A Surplus of Daughters

by E.B. Schnepp

In the lean times, children are easy to steal; everyone is hungry. Forbidden fruit is no longer a temptation, but a vital necessity; mothers feed goblin fruit to daughters and wait for the little men to steal them away in the night—the mantra it’s for the best hangs heavy in the air, on every pair of lips.

Daughter will be hungry, she has been served last for too long and knows better than to ask why she is now given a bounty; she doesn’t want anyone else to eat it first, to change their mind and take it away. If she knows what this means, it probably doesn’t matter anymore. It doesn’t matter that she is bathed—though the bloody fruit stains are left to darken her lips—dressed in white and hair plaited, stomach full for the first time in so long that it hurts to not hunger. Her body is already feeling rounded and foreign.

Her mother will leave her sitting before the cold hearth, forbid her prayers and bed. She is to wait for what her mother will not tell her. In the cold-dark, just past the midnight toll, the little men will come into the house, the back door left open wide for their entrance by a mother who gives her daughter like a gift. The little men with their graying skin, their wild eyes, and their hunger-leer will go to the girl and know her father, her brothers, will never wake. They’ll know her mother is listening, though she keeps her eyes closed tight. There are some things only women can know.

Do you know how to bleed? the little men will ask.
Do you know how to sing? the little men will ask.

The girl who can answer these questions will be taken, the girl who cannot will be planted in the garden, left to feed her father and brothers. Her mother will pick daughter-fruit at the same cold-dark hour her daughter was taken, just past the midnight toll, and will fill buckets with fruit that will turn to blood and meat in her hands.

She will know she eats of her daughter, who will grow and bleed silently for them, and she will prepare the next day’s meal from her anyway. Her father will not ask where she went, her father will not ask where the meat came from. Her father will only eat. Her brothers have forgotten her already. The men of the village all know better than to become attached to daughters. The village women don’t need to ask, they already know where the daughter went. Many of them have a tree made of similar roots in their back garden. Many of them harvest the same fruit. Many have more than one tree.

As for the girls who are taken, that story is different. Their families are left without a daughter and have no sacrificial tree, but a new daughter will come in due time and they can always try again, for a girl less clever, less good at surviving. The ones who are good at surviving know how to bleed, they know how to sing, they have learned their fairytales well. They have listened to the women who have managed to linger in the village, the whispers of their mother to other mothers at the washing well, and know where the fruit and the meat from the trees come from—though they have never been allowed to eat of their sister, or anyone else’s sister. They have no desire to be a sacrifice, a tree, to be devoured. They do not know what lies on the other side of holding hands with little men, on the other side of the hunger-leer of little men, but they are open to the possibility, to learning. No one who has gone with the little men has ever returned, the girl who can survive is open to all the possibilities that exist in disappearing.

The wise girl will realize for the first time she is dressed for a wedding. And the wise girl will realize for the first time she is dressed for a funeral. And the wise girl will realize for the first time she is not in her family’s home, she has left her family behind. And the wise girl will realize for the first time she will not miss them.


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