands and fingers are drawn all across my walls with lines that are crossed and uncrossed. I have begun counting, all of us, in our village. When someone disappears a single line for one finger is struck off, and when a child is born they are added on. It is interesting because the number never changes. It never gets bigger or smaller. For a child to be born, someone must die. And likewise, if someone dies a child will soon follow.
There is a balance that must be kept.
The cows, the chickens, sheep, even the fish in our village seem to be the same. Although my technique for counting the animals is cruder there seems to be a number of each animal needed. If there are too many eaten, more are birthed. For instance, after a great feast on a wedding day, my numbers show that the animals all produce record offspring shortly thereafter to make up for those that were taken. I wonder if our crops, fruit and insects are also the same, a number kept to a careful balance of what we need. No more, no less.
The thoughts are overwhelming at times. The numbers, the sheer counting involved to achieve such balance. And for what purpose?
Gretel has come to visit. Her belly is swollen with child again, and she stands with her son, who is now almost III fingers old. He’s a strange boy, and so quiet. He looks nothing like Gretel or her mate. She looks at me and my numbers with a worried frown that I have become accustomed to.
“You do not look well, sister.”
I wish I could disagree with her, but I know her words have the ring of truth to them. My work is all-consuming. There are numbers everywhere and so much to count. So much to understand.
Gretel continues, “You are the only villager who does not visit Her you know.”
“Perhaps you should visit. To see if you are well.”
“I am well enough.”
“You know She has changed. If you were to visit you might find Her different this time.”
“Well, she does not falter over her words anymore, she moves more quickly, and her eyes are different.”
“Yes. It’s as if the clouds in her eyes have been chased away, and now there are only blue skies there. She has always looked well, but she seems younger.”
“Gretel, does it not seem strange to you that She never grows old? And here you are telling me that She looks younger?”
“You think too much Abi.”
Gretel’s son starts to whine and she gathers him up into her arms. His curly blonde locks lie oddly against Gretel’s thick black hair as he cuddles into her. “Some things you just have to accept Abi, we don’t need answers to everything. You should become a mother, give up on this madness, find yourself a husband before you become an old hag that no one wants.”
I wonder if I should tell Gretel what I have discovered. The careful balance that must be kept, that when her next child is born she will have condemned a soul from our village to their death.
But instead, I choose to keep quiet and return to my work.
Gretel’s II child is born, a healthy baby boy, this time with hair the color of fire and lungs like a cockerel.
And our father dies the next day.
Gretel isn’t to know the part she played in killing our father. The balance that needed to be kept. One life for another. I look at the newborn with resentment. My father was a good man, peaceful, a hard worker, and he has been replaced by the squalling babe in Gretel’s arms.
Gretel asks me if I want to hold her babe, and doesn’t understand when I refuse.
There is not much to be thankful for on this dark day, but for the fact that my father died peacefully in his sleep. We bury him on our farm under the shade of a red-barked tree and I wonder what will happen to his numbers. Will they disappear now that he is gone? Will the new baby be given the numbers that belonged to our father? Or does he keep them even in death?
My Ma looks like she has aged a lifetime as we walk back to the farm. Her head hangs low, and her feet drag as she walks next to Gretel with her newborn. “We should be pleased She did not take your father,” she says in a low voice as if someone might be listening. “It is better to be buried in the ground, than not return from a visit.”
Gretel and I nod. We too are glad we had a body to bury. No one knows what happens to the ones that never return, but there are stories, always stories.
“I heard Joel, didn’t come back from his last visit. His wife is beside herself. Went into the forest herself looking for him, calling his name,” says Gretel. “But there was no trace of him.”
“There never is,” says Ma.
I too heard about Joel. And I have a special mark for him on the wall of my hut. Together with all the villagers that have not returned from Her. In the last four seasons, there has been I hand and II fingers. Is that the price we have to pay to be told we are healthy and that we can have children?
“She works in mysterious ways,” adds Ma, but her words sound worn and weary.
“Perhaps she was hungry,” I mutter to myself.
We walk back in silence the rest of the way, each of us busy with our thoughts.
It is the next day that Gretel returns to us, without her babe and her sharp words. Her skin is bone white, her body shaking, and she seems half-asleep. Now it is my turn to say, “You do not look well, sister.” My words are barely spoken before she collapses on our floor.
Ma rushes to her side while I notice a blood stain on my sister’s skirt slowly spreading.
“Ma!” I point, but she has already seen it.
She gives butterfly slaps to Gretel’s pale cheeks, “Gretel! Wake up!”
But Gretel’s eyes remain closed.
“Fetch a blanket Abi! And some cloth!”
I do what I am told.
When Ma lifts Abby’s skirts we see the damage her babe has done. He has taken more than my father, he has ruptured something deep within my sister that will not stop bleeding. No amount of cloth can stop the red seeping through, red just like the flames in the infant’s cursed hair.
“Too soon. Too soon,” my Mother weeps. My sister’s number is blinking out. Another body to bury under the red-barked tree. At least we have a body, will be my Mother’s words, and then another babe will be born to replace my sister.
“NO!” I shout. I pick up my sister. It is only a Monster or God that can help her now.
“Abi, you can’t…” says my mother knowing what I intend, “she can’t open her eyes. She has to open her eyes to be seen.”
“I will make her be seen.”
I carry my sister in my arms while the blood drips out of her and Ma runs beside us. Some of the villagers call out, but I don’t hear what they say. I see my sister’s life in numbers, numbers that are disappearing. There is not much time. Even She for all her tricks can’t bring back the dead.
When we reach the forest, my mother stops, her breath ragged, but I continue. Past the broken ferns, the pebbled path, the trees that were all the same. I push past the burn in my legs, the ache in my arms and the nerves that knot my stomach.
The visit must always be made alone. I know what happened with Jenny of the toadstools, and Tommy of the broken arm, they were left by their mothers and told to look up, but Gretel’s eyes are closed, so instead I look for her. Looking up. Looking for my numbers.
And then there they are: 8 4 1 1 0 9.
And the other numbers that still make no sense to me.
“Come in… Abi,” says the familiar voice.
I stumble towards the hut, carrying my half-dead sister. Everything looks like it used to, but I know it is all trickery. That I am in the strange bubble of white.
I lie my sister down on the small bed in the hut and my legs give out. I breathe in great gulps of air while She looks at me from behind the table both smiling and frowning. Her mouth undecided.
“You should have come alone.”
“My sister is… dying.” It is now me that has trouble with my words as I struggle to draw breath.
“You know the rules, she needed to come herself.”
“There is nothing wrong in death Abi. Where there is death there is always life.”
“You almost… died once, do you… remember? I shook you. I shook you… back to life. Now, give me… my sister.”
She is quiet then, her eyes and face grow still as if she is thinking inside herself about my words. While the redness trickles like time out of my sister staining the bed.
“My employer advises that was the one before me, but I am thankful that you helped Her. I will try and help the one you call your sister. It may take some time to identify her. First, you must drink the water.”
I walk over to the table. I dip my finger in the bowl and I write my sister’s number on the table. 8 4 1 0 0 8. “That is her number.”
And only then do I drink.
When I wake up I am lying on the bed and She is standing over me. Watching me. My mind is full of heavy clouds and my body aches.
“Gretel?” I ask.
“You will be pleased Abi, Gretel has made a full recovery and has returned to the village. She will still be able to bear children.” She pauses as if uncertain of her next words. “Tell me, how did you know Gretel’s number?”
“I study them. The numbers.”
“What have you learnt?”
And I tell her everything. She listens intently, her blue eyes unreadable. When I am done, She is silent for a while, and then she smiles, showing those teeth I remember. “Very good, Abi. You are correct, each villager has a number when they are born. The other number is what we call a date. You only know seasons, but in the old days, each day had a number. When you visit me the date records the month, day, and year. I record every visit and the total of extractions.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Precisely. And you shouldn’t. Numbers can be dangerous in the wrong hands and especially when there are so many of you in a confined space.”
She is still smiling, but I don’t feel any warmth.
“Can I go back home now?” I ask. My voice sounds shrunken, so small like I’m a child once again. A stupid, dumb child, who knows nothing but tales of Monsters and Gods.
“I’m afraid not Abi. Your curiosity is counterproductive to the overall happiness of our stock, but we will find another use for you.”
“Just like you’ve been raising cattle and sheep and hens, we have been raising animals too, your kind Abi. Taking your eggs and sperm from the people in your village and giving them to the outside world who are no longer fertile. As you know the world you live in is carefully controlled, carefully balanced to ensure your optimum health. My employer prides itself on delivering high-end eggs and sperm from quality breeding stock that are free to roam. Your village is just one of many that we operate. We filter out undesirable livestock. We also allow our stock to breed with each other freely, and to ensure the continued quality of the gene pool sometimes our humans carry fertilised embryos that have been garnered from one of our other villages.”
“You breed us? You take our… eggs?”
“Don’t worry, you have plenty. And while you were asleep I extracted the last of your eggs.”
A part of me seems to crack, and I’m crying for a child I never had. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a mother, but now I will never have that chance. Once I wondered how many eggs Gretel had inside her, now I know I have none. Empty.
“You are sad?”
“I will never be… a mother.”
“But of course, you are Abi. Many times over already. And many more to come. On behalf of my employer Freedom Farming, we thank you for your service, and for your continued service on behalf of humankind. Your healthy parts, including your corneas, and all major organs will be donated to charities as part of our ongoing global commitment to helping those who need it the most. You will no longer be… operational. This will be quick. Like the chickens.”
The last things I remember are those teeth as She smiled; her cold hands coming closer; a scream dying, trapped inside me.
And then I was just another number, lost in the total.
Copyright 2023 by Anne Wilkins