Posts Tagged With: Fiction
The firelight in the hearth of the tavern flickered in all but the furthest corners of the room. Two men, young and impatient, sulked in the shadows sitting at their square table. Each of them had at lease one beer more in their bellies than good judgment would allow, but they were far from finishing their night.
Eiver waved over the serving girl. “One more tankard for me…and my brother.” His speech slurred each word.
The serving girl looked at both of them, her brow furrowed with doubt. “Pay first. Drinks next.”
Eiver reached into his pocket but his money, or rather what had been his money, was gone down his gullet with the last ale.
Escher shrugged. His money vanished also. “That’s the last of it.”
As if it fell from heaven––or bounced up from hell, a single gold coin dropped on the tabletop and spun until it landed face side up.
“I’ll cover their tab for the night,” spoke a cool voice.
Through their ale-washed haze, Eiver and Escher gazed upon a man in a long green coat with sky colored eyes joining their table.
The serving girl returned with three tankards of ale. Foam bubbled up and washed over the sides. She placed an ale in front of each man, took the gold coin and started to walk away but her wrist was held in a viselike grip by the man in green. “That should pay for our room and board for several nights.”
She nodded. He let her go.
“Thank you kind sir,” Eiver said.
“Our luck had run out,” said Escher.
“No my friends,” said the man in the green coat. His blue eyes seemed to flicker, mimicking the firelight. “I would say your luck has just changed.” He leaned in toward the brothers. “What would the both of you do with an unlimited supply of gold for seven years?”
On the morning I planned my departure, I pulled Eshrun aside. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a gold ring. Taking my golden knife, I cut it in two and gave him half. “I will return to you and we will be married. Keep this half of the ring as the token of my promise.”
He agreed. We did not embrace; it was understood this marriage was a contract. I walked away from him to the edge of the wood and turned to look back. Eshrun remained by the front door and cut a curt nod with his head to ensure me of his willingness to wait. I waved in return and wandered further into the wood, disappearing from view of the cabin.
I walked onward through the cedar trees for a day and a half. I passed by the bleached bones of that poor brown bear. By instinct I rubbed my palms along the matted fur of his flayed skin that begat my cape and I whispered an apology while moving onward. It used to be soft but had clumped with road dust and other muck along the way of seven years’ passing. Within the hour I reached my destination, the place where everything began; and I was one day early.
That night was long. I made a fire because I feared no man or beast, only the devil and he would not kill me. It would break the deal. I ate my simple supper of hard cheese and bread and laid down, wrapped in my bearskin. My eyes closed with my final prayers of petition on my lips, and I fell into a deep sleep.
Morning arrived with the sunlight streaming through the great green cedar boughs, peppering the forest floor with flecks of heavenly light. I sat up, licking my cracked lips and looking around.
Down upon the road was the golden carriage with the same pale horses and thin driver so silent and so still. I never heard them arrive. I glanced to my right and saw that man. His beauty had not changed but somehow he was not beautiful at all. His blue eyes were crystalline and filled with cold logic.
“Our deal has come to a conclusion, Athena. My congratulations are in order. You have succeeded where many have failed. I give you permission to gloat,” he said.
I closed my mouth. With my silence I pronounced judgment upon him.
His V-shaped smile shifted to a sneer, but then returned to a smile as congenial as any I had ever seen. Were I not wary, it would have disarmed me.
“Come,” he said and waved me over as he walked toward the carriage. He opened the door but I hesitated. “We must get you cleaned up so you can give me back my coat.”
I bit my lip and stepped into the carriage. The large living room inside was still dark and a fire still danced in the hearth. He led me through to a private chamber where an enormous tub drawn with hot water waited. He nodded toward a lovely young woman standing in the corner. “Lilly will see to your bath. Afterward I will see personally to your grooming.”
I looked at Lilly. She was young and lovely, reminding me of who I was seven years ago. I suspected that she was another victim of one of his bargains, living here in this gilded hell. One last time I looked at him as he filled the doorway with his powerful frame.
“Lilly will bathe you. You stink. You need scrubbing. I will afford you the privacy of a lady,” he said.
I knew he didn’t care about the pretense of a lady’s privacy, but I was thankful all the same when he closed the door. My nails were so long that I was unable to unlatch the bearskin cape or even unbutton the green jacket. Lilly stepped forward, offering her assistance to peel away my clothing, which she did with great care and kindness. I felt genuinely sorry for her. The poor girl had no idea to whom she now belonged.
I stepped into the tub and relaxed in the pool of water, watching steam waft from the surface and vaporize into nothing. My eyes caught Lilly hanging the green coat upon a hook; something jangled.
“Miss, I believe you have something left in the pocket of your coat,” Lilly said.
I shook my head. “It’s not my coat. Whatever is in that pocket can stay there,” I replied.
She understood and then approached the tub. With a cloth and soft brush, Lilly scrubbed me from top to bottom. She washed my filthy, gummy hair and combed it out straight once more.
Afterward when I stepped forward from the tub, I marveled at my skin. It had changed from that patina of dirt to a likeness of alabaster. She wrapped me in a soft robe and led me to another chamber where the man stood in his cloven-hoofed, self-imposed magnificence. He ushered me to a chair in front of a mirror. I sat down and he turned me away from my reflection. He applied a yogurt masque to my face and proceeded to trim my nails and cut my hair without a single word.
By the time he finished and turned my chair to face the mirror, I fell into disbelief. The reversal of my ugliness and the last seven years of hardship were fully removed and replaced with my youthful beauty once more. A simple look into my own eyes however revealed an utter loss of innocence. It would never return to me, nor would I wish it.
At last, I was once again outside the carriage wearing a dark green dress chosen by the man himself. The color of the fabric was an attempted jab at our deal, mimicking the green coat I surrendered. A beautiful white horse awaited me to mount and ride. The golden knife was sheathed in the saddle.
“One more thing I have for you, Athena,” he said and displayed a lovely white fur cape. “It is the same bearskin cape, but I’ve taken the liberty of…cleaning it.” His sharp smile whipped wide on his face as he wrapped it about my shoulders. I refused to speak to him.
“Can we not part as friends?” he asked.
If I could have achieved it, I would have set him ablaze with my gaze and watched him burn to the ground with satisfaction.
He chuckled. “Very well then. So long Athena,” he said and closed the carriage door. The entire entourage lurched forward, snapping into the same crackle of blue light as before. And it was gone.
Time passed without any conscience. My body lay curled in my bearskin before a hearth. The fire was strong and warm.
Furtive whispering voices argued behind me.
“How did she end up on our doorstep?”
“It doesn’t matter how. What matters is that she came to us for help.” This voice was mature, and even in its tone.
“Help indeed,” huffed the first voice, young, male and impatient. “We can’t even feed or protect ourselves. This winter will kill us all.”
“Look at her father! Her appearance is more animal than woman. The merciful duty would have been to leave her to the grip of winter.” This was a second young man’s voice.
Finally a third young man spoke up. “There’s no need to whisper. She’s awake.”
I sighed and arose, standing before four men: a father and three sons. Their dismay fell upon me in an overwhelming wave of despair. Their thin frames betrayed four meager lives shared in the lonely cabin. A quick observation clarified that a woman had not been present in their lives for a very long time. “I will go if you wish it, but let me speak first with your father alone,” I said.
The father nodded and waved his sons through the front door into the winter morning. I sat at the table opposite of the father.
“Please forgive my sons for they mean well. We are poor and cannot even feed ourselves. Our supplies as they are would hard-press one man to live through the winter,” said the father.
I nodded. “Are any of them married?”
“No. They have had a bad run of luck finding suitable brides.”
I nodded again. “I understand your difficult position. To take me in for the night must have laid an incredible sacrifice upon you. Please let me pay my way and stay with you for a few days.”
The father assessed me with his wizened eyes and he exhaled, shaking his head. “I doubt what you offer could make any difference. Unless you were able to pay for all of us to survive through this winter, there will be no hope. And if you could, I would marry any one of my three sons to you.”
My hand reached into my pocket, feeling the large amount of gold coins cached there. I piled them on the table and watched the eyes of the old man bulge.
“That would see us through three years,” he rasped.
He called in the boys, explaining to them the news of their deliverance and their collective countenance lifted high with grins upon each face. Their father introduced himself as Avram and his sons were Eiver, Escher, and the youngest Eshrun. Then to my surprise, he told them that one them must marry me and they would choose amongst themselves for the honor.
My face flushed and I felt the sting of shame. Their eyes traveled over me in distaste and I felt the shame of my appearance and my stink. All of the young men were handsome, but clearly I was not a bride for whom they hoped.
“I cannot marry a woman with a beard,” Eiver said.
“I will not marry a woman with talons for fingers,” said Escher.
Eshrun looked at my bearskin cape and my filthy green coat and my matted hair and my long wispy beard and my curled nails…and then he looked at my eyes and smiled. “I will marry you. You have saved us all and it would be my joyful duty to be your husband and honor my father.”
My heart cracked and tears streamed down my cheeks. I wanted to refuse for his sake. I wanted to walk away. It was then I heard the shining man’s words ring in my ears for a second time: You are worthy of love.
And I nodded my consent to Eshrun’s offer for my hand in marriage.
Not far along, the winds picked up and the snow pummeled me on every side. Through the white winter void I could detect nothing. Every step through the snow gained additional weight and not long thereafter I strained to move at all. Lifting my eyes to the heavens, I whispered, “Help.” It was all that I could muster of my strength to say. My soul inwardly groaned the rest of my desperation.
It became apparent to me that I would die mere days before completing my task. My strength ebbed and I fell to my knees. My mind numbed over, joining the creeping unfeeling in my limbs. The strong desire to sleep overtook anything else; I could think of nothing other than rest.
I felt pressure beneath my arms and shoulders, as if being lifted up. I expected to see that vicious face of my blue-eyed creditor, smiling in triumph. Yet warmth entered me through my skin and radiated to my bones. This man’s eyes were so kind, full of compassion, gazing upon me in all of my wretchedness. I had never seen him before, nor did I think I would ever see him again once my eyes fell upon his shining white robes. His skin shone like the sun, and he warmed me in his embrace.
Opening my mouth, I tried to speak but he hushed me and I fell limp in his arms.
“Your prayers have been heard. Your many kindnesses are witnessed. It is in your hour of need I have been sent to you.” His voice hummed and soothed my aching spirit.
He carried me, but for how long I could not know. I wanted nothing else but to remain with him; I wished he would take me.
His laugh rose up through his chest as if responding to my thoughts, and he spoke in my ear. “This was not the plan for you. The thief comes to destroy, but I have seen your heart. I have admired your beauty. You must live, for I require it.”
He required me. No person before had ever said such lovely things. Immediately I felt ashamed of my haggard appearance. I brought this upon myself by making a deal with the cloven hoofed thief. Desperation will guide a woman to hard decisions, but now I realized my decision was wrong. I could have walked away, not responding. Knowing now who the thief really was, I understood that the only power he had over me was that which I gave him. The thief walked me to the gates of this devilish deal, but I made the decision…and that was my fault.
We entered a clearing where a small cabin stood alone among the trees. A thick gout of smoke rose from the chimney like a gray pillar fastening the sky to the earth. This sweet angel of my rescue laid me at the foot of the door.
He spoke to me one last time. “You will yet see your way through this my child. And before I depart, I will give you a gift of my own.” He kissed my forehead. “You are worthy of love.”
As I lay upon the snowy steps of the cabin, I watched him walk into the skirted tree line and vanish. My eyes closed, shutting out the glow of the white night.
I remembered something my father used to say: When snow falls, no bad men come out at night.
At first there was freedom in the endless supply of golden coins, and I gave them freely. I was charitable to the poor in every town I came upon. I tithed in abundance to each church, filling their poor boxes to bursting. I gave hope to the widows in meeting their meager needs and brought smiles to the orphans through toys and treats. And I asked them all to pray for me that I might not die within the years of my sojourn.
The golden knife, as it turned out, was enchanted as well. It would cut through wood, metal or stone just as easily as through butter, bread or cheese.
Occasionally I would be held up by robbers who demanded I turn out my pockets which I did cheerfully, letting them know to return should they need more. If they threatened violence, I would simply display the power of the knife by cutting down a tree, or through one of their own blades. Only once was I forced cause harm; he lost a hand. What I discovered was that everything was done out of desperation, both theirs and my own.
In that first year, there were many men who sought my hand for marriage. I was never fooled, for they were attracted to the green coat…or rather the gold in the green pockets. My heart ached for someone who could love me without the coat, for I knew it was borrowed and would return to its owner someday.
As the sun turned many times over, I found myself growing into an ever alarming state of decay. My nails grew long and curved into a resemblance of talons. My hair clumped together in a pile of braids unwilling to unwind. My unwashed skin acquired a layer of sticky brown patina and unfortunately I smelled like the grave. Most devastatingly, whiskers from my chin and corners of my mouth grew into a thin and wispy tangle.
My beauty passed away and my visage resurrected into a creature doomed to the outskirts of social acceptability. I became unrecognizable to people I once helped, and they were happy to ignore me as I traveled through towns and homesteads. My money was always accepted but my company was rejected everywhere. Once again I returned to sleeping in the wood, well wrapped in my bearskin which I slept in every night.
I learned to live in the wood and made my home there in a cave. The gold became cursed to me, as I no longer had a need for it. Happily, I learned to live off the land, trapping for meat when necessary and eating roots and berries in their respective seasons. On occasion my pockets grew heavy with the weight of coins and I would empty them into crevices in the cave. Each corner had its fill of gold. Oh how I hated it, wishing for it all to end.
And in that seventh year’s winter, the snow fell heavy and the winds bit my bones. I was forced to seek proper shelter away from the cave, which meant I must re-enter civilization.
I knew my time drew short. I was desperate to live and see this terrible task through. Back on to the road I trod, seeking shelter elsewhere.
I found myself on the same stretch of forest road I had left some time before. We had not moved at all. Turning about, I could see the front door was one and the same as the golden carriage door. The driver remained on duty up top and the pale horses stood as still as statues. He followed through and joined me on the road in the wood.
Nearby bellowed a desperate roar. The sound of anguish and anger hollering through the trees threw me into a shudder. I looked at the man in green, his arrogant smile ever upon me. Tilting his head, he indicated I should follow. I considered running but getting far enough away would be impossible. I was content to acquiesce…for the moment.
A short span away we came to the tree I had hidden beneath when he found me. He reached down and picked up the lone item left among the cedar’s bulging roots: the knife I’d taken from my father’s house.
I now knew to expect the worst. My mind fluttered with the images of the other desperate women who died in this wood. Their pale, delicate frames splayed upon the bedding of the tiny, sloughed cedar branches littering the forest floor. It seemed my turn had come.
Instead, he walked onward. I followed him into a clearing where before us was an enormous brown bear. Roaring at us in his pain, I could see the fear leaking through the hulking animal’s eyes. His front paw was snared in a massive, iron, toothy trap cutting through flesh to the bone.
The man looked at me now, holding up the knife. “The second option is before you. Should you so choose, you will wander the world for seven years with no home to call your own. You cannot bathe, trim your nails or cut your hair. Yet you will want for nothing,” he said and took off his beautiful green coat, placing it around my shoulders. “In any pocket of this coat you will find gold in continual supply. Every time you reach into the pocket, it will be there for you.”
His gaze never wavered from mine. While watching him warily, my hand slipped into the outer pocket and retrieved a handful of gold coins. I did the same with the other pocket and found the same result.
His mouth now widened into a wolfish grin. Again he held up my knife and ran the blade down his palm, running his own blood along the knife’s edge. Then holding up his palm, as if to display a magic trick, he showed me the cut quickly healing itself. It was as if he declared: I am immortal. Then he took the knife and sank it with ease to the hilt in the nearest cedar, and as easily as cutting soft cheese, he cut around the circumference of the tree. With a single finger he pushed, and it fell crashing through the forest.
The man walked over to the bear and before the sad animal knew what had happened, he dealt a swift incision to the bear’s neck. The beast bled out and collapsed into a final rest. With a quickness of hand and skill I had never yet seen, the man skinned the hulking carcass in a matter of minutes. Then taking the pelt, he shook it out, like when I would clean the rugs of father’s house. The bear’s pelt transformed into a large, brown, furry cape and cowl that he now latched around my shoulders.
“You will sleep every night in this bearskin for the next seven years. Should you die in this time, you will lose this challenge…and belong to me. Are we agreed?”
I stood fixed to the spot. Words refused to escape my lips as my tongue quit cooperating.
“Are we agreed, Athena?”
My eyes met his again and tumbled into their hypnotic azure void. I gave a single nod and affirmed with a single word.
“Good,” he said with a jovial tone and began to walk back toward the road before stopping and turning. “One last thing.” He held up the knife, which had now turned to gold in his hand, and gave it back to me. “For your protection.”
He turned once more and I followed him to the road. Climbing inside the carriage, he faced me once more to say: “You have gold aplenty but your time runs short. Spend both wisely.”
The driver atop cracked his whip. The pale horses reared and lunged forward. They all disappeared in a crackle and peal of blue light.
Although I’m certain he kept his watchful blue eyes upon me, I never saw that man again for seven years.
Not knowing how I got there, I found myself in a bed. The linen sheets wrapped about my frame in loose tangles would not release me, nor did I give them permission. I sat up, realizing that I had been bathed and fitted in a simple, lovely green nightgown. It did not matter how it happened, because the stickiness of old, cold sweat was gone and my skin was warm.
On a chair next to the bed my dress draped perfectly, freshly laundered during my rest. A simple card on the nightstand read: join me, when you are ready.
I replaced the nightgown with my simple clothing once again. Looking at the lovely green of the cloth, the thought fluttered so briefly through my mind to take it with me. Surely it would sell for a decent value in town. The thought, though tempting, was forced to surrender to my will. I refused to repay kindness with bad grace for it would only welcome darkness.
Picking up the brush in front of the vanity mirror, I held it aloft to my hair but stopped. My black tresses had already been brushed. A small smile stretched my lips…and then pursed. Was I this man’s guest? His prisoner? His plaything? Or worse? It didn’t occur to me until now that I may very well suffer the same fate as those other unfortunate women who had at one time wandered the wood toward their own demise.
Straightening my posture, I put on my best mask: a truly disarming smile.
I wandered through the bedroom door and into the room beyond. It was large and well furnished. A love-seat and chaise upholstered in scaly leather sat upon a bearskin rug in front of a roaring fire. Though clearly not innocent setting, it was inviting.
“There you are darling,” he said as he entered the room. “I was beginning to think you might never awake.” He motioned to the chaise, “please…”
I smiled but stood still, unable to will my unwilling body.
Then he smiled, the sharp V of his lips parting to reveal perfect teeth. “Athena,” he said and motioned again.
I melted when he spoke my name and my body became limber once again. I was surprised when I sat upon the scaly green leather by the cool and soft touch beneath my hands. “You know my name, but do I know you?”
His crystalline gaze set upon me as he reclined on the love seat. A deep chuckle resonated from his core. “Yes, you know me.” He stretched out his legs toward the fire and my eyes fell upon the obvious abomination. In the place of his left foot was a cloven hoof, shoed like a horse but in gold that reflected the dancing flames before it.
My throat turned to sand, dried up and brittle. I gave him the clearest nod I could muster but he knew it was weak. I was in a most clear danger.
He stood up and walked over to the bar. “Forgive me, you’re thirsty,” he said, approaching with a crystal decanter of wine and a glass. He poured the wine out, but when it filled up in the glass it was only water. My eyes grew wide as two moons and he laughed. “Please accept my apologies. There are those who say my humor is twisted.”
He placed the glass in my hand and I sipped the clearest water, instantly refreshing the desert of my throat. My voice returned and faintly I spoke: “Am I to die tonight?”
He hummed and paced before the fire before answering: “That is up to you.”
He knelt down in front of me and rubbed my ankles with his soft hands. “You can surrender to me now and I’ll care for you…for a while. You’ll be well treated and dressed. Gifted with gold, jewels and pearls. And every night you’ll dine as my queen. But eventually every meeting has a parting. After some years I’ll bore of you.” There was no need to say more for the piercing lust of his eyes illuminated the intended end.
I fought the bile of my loathing and every ounce of desire to shrug his advancing hands. Instead I replied: “Or…what?”
He withdrew and stood up, no longer affectionate but now calculating and reptilian in his gaze. He pointed to the big green door behind me. “Or you see what is out there. It may lead to your survival or your death.”
Standing upright, I squared my shoulders and walked toward the green front door. I grasped the black iron handle and opened it.
Desperation will guide a woman to hard decisions. When I was found seven years go, I was desperate: lovely and desperate; naive and desperate. Shivering as the bony branches in the whipping winter wind, and just as skinny, I left my father’s house in haste after his death. His wife had a loathsome lawyer as her lover, and she was not my mother. She took everything except the clothing draped about me. I stole through the kitchen and confiscated the sharpest blade and thus I was on my own, alone in the world.
Seven days and seven nights I wandered about the wood, afraid to step onto the road in case I found myself in the clutches of a devil passing by. So many tortured tales rang in my youthful ears about women who, alone in the wild, had been seized, used and left upon the forest floor. They watered the roots of these trees with their ebbing life-force leaking away through violent inflictions. I would not let it happen.
Night after night I would shelter beneath the cedar canopy, finding the right tree that could hide me from view with it’s swathing branches sweeping the floor. I was tucked beneath by the trunk and could see through the branches to the road. I never lit a fire at night, and finding food in the cold was impossible. The poking pains of hunger in my stomach stopped by the fourth day. Occasionally I would hear the stamping of hooves on the road and through the dark would see a carriage pass with its lanterns shining out front. My heart would throb as I held my breath until it passed. I began to expect that I would meet death and be taken from this place.
That final night lit up the forest by the pale rays of the full moon. The trees stood as silent sentinels in the stillness, as if they knew what was coming from beyond the fork in the road. A lone, long, and lonely howl pierced the silence and hung in the air for what seemed an infinite expanse of time, but it was cut off by the wind. A rushing gale swept through, bending the elder cedars as if they were saplings. It was unlike other storms. It was a malevolent maelstrom, whispering to me as it whipped by: “Athena…Athena…”
It knew my name.
With the crack of a whip, everything drew silent again, as if through obedience. I drew the tresses of my black hair away from my face and gazed through the branches toward the road, where stood a golden carriage at full stop. I never even saw it coming, as if it appeared of its own accord. The horses pulling it were monstrous and pale. Their eyes shown as embers in deep sockets. The driver was gangly and attentive to the road, never looking anywhere but ahead. In the pale of the night light, the golden carriage shimmered and made me think of a gilded coffin. Its door opened and out stepped a man with a cane, a green coat and a matching hat. His eyes were the color of a clear sky and glowed as such, and they fixed on me. My hiding place was useless.
“Athena, come out from there. You’ll catch your death in this cold,” he called out.
He knew my name. I heard creaking reverberate in the deep of the forest, as if a throaty laugh pushed down at my expense. He knew my name.
“Athena, come out from there. You’ll catch your death in this cold,” he called out again.
The laughter of the forest came again, resounding as if many laughs filtering into one. I looked back toward the source of noise. When my head swiveled forward, the man in green was directly in front of me, nose to nose.
“Athena, come with me,” he said.
I remained frozen, fixed upon his blue eyes. His strong featured face exhibited energy and vitality, yet his white hair betrayed the youthful portrait. He was ageless.
The sharp corners of his mouth turned upward. “Athena,” he said and blew a kiss. As the wind of his breath caressed my cold face, I felt warmth and sleep overtake me. One final thought clouded my head as I fell into his arms: this was the most beautiful man I’d ever seen.