Archive for the ‘Folk Tales’ Category

A Hole in the Sky

Thursday, July 5th, 2018

(from the Colville Native American tradition)

Long before humans were born most all the animals felt pretty gray. Was it because the sky was always gray and always about to rain? Was it because there was never enough to go around? Never enough to eat? Never enough comfort?

All day long the animals scratched out a living. They knew they were missing something, but none of them could figure out what it was. This made them feel pretty grouchy. At night they came together to puzzle and fret over how bad their day had been—Mine was bad—No, mine was badder—Don’t you know, mine was baddest of all.

Bears couldn’t muck out enough skunk cabbage. Black-tailed deer couldn’t quite reach those high willow shoots to nibble. Termites weren’t giving themselves up to the crows and flickers. Moles broke ground, coming up for air just starving for bugs and worms. Then all the animals would go to sleep in a bad mood. This went on forever. Or it seemed like forever. How bad was your day? Oh, mine was worse. No, mine! NO, MINE—WORST OF ALL!

One evening a crow flew in a little late to the gathering. He began cawing and cawing and made a scene. They told him to pipe down.

“No, no, this is big. I saw something.”

“Something? You saw something? Is this one of your jokes?”

“No, something BIG! A hole in the sky, right up there. Look up, go on and look!”

They all craned their necks but the sky was turning dark.

The squirrel chirped. “Looks like rain, I gotta scramble.”

“No, no,” the crow cawed. “Listen—up there. Can’t you hear those beautiful sounds?”

They all cocked their ears toward the darkening sky. Even the mole twisted and strained. “I don’t see. I don’t hear.” His ears were too tiny and his eyes were just dots.

“Wait, wait, listen.” The crow hopped around in the circle. “It’s all so beautiful. Come on, try to listen.”

They listened and they heard the faintest sounds coming on the breeze, floating down from a hole up there in the dark. But the sounds faded, and everyone was too tired to listen anymore. They crawled into their hovels or fluttered up to their branches, and fell asleep.

Next day the crow was chasing off the red-tailed hawk, and they both saw that hole in the sky, still up there, and they heard those beautiful sounds. That evening, as they told everyone, the sounds floated in on the breeze. Everyone listened. Everyone wanted to hear more.

Red-tail shook his feathers and strutted around. “If I can exercise and eat right I’ll get so strong that I can fly up there and catch some of those sounds. I’ll bring them down.”

Everyone liked this plan—everyone but rabbits and mice and moles. They scurried underground. But they didn’t need to worry. A bear brought a big salmon to the hawk, and so he was well-fed every day with salmon for a week. He exercised and built up his flight muscles.

Frogs croaked in the marshes. Birds chattered in the branches. The hawk straightened his red tail and fluffed up his back feathers. A hermit thrush hopped out from a bush. He saw the hawk’s fluffiness and flew onto the hawk’s back. The hermit thrush liked it there, soft as a mossy nest. And red-tail didn’t even feel him.

The hawk clamped down his back feathers and trapped the thrush inside. Red-tail didn’t know it. He flew away, up toward that hole in the sky and the beautiful sounds. He circled higher, circled higher and higher. But red-tail couldn’t quite fly there. He swooped and tried again. But the air was too thin. He was too exhausted. He was too heavy. So he fell back down.

As soon as he started to fall, his back feathers loosened and let go of the hermit thrush. Little gray bird wasn’t too heavy or out of strength. This air was not too thin for him. He flew right up into that hole in the sky toward all those beautiful sounds.

He fluttered through those vibrating sounds. They made him feel like a chick again, and like a chick he opened his mouth wide, and even WIDER. Beautiful sounds flooded in and kept flooding in, so that he felt light and happy. With them inside, he dove back down to the forest.

But the animals were gone. That big hawk brought back nothing, only one more bitter failure. They all went home. And here was the hermit thrush, all alone, wanting to share this beauty inside him. So he found the bears, opened his mouth and coughed up big grumbles. He flew over the deer and whistled into them sniffs and squeals. To crows, flickers, and chickadees he gave chortles, pipings and little peeps. He gave croaks to the frogs and squeaks to the mice, and he almost missed the mole in the ground. He gave him just that tiny grunt.

But the hermit thrush kept all the most beautiful sounds for himself. On a lazy afternoon, hidden in the forest, he’ll sing out a trill in the gray air, running up high—and higher—the way he remembers from that hole in the sky.

The Hunchback

Wednesday, May 30th, 2018

a tale by Eugene Marckx

The valley king died. After his many years of quiet prosperous rule, the people gathered, along with kings from neighboring lands, to remember and express in doleful song their grief and deep respect. When his coffin was lowered into the grave, each of them in passing dropped a flower and a handful of dirt upon that coffin until the hole was filled.

Afterward the question was laid out: who had a right to wear the king’s crown? So the kings conferred. The mountain king recalled as a boy the wedding of this valley king to a queen. The river king thought back to her death so long ago. They asked the servants if there were signs anywhere of her grave. The old gardener led them to a hidden corner of the garden where her bones lay beneath an old rose bush, which the old king had watered with tears. They asked if she had borne a child with her king.

He whispered, as in a long-kept secret. “The boy was born a hunchback. Our king would not look upon him. He had the infant taken into the wild forest where he should perish. But in these last years our king kept asking his hunters for any trace, as if the boy had lived. They reported glimpses at times of a man, bearded and bedraggled and hunched up. But they never got close, never within hailing distance.”

The two kings conferred. They decided to lead a search party into the forest. They chose the old king’s marshal to be under them in charge of the hunters. The man put a red hawk’s feather in his hatband and took along his strongest bow, which could shoot an arrow farther than any other.

The party ventured into the forest that all the hunters knew, and then into the forest that no one knew, hacking a long trail for their kings’ horses. After a week of this the two kings remembered they had other business calling them, yet they charged the king’s marshal to lead on in the search.

These hunters spent week after week at it, but it was their livelihood to kill, prepare and cook wild game, and they were enjoying these adventures, all but the king’s marshal. He had a secret wild desire to take up the crown himself. He had always taken care of the old king’s affairs. He knew better than anyone how to run the kingdom, giving orders and enforcing decrees and collecting taxes. In his mind he was already king.

He had only this bit of a task, to find the hunchback, if he lived—and to be sure that he didn’t live another day. Then he could recommend himself to the two kings as regent of the kingdom and in time take on the trappings of royalty.

One day, as they fanned out on their own across wild terrain, the marshal came upon a clearing with a stone hut in the far distance, the first human sign in all these weeks. Smoke drifted from the chimney, and outside in a small garden a man labored, a hunchback, bearded and bedraggled. The marshal saw him there on his knees tending his plants. Like any hunter, the marshal was careful not to be seen. Quite gradually, without seeming to move, he placed an arrow into the string of his bow, raised it, drew back and aimed.

He saw the arc the arrow was to fly. His fingers were just about to release when the hunchback rose up off his knees and looked toward him. The hunchback saw him clearly and smiled at the marshal, who could do nothing now but put away his arrow. These two strangers went climbing over and through the hedges and finally came to meet. And in their meeting the story was told of how it happened, with the hunchback casting his smile out over the gulf of hedges. The marshal’s bow and arrow were left out of the story. And so he was surprised upon a new path in life.

The hunchback went to live in the king’s castle, but each day he wandered the valley, with his crown cocked over his ear, asking people about their lives. He listened closely, and this made them love him dearly.

The king’s marshal reported to him just as with the old king. The hunchback listened and asked him questions, and this began to change the marshal’s outlook. He became more understanding of those who carried out his orders and more tolerant of those who were late with their taxes. His work wasn’t such a strain anymore. He could look people in the eye without struggling for an advantage.

For his part, the hunchback began a garden of healing herbs, and he opened a place of hospitality for the lame and the ill. Word spread of this and many were brought there to try and find healing and solace.

One day a message came from the mountain king that his daughter was ailing and fading, likely to die soon. The hunchback king questioned the messenger and listened closely. Then he turned to the marshal standing beside him. “I will pick sparrow thistle and red-root leaves into a sack and you will ride fast with them to the mountain castle. Have the cook steep them in a tea to be cooled and given to the princess in sips through the night. We may hope for the best.”

The marshal rode with the messenger to the mountain and entered that royal household. There he oversaw the steeping and he himself fed her, spoon by spoon, through the night. With dawn her fever broke and she improved.

About three months later, as summer began, the marshal saw her riding with her escorts into the valley. She came to thank the king and to see clearly for once the man she recalled from her fever. Was it fate? Or did this man with a red hawk’s feather in his hatband really bring her spoonfuls of healing? She found in clear daylight a deepening love for him. And once again the marshal was surprised upon a new path in life.

They married with great festivities in the valley and in the mountains. In days after the mountain princess became interested and involved with the hunchback’s herb garden and place of hospitality. And through the years she bore children into that household, boys and girls to fill the castle with running and laughter.

Then one morning the hunchback king asked his marshal to walk with him through the countryside. As they hiked the fields and farms the people saw them from afar and cheered. They walked on.

“Do you remember the day we first laid eyes on each other in the forest?”

The marshal stuttered and stumbled a bit, and then knelt before his hunchback king.

“I saw you aim at me,” said the king. “And I saw something in you that needed healing. You were so far away and strange.”

“My king, I must confess...”

“Yes, you meant to strike me down. But in that moment I saw that we both needed healing. And there was never an herb for that. That sickness comes from the heart, and it casts outward on everything and everyone. It’s a sickness of needing to manage and needing to control, and its needing never ends. I saw you and I saw myself. I did not want to be anyone’s king. You wanted the crown in the wrong way, for the wrong reasons. Do you remember? I smiled at you. I saw your sickness, and it matched my own sickness. So now we are healing each other.”

“My king, I am so sorry, but how am I healing you?”

“My dear marshal, you have managed the kingdom’s affairs with grace and compassion. You have grown into a loving man. I used to believe myself happy only with animals in the wild. But you have allowed me time to love our people, to heal and be healed by them.”

The king put out his hand, and his marshal took it and rose to walk beside him. From then on he began walking with his king as often as he could, to feel the love coming from their people. They gave him the same affection they gave their king. Some nights he went home to his wife and cried in her embrace. Their children came up but she reassured them. “Your father is falling in love with our people, so deep in love.”

Not long after this, the hunchback king passed his crown to his marshal and went into the forest again, into those far-off shadows where wild creatures cry out in anguish. The people of the valley kingdom ever after remembered him in stories and songs, and they prospered in the care of their new king and queen.

The Hole in the Sky

Tuesday, May 29th, 2018

(from the Colville Native American tradition)

Long before humans were born on the earth all the animals felt pretty gray. The sky was always gray, and half the time about to rain. Food and shelter and comfort were scarce. There was never quite enough to go around.

All day long the animals got grouchier and grouchier. They were missing out on something, and no one could figure out what it was. At night they got together and fretted over how bad their day had been—Mine was bad—No, mine was badder—Don’t you know, mine was baddest of all.

Bears couldn’t find their skunk cabbage. Black-tailed deer couldn’t quite reach those willow shoots to nibble. Termites weren’t giving themselves up to crows and flickers. And moles broke ground and came up for air just starving for worms. Then they’d all go to bed in a bad mood. This went on forever. Or it seemed like forever. How bad was your day? Oh, mine was worse. No, mine! NO, MINE!

About halfway to forever they were getting so tired of this. But one evening a crow flew in late to the gathering. No one saw him, but he began to caw and make a frantic scene. They were irritated and told him to pipe down.

“No, no, this is big. I saw something.”

“Something? You saw something? Is this a joke?”

“No, something BIG! A hole in the sky, right up there.”

They all craned their necks but the sky was getting dark.

“Looks like rain,” the squirrel chirped. “I gotta scramble.”

“No, no, it’s up there,” cawed the crow. “Can’t you hear the beautiful sounds?”

They all peered up and cocked their ears. Even the mole squinted all around. “I don’t see. I don’t hear.” His ears were a little too tiny.

“Wait,” cawed the crow. “It’s all so beautiful. Listen, try to listen.”

They all listened. And the faintest sounds came on the breeze, floating from that hole up there. But they faded out and everyone was too tired to listen anymore. They fluttered along to their branches and crawled into their hovels, and fell fast asleep.

Next day the crow and the red-tailed hawk saw that hole was still up there in the sky. They heard those beautiful and that evening they told the others, and as they talked the sounds floated down on the breeze. Everyone listened. They all wanted to hear more.

Red-tail shook his feathers and strutted around. “If I get some exercise and plenty to eat I’ll get strong enough to fly up there and catch some of those sounds. I’ll bring them down.”

They all liked this plan—all but the rabbits and mice and moles, who scurried underground. Those critters didn’t need to worry. The biggest bear offered to bring coyote meat to the hawk, who was well-fed for a week and built up his flight muscles.

Frogs croaked in the marshes. Birds chattered in the branches. The hawk straightened his red tail and fluffed up his back feathers. A robin saw all that fluffiness and flew down on the hawk’s back. The robin liked it there, soft as a robin’s nest. And red-tail didn’t even feel him.

The hawk clamped down his back feathers and trapped the robin inside. Red-tail didn’t know he had a passenger. He flew away into the sky, up toward that hole where the beautiful sounds were. He circled higher, circled higher and higher. But he couldn’t quite fly there. He swooped around and tried again. But no, the air was too thin. His muscles ran out of strength. He was too heavy. So he had to fall back down to the forest where the animals were waiting.

As soon as he started to fall, his back feathers loosened and the little robin was let go. The robin wasn’t too heavy or out of strength. This air wasn’t too thin for him. He flew right up into that hole in the sky where all those beautiful sounds were.

He fluttered through those vibrant sounds. They made him feel like a chick again, and like a chick he opened his mouth wide, and even WIDER. Beautiful sounds flooded in and kept flooding in, so that he felt light and happy. With them inside, he dove back down to the forest.

But all the animals were gone. That big hawk had brought back nothing. No beautiful sounds, only bitter defeat. They all went home. Here was the robin wanting to share the beauty inside him. So he found bears and gave them big grumbly sounds. He flew to the deer and gave them sniffing and squealing sounds. To crows, flickers, frogs, mice and little chickadees he gave out spinning, harping, blabbering and even peeping sounds. The mole, deep in his hole, got no sound at all, unless a grunt could be called a sound.

But robin redbreast kept for himself the very best of the sounds. On a lazy afternoon he’ll sing out a trill on the air, running up high—and higher—the way he remembers from the hole in the sky.

The Fire Bird

Sunday, April 1st, 2018

The Princess Vasilissa and The Horse of Power

A Russian tale

adapted by Eugene Marckx

Long ago in old Russia there lived horses of power. These horses were broad of chest with fiery eyes and hoofs of iron. And they could speak wisdom. None of those horses are above ground today. They sleep with the men who rode them until a time when Mother Russia will need them to sweep the earth of her enemies. For many years the old ones have told us this.

In those days lived a hunter who rode such a horse. One day he was riding in the forest. Trees were leafing out and flowers blooming. Yet the hunter couldn’t help but notice the silence all around. No birds were singing. The only sound came from his horse’s hoofs on the path.

He wondered at this when he saw on the ground before him a long feather—glittering as if burning in pure gold. The hunter then knew why everything was quiet. A firebird had passed over, and here was one of its feathers. He gazed on the feather. It looked quite valuable to him.

His horse of power spoke. “Do not pick up that feather. If you do, then you will find trouble and know the meaning of fear.”

The hunter had no wish for trouble and he already knew enough about fear. Yet it was such a beautiful feather. He was drawn to pick it up. His horse always spoke wisdom, but still he might take it to the king. And wouldn’t the king raise him in rank before the whole court? There might be gold in his purse, now so empty. The hunter hesitated, gazing at the long glittering feather. Then he jumped down, picked it up and rode straight to the palace. In front of all the nobles he knelt and held out the golden feather to the king on his throne.

The king looked down. All the court waited. “What is this? A feather, fallen from the great firebird? Young man, a feather is not a proper gift for a king. A proper gift, yes, would be the whole firebird brought to me in the presence of this court. What is more, I command you to bring me the firebird. Bring it here. Or by my sword your head will no longer rest on your shoulders.”

The hunter stood and bowed, and he walked out of the palace, shedding bitter tears down the broad steps out to his horse.

“Hunter,” said his horse, “why are you weeping?”

He looked up through his tears. “The king has ordered me to bring him the firebird, and no one has ever done this. And if I don’t I shall die. That is why I am weeping.”

“Enough of your weeping, Hunter, the trouble is not now. The trouble lies before you. Go back to the king and ask that a hundred sacks of golden maize be spread on yonder field outside the city. Ask for rope, and then we shall go to that field when it is midnight.”

The hunter had those hundred sacks of maize scattered in that field. A single broad tree grew there in the center. After midnight he climbed into its branches with the rope, and his horse began to nibble at the grain at the edge of the field.

But at the first red before dawn, there came a mighty wind from across the world—the firebird with its wings opening and luffing, settling into the field to eat the golden maize.

The horse of power wandered on one side and the firebird ate on the other side. Little by little the horse wandered just a bit closer, closer to the bird. After a while the horse didn’t seem at all that close, but a little later he was nearby, ever so close, and he stomped on the whole wing of the bird. He pinned it under his iron hoof.

The firebird struggled to get free, but the hunter jumped out of the branches and wrapped the great bird in ropes. Then on his horse he rode back to the palace with the firebird. He entered the great hall carrying it, the wings of the bird spreading over his shoulders. They seemed to be his own wings as he walked past the noblemen and placed the captured bird before the king.

The king honored him, raised him in rank and gave him gold. Then he said, “These many years I have wanted the firebird, and now I have it. But I am reminded of my greatest desire. And that is for the hand in marriage of the Princess Vasilissa. She lives away from the thrice-nine kingdoms of Russia, in her little silver boat with golden oars, on the blue seas beyond the edge of the world. I will marry no one else. And so, Hunter, you brought me the firebird. I order you now to bring me my heart’s desire, the Princess Vasilissa. If you do not your head shall fall.”

The hunter left the palace. As he went down the broad stairs he began weeping bitter tears.

“Hunter, why are you weeping,” said his horse.

“The king has ordered me on pain of death to bring him the Princess Vasilissa for his bride, and this I know is impossible. I face certain death again.”

“Enough of your weeping. The trouble is not now. The trouble lies before you. Go back to the king and ask for his tent made of fine brocade, some sweetmeats and a bottle of the finest old wine. Then we will ride.”

The hunter did so and packed these on his horse. And they rode through all the thrice-nine kingdoms of Russia to the edge of the world. There along the shore the hunter set up the beautiful tent that showed heroic scenes in its brocade. He sat inside at a small table where lay the sweetmeats on a crystal platter, two glasses and the bottle of finest wine.

The day passed and in the evening, just as the full moon rose out of the sea, a little silver boat came with the beautiful Princess Vasilissa rowing with golden oars. She saw the tent on the shore. She saw those heroic scenes in it from the past. And she grew curious. A man was inside. She grew more curious and rowed closer. Her silver boat touched the shore. She stepped onto sand, and then onto green grass along the shore.

She peered into the tent. The hunter’s eyes, all on their own, began conversing with her. She went in and sat at his table. He offered her bits of food and poured her the finest wine. She sipped as he spoke with his eyes. The two conversed this way for a while as she sipped and sipped. At last the wine had its way. The Princess Vasilissa could not keep her eyes open.

When she fell fast asleep the hunter pulled down the tent, packed everything up and rode away on the horse of power, the princess safely in his arms. Through the thrice-nine kingdoms of Russia he rode back to the palace of the king. There he presented the Princess Vasilissa to him.

Overjoyed, the king called for wedding preparations. But the princess, quite awake now, looked about her. “I will not marry. I will never marry. How could I ever marry any man without my wedding dress? I must have it. And it lies in a casket in the deepest part of the sea. And the one who carried me here should be the one to bring it to me.”

The king smiled and turned to the hunter. “And if you do not, then by my sword you head will no longer rest on your shoulders.”

Once more the hunter walked from the palace weeping bitterly down the steps to his horse.

“Hunter, why are you weeping?”

“The princess wants her wedding dress, and it lies in a casket in the deepest part of the sea, and I will certainly drown before I find it.”

“Enough of your weeping,” said the horse. “The trouble is not now. The trouble lies before you. “Get on my back.”

The hunter rode again across the thrice-nine kingdoms of Russia to the shore at the edge of the world. He dismounted, and the horse slowly ambled through the tidal shallows. All of a sudden his iron hoof stepped on an old crab, trapping it.

“Spare me!” the crab whispered. “I am the king of the crustaceans.. I promise you whatever you want if you only spare me.”

“Bring up the casket of the Princess Vasilissa.”

The crab called out from his trap, and then all manner of creatures roiled the sea. They heard him and disappeared beneath the waves. After a time the seas roiled again, and the casket floated ashore. The horse released the crab and thanked him. Then the hunter took up the casket and rode on his horse back through the thrice-nine kingdoms of Russia to the palace.

And the king said, “Now we shall have a royal wedding!”

But the princess, now in her wedding dress, turned to the king. “I will marry no one, not any man, until the man who carried me from my home does penance for his deed. His penance shall be immersion in a cauldron of boiling water.”

The king ordered preparations. Right there in the great hall a fire was built, and a cauldron of water was set to boiling above it on blocks.

The hunter saw it. But the princess spoke to him with her eyes. And he saw love in them. Yet he could not help weeping. So he asked the king if he could see his horse one more time before death. The king granted this.

Outside on the steps the hunter wept bitterly, and then his horse of power spoke. “You see the trouble now. You did not listen to me then. Will you listen now? I tell you, do not let them drag you to your death. Listen! Run up the ladder and dive into the boiling water. Just do it.”

The hunter nodded, and when the guards came to him, he shook them off and ran up the ladder, and from the rim of the cauldron he dove down—came up and went down—up and then down—and then leaped to the rim again. He stood glistening in power and beauty. No one could take their eyes off him.

The king stared. “This is astounding! If anyone should look like that—it should be me.”

He threw off his robes and crown and climbed the ladder. Tottering on the edge, he slipped and fell into the cauldron. He did not come up. The water kept boiling. After a long while the fire finally burned out. They retrieved the dead king and buried him.

But Mother Russia must have her king at all times, and a wedding was all ready. The Princess Vasilissa spoke to the noblemen. “Your hunter here has proven himself. He and I shall marry and so rule these lands for the good of everyone.”

And so the hunter became king of all the thrice-nine kingdoms of Russia. But from that day on he listened to his wife—and to his horse of power. And so all of Russia thrived.

The Firebird, The Princess Vasilissa and The Horse of Power

Sunday, March 4th, 2018

A Russian tale

adapted by Eugene Marckx

Long ago in old Russia there lived horses of power. These horses were broad of chest with fiery eyes and hoofs of iron. And they could speak wisdom. None of those horses are above ground today. They sleep with the men who rode them until a time when Mother Russia will need them to sweep the earth of her enemies. For many years the old ones have told us this.

In those days lived a hunter who rode such a horse. One day he was riding in the forest. Trees were leafing out and flowers blooming. Yet the hunter couldn’t help but notice the silence all around. No birds were singing. The only sound came from his horse’s hoofs on the path.

He wondered at this when he saw on the ground before him a long feather—glittering as if burning in pure gold. The hunter then knew why everything was quiet. A firebird had passed over, and here was one of its feathers. He gazed on the feather. It looked quite valuable to him.

His horse of power spoke. “Do not pick up that feather. If you do, then you will find trouble and know the meaning of fear.”

The hunter had no wish for trouble and he already knew enough about fear. Yet it was such a beautiful feather. He was drawn to pick it up. His horse always spoke wisdom, but still he might take it to the king. And wouldn’t the king raise him in rank before the whole court? There might be gold in his purse, now so empty. The hunter hesitated, gazing at the long glittering feather. Then he jumped down, picked it up and rode straight to the palace. In front of all the nobles he knelt and held out the golden feather to the king on his throne.

The king looked down. All the court waited. “What is this? A feather, fallen from the great firebird? Young man, a feather is not a proper gift for a king. A proper gift, yes, would be the whole firebird brought to me in the presence of this court. What is more, I command you to bring me the firebird. Bring it here. Or by my sword your head will no longer rest on your shoulders.”

The hunter stood and bowed, and he walked out of the palace, shedding bitter tears down the broad steps out to his horse.

“Hunter,” said his horse, “why are you weeping?”

He looked up through his tears. “The king has ordered me to bring him the firebird, and no one has ever done this. And if I don’t I shall die. That is why I am weeping.”

“Enough of your weeping, Hunter, the trouble is not now. The trouble lies before you. Go back to the king and ask that a hundred sacks of golden maize be spread on yonder field outside the city. Ask for rope, and then we shall go to that field when it is midnight.”

The hunter had those hundred sacks of maize scattered in that field. A single broad tree grew there in the center. After midnight he climbed into its branches with the rope, and his horse began to nibble at the grain at the edge of the field.

But at the first red before dawn, there came a mighty wind from across the world—the firebird with its wings opening and luffing, settling into the field to eat the golden maize.

The horse of power wandered on one side and the firebird ate on the other side. Little by little the horse wandered just a bit closer, closer to the bird. After a while the horse didn’t seem at all that close, but a little later he was nearby, ever so close, and he stomped on the whole wing of the bird. He pinned it under his iron hoof.

The firebird struggled to get free, but the hunter jumped out of the branches and wrapped the great bird in ropes. Then on his horse he rode back to the palace with the firebird. He entered the great hall carrying it, the wings of the bird spreading over his shoulders. They seemed to be his own wings as he walked past the noblemen and placed the captured bird before the king.

The king honored him, raised him in rank and gave him gold. Then he said, “These many years I have wanted the firebird, and now I have it. But I am reminded of my greatest desire. And that is for the hand in marriage of the Princess Vasilissa. She lives away from the thrice-nine kingdoms of Russia, in her little silver boat with golden oars, on the blue seas beyond the edge of the world. I will marry no one else. And so, Hunter, you brought me the firebird. I order you now to bring me my heart’s desire, the Princess Vasilissa. If you do not your head shall fall.”

The hunter left the palace. As he went down the broad stairs he began weeping bitter tears.

“Hunter, why are you weeping,” said his horse.

“The king has ordered me on pain of death to bring him the Princess Vasilissa for his bride, and this I know is impossible. I face certain death again.”

“Enough of your weeping. The trouble is not now. The trouble lies before you. Go back to the king and ask for his tent made of fine brocade, some sweetmeats and a bottle of the finest old wine. Then we will ride.”

The hunter did so and packed these on his horse. And they rode through all the thrice-nine kingdoms of Russia to the edge of the world. There along the shore the hunter set up the beautiful tent that showed heroic scenes in its brocade. He sat inside at a small table where lay the sweetmeats on a crystal platter, two glasses and the bottle of finest wine.

The day passed and in the evening, just as the full moon rose out of the sea, a little silver boat came with the beautiful Princess Vasilissa rowing with golden oars. She saw the tent on the shore. She saw those heroic scenes in it from the past. And she grew curious. A man was inside. She grew more curious and rowed closer. Her silver boat touched the shore. She stepped onto sand, and then onto green grass along the shore.

She peered into the tent. The hunter’s eyes, all on their own, began conversing with her. She went in and sat at his table. He offered her bits of food and poured her the finest wine. She sipped as he spoke with his eyes. The two conversed this way for a while as she sipped and sipped. At last the wine had its way. The Princess Vasilissa could not keep her eyes open.

When she fell fast asleep the hunter pulled down the tent, packed everything up and rode away on the horse of power, the princess safely in his arms. Through the thrice-nine kingdoms of Russia he rode back to the palace of the king. There he presented the Princess Vasilissa to him.

Overjoyed, the king called for wedding preparations. But the princess, quite awake now, looked about her. “I will not marry. I will never marry. How could I ever marry any man without my wedding dress? I must have it. And it lies in a casket in the deepest part of the sea. And the one who carried me here should be the one to bring it to me.”

The king smiled and turned to the hunter. “And if you do not, then by my sword you head will no longer rest on your shoulders.”

Once more the hunter walked from the palace weeping bitterly down the steps to his horse.

“Hunter, why are you weeping?”

“The princess wants her wedding dress, and it lies in a casket in the deepest part of the sea, and I will certainly drown before I find it.”

“Enough of your weeping,” said the horse. “The trouble is not now. The trouble lies before you. “Get on my back.”

The hunter rode again across the thrice-nine kingdoms of Russia to the shore at the edge of the world. He dismounted, and the horse slowly ambled through the tidal shallows. All of a sudden his iron hoof stepped on an old crab, trapping it.

“Spare me!” the crab whispered. “I am the king of the crustaceans.. I promise you whatever you want if you only spare me.”

“Bring up the casket of the Princess Vasilissa.”

The crab called out from his trap, and then all manner of creatures roiled the sea. They heard him and disappeared beneath the waves. After a time the seas roiled again, and the casket floated ashore. The horse released the crab and thanked him. Then the hunter took up the casket and rode on his horse back through the thrice-nine kingdoms of Russia to the palace.

And the king said, “Now we shall have a royal wedding!”

But the princess, now in her wedding dress, turned to the king. “I will marry no one, not any man, until the man who carried me from my home does penance for his deed. His penance shall be immersion in a cauldron of boiling water.”

The king ordered preparations. Right there in the great hall a fire was built, and a cauldron of water was set to boiling above it on blocks.

The hunter saw it. But the princess spoke to him with her eyes. And he saw love in them. Yet he could not help weeping. So he asked the king if he could see his horse one more time before death. The king granted this.

Outside on the steps the hunter wept bitterly, and then his horse of power spoke. “You see the trouble now. You did not listen to me then. Will you listen now? I tell you, do not let them drag you to your death. Listen! Run up the ladder and dive into the boiling water. Just do it.”

The hunter nodded, and when the guards came to him, he shook them off and ran up the ladder, and from the rim of the cauldron he dove down—came up and went down—up and then down—and then leaped to the rim again. He stood glistening in power and beauty. No one could take their eyes off him.

The king stared. “This is astounding! If anyone should look like that—it should be me.”

He threw off his robes and crown and climbed the ladder. Tottering on the edge, he slipped and fell into the cauldron. He did not come up. The water kept boiling. After a long while the fire finally burned out. They retrieved the dead king and buried him.

But Mother Russia must have her king at all times, and a wedding was all ready. The Princess Vasilissa spoke to the noblemen. “Your hunter here has proven himself. He and I shall marry and so rule these lands for the good of everyone.”

And so the hunter became king of all the thrice-nine kingdoms of Russia. But from that day on he listened to his wife—and to his horse of power. And so all of Russia thrived.

The Giant with No Heart in His Body

Sunday, March 12th, 2017

a folktale from Norway

Once upon a time there was a King who had seven sons, and he loved them all so much that he couldn’t bear to have them all gone at once. He must have at least one nearby at all times. When they were grown into young men, the six older brothers set off to woo princesses, but the youngest had to stay with his father. These brothers were given the finest of clothes, money and horses. Anyone could see them a great way off the way that sunlight sparkled on them. They promised Boots, their brother, they would bring home a princess for him too.

They traveled through a number of kingdoms and were favored by many princesses in those lands, but then they came to a King who had six daughters, so lovely that these men fell in love, and each wooed a princess for his own. So they set out for home. But they had forgotten to bring back a princess for their brother, so much in love were they. They were traveling along a steep mountain. It was really a giant’s house, and the giant came out, stared down with his eyes and turned them all to stone, prince, princess, and every last horse.

The King waited at home, waited...waited...waited, getting sadder and sadder. He thought that he would never be glad again. He looked at Boots. “If I didn’t have you then I would die.”

“Well, I will go find them for you, Father!”

“No, Boots, for then I would lose you too. I would lose all hope.”

As time passed the King’s grief did not change, but Boots kept after him every day, praying and pestering, until the King must let him go. But there were no fine clothes for Boots, no money and no riding horse. The only horse in the stable was an old nag on his last legs.

But Boots didn’t care. He sprang to his broken down horse and waved to the King, “Goodbye Father, I will return, don’t worry, and I’ll bring home my brothers!”

He rode along on his old horse awhile and came to a fledgling raven, starving and too weak to fly. It begged for some food. Boots had only a couple of ash cakes, but the raven gobbled them and took wing into the upper branches.

“You helped me, and sometime I’ll help you!” the bird called down.

Boots laughed at this and went on until he came to a big salmon that had got wedged upon the dry rocks and could not get free. It lay gasping and begging for life. Boots got down, wetted his hands and lifted the salmon back into the stream where it dove deep.

“You helped me, and sometime I’ll help you!” said the salmon leaping again.

Boots laughed again and went on until he came to a big wolf that lay helpless in the dirt, so starved was he. And as starved as he was, the wolf spoke. “Friend, please let me have your old horse. I am so weak. I’ve had nothing to eat in two years.”

“What? You want my horse?” He got angry and stomped his feet. “I’ve done my share of helping for one day. You think I can walk from now on just to save you?”

“No, friend, once I regain my strength I can help you. You can get on my back and I will take you to your brothers.”

Boots heard that and began to weep. “I can’t see how you can help at all, but I will put down my horse for you to eat.”

But Boots was astonished when the wolf began to eat. In spite of his weeping that weakling changed into the greatest wolf he had ever seen.

“Now hop on my back and I’ll take you to your brothers.” Boots rode him through the mountains. “Look over at that steep mountain. That is where your brothers and their brides have been turned to stone. That is where the giant lives, but he cannot be killed outright, for he has no heart in his body. That is where you must go.”

Boots felt his anger flash out. “But he’ll kill me!” And these words caused him to weep.

“Calm down,” said the wolf. “There’s a princess lives under his spell. She will help you. She knows how you may put an end to him. Do as she tells you, then come back here. ”

So Boots left the wolf and climbed up to a large door in the mountain. The giant was not around, but he saw a lovely princess who was startled to see him.

“What are you doing here?”

“I’ve come to put an end to the giant!” Boots was shaking as he spoke.

“You’re hopeless. He can’t be killed. He has no heart in his body. So get away right now.”

There wasn’t princess like her, and the sight of her gave him steadiness. “But I’m here.  I must set free my brothers turned to stone down there. Can you help?”

“Well, let’s see. We need a plan. Crawl under the bed over there and listen when he comes home and he and I are talking.” Boots got under just in time. The giant came home.

“Ha! What a smell of human blood in the house.”

“Yes,” she said, “some magpie dropped a loose finger down the chimney, and I couldn’t drive the smell out all day. You’ll just have to put up with it.”

The giant said no more about it. When night came he lay down and she began combing his hair. “Ah, I don’t dare to ask you, but there is one thing I would like to know.”

“What’s that?” he said.

“Only where it is that you keep your heart. It’s a mystery to me. And you know how fond of you I have become.”

“You don’t need to know, but for once I’ll tell you. If you must know, it’s under the doorsill,” said the giant.

Next morning he stalked away over the mountains and into the valleys beyond. Boots crawled out from under the bed, and both he and the princess dug up the doorsill, a great flagstone at the foot of the door. They searched everywhere in the hard clay, but nowhere did they find the giant’s heart. Boots felt himself desperately near tears.

“He has fooled us this time,” said the princess, “but we’ll try him again.” She went on the mountainside and picked pretty flowers while Boots reburied the doorsill as best he could. Then she strewed those flowers all around the door where the dirt had been packed down. About then the giant returned and Boots crawled under the bed.

“What has happened here?” said he.

“What do you mean?” and she looked up at him.

“Why are all these pretty flowers strewn on the doorsill?”

“Ah, you know how fond I am of you. That is where your heart is, and I just decorated it with flowers.”

“That is so foolish, girl. I don’t keep my heart there at all.”

“How am I to know, since that was what you told me?”

She could see he was getting tired. He lay down on the bed and she combed his hair. And she whispered her question, “Where do you keep your heart? It’s a mystery to me. And you know how fond I am of you.”

“Well, if you must know...it’s in the far cupboard against the wall.”

Next morning the giant went over the mountains, and Boots and the princess searched the far cupboard. Yet after unpacking everything the heart wasn’t there. Boots felt shaky.

“Well, we just have to try him again,” said the princess. So she picked some very pretty flowers and made them into garlands. Boots put everything back the way it was, and she hung garlands of flowers from door to door along the cupboard. Then the giant was on his way home and Boots crawled under the bed.

“What is all this?” said the giant when he saw the cupboards decorated with garlands.

“Well you know how fond I am of you. I couldn’t help making garlands of mountain lilies for the place where your heart is.”

“You’re a goose to believe that!” he shouted.

“Why shouldn’t I believe it since you tell me?”

“You will never know where my heart is.” He was quite tired and lay on the bed.

She began to comb his hair. “But it would give me such pleasure to know for sure.”

Then the giant saw how endless this had become. “For your pleasure, girl, I will tell you. Far away over the mountains is a lake, and in that lake lies an island, and on that island stands a church, and in that church sits a well for a baptistery, and in that well swims a duck, and in that duck is hidden an egg, and within that egg, ah, there lies my heart. So, little girl, now you see your foolishness. No one can ever find it.”

Next day as the giant strode away, Boots crawled out and said goodbye to the princess. He returned to the wolf, and they traveled over the mountains and came at last to that lake.

Then the wolf said, “Hold my tale while we swim to that island.” Boots and the wolf went through the water. But on the island the church was locked and the church key was hanging on the tip of the steeple. Boots got so angry that he stomped around, and then he began to sob streams of tears. “Calm down,” said the wolf. “Remember the raven?”

Boots looked up to the sky and called out. From deep in the forest came a lone raven. It flew straight to the steeple and dropped the church key to the ground.

“Now I have repaid you,” it called and flew off.

Boots unlocked the church and went inside. Within the well, swimming round and round, was a duck. Boots coaxed the duck quietly to him, grabbed it by the neck and lifted it up. The duck quacked and dropped her egg down the well. Boots let go and the duck flew out the door. Boots stomped and stomped and then sobbed a flood of tears.

The wolf said, “Remember the salmon?”

Boots calmed down and called into the depths of the well. After some time the salmon came, and the fish knew what was needed. He swam down again and retrieved the egg.

“Now I have repaid you,” it called and swam off.

“Now,” said the wolf, “you must squeeze the egg. Show no mercy!”

Boots squeezed, and in the distance the giant cried out to the skies.

“Squeeze it again,” said the wolf, and when the prince squeezed then the giant begged and begged for mercy.

“Tell him if he returns the lives of your brothers and their brides, then you will spare him,” said the wolf. Yes, giant would set them all alive right now. And so it was done.

“Now,” said the wolf, “smash the egg in your hands!”

The prince showed no mercy and made a big clap, and the egg smashed into pieces.

Then he rode the wolf back to his brothers and he asked the princess who had helped him to be his bride. They all returned to their kingdom. And the king called for Boots, with his bride to sit at the head of the table. “You have the loveliest bride of all.” And he called for a wedding feast, and the joy and celebration lasted long and loud.

Moira’s Mountain

Sunday, March 12th, 2017

a tale by Eugene Marckx

As a boy Wade did not know any dancing or singing.  His people on the slopes of Black Mountain did not dance or sing.  They lived without these foolish excesses.  If they were trading goods with a strange tribe, and those people began to dance or sing, his people always turned away.  The boy wondered at this shyness, but then he would forget until day-to-day life was broken by someone’s death.  They always burned the body on the western plateau of the mountain, and Wade could hear mixed in with the roar of the funeral fire the people humming.  Their singing grew and faded with the fire.

At no other time did he hear singing.  In growing up he took in with his food a bitter sadness everyone felt, a sadness borne on the face of each mother seeing her baby for the first time—as if some longstanding promise were broken again—and in the faces of the father and elders huddling to come up with a name for the child.  And yet for all of this burden of bitterness no one could remember the source of their sadness.

But along with the bitter wind of those black basalt slopes Wade also felt brief breaks of warmth.  His older sister Moira gave him a smile whenever she saw him.  And Wade took this in with his food as well.  Seeing one of her smiles he sometimes felt a great urge to jump high over the black stones.

And then one day she was not there.  Not anywhere.  He looked and looked over the cold slopes.  He whined and bawled to get his parents to tell what happened.  They tightened their lips.  In the whole tribe no one said a word.  It was as if Moira had joined that long-forgotten source of sadness.  But Wade could not forget.

His father cut firewood from the forest and hauled it up the slope on a donkey each day for the people.  Wade had always helped, and as he grew into his broad shoulders he took on more of the work.  But this day he refused.  He took an ax and killed the donkey.  The animal laughed and lay down, shivered and went stiff.  The old man stared at the blood pouring from the donkey’s head.  Then he turned to his son.

“Your blow may be the death of us all.”

He took the ax and led his son to the chief.  As punishment the chief’s men lashed a large stone onto Wade’s back.  He was to carry that stone on his back all through the winter.  Yet he still must help his father bring firewood up from the forest.  As his father cut, Wade hauled loads of wood on a drag uphill several times a day.  By itself this was grueling work, and the stone made it worse.  His anger seethed under the stone.  He thought of running away, but where would he go?

The horsemen around the chief cut up the donkey’s carcass for their hunting dogs.  They hunted roe deer, meat to be roasted or dried, and the skins tanned for leather.  Sometimes the men brought in a bear.  Then everyone feasted.  Wade longed to ride a horse, to roam the hills and mountains.  On rare days the horsemen brought back things of beauty.  Where did they find ivory and gold?  What could they trade for such things?

His mother wore a silver bracelet that was handed down from her grandmother.  Men and women around the chief wore gold, silver, copper and precious stones.  Wade did not want any of these.  He wanted a horse.  With a horse he could roam free.  His eyes were greedy for what lay beyond Black Mountain.  But each day he woke up with a stone on his back.  He braved the wind to haul firewood along the trail that he tracked again and again.  And as winter passed, moon after moon, the stone felt less heavy.

But winter was hard on his parents.  At night even with extra wood on the fire they were cold.  At last when the stone was let off his back Wade found he could easily haul large stacks of wood from the forest.  But his father could only carry the ax and wedges.  One evening as he climbed, the old man began shaking in his knees.  The next day he stayed by the fire.

Wade worked hard to bring wood for the people, but his mother complained that his father would not go out on the slope to gather roots and leaves for their soup.  Wade heard their bitter words back and forth in the night.  He began to laugh at them, but in his laughter he heard the sound of that donkey he’d killed.

Not long afterward his father died in his sleep.  When the body was burned in a funeral fire on the western plateau Wade heard again the humming of the people mixed in with the fire’s roar.  Yet he looked up toward the high ridge of Black Mountain where there was a gap.  To him the singing also seemed to come from the wind over the gap.  In the evening he sat with his mother and asked her again what happened to Moira.

The old woman stared at him in the firelight.  “You liked her instead of me.”

He winced.  “Moira always had a smile for me.  Did you ever in your life smile?”

“I lost three babies before Moira.  Then I lost her as well—to you.  When she and you were happy together I got hard on her.  She stopped smiling, and then she left us.”

“But where?”

“Anyone wanting to die goes up to the high ridge.  She jumped into the gap.”

Just now his hands were ready to choke this woman, but what would that do?

With sad eyes his mother fingered her silver bracelet.  “I wanted to give her this.”

“Did she want it?”

“No.”

His mother left him to live with other widows.  Wade kept hauling firewood.  Young men of the tribe bargained for horses and dogs.  They went out hunting for days and days.  He was stronger than any of them, but what did he have to trade for a horse?  He was poor and kept his own fire.  Finding a bride was far out of reach.  Seasons came and went, but no one forgot that he had once carried a stone on his back.  And they knew as well that his sister had jumped into the gap.

One morning he heard that his mother had suddenly died.  When they burned the body he saw for once all the charred bones in among the black basalt on the plateau.  That evening the husband of his mother’s cousin brought him her silver bracelet.

“She wanted you to have this.”

Wade began to sob.  He could not stop.  Later, still weeping he saw the filigree design on the silver.  As cold and hard as she had been, she had sent him her prized gift.

Not long afterward the horsemen rode back to the mountain, their horses all in a lather, leading other horses that carried big baskets of grain, spilling they were so full.

“This grain will last through winter.”

The horsemen were heroes.  After the feasting and boasting had played out, Wade began to talk with one of the older horsemen.

“You might want something precious now that you have a lot more horses.”

“What’s this?  Your mother’s bracelet?  My wife has bracelets and rings.”

“But your daughter?”

“Ah, but it’s hardly worth a horse.”

“Not one of those half-wild pack horses you brought in?”

The horseman hesitated.  Wade took the bracelet and began to seek out another horseman.  Then the man called him back.

“You don’t have eyes for my daughter, do you?”

“No, just for your pack horse.”

The man fingered the bright piece.  “Best ride him till he knows you.”

“That I will.”  Wade leaped on, and the horse trembled.  All at once it galloped across the slope past the western plateau and down through rolling lowlands, away from Black Mountain.  He was gasping, clinging to the horse’s mane and holding the thin leather halter.  The horse ran up a set of rising hills and down the other side, on and on.  At last the animal stopped by a stream.  Wade got off, the halter tight in his grasp, and the two of them drank from the stream.  But the horse was not shy of him now.  It grazed on bunch grass nearby.  Wade mounted and rode in the way of a horseman, pressing with his knees to guide the animal into the evening.  Then they rested under the stars.

At dawn Wade turned his horse toward Black Mountain.  As he drew near he saw smoke rising in the distance, and on the breeze he heard thin cries.  He rode steadily, yet he knew he was too late.  When he arrived all the people had been killed and everything scattered or destroyed.  So he began to pile the bodies on a drag and with his horse haul them up to the western plateau.  But one he found was still alive, a little girl, her head swollen and bleeding and both her legs broken.  He tucked sleeping robes around her and gave her sips of water.  Then he finished hauling the bodies away.

But when he came back to her there were hunting dogs circling in.  He drove them off and kept a fire by her side.  On the plateau dogs were quarreling long into night.  Beside him the little girl grew hot with fever.  He tried to feed her drops of water, but her arms fluttered outward and she kept calling for her mother.  Later he heard dogs just beyond the fire scratching themselves.  And then his horse ran off.

The girl moaned and whispered without sense.  Near dawn she stopped breathing.  He felt her warmth drain away.  Half numb, he carried her little body out to the western plateau.  Dogs lay around.  He placed the girl with the other bodies, all of them in disarray.  He threw rocks at the dogs to send them off.  When he had piled the bodies together again he found enough dry wood to start a fire.  He fed that fire with wood from the forest through the day and night.  And in the middle of night he heard a humming from the fire’s roar, but he had no strength to lift his voice for these dead.

With the rising sun he wanted to bathe.  He knew of a pool in the forest, but each step downward made him dizzy.  He found himself climbing, stumbling toward the high ridge and the gap, where Moira had jumped.  Maybe it was time to follow her.  As he climbed he heard voices on the wind.  Their humming grew clearer.  Had his sister heard them and been drawn to them?  He tried to think it was only wind coming down over the gap, but no, the breeze was behind him, as if it too were urging him on toward the ridge.

Yet when he stood above the gap the voices stopped.  Wade stared down into the shadows.  Far below something moved—and laughed in a donkey laugh.  He nearly fell off in shock.  But the donkey climbed upward from ledge to ledge.  Just below him it halted and laughed again—he-haw!

Wade crept down and slipped onto its back.  The donkey descended by switchbacks and narrow crevices into that darkest night.  When they were in pitch dark the donkey laughed again—he-haw—and bucked Wade off.  Down, down through empty space he tumbled—and was caught, upside-down in a tangle of tree branches.  For a moment he tried to get free, but they gave way so quickly and he was afraid of falling farther.  He stayed upside-down in those brittle branches, sleeping and waking in pain.  How long?  It was endless.

But the donkey came clopping up from below.  It laughed and broke the branches until Wade tumbled into the dirt, so sore and weak that he had to lean on the animal to get to his feet.  Holding onto the donkey’s stiff mane, he stumbled along as the animal led him.  And light came, not from above or afar, but a dim luster from the donkey itself.

Then he heard squabbling voices, and in the half-light he saw shadows moving back and forth.  The donkey spoke.

“These dead don’t want to know they are dead.”

Wade remembered that voice.  “Donkey, you sound like my sister Moira.”

“Oh, yes, little brother, but I inhabit this donkey you killed.  Remember the stone you carried?”

“That I will never forget.”

“Just the same, I inhabit this donkey until a balance is gained.  But stay close.  These dead people think they are still alive.  They go back and forth pretending things are fine.  They stumble about getting their bones all mixed up, and they will get you mixed up too.  They forget what parts are missing, but in this dark they go on pretending.”

“Moira, how do you know?”

“Little brother, I’ve been listening to their excuses a long time.”

Then the dead called out, “Come here, donkey.  Come make us laugh!”

But the donkey left them behind, and Wade followed it downward into a deep trembling of thunder on all sides.

“Be careful, little brother.  Don’t go near these angry ones.  They are trying to break open the earth.  If they catch you they will tear you apart.”

“What do they want?”

“They want their horses.  They want to ride out and pillage and destroy.  But they cannot even stand.  They lie around rumbling.”

And one of them called out.  “Here’s that donkey.  Ha!  I got hold of it!”

But the donkey kicked away their bones.

“Aw!  Aw!”  A great rumbling swept through the ground in waves.

“Hold onto my mane,” the donkey said, and Wade followed as they descended away from the angry dead toward sounds of whispers that softly moaned.  He heard no humming in their moans, only faint whispers.

“These dead are trying to pray.  They believe that if they make enough prayers they will come alive again, even if only for one more day.  But they are dead.  A breeze passes through their teeth in whispers, a breeze that you and I make as we go by.”

The donkey led on, and Wade felt a sharp chill as they went down.  The footing turned icy, and the donkey slowed its pace.  “We must not stop here.  These ones are silent, frozen in place.  They cannot move, and so their bones have gathered ice crystals.”

Wade caught glimmers of their bones lodged in the ice.

“Whoever stops here will get stuck,” the donkey said, “frozen to the ice.”

But Wade just now lost his footing, lost his grasp of the donkey, and he slipped and fell forward, facedown.

The donkey moved around him.  “Take hold of my tail!”

But his cheek had already stuck fast to the ice.  The cold invaded him and drained away the life.  All of him froze in place.

The donkey bit on his hair and pulled.  Gobs of hair came away, and nothing more.  So the donkey, also slipping, stepped far from him.  “I cannot help you.”

Wade heard his sister leaving.  “Moira, you used to have a smile for me.  Is there no bit of brightness you can leave me now?”

Then he heard the donkey laugh in the distance.  But its laughter—he-haw, he-haw—came out in such a heartbreak that Wade, stuck as he was, began to weep and sob.  His tears flowed down his face and thawed his cheek, and as he sobbed he came loose from the ice, came onto his knees.  As his tears kept flowing there came more tears from those frozen dead nearby.  With the donkey’s cry the darkness began to soften.  Those long pent-up tears of the dead flowing now over dirt and stone formed a braided stream.  Wade heard it, but he stood in pitch darkness.  The donkey could not be seen anywhere.

“Moira?  Where are you?  Have you gone again?”  All of a sudden he heard her beside him in the dark.

“Little brother, your tears have healed me.  I have gained my balance.”

He felt her hand grasp his own.

“Now you may return to the living, and I will lead you partway.”  She pulled him along, and he staggered into a stream that dropped deeper, and then she let go.  He tried to swim, but the water sucked him down.  He could not breathe.  He was dying—down and through and out into daylight.  He splashed onto the bank, and his body shivered, head to toe.  He began rolling on the grassy bank, and all at once he rose up in a leap, and leaped again.  He lifted one foot, then the other, one, and the other.

Then he collapsed on the bank, gasping and smiling, and his breathing settled little by little into humming.  He was humming with a full heart beside this new stream, which had its own way of humming, a new stream that flowed out of the lower slope of Black Mountain.  He slept there for a long time, until something nearby woke him.  It was his horse, standing and waiting.  He pulled himself onto its back, and it took him into the forest where he knew of roots and berries and nuts, enough to regain strength.

He hunted and roamed among the far hills, but he always returned to the mountain.  New grass was growing on the slopes where there had been only black rocks.  And one day he climbed again to the high ridge, but he heard no voices and never a donkey laughing.

Later he found a woman to love and live with, a woman with a ready smile, one who knew how to dance and sing.  With her he began a new tribe along that stream and up those green slopes.  And he called it Moira’s Mountain, and so it was known thereafter.

Death and the Dwarf

Sunday, March 12th, 2017

by Eugene Marckx

From an ancient tale

Roghnall was the most daring warrior chief of his time. With his cohorts he had won so many battles that he began to feel invincible—so much so that he sent out a challenge to anyone anywhere to meet him in battle. No one answered.

But the last, if not the least, of all his cohorts was a dwarf named Clive. He told Roghnall that his challenge would surely invite bad luck. Roghnall scoffed. As far as he was concerned, Clive was too small to take a warrior’s blow straight on. And so he learned to dodge away from serious danger, or at worst he could hide among the dead and dying. Roghnall held to this opinion even after Clive had killed more than one great enemy, and even when it was Clive who devised a brilliant strategy against a foe. Roghnall gave him no honor.

But at his castle one evening as they were feasting in the hall, Clive jumped up on his own far end of the table. “Chief, your trouble has come! Just now your challenge brings bad luck to you.”

“What is that noise back there? Is it the kitchen door squeaking?” Men around Roghnall laughed.

Clive shouted, “Soon you’ll not laugh.” He stomped on the table, spilling mugs of mead.

The men close by would have dowsed him. But as they looked up, his face was etched in fear, and his eyes froze as the door of the hall slowly opened on a stranger there, dressed in a dark cloak.

Roghnall leaped up with his dagger. “Who are you to break in here?” His men laid hold of the stranger, and Clive came up behind with a short sword.

The stranger shook off their strong hands as if they were nothing, and he knocked the sword from Clive’s grasp. Then with his eyes he struck fear into each of them. At the last he turned to Roghnall. “You know me, but you surely wish you did not. I come for you.”

The warriors had not yet recovered when he let his cloak fall from his shoulders, and before them transformed into a great bird, and flew over them and out the ceiling vent into the evening sky. They all ran to their horses, and Roghnall led the chase after the bird into the forest. And as evening drew down into night they all got lost.

Roghnall could not see which way to turn, but in a narrow sliver of moonlight the stranger was standing before him. “Aha!” Roghnall shouted and drew his sword.

“Aha!” Like the greatest of eagles the stranger swooped in, knocked the chief off his mount, struck him to the ground and stood on his chest, pinning him there. “Aha!”

Roghnall suddenly felt weak and frail, so frail that he could barely whisper, “What do you want?”

“I am the Angel of Death. Prepare to leave this life.”

“The Angel of Death?” Roghnall squirmed. He had faced death in battle, but not like this. “I am humbled. I apologize for your trouble, but, please, will you give me time to settle my affairs?”

“Do not be humbled. Do not apologize. Do not bargain. I am the Angel of Death. I am but a servant and follow my orders.”

“A servant? Then get yourself off me right now!” Roghnall stood up and shook himself. Then he called into the dark forest with outstretched arms. “Oh, Death, forgive my haughty ways. I deeply regret offending you. Please, will you give me another chance to live?”

A moment passed. Then the angel whispered, “My master says that you might be allowed to live—but only if you find another person willing to die in your place.”

And so, guided by the angel, Roghnall rode out of the forest and took the road through the night to his parents’ home. There he asked his old father if he would take his place for Death.

“Oh, son, how can you think I am that old? I would like to enjoy a few more summers at least.”

Then Roghnall turned to his mother. “Oh, my son, I bore you, I fed you, I raised you and I nursed you through illness. I gave my life for you many times already. Do not ask this of me.”

Roghnall was crestfallen. As twilight began to turn the skies to gray he rode solemnly back to his castle. His cohorts were nowhere about, all of them gone but one, Clive. He looked at the dwarf. He had never asked Clive for anything. And Roghnall was glad to keep it that way. But in the dwarf’s face he saw his own fear mirrored back. Yet the dwarf had not left him, but stood shaking beside him in his greatest need. Roghnall wanted desperately to live.

“Clive, you have always served me well. At this late hour I finally give you your due, here as the Angel of Death stands at the door. Have you any idea what I can do?”

“No, my Chief. I see no way around this.” Clive’s voice quavered. “But I serve you alone. No one else. Ask—and I will take your place.”

“You...” Roghnall’s voice faltered. Why had he been too proud to ask the dwarf? Here was a moment to ask, if he could. He bent down on one knee and whispered, “Will you?”

Clive, still shaking, began to move forward. Roghnall watched him go bravely, every ounce of him determined. Then the Chief’s hand reached out and lay upon the dwarf’s shoulder. Clive turned.

“Brother, you do me so great an honor, but here at last I see how fine a brother you are, how fine a brother you have always been, and I never showed you any gratitude. So I release you from this.” Roghnall stood up. “From the courage and love you show me, brother, I gladly go to my own death.”

Then with the first light of dawn the Angel of Death entered. “Roghnall, for the sake of this brotherly love you now have discovered, Death spares you. Live on, Chief, into ripening age.”

Sideways Boy

Saturday, December 10th, 2016

by Eugene Marckx

In a time that circles with the changing faces of the moon this story is always happening.  A boy.  Why is it a boy?  Could it be a girl for once?  But this was a boy¾born to trouble.  Oh, yes, plenty of people tried to wish it all away, yet there was famine, but not for lack of food.  There was poverty, but not for lack of goods.  There was fear, but not for lack of weapons.  There was ignorance, but not for lack of teachers.  Oh, yes, there was trouble, and this boy was born to it.

And it wounded him.  He did not grow strong and straight.  He grew sideways.  He looked sideways, and he walked sideways in a scuttle.  His father took no pride in him.  How could he teach his son to throw a spear straight to the kill?  Not with those sideways hands.  His mother, how could she hide her pity?  She wondered if her breast milk had been too watery when he was born.  He wasn’t the boy she’d wanted¾so sideways.

What does a boy do in troubled times but find trouble?  Was there something to steal?  Something to break?  Someone to betray?  People loved their rules.  “No excuses,” they told him.  Yet he saw how they set aside the rules for each other.  “No excuses.  Take your punishment!”  He cried and laughed, and laughed and cried, and cried and laughed until they all knew him by that song.

In the end he was locked outside, crying and laughing, until the wind swept his song away, and he stumbled off into the badlands.  Who knows a path in the badlands?  There is no sun, and the moon keeps changing and changing.  And the wounds on the boy began to fester.  Did he learn how to steal?  Each time he did so a part of him went missing.  Did he learn how to kill?  Each time a part of him went dead.  But how could he know this?  How could he be certain of anything under a fickle moon?

It may have been years he went on stumbling.  In the badlands there is no time.  All time is the same, the same, that is, until he saw a dark wound in the earth, a shadowy hole.  Maybe he’d seen it before, but now he saw it for the first time.  He crept sideways toward that wound.  He touched it with his toe, and something deep inside moved.  It called his name.  An old woman called him by name.

“Come down.  Come inside.”

He didn’t want to, but now he knew one thing.  Wherever he would go in the badlands, this wound was in the center.  Any far edge he could gain was not so far away from this.  Now he climbed down over the rubble to a small fire where the old woman was stirring a pot.  How did she know his name?

“Take off your jacket.”

He hadn’t known he was wearing one, but he winced and felt it tight, and he began to peel it back, peel it away like a second skin.  He wasn’t at all sure of this, for now he felt raw.  Was this the only way, the way through?

“Sit down there across the fire from me.”

He wasn’t about to show fear, but she just cackled like a cowbird, and then he remembered that cowbirds lay their eggs in other birds’ nests.  Was he somehow related to her?  He sat down.

“You want to know why.”

“Why?”

“Yes, why and how did you get here to this low place.  But where else can you go, Sideways Boy?  I welcome you in all your confusion.”

“Confusion?”  With this word every one of his pat answers dropped away and his wounds began to throb.  Yet her voice carried a familiar sound.  “Grandmother, you sound a little like my grandma back home.  She used to catch me by the legs when I was small.  She would turn me upside down and shake me until any goods I had came tumbling onto the ground.  She always said I needed straightening out.”  He looked hard through the flickering fire, and there he saw his old grandma, as mean as ever, clamping hold of his legs again.  He laughed and cried, and cried and laughed in his old song, and his legs danced until the woman here before him waved her hands, and he could see the old snare of it and release himself.  His singing settled into some new pure strains, and his grandmother’s cruelty began to wither.

The old woman looked at him across the fire.  “You see me now?”

“Yes!”

“Look again.”  She pulled back her mask.  Before him was the face of an old man.  And when that mask slipped off he saw the bony skull of death.  And it cawed in that voice, that cowbird voice.  “You see me true for once, and just to keep this in mind have a sip of my tea.  It is the tea of death.”

He was afraid of death, but he took a sip from her ladle.  It tasted both fiery and cool.  In his tender body he was plunged into hot fire and passed on to the cool waters of a river.  He opened his eyes and saw a dark shore, swam to it and rested.  Later, he found strength to rise, and he felt some balance, balance in his grasp, in his step, in his sight.  And he could begin to see a little into the shadows.

He went on, not back to those who had known him.  He went on, and some say he broke new ground in a patch of badlands, and the sun came over to help out.  And others say, no, he found a secret path beyond those hills into a land of rainbows.  But some few whisper that he wandered all his years in the dark mystery of a changing moon.  They say he went back now and again to that wound in the earth, to peel off his old jacket, deal with old ghosts and sip the tea of death the old woman gave from her ladle.  She is there still, old woman or old man, feeding the flickering fire, waiting.

The Blue Stone

Saturday, December 10th, 2016

 

Wi’ yer drums ’n guns ’n drums ’n guns, hurroo, hurroo,

Wi’ yer drums ’n guns ’n drums ’n guns, hurroo, hurroo,

Wi’ yer drums ’n guns ’n drums ’n guns

The enemy nearly slew ye.

Oh, my darlin’ dear, ye look so queer,

Why, Johnny, we hardly knew ye.

                                                                                                traditional

 

It was a year with hardly any magic left in it.  It was after a war.  A man the villagers came to call the old soldier lived in a tiny cottage down at the end of a trail, where it disappeared among the rocks.  Each morning he led his donkey into the rough hills, cut enough deadwood to load on the beast and bring to the villagers for their fires.  The old soldier wasn’t that old, but his back was bent, and he never spoke beyond making change for the price of firewood.  Other men held it against him for not taking a beer.  Some of them had been in the war too, and wanted his stories, maybe, or just someone new to hear them brag on what they’d done.  They tagged him the old soldier because of his bent back and his lack of speech.

Just another odd-man-out, and the shopkeepers, farmers and shepherds in the hills would have gone on as they had for ages.  But one night a monster showed up on the road, tore down fences and chased with hideous howling any lambs, cows or horses left out, frightening women and children behind their doors and breaking shop windows in the streets.  It happened once and was blamed on some man’s drunkenness.  It happened again a few weeks later, and when it happened a third time every man kept his gun close by, for the sheriff lived at the other end of the county and made himself busy, as he said, “with real crimes.”

Men stood watch, but the monster never came on a night when any of them were awake.  So it went with everyone half-afraid after sunset.  Then a farmer, up in the night with a pregnant heifer, saw the old soldier stumbling along the trail from his cottage, bawling in such a horrible roar.  The startled heifer bellowed out in fright, or sympathy, the farmer wasn’t sure.  Then his hunting dog under the house began to yowl as well.  In spite of the darkness the farmer followed at a distance and saw the old soldier holding his head with both hands, running helter-skelter into doors and walls, breaking fences, breaking glass.  When the old soldier turned crazily and ran back, the farmer scurried home and found his gun.  Yet at the sound of a sheepdog yowling in the village he stayed behind his own door, a yowling and yowling for too long, as if the dog wanted to be put out of its misery.  But then it stopped.

That sheepdog belonged to a young shepherdess who had come down from the hills that day and sold all her sheep in the market.  When her dog was cornered she jumped in and took on the old soldier.  At her courage the bent monster was reduced to a man again, but he kept up his howl, without any tears in his eyes.  His strange howl got the dog to yowl and yowl.  But after a time the old soldier found his tongue and began talking to the girl.  Full of remorse, he offered her a place at his cottage to keep herself and her dog.  She always slept with her dog.

Next day she saw how ordinary he looked, old beyond his years, yes, but with a familiar way she couldn’t place.  When he was up with his donkey cutting wood she went into the fields and foraged for wild roots, bulbs and mushrooms, enough to make soup that the two of them shared in the evening.  Her dog lay near her and would bare his teeth if the man came too close.

So then she asked him, “What turns you to a monster?”

“The war.”

“But the war’s been over for some time now.”

“Not yet, not by a long ways.”

“So where is it still going on?”

He got up and led her from the kitchen out to where the trail ended in a depression among the rocks.  “Here is where it still goes on.”

As he stared down at the hole she began to see that he was looking at something among the rocks.  In the twilight she saw a blue stone.  She bent down to reach for it.

“Don’t touch that stone!”

Her dog growled at her side, but she turned and asked him what the stone meant to him.

“That’s the last of my treasure.”

“Treasure?”  She wondered that a common stone should be called a treasure.  And so she asked if it was a keepsake from his home.

“Home?”  He choked out a laugh, but then he stared at her in the dark.  “You and I are outsiders.  No one gives us any trust.  If I tell you my secrets will you tell me yours in the bargain?”

“Yes, I will do that.”  And she thought as he began that the darkness freed his words.

“What I got from home, from my parents, were things they knew I couldn’t go far on, and they didn’t want me to.  They wanted me to stay on that dry-land farm year after luckless year, between hail and lack of rain and locusts.  But I wouldn’t stay, so they made a show of gifts for me.  My old man opened his box of copper pennies and pulled out a small bag of gold and silver coins¾gold and silver.  Later I saw they were made of ironwood, stamped and painted to look valuable, but worthless.  My mom baked up a hamper of biscuits for my journey, made with solving powder, she said, to keep me long.  They kept me long, all right, kept me long asleep.  Rising late day after day and without a decent coin, I got lost in the wilds.

“But then in the middle of night a man on a horse woke me and said, ‘Get your things and climb up behind me.”  His horse went sure-footed in the dark, and I had to wonder if he knew of a town up the way, but no.  He halted and told me to get down.  ‘Fill your pockets with what’s at your feet.’  I did so, with pebbles and stones, and then he gave me a hand up again behind him on the horse.  We rode on in the night, and near dawn he halted once more and let me off.  Then he rode away over the hills, and I never got a look at his face.  Except his horse was black.

“When dawn came I found gems in my pockets¾emeralds, rubies, sapphires, with a few gold nuggets here and there.  And a few stones.  I had a strong urge to go back, but there was no trace of where we’d been.  Then I found a road and a town.  I cleaned up and had a good meal at the inn.  And too much to drink.  I got clubbed and dragooned into the army.  All my treasure was stolen, all but that blue stone.  I’d fancied it and buttoned it in my shirt pocket.

“I don’t know why it attracted me, but later in the war I made friends with another soldier.  We stayed close in every fight and watched each other’s back.  He told me the stone carried luck and some kind of healing.  It did, and it didn’t.  We were overrun in a battle, and he fell onto me with a sword driven right through him, right down to my pocket with the blue stone.  The stone stopped the blade at my chest, at my heart.  I heard his last breath.  I felt his blood run down over me with enemy soldiers all around.  So the war is not over for me.  My back is bent from the weight of my friend.  He is still here.”  The soldier put his fist on his heart.  “And every few weeks I go crazy.  I don’t know.  Bloody dreams take me into battle until something else gets hurt, a dog or maybe someday a human.”  The old soldier paused in the dark.  “You know my secrets that I tell no one.  Now you tell me yours.”

The young shepherdess stared into the depression, just blackness at this hour, and said, “You don’t keep the stone in your pocket.  It’s there in that hole.  How can it be your treasure?”

“I can’t even have it in the house.  I’ll be staring at my own death.  It just makes me want to finish the job.”

She looked down among the rocks as she spoke.  “My story is not so bloody, but there’s plenty of death.  My folks were old when I was born, and not long after that the war came.  We had a dry-land farm raising grain, same as yours, but then the battles came our way, and our crop was burned.  We went out and buried the dead soldiers and horses as well as we could.  Maybe my folks took sick from handling all that death.  I nursed them, but they died, and I had to bury them too.  Battle after battle, people scattered in the war, and I had to fend for myself.  I found this starveling pup, and we raised each other in the hills.  I bartered some of what I foraged, mostly mushrooms in the burned-out forests.  But I got a few lambs, and Shep and I raised them, sold them and bought more.  We’ve been doing it a few years now.”

Then the old soldier asked, “You never wanted to come down and find a man?”

“Shep here is my partner.  Maybe you know a little about sheep.  They group together.  People group together too.  Sheep get sold off after awhile.  And people too.  The groups of people and sheep, maybe they don’t know better.  My sheep go off willingly when I sell them, following their leader.  But I know better.  Shep and I, we’re partners.  But you, you look like someone I should know.  Where was your farm?”

When he told her she smiled.  “Well, that was our farm.  What’s your name?”  He said it, and she stared at his face under the moon.  “You must be my brother, the one who left before I was born, the one my mom said would come home one day.”

He looked at her closely, but then her dog growled.  He turned back to the cottage to ponder this, but she called to him.  “Are you going to leave your treasure out here again?”

“That blue stone holds too much of my past.  It’ll kill me.”

“It may not if you take it on.  It may have some luck left in it.  Your friend told you it carried healing too, didn’t you say?”

“It’ll make me crazy, I know.”

“Shep and I won’t let you out if that happens.”

“Are you bold enough to stand off my demons?”  He saw her hard stare hold him in the moonlight, and so he bent down and fumbled for the blue stone in the depression, and when he stood with it again she saw his back was not quite so bent.  Inside the cottage the old soldier worried if he could take on this cold stone.  Maybe it had held death long enough and only wanted warming, but again maybe it was a piece of that blue mountain always standing high over him.  He took it to bed and slept with it.  In the night demons came howling into his dreams, but when he began weeping heavy tears they shuddered and stood silent.  His tears began to fill the rocky depression.  As he wept he saw them filtering down through the soil, water coming clean deep underground and flowing out far away in a clear spring between a cleft of blue stones.  In his dream he knew where that was.

Next day he turned his covers up, but the stone was nowhere to be found.  Then he felt wetness around his eyes and nodded.  Later she asked where it had gone.  He put his fist on his heart.  “It’s here, for luck and healing.”  And inside him he gauged those high blue peaks.

But she said, “Well, I miss it now.”

He smiled.  “Out in the hills there’s a blue stone all your own.  You may find it yet.”

Then they walked up the trail to the village together, and the farmer called from his barn, “Where’d you get a girl, Old Soldier?”

“She’s my sister.  I found some family after all.”  And the dog at her side yipped and skipped around them both and ran up the trail ahead.