This story was first published years ago on Front Porch Review (as “Human After All” by Hila Katz).
After the fire ruined her face and body, Aisling didn’t want to live among people. She moved upstate to a cottage that had stayed unoccupied for years; it was set down a narrow drive and surrounded by forests and fields. The first floor was divided between a kitchen and a sitting room with a fireplace opposite the front door. The second floor was furnished with a bureau and bed. During the day Aisling worked from her computer or poked around the derelict garden out back. Sometimes she took long naps from which she was faintly surprised to wake up. In the evenings she made a point of lighting the logs in the fireplace. Though they made her stomach clench, she ate dinner in front of the flames and watched them lick and consume.
It took a week for her to get used to the absence of city sounds. Instead of cars grinding and voices shouting up and down the street, there was a thick silence disturbed unpredictably by cries, chirps and lonely calls. Her keyboard sounded loud and percussive in the quiet; the water came out of the kitchen faucet in a roar. She felt she was in another world. The silence formed a membrane that folded around the cottage, and the cottage and garden conspired to keep her tucked away. The two windows on the cottage’s first floor were coarse with dust and dirt, as good as curtains for frustrating curious eyes. Weeds spilled over from the garden and the woods, flanked the cottage walls and kept sentry at the front door. At her roll-top desk or on the ratty armchair before the fire, Aisling ate, read, dozed, and wrote instruction manuals and technical articles for pay. She told herself that in time the seclusion would seem completely natural.
Real people were impossible to be with. As if she needed a reminder, she ran into two of them on a walk through the woods several weeks after moving into the cottage. During the walk she wasn’t wearing her veil, which she kept only for errands in a nearby town. She thought she would have the woods to herself. As she strolled along a narrow dirt path between the trees, her hands skimmed over leaves that were deep green in the shade or bright green-gold where the sun touched them; her heart was lighter than it had been in months. From somewhere nearby a stream whispered to her, and she was listening to it so intently that she almost missed the voices drawing closer from up ahead. Within seconds an elderly man and a young boy appeared with fishing poles slung against their shoulders.
The boy saw her first. He screamed and hid his face against the man’s side. The man placed a hand on the boy’s head and stared at Aisling with horror and pity.
Aisling turned around and jogged home, her throat tight. Memories swelled up – pity, misery and revulsion from the few people close to her, her niece crying at the sight of her face, the taunts from neighborhood teens and some adults (nicknames of “Lava Woman” and “Third Degree,” the boy who pulled her veil down and snapped a photo with his phone). Surgeries, infection, skin grafts that failed, flesh that either didn’t feel anything or blazed with pain. When she got to the cottage, she climbed the stairs to the second floor and curled up on the bed, her fingers fisting into the deep green coverlet. Her mind roared faintly, like an inferno heard from miles away. An hour passed; her breathing steadied, her mind went quiet and numb. She sat up, tugged off her boots, and forced herself to go through with the rest of her day. There was a lawnmower manual to finish writing and vegetables to chop for a stew. She needed to send her weekly email to the handful of family and friends who still kept in touch, to assure them she was alive and functional enough to use a keyboard, or voice recognition software when her fingers were too stiff. When night came she lit the logs in the fireplace.
Aisling stayed indoors for two days. On the third day, when she stepped outside to bring in more firewood, she paused just past the front step. Several tall thorny weeds that had crowded around her door were gone. On the step lay a dandelion, yellow and crumpled, as if the wind had played with it for a while before tossing it her way. Aisling picked it up and rolled the stem between her thumb and forefinger. She made her way around the cottage to the garden. No one was there. The corner closest to the woods looked like it had been weeded a little, though she wasn’t sure.
These tweaks to her property wouldn’t have amounted to much had she never noticed anything like them again. Instead Aisling spotted new changes every few days: more garden weeds gone, some fresh loamy soil in spots that had offered only cracked earth. Random dandelions appeared on her front step, sometimes two or three at a time, more than could be explained by a stray breeze. She placed them in a glass jar on the sill above her kitchen faucet. Against the dirty window their yellowness seemed unhealthy, a color stemming from illness and pollution. Aisling ran a rag under the faucet and scrubbed at the windowpane until her arm ached.
At two or three in the morning most nights she woke and drifted downstairs to fill a glass with tap water. She drank it by the dark kitchen window. She didn’t expect to see anything or anyone, but she still wondered about the small acts of kindness around her cottage. Maybe there was a friendly elf in the woods. It wouldn’t feel any disgust towards her or perpetrate any cruelties. It would be sensitive to her and try to help as best it could, giving her dandelions as tokens of good will and staying out of sight so as not to make her self-conscious.
After her woodpile was tidied and a wheelbarrow she had left overturned was righted, the impression of a benevolent presence strengthened. She began to write notes on index cards and leave them on the front step before going to bed. Who are you? the first note said. And four nights later it was a Thank you after another small patch of weeds vanished from the garden. On a round of errands in town, Aisling bought seeds and gardening tools, a shovel, hoe and spade, and she liked the sight of them propped up inside her cottage by the front door. I can do something with the garden now, she wrote. I’ll start soon. And feeling foolish but also a little happy she left the note where the others had been.
She received no replies. The notes were never on the front step by the time she checked at eight in the morning; it was possible the wind blew them away just as it sent dandelions to her door. Aisling was too nervous to find out for sure. She never pinned the index cards down with a rock. On two nights she set up a video camera aimed at the front step, but never hit record. What if the camera showed her no one at all? She suspected sometimes that she was fooling herself. She might be caught up in a daydream, the pathetic but potent longings of a woman still unaccustomed to living alone. Maybe she was completing those minor chores herself, in fits of absent-mindedness.
When she heard a knock at the door at 7:30 one morning, just as she was cleaning her breakfast plate, Aisling turned off the faucet and stood still, listening. Another knock came, and she set the plate down with hands that had started to shake. She dried her hands on her skirt and took a few abrupt steps to the door. “Just a minute,” she called, and her voice came out in a croak. She cleared her throat. “Just a minute.” She leaned her forehead against the door and held her breath, trying to listen for any noise outside. But she heard nothing, only felt someone or something there. She shouldn’t have announced that she was at home. But whoever was out there knew already, so what was the point of pretending? She gripped the doorknob, then released it and put on her gloves and veil first.
When she yanked open the door, the boy standing before her front step flinched. He was staring off to the side, and Aisling in her shock had several moments to study him. It was the young boy she’d run into in the woods, who’d screamed when he saw her. He was nine or ten years old if she had to guess, with a long pale face and brown hair matted with sweat. An index card, probably the one she’d left outside the night before, poked out of the front pocket of his jeans.
His head turned fractionally. Then his shoulders relaxed, and he turned to face her fully. His hands were clenched, but he stared resolutely at her, at the veil and through the veil, then down the length of her, then away again, his cheeks red.
Aisling sensed that she had to be the first one to speak. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to bother you.”
“You aren’t.” She leaned against the doorjamb, and saw his gaze slide by her into the cottage. “Is anyone with you?” she asked.
“Uh… no.” His voice was high and nervous. “I know a shortcut to get here from my grandparents’ house. I can get here in ten minutes flat.” He looked up at her face, his eyes tracing the patterns on her veil. “Grandpa and I followed you here. You know, when we bumped into you.”
Aisling reached back and shut the door. She stepped towards the boy, and he stumbled back. She stopped, laced her fingers together, and spoke over the pounding of her heart. “You should go home,” she said, feeling nauseous suddenly. The boy’s fear of her, the disgust he could barely control, was like a brand on her skin. A wild thought crossed her mind – to do something wicked to him, disfigure him – but it passed quickly and left her even more nauseous.
He cleared his throat. “I just… I wanted to say sorry for screaming. I felt really bad.”
His face was pained and earnest. She looked down and saw his hands, grubby, as if he’d been messing around in the dirt. “Apology accepted,” she said, “on one condition. Tell me if you’ve been here before. Not with your grandpa but by yourself.”
The boy licked his lips and glanced at the woods, wondering maybe if he could make a run for it. “Yeah,” he admitted at last.
“Why?” she said. Then she spotted a thread of fresh blood between the thumb and index finger of his left hand. “You’re hurt.”
He stared at his fingers. “I couldn’t find the gardening gloves today. Grandma must have put them somewhere else.”
“Wait here,” she said, and slipped back into the house. She fully expected that when she returned with the antibacterial wipes and band-aid he would be gone. Maybe she was imagining this conversation too. But he was still waiting by the door. He mumbled his thanks and cleaned his hands; there were smaller cuts on his palms.
“Where do you live?”
He hesitated. “I don’t want to get in trouble.”
“Just across the woods.” He looked at her again. “I wasn’t doing anything bad. I wasn’t playing tricks on you.”
“Wash those out again when you get home.” She didn’t know why it was so hard for her to ask the next question; maybe it was because she was afraid of what she’d hear. “I still don’t understand why you’re here. Why did you go to so much trouble? You’ve been here most mornings, right?”
“I need to go,” he said, as he wound a band-aid around his index finger. “I can sneak back into my room easy, but it has to be early enough or else they’ll know.” He shrugged. “Grandpa feels bad too. He’s probably going to come around and say hi some time. He hasn’t done it yet because he thinks you’d be embarrassed.”
Aisling was sure it had more to do with not wanting to look at her again. “How about you?” she said.
“The first time I came here it was just to say sorry. I meant to. But I was afraid to knock. You know, because I don’t know you,” he hurried to say. “I thought maybe it’d be nice to help out in the meantime. Your garden’s a mess.” He bit his lip. “But today I told myself I’d do it, I’d knock. I heard you washing up so I knew you were awake. I’m sorry I bothered you.” He stepped away from her. “I need to go.”
Was this it, then? Would he never come again? She looked around the yard, thinking of the disappearing weeds, the righted wheelbarrow, the notes she had left at the door. Had he read them all? Had he kept each one? There was still so much she didn’t know, and already he was edging away from her.
“I’ll go with you,” she said.
His eyes widened. “You… you don’t have to. I got here by myself.” Then he muttered, “I’m not a baby.”
“It isn’t safe,” she said. “No one knows where you are.”
“You know,” he said, and for the first time he cracked a little grin.
She huffed a laugh. “Let’s go.”
The trees closed in around them. The morning was cool, and patches of mist were parting with reluctance from the branches. A couple of minutes into the walk, the kid wriggled into a clot of shrubs. Aisling followed, holding her veil in place to keep it from catching on something and tearing off.
They were now on another path, more neglected, with tree roots and broad-leafed plants crowding against them. Aisling stumbled a couple of times, the toe of her shoe jerking against a root.
“You ok?” the kid asked her.
“Yes, thanks.” She was uncomfortable with his concern. “You’re visiting your grandparents for the summer?” she said.
“No. I live with them.”
They were silent for the next few minutes.
“My parents died,” he said, not turning around to look at her.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured.
This time he did stop, and she almost bumped into him.
“Car crash,” he said, glancing back at her. He started walking again. She could barely hear his next question as they crunched over some loose stones. “How did you get hurt?”
“House fire,” she said. She had lived on the top floor of a four-story walk-up, a narrow Victorian home that had been converted into a set of apartments, one on each floor. She didn’t tell him that a bunch of middle school kids, drunk on their parents’ pilfered whiskey, had started the fire by accident.
She heard him take a deep breath. Then he said, “My mom was burned too.” He looked at her over his shoulder, then turned away quickly. “When she died.”
“I’m sorry,” Aisling said again, but this time her words barely had a sound.
The woods were starting to thin out. The path broadened.
“I didn’t get to see her after,” he said quietly. “They wouldn’t let me.”
They reached the edge of the woods. Up ahead was a house painted the color of goldenrod, with a dark gabled roof and a vegetable garden in the backyard.
“My house,” he said. He didn’t look at her. “Do you think I could bring Grandpa some time?”
“To your place.”
Did he really mean to visit? The thought of him knocking on her door, his grandfather with him, gave her a thrill of fear and delight. She could picture it, the three of them awkward in her cottage, staring at the floor and walls, the conversation strained. She would be wearing her veil to spare them. At least she would be hospitable, offer them tea. Maybe she would bake something when she got home. Or work on her garden some more, make her place look less derelict. It would look better to her too, even if no one did come.
“I don’t see why not, but it’s up to him.” There, she’d given him an out. If he never came again, he could always tell himself that his grandpa didn’t let him. “You can’t come alone. Promise me.”
“You don’t have to treat me like a baby.”
“Fine.” He blew out an exasperated breath.
“I’m Aisling, by the way,” she said.
His eyes brightened, and he smiled. “Kevin.” He stuck out his hand.
She stared at his hand, before catching it in a light grip. He tensed – no doubt remembering what was hidden under her gloves – and his smile slipped. They kept their handshake up for three seconds (Aisling counted, maybe he did too), before letting go.
He hurried away across the yard, ducking between the raised vegetable beds, until he reached a window at the side of the house. He hauled himself over, out of sight.
Aisling remained at the edge of the yard until the patio door slid open and the grandfather stepped out. He didn’t notice her; he was holding a blue mug and looking up at the sky. Just as well. He’d be startled if he saw her now, even with her veil. Aisling helped herself to another look at his house, before retreating into the woods, out of sight.