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Fall 2023

The Coastal Wildlife Refuge for Lost Girls

Fairy tale fantasy flash fiction by Alla Hoffman

The shore crinkled up around the edges of the dusky sea, white and pale. The water
was black as a cup of morning coffee, and the marsh flats stretched back behind her for a long while. There were no seabirds to break up the monotonous harmony of shore and sea, all along the coast. The house Adelaide was borrowing from a friend of a friend was set back in a little nest of brightly colored, empty vacation houses. The blue one that was hers peered anxiously out at the water from behind the others, one thin finger of boardwalk reaching out to beckon her back. She didn’t go.

Instead she walked along the beach, towards the national park. She could see in the distance the long, straight poles stuck up like scarecrows that warned the stranger, bird sanctuary, keep out. Adelaide had gone running on the beach in the morning when the sun rose and found it. There were other people out and about then, so she had turned back the way she was supposed to and waited for dark.

Now when she got there, the place was deserted. The moonlight slid and stumbled on the bizarre sandflats, covered in a thin layer of water like oil in a pan. Adelaide walked past the signs without concern, half waiting for three witches to make themselves visible, hunching off in the woods. The trees themselves were heavy with Spanish moss, flung about carelessly over all the branches. The stuff seemed insubstantial, as though it fed on nothing at all.

Adelaide’s feet sank a couple of centimeters into the muck as she walked, and the flats stretched on forever in front of her. Little tufts of grass, leaves sharp enough to cut, grew in scrubby patches here and there. It was next to one of these that she found the long pile of feathers. They were dirty white, like the herons and egrets everywhere here. It seemed like a lot of feathers, given that she couldn’t see a wing, claw, or beak beneath. Adelaide crouched down and tried to pick one up, before seeing that it was a cloak, not a bird. She pinched the edge of it and stood up. Feathers cascaded down to her feet, all soft and white, grimy with sand. She shook and turned it this way and that, catching light and shedding grit, before folding it over one arm.

When Adelaide turned to go back, there was a girl standing behind her. The girl was maybe a year or two younger than she was, skinny, with red-rimmed eyes and chafed, blotchy knees. She was completely naked. “That’s mine,” the girl told her.

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“I know.” Adelaide made no move to return it.

The girl didn’t seem surprised by this, though she looked sullen. “Are you going to give it back to me?”

“Maybe.” Adelaide kept her face blank. “Who are you?”

The girl shrugged.

“You have a name?” Adelaide tucked the feather cloak tighter against her chest.

The girl stared back at her with brilliant, flat eyes and said nothing. Her hair was a light, insubstantial brown. Her mouth was set in a narrow line.

Adelaide thought she was beautiful. She crumpled some of the cloak in her fist
tightly. “Are you cold?”

The girl clearly thought about not answering, before admitting, “Yes.”

Adelaide nodded and reached out a hand. “Come back with me. The house is warm.”

The girl shook her head. “No. Give me back my cloak.”

Adelaide smiled, watching the awkward-graceful figure standing stiffly in the sand. “I won’t. That’s how I lost the last one. Now come with me.”

The girl looked down. “Oh. One of those.” The girl didn’t put up any resistance when
Adelaide reached out and took her hand.

They started walking together, just like that, back out of the wildlife sanctuary and through the little forest of warning signs. Adelaide stole glances at the girl as they walked, at her scrawny, lovely body and the stiff, hopping way she walked. As their feet pockmarked the whey-faced sand and the black sea clawed the marks away, she resolved to burn the cloak this time.

Alla Hoffman loves the strange, the intimate, and the mildly unnerving. They've had previous short fiction published at Rejection Letters, The Coffin Bell Journal, and the Kunlun Journal of Chinese Historical Fiction. You can find them on Twitter at @AllaHoffman or their website.

Copyright © 2023 by Alla Hoffman
Published by Orion's Beau
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