Monthly Archives: September 2015

No Better Fate

Falada, Falada, thou art dead, and all the joy in my life has fled.”

Elisa woke on a plump goose-down bed, as she had for many mornings now. She stretched, enjoying the feel of not having to get up at dawn.

The wedding was in a day. She was so happy she felt she might float.

The ladies-in-waiting came in to dress her. Elisa was always careful to be cordial, but not too friendly with them. No point in getting familiar, as if they had anything in common.

They dresses her in heavy linen and fixed her hair and tied her slippers elaborately. Elisa tried not to look too pleased.

There was not much for a princess to do, so Elisa strolled about the castle. It always did her good to look out over the lands that would soon be hers.

Something was off. The servants would whisper and suddenly fall silent when she drew near. And was it just her, or were they giving her sidelong glances?

Elisa put on her haughtiest look and strolled right past them. As if they had the right. As if she were anything like them.

She wasn’t, really.

Fairy tales were full of girls like her, who struggled to make their own fate. Who fought with cleverness and skill and won happiness for themselves. They didn’t sit weeping on the ground for their mother.

Elisa made herself look at the courtyard. She had to, every morning.

That simpering idiot was nowhere in sight, but that nag’s head hung like a bad omen above the gate.

Elisa shuddered. Such an ungodly thing. Speech in an animal, especially after death, was a heresy.

Still, she was wary of pressing the matter too much. The goose girl held too fond a place in everyone’s hearts.

Elisa turned away from the sight. Best to ask to have it taken down after the wedding. She would be granted everything and anything, she reckoned.

It was really too easy, pretending to be noble. She had lived among them her whole life, hadn’t she? If a roughness was betrayed in some manner, speech or gesture, she could laugh it off as hailing from a small kingdom.

A pageboy tittered behind his hand. Elisa shot him a look of such venom he started back a little. Such impudence! She really must have a word with her betrothed, right away.

 

She paced to the throne room, where she found the old king and the chamberlain, engrossed in some private joke.

“My dear,” the king cried, almost sardonically, “what is your royal desire this morning?”

She remembered to smile gracefully, though she was very confused. Was it some country tradition she was unaware of? Damn! She should have asked the wretch that question before taking her clothes.

“Your majesty, where might my affianced be this morning?”

The old king took a long look at her. Elisa smiled, though her face was really becoming quite tired.

“Out in the stables,” the old king said finally, eyes glittering, “near the old iron stove.”

Elisa thanked him gratefully and left.

“Mind the hem of your lovely robes in that stableyard mud!” the king called after her.

Elisa had to stop and examine the hem of her dress. Spotless. Had she missed some etiquette? Should she hold her own skirts, or should she solicit a maidservant to do so?

Elisa settled for sneaking quickfooted out a side door.

The beast’s head was dripping from the lips. Elisa shuddered as she passed beneath, wary of being hit by stray drops.

 

The prince was indeed by an old iron stove. He was posed as if in mid-dance, one leg slightly bent, arms out as of entreating an invisible partner. He appeared to be listening.

Elisa tried her brightest smile. “Hullo, sweetheart!”

The prince turned to her, and through some trick of the light he looked suddenly unfriendly.

“Darling, it’s me!” she yelped without meaning to.

His face slowly sank into a neutral expression. “Elisa,” he said softly.

Elisa tried to bat her eyes coquettishly. “Yes, it is I. You haven’t become betrothed to someone else while I was asleep, have you?”

The prince let the silence drag on for too long before replying, “No. I have not been promised to anyone new.”

Elisa fanned herself. “Oh darling, it is so foul in this place, I need some fresh air.”

She held out her arm. The prince took a calculating look before accepting it.

Elisa babbled as they walked, trying to break him from his mood. “The whole castle has been so strange today. They look as if they see a complete stranger! You must make them behave, dearest, or there shall be no peace for me.”

The prince was silent.

Then, he asked, “will your mother be attending the wedding?”

Elisa had a sudden sting of panic she covered well.

“It nearly broke her heart to bid me farewell,” she said, “it might break completely to see me given away.”

“Ah.”

The prince’s face was strong, but not unkind. A hardness had crept in somewhere, some worm had gnawed him, made him less favorable to her.

“Darling,” she said, “it may be a whole day until we next see each other, might I have a touch of your lips before we must part?”

The prince was looking over the fields, to where the geese were.

“If we are so soon to be joined, I don’t think the wait warrants a kiss.”

Elisa felt a pang of indignation, but reminded herself not to show it. The whole day was as if she was being tested for some invisible flaw.

“Well then, until we next meet.”

Elisa dropped into a curtsy. The prince bowed sharply at the waist, and Elisa could admire the fit of his uniform. Ah, well. Tomorrow.

 

The servants were talking about her. She could overhear snips of gossip—but they were always careful to fall silent at just the right moment, look busy. She knew all the tricks, but couldn’t denounce them without revealing herself. Even the waiting girls exchanged looks as they dressed her for dinner, pulling laces too tight and nearly throttling her with ropes of pearls. Elisa gasped and slapped their hands, but the girls proclaimed innocence and clumsiness. She shooed them away and finished the dressing herself, too incensed to care what they thought.

The room had a looking-glass that was long enough for Elisa to see herself in total. She examined her fastenings, making sure everything was in place. Did the bodice droop? Were her sleeves uneven?

She caught her own eye in the mirror.

Maybe it wasn’t the dress. Maybe it was her. Maybe she was too crude, too plain for even the finest silks to elevate. And they could see it all. She could see in their eyes, they knew. They mocked and chortled because they knew. And the prince…

“No,” Elisa said firmly to her reflection.

Her hair was not golden. And she did not have charms or enchanted animals. But she had grabbed tightly to her own fate and would not let go. Will was a virtue, to be rewarded as any other.

“I will be queen,” she whispered. “I will be queen…”

 

The tables were all abuzz with talking and feasting, all died down when she walked in the room. Elisa straightened her spine and walked to the raised table as if it all didn’t matter. Because it really didn’t.

The old king ate, son on his right side and a strange noblewoman on his left. Probably some distant cousin come to witness the wedding. The king spoke fondly to her and she laughed, hair brighter than the circlet she wore.

It didn’t matter. None of it mattered.

The prince rose, smiling handsomely. It did seem a staged smile, but at least it was something.

“My dear lady,” he said, offering his hand, “now that you are here, we can begin.”

 

The old king asked the chambermaid as a riddle, what punishment a person deserved who had deceived her master in such and such a manner, then told the whole story, asking finally, “What sentence does such a person deserve?”

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The Dorset Culture

dorset2

Photograph from the Cook expedition, 1907

The first people were giants
Their chests were broad and their hands could grab seals whole
They walked with spirits on the ice and never fell through
Though they were strong, they did not possess the tools of war
And the new people drove them back from the sea

—Excerpt from An Oral History of Baffin Island

The Dorset people predate modern-day Inuit of the Arctic Circle. A relatively recent archaeological find, the Dorset were culturally distinct from their Inuit successors, who dubbed them Sivullirmiut (meaning “first people.”) Though the Dorset culture has left significant archaeological record, no physical remains of the people themselves are known to exist.

Interestingly, the Dorset people have migrated into folklore, much in the way of “terror birds” in New Zealand or the Orang Pendek of Malaysia. Baffin island mythology speaks of a race of giants inhabiting what are modern-day Inuit settlements; slow, shy people who showed them the technique of ice fishing and lived in longhouses.

Not all appearances by the Sivullirmiut were benign, however. In an interview conducted by the Stefansson expedition on Wrangel Island, a Chukchi elder spoke of giants who stole and consumed children, so unmoved by cold that they would conduct raids even during the heart of a blizzard. The elder also showed expedition members two artifacts: a desiccated human foot measuring nearly a meter long and a scalp of red hair the size of a seal pelt. Both artifacts were claimed by the expedition and subsequently lost in the disastrous return to the United States.

Other such artifacts have been documented by various arctic expeditions, but no physical specimens have survived to undergo modern-day scrutiny. A photograph from Frederick Cook’s North Pole expedition(seen above) was said to depict the largest intact specimen: a full three-quarters of a body. Cook’s party was entreated to view the “stone village” by the Inhuguit people, a site situated north of Annoatok. The Europeans described a megalithic site comprised of stone slabs propped up in a formation that recalled Stonehenge. The Inhuguit claimed the stacks were door lintels and that the massive structure was once covered with hides. Though the expedition heavily documented their progress, the single snapshot of the body is the only evidence from the megalithic site known to exist. By the time Erik Holtved arrived to study the Inhuguit the tribe members with knowledge of the site’s location had long since deceased.

What caused the demise of the Sivullirmiut giants is still unclear, though it is generally agreed upon that the culture went extinct around the time of the medieval warming period( roughly 1500C.E.) Nunavut folklore holds that the giants were doomed to die with the ice that gave them life, and that the new people long ago chased the straggling survivors into the sea. There is also historical evidence that early Norse travelers came into contact with the Sivullirmiut some time before their extinction.

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Down By The Crick

Even before the dementia, aunt Denise was not fun to be around. I was her least favorite nephew(for multiple reasons) yet somehow the job of overseeing her care fell to me. Good. Great. Not like I didn’t have other things to see to.

Give my family some credit, they did try to chip in as much as they could. She never had kids, and her only husband had died in 1968, so it was pretty much me or nothing.

I remember her house as the “touch-me-not” museum from when I was a kid. Endless shelves of those cheap little knicknacks you find at thrifts stores, not a single bare surface to set something. And if you so much as looked at something the wrong way, she’d fly at you screeching like a harpy. Fun.

In her mind, I guess, the house is still like it was, full of neatly ordered rows of figurines and samplers and other tchotchkes. But I can tell you what it was really like. Heaps of old junk she’d find sifting through neighbor’s trash. She’d even collect bits of broken glass like they were gems. To cap it all off, she kept sneaking in dead animals and placing them like they were stuffed toys. Oh boy, did she throw a fit when found her ‘pet’ mouse.

If I don’t seem very fond of the old bat, the feeling was very much mutual. I could never bring my boyfriend over or I was going to hell. I couldn’t use the microwave or TV because the rays would make her sterile(yes, really.) I had to stop wandering off or she would tell my mother.

That was what she called it. She couldn’t stand having me in the house, but the second I left her sight I was abandoning her to some horrible fate. Even though I was juggling a job and school with her home care, she seemed to think all I did all day was sneak down to ‘the crick,’ which was this muddy old drainage ditch I hadn’t been near since I was a teenager. I tried locking her in when I had to leave for long periods of time and couldn’t get someone to watch her, but she still found ways to escape.

That was where she died. Not in the house, by the old ditch.

She’d had a cardiac arrest, they’d said. She had a really shocked look on her face and died with her hands clenched into fists. Of course there were rumblings about elder abuse, but my family really backed me up on this. I should have known it wasn’t for free, because then they expected me to sort out the old house by myself. Dicks.

The whole first day I just started shoveling stuff into the dumpster. Anything of value had long been encrusted with the filth of that house, so I had no qualms about getting rid of it. Towards evening I decided to knock off and look through the the books and see if there were any photo albums I should save. On a shelf in between endless issues of national geographic and one of those crockpot recipe books was the journal.

It looked like a primer from an old elementary school. Flipping through it, I could watch my aunt’s handwriting deteriorate with her mind. The fact that she’d kept a journal secret from me, even when she couldn’t wipe herself anymore, was just a little disturbing. I tucked it away for later perusal and worked until sundown.

It was weird being in the house by myself. It didn’t feel like she’d left at all, you know? I didn’t really feel alone in the house, every creak sounded like a footstep. I watched some of the forbidden TV for a while before I remembered the journal.

Maybe I had just never understood my aunt enough to like her. Maybe if I knew her thoughts, she’d become a little more sympathetic.

I cracked the book.

July 15

that boy is back again. Josh. They chose the right name for him. Never a serious moment in his life. Always joshing me about my things. Switching doors around on me. I don’t know how he moved the bathroom down the hall, but when I went in the hall closet by mistake he rolled his eyes at me.

He doesn’t know I know. How he sneaks down by the crick. I can see him from the upstairs window after he leaves for ‘work.’ work, ha. I’m onto his tricks.

July 15 18

I did it. I used some old twine to mark the trees so I wouldn’t get lost on my way back. He was there all right. Cut his hair different and dyed it another color, but I know that lazy boy when I see him. He was washing blood off his hands! What did that delinquent do now? I bet he killed another animal and left it for me to find! I’ll let him have it, you mark my words.

June July 02 20

He was there again. He wasn’t just bloody this time, he had some old rags he was burning. Probably smokes out here, too. Well, I popped right out and gave him a piece of my mind.

He straightened up in a hurry. He really tried to disguise himself, even pulled a face so he looked like a different boy. I told him off, first for lying about where he went during the day, then for trying to fool me. He squinted at me like it was all very funny, so I told him off for that. I said I would tell his mother if he didn’t start acting right. That wiped the smirk from his face. He took my hand and assured me he’d do better. Well, he damn well better, otherwise I would come down on him.

July

that boy. I never know what mood he’s going to be in. when he’s at home, he’s all p’s and q’s, treating me like a little child. When he creeps out for the day, he’s so polite and quiet. As long as I let him burn things and wash off in the crick, he brings me more stuffies! He brought me a mouse and two cats last time! He’s so different now, so quiet and agreeable. He told me he wasn’t really a fairy, that he loved women like me. My heart melted from it. He even reminds me to start home before dark, just in case I forget. When he comes home he pretends to be so grumpy and doesn’t know about the crick, so I play along. Tee hee! It makes me feel like a schoolgirl again.

My entire body was cold. I flipped ahead a few pages in the book, where her writing started getting really bad.

May

my heart is may and the whole world is spring josh loves me he loves me and says I am the girl for him

he talked about the last girl he had, she let him in her house and shared her pension with him but it wasn’t enough and he had to make sure she didn’t starve to death

I told him I would always be able to feed us and I had a whole house of treasure big enough for two and he didn’t have to worry because I hadn’t had a man since Elliott and I was still clean

he was so happy i’m so happy so happy

I flipped to the last entry

josh

is going

to take me away

he says he’ll take me away from all this no more bad food no more locked in the house he will take me away and I won’t have to worry ever

i brought him a key like he asked i’m bringing him a key and meet him down by the crick and he says he will show me something pretty and I will give him the key to the house

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The Castle in the Forest

There was a boy and he was the son of a miller, not a king. He was not the first or last child but somewhere in the middle of ten, and he had no more noble intent on his mind than gathering firewood. He had no sword, only a small hatchet used for splitting logs. He was neither outstandingly kind or cruel, and no cleverer than he should be.

So, when he heard a voice as he stooped to gather a birch branch, it came as a complete shock.

It said “help me.”

It was a girl’s voice.

The boy looked around. He was in the woods that encircled their town, woods too thickly planted to even hold wolves. No game was plentiful enough to support a hunter’s cabin. Where had the voice come from?

The voice had been fine and cultured. It had been despaired.

The boy took two steps into the deeper wood and then looked back where he had come from.

The voice drifted on the breeze like a perfume: “please help me.”

A voice with manners, then.

The boy neatly stacked his wood against a boulder and walked into the woods. Because though he was not especially kind or cruel, not especially noble, he would not turn a deaf ear to a cry of help.

He tread with caution, using his hatchet to lift branches rather than hack his way through. There were no tales of mischevous forest spirits, no witches or warlocks to lead children astray in his home. Perhaps, then, it was something more mundane. Some city soul had trekked into the forest and gotten lost.

The boy began to leave nicks in the stumps he passed.

So what were they doing out here? Besides a cluster of huts too small to call a village, there was nothing around of worth. No, perhaps not a traveler, then. Perhaps a child of the village who had run away and gotten turned around. He tried matching a memory of the voice to the short list of faces in his head. It had been hard to tell the age of the voice, so thin it was, but he was sure he had never heard it before. A stranger? A forest spirit?

Of all the things he had been expecting, the castle had been the least.

The boy gaped at the largeness of it. He had never been to the city. There weren’t even mountains around, so he had no precedent for it. Spires and gables and stonework that looked like it had flown into place, so fine was the craftsmanship. And the whole thing was being eaten by the mother of all brambles.

“Help me,” begged the wind.

He searched for an in.

there were tales for this, he knew. He had heard the word castle, but had never been able to place it. Castle. Now he could see how one could get lost in a single building, and now he saw where he lay in the scheme of things. Someone calling for help in a castle like this could only be a trapped princess. And he could only be…

The boy regarded vines and weighed his own virtue. He had not been given an enchanted sword to hack the curling thorns back. He was not blessed with an abundance of persistence. Could he really rescue anyone?

The boy pitched back and squinted up at the tallest, cruelest tower. It only had arrow-slits up its impossible length, but there was a glint at the top. Windows? Or perhaps someone signaling with a mirror.

There was a path before him, a crawl scarcely big enough for a fox. He scuffled on his elbows and stomach and found a door. It was not locked.

No, he was not the son of a king or blessed by luck, but he would try.

The interior was pitch black. He felt around for a door, which let him onto a hall so dim it was like being underwater. But light was light. As his eyes adjusted, he could see the moldering pennants and woodwork falling to mites. Even in its disintegration, it was finer than anything he’d ever seen. He wondered, as he paced the long hall, how long it had stood here. How long had it rotted in the forest, unseen by human eyes?

He had never heard of a castle. No one had even alluded to something like this squatting in the trees. How long ago had there been a king? Had these woods been farms, then, and had there been more than just the handful he knew now?

He studied a decorative seal. Not one he recognized.

Not in living memory had they been independent; they bowed to some distant power that manifested itself yearly through tax collectors. They were no longer a kingdom. They were the little toe of a large empire.

The thought made him slightly sad as he knocked the latch from a door with the blunt end of his hatchet. Had a curse undone it all? Trapped the princess, choked her country with vines until nothing remained to tell? He did not mourn for self-governance, for he had never known it. But the unjustness of such a loss stung him.

When his foot went through the floor, he was in such deep thought he could barely throw out an arm to save himself. The hatchet slid away. He hung by his elbows, heart hammering. The rotten board bounced down to some horrendous depth. The boy eyed a long, conveniently close pennant, but decided to try his luck on his own instead. The stonework for the floor was uneven, it did not have to be flush because it would be covered with rugs. Now he found cracks big enough to wedge his fingers into and worked himself out inch by inch. He simply lay flat, embracing the stones. The pennant shredded in his curious fingers, he could imagine himself grabbing for it only to slip back into the darkness.

Plaintively, “help me, please,” whispered past his ear.

The boy gritted his teeth and got up.

Through a door at the end of the hall(he hugged the wall now, mindful of loose spots) was a great room with windows that spanned the height of its walls. The glass had been sunbursts of color, now vines choked the light into murky pondwater.

In the time it took for his eyes to adjust, he realized that something was moving in the room. He flung himself behind an overturned chair, trying not to choke on the dust.

They were the height of a man and evil to the eye. Some wicked hand had set an animal’s head backwards on a man’s shoulders, so the beasts walked one way and spied the other. In his hiding spot, the boy had to wonder how they subsisted. Did magic sustain them for however long it had taken to forget a kingdom? Or did they feed on something even less savory?

There was a sudden perfume, a scent of something that did not blossom in this part of the world. The boy could no more deny it than the ache in his bones. The smell seemed to beckon him to a door behind the great golden chairs that stood on a dais, made of strawberry wood and metal curlicues.

The beasts lay in the way. He watched them tread tirelessly back and forth, back and forth as if it were all they were made to do. And he saw the long runner that licked up the center of the room, its gilt rotting and flaking away. And as the beasts passed, he pulled.

The trumpet of their alarm was deafening. He had never heard such a sound, and it almost petrified him.

“Help,” whimpered the air.

He ran.

He was so sure, so sure the door would swing open to his touch that he crashed headlong into the wood. The latch refused to move. He pawed in with increasing franticness as the beasts began to right themselves. In desperation, he battered the door with kicks. On the third it sprung open. Sobbing, the boy fell inside and crammed his body against the frame. It was pitch dark again, so he could not see anything to build a barricade. Stupid, stupid. He slid to a sitting position and felt around for something, anything. His hand came upon a long rod that, as he felt it to the tip, had a candle at the end. He could hear them coming.

The boy stood up and nearly fell over the steps before him. Steps! He wedged one end of the stick in a corner of the steps, the other against the door. But the wood was old and the metal thin. The boy practically crawled up the steps in his haste to escape.

There was another door at the top that he did not have to kick open. He found light in the new room, enough to see by, and a bolt on the door. He slid it home and then held his body against the door, calming his heart. The hatchet, tucked into his waistband, had given him a pattern of bruises on his side. His knees ached from the sharp corners of the steps. And as he looked up, he saw a long helix of stairs still waiting for him, to climb up and up in his agonized body.

Something big hit the door from the other side. The boy made himself move.

What had been the impetus behind this, he wondered as he eased over a fallen lamp. What slight had called for this reckoning? The only history available to him had been young as a sapling compared to this oak of a place. Was it a witch or a wizard or just an evil spirit?

What did it do to the princess?

He wondered.

Was she fair and light with hair of gold? Was she dark as ebon wood or rosy as copper? Was she musical or did she sew? Did she slumber through this misery or had she been trapped to watch her kingdom fall?

That gave him pause.

How long had it been? Surely the curse could have been broken a thousand times over by now. And yet here she stayed. Was she impatient? Was she grieved that she alone remained of her people? The voice had certainly been plaintive.

And yet…

The boy looked up. He tried to imagine a thousand years of waiting, a thousand years of being thwarted, a thousand years of scanning the treeline, waiting…

“Help me,” prodded him to his feet. He climbed.

Surely there had been others. Not lately, but when the curse was new. Even a dumpy princess would have had at least one man trying after her hand. Maybe not the son of a king, but a lord or a duke or even a miller’s son, like him. What had happened to them? He hadn’t seen any bodies up until this point. Not even bones.

He slowed again.

“Help me.”

He looked down.

“Help me.”

He took a step.

“Help me.”

The next stair crumbled beneath his foot. He was ready for it. He tried the next one with his toe and when it held firm he swung his weight up.

There were more long candlesticks along the wall, one he took to test the steps before him.

There was a landing that he eyed before setting a foot down. There was a door that was so ornately decorated that it had to lead somewhere important. And there was another beast, waiting before it.

Perhaps if he had been the youngest or oldest son, perhaps if he had been a prince with a blessed sword he might have leapt ahead to bury it in the beast. But he was only the middling son of a miller with a hatchet to defend himself, and he stepped back as the monster came forward and the landing crackled to nothing beneath its feet. He heard it scream all the way down, watched it flip from stair to wall and finally land with a crunch. He looked at the place he might have been only a moment earlier.

How long, he wondered, how long watching and waiting and…what?

He was a simple boy. A decade was an unthinkable span for him. Fifty, almost impossible. What would a thousand years of waiting do to a person, watching everything they loved crumble away, watch every attempt at rescue end in failure…or come too late.

He turned around.

Help me” shrieked at his back.

He took a step.

Help me.” The voice sounded young, yes, but there was something about it that was too hungry, too accusing.

He felt all the steps before him. Some crumbled away. Some stayed firm.

“Help me,” became a ceaseless gale, became a furied wind that tore at his ears. There was no please anymore.

A chunk of stair broke away, too big to step over. The boy watched it fall and shatter near the glassy-eyed beast.

There was a sunburst window next to him, and a vine that had pushed through. He broke the rest of the panes with his hatchet.

The voice screamed.

The boy stepped out, clinging to the vine. It had iron strength it had taken from the castle, and thorns too big to prick him that served as ladder steps. Hand over, hand, he made his way down.

No, he decided, it was not one of those stories. And as he set his feet on firm earth and kissed it for its solidity, he knew what he would tell.

He followed the knick-marks back to the clearing, and he gathered up his wood and limped home. And after that, people avoided the forest entirely. For the castle finally had a story.

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