Main Dark and Deepest Red

Dark and Deepest Red

Summer, 1518. A strange sickness sweeps through Strasbourg: women dance in the streets, some until they fall down dead. As rumors of witchcraft spread, suspicion turns toward Lavinia and her family, and Lavinia may have to do the unimaginable to save herself and everyone she loves.

Five centuries later, a pair of red shoes seal to Rosella Oliva's feet, making her dance uncontrollably. They draw her toward a boy who knows the dancing fever's history better than anyone: Emil, whose family was blamed for the fever five hundred years ago. But there's more to what happened in 1518 than even Emil knows, and discovering the truth may decide whether Rosella survives the red shoes.

Year: 2020
Language: english
ISBN 13: 9781250162748
File: EPUB, 343 KB
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To my father, who taught me to love books in the first place

Cuando el camino es largo, hasta las zapatillas aprietan.

When the road is long, even slippers are tight.


Chacun sent le mieux où le soulier le blesse.

No one knows better where the shoe pinches than she who wears it.


Dance in red shoes, but make sure they’re the ones you’ve made by hand.


Women Who Run with the Wolves


My mother told me once that being an Oliva meant measuring our lives in lengths of red thread. And probably, that was true.

But growing up in Briar Meadow meant I measured mine by the glimmer that appeared over the reservoir every year.

That was what they called the strangeness that settled onto our town for a week each October, a glimmer. Both for the wavering light that hovered above the water, and because it seemed like the right word for the flicker of magic that came with it.

One year, the glimmer stirred the air between neighbors who hated each other. Families who’d become enemies over fence lines and tree roots suddenly burst into each other’s kitchens, trading long-secret recipes for tomato sauce or spice cookies.

Another year, it was icicles that tasted like rose candies. My mother and I ate them all week, licking them like paletas, and tried to save some in our freezer. When the glimmer left at the end of the week, we found them vanished from between the frozen peas and waffles, and managed to be surprised. (My abuela called us fools for thinking we could hold on to Briar Meadow’s magic any longer than the glimmer let us.)

And once, it was the thorns on the trees and bushes around town. They grew so fast even I could sit still long enough to watch them. The wood twisted into shapes, some simple as a corkscrew curl, others intricate as the figurine of a deer, others as sharp as little knives. Sometimes we woke up to find blood dripping down the points, and we couldn’t be sure if someone had pricked their fingers, or if the thorns themselves were bleeding.

And maybe my mother was right about measuring our lives in red thread, because those drops of blood looked, to me, like the beads on the most beautiful shoes my family made. Red shoes, the kind everyone knew us for.

They bought other colors, of course, but it was the red ones that carried the whisper of a magic not so different from the glimmer. Our red shoes bore the hint of something forbidden and a little scandalous. Parents bought them for anxious brides, who then kissed their grooms with enough passion to make the wedding guests blush. Women had pairs made for class reunions, strutting into the tinsel-draped auditorium like queens. Husbands gave them to their wives before trips meant to celebrate twenty- or thirty-year anniversaries, and the couple always came back with their eyes glinting, as though they’d just met.

Well-crafted seams and delicate beading gave my family a trade and a living. But red shoes gave us a name. They made us infamous. They made us brazen.

Until they came for us.

Except that’s not quite true.

They didn’t come for us.

They came for me.

Strasbourg, 1507

The first time Lala catches Alifair on the land, he is stealing crab apples from a tree that belongs to her and her aunt. Though, as it turns out, he will come to be theirs far more than the tree, or the land, ever will. The crab apple tree, along with all others on the plot, belongs to them no more than the house, each paid for by the month.

When Lala and her aunt first arrived in Strasbourg, they found that the stature and upkeep of the shabby wattle and daub had been much exaggerated by the friend of a friend. Lala stood in the shade of the roof, staring into the house’s face. The thatch hung so far past the walls that the whole structure seemed to be frowning.

We are new women here, Tante Dorenia told her. We bring with us nothing of who we were.

Nothing of who we were means Tante will not wear the dikhle, the pretty head covering of married women, not just because she is unmarried but because the gadje must find no sign that they are Romnia. It is for the same reason that Lala cannot even be called Lala, the name she has heard since the time she could speak. Now she is Lala only in Tante’s house and in her own thoughts. Everywhere else she must be Lavinia, her full name, prim and uncomfortable as a starched dress.

Whenever Lala asks why they left the hills outside Riquewihr, left where they buried her mother and father, Tante says, What we are, they have made it a crime in our own country. So we will go somewhere no one knows us.

When Lala weeps for her mother and father, as though she might call them from across the weed-tangled land, Tante whispers, We will always love them. We will mourn them. But we will not speak of them. We will hold them in our hearts but not on our tongues, yes? We will keep an altar for them and let their souls rest, will we not?

To all this, Tante is quick to add, We will not lose ourselves here. Because there is work we will do here. Not only for our vitsa, but for others.

The day Alifair appears, Lala spots him first. She shrieks a moment before realizing the moving figure in the branches is not a young wolf or a hawk but a boy. Older than Lala’s five years but still a child.

Tante runs out from the house, wiping her onion-damp hands on her apron and telling Lala to stop carrying on every time she sees a badger, that truly they won’t hurt her if she doesn’t bother them.

Tante stands beneath the tree.

“Don’t look at him,” Lala whispers, trying not to stare herself.

“Oh?” Tante asks. “And why not?”

“They’ll think we’re trying to steal him.” Lala keeps her whisper low, even if Tante won’t match it.

Lala may be small, but she’s old enough to listen. She knows how many gadje mothers and fathers suspect Romnia of being witches who have nothing better to do than steal their children.

Tante tilts her head to look at Lala. “And who exactly will think that?”

With a prickling of guilt, Lala realizes there is a reason Tante does not ask if the boy is lost, or if anyone is missing him. It is clear from his dirt-stained clothes and hungry look that he is on his own.

The boy’s eyes shine out from the crab apple branches, more feral than frightened, like a cat caught in a lantern’s light.

Lala barely knows anything of their neighbors, or of this place her aunt has brought her. But it seems enough like Riquewihr that she knows what would happen to this boy, or what already has. Farmers’ wives chasing him off. Merchants beating him to make sure he never comes back.

Tante sets her hands on her hips, tilts her face up to the tree, and asks the boy, “And what are you good for?”

Not a taunt.

A true question.

Without hesitating, the boy comes down from the crab apple tree. He has hardly set his bare, dirt-grayed feet to the ground when he climbs the great oak next.

Lala watches at Tante’s skirt. She winces as the boy ascends into the clouds of wasps that fill the space between boughs.

He plunges his arms into those swarms and grabs handfuls of oak galls, not once being stung.

He climbs down, jumping from the lowest branch.

Soon, Lala and Tante will learn that this boy knows how to keep secrets. Theirs, and his own. As young as he is, he knows how to fold away the things the world would punish him for.

He holds the oak galls out to Tante Dorenia.

Tante looks between the boy and the tree.

“Now that,” she says, “is worth something.”


Emil sat at the top of the stairs, letting his parents believe he was asleep.

“It’s harmless, Yvette,” his father said.

They must have been in the kitchen. It was always easier to hear them when they were in the kitchen than the living room. The sound bounced off the hard floor and counters instead of disappearing into the sofa and rug.

“His teacher used the word alarming,” his mother said. “Our son somehow managed to alarm his grammar school. You want us to ignore that?”

Emil listened harder, his back tensing.

Something about the way his parents said grammar school made him feel like he was still in kindergarten.

“All he said was something about us having an ancestor table on holidays,” his father said. “It was everyone else who turned it into summoning ghosts from graveyards.”

Now the understanding hit Emil in the stomach. And as soon as it touched him, it turned to shame at how stupid he’d been. Stupid enough to think anyone at school would understand, or want to.

Last year, he’d told Rosella Oliva about his family’s altars—the white candle, the dish of water, the food left for the dead, the good cloths they used only for this. She’d taken it as naturally as him telling her the name of a particular butterfly. She’d told him about her own family’s altars each November, the photos and candles laid out, the food and flowers brought to those they’d lost.

And that, how easily she’d understood, had made him careless around everyone else. He’d forgotten that most gadje buried their dead and then acted like they were as far away as another galaxy.

“You know how this is,” Emil’s father said. “You mention something harmless, and suddenly they think you’re talking about Satan worship.”

“You think I don’t know that?” His mother’s voice rose, good for listening but bad for Emil’s sudden wish not to hear her. “Unfortunately, whatever they turn it into is what everyone else believes.”

“Just let it be forgotten,” his father said.

“And in the meantime, what?” his mother asked. “We let them say whatever they want about our son?”

“It’s not worth arguing with them.”

“We can explain.”

“And what do you think that will accomplish?” Emil could hear his father stop his pacing in the kitchen. He was still now. “This happened to the Olivas last year, remember? Rosella brought in those pictures of the calaveras, and half a dozen parents decided she was trying to frighten their children with skeletons.”

The mention of Rosella made Emil both wince and listen harder.

“And the Olivas talked to the school to clear it up,” Emil’s mother said. “You’re only proving my point.”

“I am not, because I wasn’t done,” his father said. “The Olivas tried to explain, and it ended with Rosella having to apologize. Apologize, for who she and her family are. And a week later she came home wearing lipstick.” His father said this last part with the resigned flourish of giving a story’s moral.

“What are you saying?” Emil’s mother asked. “One wrong move, then what? Next week our son will be a smoker?”

“We can’t ask him to hide everything about himself,” his father said. “He didn’t do anything wrong.”

“When has that ever mattered?”

The words made Emil go still, at the same time the kitchen went quiet.

His mother and father wanted him to be proud. He knew that. They had taught him early the names of their vitsi, so he would know what kind of Romani he was. The words Manouche—his mother’s vitsa—and Sinti—his father’s—were some of the first he remembered learning.

But he also knew enough, from what his parents told him and what he’d overheard. He knew how much of his family had survived by trying to pass as gadje, and how many who couldn’t had spent years getting driven out of places they lived, or worse. When a child went missing, his grandmother had had to move, the weight of a whole town’s scorn and the threat of all those suspicions driving her away. No one bothered apologizing when the little girl turned up days later, laughing at the harried adults, having hidden in a friend’s attic.

A small meow sounded behind Emil. Gerta, announcing her presence in the hall. The kitten batted at the hem of his pajama pants, like she knew he didn’t want to be alone.

During the last glimmer, she’d come out of the woods with the other forest cats, fluffy and green-eyed, with early snow dotting their fur as they decided which houses would be theirs. (Gerta decided that she hated everyone, but hated the Woodlocks the least.)

Emil heard his mother crossing the kitchen. He picked up Gerta and went back toward his room before his mother got to the stairs.

“Where are you going?” his father called after her.

“To check our son’s room for cigarettes, of course,” she called back.

Emil shut his door as quietly as he could. The exaggeration in his mother’s voice made him almost sure she was being sarcastic, but he briefly debated jumping into his bed and pretending to be asleep just in case.

His mother passed his room. Then he knew for sure.

Emil leaned against the door and looked down at Gerta, pawing his shirt. He looked at his own hands, at the shade of brown, in a way that felt unfamiliar, unsettled.

That brown made most of the school look at him differently, him and his friends who were their own shades of brown.

Most of Briar Meadow didn’t know what Romani meant, and if they did they thought it was the same as another word, one that stung every time he heard it.

Emil closed his eyes, realizing he’d just decided something.

With his family, he could speak of his Romanipen. Every time his cousins came over, or he and his parents baked hyssop into unsalted bread, gave it life, like blowing on embers.

With everyone else, he had to hold his Romanipen hidden inside him, a map to a country he had to pretend didn’t exist. In this house, he could be who he was. Outside, he had to be like everyone else.

He would keep altars with his family. He would help his mother with the recipes that carried the luck of baxtale xajmata.

But he wouldn’t ask to know more. He wouldn’t learn any more about their family than his mother and father insisted on. Because if he did, it would spill out of him.

If he did, he would just make the same mistake again.

Strasbourg, 1514

Wer Zigeuner schädigt, frevelt nicht.

Whoever harms a Gypsy commits no crime.

It is law that spreads across borders like a blight through fields. And it comes alongside decrees that Roma must leave kingdom after kingdom, city after city.

Zigeuner. The term the gadje use for Lala, and Tante Dorenia, and all like them, bites like the teeth of a gadfly.

It is nearly sunrise when Lala goes in from keeping watch with Alifair.

The wattle-and-daub house has become a place where those fleeing can stop, for the night or for long enough to clear a child’s cough or an old woman’s fever. Tante tends to the families. Lala bakes bread and makes their vegetable patch and root cellar stretch into pot after pot of soup. Alifair gathers scrap firewood from the forests at night, his sharp eyes watching for anyone who might catch him.

Then, like a flame burning through a map, the law consumes Strasbourg.

Tante thought they might be safer in a free city, not beholden to kingdom laws. But now the magistrate issues an order for the apprehending of any Roma in Strasbourg.

Alifair goes out into the trees, collecting frost-chilled berries for a baby to teethe on.

So many families have already gone, fleeing to the forests and mountains to escape laws that will forever be against them. But those who have remained, Lala and Tante and Alifair quietly aid. The hollow-eyed men, the frightened mothers, the families desperate to leave before the arrests, crowd into the wattle and daub. The breath of more bodies than ever before fills the house.

Alifair comes back and hands Lala the iced-over beads of the frozen berries. With a small nod, he leaves again. Tonight a few are moving on from Strasbourg, and Alifair helps the vardos to a far road in the last of the dark.

She watches him go, his form against the dark trees.

With each family they see safely off, Lala feels her own heart growing stronger. Her spirit defies the gadje who would arrest these men and women and their children. Her own Romanipen puts deeper roots into her soul.

Even though it means being so close to all she is not allowed to have. Rromanès, a language she has never been taught. Aprons and layered skirts with more red and age-softened lace than Tante will ever let her risk. Particular ways of braiding hair. The careful embroidery of clovers and horseshoes, roses and certain leaves, the sun and the moon. Things they cannot chance the gadje recognizing.

Lala slips inside, quiet as a cat. She says a prayer of thanks to Sara la Kali that neither the little ones nor their mothers stir. Her steps fade beneath the sound of breathing and soft snoring.

She is so silent, it seems, that the only two voices in the house continue, unaware she can hear their low words. There is not yet enough light through the beams to reveal her.

Lala easily places the first voice. Tante’s.

“She is my niece,” Tante says, her words firm but her tone polite, deferring. “I know well enough to know what’s good for her, I should think.”

“And what’s good for her is denying her own name,” the other voice, a man’s, says. The words do not rise in a way suggesting a question. They would seem an accusation if the tone didn’t sound so magnanimous, as though it is up to him to give Tante permission.

That voice sends a shiver between Lala’s shoulder blades.

It belongs to a man who is older, but holds himself so straight that his back seems that of a young man’s.

He has done nothing to explain the shiver, apart from the fact that whenever he looks at Lala or Alifair, he has the pinched smile of someone tolerating a troublesome child. He calls her Lavinia in a way that seems pointed, as though to remind her what she misses by so rarely hearing her familiar name.

She wishes she had the nerve to tell him she already knows.

Lala pauses in the dark, listening, hoping they do not hear her.

“And the boy?” the man asks.

Tante sighs. “What of him?” she says, with more exhaustion than annoyance.

“Gadje already think we take their children,” the man says, and though it seems the beginning of a thought, he does not go on.

“He has no one to ask after him,” Tante says plainly.

The man lets out a brief sound, a curt hum, that at first seems considering but then dismissive.

It is not the first time such disapproval has been made clear to Lala’s aunt. If it is not over Alifair’s presence in this house, it is something else, mild scorn at the fact that Tante will invite Roma across her threshold, but will not meet them in the open.

Some pity Lala and Tante for passing among gadje, sure they are losing a little of their souls each day.

Some consider it unforgivable.

The sunrise barely finds its way in. Tante and the man are still only silhouettes.

“She’s in love with him,” the man says. “You must know that.”

Heat blooms in Lala’s cheeks as she waits for Tante to ask Who?

But after a moment of quiet, Tante only says, “And he hasn’t touched her.”

The heat in Lala’s face grows as she realizes how obvious it must be. How plainly it must show in the way she looks at this boy who first appeared in the crab apple tree.

It is worse than that. She first tried to kiss Alifair last year, and he stopped her in a way that was even more devastating for being so gentle, setting his palms on her upper arms, widening the distance between them.

She has never felt more sharply the slight distance between their ages. They were children together, looking for the shapes of horses in storm clouds, but now that slight distance has put him on one side of a border and left her on the other.

Lala holds her breath, urging Tante to keep the silence, hoping she will not be pressed into breaking it.

Tante knows better than to try to convince this man of Alifair’s Romanipen. Alifair was born a gadjo, but from so deep in the Schwarzwald that he came to Lala and Tante already understanding the breath and life of trees. The rest—the auspicious nature of certain foods, the different points of a stream used for washing—he learned.

The children of these families take to him quickly, waiting for him to play the next song on his Blockflöte. But the mothers eye him warily, grateful for how he does not talk to them unless they talk to him first.

The older man’s voice cuts through the silence. Tante has outlasted him, and though it is a small victory, it is so clear Lala could sing.

“You let the boy stay here,” the man says, “he’ll have a baby on her by next year.”

Lala hears the catch in Tante’s throat, and knows she is trying not to laugh over how much this man thinks he knows.

Alifair has worked so hard to hide that he was given a girl’s name at birth, and has to conceal the fact of his body to be considered as the boy he is. He has done this work, learning to bind himself beneath his shirts, settling his voice as low as the other boys’, and he has done it so well that even this man doesn’t suspect.

They all bear the secrets of their own bodies. Lala and Tante, their blood. Alifair, a form he must hide, one that would make others declare him a woman if he didn’t.

Tante collects herself quickly. “We’ll see, I suppose.”

“Well,” the man adds, with a wave of his hand that shows against the coming light. “You have your own opinions of these things.”

Lala wishes she could glare at the man, for this slight over Tante remaining unmarried. Women have clucked their tongues at Tante’s choice, but somehow this feels sharper, as though it will leave a mark.

Lala’s protests grow heavy on her tongue. She slips from the wattle-and-daub house so she will not speak without meaning to.

The sky catches flame, orange and pink blazing through the deep blue.

A silhouette stands alongside the crab apple tree, both forms cut against the bright color.

One of the women. Lala didn’t realize anyone else was awake.

Lala draws near enough to see the woman’s dress, the yellow apron over the black skirt. The delicate cloth of a worn but well-cared-for dikhle covers her head.

The woman is placing her hands on the bark of the crab apple tree.

“What are you doing?” Lala asks, and then gasps at her own rudeness. It is no better than interrupting a priest who kneels in prayer.

But the woman offers her a smile, shown by the growing light. Not a tolerating smile. One as true as the color in the sky.

“Lowering a fever,” she says simply, as though she assumes Lala will understand.

Something behind Lala catches the woman’s attention. She looks past Lala, into the growing light.

Lala turns around.

Halfway between the tree and the lane stand Geruscha and Henne, two girls in plain clothes and unadorned hair who live even farther outside the city walls than this house. They have taken to Lala and Alifair so easily, and seem to like them so beyond reason, that it unsettles Lala. Henne brings over vegetables from her mother’s garden. Geruscha endlessly admires the scraps of blue cloth Tante Dorenia sometimes gives her.

Geruscha and Henne pause, bread in their hands.

They know they have interrupted something.

Lala’s heart falls.

As though Lala and Tante did not have enough gadje watching them.

Now Geruscha and Henne have seen Lala with this woman, this woman in her dikhle, with skin the same brown as Lala’s, both of them standing at the crab apple tree as though it is a dear friend.

Geruscha and Henne leave the bread, and back toward the lane.

But it is already done. Lala knows that, even before they vanish against the brightening sky.

It doesn’t happen all at once, the way the families stop coming. But they do stop coming, judging the risk too great, either to Tante Dorenia or to themselves.

Lala never finds the nerve to tell Tante why. She leaves her aunt a thousand reasons she could assume—her being an unmarried woman, her taking in a gadjo boy, and raising him with Romanipen at that.

Lala knows it lessens their risk, no longer having families here, or women setting careful hands on their trees.

But Lala cannot help hating Geruscha and Henne for taking it from her.


The first time I saw them, the most beautiful pair of red shoes my family ever made, began with a nightmare. It was the year the glimmer left blood on the rosebushes, and I dreamed of nothing but red staining the petals and twists of thorns.

I was still small enough that when I had nightmares, I went looking for someone else in the house. So I crept downstairs, avoiding all the spots that creaked.

That night, my mother and father had taken our rust-reddened car out of town, meeting with the shops that would carry the work of my family’s hands. They left me with my grandmother and grandfather, who let me have little sips from the coffee they drank as they worked.

I snuck toward the workroom, listening for the sound of my grandparents’ voices.

But there was another voice besides my abuela’s soft chatter and my abuelo’s low laugh. A man’s voice.

People came from all over for Oliva shoes, made by my parents or—if they were really willing to pay—the stiffened but skilled hands of my grandfather. They came to our corner of Briar Meadow, where the houses thinned out, the way my father said stars spread farther at the edges of the universe. Families brought daughters to be fitted for satin heels or velvet ballet flats. They thrilled at the shoes’ beauty, and the stories that they made girls hold themselves prouder and taller, or made their hearts lucky, or gave them grace that stayed even after they slipped them off.

I stopped at the cracked door.

A tall, blond man was talking to—no, not to, at—my grandfather.

“You expect my daughter to wear these?” He shook a pair of red shoes at my grandfather. They were as deep as cranberries, covered in vines of red-on-red embroidery.

Anyone who owned a pair of our red shoes handled them as gently as antique ballet slippers, each pair packed away into attic trunks and under-bed boxes, stuffed with paper to keep their shape.

But the man shook this pair so hard I worried the beads would tremble away. He wielded the red shoes, the workroom lamplight catching the glass beads.

The tight-woven satin looked adorned with tiny drops of blood, and I shivered with some echo of my dream.

“Red?” The man spat out the word. “For a debutante ball?”

My grandfather did not cower. But he didn’t meet the man’s eye either.

My grandmother stepped between them.

“Your daughter asked for red,” my abuela said, her face hard.

“She would never,” the man bellowed. “She would never ask for a color that made a mockery of the whole event.”

“Well,” my abuela said, turning through her receipt file and refusing to match the man’s volume, “it seems she would, and she did.”

The man ignored my grandmother, setting his eyes onto my grandfather. He stood half a head above my abuelo, lording every inch over him.

A hollow opened in my stomach.

The man slammed the shoes down.

The slight rattle of glass beads made me wince. I felt it on the back of my nightgown.

Then the man’s gaze shifted. He studied the shoes, the fine stitching and beading. He couldn’t even hide how he admired them.

It was a look I’d seen before, when someone wanted a pair my grandfather was making for someone else, the moment of admiring turning into wanting.

But there was something sharp in this man’s eyes. Possessive.

“We’ll expect white ones by the end of the week,” the man said.

My grandfather nodded, showing neither fear nor defiance.

The hollow in my stomach turned hot. A week? For a pair from scratch? With my grandfather’s other commissions, he’d be up every night until his fingers bled.

“And we’ll accept these”—the man plucked the shoes off the table and stuffed them back into their tissue-lined box—“as an apology for the delay.”

Anger roiled in my stomach and rose up into my chest.

The man would take those red shoes, those beautiful red shoes, and demand white ones (how would my grandfather make full-beaded white shoes in a week without his fingers bleeding on the pale satin?) and he wouldn’t even pay for them.

My grandmother took a step forward. “Oh, no, we would never ask you to do that.” Even from behind the door I could catch the mocking in her voice. “We would never expect you to bear the sight of something so offensive to you. Here.” She snatched the shoes from the box. “I’ll save you the bother of carrying them home.”

She slipped a pair of scissors off a work table and, quick as a magic trick, cut the red shoes into pieces.

I had to bite my own hand to keep from gasping.

The pieces fell like confetti between the man’s horrified face and my abuela’s proud glare.

My eyes flicked from the gleam of my grandmother’s scissors to my grandfather’s face. I braced for the pain that would twist his expression. Every cut, every whine of the scissors’ hinges, must have put a crack in his heart.

But wonder opened my grandfather’s eyes as wide as I’d ever seen them. No pain. Only awe, like he’d just fallen deeper in love with my grandmother.

At the sound of the blond man shifting his weight, I ran back upstairs, dodging the creaky places in the wood.

I breathed hard in the dark, and I waited.

After the man was gone, after I heard the shuffling-around noises of my grandparents shutting off lights and going to bed, I snuck back down to the workroom.

I had spent whole afternoons in this room, watching my grandfather’s dark, weathered hands shape the heel of a shoe, or my father guide cloth through the sewing machine. I studied my mother’s calloused fingers stitching patterns and constellations, and my grandmother hunching over her desk, making careful accounts in heavy books that seemed a hundred years old.

I had wanted to be part of my family’s craft since I first filled my palms with glass beads and felt like I was holding the stars. My parents could keep me busy with hours of threading needles and sewing tiny stitches, the things my father said were the first skills he learned.

Even without turning on a light, the workroom seemed stuffed with magic. Dyed satin and velvet spilled from the shelves. Tiny buttons sparkled in their glass jars. The length of beads my mother left on stretches of silver cord glittered like salt crystals. Every-color thread confettied the surfaces. When my mother asked me to help clean up, I pretended I was a bird, gathering up scraps to build a bright nest.

But now I picked up the confetti of candy-red satin and apple-red velvet and blood-red beads.

I wrapped them in crumpled tissue paper, my heart ringing with what I now knew.

I would never let this happen again.

When I grew up, I would never let my family, or myself, be where my grandparents had just been, having to cut our own work into pieces so someone else wouldn’t steal it.

I would never let this happen again.

And I kept those pieces as a reminder. I would find a way to make sure we never had to destroy something of ourselves just to stop other people from taking it.

Strasbourg, 1518

In the dark, all she has are her hands.

She wants to light a candle so badly she feels the ache of it in her fingers. With nothing but the faintest breath of moon outside, the darkness is so thick that Lala’s dress, her hair, her skin feel woven from night. But the sound of iron striking flint would wake her aunt as surely as a thief breaking the cellar door.

Lala pulls back the rushes, wild marjoram woven into the plaited mats to lessen the stale smell, and she unearths a wooden box.

If Tante Dorenia knew what Lala was doing, her glare would be enough to open the ground beneath her. Lala is sixteen now, a woman, old enough to know better than to take such risks.

Lala brushes off the lid, so no dirt will fall inside. It would seem a useless effort to anyone watching, anyone who could see her in the dark, since the box only holds more of the same. A scant handful of earth.

But this earth is worth every field in Alsace.

The sound of weight on the road—a crunching of rock, the give of the ground—startles Lala. Her eyes skim the parchment windows.

Her hands pause in the heart of the wooden box. The thrumming of blood at her throat grows hot. She cannot help the sense of having already been found out.

This box of earth is a sign of all they have hidden. To be caught would mean the loss of their home, their small trade of ink and dye, and far more. Perhaps no one would understand what Lala meant to do with this handful of earth, but that would be all the more dangerous. They would count the hiding of it beneath a rush floor as a sign of unknowable witchcraft.

It is the same reason Lala and Tante put away their secret altar, folding their best length of blue cloth, hiding the candles and dishes. If the magistrate’s men were ever of a mind to search houses, they could use it as evidence of whatever crime they liked.

The sound outside fades.

Lala’s heart quiets.

Nothing but an oxcart following the ruts in the road.

Lala’s fingers skim the inside of the box, the pale wood earth-darkened.

The soft creak of the ladder sounds above her.

“I have it,” she whispers as she hears Alifair transfer his weight to the floor.

He insists on going with her, and she is neither proud enough nor stupid enough to refuse. He already knows her secrets and Tante’s as well as they know his.

They go out into the night, and the farther they get from the house, the more that handful of ground turns heavy in Lala’s skirt. Its weight feels greater as she bends to pick the tiny wildflowers that flash in the dark.

She would have wished to do this in daylight, ribbons of sun gilding the earth from her mother’s and father’s graves. But with light, there would be the chance of questions, rumors.

What we are, Tante reminds her, they have made it a crime, wherever we go.

As though Lala could forget.

Lala follows Alifair, cutting only through land he knows. The flax fields, high with green-gold. The soft marshland. A sheep pasture owned by a man whose wife trades onions for Tante’s extra radishes. An orchard that hasn’t borne fruit since last winter’s frosts.

Alifair has always seen better in the dark than Lala. She imagines he learned growing up deep in the Black Forest, beech trees wreathing it in perpetual dusk. He crouches to pick meadow roses Lala can barely see. Their petals collect what little light there is, as though the moon is showing them to Alifair.

His sharp vision is something she has learned about him not only in the fields near their home, but in the minutes they’ve stolen in shadow. Last year, he started looking at her in a way that made her wonder if she should try kissing him again. When she did, the winter night was so dark that she made a mess of it, her lips meeting his jawline instead of his mouth, so it seemed more an odd greeting than a try at kissing him. But then his lips caught hers in a way so hard and decisive it showed his certainty about both her and the dark.

The damp grasses prickle Lala’s ankles. She lets the feeling chase off the memory of that kiss, the way his mouth took hold of hers.

The green ground offers a clean, sharp perfume alongside the stream. The ribbon of water catches the moon in time with its murmurs.

Lala draws the earth from beneath her underskirt. Alifair hands her the roses and then keeps a respectful distance.

This is the last of it, the ground she has kept, the packed earth she imagines still smelling of the lavender in her mother’s hair, and the knife her father kept in his boot, and the bitter salt of the fever that took them both. Every year, in the month that stole them, Lala has brought out a handful from the box, to loosen the world’s hold on their spirits.

A few years ago, in a thoughtful moment brought on by the coming of autumn, Tante Dorenia told her about how they once did this for all their dead. And Lala couldn’t sleep until she had resolved how to do it for Maman and Papa. Tradition would have called for it once, on the day of their burial. But it had been so long since her mother’s and father’s deaths, she worried it would take more than the one time.

She bends toward the stream and opens her hands. The flowers tumble away first, their sugar lacing the air. Then the earth twirls from her fingers.

She releases a long breath.

Now they will rest. Now her mother’s and father’s souls will be free from this ground, this life, from their own dream-troubled, salt-soaked deaths.

Lala prays over the flickering water, over the river stones grown cold in the evening.

As she opens her eyes, a flicker of motion draws her head up.

At first, she cannot catch it. She sees nothing but the dark trees and the distant road, worn down by carts and horses’ hooves.

But then Lala catches the streak of movement, the shape cut between the black trees.

The figure—a woman, Lala can tell by the kick of her apron and skirts—flails and writhes. She runs a few steps and then thrashes out in a way that looks caught between skipping and running.

Lala squints into the dark, trying to make out whether this woman is fleeing wolves or thieves.

Alifair inclines forward, and Lala knows by his posture that he means to help.

She lays a hand on his arm.

“No one can know we’re here,” she whispers.

“Then hide and I will help her.”

“You can’t. If anyone…”

She loses the end of the thought, both her and Alifair realizing, in the same moment, that the woman is not fleeing.

The woman throws her hands toward the moon, spinning in feverish motion.

“Is she…” Now it is Alifair who cannot complete his own thought.

Lala nods, half in confirmation and half in wonder. “Dancing.”


The turquoise of copper chloride. The bright blue of copper sulfate. The cherry-Coke red of cobalt chloride. Sometimes the things Emil took from the lab seemed more like paint pigments than chemicals.

He tapped the powders into glass vials. By now, he’d done this often enough that he knew how much he’d need for the week that school would be closed. And by now, Dr. Ellern had drilled him and his friends on avoiding contamination between compounds, so he could’ve done it half-asleep.

Emil locked the door behind him. Tonight he’d hand the key back to Aidan. Among the four of them allowed into the lab closet, they’d voted him keeper of the single key they shared. Aidan was so organized that he alphabetized his family’s breakfast cereals, and he never lost anything, unless you counted titration bets with Luke.

The back of Emil’s neck bristled with the sense that someone was in the hall other than Victor, his and his friends’ favorite school janitor. (After Ben Jacobs tried to stuff Eddie into a cabinet in the music room, Victor had helped Luke overwax the floor in front of Ben’s locker. They resined the spot before anyone could draw any conclusion but that Ben had, wildly and spectacularly, tripped over his own feet.)

The sound of shifting ice came from the machine around the corner.

Emil took slow steps down the hall.

The noises stopped a second before Rosella Oliva appeared.

Emil jumped, almost dropping the copper chloride.

Rosella looked at his hands.

Emil got his grip back. “I’m not stealing,” he said, halting over each word.

It was a reflex, one sharpened by years of classmates looking at him sideways and their parents pretending not to. By the number of times he felt compelled to clarify Yes, this is my locker.

By how easily gadje turned the word Romani into the word gypsy, with all the suspicions they tacked onto those two syllables.

“I know,” Rosella said, in a way that was level and soft, like she both knew it was true and didn’t blame him for thinking he had to say it. She probably understood the impulse better than just about anyone else in Briar Meadow. For one November show-and-tell, she’d brought in that painting of skeletons dancing and throwing marigolds into a fountain, and it had only taken until lunch for the whispers to start about her trying to talk to the dead.

Rosella adjusted the coffee can in her arms. “I know you’re one of Ellern’s chosen students.” She held up the coffee can, condensation dampening the metal. “I’m just here for ice.”

“Ice?” Emil asked.

“Yeah, it’s the best. It’s all fluffy and crunchy.”

“You”—he looked at the coffee can—“actually eat that?”

“What?” she asked. “It makes the best Diet Coke fizz.”

“That’s the department ice machine. Do you have any idea how many trace chemicals end up in there?”

“This is a high school lab, not CERN. I think it’s fine.”

CERN? If he wasn’t already a little in love with Rosella Oliva, that would’ve done it.

“Okay,” he said. “But don’t blame me when you glow in the dark by the time we graduate.”

Their eyes met again, and he thought he felt some shared memory pass between them. How they used to see how long they could get lizards to sit on the backs of their hands before either they or the lizards flinched. Or when Rosella brought Gerta a stuffed mouse she’d made just to see her tear it to fabric shreds and quilt batting within a few minutes (she found this far more hilarious than upsetting).

Or the first time he told her about Sara la Kali, and she told him about la Virgen de Guadalupe, these dark, sacred figures who both allowed reverence toward that which was so often despised.

It could have been any of these things, but it also could’ve been nothing. Emil didn’t want to ask. He didn’t want to get it wrong.

Rosella and Emil had been friends once, in the way girls and boys were only ever friends before middle school. She had spent so much time at his house, she’d heard his mother’s fairy tales more than he had, asking for them after he’d long grown bored. The ones she liked best were ones about dancing, or cursed or enchanted shoes. Go figure. She was an Oliva.

She loved all those stories, even the bloody ones. The little mermaid on land, feeling like there were knives beneath her feet as she danced. Cinderella’s glass slippers cracking under her. A girl in red shoes that made her dance until she died.

Rosella looked at his hands again, and Emil wondered if she could see them going clammy against the glass vials.

“So what are you doing with … whatever you’re not stealing?” she asked.

“Flame tests mostly,” Emil said.

“You keep a Bunsen burner in your room?”

“I have a sort-of lab that lives in my mother’s gardening shed?” he said, and it turned out as a question. He set the vials in his backpack. “You can come over and see it sometime if you want.”

He cringed, instantly.

If there was a worse way to ask out a girl, he couldn’t think of it.

“Maybe,” she said. “If I’m not too busy eating all the ice in this machine.”

She said it in a way that was such a confusing mix of familiarity and flirting that it made him dizzy. He’d barely shrugged it off by the time he got home.

The second he was through the door, his father shoved a piece of paper in his hand.

Emil stared at the printout of a photo, a square of frayed blue cloth on a wooden table. “What am I looking at?”

“What are you looking at?” his father asked. Almost exclaimed. “Do you listen to anything I say?”

“No, not really.”

His father frowned and knocked the spine of an academic journal into Emil’s forearm. “That”—he jabbed a finger into the paper—“is the exact kind of woad blue your ancestors dyed in the sixteenth century.”

Emil stared at his father. “That’s wonderful.”

“How are you my son? You have no appreciation for history.”

“History.” Emil shrugged off his backpack. “As in, it already happened. There’s only so far you can get if you’re always looking back.”

“Thanks a lot,” his father said.

Emil sighed. “I didn’t mean it that way.”

His parents, both history professors, had a marriage that seemed half-built on finding the same things interesting. They’d met during a conference panel, and as far as Emil could tell, that was the academia equivalent of a fairy tale.

“I just meant it’s what you and Maman love,” Emil said. “And you’re good at it. But I don’t, and I’m not.”

His father gave a smile that was equal parts fond and wry. It always made him look like a grandfather, older than his sprinklings of gray hair warranted. “Yes, yes, you and your chemicals.”

Emil breathed out. You and your chemicals. At least they were even. Emil’s father had about as much interest in Emil’s favorite subjects as Emil had in his. His father’s desk perpetually held old records, two-tone pictures, age-yellowed papers kept in plastic sheets, wood-cut prints of old churches. Some were pages fallen out of long-misplaced family Bibles, the names in ornate, back-slanted script. Some were copies his mother had made on her last trip to le Bas-Rhin. Tourists went to France for Paris and Nice. His mother went for les Archives Départementales, with its centuries-old documents in barely legible Middle French and High German.

“You know.” His father’s eyes drifted toward the floor. “You can’t go where you want to go without knowing where you’ve been.”

Emil’s back tensed.

The burning of ancestors’ vardos. Words stricken from their vocabulary. Being forced from villages, or fleeing in the dark fold of midnight, because there was so often a relative who could feel the threat coming before anyone else, like smelling snow in the air. Fighting back with iron shards and pipes and whatever there was to be found when there was no warning, and there were the old and the small to protect.

What he’d put up with in Briar Meadow—the ignorant questions, the word gypsy said in a way that felt like it was sticking to his skin, the pointed looks whenever something went missing—it was so small compared to what those before him had endured. But that made him more, not less, ashamed of it. He couldn’t help thinking of it as some kind of failing on his part.

Outside of this house, he couldn’t be who he was. He’d known that since the day his parents got that call home. But the more he knew about his family, the harder it was to leave his Romanipen behind every morning.

“I know where we’ve been,” Emil said. He started up the stairs, saying, more to himself than his father, “and I kind of wish I didn’t.”

Strasbourg, 1518

At daybreak, Lala burns the wooden box, turning to ash the last of her parents’ belongings.

She watches the wood crumble, the shade of the oak trees dulling the flames’ gold. She offers a prayer of thanks to Sara la Kali, She who watches over Lala and Tante and all like them.

Once the embers have gone as dark as her hair, Lala draws away from the wattle fence.

Alifair is up in the oak trees. He never flinches, not even when wasps crawl along his wrists.

He slips a hand between their buzzing clouds to reach the darkest oak galls. They whir around him but never sting, even as he steals the growths they have laid their eggs inside.

Ever since the day Alifair first appeared in their crab apple tree, this has seemed as much a kind of magic as Tante knowing how long to keep linen in the woad dye. The wasps do not mind him, for some reason as unknown as where he came from. Both his French and his German carry a slight accent, like two kinds of grain mixing in a sieve, so no one can guess which side of the Zorn or the Rhein he was born on.

When she catches his eye, they share a nod, a signal they know as well as each other’s hands.

Within minutes, he is down from the tree, she has set aside the bay in her apron, and they meet behind the cellar door.

Lala pulls him to the stone wall. He throws his hands to it, bracing as she presses her palms into his back. His mouth tastes like the lovage he chews after each meal, like parsley but sweeter.

Lala has never asked him whether that first kiss was because they had both gotten older, or because he had grown less skittish about his own body, a body that once tethered him to the girl’s name he was given when he was born.

Now Lala knows not only the facts of his body but the landscape of it. She knows where there is more and less of him. She knows where he is both muscled and soft, full-hipped and full-chested, strong in the shoulders and back. The strips of binding cloth beneath his shirt give him the appearance of a heavier man, rather than one laden with a girl’s name at birth.

Lala hears footsteps coming in from the lane, and goes still.

“I should go,” Lala says, almost moaning it, eyes still shut.

“Later,” he whispers, the word coming as a breath against her neck.

Lala squints from the cellar into the light, looking for a stout form—Geruscha—and a second figure with a tight-woven bun, the seldom-talking Henne.

For months, Lala held her breath over the two of them, fearful that any day the magistrate’s men would come to Tante’s door on the report of these two girls. But their efforts at friendship have only persisted, despite the frosted politeness Lala offers them (cold, so as not to encourage them, but cordial, so as not to offend these two girls who saw her with the woman in the dikhle).

Lala shields her eyes from the sun’s glare.

The approaching figure does not turn toward the back garden, but takes the crabgrass-roughened path to the door.

Not Geruscha. Not Henne.

A man.

Lala distinguishes the colors of his garb, white and black.

Her heart quickens.

The robe and cape of a Dominican friar, one trained to root out witchcraft.

Alifair is alongside her, his approach quiet as a moth’s.

They listen at the weather-warped door.

They hear the friar’s voice, his greeting to Tante Dorenia. His words, however polite, cannot veil the contempt in his tone, his disdain for the fact that Tante is a businesswoman, never married, trading in the richest black and deepest blue.

Lala cannot catch all the words, but hears enough to make out a name, a phrase, a stretch of time.


She has been missing.

Two nights and a day.


The woman whose silhouette Lala and Alifair glimpsed just beyond the trees.

The woman they saw dancing.

Lala feels Alifair’s shadow incline forward.

“Alifair,” she says.

“We saw her,” he whispers. “What if we can be of help?”

She takes hold of his arm. “And don’t you think he will wonder what cause we had to be out in the thick of night?”

“I won’t tell him about that,” he says. “And I’ll leave you out of it. No one will even know you were there.”

As though that is any comfort. One word to the magistrate that Alifair was the last to see Delphine, and to see her dancing like some wild spirit at that, and they’ll blame him for it. He’ll be brought to the scaffold or the stake before he finishes his testimony. The rumors that he appeared out of the woods like some fairy’s child will not help.

Lala grips his arm tighter. “Please.”

Alifair looks at her, his eyes turning to flint, his jaw hardening.

He shrugs off her hold, and nods.

Lala knows him well enough to recognize this not as agreeing, but as relenting.

He is simply giving in.


In Briar Meadow, our small, loosely gathered set of houses bounded in by woods and highway, the glimmers were as much a part of our calendar as the seasons. But I was the only one always dreading another year of blood on rosebushes, and all the slashed cloth and scattered beads that might come with it.

It never came.

Not when I was eight, when daughters who’d given their mothers nothing but silence for months suddenly wanted to spill their hearts out over late-night freezer cake. Not when I was eleven, when congregation members who, according to their choir director, “couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket” sang like angels. Not even two years ago, when the glimmer brought Mexican coywolves out of the woods; cute as puppies, they had an annoying talent for getting into houses—even ones where all the doors and windows were locked—and chewing on the nicest shoes they could find.

By the time I turned sixteen, I had almost forgotten to dread the glimmer, so I wasn’t even thinking about it when the red shoes started appearing around town. They showed up on sofas and bedroom floors. Instead of resting in attic trunks, or on the high shelves where they’d been stored, they appeared in the open, as though airing themselves out. They were found propped up in corners, heels against baseboards, toes resting on carpet. Or in cupboards, with broom bristles grazing their delicate beading. Mothers stumbled over them in hallways, pausing to yell to their daughters to pick up their things before realizing the red shoes on the floor had been wrapped away in tissue paper for years.

They emerged from linen cabinets and coat closets. They showed up in dining rooms, and slender women who’d sworn off bread years ago ate slices of black forest cake like they were drinking in a new perfume. When red shoes appeared at the senior community out by the pear orchard, eighty-year-olds who’d once been high school sweethearts ran off together.

Aubrey Wyeth, famous for being afraid to drive, found a brick-red pair once belonging to her older sister, in the middle of the street. The neighbors all saw her get into her mother’s four door and speed away from that cluster of houses, identical and neat as folded shirts.

Sylvie Everley found a pair resting on her bed, soles down on her great-grandmother’s patchwork quilt. The color of the satin, just between red and burgundy, was the near-purple of her mother’s favorite wine. The beading made her think of how the light from the dining room chandelier reflected in a glass. The next morning she took a second look at a flush-cheeked boy she sometimes partnered with on the debate team. He’d been trying for weeks to work up the nerve to talk to her. That afternoon they were kissing behind the library.

For all the rumors that Oliva shoes brought grace and luck, it had always been our red ones that carried the spark of secret kisses, of brazen hearts, of eating bread with more butter than flour. And this year, all my friends were wearing them. Their red shoes crunched over the leaf mulch, flashing with the bright magic that had taken hold of them all.

All of them, except me.

I was an Oliva. My family had made all these red shoes, and somehow I was the only one of my friends not wearing them. I had learned to blow-dry my hair straight (sometimes just so Sylvie could curl it again), put on eyeliner in the side mirror of Graham’s car (pencil only; I was still working on liquid), eat lemon slices dusted with packets of artificial sweetener (the only thing Piper ever ate before a dance). All the things that made me almost, almost the same kind of girl as Piper Tamsin and Sylvie Everley.

And this would be the thing to remind them that I was nothing like them. It would call attention to my brown skin and brown-black hair. It would remind them that whenever I bought something new, I wore it twice the first week, while they all had so many tags-on things in their closets that they forgot about them.

This would be what set me aside from them, that a pair of red shoes enchanted with this year’s glimmer had yet to appear on my windowsill or by my bed.

But when I got home from getting the crunchy, fluffy ice my mother and I loved, pieces of beaded red satin and velvet lay on the floor of my room.

Without bending for a closer look, I recognized them.

The cut-up scraps I’d saved eleven years ago. The last I had of my grandparents’ work, both of them dying within months of each other when I was seven.

I let out a breathless laugh, both at the memory and the beauty of the stitching.

For eleven years, I had kept them in the back of my closet, wrapped in mushroom-colored tissue paper, and now they had swept out like a whirl of bright leaves. It felt like both a blessing from my abuelo and a pointed remark from my abuela.

This was how I could honor the beautiful pair of shoes my grandmother had cut into confetti.

I had learned since that night that if I never wanted families like the Tamsins or the Everleys to make me give up a piece of myself I had made by hand, the best way was to become like their daughters. I had done it for years, and I would do it again. Like their daughters, I would wear red shoes this fall.

But I would do it the way my abuelo and abuela would have wanted.

I had grown up among leather awls and dyed thread. At three, I played with empty wooden spools instead of blocks. At eight, I knew how to measure a shoe’s side seam, and at ten, how to run a drawstring through a slipper’s casing without bunching it.

I picked up the scraps of beaded cloth.

I was an Oliva. If I wanted the kind of shoes my friends were wearing—shoes that might spark love, or inspire the making of midnight polvorones—of course I would have to sew them myself.

Strasbourg, 1518

“Try it for yourself.” Melisende holds out a dish of pale yellow coins. Small rounds of butter.

Lala stares at the dish. She has never seen anyone eat butter on its own, not even the wealthiest Strasbourgeois. Is this a test, to see if she will do it? Will they laugh if she places one on her tongue?

Being liked by these girls has shielded Lala from Strasbourg’s inquiring glances. But it comes at the cost of them thinking her strange and intriguing, with her rough palms, her confusion about delicate manners, and the fantastic rumors Tante has started to explain their brown skin.

She looks to Enneleyn, the first of the burgher’s daughters who ever offered her friendship, and the one whose lead Lala follows whenever she is unsure.

All Enneleyn says is, “You must be joking.”

“It works,” Agnesona insists, taking one and rubbing it into her cheek.

Then Lala understands.

There is no end to Melisende and Agnesona’s schemes to render their hair more gleaming, their complexions more luminous, their forms more radiant. Two girls, considered the most beautiful in the city except Enneleyn, and they work without rest for it. Last week they dabbed on brimstone ground with oil of turpentine for red spots.

Their limbs are delicate as carved alabaster, their fingers slender and uncalloused. It is the look of having been raised within the city walls, in the wealthier quarters. They let the sun on their faces so little they must pinch their cheeks for the slightest blush. If not for the brilliant red of their curls, the sisters would seem almost colorless, while Enneleyn, with her cloth-of-gold hair, has lips as pink as stained glass.

It took months for Lala to learn not to stare at Enneleyn, trying to guess how she might become such a girl, so adored it would make her and Tante a little safer.

Melisende turns her face toward the window. The grease gleams on her cheekbone. “Look.”

Lala would sooner pocket a coin of butter than smear it onto her skin.

“Has she shown you the one she will not even share with me?” Agnesona snatches a jar from a low table.

“Give that back!” Melisende shouts.

But Enneleyn has already taken the jar, filled with a deep amber liquid that holds a point of light at its center.

Enneleyn lifts the jar. “What is it?”

“It’s birch sap.” Melisende tries to snatch it back.

Enneleyn holds it out of reach.

“With a pearl in it,” Agnesona says, laughing. “See how the sap is dissolving it.”

“Lavinia, look.” Enneleyn tilts the jar toward Lala, showing how the sap eats at the creamy sheen.

These girls, with their Veronese raisins to brighten their complexions, the Tuscan oil they comb through their hair, their dust-rose gowns for Carnival. These girls from whom Lala hides her hands so they will not see the stains and calluses wrought by work. These girls, who only showed interest in Lala when rumors Tante started took hold. Tante planted the bulb, the first whispers that she and Lala were the cast-off issue of Italian noblemen. And it bloomed, quietly explaining the brown of their skin. It flowered so well that no one remembers that Tante herself started it.

It has had the unexpected advantage of making Lala interesting to girls such as Melisende and Agnesona. They would never bother with her otherwise, no more than they would bother with Geruscha and Henne.

They would also never guess that Lala now keeps the secret of a missing woman.

As Agnesona slips the jar from Enneleyn’s hands, Lala’s stomach pinches hard as a knot in thread.

She and Alifair saw Delphine in the fields outside the city, and have said nothing.

Because Lala insisted they say nothing.

And now Alifair’s guilt kicks at him. She can hear it at night, in the creaking of his bed, how he turns over and cannot sleep.

Her thoughts begin to spin, wondering over the safest place to confess. Perhaps the priest at Saint-Pierre-le-Vieux, the one who doesn’t fleece his flock for all they can tithe.

“Give it!” Melisende grabs at the jar again.

“So, Lavinia.” Agnesona gives the overdone air of pretending not to notice her sister. “How is your changeling? High summer must be his favorite time of year.”

Lala swallows a sigh. “Don’t call him that.”

“Come now.” Agnesona lifts a suggestive eyebrow. “If I were the love of a fairy prince, I’d tell everyone.”

Her tone is more mocking than whimsical, especially on the word prince.

“Not this again,” Enneleyn says.

“What?” Agnesona asks. “No one knows where he came from, and he’s prettier than the other boys.”

Lala’s stomach buckles, wondering if prettier means Agnesona suspects he was proclaimed a girl at birth.

“Sounds like a forest nixie, if you ask me.” Agnesona quirks her lips.

“Are you so desperate for gossip that you must dredge these shallows?” Enneleyn grabs the jar and hands it back to Melisende, settling the dispute with the quiet authority of an older sister.

A scream rises up from the lane. It slices through the bustle, quieting the shopkeepers who call out to customers.

Before Lala can even move, she imagines the scene.

Delphine, barely alive, running home with the wounds of wolves’ teeth spilling blood from her limbs.

Enneleyn throws the shutters wider.

The four of them crowd at the window.

A young woman—Isentrud, Lala recalls her name—kneels at her doorstep, recoiling from a mass of blood and flesh staining the cobble.

“What…” It is the only word Lala can produce before trailing off.

“A sheep’s afterbirth,” Enneleyn says, almost mournfully.

“They’ve left it at her father’s door to shame her,” Agnesona says, less mournfully.

Lala turns away before the sight of it lifts the acid from her stomach.

“Now everyone will know she’s lain with Guarin,” Melisende says.

“As though everyone didn’t know that,” Agnesona says.

Enneleyn rounds on them both. “Can’t you two think of anything better to do with your mincing mouths than make an awful thing worse?”

She storms from the room, the windows gilding her hair and gown.

The sisters lower their eyes.

Lala watches the corner of Enneleyn’s skirt vanish.

If her lips were still before, now they feel sealed in place. The blood, the wailing woman, it is all a reminder of what Lala had almost forgotten.

In Strasbourg, the only way to survive your own crimes is for no one to know of them.


Other towns scheduled school breaks around national holidays. In Briar Meadow, school let out for a few days in the middle of fall.

Years ago, according to Emil’s mother, it was supposed to be a time for children to help their parents sweep the strange magic out of their houses. They helped get the halos of dandelion fluff wind-borne, to point the out-of-season birds south, to wash the dresses that slipped out of closets and ended up in the mud, like they were making their own snow angels.

And maybe it was true, fifty years ago. Now the only sign of all that was friends dragging friends outside on the first freezing night of the season.

“Let’s just go see it,” Luke had said.

“Big deal,” Aidan had said. “It happens every year.”

“You must be a real joy to be around during the holidays.”

Emil never thought much about the glimmer over the reservoir. Sure, it looked a little like a Milky Way, small and bright and low, a cirrus cloud made of cosmic dust. But it would be there all week. He’d see it from a distance every time he went anywhere at night, at least until it dimmed and faded.

But raising any objection to Luke’s and Eddie’s enthusiasm wasn’t worth the effort. Path of least resistance, like current through a circuit. So Emil had thrown on his jacket and gone out to the reservoir.

Where his friends proceeded to ignore the sweep of light below the clouds and talk about the physics of a drop experiment.

“It won’t reduce the impulse enough,” Eddie said.

“Like you have a better idea,” Luke said.

“Actually, I do.” Eddie unfurled a blueprint from his back pocket.

“That”—Aidan slapped at the paper—“will break if you breathe on it wrong.”

“Why, exactly, did we come all the way out here to do this?” Emil asked.

“Hey, Woodlock,” Aidan said, “tell them I’m right.”

“Oh no.” Emil backed up, showing them his palms. “I’m not taking sides here. I learned my lesson with the magnetic fields.”

“Wise choice,” said a girl’s voice, one he placed just as he turned toward it.

“When Sylvie and Aubrey get into it about skirt length, I stay half a mile away,” Rosella said.

With rising dread, Emil realized his friends had quieted.

They were all staring at her.

“Sorry,” Rosella said. “Am I taking him away from whatever great scientific breakthrough you all are working toward?”

They all shook their heads slightly, snapping back to the moment. It was so similar that despite the far range in their coloring and build, it made them look like brothers.

“Not at all,” Eddie said.

“Get out of here, Woodlock,” Luke said.

“Yeah, we don’t need you,” Aidan said.

Emil tried not to cringe, at least not visibly enough that Rosella would see it. His friends may have meant well, shoving him in the direction of a girl they knew he’d liked for years. But if lack of subtlety was a recognized art, they’d all have museum exhibits in their honor.

“Sorry if I scared you earlier,” Rosella said, walking a few steps from the fallen tree his friends had spread the blueprint over.

He went with her. “You didn’t.”

Rosella tripped over a rock or a root.

Emil caught her forearm. “You okay?”

Her hand stayed on him.

The back of his neck went hot. She seemed nervous now, when she hadn’t earlier. Instead of making him less nervous, that somehow made it worse, like how jumpy he felt was rubbing off.

A few trees away, two silhouettes leapt from the dark.

Rosella’s hand drew back from Emil and flew to her sweater.

Emil couldn’t quite place the laughter, but the sound of it was familiar, boys he’d heard laughing behind him in class, boys who considered scaring girls the best way to impress them.

Piper Tamsin and Graham Davies pitched themselves into the dark, sending up twin choruses of, “Chris, you ass! Get back here!”

The boys fled, their laughter ringing through the night.

“Yeah, you better run,” Piper yelled after them, and the sound echoed off the clouds.

Emil watched them. “My money’s on Piper and Graham.”

“It should be,” Rosella said. “Don’t be fooled by the manicures.”

She buttoned the last buttons on her coat and studied the glimmer reflected in the water. It looked silver and shiny as mercury or antimony.

“Why did we stop swimming out here?” she asked.

“You mean other than our fathers’ identical safety lectures?” He put on his best Julien Woodlock voice. “‘Do you know how cold the water gets down there?’” he quoted.

“‘Worse for every foot you go down,’” Rosella jumped in with her closest mimic to her own father.

Emil laughed.

“Seriously, did they rehearse those?” Rosella asked. “It was like they were reading off a script.”

Emil and Rosella had stopped going to the reservoir years ago, and it was hard to know if that was part of what had led to them not being friends anymore, or if it was something lost to the fact that they weren’t friends anymore. They had never stopped greeting each other in the halls, or inserting dragon and unicorn stuffed animals among the nativity display at church (they had yet to be caught). But the relentless teasing of classmates who singsonged that they were boyfriend and girlfriend had worn them down a little more each year. And realizing how much he liked her—liked her, in that way his classmates taunted them both about—had made him less inclined to hold on to her, not more. It was half not wanting them to be right, and half not wanting to find out if it was one-sided.

This whole time, Emil had thought he’d need some kind of nerve, flinty and unhesitating, to talk to Rosella for more than a few sentences. But now it seemed like all it took was falling back into the memory of being nine or ten together, knifing their bodies into the freezing reservoir.

Rosella stopped at a high point on the rocks. Far voices rose off the scattered knots of people they knew, mixing with the smell of cheap beer and cigarettes and the sugary mint gum meant to cover both.

She stared at the ribbon of light above the reservoir. It wavered and flickered, like stars reflected in a still pond. Both the clouds above and the water below mirrored it.

“I never really thought of you as someone who came out for this,” she said.

He shrugged, looking where she looked. “I’m not.”

He felt the slow turn of her face toward his, like the clouds unveiling the moon.

“Emil?” she said.

“Yeah?” he said, wondering what question she was holding in her mouth.

Being this close to her brought him back to the chill of the water on their skin years ago, the light cutting down through the depth, how it felt like the darkness underneath them was infinite. And how that was both terrifying and thrilling.

The way she stared at him now made him wonder if she was there with him, in the reservoir in July, the thick blanket of dark water letting them pretend that any way they touched was accidental.

The air felt sharp enough to grow frost flowers. And something about the glimmer above them turned his overthinking brain off just enough.

Emil slid his hand onto the back of her neck, a gesture small enough that it could have been the start of anything. He would wait, stay still, until she told him what.

Years ago, they would both go down so far that there was no light, because neither of them wanted to be the first to move back toward the surface. That was everything down there, deciding your own distance from the sun, letting it go and then finding it again. Fingertips brushing each other’s skin in ways you could pretend never happened once you came up for air.

It was dark enough now to pretend none of this was happening either.

Except now Rosella kissed him. Hard, in a way so lacking in hesitation that it would go with him into his dreams.

His first out-of-nowhere thought was that his glasses got in the way less than he’d always thought they would. But it burned out and faded as she ran the fingers of one hand through his hair, and pressed the other against his back.

Maybe the glimmer came every year. But something this year caught on the air. It was bitter as smoke, and sweet as the raw crystals of honey. It was a current arcing between them. It was the moment that turned a solution from one color to the next, amber to red, fast as a blink. It was the slight change in chemistry that let algae blooms grow on the ocean, bright as a tide of gas flames.

And he couldn’t be sure, not with his eyes closed, but for a second, he could have sworn he caught the glimmer above them flashing as red as Rosella’s shoes.

Strasbourg, 1518

“Help me with this,” Tante says, dragging the wooden table.

Lala takes the other side. “What are you doing?”

Tante conducts it toward the door like a battering ram at a fortress gate, and Lala has no choice but to trot backward.

“Just until we’re done with the chopping,” Tante says.

“We prepare vegetables out of doors now?” Lala asks, keeping the table from crashing into the frame. Sometimes the house seems so brittle that a stubborn enough cow could knock it over.

“It’s the raw garlic and leeks,” Tante says, setting down her side in the grass. “The smell is making me ill.”

“You always loved that smell,” Lala says.

She brings her aunt a handful of dried cherries, to settle the stomach.

“Do you want parsley?” Lala asks. “To chew on.”

“No, I do not want parsley,” Tante snaps.

Lala cannot blame her aunt for her foul mood. The summer is so deep and harsh it seems molten, as though the air might spark and catch. It is the kind of blazing July that will not soften until September. The back of Lala’s neck is damp where her hair falls against it. A dew of sweat is forever beading Alifair’s forehead.

They have almost finished with the onions and carrots when they see the women traveling the lane.

Lala dries her leek-damp hands on her apron and nears the path.

Among what little passing talk she can distinguish—mentions of the canon priests, of heaven and hell, of a blaze of light brought by a falling star outside Ensisheim—one word rises above the others.


The word flares inside Lala’s chest. It brings with it the buzzing sense of a warning, the sounds that come a moment before wasps swarm.

And then a name, a name that must haunt Alifair’s dreams.


Lala runs to catch up, her guilt like pebbles in her shoes.

“Lavinia,” Tante calls down the lane.

But Lala does not stop. None of them stop.

She follows the dirt road until Strasbourg proper rises from the fields and forest. The city walls cast their shadows. The roofs and gables of the wealthy Strasbourgeois top the crowded lanes. The spires of churches pierce the blue, and the single tower of the cathedral soars toward the clouds.

The women in the square move so quickly that Lala cannot count them.

Skirts of wool and linen and hemp fly out from hopping legs. Fine embroidered skirts wilt in the heat, as though the very flowers stitched into the cloth are dying away. Coifs and wimples soak through with sweat. They dance, joyless, on bleeding feet and twisted ankles.

Already their hose has torn. Already their shoes are thinning, damp with sweat and the fluid of blisters. The blood of the barefoot paints the stone.

Mothers turn their daughters’ faces away, worried that a glance might afflict them, like the old plagues so easily spread they passed with a look. A few fathers stand their sons to watch, lecturing them about the evils of immoral women.

The relatives of these women, some highborn, some no wealthier than Lala and Tante, make snatching tries at grabbing their loved ones from the fray. But the force of this dance makes the women too quick, their paths too strong. And if they are caught for more than a few moments, they scream as though the hold is burning them.

Lala catches the breath of that word. It carries on the murmuring voices of the crowd.


It seems the only word to explain it, how a few of the most godly women within the city walls have been afflicted with this strange dance. Cateline, the book binder’s wife, who offered milk to a journeyman’s infant son; the mother’s breasts were dry until a month after she gave birth, and they could not afford to hire a nurse. Frederuna, whose knees bleed from nights of saying paternosters. Berchte and Brida, the sisters who bake bread for those who cannot afford it.

And Delphine.

There she is, spinning at the center.

Delphine, a woman thought strange for how she knots her apron strings when nervous, but a woman seen in mass as often as any wife in Strasbourg.


The word is the sudden prick of a needle on Lala’s finger.


It echoes in Lala every time she flinches, wondering if Strasbourg’s wives are truly flicking their eyes toward her, or if she is only imagining so.


Even Lala cannot deny how it looks, as though these women have demons within them, tormenting them into this frenzy.

Delphine spins fastest of them all, her feet bleeding the most, her face streaked with dirt and salt. She throws her long arms and thin legs, her skirt flying like spilled milk. She leaps and turns, as though her body is letting loose some spirit within her. Her linen cap has soaked through with sweat.

The watching crowd grows by the minute. Merchants cram alongside hawkers, priests with coiffured hair next to tradesmen. Burghers with their jewels and silk gowns sidle near fishmongers if it will give them the best view.

Delphine’s husband tries to take hold of her. Her sons try to still her. The strongest men to be found, masons and blacksmiths, lend their help trying to pen her in.

But with each twist of her body, she escapes. With the force of her movement, she breaks from their grasp. She keeps on with her dance.

They plead with her. They order her to stop.

She keeps on.

Her fervor and passion fall on Lala’s skin heavier than the day’s heat. Her face shows no joy. No satisfaction at disgracing her husband, nor the celebrating air of some festival dance.

She carries the look of a saint in stained glass. Pained but transcendent. Eyes cast toward heaven. As though her body remains among them but her spirit has flown.

This is the expression gilding her face the moment before her heart gives. She drops, one hand reaching toward heaven as she falls.

Then she is gone from them all.

Lala can see the life leaving the woman, like a wisp of smoke.

In a hushed moment comes the crowd’s understanding. Before their eyes, a woman has danced herself to death.

Screams rise through the watchers, as though the sound is a thing being passed from one tongue to the next. As each onlooker realizes what they have witnessed, the horror tears a gasp from each of their throats.

Those screams, the clipped breaths, turn over in Lala’s brain in the hours that follow, as the sun falls toward the blue-green ridges of the Vogesen.

And that night, she lives it all again, as though the scene plays before her.

They will not rest, says the crowd in her dreams.

They will not stop for food or drink, the onlookers whisper.

Their places go empty at mass.

See, they are bewitched.

Lala’s dreams tumble toward the moment of Delphine falling, the instant of her soul fleeing toward the sky, leaping silhouettes at her back.

Lala wakes to the moon hanging low.

Bewitched. That word leaves even more of a chill on Lala’s sleep-damp back than the word possessed.

She finds Alifair working by the light of a single candle. The glow lights his face, showing him tense and haunted.

She wonders if he too dreams of a flailing woman whose form scatters into ten more, like light thrown through water drops. Or perhaps he dreams of Delphine lowered into the earth, the funeral shroud offered to the Church, the green-pine smell of rosemary wreaths sharpening the air.

Alifair presses a dye-darkened pestle into an oak gall, and the shell cracks, the inside crumbling like meringue. The darkened center sticks to the pestle like crystallized honey.

Lala and Tante have tried grinding other things for pigment. Alder and blackberry. Walnuts and meadowsweet. Peach stones and vine. But each makes an ink more gray, not the deep purple or black as rich as an autumn night.

And none of them break as the oak gall, into a hundred pieces with a hard first shove of the pestle.

Lala tries to put her arms around Alifair, to stroke a hand down his back.

“Please don’t,” he says, mixing a jar of water and rusted nails. “You’ll distract me.”

He usually says such words with flirtation. They both know one lapse in attention can ruin a batch of iron gall ink. A bit too much rust, too little acid, and the ink will turn green rather than purple-black.

But now the words come with a regretful edge.

After a long quiet, after grinding a few more oak galls, Alifair says, “Henne told me thirteen dance now, maybe more.”

It is more. Lala already knows.

Alifair pours the solution over the ink base, measuring the way Tante does, this delicate art of balancing tannins and astringents. “We should have said something.”

“We couldn’t,” Lala whispers. “You know that.”

He leaves the mixture to soak. “Tell that to Delphine’s children.”


Red shoes. One pair of red shoes I’d sewn back together, and this fall had become more than the bright, almost-lemon smell of rain on leaves. It became more than that spice I could never quite place, as though the trees got their color from being dusted in chili powder.

This fall had become kissing Emil Woodlock, who I had never thought of kissing before tonight. I walked home from the reservoir with the taste of his mouth on mine, and the feeling of the red shoes sparking something into me.

I got so lost in thinking of all this, in licking my own lips to see how long I could feel him there, that I stumbled and pitched forward, like I’d slipped on the rain-glossed leaves.

I tried to get my balance back.

Instead, I slid into the feeling of being dragged from where I stood, like the red shoes were moving without me moving them.

I pressed my feet into the ground.

But the red shoes drove my steps.

They prodded me forward.

The force of them pinched and tore, taking my breath so I couldn’t scream.

In a sudden rush, they dragged me past trees and stones, my feet tripping over roots. They whirled me through the night, their pull as strong as fingers on my ankles.

They were making me dance.

No matter how hard I tried to keep still, I danced.

Even when I threw my body to the ground, the shoes made my feet kick out from me. When I knelt, trying to keep the soles of my feet from touching the undergrowth, the shoes twisted me around. They made me dance on the air as though it were solid as ice.

This was not the delicate turn of the music box ballerinas Sylvie and Piper had when they were little.

This was not the soft mischief the red shoes had been sprinkling over Briar Meadow.

This was a dance as hard and violent as a possession. It had all the fury of vengeance. I felt it in the jerking force with which the shoes led my body.

I reached for them, trying to pull them off.

They wouldn’t let go of me.

I tried to slide a finger between my heel and the cloth of my right shoe.

It didn’t catch. My finger couldn’t find its way into the space. It glanced off the velvet at the back of the slipper.

I grabbed the shoe by the sole.

It didn’t give.

I tried to pull the left shoe off my heel.

It stayed.

I tried knocking the back of one foot with the toe of the other. They would not come off.

I tried prying them away. They wouldn’t budge. I tried to jam my fingers between the arch and the lining. But there was no give, no space, not even between the side of my foot and the shoe’s soft inner wall.

The red shoes would not come off.

I clutched at the ground, digging my fingers into the hardening earth.

But the shoes kept me moving, dragging me by my ankles.

They danced me through the trees, pulling me over roots that bruised my shins and fallen branches that snagged my jeans. They danced me to where the trees thinned again, up to the edge of the county road.

The desperate hope bloomed in me that maybe the woods were doing this. Maybe the second my feet touched the pavement, the shoes would let me go.

But they dragged me toward the centerline, red following the double yellow. They flitted over the asphalt, gleaming with oil sheen.

The first glimpse of headlights broke the darkness.

I looked down at the shoes, willing them to dance me back into the trees.

The headlights grew, turning from far-off lamps into twin moons.

Not a car.

A semi, the kind that came through hauling produce.

My heartbeat grew hard in my throat.

I tried to resist the shoes’ pull, but in this moment, my feet weren’t mine. They fought my effort as much as I fought the red shoes.

The shoes danced me away from the centerline and into the truck’s path. They whirled and spun me until my hair was a veil over my face.

I slipped into the space between terror and resignation, between screaming and bracing, shutting my eyes.

It was only then, with me screaming into the oncoming headlights and the blare of the horn, that the shoes turned me out of the way.

They pulled me from the truck’s path, twirling me back into the trees.

Then they went quiet.

They went still, and I fell.

They left me there, crumpled on the undergrowth, fighting to get my breath back, my lungs as lit up as the burning leaves I could smell in the air.

Strasbourg, 1518

“In the name of our Lord, we beseech you,” the priests say, as strong men herd the dancing women onto the carts.

Lala watches, her throat tight as a rope.

Even with the carts penned in on the sides, the women writhe and turn. Some cannot be brought on at all, twisting from even the strongest grasp.

At the crier’s last count, there were thirty-four. Days of dancing have tumbled blond and copper hair from cornets and ramshorns. Brown and black hair has shaken from its braids. Dirt and blood stain the hemp cloth of shifts, the dyed linen of surcoats, the silk of bliauds.

The ringing of bells for Delphine, the announcement of her death, still tinges the air.

“You will be cured, my daughters,” another priest tells the living dancers. “By Saint Vitus, you will find your rest and your salvation.”

Saint Vitus? Lala wonders. The cave of Saint Vitus is in Saverne, at least two days’ walk from Strasbourg. How well will they make the journey when they can barely keep the women on the carts?

The watching crowd fiddles with their hands, restless in the heat.

Whenever they move, flashes of color show in their palms. Then they close their fingers, and the color vanishes.

Without turning her head, Lala casts her eyes to the side.

They clutch handfuls of bright purple, rich as a queen’s gown.

Another look sharpens the green stalks and violet petals. It comes with the chill of realizing how many eyes are on her, how many Strasbourgeois whisper.

Wood betony.

They all hold wood betony, the flowering herb for protection against the devil and the witches he sends into the world.

Lala’s throat grows dry as a sunbaked stone.

Witchcraft. It has taken only days for the suspicion to bubble from Strasbourg’s houses.

Geruscha shoves alongside Lala, Henne following after.

How plain they look compared to Enneleyn, with the soft brown and dull green of their dresses, their hair tied back in simple chignons. And how plain Lala must seem to Melisende and Agnesona, with her skin that holds brown even in winter, her black hair as coarse as a new harvest of straw, her body that carries its weight low.

Geruscha presses a handful of wood betony into Lala’s palm.

“To ward off the devil,” she says.

“And his demons.” Henne adds a sprig of angelica to Lala’s hand, and crosses herself.

Geruscha and Henne, it seems, fail to notice how many clutch their own sprigs tighter at the sight of Lala. Are they oblivious to all things on this earth? The snubs from the burghers’ daughters? The scorn rippling toward Lala?

Do they even know what they both witnessed at the crab apple tree four years ago?

Lala listens to the current of whispers.

Some say it is the people’s sin that brought this plague. The immorality of loose hair and kissing behind shops has let in the devil, they insist. Or they blame the sky. “The earth has moved across the stars in opposition to the head of Medusa,” an astronomer pronounces, showing his maps of the heavens, “and into the twentieth degree of the Virgin.”

The crowd breathes and moves like an animal. It shifts at its edges as dancing women who cannot be persuaded onto carts approach. It draws back from their pained, distant expressions as much as from their fevered movement.

Lala can smell their sweat, sharp and sour, and the blood their feet leave on the stones. By the way some dance, the physicians can tell they have broken ribs and loins, cracked bones in their toes, twisted ankles that will take months to mend. And still, they dance on, in clogs, or in boots, or barefoot.

Enneleyn slips alongside Lala, looking neat as the white and gold stars embroidered on her dress. As always, the mere sight of her makes Lala feel disarrayed. She feels the sudden impulse to brush her own hair and straighten her skirts.

Melisende and Agnesona follow behind her. Veil and wimple cover the sisters’ heads, as though they are married women.

They are so proud of their hair that to witness them hiding it seems as odd as a cat wearing breeches.

“Is there some new fashion I don’t know about?” Lala asks Enneleyn.

“You haven’t heard?” Enneleyn says. “Within the city walls, all those with red hair must cover it, married or not.”

“Why?” Lala asks.

“The dancers go into fits at the sight of red. They cannot stand to see the color of Christ’s blood.” Now Enneleyn whispers. “It’s the devil’s way of keeping the women from being brought back to the Lord. If they see it”—she glances right and left to be sure no one is listening—“they become violent against their own bodies and others. They scream that they are drowning in a red sea of blood. So the council forbids any shade of red for all but the priests. Cloth, jewels, even hair.”

Over the noise of the square, the beating of the women’s feet against the stones, comes a new pronouncement. Not from the priests, but decided by the magistrate and his commission, the ammeister and stettmeister, the councils of men who command this city, men who wear their wealth and family names as comfortably as dyed tunics or Swiss leather boots.

From so deep in the crowd, Lala cannot catch all of the crier’s words. She wants to reach into the air and snatch them from above her head, but finds only a few at a time.

The council has sought the wisdom of the physicians’ guild …

… a natural affliction, born from overheated blood …

Lala cannot help sighing with relief.

It is an explanation free of witches or the devil.

… excess heat in the body, which must be released …

Lala glances between Enneleyn and Geruscha, who never exchange more than a curt greeting. Their polite but chilled distance should make Lala feel even more favored, but it only reminds her what she is to the burghers’ daughters. A curiosity. Perhaps the daughter of some distant nobleman. These girls with smooth, pale fingers wear cloth that she and Alifair dye, and their fathers write in Tante Dorenia’s best ink.

At least Enneleyn shows more effort than Melisende and Agnesona. She at least greets Geruscha and Henne, while the sisters’ lips curl into twin sneers as though they might dirty the hems of their skirts.

How quickly Lala would lose their affection if they knew what she and Tante hide.

… the only cure will be for them to dance day and night until the affliction passes …

The words cure and affliction snap Lala’s attention back to the crier.

“There will be”—at last comes the loud crescendo of the announcement—“a great dance.”

A murmur of excitement fills the crowd.

“The trouble is dancing,” Lala says to Enneleyn, “and the cure is more dancing?”

Before Enneleyn can answer, a tall man’s shadow draws their eyes.

The sergeant named Sewastian pauses before them.

Melisende and Agnesona flicker their eyelashes at him. Sewastian is a handsome man, younger than his hard face would suggest, with a carved jawline and eyes as blue as dayflowers. Ever since he became a widower, the city’s maids have wondered who he might marry next. Melisende has told Lala, no less than three times, that his long nose speaks of virility.

Sewastian looks among them, as though he cannot tell them apart. As though they do not look as different as any six girls in Strasbourg. Geruscha, with her pretty but serious features and rush-colored hair. Henne, with her tan forehead and her chignon so tight it seems to pull at her face. Melisende and Agnesona, who, with their covered heads, have only pale green eyes to give color to their faces. Enneleyn, with her linen-flax hair.

And Lala, in all her shades of brown.

“Lavinia Blau,” Sewastian says.

Her own name lands with a stone’s weight.

Lala swallows, and steps forward.


It was stranger than the year bats hovered over backyards, fluttering alongside hummingbirds in the half dark before sunrise and after sunset. Stranger than the year that points of light, like the embers off a sparkler, drifted around houses where babies would soon be born.

Tonight, Rosella Oliva had kissed him. It was as much unexpected magic as anything that ever came to Briar Meadow.

He could feel the oddness of the season in the night air. It held the bitter tang of ashes, and the clean cold of the sky. The bright eye of the almost-full moon winked between clouds, like it knew he could still taste her lip gloss on his mouth.

That was what he wanted to hold with him as he fell asleep.

Instead, he dreamed of a time centuries earlier. He dreamed of the corner of Alsace, where his family lived five hundred years ago. The stone bridges and towers, the shuttered windows overlooking the canals, the city walls that shortened the daylight hours.

And the fever his father had told him about a long time ago, the plague of uncontrollable dancing, stranger than anything that had ever happened in Briar Meadow. In his dreams, he could hear their steps striking the stone. He could smell the dust they were kicking up, and the blood on their heels.

He could catch the smallest glimpse of a dark-haired, brown-skinned girl, and the salt-sting of her horror as she watched it all.

When he woke, sitting up fast and breathing hard, the feeling didn’t leave him. Ancestors whose names he didn’t know seemed to rise and fill the dark. Their calls sounded like the far-off shriek of the wind. Their fear came so sharp he thought they were dragging him back across five hundred years.

He slowed his breath.

Yes, he still had his Romanipen. That meant knowing his family’s dead a little better than most gadje knew theirs. But ever since that day he’d listened on the stairs, he’d stayed clear of his parents trying to tell him about their family’s history. If it got into him, it could spill out of him again, like those things he never should have said at school.

He couldn’t tell what he didn’t know. And he didn’t know their names, the name of this girl, because he hadn’t let his father tell him.

Strasbourg, 1518

The bailiff is a man more imposing in posture than body, but the sight of him still makes Lala’s neck tighten.

“It is no secret that this town has fallen under a sort of madness,” he says, gesturing at a plain wooden chair.

As she lowers herself, her spirit feels as though it is drifting from her body.

The room is small, sun streaming in from a single window, high and narrow.

In the center stands a table upon which a hundred men and women have probably signed confessions they could not even read.

“Whenever such afflictions reveal themselves,” the bailiff says, “there are always rumors.”

Lala shuts her eyes, bracing for the charge of witchcraft, for the entrance of the friar who will extract her confession.

The bailiff walks back and forth, his fine, heavy boots sounding his steps. When he stops, he looks at her and says, “There are those who whisper that you are not true Strasbourgeois. And neither is your aunt.”

Lala’s stomach turns over.

It is not just her.

It is Tante Dorenia with her.

Lala cannot help it; she turns over her hands on her lap, her fingers still blue-green from the woad dye.

Richest blue from those yellow and green plants. Perfect black from the oak galls. To Strasbourg’s finest merchants, such color must seem a kind of alchemy. Magic in fine blue and ink black.

And in the hands of two women, it will be called witchcraft.

“The magistrate,” the bailiff says, “has no wish for this matter to continue, but only to see it resolved.”

At the word magistrate, Lala’s heart feels brittle as an icicle.

She will be blamed for la fièvre. She will be drowned, or hanged, or burned. She cannot stop herself from imagining the chill of the water, the tightening of the rope, the vicious teeth of the flames.

And Tante. The thought of her bibio being dragged to the stake or gallows leaves her breathless.

She opens her mouth to confess, to keep Tante Dorenia out of it, when the bailiff speaks again.

“As you know,” he says, “it has been some time since we have forbidden die Zigeuner within our city walls.”

Lala’s heart stops, pivots, turns.

The words bring the echo of a common law, not just here but throughout Alsace and far past the Vogesen. The one that chased her and Tante from Riquewihr, and so many other families from their homes.

Wer Zigeuner schädigt, frevelt nicht.

Whoever harms a Gypsy commits no crime.

These few words remind Lala of what she has known her whole life: that gadje will get away with killing their men and burning their houses. And the law provides generous room for it.

This is why there is no friar. She has been brought in on a matter of city ordinance, one the men of the Church must consider beneath them.

“So you understand our concern with the speculation that you and your aunt…” The bailiff trails off, motioning with his hand for her to complete the thought on her own.

Lala nods, because it is all she can do.

And because it is not a lie.

She does understand.

Lala’s heart spins faster, like the limbs of the stricken women.

This is how she will be blamed, her and Tante. They will be like the Jews blamed for the plague a century ago, hundreds slaughtered in this very city, all on an unproved suspicion that they put sickness into the wells. And again, four years ago, so many thrown into jail because someone had to be blamed for the bitter winter.

Lala stills her breath. Who has pointed to her and Tante’s black hair and their dark eyes and their skin that stays a warm color in winter? She searches the pit of her stomach for any suspicion that it might be Geruscha and Henne. But their strange efforts at friendship persist, and more and more she thinks they do not understand what they saw. So who else? Guilds who do not want Tante Dorenia’s competition? Men who think women should not be in the business of ink and dye at all?

“Mademoiselle Blau.” The bailiff casts his winter-blue eyes at her. “Are you a woman of die Zigeuner?”

Lala drags herself from her own fear, calling up the words her aunt told her to say if anything like this ever happened. Tante Dorenia taught them to her until she could repeat them back without flinching.

Except that Lala has already failed, because Tante Dorenia taught her never to need them.

Lala’s eyes water, her own eyelashes prickling her. She thinks of the fines, the cropping of hair, and far worse, that so many before them have endured.

Now, to save Tante and herself, she must deny her mother and her father, the dead in the ground, her own blood and her aunt’s.

It is the thought of leading Tante away from that imagined execution that steadies her tongue.

“No,” Lala says.

“And your mother and your father?” the bailiff asks.

Lala crosses herself, out of reverence for the dead, but it brings the benefit of seeming like a gesture of shock.

She replaces her parents’ vitsi, Manouche and Sinti, with the words her aunt gave her.

“A Frenchman and a German woman,” Lala says, because the bailiff will assume two Roma could not also be French and German.

The bailiff nods, satisfied with a job done.

She has said it.

She has denied her mother, whose heart held the most beautiful fairy tales. She would enthrall children with stories about a čhavo and a princess who glowed gold as the sun, or a young Rom completing an impossible task given by a wicked king or queen. Lala was not old enough to remember them, and whatever small threads live in her, she has now surrendered.

She has denied her father, who spent his short life mastering the davul-zurna. A man with a musician’s heart, he was such a contrast to his serious, business-minded sister, Dorenia. What would he say of his own daughter now?

“And you will swear an oath to this, yes?” the bailiff asks.

He asks as though it is nothing, no more than the oaths sworn for the Schwörtag every year.

Her lips part to protest, but no words come.

An oath, one that denies herself and her mother and father.

She is caught, a moth ensnared in the sticky lace of a web she did not notice. She has flown straight into it.

She knows, in this moment, three things.

The first is that she will never tell Tante what has happened in this room. The shame would crush Lala where she stands. Tante taught her the words she has spoken—a Frenchman and a German woman—so she would know how to save herself. But Tante taught her more not to need them, not to be brought into this room in the first place.

Second, she will bake hyssop into unsalted bread to atone for the words she is about to speak. She will take it onto her tongue, and perhaps the penitence will stop her heart from growing so heavy it breaks her ribs.

The third is that she cannot touch Alifair again.

She will put an even wider distance between her and Alifair than he did when they were younger. Now that the magistrate has cast an eye toward Lala, any suspicion could catch him too. If she is not careful—more careful than she has been—the very things she loves about him, that which make him someone who could learn Romanipen, will destroy him.

Lala readies her tongue to speak, and is sure she can already taste the bite of hyssop leaves.

Mother and Father, she prays, forgive me. Forgive me. I must live, and I must save the woman who has treated me as her own.

The hidden altar Lala and Tante made them feels so paltry now. The best cloth they had, the white candle and dish of water, the food brought as earnestly as Lala would have brought her mother flowers she picked; it seems so small compared to what Lala must now do.

Mother and Father, forgive me.

The words become a chant through her bones, through the blood she must forswear.

“Yes,” she forces out, making herself meet the bailiff’s eyes. “Of course.”


I flew past my parents’ room, both of them asleep, thinking I was staying over at Piper’s.