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Tala’s Story was written between 23rd and 30th January 2016 and was my submission to the first round of the NYCMidnight Short Story Challenge. The assignment for my group was to write a fairy story involving a psychic and a birthmark.
Once there was a woman married to a man against his will. Her family and his were agreed and the bride price paid, as was the custom. The ceremony took place in the presence of the village and the elders and the feasting after was a memory for months to come. Both the families of the bride and groom were wealthy, as wealth was counted then.
The bride was obedient, but the groom was reluctant. His heart was set on another. His father, he felt, and the father of his bride, the elders – even the woman herself – had forced him into a marriage in which he could not be happy.
“It will all feel different when you’ve bedded her and got her with child,” promised his father. “That’s the way of the world.”
But the world was changing, clearly, for though he took her in their marriage bed, still she did not conceive.
The woman was greatly saddened. She knew her husband did not love her, but if she could just give him a child she believed he would change. Her mother agreed. “Make a baby and he will come around,” she promised.
But though they lay together, still she could not conceive, and after a time they lay together less and less often.
What to do? The woman consulted her mother and other women of the village and heard tell of the seer, the Old Man Alone. Treated with resentful respect as a recluse and man of power, he was known (the women said) to be able to unravel puzzles set by the gods and, if he had a mind, look into the future as into the past.
So the woman took herself across the fields and through the forest to find the cottage where the seer lived alone.
The Old Man Alone had foreseen her coming and waited for her at the door. He welcomed her and brought her into the cottage, which was without windows and dark, lit only by the fire that burned on the hearth. The seer knew what the woman sought and burned certain herbs and powders on his fire, making her breathe in the smoke, then he covered the fire and in the darkness undressed her and himself and took her as if he were her husband – though differently, reverently, with tenderness.
After, when they were dressed, standing together outside the cottage, the woman asked, “Am I now with child?”
“And will my husband love me?”
“That I cannot say.”
“But you see the future!”
“I see many futures,” said the seer, “and none of them are certain. Only the past is beyond changing.”
So the woman returned to the village and her husband and grew round and full bellied and in the course of time she birthed a child. The child was a girl with a reddish-brown mark across her face from cheek to cheek and over her nose. It looked like the lick of a beast.
The mark on her daughter’s face frightened the woman and made her husband angry. His family, and her family too, and all the village, when they heard the news, were also frightened and angry. They took the mark to be the sign of a curse laid not only upon the baby but upon their families, upon the village. Around the village the rumours ran. What had the mother done while carrying the child? Worse, what had she done to get pregnant in the first place?
“It was my mother’s advice,” the woman admitted to her husband. “I visited the seer, the Old Man Alone, seeking help.”
In fury, the man took his wife and the new-born across the fields, through the forest, to the cottage of the Old Man Alone.
They found him where he sat meditating, cross-legged, all but naked, before his cottage door. The woman was shocked, not at the seer’s nakedness, but at the brown stain of a mark in the shape of a beast with wings that wrapped across his chest and around his neck. It was nothing she had seen before.
“Seer,” said the husband, still raging. “What have you done to my wife? What cursed thing is this?” And he pointed at the babe in its mother’s arms.
The seer opened his eyes and gestured for them to join him on the grass. Such was his power that they did so. The woman held her baby on her lap facing him and the child did not cry, but looked at the seer fascinated. In his turn he looked back with penetrating eyes. Then he spoke, “Welcome, Tala, speaker and listener, I greet you,”
To the man and the woman he said, “You want to know, is this mark a cruelty or a curse? I cannot answer you. The future has not been written. I see only what may be, not what will. Tala is one who will learn to speak and listen, to what end she puts that talent only time will tell. I know, full well, what may happen in this world to one marked as she is marked. For sure this babe will have no easy beginning, yet I rejoice in her birth. I see her future road, hard and beset by dangers, yet she is precious, as all children are precious, and nothing is yet written. Her mark may be a blessing. That is for you to decide. Love her and care for her.”
They could get nothing more out of him, and made their way home where they reported to their families and the village elders: “The seer would not say whether the mark is a curse, but he told us the child will have a hard life.”
“He has told you nothing,” they said.
“What kind of a seer is he?”
“Our lives are always hard.”
The man asked his father, “Is the shame of having born a marked child not cause to put this woman from me?”
But his father would not hear of it. The union with the woman’s family was too important. “Besides, you will surely have other children together,” he said. “Try for boys. Girls are of no matter. That’s the way of the world.”
Tala was born when the year was young and hope lived. But the spring rains came late and grudgingly and the year turned early to heat and drought. The crops withered.
“Come harvest time there will be nothing to reap,” said the villagers. “We will go hungry this winter.”
“It is the curse,” they agreed. “Foreshadowed in the marked child.”
“You know,” they whispered, “she lay with the seer. He is marked, the child likewise.”
They asked, “Why are the gods angry with us?”
And they had an answer ready: “Because we have too long allowed that Old Man Alone to pollute our neighbourhood and our women!”
So the men of the village gathered at twilight and took themselves across the fields and through the forest to the cottage. There the old man waited to meet them.
“You do not have to do this!” He said. “The future is unwritten!” But they roared like beasts and rushed upon him.
They stripped him naked and turned him around to see the marks on his body – the beast with wings – then they beat him with their fists until he fell and trampled on him until their fury was sated. Then they set the cottage afire and taking the seer’s body they threw it into the flames.
“And what of the girl? The one he marked? Shall she also live, reminding us of what we have done here tonight?” But the fury had gone out of them. The man’s father and the woman’s father together resolved to let the man choose his own course.
They returned to their homes as dawn was breaking and none, looking back, saw the shape that rose in the last smoke from the cottage. The shape of a beast, spreading wings, huge above the forest, but smoke-thin and fading in the morning breeze, blowing across the fields of the village and its gardens.
The man looked in silence on the sleeping child, Tala, and on his wife, her mother. She saw the blood on his hands and feet and smelled the smoke on his clothes.
“She is a curse,” said the man, “and you are a whore. I rue the day we married. Take your brat now and leave. Leave and never return.”
So the mother took Tala in her arms and left. She went first to the house of her husband’s father, but the door there was locked against her. Then to the house of her own family. Behind the door she heard her mother’s voice and the voice of her father, but that door too was locked, though she stood there long and pleaded to be let in. No one in the village would open their door to her. So she walked away across the fields and into the forest.
Eventually she came to the cottage where the seer had lived, and though there was no comfort now to be had in that burned-out shell, at least the door was not locked. Here she stayed, over come by exhaustion and despair, faint and fainter with hunger and thirst, holding the child until her strength failed and she lay down on the blackened floor there to die.
Die she did, but in dying saved her child. Her body, still warm, was found by a wolf-pack, hungry for meat, and Tala, yet living, was adopted by the wolves and raised as their cub.
Years she lived with the pack and, growing with them, learned their language and their habits. With them she hunted and with them she worshipped the full moon that is their god. But the wolves knew her for human and knew too that she would run with them but a period of her life.
The wolves saw to it that Tala came at last to a woodcutter and his wife, mourning the death of their only daughter. The old couple were delighted with the wolves’ gift and gladly adopted the girl, first to tame her, then to raise her as the human child she was.
With the woodcutter and his wife Tala grew tall and comely, though ever with the lick of the beast across her face. With them she learned the tongue of men. She learned to work, to cultivate a garden, to spin and weave. Her foster mother, the woodcutter’s wife, had an education better than her husband’s, for she could read and write, and gladly taught these skills to Tala.
For his part, her foster father taught her to play the fiddle, and soon she could scrape out a melody. Most often the tunes she played were ones the woodcutter taught her, sometimes, though, tunes came into her head that no one had heard before, sad tunes of longing, loss; fierce tunes of fire, fury. After she had played such a melody, there would be tears in her eyes, though she did not know why.
From her foster mother Tala also learned the healing powers of forest plants and to make ointments of them. Though she lived in seclusion, meeting few besides her foster parents, yet her reputation as a healer spread and her help and medicaments were sought after.
One day a traveller came, and on his hand an open sore that would not heal. Tala treated the wound and the next day the sore was gone.
“Wonderful,” said the traveller, “Is the medication or the medic best thanked?”
“Oh the medic assuredly,” said the woodcutter’s wife. “Our Tala has a way with her that surpasses even my skills.”
“Young Mistress Tala,” said the traveller, “I know of a whole village, away on the other side of the forest, that would welcome your services. So many ulcers, boils and poxes as you would not believe. They live under a curse for a terrible thing they once did.”
“There was an old man, a seer. They beat and burned him for no reason – the curse they thought he had laid on them was simple misfortune. But after. That old seer’s spirit has poisoned their village year on year.”
“If the plague is caused by a curse, what hope have I of helping them,” asked Tala.
“That I cannot say,” said the traveller. “But curses may be raised and forgiveness is powerful magic.”
“Have I forgiveness to offer them?”
Hearing of the plagued village and the death of the seer, gave Tala a restlessness she could not explain. Also the traveller’s mysterious talk of forgiveness. Had he perhaps looked long at her face, at the lick of the beast. Did he know something of her infancy that she herself no longer remembered?
“I must visit this village,” she said, and so she took her pack and set out across the forest. “The wolves will guide me.”
Guide her they did, bringing her across the forest, but not to the village. Instead they brought her to the ruins of a little cottage on the edge of a glade. “How beautiful,” she said. “How peaceful. Yet some terrible thing has happened here. The cottage has burned and those are bones I see, human bones, scattered among the ashes beneath the creepgrass.”
The wolves told her: “There was hunger, great hunger in every belly, and here a foul smell, burning, but also warm flesh, not killed but fresh dead, we ate and so the pack lived. And here was a human cub, alive and crying. We saved the cub and gave it of our milk.”
“So these are my mother’s bones. I shall collect them and bury them, for that is the custom among men.”
This she did, but among the white bones of her mother were other human bones, black-burned, and as she collected these she thought of the seer the villagers had killed.
“Perhaps…” she thought.
And when she had collected all the bones she could, she made a single grave and buried the bones together and stood a time in silent contemplation, feeling an immense peace as the sun broke from behind clouds and filled the glade with light.
A wolf growled a low warning. Tala looked up to see a man step from the forest into the glade before the cottage. The man did not see her at first and stood a moment blinking in the sunlight. He seemed old and his face was pitted with angry pox scars in a stroke from cheek to cheek and across his nose. Then he saw her and the beast’s lick, the mark on her, and all the blood fled from his face and his pattern of scars stood out more painful yet.
“You have returned,” he breathed. “Will you forgive us?”
And not knowing why, Tala spoke from the peace she had found that day, saying, “I forgive you, father.”