Originally published as part of a collection of eight in Sunrise, November 12, 2012
B Anders (Author)
“Tell me a story,” the girl says as she puts her arms around the woman’s waist and settles herself comfortably into the warm inviting bed. Letting out a quiet sigh, the woman puts away a pair of silver scissors onto the nightstand and buries her face into the soft, raven hair. There are other things she would rather do than tell her lover a story.
“I love you,” the woman says hoping to engage in girl in more intimate matters.
“Story,” the girl persists with a gentle laugh as she turns her face away from the woman’s clumsy attempts to kiss her. The woman smiles and pulling the girl close into her arms, whispers in her ear.
“You’re older than I am. If you want a story so much, tell one yourself.”
The girl pouts for a minute before pushing the woman away with a playful giggle. She pauses to catch her breath and slowly a story unfolds from her ruby lips.
There was once a girl. She lived in a large house out in the country with a cook, a maid, and a gardener. Everyone thought she had the perfect family because her parents were such perfect, dazzling people.
The father was a partner in a well-known firm in the City. He was witty and always winning prestigious design prizes, so he didn’t have time to work. He was too busy networking and dreaming up plans for more grandiose projects, so he could win even more prestigious prizes.
The mother was blond and vivaciously attractive. She came from old money so she didn’t work. She was too busy with cocktail parties and making appearances at fund raisers for the various save the planet, animal or children charities, whose boards she sat on.
The father and the mother were extremely popular. The father could always be counted on to persuade his successful friends and business associates to make an appearance at the local school for Career Day or arrange for summer internships in the City for disadvantaged youths. The mother was always the first to come forward with offers of support whenever funds needed to be raised for a new community gymnasium or a proposed science wing at the university.
‘What would we do without Mr. So-and-so?’ everyone would say, or ‘Thank God for Mrs. So-and-so, we would be so lost without her.’
The girl rarely saw her parents. They tolerated her when she was around, and forgot her when she wasn’t. She lived by herself in the house in the country with the servants. She wasn’t allowed to have anyone over because her mother said they were dirty and her father said they would steal things. The girl didn’t mind because she didn’t have any anyone to invite back to the house. Everyone thought she was stupid, dull witted and plain.
Although she was often lonely, things were not all bad for the girl. The servants felt sorry for her being on her own and they were kind. The maid would take the girl out to the cinema in the neighbouring village. The gardener taught her how to grow her own peas and carrots in the vegetable patch they started behind the house, and the cook made sure she had a birthday cake each month because no one was really sure when her birthday was.
What the girl really looked forward to were the days her friend, the cook’s daughter, would cycle up from the village to visit. The cook’s daughter was a wonder; smart, sharp, and even then at that tender age everyone knew she would grow up to be a beauty. They were about the same age, the girl being a few years older, and being older she took intense delight in showing the younger girl how the peas and carrots in the garden were doing. They would sit in the corner of the garden and talk for hours, going into grisly detail about the films showing in the village cinema, and acting out each part with painstaking care. The girl would also make sure a thick slice of birthday cake was set aside each month so her friend never missed out on the treat.
One day the girl came back from school to find the cook, the maid, and the gardener sitting glumly together in the kitchen having a cup of tea. Something unpleasant had happened. The mother had dropped dead of a heart attack. The father had phoned from the City with the news and promptly hung up before anything more could be said. The girl wasn’t particularly sad, she hardly saw her mother anyway.
The mother drank, and smoked more than she should. She wasn’t very particular what she inhaled so long as it was illegal and illicit, the more exotic the better being her motto. She was fond of having numerous attractive young men at her house in the south of somewhere, where she stayed and frequently hosted wild parties. She was discreet, and she always paid in cash, so she was a preferred customer with the people she dealt with. They knew what she liked and made sure she got plenty of it.
The girl was alone at the funeral when a young woman with long fair hair and strange green eyes came up to introduce herself. The woman offered her a smoke, which the girl declined, and said she was a friend of her mother’s and they had been as close as sisters. The woman had been at the party when the accident occurred. It was an overdose of course; the mother had been experimenting with a new designer substance, but hushed up to save the reputations of those present. The girl listened quietly and then excused herself. She did not like the woman.
The girl’s father declared himself heartbroken by the death of his beloved wife. No one was surprised when he sought comfort in the arms of his wife’s attractive young friend. He married her 3 months later in a discreet but expensive ceremony. The girl was not invited to the father’s wedding. The father had been unhappy to discover that his wife had left the house in the country and the money in trust to his daughter, and the house in somewhere to her favorite pool boy.
Soon after her father’s wedding, the girl returned one day from school to find 2 large moving vans in the driveway of the house. The gardener was waiting for her out on the front lawn with a sore look on his face. Her father and his new wife had come back to stay for good. He was financially ruined. There had been a horrible accident; some workmen had been buried alive in a cave-in at one of his projects. The accident was blamed on poor design, and the resulting lawsuit had bankrupted the firm. The girl nodded absently as she listened to what the gardener had to say, and quietly went into the house to greet her father and stepmother.
The father was paler and thinner than the girl remembered. He had lost his tanned good looks, transformed by adversity into an ancient looking man with dry flaking skin, and a rapidly receding hairline. The stepmother however looked even younger and more beautiful from their last meeting. It was like; the cook was later heard to have remarked to the gardener, that the new misses was sucking the life out of the father, if such a thing was at all possible.
The father greeted her with a loud cheerful, ‘Hello, what do we have here?’ He looked happy, but the girl knew appearances deceive. There was a certain listlessness behind his hooded eyes and an empty resonance in his voice that made her uneasy. She saw him last at the funeral. He’s next to a stranger to her now, but still she said hello to him politely and shook his hand.
The stepmother greeted her with a hug, and asked her how her day went. There was an icy undertone to her stepmother’s voice that the girl didn’t like. The woman disliked her, the girl knew. She answered the stepmother’s questions about school thoughtfully, before asking to be excused to have her tea in the kitchen. She stood for a long while looking at her feet, until her father smiled and told her in his strangely cheerful voice to ‘Run along now.’
The father had an insatiable sexual appetite for pretty young things. He wasn’t very particular what he fucked as long as it was fresh and tender, the younger the better being his motto. He was fond of having his little friends supplied by the more discreet service providers in the City, which catered to gentlemen of his persuasion. He disliked scandal, but the people he dealt with were consummate professionals. They knew what he liked and made sure he got plenty of blond haired boys and brown haired girls.
Unknown to the girl, her father was now a changed man, utterly devoted to making his new wife happy to the exclusion of everything and everyone else. One would say she had him under a spell.
He had the house repainted in bold, unsuitable colors to match her eyes. He sold the elegant antique furniture which she hated to pay for new furnishings, both gaudy and expensive, to suit her whims. He was going to rip the fine collection of tapestry off the walls and hawk them on Sotheby’s when he received an angry phone call.
It was the solicitors. The house and contents were held in trust for the girl, and unless the father wanted to face a very expensive lawsuit he was to recover whatever he sold immediately. Unfortunately the stepmother had already spent the money he got for the furniture and so the father had to beg and borrow to get everything back. This put the father in even more debt than he was before and made a further dent in his already limited goodwill towards his daughter.
Eventually the girl came home from school one day to find the gardener waiting for her with his bags packed on the front door step. He had been given his marching orders that afternoon. The father had taken ill the previous night, after the girl had gone to bed. The stepmother blamed his malaise on the organically grown vegetables they had eaten for dinner. Said they weren’t grown properly to the disgust of the gardener who wasn’t going to have his peas and carrots referred to in that tone of voice.
The girl and the gardener said their sad goodbyes. The gardener patted the girl on her head and told her to take care of the vegetable patch. He was going to go back to the village to start a market garden. Market gardens were now very popular with the people from the City who drove down in hordes on the weekends for the fresh air. The girl stood on the lawn and waved at him until he turned the corner down the lane and was gone.
The next day, the new gardener arrived. He had long fair hair and the strange green eyes like the stepmother. Everyone supposed that like the stepmother, the new gardener was from the south of somewhere because he didn’t speak like a local. He didn’t speak at all and kept to himself even at meal times. The girl didn’t like him much. There was something sinister about him, like the father that made her uneasy.
One by one, the girl watched as the stepmother found or invented some reason or other to send the servants away. She watched as the people she knew and trusted were replaced with fair haired, green eyed replicas that never spoke and hardly ate. One day, the girl came home from school to find the cook gone, replaced by a woman in a white apron with vacant emerald eyes.
Soon after that, the father took the girl out of school. He told her teachers that she would get a better education at home with a tutor than in any dusty old institution. Told them that after serious consideration both he and his wife decided that home schooling was the best option for the girl because she wasn’t very smart and she wasn’t getting the attention she needed to progress at school. However, he seemed to forget all about her the minute they got back to the house, telling her in his hollow cheerful voice to ‘Run along now.’
As time passed, the girl spent her days out in the vegetable patch taking care of the peas and carrots. When she wasn’t there, she was either spying on the new servants as they went about their business in the house or waiting round the corner on the road for her friend to cycle up from the village. They spent most of their time together now that the girl didn’t go to school. They would go foraging in the corn fields and the apple orchards and swim in the small stream that cut across the property. The girl’s friend would always bring the girl a little food each day to get her by; half a loaf of bread, a wedge of cheese, or a cut of ham. This was to supplement what they could find in the fields and orchards and the vegetables the girl grew from her patch. The new servants didn’t feed the girl often, and when they did the food tasted dry and burnt like ashes.
One morning, while the girl was outside waiting for her friend, the stepmother had one of the servants fetch her back into the house. They were going to take a special trip the stepmother said, to visit an old friend of her late mother’s who lived out in another town.
‘Is my father coming?’ The girl asked.
She hadn’t seen her father in a long time, not since they rode back together from school that last time. She knew he was often sick now and kept himself all the time in his rooms. Her stepmother nodded with a smile and said her father was going to meet them there; he had gone back to the City for the day and was looking forward to the visit.
The girl and the stepmother left in the car and drove a long way. The girl fell asleep during the ride as she was cold and tired from having eaten very little that day. The girl wondered if her friend would wait for her to get back. The girl had found some blackberries in the hedge across from the fields during one of her meandering walks and wanted to share them with her special friend.
It was late in the day when her stepmother stopped the car. The girl looked round and saw that they were on a road in the middle of some woods.
‘Down there,’ her stepmother said and pointed to a small overgrowth path by the side, leading away from the road and into the woods. ‘Take the basket on the seat next to you and start walking down that way; I’ll meet you later after I park the car.’
The girl peered out of side window; the path looked dark and so forlorn. It must have been ages since anyone visited.
The girl was going to ask where they were, when the stepmother suddenly popped open the car door and roughly pushed her out onto the road with the basket. The girl watched as the car disappeared down the road in a cloud of dust. She knew there was no use crying. She was miles away from anywhere and there was nobody to listen to her tears. Dusting herself off she picked up the basket to find a small bottle of wine, and a small round cake wrapped in wax paper.
The girl sat by the side of the sunlit road and waited for another car to come by. She waited a long while until the sun was low in the sky and the shadows started to grow dark and lengthen. Still there was nothing on the road as far as she could see.
Maybe there really is a house down there, the girl thought as she looked down the path. If there was a house at the end of the path, there would be people and they would know where she was. They might even have a phone. The girl was certain that whoever lived in the house at the end of the path would not object to letting a lost girl use their phone to call for help, so picking up her basket she happily started her way down the overgrown track.
The girl walked slowly along the narrow pathway, careful to avoid the sharp little stones that littered her way and pierced her feet. Step by step, she picked her way through the brambles whose thorny fingers tore at her dress and fought the stubborn weeds that scratched at her knees until she came to a small clearing in the woods.
In the clearing, waiting for her there was a skinny white bear. Only the girl was sure he wasn’t really a bear. The girl looked into the bear’s eyes and saw a young man with long brown hair. The girl could have sworn that the young man was the butcher’s boy from the shop in the village. But, she knew the bear and the young man with long brown hair couldn’t possibly be the same because everyone knew the butcher’s boy ran away from the village last summer to go live in the City.
The girl was thirsty from her walk and she thought about the small bottle of wine in her basket.
“Don’t drink from the bottle. It’s full of poison, pour it away.” The bear said in a voice like the whispering wind.
Surprised, the girl did as she was told. After carefully uncorking the bottle, she poured the reddish liquid out onto a clump of weeds in the clearing and watched the evil liquid sizzled and hissed as it hit the ground.
When she looked up, the bear was gone and she was alone again in the quiet clearing.
The girl turned to look back at the way she had came, but the path had shifted and hidden itself under the thick carpet of dead leaves that coated the floor of the small clearing. The girl could no longer find her way back to the sunlit road. She had no choice but to continue onwards. Gripping the basket tighter in her hands, the girl started walking deeper into the shaded woods, where she was sure she would find the house at the end of the path.
The girl continued carefully along her way, until the air grew thick and turgid like molasses with the smell of decay, and she came again to another small clearing.
In the clearing, waiting for her there was a dirty white deer. Only the girl was sure he wasn’t really a deer. The girl looked into the deer’s eyes and saw a boy with short blond hair. The girl could have sworn the boy was the youngest of the brood of children that lived on the ramshackle farm on the other side of the village. But, she knew the deer and the boy with short blond hair couldn’t possibly be the same because everyone knew the children went away last winter to join their father in the City.
The girl was hungry from her walk and she thought about the small round cake in her basket.
“Don’t eat the cake. It’s full of poison, throw it away.” The deer said in a voice like the whispering wind.
Surprised, the girl did as she was told. After carefully unwrapping the cake, she threw it onto a pile of stones in the clearing and watched the evil mess sizzled and hissed as it hit the ground.
When she looked up, the deer was gone and she was alone again in the quiet clearing.
The girl patted her empty tummy and wanted very much to cry. It was very late now, the sun had set, and the moon was rising. She was thirsty and hungry and tired, but there was nothing for her to do but follow the path down deep into the woods.
She walks on and on along the twisting, turning path, and just when her legs are about to drop, she sees it. A small house in the distance with the shades pulled down, surrounded by a wooden fence and a garden. There must be somebody there who can help her.
Running up she sees to her disappointment that the house is not what it seems. The garden is overgrown with weeds that reach up to her chest, and the fence is old and rotting. Still there must be someone around, someone inside. She stands in front of the rusted iron gate, half falling off its hinges and tries to see if there is a light, but the window panes are broken and the house is dark and quiet.
“Hello is anyone in?” she cries out, her voice a whisper swallowed up by the darkness. “Is anyone there?”
She walks into the garden. It is full of dirty tin cans and smashed furniture. She sees the wooden ribs of an old sofa pointing skyward like the bleached bones of some long dead creature, surrounded by broken plates and pieces of burnt and cracked lino. Nobody’s been here for a very long time. A little off to the side, she sees a sad face looking up at her from the grass. She picks it up and looks at it in the pale moonlight. Two black button eyes and a black button nose, she can see that he was a good looking bear once. Now he’s a sad shadow of himself, fur’s all faded and splattered with mud. Holding the bear, she notices that there is a trail worn into the dense, deep grass. A trail left by big clumsy human feet, not the delicate footsteps of woodland animals.
“Hello, is anyone there?” No sound but weeds rustling in the cold night breeze.
The girl follows the trail round the house and into the back. There set some distance away, she sees an old apple tree, its branches swollen and heavy with small bright fruit. Hearing nothing but the rumble of her stomach, the girl strides through the thick undergrowth and helps herself to the windfall scattered on the ground. Most of the fruit on the ground are green and hard, but she sees a bright red one amongst the green. The apple is half rotten but the girl bites into it all the same. It is sweet with a bitter aftertaste like the fruit of life. She gathers a handful of stones and tries throwing them into the laden branches of the tree hoping to knock down more bounty, but the apples are beyond her reach.
The girl is standing under the tree looking wistfully up at the fruit when she notices the man half hidden in the shadows. He’s sitting on an upper branch watching her.
“Hello,” the girl says softly, afraid that he would be angry at her for trying to steal off his tree.
He smiles in reply. He is young and slim and beautiful with a head full of dark red hair.
He points to the apples hanging off the nearest branch, and she nods her head eagerly. The girl is hungry and the apples look so good. He picks the biggest, ripest one and jumps off the tree. She sees only the bright red fruit he holds out to her in his hand, as he comes up close towards her.
The girl falls silent, and stares into the distance, lost in her own thoughts. After a long while she presses her naked body closer against the woman’s resting form. Her head resting on the woman’s beating breast.
“What happens next?” the woman gently asks as she strokes the girl’s dark head.
She watches with quiet concern as the girl begins to play with a well worn toy thrown carelessly onto the bed, two black button eyes, and a black button nose.
“No one knows. She disappeared. They said she ran away. They hated her. She was stupid, dull witted and plain.”
“That’s not true. Someone knew, her friend. She came to visit that day and she waited for the girl to come back. She knew the girl would never run away and not tell her.”
The woman smiles and kisses the girl softly on the forehead. She pauses to catch her breath and soon a story starts to roll off her tongue.
There was once a woman. She had gone away many, many years ago to a distant town to make her fortune and was now returning home after many adventures. The woman hummed a merry tune as she beheld the clear blue sky. She found it wonderful walking under the sunlit trees when the weather was warm and mild with a strong breeze blowing through the golden leaves.
The path ahead was smooth and clean; it was like 7 maids with 7 mops had swept for half a year. There were no sharp stones to pierce the soles of her booted feet or brambles to tear at the legs of her fine trousers. The woman walked on happily deeper into the woods and soon came to a large sunlit clearing.
In the clearing, she came face to face with a large white bear. He was the most magnificent creature the woman had ever seen. The bear was well rounded with autumn fat and a deep white coat that seemed to gleam in the sun. Only the woman knew in her heart of hearts he wasn’t really a bear.
“Beowulf,” the woman greeted the bear in name and he smiled in reply.
It had been a long time since anyone had greeted him by name and the bear remembered that he had once been a young man with long brown hair.
“I have not been human for a long time. Did you know me then?” the bear asked the woman.
“You lived in the village and worked for a man who butchered hogs and made the finest smoked hams and black sausages. We called you Beowulf because you had a nose for honey. You were a wolf for bees, always able to sniff out a ripe hive. Do you remember me?”
The bear shook his massive head.
“I am now a bear; I love the woods and my mate. We have a litter of cubs; you can see them up yonder between those trees.”
The woman looked at the direction the bear pointed and saw a beautiful brown bear and 2 small furry cubs waiting for the great bear to join them.
“Wait, I have a gift for a friend,” the woman said as she opened the small leather pack slung over her shoulder and pulled out a wondrous glass bottle with a flourish. “A bottle of pure water from the spring that feeds the roots of the tree of worlds.”
“Why have you come? What are you looking for?” The bear asked as he accepted the bottle with a bow and a throaty laugh. The gift pleased him and the woman was glad.
“My heart’s desire.”
“A word of advice then from a friend to a freind, be brave and listen to your heart.” The bear said in a voice like the whispering wind.
Then the bear was gone and the woman was alone in the sunlit clearing.
The woman turned to look back at the way she came, but the path had shifted and hidden itself in the lush green grass that carpeted the floor of the clearing. She could no longer find her way back to the old, dusty road, but it did not matter to the woman. She knew that what she was looking for wasn’t to be found back there, but deep into the woods in the cool shade of the trees.
The woman walked carefully along the old path, stopping frequently to admire the beauty of ancient trees whose roots overflowed with wildflowers: poppies, foxgloves, dandelions, until she came again to a large sunlit clearing.
In the clearing, she came face to face to with a large white stag. He was the most magnificent creature the woman had ever seen. The stag was muscular with wide shoulders and a thick white coat that seemed to gleam in the sun. Only the woman knew in her heart of hearts he wasn’t really a deer.
“Actaeon,” she greeted the stag in name and he smiled in reply.
It had been a long time since anyone had greeted him by name and the stag remembered that he had once been a young boy with short blond hair.
“I have not been human for a long time. Did you know me then?” the stag asked the woman.
“You lived in a farm down from the village with your mother who made the finest pies and jams with fruit from her own groves of trees. We called you Actaeon because you had a nose for trouble. You were a tragic hero, always getting into terrible scraps. Do you remember me?”
The staff shook his handsome head.
“I am now a stag. I love the woods and my mate. We have a little fawn. You can see them up yonder between those trees.”
The woman looked at the direction the stag pointed and saw a beautiful piebald hind and a small reddish fawn, waiting for the great stag to join them.
“Wait, I have a gift for a friend,” the woman said as she opened her pack and pulled out a small parcel wrapped in leaves of gold with a flourish. “A pie made from the fruit that grows off the branches of the tree of worlds.”
“Why have you come? What are you looking for?” the stag asked as he accepted the parcel with a bow and a throaty laugh. The gift pleased him and the woman was glad.
“My heart’s desire.”
“A word of advice then from a friend to a friend, be brave and listen to your heart.” The stag said in a voice like the whispering wind.
Then the stag was gone and the woman was alone in the sunlit clearing.
The woman continued down the path. It was very late now, the sun had set, and the moon was rising. The woman smiled as she looked up at the bright luminous circle that so resembled in her childhood dreams a round of pressed white cheese. She started humming a happy tune, a song whose words she had long forgotten. The woman was in no hurry; she had waited so long and travelled so far to follow this path down deep into the woods.
The woman walks on and on along the twisting, turning path, and just when her legs are about to drop, she sees it; a small clapboard house in the distance, with a wooden fence and a garden. It is smaller and older than what she expects.
Suddenly the woman stops in mid-stride, the fine hairs on the back of her head tingling. She turns sharply, across the way watching her keenly is a pair of dark yellow eyes half hidden in the shadow of the old trees. She sees a monstrous wolf, with teeth as sharp as razors and fur as blue as midnight.
“Why have you come?” The wolf asks in a voice like the whispering wind.
“I am looking for my heart’s desire.”
“Give me something and I will show you what you seek.”
“Would you like something to eat?” The woman gently offers, as she opens up her pack and pulls out half a loaf of bread, a wedge of cheese, and a cut of ham.
The wolf snorts and makes to turn away. She has no taste left for human food.
”Would you like something to drink?” The woman pleads, desperate to catch the wolf’s waning attention.
The wolf watches with bored golden eyes as the woman opens up her pack again and starts pulling out bottles of various hues and sizes. The wolf shakes her head again and makes to turn away. She has no taste left for human drink.
“What can I give you?” the woman asks as she looks sadly at the bottles on the ground.
The woman was sure she had something of value to the wolf. There is a large yellow bottle half filled with a green frothy draft, a small green jar filled with a red bubbly liquor, and an even smaller orange bottle with a little bit of liquid purple at the bottle of the glass. They were rare vintages one and all, the waters of life, love, and immortality.
The wolf smiles a smile full of sharp, wicked teeth.
“Give me my heart’s desire”
Then the wolf is gone and the woman is alone again.
Walking up to the house, the woman sees that it is not what it seems from the distance. The garden is neat and tidy, the well tended beds filled with flowers of every hue and colour. The picket fence is white and new and freshly painted, with a polished brass name plate carefully screwed into the front post. It is a name the woman barely remembers after all these years; Mandrake. The child of the ejaculation of a hanged man harvested before dawn by a black dog and fed on milk and honey.
She stands in front of the fine wrought iron gate, and tries to see if there is a light inside, but the dark blue shades are pulled down and the house is dark and quiet.
“Hello is anyone in?” she cries out, her voice a whisper swallowed up by the moonlit night. “Is anyone there?”
She walks into the garden. It is beautiful. Row and rows of flowering beds and box hedges set amongst a neatly trimmed lawn. Everything is perfect; there is not a blade of grass out of place or a stray leaf. A little off to one side, she sees a pond full of bright orange fish swimming in a miniature fountain besides a paved path leading round the house.
“Hello, is anyone here?” No sound but flowers rustling in the gentle night breeze.
She follows the path into the back. There set some distance away, she sees an old apple tree, its branches swollen and heavy with large golden fruit. The woman walks up to the tree and helps herself to the windfall scattered on the ground. Most of the fruit on the ground are green and hard, but she sees a perfect yellow one amongst the green. The apple is juicy and ripe, but does not taste of anything. It reminds the woman of the sensation of eating snow.
The woman is standing under the tree looking curiously up at the fruit when she notices the man half hidden in the shadows. He’s sitting on an upper branch watching her.
“Hello,” the woman says cheerfully as her sparklingly eyes met his.
He smiles in reply. He is young and slim and beautiful with a head full of dark red hair.
He points to the apples still hanging off the branch, and she nods her head. He picks the biggest, ripest one and when he jumps off the tree, the woman takes a pair of silver scissors out of her coat pocket and snips off his shadow.
Cut off from its body, the black soul screams in a chorus of vile tongues; a melody of hate sprouting from a multitude of fanged gibbering mouths. The woman watches with an impassionate face as it flies off into the night sky back to its hellish sire, leaving what remained to fall to the ground with a loud thud, a lifeless man of straw.
The woman clucks her tongue in a series of strange and obscure notes as she draws a circle of coloured sand in the grass as a ward against the foul things that wander in the sightless paths. Her ritual completed, she washes the silver scissors from a small gold bottle containing the spittle of a bird as a precursor to the night’s work.
Approaching the man of straw, the woman draws out runes and wards of power with her finger into the cursed soil below the tree before plunging the scissor blade into the figure’s chest. The wicker man shudders violently as she pushes the blade deeper with a hard downward stroke, causing foul black blood to gush forth from the open wound. The vile liquid splatters on the woman’s clothes causing her to choke and gag from the stench. It is the smell of a thing long dead, kept alive through hate and malice. The woman presses on to penetrate the core of the shell of straw and secure in her hand the beating heart of stone.
She had long heard of such a wonder, the heart of a hell bound soul, dead but unable to rest, beating endlessly through eternity. The man of straw utters a silent scream as the woman rips the stone heart out of its chest with a savage snarl. The prize is now hers, but it is not her heart’s desire. As the woman carefully warps the softly beating heart away in wax paper, the straw falls away and rots. Soon nothing is left but a heap of slush underneath the naked branches of a dead tree.
Humming a tune, the woman looks up with a quiet smile, gone are the branches swollen and heavy with goblin fruit. A rotting trunk with skeletal arms reaching out to the dark, silent remains of a house. Windows smashed broken, roof long since gone, nothing within but shadows and crumbling walls. The perfect garden now ruined wasteland, overgrown with weeds and thick with refuse. Nobody’s been here for a very long time.
Tracing her steps back through the dense, deep grass the woman sees a dirty old bear, two black button eyes and a black button nose. He was a good looking bear once, years ago when the house was vibrant and alive, before the coming of the sickness and the wicker man. The woman listens for a moment to the sound of childish laughter in the wind and whispers a word into the old bear’s ear. The woman feels sorry for him. She knows how it is to wait the years for someone you love to come back. Tucking the bear gently into her shoulder pack, she tells him his vigil is over. There is nothing left here but ghosts.
She walks through into the front garden, picking her way through the dirty tin cans, and the smashed furniture. Letting herself out the old rusted gate half falling off its hinges, she turns round to look at the house one last time. The garden is sad and silent, and the fence is old and rotting. Nothing is what it seems.
Making her way steadily back out of the woods, the woman is careful to keep to the winding path. In the bewitching hour before the dawn, things call out to her from the shadows in creaks, cries, and groans. One hails her in the voice of her father, another sings out in the timbre of an old lover, and others yet resound in a choir of tormented screams, berating her for their pain and loss. The phantoms of the forgotten dead have no hold on her. She spies something unspeakable waiting around a bend, but she turns her head away and walks on by.
Soon the trees begin to thin, and the voices lose strength and fade away as the woods opens up into open farmland. It is past the first cracking of dawn and the woman smiles at the sight of dairy cows grazing contentedly in buttercup yellow pastures. She has emerged into the land of milk and honey.
The woman makes her way across the sleepy pasture and over the fence on to the dirt road that leads into the village. The sun is bright and shining, and the woman takes in a breath full of fresh, clean air. It is a good day to be alive on a road that makes walking easy. The woman marvels at the fertility of the land as grazing herds make way for open fields of wheat and barley gently swaying in the breeze, which in turn become small fruit orchards and vegetable gardens full of cabbages and beans. She calls out greetings to the farm hands walking out to their fields, who wave and whistle back in reply. A line of grim, weather beaten men, each singing their part in a strange lament as they walk in step; a song so sweet and sorrowful that the woman cannot help but stop and listen.
Clearing the land for tilling is hard work, they sing to her, but it is a waste to leave good land fallow. Times are hard for the families who work the land. Sons and daughters evicted from their homes, grain and livestock spirited and stolen away in the night, fathers left with nothing to feed their children. Mothers forced to work in the grand manor fetching water and wood to fuel the ovens that burn all night and all day in the great kitchen. All to feed the Duchess’ guests in the ball that never ends.
As the men disappear over a nigh bend in the road, the fog rolls in heavy and thick and the woman pulls her coat up higher to her collar before hastening her steps towards the village set in the low valley. The village is nothing more than a small collection of dirty houses clustered around a common with an old church set by the side. Skinny, ragged children dog her heels as she makes her way up the muddy trail that cuts through the village. The same trail that winds its way towards the grand manor house that sits on a ridge overlooking the valley some distance up on the hill.
The woman was born here in this village, and things are much the same as the day she left, only now the houses are older, dirtier and the children skinnier. Calling out to them, she stops and pulls out bread, cheese, and ham from her pack. There is food enough for all, but the children snatch what they can out of her hands and cram the food quickly into their sharp little mouths as they run wordlessly away. They remind her of wraiths, the ghosts of the hungry dead and the woman suddenly realises why everything is so very, very wrong. The village is silent, not a sound of a dog barking or a baby crying. She has not seen anyone on the road since early in the day, only the strange silent children that dog her steps.
The woman feels the pin points of hungry, angry eyes stare out at her from a dozen dark, smoky windows, and the sudden chill in the air. She shudders with an inward shiver and quickens her steps to make fast along the road to the great house on the hill.
The sound of music, laughter, and merry-making greet the woman as she walks up the grand driveway. There is line of beautiful carriages waiting for their turn, each pulled by great teams of horses with coats brushed till they gleamed in the sun. While splendid foot men run up and down to help the endless stream of well dressed guests leaving and arriving at the ball. The women are all dressed in gowns of silk and men in waistcoats of spurned gold.
The woman sneaks rounds a quiet corner of the house and peeks into the grand hall where the festivities are in full swing. A small brown spaniel has been crowned king of the feast and the servants ordered to serve the newly crown king his dinner. They take out a huge roasted bird, a peacock garnished in its own plumage accompanied by an entourage of sugar swans gilded in the finest gold leaf. The dog attacks the roasted fowl with a growl and wrestles it to the floor scattering good food all over to the laughter of the assembled guests. The woman shakes her head at the waste and turns away.
She finds her way to the servant’s entrance at the back of the house and raps 3 times on the iron door. A cook in a white apron with vacant emerald eyes opens it. The woman calls out a greeting to her mother, but is ignored. There is too much to be done in the Duchess’ kitchen and the woman’s mother has no time for anything else much less her wayward child. The woman enters and the door closes behind her without a sound.
The kitchen is vast furnace, full of blazing ovens baking bread, cakes, pies, and roasting meats, fowls, and all manner of delicious things. Everyone is working as fast as they can, but there is no shouting or laughter or talk, now and then, one of the servants fall to the floor overcome by heat, hunger, or fatigue. The rest continue without a care, walking over their fallen kin as if there was nothing there. The woman walks past a table laid out with platters of pies reaching out to the ceiling. She takes one and bites into it. It tastes of nothing but cinders and ash.
Leaving the kitchen the woman makes her way through the manor. It is a wonderful place full of gold and light. The floors are laid with thick woven carpets and the walls draped with silk tapestry depicting the triumph of death. The woman walks pass a view of cities burning under a blood red sky and seas filled with the wrecks of ships. On an opposite wall, death rides through the living on an emaciated horse, cutting the young down with a scythe. The sick and the poor huddle at his feet for release, but the pale rider is indifferent to their pleas, while the rich turn their backs to the carnage to dance and feast.
She walks past rooms filled with furniture inlaid with mother of pearl and lit with silver candles hung from ornate crystal chandeliers. Everywhere she turns she finds something to delight the eye, a mechanical clock with a silver bear that dances at the approach of each hour, a music box with fingers of beaten gold, a chess set carved out of solid ivory and darkest ebony.
Slipping unseen up the stairs and into the upper floors, she enters a room at the end of a long corridor. The room is empty save for a four poster bed with demons carved at the top of each post, and a woman’s dresser complete with a full length mirror in a corner.
The woman walks over to the stone fireplace and looks up at the portrait hanging above it. Painted from life, it is a face she recognises from her fitful dreams, a young woman with long fair hair and strange green eyes. The woman reaches deep into her pack and takes out a small parcel wrapped in wax paper. The object contained within is fluttering against its paper shell. The woman throws it under the bed where it rattles and then stops dead centre. She can still hear it beating away as she closes the door behind her.
The woman falls silent; the girl is quietly looking out the window, unable to tear herself away from the vision of the full moon floating in a sky of midnight blue.
The woman reaches out for her lover and gently strokes her pale slender back.
“How does the story end?” the girl asks as the woman reaches out to cup the underside of her small firm breasts.
“You’re so beautiful,” the woman says as her hands urgently move down the girl’s torso; pass rounded hips and belly, downwards to the wetness between her legs.
“Tell me.” the girl moans as long, sharp fingers find their way deep into her centre penetrating her, gently thrusting.
“Do you really want to know?” the woman replies, and the girl nods.
One night the woman wakes screaming in her bed from dreams full of blood to see a pair of dark yellow eyes as large as saucers staring back at her from the foot of her bed. Waiting for her in the shadows is a large wolf with fur as blue as midnight.
“Why have you come?” the woman asks as she looks into the wolf’s cruel golden eyes. “Have you come to kill me?”
The wolf smiles a smile full of sharp, wicked teeth.
“Three nights ago, a great black beast from the woods broke into the great manor house up on the hill and tore the Duchess and her young lover apart limb by limb as they lay in their bed.”
The woman shakes her head sadly, but she knows there is no point shedding tears for what is done.
“What can I give you in return for giving me my heart’s desire?” asks the wolf in a voice like the whispering wind. “A manticore’s tail, a dragon’s wing, or a cockatrice’s eye”
The woman smiles, a shy sweet smile.
“Give me my heart’s desire”
The girl steps out of the wolf and crosses over to the woman, who takes her into her arms and kisses her deeply.
“Is that how the story ends?”
“How would you like the story to end?”
“Do they live happily ever after? The wolf and the woman. Is there a happy ending for them?
“You tell me.”
“Did the woman get what she wanted in the end?” the girl quietly asks, as she turns to look at the woman lying naked next to her in the dark. “Her heart’s desire?”
The woman looks into the girl’s cruel golden eyes. She sees a wolf with a mouth full of sharp, wicked teeth and despite herself, she nods.