Arthur Miller's family had been millers since before they had been Millers. According to the family mythology, the mill had been built some interminable number of generations ago, back before there were Smiths or Johnsons or Millers and when the Miller family had just been the family living on the bit of land where the north-flowing Grey River fed into the west-flowing Missimac. Of course, the family story also went that old Jonah, as this eons-old ancester was always called, had built the mill with Fairy labor, and that he had paid a price to the Fairies so steep that he couldn't bear to speak about it, even to his sons. In this enlightened age, no one believed in foolish things like Fairy curses, although there was a joke going around the family that some day, the Fairies would come and steal away one of the boys. Or something like that.
Arthur's younger brother, William, was perhaps the only one still interested in the story. He said that the reason no Miller girls had survived to adulthood in the recordable history of the family was the Fairies' curse. He said that Arthur's youngest, Jessica, was thus ripe for either death or mysterious disappearance. Arthur tried to ignore William's rants about her safety, and had threatened to sever all ties when, a year previous to the events I am about to recount, William had told the four-year-old Jessica that she was doomed, doomed to death or kidnapping. There is no denying, however, that William was right about two things: one, as far as anyone could remember, no girls born to the family had ever survived to adulthood, and two, Jessica's existence up to this point appeared to have been cursed with mysterious, but fortunately temporary, disappearances.
There was the time she miraculously was found playing in the kitchen garden at six months old, when she had been put down in her cradle just a few minutes prior. She had been found sleeping on the doorstep three times, and seven times had described the most wondrous adventures in the woods to her older brothers, although they all knew she had been safe and sound in her bed all night. Then there were the all-too-frequent discoveries of dry leaves and dirt on the windowsill next to a strangely open window, or the times she would fall out a window or meet strangers in the town. The girl was simply always running off, covering her nice frocks and patent leather shoes in mud, but there was nothing they could do about it. Arthur was hard pressed with managing the employees for the mill, scheduling routine maintenance, and dealing with the surly and arrogant steamboat operators who inevitably were assigned to carry his shipments, not to mention raising his three sons and his disappearing daughter. Ever since his wife died in childbirth, there was just too much to do. The land around the mill belonged to them, and they had close family ties to the sherriff and the mayor of the nearby town, anyway, so whoever Jessica met must surely be a relative or a friend of a relative. It wasn't as if they would have trouble tracking her down.
It was on her fifth birthday that it happened. There was a ham in the oven and a plum pudding for dessert. Jessica was playing outside in the garden. Arthur had told her to stay away from the woods and was attending to the business of the mill. Her brothers were in the breakfast room wrapping the presents that the family had bought for Jessica and picking on poor little Nellie, the new maid. Arthur knew that hiring a teenaged maid just when his sons were thirteen, ten, and eight respectively was a poor idea, but her mother had been so eager for Nellie to enter into work on her twelfth birthday, and although Arthur thought it a shame for such a young girl to have to work, she was a bright child and very helpful around the house, and he couldn't bear to send her away now. And the ham smelled delicious, besides.
He looked out the window, expecting to see Jessica carefully pulling the daisies up by their roots, snapping them off at the stem, and either tying them in a chain or tossing them by the wayside when this became too difficult. However, Jessica was nowhere to be seen. He carefully set down his fountain pen, pulled a coat over his vest, and quietly snuck out through the kitchen, so as not to disturb the boys. Then he allowed the panic to set in. Not another one of these mad chases around the house, the woods, the riverbeds, and the mill before finding her safe at home, covered in dirt and all in disarray, complaining of the odd stranger who had offered her sweets but tried to tie her up. "Jessica!" he shouted, hoping to hear her voice just behind him. No answer. He pulled at his tie in frustration and headed to the woods. It was always a good first bet.
The woods were surprisingly dark and cold for such a sunny June day, and he pulled his light summer coat closer to him. The mist from the river hadn't been burned out of the air yet, and it clung to the trees giving everything a clammy feel and a moldly smell. The sunlight that reached the base of the trees was green-tinged and weak. These weren't the woods Arthur remembered, not the woods he had grown up in and thought of as friendly neighbors. This was an altogether different sort of woods full of potential dangers for his five-year-old daughter. But Arthur shook his head. He would find Jessica. These woods were safe; he had played here alone when he was scarce older than his daughter. They had been over-hunted in his grandfather's time, and so no animals would imperil his daughter and no hunters would accidentally catch her with a stray rifle shot. Jessica was safe, he would find her any moment. Mary had died giving birth to the girl, and Arthur would be damned if he would let both of them die.
He saw a swath of light pink ahead of him, and heard a giggle. Jessica. He raced towards it, and saw her playing happily at the feet of a rather fashionable-looking gentleman. He shouted her name but she seemed not to hear, and ran up to her but encountered first the man, who stopped him calmly and coolly, with a surprisingly strong and decisive hand on his chest. He was completely unruffled; his black silk suit hadn't a speck of dust on it from the forest, his blood red tie was perfectly in place, and he wore a confident smirk on his face. Arthur almost snapped and tried vainly to get at his daughter. "What the Hell, man? She's my daughter!" he shouted. The man made a "tsk"ing noise and just smirked.
"Daughter, perhaps, but yours she is not, sir. She was contracted over to us at the building of the mill," the stranger said in an icy, nasal voice. He flipped out a folder from a pocket on the inside of his coat, extracted a worn and yellowing leaf of paper, and commented: "I have your forefather, Jonah's, signature, dated some one thousand and forty two years, three months, and twelve days ago." He held forth the sheet, and sure enough there was a shaky "X" written in the signature line behind an absurdly old date, with a mess of legal jargon so thick that Arthur could barely read it crisscrossing the page above it.
"This is absurd. That's an old family story, a load of hocus pocus used to scare children out of running away, and you are either a twisted fool or a lunatic hired by my brother William." Arthur tried to get to his daughter but was again blocked by the strange man.
"I'm afraid it's all very true, Mr. Miller. Your daughter, Jessica, is our legal possession. I must admit we have had a hard time procuring her up to this point, which is why I am here instead of one of my employees. You know what they say, 'if you want to get something done, you must do it yourself', as I am sure you know as a fellow businessman." The stranger grinned impishly, with that confidence that sent chills up Arthur's spine.
"Legal Posession? She's a human being, for the love of God!" Arthur was sure he was behaving in a most unseemly manner, but it was his daughter this man was talking about, not some object. "A five year old girl! She's not a brute or a monster or anything suitable for possession! What are you, a man or an animal?"
It was foolish, in retrospect, for Arthur to say that. It can be forgiven, as this would be a completely innocuous turn of phrase had he been speaking to anyone who considered themselves human. But the strange gentleman's eyes suddenly gleamed with anger and the strangely strong hand suddenly gripped Arthur across the front of the throat. Arthur choked. "I am certainly not some kind of animal, sir, and nor am I some sort of uncivilized human who disrespects legal agreements, as you appear to be. My name is Avery Douglass, Esquire, and I am here on behalf of my lending house to assure you that, as part of your contract, you are legally obliged to hand over the girl." Arthur tried to gasp something out but failed. "What's that you say? What will she live like? I assure you that unlike some of your crude customs, we treat the children who come into our posession very well. We already have plans for her, and I daresay she will live better with us than she would with you and your poor excuse at parenting." Arthur struggled but the man was too strong. "I assure you, she will be happier, wealthier, and more beautiful with us than she ever could be among your kind."
Mr. Douglass released his hold on Arthur's neck. Arthur fell back gasping and grabbed a tree for support, his head spinning. "I… My daughter… Jessica…" He choked on each syllable. He reached out to his daughter, but Mr. Douglass turned to Jessica, who grinned and giggled and said to him, in an animated voice, "Did you know it's my birthday, Mr. Avery? Can we go home now?"
Avery Douglass, Esquire, smiled. He took one last gloating look at Arthur, said "You have avoided payment of your debt too long. I hope you have learned your lesson and look forward to doing business with you again, sir." He then picked up Jessica, and began to walk into the woods. Arthur felt the world spin around him, the ground rock beneath his feet, and everything go black.