The girl is alone in the locked room. At first, she writes the day of the week, the month, and the year on a wall. She means to keep a record of her time in the room, but after a while she begins skipping a day or several days. Soon, days, months, and years become a meaningless jumble. She forgets her birthday. And then her name.
But what does it matter? No one comes to visit, no one asks her name, no one asks how old she is.
At first, the room seems large, but soon it shrinks—?or seems to. It becomes a prison. The key disappeared long ago. No matter—?she’s afraid to leave. They’re waiting for her to open the door. She feels their presence, faint in the daytime but solid and loud at night. Their boots storm up the steps. They hammer on the door. They yell for her to come out.
But how can she? The door is locked from the outside. Even if she wanted to, she could not obey their commands. She huddles in the shadows, her eyes closed, her fingers in her ears, and waits for them to leave.
The trouble is, they always come back. Not every night, but often enough that she always waits to hear their horses gallop toward the house, to hear their boots on the stairs, to hear their fists on her door.
She used to know who they were and why they came, but now she knows only that they are bad men who will hurt her if they find her. They say they won’t, but she doesn’t believe them.
So she huddles in the wardrobe, under a pile of old dresses, and doesn’t move until she hears their horses gallop away.
Every morning, the girl looks at a date written on the wall—?June 1, 1889. She doesn’t remember why she wrote the date or what happened that day. Indeed, she isn’t even sure she wrote it. Maybe someone else, some other girl, was here once. Maybe that girl wrote the date.
Someone, perhaps that other girl, certainly not herself, drew pictures on the wall. They tell a story, a terrible story. The story frightens her. It makes her cry sometimes.
In a strange way, she knows the story is true, the story is about her. Not the girl she is now, but perhaps the girl she used to be before they locked her in this room.
But who was that girl? A girl should remember her own name, if nothing else. Why is her brain so fuzzy?
Near the end of the picture story, men on horses gallop to the house. They must be the ones who come to her door at night. Did they draw the pictures to scare her?
There are other paintings in the room, real paintings, beautiful paintings. A few hang on the walls, but most lean against the wall. The same people are in most of them. A pretty woman, a little girl with yellow hair, a bearded man—?a family. She pretends she’s the little girl. The woman is her mother. The man is her father.
She must have had a mother and a father once. Doesn’t everyone?
She talks to them, and she talks for them. They have long, made-up conversations that she never remembers for more than a day.
If only she could bring them to life. They look so real. Why can’t they step out of the paintings and keep her company?
* * *
Years pass. The girl stops looking at the drawings on the wall. She wearies of the people in the paintings. What good are they to her? They’re just faces on canvas. Flat. They cannot see her or hear her. They cannot talk to her. They cannot help her. They are useless.
She turns their faces to the wall. She forgets they are there.
* * *
Seasons follow each other round and round like clockwork figures. Leaves fall, snow falls, rain falls. Flowers bloom, flowers wilt, flowers die. Snow falls again. And again. And again.
Birds nest under the eaves and sometimes find their way into the room. Trees grow taller. Their branches spread. Young trees surround the house. They push against its walls. In the summer, their leaves press against the only window and block the sunlight. The room is a dim green cave.
Brambles and vines climb the stone walls. Their roots burrow into cracks and crevices, and they cling tight. Tendrils manage to find their way inside. Every year, their leaves fall on the floor of her room.
Gradually the house blends into the woods, and people forget it’s there.
The girl stays in the locked room and waits. She no longer knows who or what she is waiting for. Something, someone . . .
She is lonelier than you can imagine.
One morning, the girl hears loud noises from somewhere outside. It sounds as if an army has invaded the woods, bent on attacking and destroying everything in its path.
Confused and frightened, the girl hides in her nest. Buried completely under the rags of dresses, she hears sounds she can’t identify, louder even than thunder. They come closer. The trees surrounding the house crash to the ground. Sunlight pours through the window. She squints and shields her eyes with her hand.
Outside, near the house, men shout. Who are they? Where have they come from? Why are they here? Have they come for her?
She smells smoke. They must be burning something. Suppose the fire spreads to the house? She trembles. She’ll have no place to hide.
Men enter the house. They tramp about downstairs. They speak in loud voices. They come to the second floor and then the third. Their footsteps stop at her door. The doorknob turns, but without the key, the men can’t come in.
The girl burrows deeper into the rags. She doesn’t think they’re the ones who come on horseback at night. They don’t pound on the door or shout at her, but she doesn’t want them to know she’s here—?just in case. So she remains absolutely still.
Just outside her door, she hears a man say, “This is the only room in the house that’s locked. Should we bust it open and take a look?”
The girl cringes in her hiding place. She’s sure the men will find her.
“Nah,” says another. “Nothing in there but trash and broken stuff.”
The men shuffle past the door and go downstairs, laughing about something as they go.
When she’s sure they won’t come back, she tiptoes to the window and looks out. A huge yellow machine with long, jointed arms lifts and lowers, lifts and lowers, scooping up things from one place and dumping them somewhere else. Its jaws have sharp teeth.
Not far from the yellow machine are red machines with scrapers attached to their fronts. They push mounds of grassy earth into piles of red clay. Other machines have rollers that flatten everything, even hills.