July 1, 2016

A Body at Rest, By Alison McBain

The man was staring at her again. Riva stood at the sink washing dishes and saw him standing in the shade of the trees outside the kitchen window.

“Mum,” she said.

“What now?” asked her mother, chopping vegetables for stew.

“Nothing,” Riva said after a pause. Her mother came up behind her and peered over her shoulder. The man was standing there and staring at Riva, but her mother’s eyes scanned the scene without pausing. After a moment, her mother went back to her chopping.

“Don’t bother me over nothing,” she said.

“Yes, Mum.”

On laundry day at the end of the week, the two of them were outside scrubbing linens with water hauled up from the stream, heated in a pot over the fire and poured into the wash basins. Her mother had gone inside, and Riva was just hanging up the last wet sheet when she lost her grip and the end whipped past her face. Looking beyond it, she saw the man standing not ten feet from her.

She froze, her hands outstretched still to tangle with the unwieldy sheet. He smiled; his teeth were glaring white.

Her mouth was open to say something, but the sheet whipped back around in the breeze and slapped her across the face. As she grabbed ahold of it, she knew before she lowered it that he would have disappeared.

She left her empty basket where it lay and walked towards the woods. Although she knew enough about husbandry to distinguish a poisonous plant from a useful one, she didn’t recognize the flower she found in the place where the man had been standing. She knelt down by the plant, hesitating at the thorns twined about its stem. The scent of the bloom was strange and intoxicating, and she found herself grabbing the flower and ripping it from its nest of leaves. As she did so, one of the thorns pricked her, so that a single drop of blood fell to the earth. She put the wound to her mouth and sucked on it. The taste was bitter on her tongue, leaving an uneasy feeling behind.

Still, she carried the flower inside the house with her. That night, she placed it under her pillow and slept with its sweet fragrance drifting around her. Her dreams were vivid and troubling, but forgotten upon waking.

In the morning, the temperature dropped dramatically as it sometimes did in the middle of spring. She wore her petticoats doubled and her thickest woolen cloak when she went to fetch water from the stream. After the chores were done, her mother declared she was setting off for town.

“I won’t be long,” she warned her daughter.

Riva knew she should complete the list of chores her mother had given her, but instead she retrieved the flower from under her pillow. Holding it in one hand, she walked into the woods where she had last seen the man.

Her bare feet seemed guided by Providence, and she avoided rocks and sharp twigs with ease. She pulled her cloak tightly around her and her breath frosted the air around her.

When she broke through into a small clearing, the sudden touch of sunlight on her head woke her up. She turned to look behind her, but the trees crowded at her back and their intertwined branches seemed impenetrable. Fear shivered through her.

“Riva,” said a voice. It was lilting, reminding her of the folk songs patterned after the staccato of falling rain. She turned her head and there he was in the bright sun with her, a million jewels of light glinting in his midnight hair. He held a hand out to her and she reached out her own fingers, noticing only at the last moment that she had extended her arm with the hand holding the flower. He smiled and grasped her hand, flower and all, and the petals were crushed between their two palms.

She felt a flicker of pain--thorns, piercing her skin. It failed to wake her from the trance of the man’s touch. Something on the edge of her thoughts hinted about the dreams of the night before, but the memory did not come fully forward. She closed her eyes against the brilliance of the day.

With his hand, he drew her closer. The light flickered against her eyelids.

There was movement and sensation, both overwhelming. Then the night descended, a darkness covering everything with its touch.

Riva opened her eyes, and the world was soft-edged and overlapped by shadows. She pushed against the ground, and her bones snicked and clacked in a painful manner. Although she managed to draw herself upwards, tendon and sinew protested every action. As her head lifted from the ground, there was a slithering sound like a hundred snakes, and she looked at the grass and saw a rushing towards her of… something. A weight pulled against her head and she realized the endless coils were attached to her, a nest of hair entwined in the groundcover of the clearing. Her hair, endless loops and curls, tight and painful on her scalp. Her neck strained, but she managed to pull herself up eventually and found herself sitting upright in the center of a sea of tarnished yellow.

Even so simple a move exhausted her. She sat still for a while, noting the trees ringing the space where she was. The clearing was much as she remembered it, but the day was warm now and her rucked-up petticoats too hot.

A voice interrupted her wandering thoughts. Just her name. She turned her head and the dark-haired man appeared in her line of vision.

Her mouth was dry and her tongue fumbled as she tried to make sounds. “Hush,” said the man and she found herself closing her mouth.

A youth stepped out from the trees and stopped next to the man. He was in that awkward stage consisting of doorknob-shaped elbows and knees, limbs stretched thinly between the knobby joints. There was something strange about the boy, but the light was poor and she couldn’t see him well in the growing darkness.

The man bowed once, a courtly gesture that seemed oddly natural in the clearing. Then he faded backwards. She blinked and there was only a hollow space where he had been. The boy remained behind, staring at her.

“H-help,” she croaked. The boy’s eyes darted up to the crown of her head and he drew a knife from his pocket, frightening her for just one moment--until he knelt beside her and sawed at the strands trapping her to the ground. By the time he was finished, it was full dark and the moon had not yet appeared.

Too dark to go anywhere, she thought. The boy watched her--she could see his eyes gleaming in the dark, like a cat’s eyes reflecting and amplifying the dim light of the stars.

She tried to say, “Sit,” but her voice failed her. Still, he seemed to understand, for he sank to the ground next to her.

Although she had done nothing so far, weariness filled her. She didn’t try to speak again, simply lay back into the hollow where she had woken, a curious bare patch of earth sunken slightly into the ground. Curling up, she pillowed her head on her crossed hands and fell asleep.

Light woke her, or perhaps the sound of birds trilling softly nearby. She turned her head and saw the boy. He was upright and watching her, as if he hadn’t moved all night. His gaze felt like ants creeping on her skin, and she shivered in the warm light of the dawn. The sun was behind him, but she could see enough to notice there was something wrong with his eyes--one was pale as cheese, the other a dark black. Instead of giving him a quizzical look as one might expect, it made him seem dangerous, as if he were a wild beast come to stare at her, considering whether or not to take her for a meal.

Her mouth was still dry, but she found that she could speak. “Let’s go home.”

The boy said nothing, but he stood when she stood and followed her out of the clearing. She headed south, the woods familiar to her, the trees like old friends who nodded gently as she passed them. Eventually, she noticed a large tumble of boulders she knew was near to her house. With a glad cry, she turned slightly to orient herself and began to walk more quickly. When she came to the stream, she knelt to drink. Hunger was nothing new to her, so she ignored the grumbling in her stomach that accompanied the weight of the liquid in it. Instead, she turned her head and saw the boy kneeling beside her and scooping up the water to drink.

The action was so normal that she relaxed. She wondered why he was with her, why the man had led him to her. But more than her curiosity about him was a homesickness that clogged her throat and stopped her from asking. He followed her without protest as she stood and moved off along the bank of the stream.

She’d been thinking her own thoughts, letting her feet choose their way for a while before she realized they should’ve already broken free from the trees and into the clearing where she lived with her mother. Perhaps she’d been so caught up in her thoughts that she hadn’t seen it? However, if they continued on, they would eventually reach the village. She often made toys for the children there, carved out of bits of deadfall from the forest. The mothers were fond of her; perhaps they would give the two of them something to eat and find a place for the strange boy.

They walked on, the stream gurgling beside them. Each moment, she kept thinking they would come out of the trees and see the village. Her legs were tired, her stomach clenching with hunger. Perhaps now, she thought, again and again.

Her heart thudded in her chest when she realized the light was fading. They had been walking for hours. She sank down to her knees and was suddenly angry when the boy squatted beside her. What could he know about disappearing houses, vanishing towns? The stream was the same, she was sure of it. But her home was gone, and the village also.

Pain lanced through her middle. “I’m so hungry,” she whispered.

The boy stood up and walked away. She watched dully as he disappeared between one tree and the next. The comfort she had found in the forest at the beginning of the day disappeared beneath a sharp stab of fear. A night bird screamed in the distance and her breath hitched.

She waited as the shadows deepened. The texture of the night was muffled under the trees, the darkness closing down over her head and pressing against her sodden heart. Perhaps she would have cried, but she felt too exhausted to try. Instead, she sat on the cool ground, numb and unsleeping.

Movement in the woods, and her heart knocked against her throat. She didn’t recognize the boy until he stood right before her, for he was a shapeless figure in the deeper shadow of the trees. He held something out to her, but she couldn’t tell what it was until her hands dropped beneath the weight of his offering. It was a hare, neck flopping against her hands.

She placed the offering on the ground beside her--nothing to be done with it in the dark. “Thank you,” she said softly. The boy sat down beside her. Eventually, between one breath and the next, her head fell forward and she slept.

 She woke with a sharp pain in her neck when she moved it. “A bed,” she murmured. “A quilt. Food…” And then she remembered the hare.

They had nothing to make a fire. She skinned the creature with the boy’s knife and they ate what she could scrape off its lean bones. Afterwards, she washed the blood off her hands in the stream and took a long drink before they continued on their way.

She no longer knew where to go. But there was no reason to stop. So she walked on, and the boy followed.

On the third day, it rained. Her dress was filthy from travel and ragged from scraping against tree branches. The cloth stuck to her skin and she felt even dirtier than before because of the heat and wet. “Ugh,” Riva said to the boy. “I wish we could--”

A crack of thunder interrupted her words, and she couldn’t breathe. She tried to say something, anything, but found the world had frozen around her. The ground reached out and smacked her in the back of the head, which made the pain in her chest even worse. If she had any breath, she would have cried out. But it seemed she could not speak.

The boy bent over her. His hands were on her face and she saw he was moving his mouth. She wanted to laugh--here she was, speechless, and him trying to say something. A reversal.

“Mother,” she heard him say in a voice like a lilting song. His fingers caressed her face and the look in those strange eyes made her heart pause. Weary, she closed her eyes.

The hunter came out of the woods and his gun dropped from his fingers. He covered his mouth with one hand. There, a teenage boy bent over an old woman on the ground. Her chest was red and wet, like a gaping mouth.

The boy turned his head toward the intruder on the scene, and the hunter stopped with his phone halfway out of his pocket. He had been about to call 9-1-1, but there was something off about the boy, something that gave him pause. The boy’s great eyes blinked at the hunter and the man heard, unbelievably, an animal growl rising from that thin chest. He half-turned back to reach for his gun.

He never made it. Many years later, the gun was found by a child playing by the water, who stared at it curiously. Grown round by vines and carried up the trunk of a tree, the ancient rifle pointed straight upwards, mute testament to an outmoded practice. Guns were now irrelevant, a strange thing of the past. But the rifle stood sentinel still, as if to shoot at the blue, blue sky of heaven.

Alison has over 40 publications in magazines and anthologies, including Flash Fiction OnlineAbyss & Apex, Bards and Sages Quarterly and Frozen Fairy Tales.

1 comment:

Lissa Sloan said...

Lovely and magical! I love the sense of lost time.