by Evey Brett
It’s the sympathetic ache in my hand that makes me sneak out of the barn and over to the gelding tied to the hitching post, still saddled. His owner, a trader come to inquire about my sister’s spidersilk garments, is inside talking to Mama, who ain’t gonna like me being out, but I can’t leave a beast in pain.
The horse whickers. I pat his leg, feel the twinge of discomfort, and it ain’t but a moment later before I get the rock pried from his hoof with my pocketknife and he’s nuzzling my cheek and licking and chewing the way horses do when they’re pleased.
Being this close to the house, I can’t help but risk a peek inside. There’s my sister Delia showing all her fine things to the trader. It’s a rare sight for me, since I ain’t allowed near her on account of the time I tripped over a loose floorboard, tumbled through a spidersilk scarf and spoiled six months of work.
She looks different, my sister. Too thin and spindly. I’d think she was ill, but she’s never been sick a day in her life. Not like me.
Delia says something to Mama, who glances toward the window. I duck down, but I ain’t quick enough. The door to the house slams and all of a sudden Mama’s there, shaking her finger. “Rowan!”
I dash back inside the dark warmth of the barn, but she follows and slaps me hard across the cheek. “Don’t you dare show yourself again, girl, you hear? And don’t you come to the porch for your dinner tonight. You ain’t getting any.”
“Aye, Mama,” I say. My belly growls, but there ain’t no help for it, so I feed Papa’s gelding and climb up to the hayloft and the ratty pile of blankets that serves me for a bed.
But come moonrise, it ain’t hunger pangs gnawing my belly. The pains are back, little shards of agony that spread out through my back and limbs. Whimpering, I curl up, hating the thought of passing another sleepless, pain-filled night.
The barn door creaks open. Papa’s horse goes alert and snorts. Delia calls softly to me. “Rowan?”
I peer down at her. My sister still reminds me of the spiders she gets her spidersilk from. She’s not allowed in the barn, but she ignores Mama’s orders sometimes, though, and I’m grateful. “I’m poorly again,” I tell her, and clench my teeth as another fierce ache tears at my bones.
“Thought you might be. Brought you tea.” She climbs up the rickety ladder with a cup carefully balanced in her hand.
I don’t trust myself to grasp any of Mama’s delicate dishes, so she holds the cup to my lips. I wince, hating the licorice aftertaste, but after a few breaths the pain ebbs.
“I made you something.” In her palm is a spidersilk ring, all but invisible in the darkness.
“I ain’t worthy of even a tiny thing,” I say, but she insists.
“Your old one is getting frayed.” Delia swiftly exchanges one ring for the other. Her hands are so tiny and smooth against mine. I look at her again, and this time she’s perfect in her beauty. The sight gives me a pang of sadness. We ain’t related. We can’t be. I’m the cuckoo in the nest.
“You got Mama angry. You ought to be more careful.”
Ain’t nothing I can say to that, and we both know it. Clumsy as I am, nothing I do can make Mama happy. “I ain’t like you.”
“Can’t even keep your clothes neat, can you?” she asks, fingering one of my ragged cuffs.
Shame burns my cheeks. Mama made Delia’s dress, but I’ve made do with bits and pieces of leather because I tear everything else. I look a regular patchwork in comparison. “I do my best.”
“I know, dear sister, but Mama’s always angry and I’m the one that has to listen to her and calm her down. It wears me out.”
I got nothing to say to that, except, “I don’t mean to cause trouble.”
“Oh, I know, but I’ve thought of something that might help.”
“What?” Delia’s a crafty one. Maybe she does have an idea.
“You’ll find out.” Leaning forward, she grasps my hand and gives me a peck on the cheek. “Goodnight, dear sister. Pleasant dreams.”
She stands, still grasping my hand, and suddenly I feel the pull of her weight followed by a tinkling crash as the teacup shatters on the barn floor. She must have slipped. My grip is the only thing keeping her from tumbling over the edge.
My heart thunders with terror. “Delia—”
It should have been easy for me to pull her up; she’s lighter than the hay bales I stack. But her hand is slippery and her fingers slide through mine, quick as grease.
Her scream rakes my spine like claws and leaves me cowering in the loft, eyes squeezed shut and hands over my ears so I don’t hear the thud as she lands.
I feel it, though, every shard of pain as Delia’s body hits the ground and her limbs twist and break. Papa’s gelding goes mad, snorting and battering against his stall.
And then Mama’s there, voice ragged and wailing, and somehow Delia’s scratchy voice manages to cut through it. “I only meant to help, Mama, but she got mad and pushed me.”
All I can do is stand there and gape. Mama rounds on me. “What have you done, you beast? What have you done?”
I know what I done, and it’s bad. Delia ain’t moving, and Mama’s got Delia’s broken body clutched to her, keening, and Papa comes in, takes a look around, and heads right back out.
I’ve seen that look before. I don’t wait for him to fetch his shotgun. I scramble down the ladder and dash outside and run straight to the forest. Night or day, I ain’t scared of the woods. Never have been, even as a child. Most people are afraid of bears, wolves or wildcats and wear iron charms against the fey, but not me.
Out here in the moonlight, my shadow runs alongside me, and it’s no wonder I feel so huge and clumsy. Mama’s right. I look just like a beast.
•••• •••• •••• •••• ••••
Only real pests in the woods are the fey. I can’t always see them, but I know they’re there. Most of them are like flashes of sunlight or moonlight flickering through leaves. Some dart past with a buzz like a bee or hummingbird. One lands on my shoulder and nibbles my neck, trying to get a rise out of me. Slapping at it would only bring a dozen of its friends. “Get away.”
“Little Rowan, lost in the woods again.” It darts to my other ear, giggling as it goes. “Little Rowan, unhappy in its own skin.”
It. The word only serves to give me yet another reason I ain’t like my sister. But then, the fey are silly, troublesome things and it’s always best to pay them no mind.
The thing hovers in front of my face, so bright I have to close my eyes. “Little Rowan finds the truth, but when?”
Pests they are, always spouting nonsense, and rhyming nonsense at that. “Scram,” I say, and the fey finally flits off.
It’s past noon when I come upon a homestead bearing little more than a cottage, a cow shed and a few crops struggling to survive in the rocky soil. Near the shed stands a man leaning on a crutch and making a valiant attempt to chop wood. He’s off-balance, though, and the axe swing lands crooked. A jagged chunk of wood flies off the log, nearly striking his bushy chin.
He shifts his weight, and I wince at the ache in his swollen leg. At my approach, he looks up. “You lost?”
“No. I ain’t lost.”
“Then you’d best be off.” For a moment, he holds that axe like he means to use it on me, but it gets him off balance and he has to put it back down.
“Might you be needing a boy?” I ask, and sidle nearer the stump. I don’t know why, but something about the place feels familiar. Maybe it’s his shadow, because the way he’s all twisted up with his crutch and raggedy clothes make him look almost as beastly as me. I figure it’s worth a chance, seeing as I’m in want of a place to stay and he hasn’t yet run me off for being a nuisance.
“To help with the chores.” Without being told I set up a chunk of wood.
“I might,” he says, “except you ain’t a boy.” He hands me the axe, haft first.
“Am too.” I bring the axe down. Clunk. Two evenly split pieces of wood fall to the ground.
“No,” he says, and pats his chest. “Boys ain’t got…you know.”
“That don’t matter,” I say as I set up another log. “It don’t matter at all.”
He cocks his head and stares at me. Then he shrugs and says, “Suit yourself. I got nothing against a girl with a man’s heart, but you don’t belong here.”
“I do a man’s work.” Thwack. Thwack. More wood falls.
“So I see.” That eyebrow of his quirks up. “What might you be asking in return?”
I place another log on the stump. “Only a meal and a blanket in the shed.”
“No need for that,” he says. “You do a good job, and I got a spare mat in the house. You can lay yourself out by the hearth.”
I glance at the cottage. It’s far smaller than the house my parents and sister live in, sturdily built of stone and thatch. “You got a wife?”
There’s a long, unhappy silence before he says, “Not anymore.”
No wonder he’s gruff. I ain’t afeared he’d do wrong by me, bit if there’s one thing I learned from Mama, it’s that I don’t belong inside among decent company. “The shed’ll do me fine.”
He shrugs. “Sleep where you’re comfortable. You any good with the beasts?”
“Aye,” I say. “You just rest that leg and I’ll have everything put to rights by dusk.”
He spits in his hand and we shake. Ain’t long before I have a tidy pile of wood stacked near the house. In the pasture I find two cows, a nanny goat and a donkey, all grazing and paying no mind to me. I grab the fork and start mucking out the cow shed. It’s clear it hasn’t been done well for ages, so I clean it out good. An orange tabby cat jumps onto the windowsill and watches while I make the animals new beds of straw, bring them in and milk the cows and goat. I’m just washing up at the pump when my host brings me a plate of bread and cheese.
“Ain’t seen the place so tidy in years,” he says and holds out the plate. “You’re welcome to stay.”
I hesitate, but when I see the plate is carved from wood and not fragile, I take it. We sit there together, him on an old stump, me on the ground. The cat leans against me, purring, and I’m thinking how nice it is to simply sit and feel companionable when he asks, “Why you here, child?”
I shrug, trying not to remember Delia’s crumpled body. “No reason.”
“Must be one. Ain’t no one comes here by chance.”
I wonder what that means. I press my finger to the plate, picking up the last of the breadcrumbs.
“Ain’t you got family?”
“Not anymore.” I pass the plate back. Silence stretches, and I figure he’s waiting for some sort of explanation.
He’s pulled out a pipe and smokes it. The thick, green scent wafts over. It’s calming, somehow, and after a few moments I have the courage to tell a bit.
“My sister weaves with spider’s silk and makes the finest garments you ever did see. I can’t do nothing like that. Nothing.” I tuck my hands between my knees for fear he’ll see just how huge and awkward they are. “Ain’t no use back home.”
“But I seen you with the beasts. They’re right fond of you.” He nods at the cat.
“Ain’t no great talent. That’s what comes of sleeping with the horse.”
“Child,” he says with a note of sorrow in his voice, “you got a lot to learn.”
•••• •••• •••• •••• ••••
I ain’t been at the homestead more than a week when the nanny goat takes it into her head to chew through the leather strap on the gate and run off into the woods. More likely she was prodded into it by a fey looking for a bit of mischief.
I’ve got no kind thoughts for the silly beast making me traipse through the woods, and just get the rope tied around the stubborn beast’s neck when a spider drops from a tree to dangle right in front of me. It’s a big one, nearly as large as my thumb nail, cream-colored with streaks of red and black. It reminds me of Delia.
“Little Rowan, in the woods again.”
I start. I hadn’t even heard the fey land on the branch near my head, but there it is, leering at me.
“Little Rowan, caught in webs that others spin.”
The wretched thing flies off, giggling.
A jagged pang in my belly takes my breath away. I drop to my knees, doubled over. The nanny goat gives a bleat and tugs, and if it weren’t for her stubborn insistence I wouldn’t have made it to my feet. Lightning bolts of agony burst through my arms and legs, like my bones mean to rip themselves apart. The nanny goat doesn’t like me leaning on her, but I ain’t got a choice.
By the time I get to the shed, I’m nearly blind with pain. My muscles seize and I flop down in a stall, helpless. It hurts so bad I scream.
The door opens. My host’s gaze falls on me, and I cringe. He’ll have my hide, surely, for being so lazy during the day. He limps into the stall and kneels down. I shudder, waiting for the blow.
It doesn’t come. Instead, his palm rests on my forehead. “What’s wrong, child? You’re burning up.”
“Hurts. Everywhere. Like my insides are being ripped apart.”
“Has this happened before?”
I nod as another cramp leaves me whimpering. It’s a few moments before I can speak. “All my life. My sister. She made me tea.”
“What kind of tea?”
“What did it smell like? Taste like?”
“Bitter, with licorice.”
He disappears without saying anything else. Once I’m alone, the fear hits. The pain ain’t never been this bad, and without Delia’s remedy I don’t know how I’ll survive. There’s an awful, tearing sensation inside like a beast trying to gnaw its way out.
Just when I’m about to scream again from the agony of it all, he’s back, holding a mug to my lips. “Drink, child.”
It smells wretched. I gag, but he forces my mouth open and a syrupy mixture slides down my throat. I cough, and he gives me a moment to breathe, but he keeps on pouring the stuff in like I’m a colicky horse.
As soon as he lets me go, I curl up in the corner, miserable as the cramps tear through my body.
“Breathe, child. Slowly. In and out. That’s it.”
Between his remedy and his gentle voice, the pangs ease. After a while, I let out a sigh of relief.
“Better?” he asks. He’s perched on the milk stool, bad leg stretched out.
All I can do is nod. The tabby cat rubs against me, purring. “How’d you know what to do?”
“I watch what the beasts eat when they’re poorly. Especially the bears.”
Our gazes meet and lock. There’s a funny tingling all over me at the mention of bears.
“And I ain’t no stranger to pain.” He pats his bad leg and winces. “You know, you ain’t so different from the forest creatures. Too shy to even come in the house.”
“That’s because I ain’t fit for decent company.”
“Because you’re a mite clumsy?” It takes effort for him to rise. “Come inside, child. I will make tea.”
The cottage is as cozy inside as it is out. Ain’t much more than a bed, a stove, a small table, a chair near the hearth and a bookshelf loaded with leatherbound volumes. Dried herbs dangle from the ceiling, filling the cottage with comforting scents.
My host gestures to me. He’s already got the tea tray laid out on the table near his chair so I sit on the floor nearby.
He hands me a clay mug. For all its plainness, the mug is sturdy and well-formed yet I handle it with care, terrified my clumsy hands will drop it. The tea is sweetened with honey and I savor the taste.
“You like it?”
I nod and take another sip.
“Good. It’s a blend I created myself.”
“Learned it from the bears?”
He smiles. “No. I watched the mice for this one.”
Silence falls, broken only by quiet slurps. At length, I grow uneasy and say, “Thank you for the tea, but it’s time I got back to the animals.”
“They can wait,” he says. “I enjoy your company.” His leg is paining him. He’s got it stretched out again on a little stool, and he’s rubbing it in the heat from the fire.
“What happened?” I ask, nodding to his leg.
The wry smile he wears makes him look almost handsome. “A fey left me with a bit of a curse. You’ve a good hand with the beasts; I don’t suppose you might try your gift on a man?”
He gestures at his leg. The last thing I want to do is touch him, but curiosity drives me to find out. I set the mug aside and tentatively put a hand on his calf. Heat flares from within and without, and with it comes a sense of wrongness that runs deeper than the break or wound fever I’ve felt in animals.
I yank my hand away, frightened, but when I look directly at my host, he’s naught but the same, humble man.
“What’s wrong, child?”
I hold my tongue, too afraid to speak. There’s magic at work in this place, and now that I’m aware of it my skin prickles all over.
“I should tend to the beasts,” I tell him, and rise to leave, fighting a wave of dizziness.
He bars my way with his crutch. “What do you sense?”
The firelight plays over his skin, and when I look to his shadow it shifts from human to animal and back again. My belly twists. I’ve seen that sort of thing before, and when I extend a hand to see my own silhouette, the shape is there again.
“You needn’t be afraid,” he says, but I am.
•••• •••• •••• •••• ••••
Copyright © 2019. Twisted-Up Things by Evey Brett