Once upon a time, there was a little girl who lived deep in the woods with her mother and father. She tried her hardest to be a good child. Her mother had never wanted children and blamed her daughter for her hard existence. Her father had never wanted children and blamed his daughter for his being saddled with a sullen wife and responsibility.
The mother had a very sharp tongue. She constantly berated the girl for being worthless and stupid.
The father, not the intellectual equal of his wife, used his fists on the girl.
The girl, not knowing any other way of life, believed that her parents loved her and that they were only punishing her for being a bad girl.
One morning, the mother sent the girl to collect berries by the riverside. The mother was going to bake a pie. The girl knew that she would never be allowed to taste the pie, but went cheerfully nevertheless. She was a very helpful child, even if no one (not even herself) knew it.
It had been raining all night and the river was more swollen than usual. With her bucket half full, the girl slipped on a rock and fell into the rushing river. She caught hold of a branch and called frantically for her parents. The water was cold and her fingers were already numb.
The mother, who had recently developed an enthusiasm for laudanum, stared dreamily out of the window. She heard her daughter’s cries, but didn’t stir. The silly little brat had, most likely, seen a snake. What of it?
The father, coming down the lane and surly (he had missed every deer he had aimed at and had resigned himself to a mean supper of bread and a silent and accusing wife), also heard his child’s desperate screaming. The spoiled idiot had probably been stung by a bee. What of it?
The girl tried to hold on. As her arms weakened and the water rushed into her mouth, she paused only to think about how much she loved her mother and father.
The girl didn’t come home that night. One less mouth to feed, the mother thought, chewing her bread and sneering at her husband. Good riddance, the father thought, ignoring his wife.
The girl knew that she hadn’t survived the river. Cold and wet, she dragged herself back to her home. The world looked different, hazy and insubstantial. She sat on the porch and wondered what to do.
Out of the fog, a beautiful and kindly looking woman walked towards her. She smiled at the girl. Say goodbye to your mother and your father and come with me, she told the girl. Her voice was warm honey on a summer’s day, her face radiated the gentleness of a blameless sky.
The girl ran happily into the house. Her parents were deeply asleep. The girl, leaning to kiss her mother, rested her hand gently on the mother’s throat. The girl went to her father’s side and kissed her fingers and put them to her father’s face (he never allowed the girl to kiss him).
The beautiful woman took the girl by the hand and led her out of the dark woods.
When the mother awoke, her throat was ice cold. When she looked into the mirror, she saw a red and angry little hand print on her skin. From that day until her death, the woman would go nowhere without a scarf. Was it because of her shame or because she was always so cold?
The father awoke to find a similar print marring his face. From that day until his death, he was never warm again.