Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Pain in the Neck

"There is nothing more plaguey and pointless than two gentlemen attempting to court the same woman," Lady Anna complained.

The solemn woman sitting beside her on the frowsty sofa in the sitting room did not even bother to elevate her eyes from her tatting, nor to offer some cordial reply to the toxic conversation.

"A missionary who rides a crock, and a heroic neighbor with no land," the younger woman continued in acid tones. "It reflects poorly on society that it cannot produce extraordinary suitors any more."

The companion glanced over at her young charge who was momentarily distracted by the chant of some children playing outdoors. There was just enough time to sneak a flask from under her sheath of a skirt and tip the contents into her teacup. She despaired of ever finding this girl a husband. Without even a quiver of her hands, she finished her tea and rose.

"Let's go down to the site where the soldiers have set up the blockade," she told the girl. Lady Anna could flirt while she walked down by the shore in search of a sand lance or two.

They went and thankfully, one of the soldiers fell in love. So, they all lived happily ever after. Except the girl. And the soldier.

The Four Winds

      Both girls were barefoot down by the stream, nets cast aside in the tall grass, which they lay back on in their summer dresses. The red-haired girl, with pale skin and large, brown eyes, had her arm thrown over her face to shield it from the sun as it snuck through the leaves of the trees, which otherwise provided a comfortable shade from the midday heat.
      “It’s pointless, you know. We’re never going to find any fairies.”
      The blond-haired girl lay on her stomach, lifting first one leg and then the other in an idle motion as she strung a long chain of clover.
      “Well with that attitude we won’t. You may as well say that a prince will never come for us, either. No handsome knight. No rescuer of damsels, no traveler of great quests, no doer of heroic deeds.”
      The red-haired girl smiled and laughed a little, sitting up. “Even I would not go so far as to say that!” she protested. “Princes and knights at least exist. But fairies…? Isn’t that a bit of crock we’re getting too old for?”
      They both laughed, neither believing that fairies were anything but real, nor that they were aging in any way. Thirteen and fourteen, respectively, are eternally youthful ages. The future was inconceivable to them, no more plaguey than the harmless insects, the honey bees and fruit flies, the butterflies and June bugs that buzzed around the little grove.
      They were accustomed to spending their days this way. To wiling away the hours with the pursuit of fantasy and dreams, telling one another stories and, of course, hunting for the creatures of storybooks. In the evenings, they would wander back over the hills toward home, parting ways in a spot where they half-teasingly asserted that the East met the West. Sometimes they would even call each other by the name of their direction, the red-haired girl claiming the West Wind, and the blond-haired girl the East. Sometimes, the rare traveler on the old dirt road would hear a sweet voice call from the treetops, “East Wind… Call this way, East Wind! A traveler here!” And said traveler would look around for some spirit or witch, searching the treetops until at last he would spot one or the other, high in the limbs in a white linen dress, long hair disheveled and hanging to their waists. Whichever he would spot would leap down, calling to other, “Will he tell us a story, do you think, West Wind?”
      Who in the presence of such enchantment, such mischievous girls, could deny them?
      That’s how their collection of stories grew. From fairy tales and romance to grim and horror and all that lay in between. Stories from far-off places, or ones closer to home, in places that they knew. The girls would laugh and clap their hands, rewarding the weary traveler with whatever treats they had hidden in the pockets of their dresses: fresh-picked berries, ripened apples, sticks of licorice or sunflower seeds. The luckiest travelers were draped in garlands if the girls had been at the task that day, and would enter the town bedecked in flowers, marked by the girls for all the townspeople to see. Of course, the townspeople would know then to ask the traveler: “How are the East and West Winds today?” And the man, especially if he was young, would blush and say that he had found them in good health and spirits. In this way, the thought that perhaps the girls themselves were a dream was always dispelled.
      The summer passed this way, like the slow leak of toxic snail ink along the branches of the poplar trees that grew on the edge of town. Sometimes the girls would collect the snails and use the ink to write on the trunks of the trees. They were known for naming the trees, and so one was never surprised to see the name “John” appear in a thin black film one day where it had not been on a tree before. Or “Florence,” or “Devon.” If one was lucky, one could almost catch them in the act, their laughter disappearing like the wind through the leaves overhead, always moving away from people and civilization; always retreating back to the boundaries of the forest and the confines of their made-up world.
      Some days though, they would come into the town early and collect some other children to carry off with them. Along the way, they’d drape flowers across the dirty heads of the village girls, wrapping them with honeysuckle vines and tucking wild daisies behind their ears. The boys they would dress in holly and boxwoods and scraps of fabric that they’d bring from home, tying ribbons from their hair around the hilts of stick swords and tree-branch lances. The East Wind might declare a tournament – for the village boys were always scuffling and fighting anyway – and the ladies of their hastily assembled court would watch with interest as the young boys dueled, and perhaps they felt the first twinges of jealousy when the victor was awarded a kiss from both the East and West.
      One day, emerging from the stream, where they’d been walking up to their knees, catching toads and baby turtles, the two girls came across a man filling his flask with water and taking a rest on the mossy bank. Beside him was a frowsty looking bag that no doubt contained an equally unappealing meal.
      “Ho! traveler!” called the West Wind. “What brings you to the little river of the East and West Winds? To drink our water we demand a toll!”
      The East Wind nodded her agreement as she stepped up the shore and shook out her dress, which was smudged from the berries the girls had eaten along their watery journey.
      “Ho! West Wind!” laughed the traveler, surprising both girls by knowing their names.
      “Do you know us, do you know us?” they cried, dancing around him eagerly to look closer at his face, which was hidden somewhat under a wide, black hat. “Or are you a witch, a sorcerer, a wizard?”
      “Alas, children, I’m but a humble missionary, on the road to Santiago,” the man admitted. “But others of my brethren who have walked this way have returned to the monastery that is our home in the mountains and told tales of two wood nymphs that call themselves by the summer winds. And here I see you with you my own eyes, precisely as you have been many times described to me.”
      The girls laughed, joining their hands together and spinning with delight.
      “Then you know you must pay the toll. A story for the Winds, sir, a story for the Winds!” They did not mean to chant together, it was something that came to them unthinkingly.
      “I am prepared to pay the toll,” he said with a smile, removing his hat and setting it on top of his bag. “In fact, I think I’ve been saving this story along the whole road so far, in hopes that I might encounter you.”
      Flying up into the boughs of the tree that loomed over the small creek, the girls settled themselves nimbly in his line of sight, declaring their readiness.
      “I imagine you’ve heard many an extraordinary tale in your days of magic and mayhem, but have you ever heard the story of the North and South Winds?”
      Catching their breath, the girls shook their heads, silent with wonder and curiosity.
      “I thought you might not have,” the man nodded solemnly. “I was afraid of just such a thing.”
      “Tell us then, good sir,” encouraged the East Wind.
      “Yes, tell us of our Brother Winds.”
      “Ah, so you do know that they’re brothers?”
      The girls looked at one another with the look that children always make at grown-ups who underestimate their intuition. “What else would they be, but brothers of ours? It’s too obvious!”
      The man took a long drink from his flask before sheathing it back in the holster of his belt, underneath the long, black vestment of his proclaimed profession.
      “If you think that you’re so smart then, my little twin winds, answer me this riddle, or I’ll not continue. ‘If in the wood, the stream reflects the sky, what then reflects the wind?’”
      The girls twittered like a pair of birds, their words quick between their knowing lips and familiar ears. They hopped up and down the branches, like the lithe fairies they were always searching for, seeming to have wings upon their feet, even if not their backs.
      “Easy!” said the West Wind at last. “The trees reflect the wind!”
      The East Wind nodded her concurrence, and they dropped themselves to the ground with smiles, sitting one on either side of the man.
      The man nodded, his eyes showing that while he was impressed, he was not at all surprised.
      “I knew I’d found the right ones for this tale.”
      And so he took them on a journey of words, spinning the story of the North and South Winds, telling of their childhood as boys who could not be separated, but how one day they both fell in love with the Spring and from that day could never agree again, battling one another mercilessly, the one only seeming to be able to elevate himself by crushing his own brother. Up and down, one and then the other under the boot heel of his brother wind. This fighting lasted for a winter of one hundred years.
      “And what of the Lady Spring?” the girls asked
      “The Lady Spring cried and broke her heart, for she, poor dear, had fallen in love with them both and could not bear to choose one over the other.”
      “But didn’t she hate it that they fought?” asked the East Wind.
      “Oh, of course. The whole earth would quiver and quake from their fighting, and most of the trees and all of the flowers died because of the Lady Spring’s broken heart. She was nearly torn in two by them. Beastly boys.”
      “You mean men,” the West Wind corrected.
      “Surely they were knights or princes,” the East Wind again concurred.
      “No, not at all!” the man assured them. “I meant boys, and probably about your age. If I had to guess them, I’d say fifteen and sixteen, respectively, and not a day more for either. Forever young, the North and South winds.”
      “And forever warring?” they asked in unison.
      “But it cannot be so,” the West Wind reasoned before the man could answer. “For we have lovely Spring, and even lovelier Summer. What could have happened?”
      “But don’t you know?”
      The girls shook their heads, their long hair bobbing to and fro like the end of a pendulum.
      “One day, while racing one another over that hill over there—“ the man pointed over his shoulder.
      “That very one?” the East Wind asked, just to make sure.
      “Yes, that very one. They were racing over it, hollering like you wouldn’t imagine – the worst things that brothers could ever say to one another! – when they met two girls. One with hair of gold like the sun coming up in the morning, and one with hair of redder gold from when the sun is going down at night.”
      The East and West Wind shared another glance, this one of astonishment, though they did not interrupt his story again.
      “It was the South Wind first. He stopped and called out, ‘Ho! maiden!’ to the East Wind, who was with her sister, the West Wind—“
      “But I am the East Wind!” the blond-haired girl protested.
      “Yes, I know,” the man assured her. “The South Wind called out and demanded to know who she was, and just as you are telling me now, the East Wind said to the South Wind, ‘I am the East – who are you?’
      “But the North wind had also stopped, and he was the one who stepped forward and said, ‘I am the North.’
      “And this prompted the West Wind to scold him for his manners. ‘The East did not address you,’ she told him. ‘She addresses your brother and you will kindly let him finish.’
      “Admonished, the North wind withdrew, feeling his heart stir suddenly. He let the South and East Winds make their introductions, he watched as they took each other by the hand. They held each other’s eye, drawing out the greeting into something so much more…”
      “Into love,” the West Wind whispered.
      “Yes,” the man nodded. “And the North wind knew that if he wanted, he could, in that moment, have the Spring to himself, just as he had always dreamed. But in that moment, he had no thoughts to spare for Spring. For just as his brother could not take his eyes from the East, so could the North not take his eyes from the West.
      “Instantly, the winter thawed. The Lady Spring, of course, still nursed her broken heart, raining down tears that, by and by, helped the trees and flowers to grow again. But it wasn’t her alone.” The man lifted his finger as if to stop the words and very breath that might come out of the two girls’ mouths. “The warmth of love between the four winds took hold over every field, softening the ground for the seeds to be planted, brightening the sky for the sun to shine between the rain. Harmony restored, balance struck, cordial relations reestablished between brothers, kin, and the essentials of the Earth.”
      “And then?” the West Wind asked.
      “And then what?”
      “What became of the Winds?”
      “They spent the rest of their days together, of course.”
      “And did the Lady Spring recover from her broken heart?” asked the East Wind.
      “I suppose that, by and by, she did. She had despaired so long over those two naughty boys, that she took some solace in their truce, even if it came at her expense. In fact, do you see that bean tree at the top of the hill?”
      The girls knew it well, smiling at each other, for it marked the spot of their departure at the day’s end.
      “That’s the very site where the North and South Winds stopped that day. The Spring put that tree there as a monument to her lost loves –and to all new loves.”
      The girls sighed and frowned.
      “Is that not sufficient toll?” the man demanded, raising his brows at them. “I’ve given you a story that you’ve never heard, and one that ended happily at that!”
      “Yes, but it isn’t at all real,” the East Wind pouted. “For we’ve never met the North and South Winds. Surely we would know if we had!”
      “Yes,” the West agreed. “We know this valley inside and out. We know all its trees and all its creatures. We’ve never even heard the whisper of a North Wind or a South Wind.”
      “Well,” reasoned the man, “perhaps that’s because the story takes place tomorrow.”
      “Tomorrow?” the girls doubted in unison.
      “How can a story take place in a time that hasn’t happened yet?” the West continued to frown.
      “Stranger things have happened,” the man insisted, getting to his feet, his rest at the stream no doubt over.
      The girls rose as well, brushing out their skirts and shaking out each other’s hair. In their pockets they pulled forth polished stones collected from the head water of the stream, and sprigs of mint that they had picked that morning. They filled the missionary’s pockets, and when those were full, they stuck ribbons in his bag and oranges that were not in season yet, but which they miraculously had.
      He thanked them kindly, astonished at their generosity, especially as their discontent lingered.
      “Now, girls,” he said. “I don’t think anyone has seen a frown on either of you for this long! What will the townspeople do if they find out that I’ve upset the East and West?”
      “Oh, they’ll never know,” the East scoffed. “We shan’t tell anyone. And once you’re gone, we’ll be off to hunt for fairies again.”
      “We shall forget it all in no time and be smiling before you even reach the bean tree,” the West said, swinging herself back up into the tree, the missionary already half-forgotten, just another nameless, faceless traveler. It was the stories, after all, that the girls remembered.
      And they remembered this one in particular, whispering about it as they watched the black of his silhouette ascend the hill and disappear over the other side.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Painful Kneecap Ramblings

I'm having bad flashbacks to elementary school. Please remembe that nobody said that the spelling-word-list story had to be good.

It occurs to me that is rather pointless to attempt heroic tasks in the face of such a crock of poop. Things have been difficult to the point of being plaguey and toxic. I’ve tried using my lance to pierce hole in an armor-sealed flask, thinking that perhaps some public intoxication is in order. Unfortunately, the flask does have a peculiar, frowsty odor and I’m not sure I’d want to drink out of it anyway.

On the up side, there is a missionary nearby who had some extraordinary ideas on how I may be able to transform the solemn sheath I’ve been wearing. He suggested that I may want to consider coating it in aluminum foil, which reflects light very nicely and will draw attention away from my wrinkles and gray hair. I allowed this to elevate my mood to the point that I began to quiver with excitement.

There was a cordial meeting between myself, the missionary and his wife. All was going well until she mentioned that she had despaired over meeting me because she knew that my home site was better than the run down warehouse she was sleeping in. I began to chant, “Nanny nanny boo boo,” and ran away to go to my own comfortable home. It seemed like a good idea until I realized she had formed a dingleberry blockade around my car. I was too afraid to cross them, so I ran instead and cried, “Wee, wee, wee!” all the way home.