Labyrinth. It was a word Papa taught me, reading from a big book of ancient stories. A monster lived in its midst—half man, half bull. Minotaur. I mouthed the word, feeling the dryness of my chapped lips at the silent 'm', and reached a tentative hand out to Sister Odile's skirt, wondering if the voluminous fabric might not be hiding such a creature within.
"Hör auf." Sister Odile slapped my hand away and resumed our journey, doing nothing to allay my fear that I might well be in the custody of a monster. The size of the feet alone promised supernatural proportions, and now the woman's breath came in snorts and puffs like some great-chested beast.
"You want to run, don't you, girl?"
"No." The lie didn't bother me one bit.
Sister Odile let out a laugh deep enough to lift the cross off her frock. "Back out the gate, wouldn't you? And what if I told you to go ahead? You're little enough to squeeze right through, aren't you? You want to chase down your papa? Do you even know which way he went? Up the road or down?"
Every word in every question climbed a scale, ending in a high, gasping wheeze.
"If I did run, you'd never catch me. I'd disappear like a shadow." It's what I did at home, on nights when Papa wasn't there. I'd fold myself into the corners, away from the reach of the new mama's spoon.
"Not even a shadow can escape the wolves," Sister Odile said, her grip softening a little. "And hear me when I tell you this, my girl. That is all that waits for you outside these walls. Wolves ready to tear little girls into scraps for their pups."
This, I knew, held some truth, as Papa had often said the same thing. Still, my trust faltered. "And what is inside the walls?"
Sister Odile laughed again, but this time the sound rumbled in her throat, like the comfort of long-off thunder. "Great mysteries and secrets. The kind that most little girls will never learn."
"Like in books?"
"In the greatest book of all. And sacred language."
Our steps fell into a common pace, with mine trotting two to every one of Sister Odile's.
"I can read a little already," I said, my words warm with pride. "Papa taught me. I can read better than my brother, and he's eleven."
"Then your father has done a very good and unselfish thing, allowing you to come here. Let your Dummkopf brother fend for himself."
I stopped my laughter with the back of my hand. Fabian was an idiot, by all measures. Cruel and thick and lazy. He was the closest to me in age, and therefore the most likely to deliver abuse. Clemens was thirteen, and Hans a full-grown man, almost, and I wondered if they would even notice my absence. Our sister, Maria, had been gone for nearly a year, married to a solicitor's clerk, and had rarely been mentioned since.
"You can find peace here," Sister Odile was saying, "because we work to keep the darkness of the world away."
We'd come to a heavy wooden door with an iron ring fastened so high, Sister Odile had to stretch up on her toes to reach it.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
"There is another door on the other side of the building," Sister Odile said, "open to all who seek sanctuary. This one is just for us."
Us. I repeated the word.
"The sisters. And the girls. Other little girls, just like you. And bigger, too. We don't lock the door until after supper, and then don't open it at all after dark. You got here just in time."
The mention of the word supper brought my stomach rumbling to life, as loud as the sound of the sliding bolt and creaking hinges. Whatever hunger I felt, however, knotted itself into pure fear at the image in the open doorway. No amount of black fabric could shroud the twisted figure of the old woman who stood, leaning heavily on a thick walking stick, on the other side. A stub of candle illuminated a face the likes of which I had never seen before. One eye clouded with blindness, thin lips mismatched to each other, and a cascade of fleshy pink-tinged boils dripping like wax down one side. In stature, she was not much taller than I, and I stood silent and still as a post under the woman's studious gaze. Then the single squinted eye was aimed up at Sister Odile, and a voice squawked, "She's too late."