She offered help to those who needed it. The wretches and ne’er-do-wells, the lost children. Those of low birth and those cast down. She gave them hope, promising a new life away from the scorn of others; a land of warmth and peace far from the cold cobblestones and cries in the night. They followed her through the crooked streets and cramped alleys, through the concealed despair and muted suffering, until they reached the constant dusk of the city limits.
From there she led them through the softened woods, nourishing them with kind words and encouragement, identifying the edible nuts and berries; the herbs that could salve, the most comfortable moss to rest on.
She led them over the creaking bridge to the great plains, where the land stretched out to the horizon and the sky expanded overhead. The open space and fresh air rejuvenated her companions, they were able to smile and laugh more freely, the burden of their past lives gradually lifting. She seemed to take on new life too: a subtle glow, an ethereal aura, as if drawing strength from the elements.
She lit a fire at night and named the constellations, telling stories of ancient gods and their follies. They roasted the nuts they had foraged and slept under the stars. She woke them at dawn, continuing their journey, picking wild flowers, singing softly as she led them up the mountain pass where the air took on a chill. She beckoned them over ridges, guided them around wayward rocks, encouraging them to keep pace. On the other side they were met with warm sunlight, just as she had promised. Below lay rolling fields and golden meadows, and in the distance, a homestead, its chimney chuffing cotton clouds of smoke. She led them down the path to her house, pointing out the surrounding orchards, detailing the conserves she made from each: spiced apples, cherry jam, pickled plums. At last she welcomed them to her home, the warmth from the hearth felt like an embrace, like it was their home too. They sat at the gnarled kitchen table, resting their aching legs, while she fussed tirelessly over pots and pans and jars of sweet things. She served them homemade broth and buttered bread and watched them mop their plates. For dessert there was a slice of fruit tart, the best they’d ever tasted.
At sundown she showed them their room, a cosy clutter of tattered clothes piled on the floor; old shoes of different styles and sizes stacked in the corner. She wished them goodnight, smiling from the doorway before extinguishing the lamps. Relaxing into their bedding they felt all the things they had longed to feel: solace and serenity, a place in the world, peace. They soon fell into a deep, wakeless sleep.
And then she ate them.
Alternative titles include: “Unpaid Internship”, “Welcome to the Company”, and “Gainful Employment”.