A Reason To Live
(Short Story - 2003 Art Show Award Winner)
Fanwein looked with satisfaction at the neat row of jars lining
the wooden shelf on the wall of her cabin. Plantain, willow bark,
and yarrow; dogsbane and rue and viriana. She had gathered
most of them yesterday, in an effort to fill her bare kitchen and,
more importantly, her hours. I don't know what I used to do with
my time, she thought. Who'd have thought one man would have
required so much upkeep? She sighed as a wave of regret washed
over her. The worst pain was gone now, and the wound healed over,
leaving only a throbbing canker of loss. Dobran was gone and he
wasn't coming back, the victim of a fractious carthorse's displeasure
at being shod. The carter had apologized profusely after the accident,
all the while reminding her that it was in fact an accident, and
that while his beast and cart would be but meager payment, he was
certain the good Mistress understood that he was a poor man. As
if taking the man's livelihood would have soothed her. In the
end, is that how we are measured, she thought, by how much
people are willing to pay to put our memory behind them?
If she had been younger when he passed, her children would have sustained her; forcing her to put aside her own pain and loss in order to shield them from theirs. But her children had grown and gone, her daughter a Healer with the King's Guard and her son a blacksmith in a village twenty miles away, living, as was proper, with his wife and her family while waiting to be blessed by the Mother with their first little one. Oh, her son's family would take her in, most likely. And then she would pass her days as the third woman in another woman's kitchen, a hanger-on; a dog lying by the fire eating scraps. Or worse, an object of pity for whom the women of the house found busywork, something to make her feel useful when she wasn't. So she had come out here, to this old hunter's cabin by the ravine. Here she was away from the embarrassed sympathy of the villagers. Here she could fill her days with the rigors of existence, and try not to think.
"Almost out of barley-root. Hmm. Think I saw some down by the edge of the ravine." Mother of the World, I'm muttering to myself now! All I need to do is stop brushing my hair and sew a dress from a flour sack, and I'll be a proper madwoman. She grabbed her cloak, and then paused to look at the short bow and quiver standing beside the door. She had turned out to be a passable hunter, after her diet of turnips and field greens had started to wear thin. She didn't intend to do any hunting today, but she thought she had heard wolf cries in the night. She shook her head. She had never seen a wolf, or their tracks. So she left the bow where it stood, grabbed her herb basket and left for the ravine.After a short brisk walk downhill through the sparse forest she reached the ravine. The deeply carved gouge used to house a river, but now only a narrow creek ran at the bottom, with scrubby bushes climbing up the dry, sandy banks. She found the barley-root just where she remembered it to be, dug a few fat roots out of the ground with her belt knife, and tied them carefully with the silk cord she carried for that purpose. After hanging them in her kitchen to dry, she would grind them fine and use the powder to thicken her soups and stews. It also made a good base for a poultice. She gave a grunt of satisfaction and turned to walk the half-mile back to her cabin.
Suddenly the ground beneath her gave way. Gasping, she slid downward in a clatter of gravel. A bright flare of pain blinded her as she hit bottom, then sight vanished.
She awoke in a heap at the bottom of the ravine. Her left leg underneath her bent at an odd angle, and felt numb. It's supposed to hurt, she thought. Why doesn't it hurt? She tried to move it, and a lance of pain shot through it. Broken. Mother! What do I do now? She had foresworn human company when she came to her cabin, so one ever came out to see her, and she wasn't expected anywhere. I keep my head, that's what I do. I try to find a way to do what I need to do by myself.
She surveyed her surroundings. She could reach the creek from where she lay, she had her knife and tinderbox, and there was enough dry brush here to start a fire. She took a closer look at the stand of saplings lining the tiny creek. Willow. Their bark, used in a tea, would quell the pain somewhat. Maybe she could make a splint for her leg. Maybe I could put a poultice on it, I've got the roots. She looked at the sky. The sun was beginning to sink behind the lip of the ravine, throwing the bottom into shadow. Her heart pounded, and she felt a sudden flush. She was stuck here. Alone. Isn't this what you wanted, to be alone? To die alone?
Slowly, the sun sank and the moon rose into the narrow strip of sky above her ravine. Her dream of willow bark tea had evaporated when she realized she had no pot in which to boil water, but she still built a small fire, for warmth and light. The dry brush started easily and burned quickly. She had watched the sun fall and the moon rise twice now. She figured there was enough wood within her reach to last three more nights, if she was careful. After that, it would be dark.
She drifted into the fever dreams that had become her only company. She gazed out over the brightly lit common room. Men and women with shining eyes looked up at her and her harp, waiting for her to begin. She smiled at them. Her friends. Her family. She lifted the harp in slow motion and held it. Sweet music drifted from it, thought she did not pluck the strings. She roused a little, and sighed. She could not dream her fingers moving because she did not know how they should go. Her fingers in life and never held a harp, and only touched one once.
The minstrel smiled at the young girl in her best Feastday dress. His eyes shone with the love he felt only for her. Soon they would leave together, first Ravenna, then Stanghold, then Dieren or maybe New Lamford. And he would teach her to play the harp, and look into her eyes while he sang to her, telling her she was beautiful. She had been twelve when the troupe of traveling performers had come to the village. The harpist was only a few years older than her, but seventeen was a lifetime older than twelve. She had begged him to take her with them when they left, and when he refused, snuck out of her window at night and followed them down the road. The birching her father had given her for that was only exceeded by the utter humiliation she had felt when news of her exploits reached the ears of the other village children. By the time she was of marrying age the incident had been forgotten, and the boy who had teased her most had ended up walking out with her.
Dobran. She bit her lip. That memory still pained her. She had never loved Dobran. He was a good man, and she liked him, but she had never loved him. She had pushed that knowledge into the back of her mind a long time ago, and was ashamed find it floating to the surface now, with Dobran dead. On the eve of her wedding she had felt a mad urge to run away, to go to the city and find that minstrel troupe, beg them to take her as an apprentice. It had seemed to her that her life was like that minstrel wagon, and it was disappearing down the road faster than she could run to catch it.
Suddenly her fever-shrouded senses became alert. She heard a soft scraping sound, then another, then a muffled sniff. She turned away from the fire so her eyes could adjust to the darkness, and squinted to peer down the ravine. A wolf! Her heart skipped in panic. She hurriedly piled more brush on the small fire, in the hopes that fear of it would keep the wolf away from an easy dinner. She crouched behind the flames and closed her eyes, all but blind now anyway. She could hear the wolf's footfalls; he was so close she could almost hear him breathing. She opened her eyes to a slit and she saw him. He was looking at her, not fearing to approach the fire, but apparently afraid to pass it. They looked at each other for a long moment, and then the wolf turned and loped away. She breathed. He will be back.
The following night, the wolf returned. She built up the fire, and once again the wolf approached it, but did not pass. Eventually he left the way he had come, hunger unsatisfied. She sighed as she looked at her dwindling pile of brush. Soon it would be gone, and then there would be no more fires. The willow saplings by the creek were way too wet to burn. She had heard that wolves kill quickly, tearing out the throat before gorging on the tender meat of the middle. Surely a quick death would be preferable to a slow, lingering death from wound-rot. Nevertheless, she banked the fire, remaining awake until she was sure the wolf had gone.
Another day passed, with Fanwein passing in and out of a feverish half-sleep. She drank a little water from the trickling creek, and gnawed on the bitter, soapy barley-roots. Curious birds came close, launching themselves away again when she moved. Her leg no longer pained her, though it was hot and swollen. After getting it out from under her, she had been loath to move it again. Her clothes stank from relieving herself. So this is how it ends, she thought, in disgrace. I'm glad no one will rescue me. The sweet pain of self-pity washed through her. It doesn't hurt anymore. The sky is pretty. Soon I will sleep, and it will all be over.
She roused from a troubled dream to find that
night had fallen. Silhouetted by the moonlight strip of sky she
could see a moving figure. Could it be? No! My land! The carter
whose horse had killed Dobran was coming down the ravine. Why
is he crawling on his hands and knees like that? To beg my forgiveness?
Then her thoughts cleared and her vision swam, and the carter's
face resolved to that of the wolf. His bright yellow eyes watched
her from just beyond the weakly flickering fire. Hands trembling,
she fed in a few more twigs. Then on impulse she took a burning
stick and tossed it in the wolfís direction. "Get out! I'm not troubling
you, why can't you leave me in peace?" The wolf started back, then
turned and trotted up the ravine. She closed her eyes and returned
to her fitful doze.
When morning came, Fanwein did not wake. She came to awareness with the sun burning her as she lay on her strip of sand, but somehow could not open her eyes for long enough to see it. Weakly, she scooped a handful of water from the stream and splashed it on her face. It felt cool on her hot skin, but quickly warmed and dried. She scraped her remaining twigs into a pile. Almost gone. Why doesn't Dobran come and get me? She looked down at her ruined leg. A large purple bruise had formed around a place where her leg bent oddly. She tried to wiggle her toes, and was surprised to find that she could, a little. Hope flickered in her chest, but quickly died, as she had nothing to feed it. She fought a mad impulse to sweep the small pile of brush into the stream. She thought of the harper she had met so long ago. Dobran knows. He's not coming because he knows about me and the harper boy. She drifted off again, thinking of a fine-boned hand caressing fine silver strings, and hearing the sound of music.
That night Dobran came to her as she lay sleeping. I'm not really asleep, Dobran. I'm just pretending, can't you see that? Just pretending. The big man gazed upon her fondly; his chin grizzled as usual, his yellow eyes sad. Then he turned and walked away. I'm sorry, Dobran, she sobbed silently. Tomorrow I will. I promise this time. There was always tomorrow, wasn't there? She fell asleep, idly wondering why the wolf hadn't come back.
Five days had passed now since she fell, though night and day had no meaning for her now. The ravine twined in and out of her dream-state, sometimes vivid, sometimes thin and hazy, first light, and then dark. In one of the dark dreams she saw some of the women from her village warming their hands at her fire, and frowning at her. Part of her dreaming mind could see herself as she lay beside the stream. Get up and make them some tea, she told the sleeping figure, and it did. She saw her body rise and place a kettle of water on the small stove. Then she was inside the body, looking up at the frowning women. They want cakes! But there were no cakes. I have been practicing my songs all day, and I forgot to make the cakes! The women advanced toward her, their hairy muzzles glistening with saliva. Hairy muzzles? Sweet Mother! She started awake and scrabbled backwards, dragging her useless leg. Her eyes whipped around, looking for anything she could use to fend off the wolves. She settled on rocks, and started hurling them as hard as she could at the ring of eyes. She heard a thud and a yip as one hit home. The startled beast turned and ran, followed by the rest of the pack. Her heart pounding wildly, she collapsed into silence and blackness.
Her fever broke in the night, and she awoke the next morning with her mind clear and filled with a need for haste. There was not one wolf now, but three or four. She thought about the people of her village. There would be no rescue from that direction; not even the women from the outlying farms ever came to see her. Damn them! Damn me, and my stubbornness! She thought of her father, the harper, Dobran. Dobran had found his peace. Iím still alive, so live I shall. Iíll get out of this bloody ravine, and then Iíll do as I wish, with no mind to what people think. It was the villagersí bloody-minded, self-serving sympathy that had driven her to these straits in the first place, wasnít it? Part of her realized that this mood was a false as the despair that had gripped her earlier, but at least this madness gave her the strength to act. Mother! If only I had grabbed that bow! She looked around the ravine. The willow saplings! They were straight, and flexible. And I have that silk cord! Fanwein had never made a bow, did not even know how one was made. But she knew what they looked like.
All that morning she worked. She dragged herself to the stand of willows, gasping at the pain from her leg, and built another, larger fire with some driftwood branches she found twined among their roots. The arrows had been easy, some half-green sticks, points hardened in the fire, crudely fletched with feathers from a grouse's carcass that lay nearby. But for hours she had been hacking at saplings and hastily paring them with her knife, and every time she strung one and pulled it back, it snapped. Damn them! She always picked the straightest, youngest stem, but it was never quite the shape she wanted it to be, so she carved it down, and each time it snapped.
Finally, exhausted, she lay back in the bed of willows and looked up. Unmindful of their fallen sisters, the remaining saplings stretched above her, graceful and green, reaching together toward the narrow strip of light. A small bird twittered somewhere in the spindly canopy, and a pale green leaf detached itself and floated down, landing on her cheek. She felt a momentary, irrational surge of sympathy for the broken stems lying beside her. We didn't want to be bows. We wanted to be trees. Like her, they had been forced into a shape they didn't want to be in; pared by time and life until, like her, they were ready to snap.
She took a deep breath and carefully cut one last sapling. This is it, she thought, my last chance. I won't have the strength to try again. She looked carefully at the length of wood in her hand, observing the way the grain ran straight, then curved a little around a knot, then ran straight again. Maybe if I carve around the knot instead of cutting through it... She forced herself to work slowly now, even thought the shadows lengthening in the ravine told her night was falling soon. The bow gradually took shape under her hands, until finally she was ready to string it. She fasten one loop of the cord around the notch in the end of the bow, took a deep breath, then gripped the bow tightly and bent it back. It held! She released her breath and the tension on the bow, gathered her arrows, and settled back to wait.
Hours dragged past as she waited for the return of the pack. She used all the remaining wood to build up her fire as large as she could. She had no hope that the wolves would not come, not after finding her so weak the night before. She hoped she had enough arrows. She hoped she would not miss.
Finally a crunch of paws on gravel announced the arrival of the pack. Hastily she strung her bow. She could see their eyes shining in the firelight, but could barely make out their forms. She considered for a moment putting the fire out to improve her night vision. Mother! This isn't an archery contest! Maybe the fire will keep them away! She heard a sound to the left of her, and another to the right. They were circling around! They meant to pass the fire! And on two sides! Even if she felled one, the others would set upon her before she had the chance to nock another arrow. Well, may as well see if these arrows fly true. She took aim at the wolf on her right, visible now that he had come even with the fire. She loosed her arrow at the beast's chest. Blood frothed from its jaws as it fell. She turned to face the wolf on her left. No time to fire the bow. She reached for her belt knife, and felt a moment of detached surprise as the beast yelped and fell at her side. Then she slid into darkness.
She woke as the sun filtering through white lace curtains fell upon her coverlet. Is this what it's like to die? She winced. Her leg, wrapped from ankle to thigh in linen strips crusted with clay, throbbed like fire. She looked up to see two women standing over her. No, only one. As her vision cleared she recognized Arra, the cobbler's wife and the village Healer.
"You're awake! Good. I was afraid my sleeping draught had worked too well!" She chuckled, that dry, businesslike chuckle Healers always used to show their patients that they had control of the situation and all would be well. "Now that you are awake, I'll have Gerdrun fetch you some broth. Got to get your strength back, you know." She bustled around the bed, straightening the coverlet and attempting the fluff the pillows Fanwein was lying upon. She winced again.
"Bleis found you. A runner from one of the farms at the edge of the forest came asking for a few men to chase down a wolf pack that had just taken two of his sheep. When they passed your cabin, they stopped to warn you, but they found the cabin empty. When they found the wolves, they found you. You had already killed one wolf with a homemade bow, they said, and Bleisís boy shot another just as it was bearing down on you. The rest ran off. You're lucky to be alive, you know."
"It was cleanly broken, thank the Mother. I got my husband to help me straighten it, and fed you boneknit tea with a spoon." She smiled. "You will be needing a cane for a moon or two, until it's strong enough to hold you. But give it time, and it will heal good and straight as new."
Fanwein took a deep breath and exhaled in relief. Just then the door creaked open and a small army crowded in. She recognized several men and women from the village and, much to her surprise, her son and his wife. How did they get here so quickly?
She coughed and hauled herself higher in the bed. "How long have I been asleep?"
"Three days. We only just got here. We came as fast as we could."
Fanwein looked at her son's wife. The petite woman's hand rested on her swollen belly. It won't be long now. Maybe she could use some help. Some more help. She does have her own mother; though I'm sure her hands are full with her own little ones...
As if in echo of her own thoughts, her son spoke up. "We've been thinking. Maybe you should come live with us. There's a room beside the kitchen. We'll be needing some more help with the baby coming."
More help. Not just "help". She would be fooling herself to think they really needed her there. It was charity, pure and simple. And the willows said... She shook her head to clear it. The willows said? Mother! That had been a dream. It must have been.
"Thank you, dear. Thank you so much, both of you." She wiped a tear. "But no. Once my leg is healed, I think I'll go to Ravenna, find work in an inn as a cook." Or a serving maid, she thought. Why ever not?
"No, no, none of that. I've wiped enough babies' bottoms in my life. Now I just want to come visit, dandle them on my knee, and leave." She smiled to take any sting out of her words. After all, that's what grandmothers are supposed to do.
"I don't know, Mother, alone in a strange city, at your age?"
"I'll be fine. As you so kindly pointed out, I am a grown woman, and I can take care of myself." She winced inwardly, imagining herself being pulled out of the ravine by Bleis and his men. Well, most of the time I can take care of myself. The boy did have a point. She was old to be starting a new life, way too old to be taken as a minstrel's apprentice. Who knows if I even had any talent, anyway? But she had heard there were inns in Ravenna that hosted minstrels every night. Perhaps she would even meet up with that harper again. Five years isn't as much of a difference now as it used to be. She looked at the faces of her family, and the people from her village. They would always be with her, some for good and some for ill. But she was moving on. She had almost lost her life, came close to giving it away, but it had stuck to her, and she to it, and it was hers now, to do with as she would. She smiled. She could almost hear the minstrels play.
a piece of digital artwork created recently, titled "Sun Seed."
It's a portrait of a character from The Lord of the Rings.