This page contains:
- Animal cruelty/death
- Disregard for personal autonomy
This is how it middles. You know the rest.
The Maiden liked to watch the Other dig her bowed legs into the mortar joints, boulder her way up the side of the tower with a basket of fragrant herbs and root crop slung over her shoulder. The Maiden thought it funny how she walked on walls like a wasp. The Other kept her face up as she climbed, her eyes like dinner bowls and her mouth wide as the arm of a red pine. Sometimes the Maiden sang as she observed.
Other, Other, long-legged but short-furred. If only you grew wings and flew like a bird.
When the Other reached the balcony, she leaped with all of her limbs pushing against the brick, dust on the landing displacing with the weight of her arrival. She shuddered as if coming indoors and shaking off a coat of spring rain. The Maiden clapped and laughed and helped pull the basket up off her Other’s bony shoulder. The Other’s lizard-long tongue swept across the hair that hung over the Maiden’s tall forehead. She caught it as it pulled away and gave it a little kiss before releasing it.
What shall I cook, a soup? A stew? Me and my Other, a meal just for two.
After dinner, the Other lay by the fire and knit weft. Mantles and robes in the summer when meat was abundant and the Maiden’s hair grew long on the taste of rabbit and oranges. Toques in dry winter, and shoes when the leaves of the rope trees grew thick enough to weave into soles. The Maiden would model them. Prance on the floor, swaddled like a bed in blankets. Play draughts with herself, all the pieces biscuits, to be launched into an open mouth once captured. Read a book out loud, mouthing the words she didn’t understand like irrigation or empire, flipping to pictures of lakes shaped like the crates the Other had brought the books back in.
And if the Maiden grew restless while the Other was preoccupied with needle and yarn, if she stamped her feet or flipped back and forth between the beginning and end of her books, the Other would whistle a tune through her wide lips and the Maiden would giggle and follow suit in a song sweet enough to fold the moon’s dark half back over the light.
And so on one night:
Other, Oh Other, so near and so dear—
Other, Oh Other, your voice warm and clear—
“Who is that?” asked the Maiden to the mountains. “Someone else singing, with my voice, far off, faraway.”
To which the Other would come and stand beside her on the balcony landing and screech through the tops of the trees, a similar screech returning not long after. She would hold out a massive hand and curve it in the air, as though forming a bowl.
The Maiden giggled, and screamed like her Other, into the pitch black ridden with stars.
Only the voice that returned shrieking did not sound like the Maiden at all.
The highest chamber of the tower was called Sky and the lowest was called Earth. The chambers between had no names. In the morning, the Other descended from Sky’s balcony and at dusk, she knocked upon the hollow of Earth, the dust coming loose from rafters letting the Maiden know she had returned.
The Other could not enter Earth. She couldn’t fit through the trapdoor that led into rooms that spiraled down into one another losing light and wind as they plummeted Earthwards. The tower had four windows, all looking out from Sky. Clumsy old Other probably would have tripped in the dark, on those tall, ancient stairs—probably would have seized with terror on the ninety-ninth step, which was exactly halfway down the tower. The Other would not enter Earth, no, but the Maiden was brave and just the right size.
Beneath the one-hundred and ninety-eighth step, there was a well. Food and firewood: the Other’s domain. Water was the Maiden’s chore. She carried it from Earth to Sky in a bucket of silver. It goes without saying that she would sometimes pull something from the well that wasn’t water. A brooch or a bangle. She would throw them back in. Once, she found a gold tooth hidden at the bottom of the bucket, only realizing on returning to Sky. The very next day she marched all the way down to Earth without carrying a bucket and cast the tooth into the well.
“No, thank you,” she said. “I don’t need your gifts.”
And after that Earth did not try to draw her from Sky. For a time.
It was a woman’s voice first, but never again. It was so quiet that the Maiden believed that she had imagined it.
“He said he was a … not that I believed him … climb up again.”
“Hello?” said the Maiden. Her second thought was that the well was speaking to her.
“Ivory … Horn … Needle … Thorn …”
The voice came from beyond the stone. The Maiden felt around in the dark, into unfamiliar territories. A brick slick with moss, another loose enough that she could feel it tremble as she touched it, and then a smooth surface warm with the world’s breath. She moved across it and found a handle and pulled.
Light streamed in. A dry breeze. A clearing of high grass and flowering weeds. The Maiden stepped outdoors into the sunlight and looked around. She took a walk around the tower. There was no-one. She looked out into the woods and wondered what the Other would bring back today.
Then she went back inside and pulled up some water for dinner.
The voices after were men’s voices. Laughing and talking of game and horses. Less singular than that first voice, less distinct. Still when the Maiden looked out to greet them, she found no-one. Eventually, she returned to her instinct that it was another of the well’s tricks and began singing loudly whenever she heard the voices to cover them up.
Don’t bubble. Don’t spout. I’ll throw in hot coals to burn your mouth out.
I’ll take all your jewels and melt them for knives.
Poke a hole in your neck and drink out your life.
“Quiet … do you hear … these cursed woods.”
“She’s listening … be silent … we will go to the tower … witch.”
The Maiden let go of the pulley and heard the bucket clang against the sides of the well. She opened the door once more, just a sliver, just a crack to peek through, afraid of what might come through the woods on a warm and soundless day.
Not long after, the leaves began browning. The Maiden decided to go out into the woods and find the source of the voices. She put on her softest cloak and her sturdiest shoes and tossed a coin of bygone currency into the well on her way out.
“Don’t tell my Other where I’ve gone. I’ll be back before nightfall.”
The Maiden walked and watched the shadows of birds dart across the foliage. A wind rose and a bluster of leaves swept past her into the columns of trees. She put a hand to a trunk to steady herself and felt on her fingertips the smooth shell of a beetle which flitted away up out of sight as she withdrew in shock. The Maiden laughed. She wondered to herself why she didn’t leave the tower more often. In fact, she wondered, had she ever left the tower before? She felt she must have but it seemed a blur of long ago.
She came across a clearing with a little pool draped in mosquito fern, across which was a small house made of stone. As she walked around the green water, she saw that the building was derelict. What she had thought a trellis was a shroud of ivy hung on great lumps of moss. A pathway littered with cracked stones lead up to a door moist with black fuzz. No glass in the windows, not even shards, only grates shaped like the pinholes of light through the leaves.
There isn’t a chimney, she thought. How strange. Even a summer’s night was cold in these woods.
She peered in a window, and a bearded face looked back at her.
“Oh!” she cried.
“Hello, lass,” said the man. “What’s the matter now?”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I thought this house was abandoned.”
“That it is, that it is.”
The Maiden realized she could hear birds. Not one or two, but dozens, possibly more. The sound of them came from inside the house. She stared back at the man, who grinned at her with yellow teeth.
“I built this house for the birds.”
The man had deeply pale skin and hair coarse as a boar’s body. It shot out of his face haphazardly as wild grass. She had not seen a man like him before, and she began to reconcile what he was saying with how she felt looking at him.
“You must be very kind,” she said, “to go to such trouble to build a house for birds.”
“Not all, not all,” he said. “It is no kindness to keep livestock.”
“Are they for eating?”
“Not them but their spittle, a delicacy, yànwō.”
The man stood up. It became obvious the house was not built for him. He towered over the window. The Maiden saw that even the hair on his chest was wild as he adjusted his green tunic and bent back down to meet her face at the window’s grates.
He held out his hand. There was something in it like a shed cocoon.
“These are their nests,” he said. “They make them with their tongues.”
“And these are a delicacy?”
The man shrugged. “I personally think they’re disgusting, but what a rich man wants to swallow is none of my business so long as he pays me.”
She reached out to touch it. He grabbed her hand and bit her, laughing through his teeth.
“Hee! Hahaha! Heeheeheee!”
She screamed in pain. Dark shapes fell upon the man from inside, the twittering gone frantic and hysterical. He let go of her hand to defend himself and she took off, back into the trees as fast and as far as her feet could carry her. When she ran out of breath, she realized she had no idea where she was.
Then it was dark. She thought of the well. The well and its lies. What would it tell the Other?
Or what if it stayed silent? Wet and cold and dumb as a well. Then the Other would know nothing, would fear someone had stolen in and taken her in her absence, would fear she had fallen somewhere in the dark place between Sky and Earth, hurt and unable to return to either.
She’ll never find me, thought the Maiden. I’ll never see her again. The Maiden began to cry. Soft whimpering sobs. A footstep stopped them nearly as quick as they started and the Maiden found herself staring at another man.
“Hello, lass,” he said. “What’s the matter now?”
Her legs were still shaking. She didn’t know if she could run again.
The man looked at her cockeyed. He held an armful of lumber.
“It’s awfully late,” he said. “Will you share a fire with me? I’ve enough meat for two.”
The Maiden until that moment hadn’t even realized her hunger. She weighed her options. It might be a trap, she thought, but at least I can recover my breath while he stokes the fire. She wiped off her tears and nodded at him.
The man was a woodsman, and his camp not so far off. The Maiden watched the axe strapped to his back as she followed him there.
He started the fire and she sat on a log. He turned around and the blood drained right out of her. His was a pale face, with a beard coarse and wild. Not another man, the same. She readied herself to run when he handed her a skewer of meat.
He sat across her and chewed with his mouth open. She did not take a bite.
“I’m lost,” she said. More to herself than to him.
“I thought so,” he said. “In the morning, I’ll take you back to town.”
“I don’t live in a town,” she said.
The woodsman stopped eating.
“You can stay by this fire,” he said. “I can offer you that at least.”
“Do you have anyone—” she stopped midway through. A poorly thought out question, she said to herself in her mind.
“I have a wife,” he said. “And a little babe. They need me to come home.”
“No, I’m sorry,” she said. “Do you have anyone who looks just like you?”
He looked afraid, for a moment. Something in his eyes flickered.
“I had a brother once. But I haven’t seen him in years.”
“I see,” she said.
“Please eat. It’s all I can offer you.”
The Maiden took one bite and then another. She finished her meal and tossed the bamboo skewer into the fire.
“Was it good?” the woodsman asked.
“What was it?”
“Pork,” he said.
“What is pork?”
He laughed. His voice filled with warmth again.
“You’re a strange one. Pork, you know. Like pig.”
“Oh,” she said. “Why didn’t you just say pig?”
The woodsman shrugged. “They’re the same, but not the same.”
Though the Maiden became certain it was not the same man, if for nothing else than because he was considerably smaller than the man in the stone house, she could not find it in her to sleep within his reach. She waited until she was certain he was unconscious and crept over him.
“Please …” he mumbled groggily before belting out a loud snore. “Mercy … witch.”
Witch? thought the Maiden. Where had she heard that before?
She crouched low over the man’s ear. “Thank you for the meal. Be safe on your way home.”
That seemed to put his sleeping body at ease.
Pig and pork are not the same, she thought as she walked into the darkness. Is it because one is dead and the other is alive? Or is it given a new name because it serves a new purpose? Does a house have a new name when it has birds instead of fireplaces? It’s made of the same things but it’s not the same.
The same, but not the same. She thought of the two men, who might have been brothers.
The Other is not the same as me at all, she thought.
She had a clever idea: climb a high tree and see if she couldn’t find the tower then. This the Maiden did and it was no great problem, even with only a sliver of moon, even with animals chittering secrets, even as the branch she planted her feet on bowed up and down ever so slightly that it felt as though she was riding on a ghostly breeze.
A pillar of white stone, just beneath a cold red star. She imagined a straight line over the pine wood then hurried down to follow it.
She passed the trees. She entered the clearing. Running, though not a shadow gave chase to her. Right up to the place in the bricks where the door should have been.
Right to where it wasn’t.
She circled the tower: once, twice, third time in a gallop. She clawed at the gaps between stones.
Where am I? she thought. This is not my tower.
The Maiden turned and saw a man in the distance, wreathed in branches and the shadows of their leaves. She receded into the cover of a thorny bush. He held a finger to his mouth to gesture that she be silent, to remove any doubt she might have had that he had not seen her.
She felt as though she might melt right into the stone.
The moonlight struck him. Light glinted off his ragged beard. His finger moved from mouth to sky. To say: look up.
At the top of the tower was a balcony brimming with warm, uninhibited light. In it, two shadow puppets danced like black drawings on an ancient wall. One large and one small, pantomiming some familiar story. Something endlessly rehearsed. A spin and a twirl, a leap and a follow, the smaller shadow raising arms in a cross and the larger shadow lifting a single branch-thick arm—the light went out. Then something came screaming all the way down.
It looked like a lump then it looked like a pile. A pile of branches, a pile of stones, a pile of bedsheets. Of course, it wasn’t those things. It was a person.
Was it still a person? thought the Maiden.
An intricate pattern of wet light reflected off the fallen person. The Maiden crept along the side of the tower to get a better look. She kept an eye on the place in the trees where the man had been. An odd crowing came out of the woods, startling her. It sounded like birds that were pretending to be birds.
When she looked back, the body was gone. Her hands fell to the ground, groping the brush grass for some sign of it. Her eyes swept back to the woods.
Look up, said no-one. The Maiden craned her head up toward the tower’s highest point, just quick enough to see a shadow slink away from sight. She turned back the way she had come around the tower only to freeze with shock.
A figure was in that distance, walking away from the Maiden. Crawling, it almost seemed, towards the woods. The fallen person.
What had shone wet in the moonlight was hair, an impossible length of hair, black as river stone. It fell from their shoulders, down to the weeds, clinging like dew-covered moss to each blade of grass. A gust of wind came through the clearing and blew some of it up into the air, strands falling loose as if the cloaked figure was disintegrating, thread by thread.
“Wait!” said the Maiden.
The fallen person turned around. The Maiden ceased chasing.
The other girl smiled without teeth. She looked like a mirror.
Then she returned to her path into the trees, her shed locks forming a path dragged behind her. The Maiden walked alongside it. She looked up at the moon. She looked up at the tower. When she got to the end of the line, she saw that the path of hair ended strung through the fingers of a gnarly branch.
The Maiden turned back one last time and saw the man at the other end of the black line. His face was in darkness. He stood straight as a tree, and if he saw her he made no indication. Then he mouthed a word that made his teeth pull together as though hissing. But not at her. A copse of men emerged from the trees. Some of those men were short and some were tall. Some broad and some rakish. All wore bristling beards, and from where the Maiden stood it seemed as if they might wear the same face. Like it wasn’t a face at all. The moon’s glow was a silver outline on their strange forms. Something about them made the Maiden think of wild hogs stood up on their hind legs. They gathered round the trail of shed hair.
The man at the far end of the line grabbed a handful and stuffed it right into his hissing mouth. And the others, that all now seemed skeletal, hungrily followed suit.
Then the Maiden was somewhere else. Somewhere that smelled of pine wood and feathers. Light fell down through pinholes in the foliage and glittered on the undergrowth. Water dripped from the leaves as if it had been raining. The Maiden was not wet.
Maybe she had run, until she could not run any more. Until she ran face-first into some ancient stone, some prehistoric tree, a cliff-face overlooking a black and bottomless pit. Her body ached. Maybe she had fallen asleep.
She leaned against a fallen trunk and closed her eyes.
“Hello lass,” said a voice. “What have you got in your hand?”
The Maiden’s eyes shot open. In morning light, she wasn’t sure which man it was. A nest of a beard and skin like sun-bleached bone. She let time pass and he simply stood there, blinking occasionally.
“What have you got there?” he finally repeated.
“I have nothing,” the Maiden lied.
“I see,” he said. He bowed deep and pulled his axe from out behind him, cutting a path through the high growth, away from the Maiden.
She clutched her chest and took a breath. The woods sighed with her. For a moment, she thought she could hear singing. Then low voices, something that might have been laughter. When she closed her eyes again, the sound of whispers and cackling grew louder.
She stood up and followed after the man with the axe, in haste catching a branch that tore a jagged rip into her soft cloak.
The Maiden caught up with the man with the axe shortly, for he had stopped. He was fingering through some dense fern between a forked tree. She approached from behind and he made no indication of having noticed her until he spoke.
“Look,” he said, without turning around.
The Maiden looked through the gap and saw the descent of the woods.
“Look again,” he said.
Amidst the trees there were animals, leather molting off their enormous backs.
They weren’t animals. They were buildings.
He cut into the place where the woods rolled down in a slope. The houses and the footpath between them lolled down it like a slack tongue. From where they were, the Maiden could see all across the lowlands. The man made a show of breathing deep.
“I hear,” said the man. “That these now house a particular kind of bird.”
“Isn’t that what they were built for?” said the Maiden.
“No,” he said. “These are the ones. You know the story.”
“Oh,” he said. He reached up and stroked his beard. “Perhaps that’s for the best.”
“Tell me the story,” she said.
He soundlessly made a move to walk away from her, down the path to inspect the abandoned structures. She grabbed him by the sleeve with her free hand and he stopped.
“Once upon a time,” he said without turning. “There was to be a high fortress. A stronghold against the men beyond the mountains.”
The Maiden let go of his sleeve. The man with the axe did not move.
“And these,” he said spinning his wrist lackadaisically to indicate all that surrounded them. “A forward settlement. For men and women wanting to build something greater than themselves.”
“What happened to them?” said the Maiden.
The man with the axe grinned slightly. “The emperor at the time was a ruler not unlike other rulers. And so his subjects, starting with those furthest from the seat of his power, began to starve.”
The Maiden said nothing. She looked at the houses where yards had been carved, a crop of hard stones littering them. All that did grow, it grew for the woods.
“You wonder if they did or they didn’t. Both. Some did. It seemed as if all of them would. Then came the witch.”
“Witch?” said the Maiden.
“The witch saw to it that those remaining didn’t starve. Not for free, of course.”
“What did they trade for food?”
“There are many versions of this story,” said the man. “There are many reasons why it is told. The reasons of the emperor, the reasons of the people, the reasons of the witch.”
He walked hastily down the path and she followed him.
“What did they trade?” she repeated.
The man with the axe gave the Maiden a half-lidded look that said the answer was obvious. He took a turn where the footpath forked and stopped in front of a thicket at the road’s premature end. He traced the length of a vine of ivy with one finger.
“Cattle give milk. Sheep give wool. A pig has nothing of worth but its flesh.”
The man paused.
“Better to be a bird, eh?”
He cleaved through and disappeared into the wall of branches and brush. The Maiden followed after him and emerged into a familiar clearing with a little pond covered in mosquito fern. A ramshackle house beyond it, dense with animal trill.
From behind her, something grabbed her balled fist. She screamed and kicked herself away.
The man with the axe stood in the shadow of the woods, bringing the wad of black hair the Maiden had been clutching to his mouth and slurping it down in one motion.
“I’ll take this as payment,” he said. “Go on home, lass. You are only a child. Someday you will be someone different. I’ll come and meet her instead.”
Then he was gone.
The well said nothing on her return. The Maiden pulled up some water and drank it but it tasted unusual. Slimy and bitter. She had wedged the door open and could see a faint reflection of herself on the water’s surface. She stared at it until it looked strange, then let the bucket fall.
“Ivory … Horn … Pig … Pork …” she whispered into the well’s hollow.
“The same but not the same. Someone different. He said he had a—”
The sound of the bucket hitting the water. Between the ripples, the Maiden saw the fallen girl.
“No,” she said. “I refuse.”
Her gaze flickered up to where the light didn’t touch.
The day was dying. From Sky, the Maiden could see the shape of the Other emerging from the woods, a basket filled with nothing saddled on her broad back.
The Maiden looked at the trees. She looked at her bed, her torn cloak mended with haphazard stitching on top of it. She walked over to pick it up and turn it over. Then she pushed it beneath her mattress. When she came back to the balcony, the Other was climbing up the side of the tower in her stalking, insectoid way.
This isn’t my Other, thought the Maiden. It’s someone else’s.
Then she reconsidered. Then she wondered what made her think such a thing.
Other Maidens. Other Others.
She imagined pushing her. She imagined falling.
If I push her, she will grab me, thought the Maiden. Grab me with her long arms, endless arms. Or she won’t. If she did, would we plummet held together? Or would she let go of me? Our bodies would drift apart until we could look at one another. Maybe there would only be time to look at the earth.
She imagined that the ground wasn’t rocks and dirt, but water. She imagined the Other wasn’t someone she loved. She imagined she wasn’t herself. Her hands trembled. The balcony trembled.
The Other poked her head up into view and tilted her face towards the Maiden: her eyes damply red and huge with intellect. The Maiden held her breath; the wind stung like a thorn.