Onions

A man came home one day from work, exhausted and hungry. There were two bowls set on the kitchen table, and two spoons, two cups, and a loaf of bread, but there was no other food to be had.

He looked around for his young wife, and found her sitting on a stool in a corner near the fireplace, crying and shaking with what seemed to be a bitter dejection.

“Why is there no lunch today?” he asked.

“It’s not my fault, it’s not my fault,” she sobbed before having another teary fit. She also seemed not to have eaten, and was as pale and as faint as if she had not slept either.

“But I am starving,” the man said, frowning his forehead and not too kindly this time.

She covered her face with an apron, and muttered, “It’s not me, really, it’s the onions!”

The man was intrigued now, and forgot about his hunger for a moment. He crouched beside her and saw there were indeed onion peels scattered all over the floor.

“All right,” he conceded, “will you tell me what’s the matter already?”

“I wanted to make us some onion soup,” she said, sniffing crossly,” but they are all rotten, poisoned to the core!”

He took one into his hand, looked at it, and smelled it, but could not detect either rot or poison.

“They seem fine to me,” he said, perplexed.

Now she raised her red, puffy eyes and looked at him for the first time. She shook her head and pointed a trembling finger at the floor.

“Ah, but they are not,” she whispered. “As soon as I peel them, my eyes get all hot and I start weeping. No matter how many layers I take off, the next one will still sting and make me cry again. They must have been cursed!”

At those words, the man burst into laughter, took a couple of onion peels, and ate them with his bread and some salt. He was obviously not going to get any other lunch that day.

In the Name of Kaya

An excerpt from a work in progress.

My friend asked me whether it was as if I became another person after Mother died. I had to say no, it was not. It was me, the same old me from before. I had no feeling of being changed in any way, though what I began saying and doing resembled very little the me that once was. I must have been different from the outside for her to ask that, but the inside felt just so much like me, there was no difference there. Then she wanted to know whether it was the real me. And again, I had to say no, it is not that I was hiding away myself, pretending for so long to be somebody else, and that now this real individuality of mine was born, or decided to be known. I do not shun what I was, I do not despise myself for being modest, and sober, and faithful. I rather like my previous thoughtful inclinations and religious strivings. That is still me, and not someone else whose life I claimed for my own, although I do different things now.

The thing, however, is this – I am all of that. I am who I was, and who I am, and who I will be. I am a person of many layers, and since they cannot all be exercised at once, I do it part by part. It is simply that, right now, I am interested in a part of me that was not pronounced for most of my life, but it was there. I knew it existed all along, I rarely even turned a blind eye on it, but I lacked the opportunity to foreground it. And I am enjoying it now immensely.

Today, I am so grateful to her for asking me those two questions, because she helped me come up with the answers, and word out what I only felt. And words feel good, because they are forms tangible with out tongues that help us materialize that which we would otherwise just feel, and be unable to realize on the material plane. They are used to explain to ourselves here what we know about things there. They are our aids. They are translations in themselves, translating knowledge into something audible, visible, repeatable. And they are, by the sheer quality of their origin, prone to be misinterpreted. And yet they are, nevertheless, necessary and useful, and not to be belittled because of their inadequacy. They need not be adequate, for if we stay true to ourselves, we will understand what it is the words are telling us about, and will rejoice in the recognition of the world behind them, and that we can access, if only we are reminded that it exists.

A party from the Hair-Pin

The house where Anís lived was built of long gray boulders and had a lovely old-fashioned porch turned towards the sea. As he arrived, he noticed a pair of sea people standing under it, at the very door – two elderly people of which only the woman’s hair had grayed. It appeared to him that they had already knocked and were now impatiently shivering on the porch, trying to get warm, for their clothes looked as if they though the autumn would have lasted longer than it actually did.

He smiled, kindly.

Finally the doors were opened by the lady of the house in person, for all help was so busy inside with the preparations they had not heard the knock. The mother was a middle aged woman, a dark skinned inlander with nut brown hair, in a dress overly luxurious for where she lived.

She took the parcel from the man and drew a scornful glance at his wife, standing two feet to the back, as if wondering why both had to bother coming over for such a simple matter.

‘You are late,’ she said and after an awkward pause closed the doors to the man’s face.

There would be no tip for him.

‘Oh, what days these, what days,’ the old woman mumbled while shaking her head and gesturing threateningly with her hand, which she dared not lift from her green dress. ‘Can you imagine that a… a landbreed has all… this, all that ought to have been yours,’ and the way she said it made it plain she bitterly believed it all ought to have been hers.

‘Let i’ be, let i’ be,’ the little seaman said turning around and descending from the porch in a toddling manner. He looked back only once, then continued on his way. ‘They’ve jus’ moved in, they’ve only just bough’ it. They di’n’t settle properly jus’ yet. “We can’t keep wha’ we easily reap.” Remember?’

The woman spat and mumbled, ‘The devil keep her,’ but careful that nobody should hear her, ‘if she not be one herself.’

And they were gone. The lady of the house could stop eavesdropping, so she quickly drew the curtain over the little round window from which she was spying on them, intrigued by something in the seaman’s black hair and the muddled lines of his face. Just to be sure, she opened the doors again, looked left and right and, when she was absolutely sure they were gone for good, went inside to open the parcel. But because she forgot to close the doors tight, unused to getting them on a daily basis, the Rat Lad easily slipped in, unnoticed.

The only person who gave him a puzzled look was a servant rushing to help the lady of the house with her package. Over her shoulder, the Rat Lad was overwhelmed by the wonderful warm smells of a southern kitchen, deftly served on a plate. It was the only thing she found to her liking lately, so the servants were helping her arrange it at the top of the dining table, as she would not touch any of the wondrous preparations by the hired cooks.

Thus absorbed with the table setting, she never noticed the tall, unhandsome intruder who entered in a warm dark red coat with a protruding nose and lank hair. One of the servants wanted to take his coat, but he just waved her off.

‘I am here for the party,’ he said. ‘I believe your mistress is expecting me.’

The girl bobbed and showed him along the grandiose preparations for the occasion, with at least ten different pairs of hands doing ten different kinds of arrangements, from setting the dinnerware to dusting the high places of furniture. He gave his due attention to every detail, at the same time being careful to follow the little mousy servant who scurried down the hall, then left, and then opened a seemingly unimportant door and showed him in. It was a side drawing room with only a few selected souls killing their time before the most important part of the evening.

To them he paid little if any attention, for they seemed to him as moths gathering around the one and only person who deserved it by her still veiled brilliance.

She resembled her mother, who was capable of ordering expensive dishes from a dispropertied seaman and leaving him outside without even a tip, very little. Despite of her alleged spending a lot of time outside, she was plumper than was expected from a comely woman her age, and her complexion was too soft and light.

He liked her nevertheless, for other reasons. The prime of these was her hair, whose russet locks rested on top of her head, raised and clasped with a strangely looking ornament which resembled cinnamon bark, or some such similar potpourri – he could not be sure of which at first, but smelled it and felt excited by it from afar.

She glided around the room in a lush copper dress, full of drapes and trimmings which came into view and disappeared from it at every moment, as if the dress were alive to tease the mindful observer. He thought it was just a bit too dressy for someone who was herding goats the rest of the year round, but did not make his remark known in any way.

Anís kept laughing and enjoying herself, as one should when celebrating one’s first engagements, yet he could not help but notice the tiny signs of nervousness – the playing with her nails, the plucking of her own loose tress, the thoughtful stroking of the table. And she never once looked at him the entire time she stood by the piano, though his chair was set just opposite her.

He took his seat at the table generally unnoticed at first, but it could not last long. Just several moments later he engaged the girl sitting next to him in a loud conversation which made her neck itch and two young men, who had already been competing for her attention, frowned at the Rat Lad. He was an accomplished party-goer and animosity needed not slap him in the face for him to recognize it. Before the inimical pair could dampen the atmosphere, the Rat Lad was getting out his hazi.

‘Hear, hear!’ he said loudly and all but one head turned to him. ‘I propose a song, one rather befitting our occasion; a very merry song, anyone could join in if you find it to your liking.’

‘Splendid,’ said a disembodied voice that could not be identified later on.

‘Do sing,’ pleaded, in a husked voice that fitted her perfectly, the luxuriously blonde woman nestling on the other side of the table from the Rat Lad. They had all been sitting together for a long time with no food served and the conversations were beginning to thin out.

He struck a tune, a merry one indeed, which only lacked a violin or two, that later on several people claimed they had actually heard in the background, to start a hop. This did not hinder the Rat Lad who suddenly stood up and began jumping from one chair to the other, quickly getting worked up and in the mood for a song. So sing he did, a bunch of simple, almost silly verses about my darling who loved me, and my darling who danced, and my darling who went to hell for me, or some similar nonsense. Perhaps it was not quite befitting, but it remained one of high green slopes and leaping over river rapids, and was rather catchy.

The Rat Lad kept the beat on the blue tablecloth with his freer hand – trump-trump, tap-tap, tarrap-tap-tap, trump-trump – and the blonde one joined in at once, falling in love with him so utterly and deeply that her thighs squeezed and her breath stopped short with excitement as she sang. Oh, to this Anís could not resist, so she too joined them, first from her corner and then coming out to full light, with eyes gleaming and her face all heated up.

It was then that the Rat Lad really fell for her, as she took up the beat with her pebble-like hands, never missing one drum, giving herself fully to what pleased her. He observed her so carefully that the blonde woman turned a greenish hue from which she never quite recovered, and her thighs remained stiff forevermore.

But the Rat Lad could not care less, for there was absolutely nothing special about the blonde. Instead, he pranced and twirled, sang and hummed, and the fingers on his strings managed incredible feats for Anís. Whoever looked once at him could not take his eyes off, so mesmerizing was his music and motion, as if one sprang from the other. His coat kept both in a dark frame, attracting attention and keeping the distance which they felt was shrinking, as the desire to be that merrymaking youth themselves splashed everyone and drowned them in a river of empathy.

Anís found herself wildly desiring things she had so far known only in her dreams. The paths opened wide before her, calling her by the sweetest names, and the longing for climbing to high places seemed to hurt. She was dizzy and, inebriated by the music, for a moment went to and came back from that place where the soul permanently resides once it has known it. And someone went with her, and came back holding her hand.

There was a pause.

The air stood quite still.

And then the wild refrain began to drum its way into their ears. Habebe habebe, obebe obebe – and then the other way around – obebe obebe, habebe habebe. The Rat Lad begun the chant solo but very soon everyone broke into the chorus – habebe habebe obebe obebe – forgetting themselves and trying not to lose the rhythm or twist their tongues – obebe obebe habebe habebe – but they did for it was impossible to keep up with the quickening speed of the Rat Lads hands, beating upon the blue tablecloth, demanding concentration, yet subverting their attempts to do as he asked: habebe habebe, obebe obebe

And – obebe obebe, habebe habebe – one by one, they fell off and burst into a laugh, roaring all around the room with tearful eyes, not once wondering who the youth was who brought them to this state. He laughed with them, and perhaps even the more, for Anís returned his look and he liked so much what she was proposing to him at that one instant.

As the bustle settled down, there was a peaceful hazi interlude, almost as if nothing had happened, and then the lady of the house came in, her face so ashen one could have at once known she would not be eating her southern delicacies that evening. The hazi and the youth in the room fell silent and observed her and the newcomer in a drenched fur overcoat who stood outside the parlor with his head bowed. It was only then they noticed that the night had spread its wings outside and all the candles in the room were lit, in a solemn and festive manner.

‘Child,’ her mother said approaching to take Anís by the hands, in an overly ceremonious style, ‘I am sorry to inform you that your fiancé will not be coming.’

‘Oh, is it the weather?’ she asked, still lightheaded from the dance and chant.

‘Yes,’ the mother said, ‘but not as you might suspect. It was icy from the fog on the way up… and he – he fell…’

‘… so, he must be at the doctor’s by now,’ she said.

From the older woman’s demeanor it was plain she considered her daughter a dunce but the show had to be played on, to reach the properly sober ending.

‘No, I am afraid his neck was broken.’

And Anís, all of a sudden, could not stop a giggle growing in her throat, for she knew he fell in the middle of their habebe obebe chant, while they were so absorbed that the world did not exist outside anymore.

‘It was here, in front of our house, underneath this very window.’

‘So, did they bring him in?’ Anís asked, trying to keep a straight face.

Her mother, seething with anger at her inappropriate behavior, replied through clenched teeth that, ‘no, no, they were waiting for the coroner.’ There was no need to spoil the entire evening by bringing a veritable corpse in.

At these words, the daughter could no longer restrain herself, and she burst into a laugh, later on designated as hysterical, perhaps because there were no tears in it and her chestnut hair was completely disheveled, for its aromatic clasp was gone.

The rest of the evening, she kept muttering two strange words in-between her chuckles, and the uninvited guest tucked his hazi under the coat and silently vanished into the night. He only stopped to remove with him the tasty package that had arrived earlier in the evening, and that nobody would eat after all the mêlée, and was out of the house and into the misty woods.

Then the rest of the company paid their respects and withdrew to their rooms, only to be utterly gone by morning, in which Anís awoke rested and disengaged.

The Wonder of the Tower: Ch 1, Pt 2

In the midst of all of this there were naturally many who were unable to attend the festivities for the town of Morreo had been not only exceedingly prosperous in itself for nearly half a century, but during the previous days it had also practically tripled in number with the various people arriving from all over the country, wishing to be a part of the majestic and long-announced Wonder. There were inlanders, naturally, most of them pretty shabby in appearance even when they claimed ancestral nobility or went as rich land-owners on their own, and a multitude of all kinds of peoples assembled from around the Bay and from down by the Delta. Their tongues, outfits and flags greatly outdid the possibility of being accurately recorded by the various means and equipment painstakingly installed and personally monitored by the Tower-Lords who, apart from demonstrating their might in such technical appliances, wished for nothing less but to be remembered in as far the future and as wide the world as was in their power to control.

Rumor had it that from one of the more liberal Tower’s pinnacle even a secret delegation of the accursed Redheads observed this miracle and wrote reports to their own masters, whether in awe and reverence or in mockery it could not be told for sure. Truth or lie, the connection of these peoples with the Wonder had an undisputable impact on the future of Morreo, as would be shown later on in this very document.

As has already been observed, it was small wonder – if you would excuse the pun – that in such a tumult there were such individuals who, obeying the various impulses of nature, or following a twist in their destinies, or simply suffering the will of their god, were unable to see what they came for.

Among those who, at the time of releasing the Wonder of the Tower, which took the better part of the evening, went in search of a convenient place to relieve their bodies of various mixtures of the free food and drink, and those who lay forgotten while their last breaths were taken in a world still ignorant of the Tower-Lords’ newest device, and those who gratified their more immediate desires with whomever seemed either similarly inclined or simply close at hand, and those who would tomorrow appear only as a number on the list of the unavoidable casualties, there was one woman – and not the only one either, but the rest are not remembered – who gave birth to her only daughter, a premature one.

Just as the Wonder was soaring high up in the air so that everyone could see it, she went into labor on the street and was carried off by a kind soul to the nearest inn where she was left on her own in a dark room for no one wanted to miss the long-expected marvel unfolding outside their doors. The pains did not last as long as they are usually prone to, and, by the time the Miracle was called back into the Tower, and the night was allowed to freely descend upon the dazed town, and the general frenzy that would last for two more nights and a day began in its full, the tiny child was born, cleansed, wrapped and fed for the first time.

Some say her mother was one of the free-born citizens of Morreo, others that she had recently arrived as an arranged bride to some such man, while there were even opinions of her being just one of the tourists early arrived for the festival from some part of the world or another. The only thing they did seem to agree on is that she had been in town for a while, long enough to be a familiar face to a number of neighbors, but that soon after her delivery she vanished, either because she died quietly or because she went away when none of them saw her – and the daughter, whose name was not recorded at the time in town’s books, went with her.

Interestingly, what happened to the woman was never a topic of any serious investigation nor were there further inquires into the matter until only recently, and if indeed she lived on, her life must have taken a quiet and inconspicuous course that came to its end as dully as it had once begun. There are, however, many speculations regarding the possible turns which the daughter’s life could have taken in the beginning, none of which were subsequently either confirmed or denied by her personally or anyone who boasted of being a close associate of hers. Therefore, they will be omitted from this account, which is already becoming lengthy, if for no other reason then because its subject is in many ways vague and still unresolved even for the elevated circles that are far more entitled to blind guessing and passing finite judgments than we are.

 

NB: The extensive annotation has been omitted from this post.

The Wonder of the Tower: Ch 1, Pt 1

 

The Wonder of the Tower was indeed a strange occurrence – no less so because thousands were there to witness it – known now by few to have happened in their own lifetimes, so it is highly regretful that this account can by no means go into the more profound details of it. All the while, it should be and is mentioned first and foremost, and it names the entire chronicle, because this single incident determined the futures of those (or, of her) for whose sake and in whose memory these lines are being written.

On the day it took place, the crowd which gathered in the narrow streets surrounding the immediate town center of Morreo was such as had not been seen in two or three septades, all eyes for the miraculous event of releasing the long-kept secret of the town’s main Tower, the Tower of Commerce, which monopolized all of sea-trade in that northernmost part of the Bay. Whispers had been hard to put an end to and no amount of secrecy could stop the tongues wagging – in effect, the stealth with which it was all prepared only made them more fervent. However, not even the most imaginative merchant – who claimed he saw the miracles of the far seas and sparse lands over the Eastern Ridge and beyond, or even the “infamous territories, infidel city-states and infested homedomes” of the Redheads in the West – could have had such a vivid imagination to be any match for the crookedly ingenious visions bred in the minds of the Tower-Lords.

And their visions, alike their minds, were magnificent – even though there was no word that could ever come close to describing what the townspeople were so eagerly expecting to see, this was the most commonly heard one and none the worse for being so utterly inferior to the object it was applied to.

Disregarding that which cannot be described herein – the exhilaration of release, the stages of development, the horror of final undoing – it will have to suffice to say that the magnitude of it, its mere size, was not the matter of discussion; it could not be. For what the material shape of the Tower was able to contain was not so much the length and breadth – it had been, after all, erected some hundred years earlier, when its engineers had still no grasp of such architectural prowess extant in the modern days, perhaps because they seemed to be of a shorter stature themselves – but power. This is what the spectacle held: power. Power to mesmerize, to attract, to bewitch, to fascinate, to charm; and thus to control, to master, to govern, to command the living and, it seemed to some of the keener-eyed, the dead.

The nearest the tradition had ever come to it was the proverbial song of the sirens, and even that – when compared to the Wonder of the Tower as it would be called in the following septades – came out as a poor comparison for the Lords did not waste their time, or knowledge, or the labors of inbreeding to create something of such a temporary effect. Nor were they in their long history known to be seduced and led astray by powers rooted in the grosser elements of the world. Their work was much finer and irrevocably entrenched in the more subtle types of the world strata, going into the very fiber of existence, touching upon what only they as topmost traders could recognize on first sighting in everyone they met.

It was desire, and the Lords’ efforts were singularly devoted to that all-encompassing, all-devouring longing that only dreams – and not even they all the while despite the acclaimed kinship of the two – had solidity enough to contain. A certain kind of the artificially created form of desire was the thing carefully and mindfully unfurled before the audience which could never later on precisely agree what it was they had seen and applauded, and what had been the shape of the thing the Tower-Lords presented to them that hot evening at the onset of autumn, when the clouds seemed to be draining down the sky and into the boiling horizon.

Most accounts to be found today, of course, focus on the things that later retellings discovered more or less common to the sightings, such as the semblance to a kind of a golden anthropomorphic whirlpool, which was never quite that color but came as near to it as it could, or the general gut feeling that it was – the many propounders of an androgynous form notwithstanding – rather though not altogether feminine in nature, or that it might have had wings but if it was so then they were not displayed in their fullness or even in their larger part. Expectedly beside such fervent religionists who saw it as a non-disputable manifestation of their particular worshipable divinity, there were always those who claimed they could give a complete and accurate description of what it looked like to them, not to mention those who were afterward visited by it in person either in their dreams, meditations or inebriations.

NB: The extensive annotation has been omitted from this post.

One fresh from Dreamland…

… and still very raw

A long, long time time ago in a kingdom far, far away, there lived a small princess in her large castle. The castle was a high gray structure with smooth walls made in the recesses of the past. It was surrounded by a shiny green lake over which there stood a fragile wooden bridge. The kingdom had a lot of grasslands, and a few villages. It could only be reached by passing through a dark forest, over a long river, and over the purple mountains. It was so far away and so tiny that it had not one prince, nor anyone else worthy of the princess’s hand.

The princess herself appeared tiny but sweet, and her pretty little head was all round and blonde, just like a true princess’s, and she wore upon it a pretty golden crown. She walked around her castle in her silk dresses, and wondered when she would find her true love. But, since no one had come, the princess decided to set upon a quest herself. She took her stallion from her stables, and mounted him with the silk dress on her body and the golden crown upon her head.

Then she crossed the purple mountains, the long river, and entered the dark forest. It was there, upon a great slab of rock, that she found her prince. He was also a tiny prince, barely surpassing her in height or weight. He was asleep under an ancient spell, and his crown was made of iron and badly forged. The princess did not mind any this, however, so she lifted him up on her horse and set back home. It took many adventures before she reached her home, and when she did she was apprehensive. For she new there was only time enough before the last stroke of midnight for him to wake and love her, or a terrible fate should fall upon them.

Unfortunately, as they crossed the wooden bridge into the castle, the prince slipped from her horse and fell into the deep lake. His crown dragged him ever deeper, until a large brach from a dead tree stopped him from sinking further. The princess jumped after him, without ever stopping to think. She managed to pull him away from the tree, but his iron crown fell off his head. The princess did not care, for she could now make him a gold one. But it was then that the bells started to chime. It was midnight, though the sky had not darkened yet. The prince’s clothes were so heavily soaked that she could not pull him up. She shoved, and beat her tiny feet in the green waters, feeling the air leaving her lungs.

At the very last stroke, the prince emerged from the lake. He finally awoke from his enchanted dream and climbed the bank, where he spit the water from his mouth. Then he turned to see who his saviour was. There was the little princess, lying on the bank near a great thorn bush, but she appeared to be dead. He came to her and lifted her up, looking into her pretty round face. Green water flowed profusely from her mouth and nose, but it was too late – the midnight had struck.

Above their heads dark clouds whirrled and a horrible storm began. Lightning bolts stroke the gray castle and it tumbled down. The lake spilled over its banks, and the little kingdom fell into ruin. It was so far away that nobody knew it was there, and nobody could come to conquer it again. And since that day there were no more princes and princesses there, or castles and crowns. But what happened to the last little princess and her prince, I do not know. They might have even lived happily ever after as ordinary peasants in one of the villages, but no minstrels ever came by to ascertain it and write a poem about them.

The Frog-Lady (an excerpt)

If Anurilia had really ever wanted to, the old frog-lady of the valley would have taught her how one spoke to the frogs. But she didn’t ask her, and the knowledge was never passed on.

It would be a rather far-fetched supposition to think she was indifferent when it came to that oversight of hers, yet the guilt of it waned with time and it didn’t make her a much worse frog-lady than the others she had known or heard of. There were many who, naturally, knew more about it than her – but, then, there were those who were in it just for curiosity and were far more ignorant of the ways of the frogs.

She wasn’t a frog-lady for the prestige. Not to say she wasn’t vain – as most girls her age are no matter how hard they might try for the opposite – but the fame of the frog-ladies rarely spread any further than their own valleys. There was quite a number of them in the wide world and unless one did something pretty extraordinary, there was poor chance one’s name would come up in any but the most banal conversations.

The Rat Lad, now, he thought quite the reverse.

He was, for one, much different in appearance than Anurilia. Her hair was strawberry blonde, long and thick and as wavy as new haystacks in the field that made him sneeze. Her nose was straight like a sword-blade (although no swords had been used in that country for a very long time) in spite of which he found out he wanted to protect her from people like himself.

In his turn, the thin dark hair fell lankly around his face much alike the willow’s branches swooshing around its trunk in the winter. What made him a sort of an attraction in Anurilia’s valley was his fine looking red coat for which he was immediately noticed. They called him the Rat Lad behind his back anyway, not because he had anything to do with rats – it wasn’t like when they called Anurilia the frog-lady – but because he seemed of that long and slim type that only a lack of a tail differs from its distant four-legged rodent cousins.

Nevertheless, if you asked any of the lake men, the two of them constituted a fair pair.

What actually made the Rat Lad different from Anurilia more than his physical appearance was that he was interested in the small and seemingly insignificant glories of being a someone, wherever that might be. This is, among other reasons of his own, why he traveled the world far and wide and was more acquainted with it than you or I, or Anurilia for that matter.

He always carried on him a variety of tools with each of which he seemed to be equally handy. He could saw as well as any mistress of the house (which was practical if you stayed close to the lake men and their nets) or mend pots (that never did seem to have too few meals in them) or make useful instruments (anything from fish-hooks to shovels and axes, provided he was given the material for it) or simply entertain himself and the local children with making little wooden figures.

The Rat Lad also had a very special piece of property, not often seen in the twisted countries of the inland, which was a carefully polished and finely tuned hazi.

For those who never saw this musical instrument it suffices to say that it was something roughly between a common lyre and a harp and came in two sizes, one played sitting, the other standing. The Rat Lad owned one of smaller size (which was played while standing) that could conveniently be slung over the shoulder or tucked safely at his side in crowds. Needless to say, the strings were extremely difficult to come by at the places such as was Anurilia’s valley, that he had a fancy to visit, so he treasured this hazi right next to his own skin.

Everyone enjoyed hearing him play in the evenings under the starry sky or accompanied by the drums of rain and occasional castanets of thunder. And he was satisfied with that as well, despite the fact that for the greatest part they didn’t have enough knowledge to properly appreciate his mastery of music. Indeed, there were places where he was known as the Hazi-Meister and not by the nearly derogative name of the Rat Lad.

But Anurilia knew him only as the Rat Lad and cared for him as such, caring mighty little whether he was or was not the greatest hazi-player that ever toured the inlands. And he did not mind this because although he was looking for recognition, however small, it wasn’t in his playing that he sought to find it.

‘The tongue twists strange in my mouth,’ the Rat Lad smiled poking his cheek with it from the inside. ‘I haven’t spoken your language in quite a long time.’

They were sitting by the side of the lake, almost close enough to get their feet wet.

‘Do you often come this way?’ she asked. ‘And if you do, how come I have never seen you before or heard anything about you? And if you don’t, why did you come now?’

‘I come and go’, he said casually, smoothly disregarding her inquires, ‘as I please. These words of yours seem to be doing the same.’

‘If you like it here, you won’t be leaving soon, will you?’ she pleaded, ignoring his attempt to take the conversation by a different course.

He cocked his head and twisted his slank eyebrows.

‘Why does a frog-lady need to stoop to my level and ask so many questions as if she were the stranger in this land?’

She winced but felt no real offense.

‘I am merely being polite,’ she said with an air of new-found dignity. ‘I wish to see how you may be best entertained while you are with us.’

He laughed and caught her skillfully by the fingers of her hands. Examining the lines filled with earth and deepened by the water, his mouth dried up and straightened at the corners.

‘And what if you were the stranger in my land?’ he asked carefully.

‘Then I would know no greater privilege than to be courteously instructed in its ways by its master,’ she said with a bow of the head, almost playful, taking her hands primly back into her own possession.

‘A frog-lady with a sweet tongue,’ he observed.

‘That is not what is generally thought or said of the frog-ladies,’ Anurilia replied.

For a moment she was sure his face lit up with a strange determination which, in her eyes, very nearly bordered with a frightening devotion to a thought she felt she could almost have grasped for its materiality. But the moment passed and he was as plain as ever, if not more under the shadow of the light so recently hinted and gone.

‘Do you intend to remain a frog-lady forever?’ he asked in a husked voice.

He selected a solid round rock and started playing with it. His fingers turned it this way and that trying to catch some of the fast diminishing sunrays on its smooth surface. It gleamed and rolled between his fingers, almost as if it were a precious pearl caught in the hairs of a newly wedded burgher’s wife. He had seen a lot of the world but, never stopping the play which fascinated Anurilia’s eye, turned all of his attention to the bedazzled frog-lady of an inland valley.

‘Well,’ she almost fumbled there, ‘I… am not sure.’

‘You should be,’ he said. ‘What if someone came your way that wanted you to come along and leave everything behind for a new sort of life? For his life and his way? What would you say?’

‘I don’t know,’ Anurilia blushed deeply and tried to inconspicuously cool her cheeks with the palms of her hands.

The Rat Lad threw the pebble unceremoniously into the pool and widening circles started to dart towards them one after the other. She was looking intently at the surface of the water, but he raised his face upwards and observed:

‘The rain is coming.’

‘Yes, I should have noticed… being the frog-lady,’ she added, as if explaining, but without any pride.

‘Of course; of course, you are a frog-lady,’ he said in such a barely audible voice that she couldn’t discern its proper nuance. ‘Let us go home now.’

‘Will you accompany me?’ Anurilia asked tentatively.

‘Naturally,’ he answered directly. ‘How could you walk all alone in this weather, frog-lady or no?’

He put his red coat around her shoulders and turned towards the village. They didn’t have a long way to go because hers was the first house, painted green with dark curtains drawn tightly over the windows. There were ranuncules growing along all the sides of her house. The fresh herbs just sprung in her garden gave off a delicate scent as they approached and the Rat Lad let himself enjoy it.

‘You couldn’t miss a frog-lady’s house if you were deaf, blind and mute’, he said.

‘Do you like it?’ she asked timidly.

‘There you go putting questions to me again,’ he frowned. ‘Nothing makes me quite so distressed as a fine lady feeling awkward around me. Please, step in and kindly bring me something for my cold. That should make you more comfortable, shouldn’t it?’

Anurilia bit her lip but his face showed he didn’t mean it in a nasty way. She slipped his jacket off her shoulders and vanished into the house, reappearing in no time with some dry sage-leaves. When she opened her mouth to tell him how to boil them in his tea, the Rat Lad was nowhere to be seen. Her throat seemed to misbehave and she closed the door lest someone should see her standing with a growing confusion in her face under the rainy sky.