Woolgathering, p.1Christina Hambleton
Copyright © 2012 Christina Hambleton
To Sue, for whom “The Virtue of Deception” was written and whom is always the first and foremost of my readers.
Whether one considers the fact that I grew out of a new tradition of writers in online forums a good or a bad thing, it has had an impact. So to each of you who examined pieces of this collection online and gave your two cents, know that I wouldn’t be the writer I am without you.
Also worth mention is Dr. Paul Sukys. Most of the ideas that became Radical were sparked by his lectures, and it’s thanks to his counsel I have truly grown as both a writer and a student.
Aesop’s Last Fable
The girl was pale— so pale that her wan face reflected the jaundiced hue of the light over the dining room table, whose coverlet might once have been white like her skin, but had long since yellowed with age and filth. The girl was also very thin, almost bony. Beneath an untidy frizz of hair she had eyes swollen with fatigue, eyes that burned feverishly as they darted about in astute, fearful scrutiny, sinking ever deeper into their sockets like candles burning at the wick. Her hands were articulate, but curiously bruised over the knuckles. She had a nose and a mouth, as well. But these were small since the frail girl was often to sickly to smell, and her lips were small and clasped, only to be opened under the direst of circumstances. Overall, she was a spindly, awkward creature in black— but one needn't recall any of that. The girl could have been just the opposite. She could have been a boy. It wouldn't have mattered to her, or the fates, and especially not to the pair of black steel toed boots and bleached sneakers under the table.
The girl felt her stomach churn, set down the ancient, greasy Victorian silverware in her skeletal hands and laid them in her lap to keep them from trembling. The boots were speaking to her. She knew they couldn't talk themselves; it wasn't as though the soles flapped open and closed, and she was aware that perched atop the enormous trunks that sprouted from the leather there was a face. It was simply that she was too frightened of it to dare look. The same for the shoes— except she wasn't afraid of them. Their head just spewed venom, and catching it in her eyes was painful. It was best just to keep her gaze low, to let all the lashes and vehemence break over her back rather than her face.
"You don't think you're done, do you?" the boots were demanding, in a voice that was ever inches from booming. The girl took her hands from her lap quickly, squeaking:
"What did you say? Haven't we told you not to mumble?"
She put a bite in her mouth to illustrate, to end the interrogations, though her stomach ached already.
"Why would she be done?" the sneakers wondered sardonically. "It isn't as though she's eats anything unless we force her, anyway."
The girl chewed resolutely. She wanted to throw up. She knew she couldn't.
"I don't know," the boots said, pointedly. "But she'll find a way to start eating more, if she knows what's good for her. Girl can't listen worth a damn."
The girl didn't bother to say that she was trying, or that she could hear all too well, and suddenly felt that the effort of shoveling in her food wasn't worth the virtue of obedience just then. She could make up for the transgression later. So instead she fiddled with a scrap of blank paper in her pocket that she'd been using as a bookmark, crumpling and smoothing its contours over and over as she mulled over said book's contents. Her roving eyes surveyed the dusty refrigerator behind her, the counter inches away where kitchen and dining room crammed themselves, resignedly, together. Slowly, agonizingly, she mustered the expediency to ask:
"May I be excused?"
"What?" the boots asked, irritably.
"She wants to know if she can get up," the sneakers clarified. "Though the fact that even I managed to hear her is a miracle."
The head at the top of the boots and their tree trunk legs swept its gaze over the girl, and she tried not to wince, her heart racing as it lingered on her mostly finished plate. Her breath caught in her throat, and she could feel a cold sensation tingling down her spine, as of dread that she would be refused. But no. She was safe.
"Fine," the boots decreed, with a sniff.
The girl stood, and though she wanted to scurry away like a roach before she was trod under those heels she walked steadily to the staircase, dissimulated. Sudden movements jostled the boots and sneakers. Sudden movements made you a target, bared your weakness.
The girl peered up the smooth wooden staircase. It was steep and fraught with the peril of splinters, ascending in a curve behind the low floor of the second story, its lofty destination hidden from those who braved it. She clung to the railing and began to pull herself up.
Every time she forced herself to climb these towering steps she wondered if it was worth it. Wondered why her feet shouldn't take her elsewhere, if the journey was going to make her ache so. But these were strange thoughts, she reminded herself as she made it to the top, panting. Nonsensical thoughts.
Running a hand through her hair, she moved into the greater darkness of her room. She'd drawn a heavy curtain over the window, muting the searing, angry sun and plunging her chamber into a blackened swelter.
She didn't care. She hated summer, hated all those oppressing waves of heat and light that claimed happiness while corralling her into this house. They had stolen her— stolen her from her the long, golden chariot that used to carry her off to that place, the one where she could stop thinking and just be. There, bent over her beloved books and papers, she could apply herself to the noble task of labor. She could lose herself in the one virtue she truly believed she possessed, the only, paltry offering she could lay before the heavens.
Also, there was something about this season, about its lurid, suffocating miasma of warmth, that made the boot's blood boil. The boots were darker against the bleak, fiery backdrop of summer, and they would reproach her, lock her in this chamber just as she had been for three weeks now. What a lie that light and pleasant warmth was, the songs of the birds. What demonic whispers in her mind, of rebellion and fetters shrugged, of...
Ah, but even to think of those was an indulgence. More than she deserved.
The girl sidled into bed, staring blankly at the ceiling, relishing the freedom of her mind for one, two minutes. It was too long. Too selfishly long. Rolling over, she reached under her mattress and pulled out a weighty tome filled with bulging pages lathered in cramped, militant scrawl black as night. That darkness... it was all there was save for a few, blood red patches of ink toward the back. That was where she turned now; she was close to having finished the book. Close to having read it through a second time.
It was a lengthy process, reading it. But it was worth the trouble. This was, after all, the crux upon which those terrifying steel-toed boots rode. If the words that punished her down the stairs were a whip, then the print before her was a crop, keeping the wounds fresh and open until they numbed in sweet relief. These words confirmed everything she knew with their largeness, their imminence, reflecting her wretchedness endlessly back upon her so that she couldn't grow complacent, couldn't lose her way. If she searched long enough in these pages, they would tell her everything, grant her all the wisdom and virtue she could ever desire. But for now they could only help her to admit her deficiencies, could only expose her sins. There could be no exoneration before the purge, and that's what her reading was. It hurt because it was dissecting her, carving out the flaws, purifying her with misery.
So yes, she was in the last part of the book now, the part that had once been her favorite because it spoke of love, of equality, of children and forgiveness. Each of thos
But no. No, the boots had told her she was wrong, had shown her what a disease of the mind it was to think that her dreams could ever be holy or true. The boots had pointed out condemnation after condemnation buried in her once-beloved consolations like daggers beneath their wine-red cloaks— daggers now sinking into her heart. And while she was still bandaging those wounds with her decimated fingers, still damp and stinging with salt from wiping her eyes, the girl had stumbled upon the last chapter of the book, just as she was now.
A spasm almost of terror came over her, and she slammed the tome shut, not daring to throw it across the room lest she invoke the sky's wrath, but letting it clatter to the floor.
That last chapter, it was black. It was cold— so cold it seemed to burn with the searing, bone-shattering heat of perdition. Lip quavering, on the verge of tears, the girl knew she didn't have the strength to face it again— no, not now.
She sniffled, wiping at her running nose. She wasn't strong enough yet. Not enough to let herself cry, that queerest of actions that always left her drained, her thoughts eventually wearing themselves down to a sense of peace, to such a weak state that she would begin to hear demonic suggestions to rest, that she'd done enough.
It was never enough. She stood, glaring defiantly down at her tiny, bruised fists.
She needed to be stronger.
Crossing to her closet, she stared at its thick mahogany door-frame, the black paint flaking, curling away from the wood. There was one patch, just below her eyes, where it looked particularly chipped.
The girl slammed her fist into that patch, her knuckles throbbing in response. She did it again, and felt a sharper pain. Again she did it, and again it hurt. She'd been at it for weeks. Eventually, as her knuckles healed, they would callous, harden. That was why she forced them into the door-frame, though they ached more now; her arms had gained muscle and power.
Yet... her knuckles hadn't strengthened, only tendered. Her jaw clenched. She thought of the chapter unread in her book, and it still gave rise to a shiver in her spine. For the dozenth time she punched the wall. Monks did this. Holy monks. That was how they broke through boards— because they'd followed that strict, pure truth handed down to them from the heavens. The girl's fists beat the wood before them harder now, more frantically as her agony increased.
Stronger. She would be stronger, she repeated to herself, a chant with which to distract from the pain, to keep herself going. Stronger stronger stronger stronger stronger.
A splinter drove itself into her hand, and she bit down on a cry, but she wouldn't— couldn't— stop to pull it free. Only endurance, only anguish could relieve her. She resumed her litany, yet every collision of her fist with that wall brought greater agony, not the numbness she craved.
Stronger, cried her mind and body in synergy as her fingers smashed into the wood. Stronger, they yelped as the splinter was driven further into her bleeding fist.
Stronger. Stronger stronger stronger. Stronger shi— stronger stronger stronger— shit! S-stronger bull— strong— bullshit! It was all such—!
"Agh!" the girl exclaimed, throwing herself back on the bed, clutching her aching skull. Now, now she couldn't help it as she first choked on a sob, then collapsed hysterically into a fit of tears.
Bullshit. It was all such bullshit— no, that was heresy! And yet, hadn't she been aching for weeks, wasn't the black and blue shame branded into her fists enough?! Why hadn't she made any progress?! Why couldn't she move?! Why was she trapped, day after day, in the echo of her own folly, as though caged by bars wrought of tuning forks, their scathing reverberations shaking her very core? Hadn't she been good? Hadn't she suffered? Or was it that she was weaker still than she thought? Was it that her sins required more atonement, still greater reprise? Was— was she truly so vile?
"I'm sorry!" she cried, curling in on herself as though a scrap of discarded prose shriveling in the hearth, a creation tossed away. "I'll try harder, I'll take more— I'm so sorry! Please let me keep trying! I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry!"
Her corpse was wracked with sobs, and she muffled them in her pillow, fearful that the boots would find her wallowing in the shame. Into the cotton she screamed and wept and dug her fingers until her knuckles cried her grasp was so tight. It might have been hours she lay twisted there with anguish; it might have been days. But at last her frail little body gave in, and she collapsed into the merciful folds of a dreamless sleep.
Woolgathering by Christina Hambleton / Fantasy have rating 3.2 out of 5 / Based on16 votes