I had to follow where my house led me. The chicken’s foot upon which my little house is balanced got itchy one day, and decided to take itself off. I was quite happy where I was, and had no real desire to go deep in to the woods.
I lived by the lake once upon a time, before. It is so lovely there. The sun shone down on our little house and danced on the lake, and each day the red rider and I would swim in its waters, and he, who was the sun in so many ways, would lift me on to the back of his horse to take me riding all around the banks and I would laugh. We would lie on the small bays in the lake’s shallows and tell one another stories of where we had been. I would cook us breakfast and dinner in my skirt and apron, whilst he walked all over the forest to gather us our food. Taking my weaving on to the edge of the house, I would sit with my legs dangling down from the floor, waiting for him to return with his basket. I would feel his approach and my legs would swing faster, I would think ‘this is the most joy I can know, to live now is to be most happy, and this happiness must go on, for what else would be left without it.’ My chest would convulse with lust and desire as soon as I could hear his foot steps, and the smile on my face would widen to show my straight and pretty white teeth, and, with the power that I was then learning to harness, I would launch and leap in to his arms, knocking the food in the basket from him and taking my rightful place, holding his hair between my fingers.
I do not know how many days and months we spent in this idyll. It never occurred to me that things could change, until he arrived home one day with the giant pestle and mortar with an ominous, ‘you may need this one day’ and a heavy sigh. Confused at the possibility of a day that may arrive without him in it, but at my questioning he kissed me sadly and stopped my tongue. Then the summons came. I sobbed and cried and begged him to stay, so he did. Then his brothers came, the white and black riders, and they took him away from me. He held my head in his hands and said ‘farewell my love and keep thee safe, for one day I will return to you and we will ride to the sun together.’ Or that is what he seemed to say. That is how I remember it. My head was such a pretty one then, with long black hair and wide eyes, and my nose, that I feel getting more pointed as the years go by, straight and proud. As he held me in his arms that final sighing time, I saw the white and black riders behind his shoulders, laughing at me. I stuck out my tongue at their sneers and kissed my red knight goodbye. Somewhere I heard the house laugh around me, and a shot of pain convulsed me. “You knew they would come,” I whispered to the house. But she remained silent.
A week later my chicken foot got itchy and moved on. She had always been jealous of the rider and me. I banged on the floor and screamed at it with all my might that we had to stay; we had to stay put for how else would my rider find me? I yelled that if we left the lake he may return to see me gone and where would I be without him! I kicked and cried and howled and told the foot to stop its stupid hopping that made me so sick that I threw my head outside the door and left a trail of vomit from the lake to where we ended up in the forest. The house hopped all night long. Me sick and screaming the whole journey’s length, until we had reached the forest’s deepest shadows, where creatures unnamed and unapproachable lurked under hedges and behind the trunks of the twisted trees. Weak with sickness and anger I slept the day through. When I woke it was dark. It was so dark in the forest. Without my knight there was no light. And I realised with stark horror that my red rider, who was the sun to me, who was my light, would never find me in these pitch wooded caves And if he couldn’t find me, he could never rescue me from the maliciousness of my house. I started to cry again, because I knew what the foot was playing at and I yelled ‘you stupid bitch of a hen, why don’t you want me to live in my sun, don’t think I can’t see your stupid game!’ I beat the floor with my hands and wailed and howled all the night through, until dawn came and I fell asleep exhausted. Every night thereafter I woke to my sad cries, and every dawn thereafter my head collapsed, exhausted to sleep on the cold hard floor. My smile was wrenched out of my mouth and replaced with a desperate angry twist, and my hands became gnarled and calloused from the pounding they underwent each time dusk came and woke me. I was too tired and bruised to eat the good meals I always used to cook, now I never eat. My pretty black eyes sunk in to my head and my pretty black hair matted and knotted and grew down my back, and I knew that the house was mocking me, whispering that even if my red knight found me, he would not want the hag I was becoming.
A cat came calling on one of my twilight mornings and asked me for some milk. My forehead was pressed against the wooden decking and my face wet. My body lay crumpled as a throw away rag and it was with great effort that I pulled my head from its downwards position to face the cat side on.
“Excuse me,” she asked in her sweet voice. “I came to the forest chasing a mouse, and as he got away I lost my bearings. I’ve been here so long and I am so hungry. I was wondering if I could trouble you for some milk?”
I shook my head slowly. My mouth struggled to form words that weren’t screams of despair, and carefully I looked for the normal language that I hadn’t used for so long.
“My lover has left me to join his brothers and my house took me away from where he could find me. I have no milk for I have no cow, but you can have water from the well if it pleases you.”
I was proud of my effort. It had been so long since I had seen another soul. I was glad I could offer some help, even if it wasn’t the milk the little one craved.
But with a petulant toss of her head the cat answered back “you silly old witch, no wonder he left you with no milk to offer! You can take your water and use it to wash your filthy face, for all have done with thee.”
It didn’t take much to swell my breast with sorrow, and I screamed and I kicked and I called the cat all ugly names and before I knew how the jug of water had lifted without my touch and poured itself down the cat’s back.
She sat outside the house with the chicken’s foot and mewed plaintively all day but never continued her search for milk.
A dog came calling on one of my twilight mornings and asked me for some meat. Curled up foetal on the dirty wooded floor, my hair stuck down to the back of my neck and my face exhausted with crying constantly I heard his yelping, and crawled to the edge of the floor and the open door.
“Excuse me,” he asked gruffly. “I came to the forest chasing a rat, and as he got away I lost my bearings. I’ve been here so long and I am so hungry. I was wondering if I could trouble you for some meat.”
I shook my head slowly. Words were slow in coming, so used was my mouth to forming its only vocabulary of wails and howls.
“My lover has left me to join his brothers and my house took me away from where he could find me. I have no meat for I have no stock, but I have some dried fruit if it pleases you.”
But my offer was met with a yelp of disgust, as the dog took in my cowed figure and cried “you silly old witch, no wonder he left you with no meat to offer! You can take your dead fruit and use it to fatten up, for all have done with thee.”
Without lifting a finger, I sent a stick flying towards his back. He took a seat next to the cat and began to bark.
There was no kindness or warmth left in this world. This was the only thought that remains in my head. I repeat it daily as I battle against the sound of the plaintive mewing and the angry barking and the mock mock mock of this stupid hen’s foot.
The longer time passes the more I wonder whether they are all right and it was no surprise that he left me. I knew when I saw his sneer that the dark rider hated me. I knew they wanted to turn him against me once they had him in their clouds. They had conspired with the chicken’s foot to take me safe out of his sight so they could keep him for themselves. They took the sun away so that my world could be plunged in to one of darkness with no specks of his kindness to protect me. He knew they would come. And I would howl at the moon that this dark rider was a bastard and had no right to take the sun in my life from me, just because he was the dark rider and only loved the night.
Some days when I slept in my place on the floor I would dream myself in his arms and we would be by the lake again. I would dance in the sun and he would laugh as I moved, then whisk me up and lay me down and in these dreams I would feel alive like I never did in the waking hours. Then the darkness would grow intense and wake me, and I would know my loneliness once more.
A girl came a calling on one of my twilight mornings with a basket full of food and drink. I watched her from out the corner of my dead left eye give the cat some milk, who in return gave her my mirror that she had stolen to gaze at her own reflection. And I watched her from out of the corner of my dead right eye give the dog some meat, who gave her comb in return that he had stolen to brush his glossy coat.. And I thought, look at her face so pretty; look at her face so kind. In her cheeks I saw the rosy light I had once held so dear, and in her I could see the rays my man had thrown from his body and I thought, she is his messenger, she must have come from him! She carried his radiance in her body and I realised that all this time I had been wrong, and there was kindness left in the world, and it had all been distilled for me in this girl’s body by my lover.
The dirt had built up around me and grown over the parts of my body closest to the floor. I pulled at my ankles and shook the ties away, and slowly started to stand. My body once so supple and soft felt old and brittle as my limbs creaked to readjust themselves to this new, vertical poise. Blood rushed to muscles and bones that had been numb and starved and the pain was like nothing I had ever felt except that day when my heart had been taken from me, when my happiness had been snatched in the saddle bags of a dark rider and my smile had left me. But at the sight of the girl my smile returned, as my lips cracked to reveal my rotting and pointed teeth and I held out my long and wasted arms.
“Little girl,” I whispered, my voice cracked and hollow. “Little girl, would you be so kind as to share your food with me? I am so hungry, all I have eaten for years and years are the dried fruit and berries my lover once gathered and that rolled on to the floor where I lay.”
I held out my hand with the nails so gnarled and overgrown and the skin so bruised and cut.
“You can have some food,” she replied in a deathly quiet whisper. “But please don’t hurt me.”
I let out a loud laugh, which turned in to a scream as I heard that my once sweet silvery giggle had turned in to a desperate cackling crow like cough. Tears swelled in my eyes, as I tried to explain that I wasn’t what she thought I was but did she know the red rider for I saw him in her smile and would she take me to him, for if she was his messenger he would be able to find me and I would be by his side one more sunny morning and he would hold me in his arms and together again we’d be. I held out my arms to try and take her in my embrace. But she let out a scream that I was just an evil witch and she’d be damned if I kidnapped her and ate her like I had done to Hansel, but I had never met a Hansel in my life and before I knew what had happened she threw my comb down at my feet and a forest grew in front of me, thickening and intensifying the forest that already surrounded my home.
Stupefied, I turned to the grinning creatures that had watched the developing scene with malicious curiosity. “Why did you help her get away?” I screamed at the cat, “when she is the one to lead me to my lover?”
“You offered me water and she gave me milk!” came the vicious reply.
“But I have no milk! I offered you all that I had! Why not remember that?”
But she hissed and spat at me..
And I remembered that there was no more kindness in the world.
“Why did you help her get away?” I howled at the dog. “When she is the one to lead me to my lover?”
“You offered me nothing but dry fruit and she gave me meat!” came the sneering reply.
“But I have no meat! I offered you all that I had! Why not remember that?”
Yet he barked and snarled at me..
And I remembered that there was no more kindness in the world.
Overwhelmed by sudden knowledge I knew exactly what I had to do. I ran to the back of the house on the chicken’s foot (who by this point was hopping madly in indignation, no doubt because I for once had the audacity to think back) and leapt in to the mortar. The purpose of the vessel had always eluded me, but I knew that I would need it one day, and that my knight would somehow tell me when the time came. Sweeping the pestle behind me I paddled like a rower with no boat and no river, and followed the girl through the thick web of trees.
She stood there panting at the forest’s edge as I cried ‘just take me to my knight, just take me to the sun, I beg you sweet child, who carries his light so clearly in your breast.”
“Leave me alone you withered old hag,” she screamed at my face, “you have no love and no life in this world beyond the forest!” And she threw down my mirror and in its place lay a lake, and I knew, then I knew.
I pushed out the mortar and started to paddle. My arms no longer had the strength that they once owned when I would swim all day with my red red rider who would hold me in his never tiring arms. But on and on I rowed and heaved. My body so feeble and my face so drawn, and the light hurt my eyes so used to the night. But on and on I paddled until I reached the shore. There she sat on the beach and as tears streamed down my face I thanked her and hailed her and told her she was the only last bit of kindness in the world. I tried to reach out and hold her in my arms, but she screamed and yelled and pushed me down in to the water. She got up to run and I lay there behind her. I won’t move from this place, I think, I know. He will know to look for me by the lake, where the light lies in the water. I won’t move from this place and he can find me one day. By the shallows of the water I will wait, and although weak and afraid, I will wait.