Tanglewood

MJG Fantasy, Stories 0 Comments

On the southernmost fringe of the tanglewood forest, beyond the kingdoms of men, in the midst of a purgatorial wasteland blighted with perpetual winter and savaged by endless storms, there stands an inn where the battle-lines between sanity and madness meet. Here, where soul-consuming demons walk freely as men, where nightmares parade their garish hues like common whores of the street, where only the boldest or the most benighted seek to tread, our story is enacted.

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Inside, the inn of the Risen Moon is warm, and dimly lit with crackling firelight and dripping yellow candles. Vanilla smoke drifts heavy in the thick air, tumbling with the pitch and roll of voices whispered through the shadows, conversations beginning and ending. It seems the landlord must look well to his holdings, though at present he is not to be seen, since the floor-stones are dry and well-swept, the oak tables and chairs stand dark with varnish and polish.

Down the length of the eastern wall looms the hulking stone hearth, beech-wood fire blazing in the sooty pit, licking against the black iron guards. Scattered round, nailed to the age-silvered stone, are scraps of rusted metal, a shrine to days gone by, horseshoes glinting dully, burnished bellow handles, battered pick blades, half a ploughshare.

Running in opposition down the western wall squats the thick oak bar, latticed with filigreed copper and tungsten in swirling leafy designs, behind which a ruddy young girl dithers, pale and fair-haired, blue eyes almost translucent in the flickering firelight. Behind her, a rack of multi-coloured liquor bottles hang shelved against polished silver trim mirrors, each grimy with dust and age, scrawled over with spidery handwriting on yellowed paper labels.

“I come here for the beer, mostly,” a toothless old drunk slurs, slouching across the bar towards the blushing bar girl. He’s clothed all in stained khaki layers, the fabric heaping over his uneven frame like the rags of sackcloth on a weather beaten scarecrow, straw stuffing shrinking from its cuffs and midriff. He stinks of urine and old sweat. “The spirits, they’re bad,” he slurs. “Distilling out the truth, they do.” He waves his bronze tankard, and froths of the strong ale spill out, dribble over the lacquered bar top.

In the south-western corner, sandwiched between a wall arrayed with the trophy heads of strange beasts, trapped and killed in the Tanglewood, and the obsidian corner of the imposing stone hearth, three working men huddle round a table in shadow. Their faces are smudged with coal dust, their hands blackened as if they’ve been toiling beneath their black gold burdens this very day, although there are no pit mines near the Tanglewood. They speak in hurried whispers, their voices accented with a certain lilting twang, unfamiliar to these parts.

“Three, I win,” whispers one, taps something dark onto the tabletop, looks to the others for their response.

“How many times, this isn’t dice,” replies another.

“Well he’ll take three, it’s the same.”

“Three suits.”

“And it’s not cards either. It’s their lives,” hisses the third, laying flat his silt encrusted palm on the shadowy table.

“Oh stop it,” rejoins the first.

Before the hearth there sits a young girl cross-legged upon a rug of red and gold weave, the landlord’s daughter. She plays with rustling corn dolls dressed in plaid smocks and shoes, dresses and pink for the girls, blue and pants for the boys. She styles their hair into spiky straw juts, then shows them to her grandfather, a weary old man resting easy in a battered old leather armchair, slippered feet towards the fire, smoking a pipe from which the vanilla smoke plumes.

“Very nice,” he says occasionally. “Very pretty.”

“But that’s the boy!” the girl will sometimes complain.

“My mistake, most handsome,” the old man amends.

Along the northern wall and facing the Tanglewood, straddling the Risen Moon’s only window with their arms linked across a heavy iron table, sit a beautiful couple, holding hands. They glance out across the inn, and through the discoloured glass into the winter storm swirling the woods outside to white, back into each other’s eyes.

“We’ve lost him,” says the boy, perhaps 18 years newly come of age, a rush of downy gold cropping up from his full jaw like the spring’s early harvest.

“He won’t come back, now, wil he?” murmurs the girl, her luxuriant black hair gleaming in the candlelight as she speaks. Her olive skin off-sets his marble white glow, matching the two as perfectly as the copper filigree against the dark oaken bar, their fingers interlaced like it’s tendrils of branches and roots.

“I love you,” he mouths silently.

“And I you,” she mouths back.

“He’s coming,” he warns, low.

“Not yet,” she breathes.

“I can’t stop it.”

“He might not come.”

Just then, the door crunches opens, and a frozen draught steals into the room. The fire trembles in the hearth, and shadows backwash around the room. The bar-girl shivers, hugs her fragile arms close to her ample chest. The drunk at the bar takes a deep slug of his ale, his trembling hand spilling the amber liquid to trickle down through his yellow grey beard. The gamblers in the corner shuffle closer to their table, intent upon their hushed conversation. The little girl by the fire wraps up her dollies snug in their clothes, the old man draws deeply on his pipe, and the couple turn to face the door.

“I can’t do it,” says the young man, but the door opens still.

In the open doorway, swirled round with flurries of snow, stands an emaciated young man, completely naked. His scant body chatters with the cold, his hair blasted white in patches, the skin of his feet and hands blue.

He points a limp arm at the drunkard at the bar, eyes dark and empty.

“It’s him!” he judders through iced lips, staggers towards the bar, limbs jolting him unevenly forward like an infant’s first steps. Within seconds he stumbles, doddering feet caught on the rich red and gold rug, falls onto his face with a solid sodden smack.

“He did this,” he mumbles, as blood spreads from his crushed nose over the sandy wooden floorboards.

“I can’t save him,” says the young man, buries his head in his hands as his eyes fuzz with tears. “I don’t want to die.” The young girl reaches out, strokes his soft brown hair with her beautiful small hands.

“What’s that?” asks the little girl of her grandfather, looking up at him with wonder. He draws deep on his pipe, flicks a glance to the bar where the drunkard is smiling and raising his tankard as if to toast the naked man’s downfall, then to the beautiful couple where the young man weeps quietly, shoulders racking up and down, then back down to his granddaughter, her smooth face curious and unafraid, and not once at the collapsed figure.

“Nothing, honey. Close the door.”

The men in the corner make bare mention of the strange appearance.

“Another Tangled one.”

“Bring it on themselves.”

“Ho, three.”

“He’s just waiting for them.”

“Sly, that one.”

“Liar, that was never three.”

“Bring it on themselves, they do.”

The little girl gets up to close the door, side-steps daintily past the dying man in his melting patch of snow.

“Are you alright, mister?” she asks.

“Please help me,” he whispers, burbling.

“What’s wrong?” she asks.

“It’s him.”

“Come here, child!” snaps her grandfather quickly, catches her eye. “Play with your dolls.” He leans over, surprisingly swift for a man of his wrinkled years, and picks up the girl doll. “What a strapping fellow, hey?”

The little girl shakes her head, because it’s the girl, but heads back to her spot by the fire.

The drunk reaches across the bar for the serving girl’s hands, but she takes a step back.

“See that?” he asks, nodding back to the pathetic form on the floor. “They all come back in the end. It’s what happens to the young. They get old, and then they die.” He grins, revealing two browned and rotten teeth in his lippy maw, their craggy heads like ugly moles burrowed up from his veiny gums. “Only the young’ll die like that,” he cackles.

“He shouldn’t have been out like that,” protests the girl feebly, shaking her head, backing up against the mirrors until the liquor rack bites across her spine, eyes wide to the convulsing wraith on the ground. “He should have known.”

“Sure he had his reasons,” grants the drunk expansively, spreads his arms wide, casts roving eyes over her body, grins again. “We all have our reasons. Always the young.”

“Why don’t you do something about him?” she asks, tremulous.

“Why don’t you?” he counters, eyes narrowing to her heaving chest.

“I, I,” she stammers.

“I,I,” he mocks, imitates her high, faint voice. “I wish I had a good hard cock between my legs.”

“What?” she gasps, but he grins again, teeth glinting like dirty gold in his scabby gums, and ignores her.

“Always the young to die like this,” he says, slurps on his beer, stares at her chest.

“It’s alright,” soothes the young woman by the window, resting her cupped palms on the head of the sobbing young man. “Somebody else will, it’s going to be alright, I love you.”

“I can’t,” he sobs, the words choked off. “He’ll kill me. I know.”

“Shhh, you don’t have to.”

The naked boy on the floor convulses for a time, the sound of his head banging involuntarily on freshly swept flag stones jolting through the room. His teeth grind. Then it stops, and he’s dead.

“It’s over,” says the young woman. “It’s done, he’s finished. There’s nothing to worry about.”

One of the bunched men in the corner slides back in his chair, wood scraping dry on wood.

“Aren’t you gonna fix that up?” he asks the bar-girl, nodding to the naked man on the floor. “S’enough to put a man off his wagering.”

“One already, ho, I take the pot!” comes a cry from the table, and the complainer turns back.

“No fair, I was out of play.”

“You’ll be blaming the Tangle itself next!”

“No play, let the one ride.”

“Come here,” beckons the grimy drunk at the bar, settling his tankard down gently, rolling his eyes over the bar-girls figure. She doesn’t budge. “Come on, look at this.” She inches closer.

“In here, it is, in here,” he says, opens his foul mouth wide, points to the upper gum. “Got me a new one, I did. Brand new, it is.”

The bar-girl stares at the pearly white tooth blooming from the gum, perfect and impossible.

“How?” she asks.

“Brand new.” He slithers, strokes it with filthy fingers.

“Only the Tangle….” she whimpers, trails off, then lurches back, the bottles rattling on the shelf behind her. The drunk winks at her, points at the blue body at his feet.

“Mayhap you should be cleaning that up,” he suggests, flashing his new tooth.

“It’s not my job,” she says quietly, hands wringing her apron, panicked eyes darting. “I just serve the drinks.”

“Mayhap then you should be serving me.”

“What do you want?” she asks, high pitched.

“You know,” leers the drunk, strokes two fingers around his mouth, pushes his pink probing tongue worm-like darting between them. The girl shivers.

“Cold already, is it?” he asks, between the fingers.

“Where’s daddy?” asks the little girl. “Is he still upstairs with mommy?”

“He’s gone away honey, play with your dolls.”

“He’s been gone a long time.”

“Shhh, not to worry. Your mommy’s sleeping upstairs.”

She clambers onto her grandfather’s bony lap, whispers into his seashell ear. “What’s wrong with mommy?”

“Nothing your old dad won’t fix. If he runs the Risen Moon, he can fix your mother dear. Don’t think of it child.” He picks her up, places her back on the floor.

“What’s wrong with that man, grampaw?” she asks, points at the dead man with her boy doll.

“Nothing honey, don’t think about it.”

The young man lifts his head from his arms abruptly, and the young woman’s hands thunk onto the table. He wipes the tears from his cheeks, blinks, then stands up, looks around the room.

“Cowards!” he calls out, his breath disturbing the settling smoke. The figures at the bar turn, the little girl sets her dolls down, the gamblers cease their prattling.

“I’m a coward!” he calls out. “It’s true. But you? You suffer it to boast in your midst? It’s you all, you’re to blame, you do this to yourselves! Cowards all, you turn your eyes to the side! How many more before you do something?”

“Siddown!” shouts the old drunk at the bar, slams his tankard hard on the wood. A sticky strand of ale leaps up from the bronze. “Let’s have no more of your raving!”

“Where are the child’s parents?” calls out the young man, points at the little girl. “Where is the master of this inn? Where is his wife? You think the Tangle will stop for you, you think you will be spared? Look at my friend, blue on the floor, and for what? For you? Don’t you understand, we’re all going to die like this! It’s coming for us all.”

“Only for the young!” cries the drunk. “Words always for the young, coward yourself, why don’t you fight it? We’ve all heard you, snuffling with that harridan by the window. But what, you do nothing but proclaim yourself a coward? I name you. You will die, child. Go, stay, fight, any way now, but I promise you will die.”.

The men in the corner turn unhappy faces to the argument.

“We’re trying to play some cards,” one of them offers.

“Let’s get some quiet, huh?” suggests another.

“See that, a 3?”

“It’s just the Tangle, who cares? This is dice!”

“Three he takes him down alive.”

“He’s too old, besides, this is dice.”

“They’ve lost their minds,” whispers the young girl, reaching out for the young man’s hand. His fingers are stiff and cold. “They don’t know what they’re saying. It isn’t here. It isn’t this, please.”

“No,” says the young man, surprised at the firmness of his voice.

“Please,” she whispers. “Please, we’d be alright, it wouldn’t hurt us.” She turns to the drunk, reaches out her arms. “You wouldn’t, if, you wouldn’t would you?”

The drunk inclines his head slightly.

“Look, please, take this,” she says, reaches up to her chest, pulls open her heavy wool overcoat.

“No!” whispers the young man.

She pushes aside the trailing ends of her woollen scarf, seizes the neckline of her lace bodice and tears it down to reveal two heavy ivory breasts, goose-pimpled with the sudden cold.

“Take these,” she gasps.

“Why do you offer these to me?” slurs the drunk, chugs on his ale.

“I love you!” she says to the young man, grasping at his fingers. “You won’t die!”

He shakes her off. “It’s already here,” he says. “There’s no place will be safe.”

“What do you mean, no place?” ssks the bar-girl nervously, the little girl watching attentively, listening to every word.

“It sees me, it’s already here!” cries the young man, sudden anger in his voice, staring at the drunk hunched over his pint. “I won’t let it be.”

“Don’t give in!” pleads his lover, breasts lolling inside the torn bodice, desperate hands pawing at his face, cheeks, suddenly cold to touch.

“It’s too late,” he says, steps away from the table, over to the prone body. Lifts the feet, starts to drag it to the door.

“No!” calls the young woman, but doesn’t move from her chair.

The icy corpse scratches along the floor. The young man opens the door behind him, a second gust of frozen air bursts into the room, and the dolls’ corn hair rustles in the breeze. He steps out, pulls the body with him, and the door closes behind him.

“What is he doing?” asks the bar-girl of the young woman, now rapt to the window, peering out through the frosty glass.

“Ain’t nothin’ but for the young,” cackles the old drunk. “Just the way they go. You stay here now, with old Jack. Have something to drink.”

“What’s happening, grandfather?” asks the little girl, tugging at his trousers, eyes fixed to the damp patch where the corpse lay on the ground before her. “Where’s my daddy?”

“Shhh,” he says, takes a cork strip and tamps down the tobacco in his pipe with a trembling hand. “Nothing, honey.”

“It IS something!” cries the young woman abruptly, wheeling on the old man, eyes wide and alight. “You tell her, you tell her NOW, exactly what you’re all letting happen! And where IS the master of this house? Why do you all sit here? Why do we sit, and just wait? Where is he? It’s coming for us, I tell you!

“Siddown!” calls the drunk, as the bar-girl creeps nearer to see, back to the bar.

“We’re getting close, I wager on the young man.”

“He must die.”

“And the rest?”

“The Tangle is coming.”

“A flush! A straight flush.”

“This is life, not cards.”

“I LOVE that man! Now he’s gone, and you do nothing! Why? We could stop this.”

“Was he your husband?” asks the bar-girl meekly, shuffling closer to the bar. The old drunk spies her at his elbow, spins, then strikes her full in the face with the foaming bronze tankard. She drops to the ground behind the bar without a sound.

“Siddown or I’ll sit you down,” he cries.

The little girl starts to cry, as scrabbling sounds come from behind the bar. “Daddy!” she calls out.

“You should all be ashamed of yourselves!” cries the young woman. “You let your death in by the front door!” Strides to the door, throws it open, and steps out into the blistering storm.

The door wavers, creaking.

“Stop the babe from crying, this is cards!”

“Dice.”

“The very same, dice. Close the door, how many times.”

“Silence the child, or I’ll do it for you!”

“Come now, this is life and death.”

“Dice.”

“Life and dice, come now.”

“Close the door, child,” says the old man again as if nothing has changed, nudges the red-faced weeping child with his slippered foot.

The little girl lumbers up to the door, shivering in the blast. She peers out into the storm, snowflakes bruising her dainty nose, lulling her to the cold. She turns back to the inn, but sees nothing, not her father, or mother, only the dolls. Faces the storm again, and fancies she can hear the distant echoed call of her mother, calling her to dinner, calling her to her side.

“Mommy?” she whispers, then steps out into the storm.

The door closes behind her, and all noise in the inn ceases.

The bar-girl shuffles in a silent void to her feet, leaning back against the mirrors, bright red line trickling down her neck from the bright red weal in her jaw, staring at the old drunk, who sits very still, smiling his rotten grin with one perfect tooth at the fore.

But no sound.

The gamblers in the corner open their mouths to call out, but when no sound emerges they stop and glare at their glasses, hold them up to the musky light. The old man in his armchair stares terrified at the door, where the little girl left, and his eyes grow wider, and wider, and the pipe drops from his hands to clatter silently on the floor.

Snow descends in the woods outside the imperfect window, a steady train of white flakes, gusting sometimes, falling sometimes, settling.

The drunk at the bar lifts his tankard heartily to his lips, splashing foam. “To the young!” he toasts, and as the dented bronze rim touches his lips, everything stops.

*

“Where’s my daddy?” asks the little girl of the wood.

“Would you like to see him?” asks the wood of the little girl.

“He gave me the dolls,” she answers.

“I can show him to you,” says the wood.

*

Everything starts again.

“I’m confused.”

“He’s coming back, maybe.”

“He’ll die, it’s set, it must be.”

“And then us? What then for us?”

“The Tangle will always have need of us.”

“This death, I bid 3.”

“I bid three on us.”

“Only to the young,” chuckles the old drunk, swigs at his ale, and at that moment the young man bursts in the door with the gale at his heels.

“You!” he cries, brows furrowed, mouth and eyes wide. “It’s only you.”

The old drunk beams at him, the bar girl steps close to see, lurches away as the drunk reaches out for her, snags a bony finger to her blouse strap. It snaps as she pulls against him, and the fabric peels away like the skin of some over-ripe fruit, displaying one doughy white breast. He seizes it as she flounders off-balance.

“I take it all,” he sneers, squeezes the soft smooth flesh as the bar-girl pulls away and grasps at herself.

Then the young man is raising the heavy oak and iron table over his head, bringing it down over the grinning drunk’s head. The weight drives his wiry frame down, there’s a snap, a clatter as the tankard dashes along the stone flags, a crack as the thick wooden tabletop splits over the old drunk’s skull.

He laughs out loud.

The young man leans over, kicks him in the face, and dirty blood splatters against the base of the bar, as the whimpering white faced bar girl struggles to re-attach her blouse-strap and cover herself.

“Too late,” cackles the drunk, as the young man stamps full on his face. There’s a nauseating dry snap as his jaw breaks, hangs loose to one side, but still he speaks. “She speaks with the wood now,” he trumpets triumphantly. “She’s with us now.”

“Not yet!” cries the young man, stamps again, turns to the old man, panicked in his chair. “Go!” he commands.

The old man lurches up and rushes to the door, throws it open. His gown whips like a flag round his gaunt body, legs stick thin under the wool, and he screams something into the blizzard, weak voice cracking and breaking over the white fronts, the name of his granddaughter.

“Close the door, this is a game of cards,” calls one of the blackened gamblers from the corner.

“A wager, a wager he makes it through.”

“Life and death.”

“Nevertheless, this is cards.”

The young man plucks the tankard from the bar as the bar-girl leans over, reaching out to stay his arm but failing, her weak blue eyes welling with tears. He ignores her, sways the pot over his head, manic with a fixed grin, then crashes it down full onto the drunkard’s mouth. It slices through the maggoty lip, which hangs raggedly over his bloody pink gums, and a shard of brown tooth on his tongue, white on the inside, the chipped whole lying on the sandy floor beside his shoulder.

The old man cries again, then pelts out into the darkness, leaves the door banging into the storm against its frame.

“3 says he’s going to make it.”

“He’ll never make it, but this ace says all the teeth will fall.”

“My diamonds against your ace, here’s to the Tangle.”

“Tangle be damned, 3 says they’re all going to die.”

He brings down the tankard again into the laughing mouth, and as it lands the laughter stops, replaced by a low moaning and the throat splatter sound of a man drowning on his own fluids. A second brown tooth rests beside the other.

The bar-girl calls out to him to stop, for mercy, but he doesn’t stop. She leans over the bar, stares out through the slamming door at the falling forest of snow outside.

The fire whisks with the breeze, fluttering in the hearth, then dies, casting the room dim and cold and empty but for the sound of the young man striking the drunkard’s face, and the bar girl mewling as she looks on, fingering her aching jaw-line, as the snow swishes down noisily outside.

“Go get them!” shouts the young man to the bar-girl, over the deafening crash of snowflakes falling. “We can save them all!”

The pot cracks into the skull, the drunkard’s face nothing but mush and splinters of bone, whilst somewhere between the splay of tongue and lips and cheek, the one white tooth remains.

“Get them, get them, bring them in!” cries the young man, then turns to the bar-girl, pausing in mid-swing for a second, face dotted with blood. “You can do it,” he says.

*

“This way,” says the wood to the child.

“To see my father? And my mother too?”

“This way, this way,” whispers the wood to the girl, words wreathed with snow and branches.

*

There’s a final crack as the pristine tooth comes dislodged. The young man gasps, lets slip the pot, shaking in the cold dark room. Watches sickly as the drunk’s face swivels, pounded flesh in ribbons over crumpled bone, and the ruined eye sockets stare up at him.

“So young,” hisses a sound from inside the ruined face. “So full of care.” Then the whole broken mess rises up to stand, catches him about the neck, lifts him from his feet and draws him close to the bleeding ragged face. Strides towards the slamming door, snow fall crescendoing to thunder.

“Do something!” he calls to the bar-girl, choking. “You, do something!” she squeals and dances from foot to foot in fear behind the bar.

“3 she pisses herself.”

“Pay attention, the bet is for their lives.”

“Isn’t this cards?”

The snow falls down outside like hammer blows, door slams open and closed as the drunk pounds the young man into the heavy wood of the frame, presses his jellied face up close, breathing strands of fetid rot into his gaping mouth.

“For every tooth.” He rumbles. “Is worth a life. And so, your flesh, and the flesh of your friends, will clothe my frame.”

“Do it!” cries the young man, voice strangled. “Do it!”

The bar-girl brings one of the spirit bottles crashing onto the first brown tooth idle on the floor. It smashes open, sparkling liquid and a powerful stench erupt with the blossom of glass, peppering her hands with droplets of liquor. Beneath it, the tooth cracks open and there inside, the tiny engraved face of a grown man, frozen in a rictus of pain.

“Nooooooo!” wails the drunk, slams the young man brutally against the door. His head lolls unwieldy into the solid door.

“Keep going,” he cries again, voice thick and blunt, and the bar girl brings down a second bottle on the second tooth, showering the clear liquid and cleaving the tooth, and inside, the face of a grown woman, fingers interlaced before her eyes, mouth wide open, carved into the whiteness. Blood leaks out.

The drunk screams, slams the young man’s rag body a final time as the third bottle bursts over the floor, shatters the final tooth, perfect white, reveals the face of the little girl, eyes wide open and searching.

*

“Where’s my father?” asks the little girl of the wood.

“Where is my mother?” asks the little girl, but the wood makes no answer.

*

She hears something and turns, her grandfather crunching through the dry pack covering the ground, he sweeps her up into his arms, kisses her face, and she can sees sparkles in his eyes.

“I was looking for mummy and daddy,” she says.

“I know honey, I know,” he says, and spins with her in his arms, strides back through the snow. Meets the young woman holding a lantern somewhere in the dark, no hearth light to guide them, and she leads them back to the Risen Moon inn, door slamming against it’s frame, snow haloed white with the moonlight over the welcome mat.

They walk inside, see the bar-girl shivering in the middle of the room, holding the frozen green fountain of a broken bottle neck in her pale fist. At the fire, striking sparks from the metal objects scattered round the hearth, two figures, features invisible in the gloom. One of them turns to them.

“Close the door,” comes the voice, strong and familiar.

At their feet, the young man, his head staved in, the cotton blue corn doll lying crumpled on his chest, head torn clean from the smock cloaked body. At his side, the old drunk, shrivelled up and melting in his clothes, dampening the floor.

The old man closes the door, the young woman goes to the fire and opens her lantern, tips out the flame, and the room lights up.

In the corner, three chunks of coal rest on three blackened wooden chairs, an empty table before them. On the floor, broken glass and broken teeth, but no carvings and no faces.

The man by the fire smiles at the little girl.

“Hey honey,” he says, smiling. “We’re back.” Takes the hand of the woman next to him, and all three hug as the little girl rushes over to them, calling out: “Mummy, daddy!”

The bar-girl lets the glass drop, walks over to the coal bricks and gathers them up, ferries them to drop one by one into the fire. They crackle, ignite, and burn out in seconds. Then she walks over to the old man, who pulls her into a tight embrace.

“Well done,” he says.

“She’s alive,” says the bar-girl, tears brimming again in her watery blue eyes. The old man kisses her forehead, strokes away a tear, and smiles.

“And so are you,” he says.

The young woman kneels by her dead lover, stroking his face, still intact, tucking the straw head back alongside it’s body, and fancies she can hear ribald men calling out wagers, echoes in the distance. She isn’t sure if his voice is mixed amongst them, watching her now, in this still moment before his death becomes real.

“You were right.” She whispers, lips barely moving, fingers running through his soft brown hair. “But never a coward.”

The little girl at her shoulder, hand against her face.

“What’s wrong with him?” she asks, kneeling so small by the young man’s twisted body, head burst into dark red pools like the spreading petals of a rose.

“He’s dead,” sobs the young woman, tears scrolling down her beautiful olive cheeks. “He’s broken.”

The little girl leans across, takes up the straw body, clothed in blue, and the straw head, and holds them together before the young woman’s eyes.

“That happens all the time,” she says, and twists the head firmly against the raw yellow stalks of its body. Hands it back to the young woman, intact.

“I can fix it though,” she says, and smiles.

The young woman lifts the corn doll body, whole again, and presses it against her lips.

“Goodbye,” she whispers.

“Don’t be silly,” tuts the little girl. “I told you, I fixed it. Put your hand here, right here.” And she takes the young woman’s hand with her own, presses it against the dead man’s chest, over his heart. “Everything’s going to be fine.”

That’s when she feels the pulse. She gasps, recoils, blinks back blurry tears and stares down at his still body, his pale face. The haloed rose of blood is gone. Warm vapour plumes like vanilla smoke from his mouth. His eyes flicker open.

“I love you,” he mouths. Tears course afresh down her cheeks, and she laughs.

“I love you too,” she mouths, and kisses his warming lips.

END

DARK FICTION

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