Whichwood by Tahereh Mafi


Infant snow drifted down in gentle whorls, flakes as large as pancakes glinting silver as they fell. Shaggy trees wore white leaves and moonlight glimmered across a glassy lake. The night was soft and all was slow and snow had hushed the earth into a deep, sound slumber and oh, winter was fast approaching.

For the town of Whichwood, winter was a welcome distraction; they thrived in the cold and delighted in the ice (the very first snowfall was terribly nice), and they were well equipped with food and festivities to keep toasty throughout the season. Yalda, the biggest celebration, was the winter solstice, and the land of Whichwood was electric with anticipation. Whichwood was a distinctly magical village, and Yalda—the town’s most important holiday—was a very densely magical evening. Yalda was the last night of fall and the longest night of the year; it was a time of gift-giving and tea-drinking and endless feasting—and it was a great deal more than that, too. We’re a bit pressed for minutes at the moment (something strange is soon to happen and I can’t be distracted when it does), so we’ll discuss the finer details at a later time. For now, know this: Every new snowfall arrived with a foot of fresh excitement, and with only two days left till winter, the people of Whichwood could scarcely contain their joy.

With a single notable exception.

There was only one person in Whichwood who never partook in the town merriment. Only one person who drew closed her curtains and cursed the song and dance of a magical evening. And she was a very strange person indeed.

Laylee hated the cold.

At thirteen years old, she’d long lost that precious, relentless optimism reserved almost exclusively for young people. She’d no sense of whimsy, no interest in decadence, no tolerance for niceties. No, Laylee hated the frost and she hated the fuss and she resented not only this holiday season, but even those who loved it. (To be fair, Laylee resented many things—not the least of which was her lot in life—but winter was the thing she resented perhaps most of all.)

Come sleet or snow, she alone was forced to work long hours in the cold, her kneecaps icing over as she dragged dead bodies into a large porcelain tub in her backyard. She’d scrub limp necks and broken legs and dirty fingernails until her own fingers froze solid, and then she’d hang those dead, dragging limbs up to dry—only to later return and break icicles off corpse chins and noses. Laylee had no holidays, no vacations, not even a set schedule. She worked when her customers came calling, which meant very soon she’d be worked to the bone. Winter in Whichwood, you see, was a very popular season for dying.

Tonight, Laylee was found frowning (her expression of choice), irritated (perhaps more than usual), bundled (to the point of asphyxiation), and stubbornly determined to catch a few snowflakes before dinner. Fresh flakes were the thickest and the crispest, and a rare treat if you were quick enough to catch a few.

If I may: I know it seems a strange idea, eating snowflakes for dinner, but you have to understand—Laylee Layla Fenjoon was a very strange girl, and despite (or perhaps because of) the oddness of her occupation, she was in desperate need of a treat. She’d had to wash nine very large, thoroughly rotted persons today—this was four more than usual—and it had been very hard on her. Indeed, she often caught herself dreaming of a life where her family didn’t run a laundering business for the deceased.

Well, I say family, but it was really just Laylee doing all the washing. Maman had died two years prior (a cockroach had fallen in the samovar and Maman, unwittingly, drank the tea; it was all very tragic), but Laylee was not afforded the opportunity to grieve. Most ghosts moved on after a good scrubbing, you see, but Maman’s had lingered, floating about the halls and criticizing Laylee’s best work even when she was sleeping. Baba, too, was entirely absent, as he’d been gone just as long as Maman had been dead. Devastated by the loss of his wife, he’d set off on an impulsive journey not two days after Maman died, determined to find Death and give him a firm talking-to about his recent choices.

Sadly, Death was nowhere to be found.

Worse, grief had so thoroughly crippled Baba’s mind that, despite his two-year absence, thus far he’d managed to travel only as far as the city center. In his heartbreak he’d lost not only his way, but his good sense, too. Baba’s brain had rearranged, and in the madness and chaos of loss, no room remained for his only child. Laylee was collateral damage in a war on grief, and Baba, who had no hope of winning such a war, haplessly succumbed to this opiate of oblivion. Laylee would often pass her disoriented father on her sojourns into town, pat his shoulder in a show of support, and tuck a pomegranate into his pocket.

More on that later.

For now, let us focus: It was a cold, lonely night, and Laylee had just collected the last of her dinner when a sudden sound froze her still. Two loud thumps, a branch snap, a dull thud, the unmistakable intake of air and a sudden rush of angry whispers—

No, there was no denying it: There were trespassers here.

Now, this would have been an alarming revelation for any normal person, but as Laylee was a distinctly abnormal person, she remained unperturbed. She was, however, perplexed. The thing was, no persons ever came here, and heaven help them if they did; stumbling upon a shed of swollen, rotting corpses had never done any person any good. It was for this reason that Laylee and her family lived in relative isolation. They had taken up residence in a small, drafty castle on a little peninsula on the outer edge of town in an informal sort of exile; it was an unkindness Laylee and her family had not earned, but then, no one wanted to live next door to the girl with such an unfortunate occupation.

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