Fantasy Fiction

  

 SILVER WOLF:  A Fairy Tale  for Werewolves

My father was a great adventurer. He explored parts of the deepest forests that no-one else had ever penetrated. My mother was a beautiful and intrepid traveller with great curiosity and energy. She accompanied my father on all of his journeys and was a dear companion and a great asset as she had a facility in languages and could often converse usefully with the local people. But on one of their sea voyages she contracted a fever and was very ill. When at last the fever broke she recovered slowly, but remained frail. She died giving birth to me. My father was distraught and became desperate when he found that I too was born fragile, hanging on to my little life precariously. Although a rational and reasonable man, when he found that I too was weakening, in a passion of anxiety and grief he began to put his faith in mysterious tales and local legends. He heard many strange and intriguing stories of medicine men and healers but was disillusioned when he found them to be nothing but charlatans and clowns.

Then, on an expedition to an untamed southern land he heard a story that became an obsession – the tale of the Healing Water and the Silver Wolf. He decided then and there to embark on a quest. He employed local people to guide him and to take care of his little baby, and on their first night out they pitched camp at the edge of a great forest. After many days studying the surrounding terrain he set out alone from the camp one morning to find the deepest ravine in the heart of the forest. The tale told of a secret to be discovered in that deep and treacherous ravine. It was the secret of the ‘living waters’ which were said to be able to grant wishes and heal the sick, but the secret was guarded by a Great Silver Wolf. The natives in my father’s camp whispered and worried amongst themselves as they waved him goodbye, for he would take no companion and they wondered if they would see him again. They had heard stories of the living waters and the Great Silver Wolf since childhood. They had even heard claims of miraculous cures and recoveries for those who had stolen even a drop, but also of the terrible fate of those who had been caught by the Wolf. The Wolf had been given the task of guarding the waters because of his single-mindedness and ferocity. The precious gift must not be squandered and plundered by ruffians and opportunists. Only the bravest and cleverest – and most desperate, might attempt the hardships of the climb, the darkness of the ravine, and a confrontation with its diligent guardian.

 It was a long, hot trek through the forest and as the trees became thicker so the undergrowth became more tangled and gnarly. My father had to machete his way through the twisted vines and branches. After hours of physical exertion in the oppressive and intensifying heat he was close to exhaustion. He cleared himself a tiny recess in the mesh of vegetation and sat down heavily. The sensation of his sweat and the heat seemed to drop a mantle of silence over him. A faint buzzing of insects was the only sound to penetrate the undergrowth. The ends of the shrubs he had chopped away to create his little niche oozed a sticky, white sap which dripped glue-like onto his shirt and hat. It gave off a sharp woody odour. In the silence and the warmth, this odour, mixed with the smell of his own perspiration, became overpowering, and he began to feel light-headed and sleepy. ‘I should drink some water,’ he thought to himself and lifted his canteen to his lips. As he raised it, a flash of light seemed to flicker momentarily, he saw it again out of the corner of his eye. Dropping his canteen he peered through the undergrowth. The flash came again, all the brighter contrasted against the murk of the tangled trees and greenery. Somewhere in the distance to his right was an intermittent sparkle of silver light, broken by the movement of branches or by its own undulation. On an impulse, my father decided to change direction and cut his way towards the light. He began to slash at the branches with renewed ferocity. As he entered into a rhythm of destruction he became almost hypnotized by the continuing flashes ahead, so much so that with one further slice of his machete he unexpectedly fell forward into an empty space where the blaze of the sudden sun blinded him.

Once he became used to the light he found he was on the grassy edge of a precipice. Below him sank the sides of a deep ravine. The dry, chalky stone was white and sun-bleached at the upper levels but dropped into a dusty, red darkness. He crawled on his belly to the edge and looked down. He could not see the bottom, only the raked sides of the ravine falling into blackness. As he scanned the pitted cliffs he spied a tiny entrance to what might be a cave on the lower slopes of the opposite side. He started up in excitement as the flash of light seemed originate from the little hole. What could glint like that in the dim light of the cliff face? How to get to it? He was physically drained to the point of sickness. Had he enough strength to tackle the long, difficult descent to the little ledge where the tiny cave mouth was situated? He sat up for a moment leaning on one hand and thought. His head ached. His limbs ached. Standing up, he swayed slightly as a momentary dizziness made the grassy edge of the precipice seem to pitch up like an ocean wave, and he clutched at the branches of the shrubs to steady himself. It was the full heat of the day now and he must ready himself for a challenging task. How was he to get to the other side of the ravine and climb down to the cave?

Among his equipment was a length of strong rope. He could try to lasso one of stone outcrops across the ravine, tie one end to a tree on his side and edge himself over slowly, hand over hand until he reached the opposite cliff. But was the rope long enough? He scanned the space between the cliffs — it was quite narrow, perhaps thirty feet. Yes, his rope would do well enough. He tied a lasso onto the end and set about catching the jagged tip of a tall rock on the opposite cliff. Catching it proved to be difficult. Sweat trickled down his temples out from under the brim of his hat. Over and over my father threw the rope, his concentration growing increasingly intense until at last it caught on a sharp spike of pale rock and slipped down over its thick base. He tightened it firm and tied the other end securely around the trunk of one of the toughest trees on his side of the ravine. He pulled at the rope tentatively. The only way to test it was to swing himself, and he was running out of time. He picked up his bag and placed it carefully over his head and across his body, then grasped the rope in both hands and leaped into emptiness. Hand over hand he edged painfully across, swinging his body and using his weight to move himself along. His hands became greasy with sweat and it was only the roughness of the rope which enabled him to keep his purchase on it. The joints of his shoulders screamed with strain as he gathered his strength to swing his legs over to the approaching cliff wall. It was chalky and at first his toes slipped and slithered on its surface as he hung from the rope. He kicked a dent in the loose chalk and gained a foothold. Perching on the cliff wall, hands still on the rope, with a muttered prayer, he let go and grabbed at the cliff edge. His moist hands slithered on smooth grasses before he found the wiry root of a shrub and his grip held. He heaved himself at last onto the grassy bank. This side of the ravine was now in shadow and my father lay for some moments in the relative coolness under the tousled shrubs. As he rested he considered how he might next climb down the side of the ravine to the little mouth of the cave. With an effort, he rolled over onto his stomach to look over the brink. The cave mouth was invisible from this position and he sighed and cursed himself for not taking a note of its exact position relative to the cliff top. Then, as if in answer to his question, the flash of silver light appeared again out of the shadow down in the ravine. It was further down than he had thought but now, at least, he knew where it was – almost directly below him. Dragging his bag to him he searched for climbing pitons and pegs. He would have to drive them into the cliff edge one by one to climb down. He got to the task and soon he was close enough that only one more spike would bring him down to a point just above the cave mouth. He struck the spike into the chalky wall but in his haste he did not check its firmness. When he put his weight upon it, it loosened and gave way slanting down so his foot slipped off and the metal edge gashed his calf. He held onto the other spikes and gingerly felt for the cave opening with his dangling leg – there it was! The gushing blood was soaking his trousers around the tear. The pain was numbed by his exhaustion and the relief of reaching his goal. He could feel the edges of the hole with his foot. Yes, he could now lower himself into the cave mouth. Carefully he slipped both legs into the hole. The entrance was the width of two men, but inside the space opened up immediately. Inside, another flash of light brightened the scene. In that second he was able to see that the entrance opened into a large cave. In the far reaches he could hear a light murmur. Where the flashes of light came from he could not guess, but he was dearly grateful for them. In the darkness he fumbled in his bag for a light. He had a lantern which would be of more use than a flashlight, he decided. When it was lit he could examine the cave at leisure.

The cave seemed to be circular or dome-like, but he could not quite see to the outer rim from whence the murmurs emanated. He began to edge his way in, although now the way seemed straightforward. He found he could stand upright and walk easily into the space inside. The sound of softly gurgling water drew him. As he came closer, it seemed almost melodic and filled with a heart-breaking sweetness. Excitement grew like a ball of energy in his belly. He felt his tiredness evaporate as he neared what he knew to be the end of his quest. He almost ran to the far side of the cave. He saw it in the light of his lantern — the spring of life-giving water! It tumbled out of the darkest corner like a burst of moonlight, gurgling and whispering. It’s murmurs echoed around the cave, ‘Once upon a time, once upon a time’… it seemed to say …  It burbled and gushed and tinkled as if it truly had a voice — or sometimes many voices. My father became so fascinated he sank down to lie for a moment and listen to what the stream said.  

Shaking himself out of his reverie, he gathered up the shining water in his canteen and carried it delicately out of the dark cave. As he was climbing out of the hole with his canteen full of the precious water he was momentarily distracted by the rising moon, which seemed unnaturally large and brilliant. Had he lain there that long? He stumbled and dropped the canteen, which burst it’s seal. By the time he reached the upturned container, all the contents had spilled down the cliff-side. As he stared in dismay, on the opposite cliff of the ravine arose a huge creature, standing sturdy and solid on all fours, its fur bristled an icy silver in the moonlight. When the Great Silver Wolf saw the ribbon of sparkling water down the cliff-side, he knew that his secret had been discovered and he leaped across the ravine in one bound. In a panic, my father had re-entered the cave to gather more enchanted water from the secret spring. He turned barely in time to see the wolf, who hurled himself at the thief, snarling and spitting in fury, his red eyes blazing. The wolf had now detected the metallic scent of blood, which was still tacky and drying around the gash in my father’s leg, and was maddened by its stench. He tore at the man with his wolf teeth and claws, and though my father fought him to the last ounce of his strength, he was left mortally wounded.

 When the wolf had gone, and the rays of dawn were penetrating weakly through the hole. My father, feeling the life ebbing from him, dragged himself to the mouth of the cave and into the light before losing consciousness.

My father’s men searched for him for one whole day and one whole night. When they had almost given up, the youngest of them looked up to see the dawn breaking and saw, all down the cliff face, the deep, red colour of rubies glinting in the rays of the rising sun. ‘Oh! Our master has found the Great Silver Wolf’s treasure!’ he cried to the others. They followed the long red trail with their eyes and found my father — half hanging out of the cave mouth. After much travail and effort they reached the cave entrance. The red colour glinting in the morning had not been rubies, but my father’s blood, which had trickled down the ravine. They carried him, barely breathing, all the long way back to the camp, but when they laid him down he cried out, ‘Who will save the life of my dying baby son!’ and, with my mother’s name on his lips, he died at last. The men and women of the camp felt their tears fall hot down their cheeks for the tragedy of the young family who would all be dead by the next sunrise, for the little baby now had no mother nor father and his weak little heart would surely break.

Tragedy reverberates. It circles and swoops and infects all of nature in its wake, and when it revealed to the Great Silver Wolf that my father had been gathering the enchanted water to save his baby son, he howled at the cold moon, for he had had cubs of his own and had felt the pain of loss and death. He wept and repented his wolfish nature, his sharp teeth and his long claws, and the red, raw instinct that had made him tear the throat of a man. And when he howled at the silver moon, all the sadness of a shamed soul and its longing for forgiveness could be heard in his wail. He howled and howled until all his wolf children throughout the forest joined him in a sobbing song of regret for the vicious acts that they would not do…if they only knew how not to.  For wolves are wild creatures and know no other ways. Yet they howl most pitifully for their condition. ‘I have committed the sin of a wild beast,’ the Great Silver Wolf cried, ‘but my strength and my courage are more than a man’s!’ And with these words he leaped from his lair and bounded to the cave where the enchanted spring murmured on… ‘Once upon a time,’ it seemed to say ’Once upon a time, a wolf cried real tears … ‘ Without hesitation, the Great Silver Wolf leaped into the water and bathed all his thick, rough fur clean. Then he sprang out into the forest to find the camp of men which was mourning the loss of a mother and a father.

When the men and women saw the huge silver wolf leap into the circle of their tents they ran off in fear and watched from the trees and bushes, trembling with terror. But the Great Silver Wolf only circled the glowing embers of the campfire. Drops of the enchanted water shone in his thick silver fur like jewels. He gave one long, lonely howl, hung his head, and slunk quietly into the tent where the baby lay. ‘No, No! The giant wolf will eat the poor dying baby!’ the women cried. ‘Let the orphaned child die in peace.’ The men agreed and, regaining their courage, they gathered sticks and knives with which to confront the mighty wolf and ran shouting into the baby’s tent.

 All they saw there was the body of the Great Silver Wolf, lying still and silent on the ground under the baby cot, his shining, silver fur all matted and streaked with blood. For the Great Silver Wolf had torn out his own beating heart, and the purity of his prayer had released the magic of the enchanted water. He had given his own life’s blood, and all his strength, to the little baby boy. Then all through the forest, a strange whispering in the trees faded out into the night sky, ‘Once upon a time, once upon a time …a wolf died and a man was born … ‘ but no-one knew what it meant, save one. For the Wolf’s secret had not died with him. The Wolf had found one other soul that could keep his magic, and had whispered his secret like a spell into a tiny ear, to take up residence there.

The baby boy grew to be a tall, strong and powerful man, but sometimes they would find his bed empty and see him standing outside, in the dark, staring up at the night sky, his face raised to the stars and the large silver moon reflected in the tears that slowly trickled from his wide, green eyes. And then, quietly at first, he would let out a most heartrending sob which would grow into long howls, sounding out louder and louder as the clouds rolled away from the moon.

  

  

 

THE SNOW BOY: A Winter Fairy Tale

 A young girl was travelling in a train with her father, through a country she didn’t know. She was excited because it was her first long journey, and because it was her first visit to the country where her father had been born. Outside the world was white as far as the eye could see, and she was glad.

The train pushed onwards into huge drifts of snow. Snow lay all around, undisturbed in the valleys and on the hillsides and it sparkled like crystal where the sharp winter sun caught its planes and ridges. Her face was close to the window, her golden-brown eyes wide with fascination. Her warm breath left a circle of condensation where her lips almost touched the glass. The little circle appeared and disappeared in rhythm with her breathing, and glancing quickly at her father who was hidden behind his paper; she gingerly put out the tip of her pink tongue and touched the cold glass. It felt like a razor’s edge – sharp and stinging.

Inside the carriage was warm and cosy, but the icy glass was a testament to the fact that it was very different outside. She knew that winters in that country were long and hard but she longed to touch the snow and feel its cool softness. She wanted to look close into its heart and see the flakes in their myriad shapes and varieties, different, yet when compact, looking all the same. A  perfection of structure.

In the city her mother had not let her play in the snow, little enough of it that there was. She had said that it would wet her clothes and make her catch cold and fall ill. But in the city the snow soon got dirty and became only a formless, grey slush.

But this was her father’s country, and she had come here to stay. He had hinted to her of its mysteries. When walking with her in a city street he would suddenly stop and point to a patch of blue sky between the buildings and lean close to her ear and whisper, ‘Looks like snow’ and then he would smile, wistfully.

Now, at last she was in the country about which she had heard so many stories. She had a curious feeling that she knew the landscape. She recognised the woods and the hills from the stories her father had told her when, as a child, she had lain in her little cot, close to sleep. The whispers of the forest trees and swaying grasses of the plains had interwoven into her dreams, even with the noises of the city night outside. She had dreamed of the snow then, how crisp it felt underfoot when it had fallen in the night, the muffled crunch it made when her father walked to school as a boy, miles across the fields. But she was no longer a little girl, and the snow that she’d seen in her dreams now lay cold and hard outside the icy window pane.

Their family house was set in the countryside where the snow fell for many months. In the evening while the fire crackled in the drawing room the girl would be drawn to the window where she would sit for hours watching, as the frost made the ground sparkle in the moonlight as if sprinkled with diamond splinters. She was as silent then as the snowfall. Demanding attention from no-one. The snow took possession quietly and without fuss. Inevitably. In the city the dirty rain had spattered the windows like gunshots as people scattered in the grimy wet streets, scuttling into doorways and under awnings. Here the snow fell steadily and silently, and people walked determinedly through it, plodding rhythmically, keeping to the beat of their pulse. The snow made things move in slow motion. A figure would sometimes make its way across the white plain in the distance, moving like a sleepwalker with slow, deliberate steps. The figure might pause for a moment and look around, like a foreigner in a strange land, getting his bearings, for the roads and paths were covered and the landscape could suddenly seem unfamiliar. The snow covers past footsteps so that nothing is left except the place where one is standing. The here and now. The only choice is to continue and guess the way. To try to return and retrace his steps may only lose the traveller further.

The bright, brown-eyed girl ventured out only small distances at first. Her father saw her caution and common sense and felt no need to prevent her. She would go no further until she was ready, when she knew the way better, but she would surely keep in sight of his house.

The girl grew to love the snow. The feel and texture of it. Its contradictions and facets absorbed her. The rise and fall of the snowbanks which would change shape overnight. The billowing fluffiness of new fallen snow, like a duck’s down quilt on a marriage bed. The crackling compactness of it crushed under her little laced boots. The deceptive dry, cracking sound it made like crushed powder when she squeezd it and how it ran liquid when she rolled in her gloved hands. In a while those melted drops themselves would turn to ice, hard as stone, clear as glass! Each morning she would throw open the door and run out, her long golden-brown hair flying behind her, and the servants would smile and point. If she slipped her father would laugh and say to them,

“Well, she will learn. No harm done. The snow is soft there. But next time she won’t run so fast!”

One night the frost was very hard and the clouds rushed across the sky, covering and revealing the moon and swirling through the starlight. Shadows flickered over the hollows making them into eerie, moving shapes. Even the snow itself seemed to be caught up in movement, changing its expressions like a madman’s face. The wind sprang up making the clouds fly faster, whipping them into fantastic configurations and licking the soft powdery snow into sharp ridges and lines. The girl lay listening to it in her bed long into the night. She had grown accustomed to the soft, padded silence of the nightly snowfall, broken only by the snuffling of a fox or rabbit. But now she lay awake, feeling a little frightened and excited as she heard the moaning and whispering of the wind. Then, under the whining of the wind around the house she heard an incongruous sound – Yes! There it was again. A rustling? A muttering? It seemed to come from far away. She strained her ears but the sound would fade and then be carried back swiftly. Sometimes it sounded like a long, heartfelt sigh which made her feel anxious, and she fidgeted with her bedclothes, not wanting to hear any more. But then she found herself concentrating more intently until she heard it again. She had to be sure. She hopped out of her warm bed and crept to her door; She stopped, wondering what on earth she intended to do. The roof!  That would be the best place to listen from. She slid out of her room and past her father’s door. The house was all quiet. She held her breath as she moved through the corridors and up the stairs to the attic. Narrow steps led to a trapdoor but the bolt needed coaxing before it would open. She paused, but no-one had heard. If she were discovered, how could she explain her ascent to the attic on such a night as this? ‘She had wanted to hear the wind more clearly?’ It sounded so foolish that she almost turned back and went directly to her own bed that instant. But the moment passed and she did not move. Instead she pushed against the trapdoor. It was stuck. Getting warm with frustration, she put her shoulders against it and jerked up with the force of her whole body. She could hear the wind in the room above, rushing and whistling more urgently than before. Then, with a grinding sound, the old door flew open and quick as a flash she hopped up into the long dusty attic room. It was not dark. The moonlight flooded through a large skylight. She started as the wind rose for a second like a shout of greeting. In the shadows she could make out a tall chair directly under the skylight. It was as if it were all waiting for her. Immediately she knew what she should do. She climbed onto the chair and flung open the skylight raising a cloud of powdered snow.  She listened and wind dropped, listening too. If she stretched up on her toes she could just see out above the rim of the skylight. Silence. Then, as if from a great distance there came an echoing call. The wind took up its droning again and cut it off abruptly. Then she heard it again. It was her name! Like a song it came echoing over the plain from the forest and then it was gone.

The next morning she dressed hurriedly and rushed straight out of the front door. But this time she had no intention of staying within sight of the house. Plodding determinedly through the fresh snow until she was out of sight. In front of her was a copse, thick with evergreen trees., A richness of deep colour in the blankness of the landscape; Beyond it were the woods of tall, whispering conifers. She marched on, through the copse and into the woods. She marched on for some time. Sighs and whispers were all around. Twigs cracked under her feet and echoed like a whiplash. Birds exploded from their perches in a flurry of white powder. Still she marched on. Then, all of a sudden, she came upon a clearing, the winter sun shone into it; dispelling all the gloom of the woods. But stranger than strange, in the centre of the clearing on a low grey rock stood a beautiful boy, quite motionless. A statue made of ice and snow. She came closer, holding her breath. It was all silent in the clearing. The ice boy was the most beautiful thing that she had ever seen. His long body all of the whitest, hardest ice. His face, achingly lovely, with delicate lines of perfect proportions. In the open space of the clearing the sun played on his ice-white hair making it shine golden and the sky played a trick with his eyes, or so she thought, for they reflected the bluest blue of  the clear winter sky . ‘Who had made him?’ She wondered in awe, ‘Where had he come from?’ She stood fascinated for a long, long time, until her toes and fingers protested the cold and her body began to shake and shiver. Then she wakened as if from a dream and turned to make her way back through the wood – she must return to her father’s house.

She was quiet all that evening as her father chatted to her of this and that and told her about the animals he had seen wandering out in the snow. She thought of the snow boy and the marvellous beauty of the icy figure she had seen. Its precision, its perfection, its cold loveliness. She could hardly wait to go back to the clearing the next day, and every day. And that is what she did. She would stand before the icy statue and stare, her warm golden-brown eyes wide with wonder, for look as she might, she could find nothing to give her displeasure. No imperfection, no angle ill-placed, no dimension disproportionate. He stood solid and still, immoveable in his cold perfection. His hair sparkling golden-white in the sun, his eyes blue and distant as the sky above. As she appraised him again she noticed something. Inside his breast there was a shadow, almost impossible to see, rippled and clouded over by the ice. The next day she noticed it again. It had seemed to deepen and grow. The next time she looked it seemed to pulse and she jumped back in fright. She was sure of it now, she could certainly see something, yet it remained trapped in layers of thick ice in his breast. It had a deep colour, a dark red it seemed, and sometimes a movement seemed to tremble there, as if it heaved or sighed. She was a little afraid of it, but most curious.

That night was again stormy and the wind whistled and moaned around the cosy house. The girl lay awake listening, all a-tremble, for she had heard it again – the song, the song of her name, and now she knew from whence it came. Plaintive, sad, full of loneliness and longing. It made her heart ache to hear it. It made tears start to her eyes. Such a lonely, lonely sound. She put her coat on over her nightgown, pulled a hat tight over her ears, slipped on her laced boots, and left her father’s house in the dead of night. Under the cold, starry sky she made her way purposefully to the copse and onward into the woods as the wind whipped her hair all around her face and pushed its icy fingers under the folds of her coat and up her sleeves. Her boots were soaked and the end of her nightgown dripped wet snow and then froze into little icicle which began to tinkle as she strode out. Swallowing her fear she traipsed through the woods, watched by a hundred, green, curious eyes, till finally she came to the clearing where the snow boy stood. She stood shivering, gazing up at him in the moonlight. He was white as the clouds that skirted the moon, as white as the first snowfall, as white as a shroud. Yet, by some trick of the light, his eyes remained as blue as the sunniest winter’s sky. Then, as she watched, with a soft creaking sound, the snow boy turned to her. He stretched out his white shining arms and, sighing her name once more, said, “Come to me my love. Hold me in your warm arms. Melt my cold heart!” She felt little surprise, only threw off her hat, coat and boots. Dressed only in her nightgown, she climbed up onto the slippery grey rock to embrace the boy of ice. She held him tightly against her warm tender body. For a fleeting moment, she glimpsed the bluest blue of the arctic sky in his closing eyes before she felt his cool lips upon her own, and the frozen arms eagerly encircling her shoulders as he pulled her firmly against him. Then slowly it began. Beneath her mouth, beneath her fingers, beneath her breasts, her hips, her thighs, slick beneath her whole pulsing body – she felt the melting begin.

Her father’s house was in an uproar when they discovered her empty bed the next day. They searched the house from top to bottom. Searched every nook and cranny until they had no choice but to conclude that she had been spirited away in the night. Her father, in his fear and worry, could not understand it – how had this happened? They must search the surrounding country for his daughter, his only daughter who had been stolen from him while the storm raged in the night. They hunted with dogs, scouring over hills and valleys until the sun was low in the winter sky. The servants cried and wept for the girl, for they had become fond of her bright, earthy goodness and her warm heart. The searchers combed the fields, but could find no sign of her. Then a cry went up. One of the dogs had strayed deep into the woods and had set up a terrible howling. They rushed into the clearing  – a mass of black, flying figures against the startling whiteness. There she was, lying face down over a low grey rock, her thin, white nightgown frozen to her. They shouted for help and rushed to her with eager hands. Her father knelt beside her and gently turned over her little body, stiff with cold. Her face was as white as her gown. A shocked gasp escaped from the gathered crowd, for the front of her nightgown was covered with a deep, rich red stain. They tore the frozen fabric asunder with a knife but, strange to say, they could find no wound on her tender, pale skin. Mystified and silenced, they wrapped her in their coats and let her father carry her back to his house.

For seven days and seven nights she lay in the largest bed in the largest room, silent and white, her eyes tight shut. They kept a fire blazing there always and covered her with the warmest duvets and blankets but no matter what they did she stayed as cold as ice. Her father came every day. He sat by her bedside, wringing his hands, knowing she was alive, seeing her eyelids tremble almost imperceptibly. Yet his girl was so still, looking tiny and frail, and white as the big bed she lay in, seemingly dead to the world. Servants, weeping relatives and anxious neighbours came and went, and all of them said a prayer over the sweet girl’s head. Then one morning the nurse ran from the room and set up a cry to raise the household. Servants and relatives crushed into the chamber as the girl’s father gestured frantically at them to look at the bed, “My child is warm again! Look at her lips!” he gestured towards the child lying in the mounds of white bedclothes and they pressed nearer her bedside, curious and nervous. Indeed, her lips again had the fine colour of cherries, though her skin was still pale as the winter moon. As her father fell to his knees and muttered a prayer of thankfulness and hope, she opened her eyes wide and gazed at him. A stunned silence filled the room, and though all in the house stood around her bed, only the crackling of the fire could be heard. They stood in wonder and bewilderment, for the girl’s eyes, that had been so warm and golden-brown, were now the bluest blue. They were the colour of the cold Arctic sky. Clear blue eyes in that lovely familiar face, surrounded by her sunny, golden-brown hair! It was as if a piece of the sky had broken away and fallen to the warm, brown earth, and lay there, intact. She looked around at them with her new, wide blue eyes …and she smiled at them all … a slow wistful smile. “Does it look like snow?” she asked.

 

  

 

 

 

LA MORT DE COEUR: A Cautionary Tale.

 

Once upon a time there was a girl, she was a tall and straight as a tree, her hair was long and glossy gold and fell like a sunny fountain down her back. Her eyes were green and caramel, and watchful as a leopards’ with long dark lashes. Her lips were full and soft and pink and her skin was the even colour of honey. She knew she was pretty and was glad, because she knew that her beauty meant that people would smile at her and would be predisposed to be kind and helpful, but she was clever enough to know that this was only because it is instinctive in human beings to smile at beauty. She knew she had been born lucky, and she had enough intelligence and sympathy to feel this was an unjust situation for those who had not been born so fortunate and on whom people would not be so inclined to smile, and she sighed when contemplating the inequitable arrangement of the world.

She was doubly lucky because not only had she been born beautiful, but she was also clever, and she understood that her good fortune was merely the result of a lucky accident of nature’s lottery. Realising this simple truth, she ceased to be concerned with it. It was merely a fact of her existence which she had no part in. She was not vain – or at least she thought no more about her own pretty face than about a pretty butterfly fluttering among the flowers. But she was very interested in her mind- a thing she could control. She cultivated it, cherished it and fed it with as much knowledge and she could. ‘Beauty is lucky and useful, but beauty with knowledge is so much more potent and powerful’ she decided, and of course, she was quite right. It was an astute observation and she liked to be right. She did not like to make mistakes. She always thought very carefully before she made a decision, or a statement, or set out an argument. She would not like to be shown to have made a mistake,  that would have hurt her pride and self-esteem, because it was here that her vanity truly resided.

She was a very cautious girl, but as her knowledge grew so she grew more confident. When one understood things and how they originated, functioned and developed – when one understood them completely, then one had power over them and there was no need to fear them. She devoted her time to thinking and learning and reasoning and testing, and her parents were very proud of their clever and pretty girl. Her teachers were delighted at her eagerness and aptitude for learning and her classmates wondered at her dedication and application.

At the edge of her town, on the other side of the valley, there were wide sunny meadows where the children would run and play games of kiss-chase and tag. Bordering these meadows there was a wild dark wood, so vast, that no-one was quite sure how large it was. It was a very ancient wood and had been there for much longer than people could remember. The wood had never been tamed or fully explored. The girl would run and play in the sunny fields with the other children but when they came close to the dark wood she would only stand on the edge and observe the tangled undergrowth and the overgrown, untidy paths that disappeared into the green gloom. When the other children would dare each other to go in and to venture ever further, she would shake her head. ‘Why would I want to go into that place?’ she asked them calmly ‘It is dark and precarious and I don’t know what dangers and wild things may be lurking inside.’ She did not know, and what she could not comprehend made her uneasy. She was not afraid, in fact she was a little fascinated by the inscrutability of the place and attracted by the challenge of its beckoning impenetrability. Her unease stemmed from the fact that she did not wish to put herself at the mercy of the unknown and untested. ‘I don’t know where any of the paths may lead.’ she answered the children who laughed at her solemnity ‘I may get hurt, or lost, or abandoned in that place’ she continued, and the children laughed all the louder and goaded her on, pulling on her small soft hands.

 “Come!” they pleaded “this wood is old and it is magical? Yes! There is ancient magic in there. There is a place in the deepest part of the wood where your secret wishes are kept and someone there who can grant them! A very special place, come on!” But she only shook her head with more resolve. “There is no such magic” She declared, with some firmness, ’”no-one had the power to grant wishes….” her voice tailed off as her bored and disappointed friends trailed away to play among the trees. They played chase and hide and seek, zigzagging among the mossy trunks and appearing in and out of the green tinged gloom. She was left standing alone in the sunlight on the edge of the wood as their excited shrieks and shouts grew fainter. As the silence descended and she narrowed her eyes to stare after them into the dark heart of the wood and strained her ears to hear their calls and laughter, eventually she could only hear  the gentle rustling and stirring of the leaves.

She grew tall and straight and even more  lovely. As her knowledge grew she became less fearful of all things because she could understand them, but she was still afraid of one. Yes, indeed, the girl remained fearful of one thing, and, strange to say, the thing this girl was afraid of was  her own heart. She understood it’s biological function and admired the construction and efficiency of its role as the pump of her blood. But why was it so troublesome in other ways? She felt the emotions of her heart to be wild and unpredictable. ‘It is not to be trusted, it is tempestuous and wayward!’ and, of course, she was quite right. ‘It shall be ruled and controlled by my mind!’ she decided.

The girl had been much admired by the young men of the town and she has liked them too – the handsome ones and the clever ones. She had let them hold her hand and kiss her full pink lips and stroke her cheeks and glossy hair. She had let her favourites caress her honey skin under her clothes. But if she felt them reach out to touch her heart she would break away from them and run away as fast as her legs would carry her. So it continued, but her heart grew ever more restless and bothersome. It pulsed quietly but determinedly and fluttered in her bosom. Sometimes, when her favourite young suitor gazed at her with his loving blue eyes and put his warm lips on hers it leaped and jumped and was restive and agitated until it vexed her beyond endurance. Particularly at night it would seem to swell until it filled her whole chest….and then it would wait…always it was waiting, stirring, pulsing away the minutes and hours waiting for something. Eventually she would throw her book aside and fidget with her hair and ribbons and at last grasp her head in her hands and wail “For heavens’ sake, what would you have me do? Will you be quiet!” then she would snatch up her coat and run out into the night. She would run and run to give her heart a reason for beating so fiercely, until she was panting and her chest ached with the exertion. Then she would stop and bend, her hand pressed on the pain in her side, and she would look up and find herself at the edge of the moonlit wood. Dizzy with tiredness, she would stand as her breath became quieter, swaying slightly, and the whispering trees before her swayed too… comforting her with their company, so much so that it was with some reluctance that she turned away from them to walk back to the paved streets and bright lights of the town.

But her heart gave her no respite and grew ever more restless until its pulsing permeated the very fabric of her dreams. She would toss and turn in her bed in fitful sleep as she dreamed the same dream night after night:

She was in a series of caves whose walls were dark but velvety. In the distance was a sound like rushing water. She knew she must push further into the interior to find the source. She entered a chamber in the centre of which sat huddled a small boy. He looked at her with sad doe-eyes. As she approached him she became filled with remorse and pity, she hesitated but then spoke to him softly and kindly, ‘Why are you hiding in this place?’ He looked up at her, his eyes full of sorrowful recrimination, ‘I am where you put me!’ he replied with a sob in his gentle voice ‘and here I stay!’ She was taken aback by his words. He reached up his small hand and as it brushed against hers she drew quickly away and ran from him in panic and guilt.

She now found herself in a chamber of rich red velvet curtains, so like the walls themselves she could barely distinguish one from the other. Gingerly she moved one of the heavy curtains aside and saw that ahead there was a room lit by a cosy fire. Drawn by the warmth and golden light she pushed past the curtains and saw that before the fireplace stood a large and billowy chair. As she moved closer still she saw there was the figure of a young man sitting there, glowing faintly golden in light from the flames. In the shining long curls of his hair danced red and yellow lights – reflections from the fire.  At the sound of her soft step he stood up and turned to face her, ‘So, ‘ he spoke softly ‘you have come..’ and she could not help but return the wistful smile he gave her, though she could not comprehend his words. ‘Why are you in this place?’ she asked him, he gave her a rueful stare, ‘I am where you put me – imprisoned here!’ he answered her. And then to her astonishment and alarm, he shudderingly unfolded a pair of giant, feathered wings, black in silhouette against the light of the fire, ‘and I cannot leave until you finish this journey..’ he added, and to her dismay and horror, she saw that the wings were broken and he held them up awkwardly and with much pain. Her eyes smarted with shame-filled tears and she was overcome with sorrow and regret and sank to the ground at his feet and threw her arms around his knees, burying her face against his thighs as she cried hot tears. ‘I am so sorry’ she wailed, her sobs muffled, though she did not know for which one of them the words were meant. She felt him stroke the silky hair on her head as if to comfort her and she heard the sound of him folding back his poor giant broken wings. He stroked her hair slowly and smoothly and with such kindness she cried anew, ‘I must go on then, must I?’ she looked up at him at last. He withdrew his hand, looking down at her gravely, ‘You will follow the path you choose to the end’ and then he turned away from her and hung his head. Thus dismissed, she raised herself up and traipsed back, pushing aside the heavy curtains as she left him in the chamber.

As she stumbled through the chambers and tunnels the humming and rushing noise became tremendous, and in the distance someone was beating a drum with a regular, constant thump. She was convinced that that must be the direction to follow to find the source. Pressing on she fell and slipped in her haste to reach her destination but even as the drumming grew louder, she was crestfallen to see that the way became overgrown with a tangle of branches and twigs weaving in and out of each other and matted together impenetrably. As she realised that she could go no further she awoke with a start, her heart pounding with frustration.

This dream would return night after night and she sought the help of doctors and specialists. They only gave her pills and potions that made her listless and dull and removed her lust for leaning and will to work. As she lay awake one midnight in the depths of the Autumn of the year, dreading the return of her recurring dream, she searched her mind for an answer to her predicament, but her mind was too befuddled by medications to focus on a solution. Once again her heart began its impatient yearning, waiting for her to act – demanding satisfaction. Her anger flared up – in her drowsy, perplexed mind she declared – ‘No! You shall not get the better of me – you shall yield to my will!’ Muttering between clenched teeth and disoriented by sleeplessness and frustration she began to dress herself. Hardly knowing what she did, she left the house as the sky began lightening in the east. Onward she pressed in a kind of delirium, halfway between sleep and wakefulness. She walked in that zone where reality is confounded with dreams. She crossed the fields where she played as a child , gliding through the landscape, until she reached the edge of the ancient, tangled forest. Here her courage and strength failed her and she sat heavily on a grassy bank and waited for the comforting light of day.

The sun had climbed until its light skimmed the tops of the trees with a golden garnish before she stood again. She had seen no-one – the town was still asleep it seemed, all was in stasis, waiting. ‘I am foolish to stand here undecided’ she told herself ‘ I must retreat or go on’ and of course, she was right. It was as if time held its breath and waited, waited for her decision. She grew afraid. Her heart beat painfully in her breast, but this provocation was all she needed to drive her forward, forward into the unknown. But she cursed the intractability of her heart and the dimness of the wood before her.  All her childhood fears and uncertainties assailed her as she plunged through the trees which grew ever denser and threw longer and longer shadows. Then she made a surprising decision – ‘If I am to continue’ she thought ‘ I shall go further than anyone before.’ 

She was soon lost, but cared little of it, she was in a waking dream. Then she heard a sound which indicated the direction in which she must go. Somewhere in the depths of the forest, a drumbeat rang out. It became a constant regular beat. For a moment she became confused, ‘was it only the beating of her own relentless heart? No, there it was, in the distance, surely. She must follow the sound.’ She pressed on, climbing over fallen branches which caught and tore her gown, squeezing through the tangles of brambles which scratched her hands. ‘So close now! The implacable beating’ but now before her the way became impenetrable, impossibly overgrown and tangled. She halted, disheartened. ‘Had it been her imagination playing tricks on her drowsy mind?’

He moved, silently, almost imperceptibly out of the shadows between the green trees, gliding towards her. He was tall and straight and graceful, and dark as a funeral veil, his hands folded serenely before him. He wore a long garment which resembled the cassock of a priest, though made of finer stuff which though black as night, had an iridescent sheen. So fluid were his movements that he seemed to almost float. He halted before her and without a word, and regarded her seriously and steadily. Meeting his dark gaze was difficult, she felt she was being scrutinized inside and out, and she felt herself tremble with trepidation. She felt more lost than ever, whereas the stranger seemed to be completely at ease in this place. His assurance gradually calmed her and the pounding in her head and chest eased. She looked back at him with more equanimity now and began to assess what she saw.

 He was, quite simply, the most striking man she had ever seen. He regarded her through dark almond shaped eyes. His face was almost unnaturally symmetrical, yet chiselled and masculine – high cheekbones, a strong square chin and straight, finely shaped nose. She noticed that his mouth was particularly appealing – wide enough to fit the symmetry of the face, full enough to look soft without losing its masculinity. She realised that she was staring and pulled herself up sharply to look him in the eye. Then, almost imperceptibly, his expression changed. There was a question in his eyes, although his face remained impassive and solemn and he had not spoken a word. He seemed to be waiting for her to speak and explain her presence. The girl opened her mouth to answer but found that her usual confidence and eloquence had deserted as she gazed into his handsome but placid face. If she found some flaw he would seem more human and she would regain her assurance, he would be proved to be a person, fragile and nervous as she was. Slowly she realised, that this must have been the way that young men had felt when looking at her, when faced by the impenetrable armour of her beauty and wit. They were seeking some chink or gap into which they could slip, if they could just discover a vulnerability. The pair continued to stand in silence as she scanned his face. The strong chin, the soft stern mouth, the straight nose, high-cheekbones and dark almond eyes, a smooth straight forehead framed by fine abundant wavy hair, black as a ravens’ wing. She imagined it tapered into a perfect triangle at the base of his neck. A long straight neck. He stood waiting, dark eyes fixed unwaveringly on hers.

She screwed up her courage, pulled herself up tall, raised her chin in order to return his gaze boldly and began, “I have come…” her voice emerged more weakly than she would have liked. She began again more stridently, “I have come to ask for your advice” she stated. One fine black eyebrow arched itself above her companions’ quizzical eyes. “…And that is all?” he queried, his voice was not stern but full of kindness. She relaxed a little. His eyes were now less solemn – they were full of a kind of benevolent amusement. Any stratagems she might have used to charm him would be pointless, she saw that now. She decided to answer him straightforwardly – “Why ask me questions that you already know the answer to?” she capitulated. At this a smile spread across his face,  a brightness in the gloom, like the sun streaming between the trees. “You have come to ask me to do something for you.” his expression now softening, “That is why they all come – they want me to fulfil a wish.” he stated, and some new expression flickered into his eyes but immediately vanished. What was it she had seen there in that instant? Resentment? Sorrow? Disappointment perhaps? But he was looking at her again with unperturbed impassivity. She ventured to speak again, “I have come about my heart and it’s unruly emotions. I cannot..” but she was shocked into silence as, quick as lightening he had raised his hand and placed it between her breasts over her heart. No-one had dared such an intimate gesture to her before without her permission! She stood, mouth slightly open, astonished at his audacity. Her lower lip began to tremble as she realised that she had no real inclination to remove it. She could feel its warmth on the rise and fall of her bosom as her breathing quickened, a sensation of heat passed on either side of his hand and through her breasts, it was a longing ,a longing for his hand to explore further, yet more intimately. He continued to look directly into her eyes, and spoke, “Your heart is indeed strong and most lively” an unfamiliar blush spread to her cheeks but he did not move his hand away. Then she heard herself utter fateful words:

“ I want you to kill it.”

At this he snatched his hand away sharply as it was his turn to be shocked. “What makes you think I would do such a thing. Can do such a thing?!” he challenged. For the first time she saw naked emotions in his face – anguish and revulsion. “You can,” she continued, “because I will allow you to do it.” now his handsome face became distorted with distress, “If I kill your heart I shall kill you to, do you not see? I cannot do such a thing.” he replied hoarsely.

“I see, but you can stifle it, you can silence it,” she persisted, “you can turn it into wood! Living, yet silent!”

He lowered his head, “ Why do you ask me for this?”he sighed, “Can you do it? I will give you access to my heart. I know what that will mean. Let it be so!” was her only response. He looked at her again, sulky, but resigned.

The trees began to whisper and sway above them as he moved closer to her and began to slowly unbutton his black tunic, his eyes never left her face. As she watched him a terrible excitement grew in the pit of her stomach , the warmth she had felt in her breasts at his touch arose and pulsed ever stronger, moving down through her body sweeping through her spine and between her legs. He slipped out of the sleeves of his coat and stood now before her naked. His skin glowed white in the gathering gloom. She felt faint yet paradoxically strong, like a sprinter, readying herself for a race. Her eyes moved over his body leisurely, he would let her take her time. Here and there she saw that were scars on his skin, some superficial, some deep. “How did you get these scars?” she asked him wonderingly, touching the deepest above his diaphragm, gently with the tips of her fingers. ”They are the mistakes I have made.” he answered, portentously, “Mistakes always leave a mark. Some mistakes cut deeper than others.”

As he began to unfasten the front buttons of her dress and pull it down over her shoulders so she could slip out of it, he added “I see you have no scars.” her flawless skin seemed to make him smile ruefully and shake his head. She did not understand the gesture. With almost unbearable slowness his hands came to rest on her shoulders and then slipped along her arms, up again over her back as he caressed her unscathed, honey-coloured skin and drew her close into an embrace. Her face lifted to meet his soft mouth. That was all she could think of now, another delirium, swirling in her head, her heart pounding now, steadfast towards its satisfaction…and its betrayal. Her hands moved all over him now, the curve of the small of his back and the upper swell of his buttocks, pulling him closer, holding him tighter against her, her nails digging into his flesh. His kiss was like hot sweet liquid swirling through her head and body and surging into her very skin – she felt as if white light would explode out of her pores. She was dizzy, she was elated, she was strong, she was weak. As their mouths and tongues and teeth joined she knew she would find ecstasy of her heart and body that night, through that kiss, which became deeper and deeper. His saliva, honey-like, sank into her mouth and into her very being, its sweetness coursing through her blood. She willingly let the poison do its work.

A nervous rustling of branches and twigs awoke her. A wind had arisen and was agitating the boughs and bushes all around her. She sat up, dazed and confused. Her clothes lay all over the ground and were being tossed up and down by the rising gusts of wind, and she felt cold. She stood up and shivering, gathered them up. Something had happened to her here, a strong surge of emotion began in her belly as she tried to remember… and then subsided. She looked at the clothes in her hands, ‘Well, whatever it had been she was cold now and she should dress quickly.’

An hour later she stumbled out of the ancient dark wood into the early sunlight of the meadows and strode purposefully across the flat green fields back towards the sleepy town.

 

The girl grew to be a great success, a renowned professor and scholar, much in demand – known for her beauty as well as her achievements. She married a great and influential captain of industry. A handsome man who was proud of his wife – so clever, famous and beautiful. He thought himself a fortunate man. But as time went by there were no children to bless the union, and he soon came to understand that although she wished to satisfy his physical desire for her, and though she knew many and various ways to do this, there was no passion in their lovemaking. Her real desire was not for him or his body, but was only the desire to be seen to do something well. With dismay he realised that she did not love him, and had never loved him, and soon, with regret and disillusionment, he found he was glad that they had had no children.

As for the girl, now a famous woman – she continued, ever ambitions, ever meticulous, purposefully striding onwards towards higher goals. Yet, sometimes at night, when the wind was particularly agitating the trees and branches, she would awake with a start, her face wet, as if with tears. She would touch her cheeks in puzzlement and incomprehension, and then reach down and rub the deep, ugly scar that lay between her breasts, as it itched and burned and ached in the troubling darkness.

Comments
  1. SmashAuthority says:

    Wow, just wow. This is so good. I loved it. You certainly have a talent.

  2. Mrs Large says:

    Breathtaking, and emotionally fulfilling. More like this, please!

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