Please read the Introduction first. Then continue reading each piece in order.
Click on the following titles to be magically transported to each piece of the triptych.
2. BEAST’S BEAUTY
Once upon a time, there was an extremely handsome young man who lived in a village at the foot of a mountain. It was generally a peaceful village, whose residents laughed, loved, celebrated, broke each others’ hearts, worked, played, buried and mourned their dead, helped each other when they could, and tried to live as comfortably as possible.
All the while, the mountain watched over their lives, changing with the seasons and growing over time. The mountain was home to lots of trees, bushes, flowers, herbs, deer, squirrels, rabbits, skunks, birds, goats, mice, and bears though not many of those, and they’d be more afraid of you than you would be of them.
Near the top of the mountain, just below the clouds, there was a cabin made from some of the trees that grew there, and quite grown over with moss. Inside was a small living room, cozily furnished with a big stuffed chair and footstool, a big stuffed bookcase, a small table and a great stone fireplace. It also had a small kitchen with several iron pots, its own fireplace, and a window overlooking the glade outside. Tucked behind the kitchen was a tiny room containing a sink and a large tub, which flowed with clean, hot water at the turn of a nozzle, and a small porcelain seat in which one could do what one must and flush away the result in a trice. This last is noteworthy because in the village down at the foot of the mountain, the residents were still visiting the backyard whenever ablutions became necessary, which was most inconvenient during the long, cold winters.
The cabin had an upstairs as well, with two small bedrooms, each with its own fireplace, bookcase, feather bed and lots of warm down blankets, necessary to endure winters on the mountain.
As comfortable as the cabin was in itself, however, its most extraordinary feature was outside, just behind it. Where the residents of the village below had outhouses, the smells of which wafted into their open windows during the hot summers, behind the cabin stood a large, old tree, around which a narrow but sturdy stair wound, leading up, up into its boughs where sat nestled a treehouse built of the same wood as the cabin, grown over with the same moss and therefore difficult to see unless one knew to look for it.
Inside the treehouse were more bookshelves, overflowing with books, a largish telescope, and a smallish laboratory with vials and tubes and jars and dishes containing strange mixtures. From this vantage point, the resident of the cottage could see the valley below, the mountains to the west, and the plains and river and forests between them.
It was in this canopy-ensconced perch that she read her books, mixed her herbs, drew her plans, and watched the world below.
In good weather, every few months, she would rise in the dark hours of the morning, gather some jars and vials, some books and drawings, and packing them tightly to her back, she would make her way down the mountain, passing through the village before the sunrise, on her way to the town across the river. There she would buy supplies and meet with a group of wise people to discuss ways of making life even more comfortable for themselves, for the people in the town, the small village, and for you and me.
It was a solitary life, and quite a satisfactory one for the woman who lived atop the mountain.
At the foot of the mountain, the handsome man lived a life which could hardly be described as solitary. He was personable and outgoing, with an infectious laugh that drew both women and men toward him, eager to bask in the glow of his company.
Always a charming child, he grew into adolescence without the usual gawkiness which afflicts so many boys. A gifted athlete, he could outrun, out-throw and out-ride all the other boys. At parties, he danced every dance, leaving each partner breathless as he flitted on to the next.
The villagers were aware of the woman’s presence on the mountain, but nobody recalled having met her, or even who she was. Occasionally, someone would report seeing a dark, hunched figure pass through the dusky streets in the early morning. For days afterward, children lived in thrilled fear, and dared each other to venture up the mountain.
There was a rumor in the village of a beast who lived on the mountain. Who had a black, crusty face. Who had no nose or ears. Who had a taste for human flesh.
It was rumored that this beast had even eaten its own parents. But of course, that couldn’t be true. Not even for a beast.
Although there was still some greenery in the forest, the weather on the mountain was moody. The woman felt the winter storm coming, and knew that she had been down the mountainside for the last time until spring.
With the morning’s chores completed, she decided to see whether her snares had trapped any rabbits. She put on her warmest cloak, wrapped a thick shawl around her neck and face, and set out. She had not gone far into the woods when she heard the pounding of hooves and the cries of a horseman who had lost control of his mount. Instinctively, she drew back into a thicket just as horse and rider burst through the trees, and she watched as they whizzed past, the rider doing his best to hold on. They disappeared into the trees for a moment when the woman heard a loud crash and a strangled cry.
She hurried to the site of the sound, and saw the rider crumpled on the ground, ankle twisted under him unnaturally.
She exhaled hard, exasperated. Such an unwelcome intrusion! Still, she approached softly and put her hand on the man’s shoulder. He turned his face toward her with unseeing eyes, clouded with pain. The man’s thick, dark hair fell over his forehead. With smooth, unblemished skin, a slender, straight nose, strong, firm jawline, and sharp cheekbones, he seemed carved out of marble like the depiction of an ancient god. She gaped at the perfection of his features, and was unable to do more than admire him for a moment. He emitted a small groan, and she returned to practicality. “Do you hurt anywhere besides your ankle?” she asked him.
Groaning again, he moved his head in the negative just before his eyes rolled back and his head lolled to the ground. Shock, she thought. He doesn’t even know which way is up, poor thing. She did a quick check, and breathed a sigh of relief to discover that the ankle was indeed the only injury. She took out a small knife and rent his pant leg, then gingerly removed his boot and thick, woolen sock. She held the foot so that it wouldn’t flop as she inspected its color. Already, it was turning into a rainbow of purples, greens and browns, although she gratefully noted that the skin itself was intact with no punctures of any sort.
She replaced his sock, then took off her shawl and wrapped the ankle tightly, so that it couldn’t move. Propping his head and shoulders up a bit, she sat with him until he began to rouse. “You’ve had a spill,” she said, “but you’re lucky. Only your leg was injured. Lean on me and I’ll help you into the house. I’ve got some potion that will help with the pain.”
With some effort, the man opened his eyes to look up at his savior and involuntarily, he flinched. Egads, was it a monster? No, it appeared to be a woman. A human woman, probably, but only barely. The skin on her cheeks was waxy-looking, and although it looked tight and shiny, it seemed as though pale new skin had been stretched over mottled, raw-looking pink, or had formed over a wound like ice crystals over water. The chin was also colored in this fashion. And did the creature even have a nose? Still, concern showed in her eyes, her touch was gentle, and she was offering help so, summoning his good manners, he managed a grimace, which would have been an honest smile but for the pain shooting through his left foot and leg.
“It doesn’t hurt that much,” he replied with gritted teeth. “I don’t need any help.” He pushed himself up, rose slowly and took a step, but when he tried to put his weight on the break, he began to fall, and flailed his arms wildly, grabbing for her arm, a tree limb, anything to keep him upright.
She caught him under the arm and deftly put it over her shoulder. “Yes, I can see that you’re perfectly well,” she said, “but humor me, please.” And she guided him to the cabin.
Seating him in the overstuffed chair, she pulled the footstool around and tucked it under his injured limb, with a pillow behind his head. “Keep that foot elevated,” she told him. “I’ll get you something to ease your pain.” She collected some small vials from a shelf, and offered him some water to help him swallow the potion down. “This will also prevent infection in your leg,” she said.
He lifted his head slightly off the pillow, to afford himself a better look at his benefactress. “Who are you?” he asked.
“My name is Marcela,” she replied.
“I’m Adam,” he said. “I’ve heard stories about the—er… the woman who lived on the mountain, but I believed they were just stories.”
“I’ve no doubt that most of them are,” she murmured. “Don’t talk. Just rest for now. I hear your horse outside. I’ll gather him up and put him with the goat where he’ll be safe from the weather.” She tucked a quilt around him as his head fell back onto the pillow. “Don’t move; I’ll be right back,” she said superfluously, as he was already quite unconscious.
When she returned, he had not yet awakened. Gracious, she thought, admiring him once more, they certainly broke the mold after they made that one. After she had taken care of the horse, she went to check her snares, this time successfully. In them, she found two rabbits and a fat squirrel. Depositing the rabbits in the shed, she brought the squirrel into the kitchen, and began to prepare it for the stewpot, casting glances at her patient as she did so. She found herself wondering what his voice would sound like when it wasn’t thick with pain. Due to the potion she had given him, he slept soundly, as she had known that he would. Moving closer, she watched his eyes flicker behind their closed lids, his long, dark lashes casting shadows on his cheek. She had a momentary impulse to reach out and caress the skin of his jaw. Astounded at herself, she drew back her fingers at the last moment. “Stop that!” she told herself fiercely. “This man needs your help, not your admiration. Nobody wants to be touched by a stranger while sleeping and helpless…particularly one such as you.” Disgusted with herself, she turned her full attention to the stew that would be dinner.
His head felt as though it were wrapped in cotton. He swam toward consciousness as though toward the air from a deep lake. He was cozy and warm, but felt not exactly comfortable, having slept half sitting up at a strange angle. Where was he? And why was his leg in such pain? He forced himself to open his eyes and surveyed his surroundings. He saw his boots on the floor next to him, and his thick hunting coat hanging by the door, along with other wraps which he did not recognize. Across the room was what looked to be a small, dark kitchen. There was a jolly fire roaring in the hearth next to him, and a delectable smell that seemed to be coming from the pot hanging over the flame. It was a nice room, but one in which he was certain he’d never set foot before. And seated on a cushion next to the fire was the woman who had helped him. She had once more wrapped her face in a scarf as protection from the cold wind, and from his eyes. He gave a small gasp as the sight of the woman brought the hideous memory rushing back.
She looked up from her book, “Hello,” she said, amazed once again as she looked at his stunningly perfect face. “How are you feeling?”
Around the dryness of his mouth, he managed to say, “Fine.”
She raised an eyebrow sardonically. “Fine?” she said, “Really?”
He exhaled and shifted his position, trying to sit straighter and wet his mouth, “Well, no. Pretty rotten, actually.”
She rose and offered him some more water. He drank it gratefully.
“Can you tell me what happened?” she asked.
“My horse got spooked,” he answered more clearly now. “I don’t understand it; he’s never done anything like this before. He just took off and I could barely hold on. Then he stopped suddenly, and threw me.” The man’s voice was just as lovely as his face and form had promised, all brown velvet, soft, warm and deep, a sound that resonated a moment after he stopped talking.
“I see. How does your ankle feel?”
He gritted his teeth. “It’s all right.”
The eyebrow raised again. “All right? Or on fire?”
He sighed again. “It feels like someone replaced it with a hot poker.”
“I imagine so,” she said. “Let me get you some more potion.”
“Is that what knocked me out? If so, I don’t want it.”
“No,” she said, “I’ll only give you the pain potion, not the sleeping potion. Don’t worry; your head will clear up soon.”
She retrieved the herbal remedy from the kitchen and changed the cold compress on his ankle as he drank down the draught.
Apothecary attended to, she ladled generous helpings of stew into bowls, broke off chunks of bread, and handed him his supper. He gobbled it hungrily.
“This is delicious,” he said, “thank you.”
She nodded, acknowledging the compliment, reveling in the sound of his voice and trying not to stare too obviously. She sat next to the fire with her bowl in her lap, a small plate of bread at her side. After a time, he noticed that her food remained untouched.
“Are you going to eat?” he asked. “This stew is scrumptious, but you must already know that.” Realization dawned on him. “How do you eat while wearing a scarf over your face?”
How can such a question be asked? She wondered. Aloud she said simply, “I don’t.”
He lowered the spoon which had been about to enter his mouth. “Then are you going to take it off and eat with me?”
God’s bones, was she really waiting for permission in her own home to eat her own food? She felt a stab of irritation at herself. Feeling both self-conscious and annoyed with herself for being embarrassed, she watched his face as she slowly pulled the scarf down, exposing her own.
He had braced himself, anticipating the sight, and although his expression betrayed little of the revulsion he had known he would feel, his eyes widened the slightest bit.
Perceptively, she caught the movement and began to replace the scarf.
“No, don’t do that,” he said. “You need to eat.”
She let it fall back down under her chin. “I know I’m repulsive,” she said defensively.
He swallowed hard. “You’re not that bad,” he said, trying for a reassuring tone.
She gave a decidedly unfeminine snort. “That’s the third lie you’ve told me since you woke up.”
He shifted uncomfortably and mumbled, “Well, looks aren’t everything,” and stuffed the rest of his bread into his mouth.
‘Looks aren’t everything’ indeed! she thought. That’s an interesting sentiment to come from that perfect mouth. They ate in silence, she eating with her head down, and quickly so she could replace her scarf and cover her face so as not to further offend this beautiful man with her unsightliness.
“How can I get home?” he asked. “Would you go down to the village for help? My brothers could come up and fetch me, bring me home.”
“Oh,” she said, looking past him out the window at the soft, silent snow falling thickly, “That won’t be possible at all.”
“Truly, my horse is usually very reliable. If you’re afraid to ride him, you could just let him lead you down the mountain. He’ll go straight home, and you could tell my brothers that I’m here. You wouldn’t have to do anything else, and I wouldn’t impose on you any further.”
She gave a small laugh. “I’m not afraid of your horse or anything else on this mountain except perhaps for the cold outside. But nobody’s going anywhere for some time yet.” She gestured toward the window, and he turned to look.
“Ohh…” he exhaled softly, dismayed at the sight of the thick, wet snowflakes falling fast. “How long do these snowfalls last up here?”
“Well,” she said, slowly considering the situation, as she crossed the room to close the window shutters. “It’s now October, so I’d say it might last until… early April? Or March if we’re lucky. May if we’re not.”
He gave a choked gasp. “March? May?! Are you serious?”
“I never joke about weather,” she replied. “What were you doing up this far anyway?”
“I didn’t mean to come this far. I was hunting and meant only to come as far as the second ridge, but my horse wouldn’t stop.”
“Right. He’s usually very responsive, but he just ignored all my directions and only headed upward. Once we got to the flatter part, he got spooked by something and I couldn’t control him at all. Next thing I knew, I was on the ground and you were helping me up. Did you bring in my bow, by chance?”
He suddenly remembered his dagger and felt for it surreptitiously. Good, it was still strapped to his side.
“Yes; it’s there in the corner with your quiver. You were very lucky that I was there. The snow began not long after your accident. It could have been fatal for you. As it is, I don’t think you’ll be able to do much for yourself until your ankle begins to heal.”
He looked embarrassed, “I hate to bring this up,” he said, “but I’ll need to visit the outhouse soon…” his voice trailed off, and she let its resonance caress her ears a moment before she realized his meaning.
“Oh, of course! I’m sorry I didn’t think to offer. Here, let me help you up.”
“Thank you,” he said, “I’m sorry for the trouble to you.” Reluctantly, he allowed himself to lean on her, surprised by the strength of this woman who was so much smaller than himself.
“No need to apologize,” she said, steadying herself under his weight.
“Where are we going?” he asked as she guided him to the back room instead of out the door. Then his eyes widened as he saw the tiny room with its sink, tub, and commode. “What is this? I didn’t notice any smell—I mean, um…”
She gestured to the tiny table next to the sink. “You can lean on that when you need to. Don’t worry; it will hold your weight just fine. When you’re done, pull this chain. Call me when you’re ready to come back out.”
He thanked her distractedly as he looked around the room, examining its furnishings in awe.
“You can’t stay down here tonight,” she said. “The bed will be much more comfortable. Unfortunately, it’s upstairs. I’ll help you, of course.”
His breath caught. “No. I wouldn’t dream of putting you out.”
She ducked her head and gave a wry smile as she followed his thoughts. “Never fear, there are two beds. I’ve put fresh sheets on the extra bed for you.”
“Extra bed?” he asked. “Do you get many guests up here?”
“You are the first one in my memory,” she replied. “The other bed belonged to my parents.”
“Your … parents?” he echoed.
“Yes: Mother, Father. Everyone’s got at least one of each.”
“I just meant, I mean, I didn’t know,” he stammered, “Sorry. That was stupid of me. Of course you’ve got parents.”
“Not anymore,” she said. “Not for a very long time.”
“I’m sorry,” he said again. “What happened?”
“The mountain took them,” she said shortly.
He looked toward the window again, but as it was shuttered, could not see the snow falling outside.
“How long have you lived here?” he asked.
“All my life,” she said. “Come on, I’ll help you up the stairs.”
Easily letting her help him this time, he allowed himself to be guided.
She helped him sit on the bed, and gestured to the nightshirt she’d laid at its foot. “You’re welcome to wear that, if you like. And I ought to check on your injury.” Awkwardly, she asked, “Do you think you’ll be able to undress yourself?”
“I think so,” he said. “Thank you for your hospitality.”
She nodded and turned her back, lighting the fire she had laid earlier. When he indicated that he was again suitably attired, she returned her attention to him.
She unwrapped his ankle, noting its changing color and swelling. She wrapped it up tightly again, then tucked a few more quilts around his feet. “If you need another log on the fire, or anything else in the night, feel free to call me. I don’t mind.” She turned to go.
“Marcela,” he said suddenly, using her name for the first time.
She turned her eyes back to him, keeping her head averted.
“Thank you for everything,” he said. “You’ve been more than kind.”
“You’re welcome,” she said, turning again and stepping out of the room. “Good night, Adam,” She closed the door behind her and went to her own warm bed.
He woke in the morning to the smell of bacon, and marveled at the quiet. What were his brothers up to on this day that they had left the house without him? With a shock, he remembered that he was not in his mother’s home; he was suddenly an invalid, and completely at the mercy of the Beast of the Mountain! He kicked his legs off the bed and tried to rise, reaching for his trousers, neatly folded on the bookcase which doubled as a bedside table. Damn the pain! With a cry and a thud, he fell to the floor.
“Are you all right?” came her voice from the stairway. “Don’t try to get up!” and then she was in the room. “Why didn’t you call me?” she scolded as she placed her hand under his arm to lift him.
The raw pinkness in her face seemed even more vivid in daylight than it had by last night’s fire; the shiny overlay of new skin seemed almost like a mask. What might she be hiding? Hellfire, but the woman was hideous! He cringed and gritted his teeth in pain, remembering her kindness and embarrassed that his first impulse had been to run away. “I didn’t want to impose,” he muttered, avoiding her gaze.
When she was satisfied that he was seated steadily on the bed, she stepped back, hands on hips. “You have a broken leg. You’re not a horse, so I won’t shoot you, but you cannot do normal things for yourself right now, such as stand or walk. And until you can, you must rely on my assistance. If you try for independence prematurely, you may damage yourself further, which would be a true imposition, so stop behaving like a stubborn child and let me know when you need help!”
“You’re right,” he said, chastened. “I’m sorry.”
She knelt at his side and unwrapped his injury, muttering to herself. Satisfied with what she saw, she rewrapped it and stood up again. “I don’t think you’ve done yourself any more harm this time,” she said, glaring at him sternly. “Fortunately. However, you won’t be getting any more use from these pants. Here are some that belonged to my father.” She reached into a drawer and pulled out the article in question. “They’ll do for now, and if they’re too short, or the waist too big, we can adjust them later. Now please let me know when you’ve dressed yourself, and I’ll help you down the stairs. Breakfast is ready.”
After he had visited the wondrous indoor privy, Adam saw that she had again wrapped her face in a scarf, and also set two places at a small wooden table.
“I know we ate by the fire last night,” she said, “and indeed, that’s usually where I dine, but since you’re the first guest my home has seen in so many years, I thought we should eat at the table like civilized people.”
“Breakfast smells good,” he ventured as she helped him to lower into one of the chairs and brought over the footstool. “Your home is very cozy.”
“Thank you,” she said as she sat across from him. Would he be able to eat anything, he wondered, with that face across the table, even wrapped as it was? His stomach suddenly rumbled loudly in answer to his silent question, and he reached for a slice of the thick bacon she had placed on his plate.
“How do you spend your time up here all winter?” he asked. “Are you able to get out? Do you truly never go down the mountain until spring?” A glance out the window showed the snow falling softly, just as it had the day before.
“There is no going down the mountain until spring,” she affirmed. “I do get outside, though; I must, in order to check the snares, or hunt, or in this morning’s case, to see to your horse. He was happily eating his own breakfast when I left him,” she added.
“But if I’m the first guest you’ve ever had,” he persisted, “and you can’t go down the mountain for half the year, what do you do?”
“I live,” she said, simply. “I have all I need.”
“Are you going to take off your scarf and eat with me?”
She realized that she had again been waiting for an invitation to her own meal and mentally gave herself a kick as she lowered her scarf and began to eat. She knew that he was only being polite by asking her to remove her scarf, and she ate as quickly as she could so she could cover her face again.
“So, how do you get what you need?” he asked. “This tea, for instance, it doesn’t grow up here.”
“I do go down the mountain in good weather,” she replied. “It’s then that I stock up on supplies.”
“I’ve never seen you in the village,” he observed.
“I don’t go to the village,” she said, “I go to the town beyond the river.”
“That’s a long way to go. I find that the village has all I need. Why would you go across the river to the town?”
“I find that the people there aren’t as nosy as those in the village,” she said sharply.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “It’s just that I’ve never before met anyone who lived such an isolated existence.”
“How do those pants fit?” she asked, changing the subject. “You’re taller than my father was.”
“They are a bit short,” he admitted, “but they can easily be let out.”
“For today, I’ll let out the others. That pair, I’ll fix once they’re off you.”
“I can do it myself,” he said. “It’s something I can do while seated.”
“You can?” she asked, taken aback. “Are you a tailor by trade?”
“No,” he said. “Tell me about that indoor outhouse,” he gestured toward that room, changing the subject as bluntly as she herself had done. “I’ve heard of such things, but no one in the village has such extravagances.”
“My father’s invention. It gets very cold up here, and most unpleasant to have to do one’s business outside in the winter. My mother set great store by cleanliness and despised the use of chamber pots, hence…” she nodded toward the toilet room. “It empties through a pipe which is buried deeply enough that it won’t freeze, and is long enough not to be a bother during the summer.”
“It’s brilliant. I wish we had one at home. Can you show me how it works? Maybe I can build one myself.”
“Once you can move around by yourself, I’ll be happy to show you.”
“I’d like that very much,” he replied, cheerfully munching away on a great hunk of bread.
“Are you mechanically inclined?” she asked.
“Well, no,” he admitted, “but I’m going to be here until spring, so maybe I can learn.” He shrugged, “you never know until you try a thing.”
As he spoke, she smiled to herself behind the scarf, enjoying the sound his voice made as it filled the small room and her ears, and enjoying the physical perfection of him as he filled the chair and her eyes. Only then did it sink in: she would have the treat of his company this entire long winter! She busied herself with cleaning the dishes and wiping the table so as not to betray her exhilaration at the idea of being able to look at this flawless face and hear his velvety voice over the next several months… and he would be stuck here with her. Disheartened, she wondered what she would do with him. Would she be able to work this winter? Accustomed as she was to solitude, any presence would be a distraction.
She wrapped herself well against the cold, and went out to check the snares again and to attend to his horse and the goat. Alone in the house, he watched the snow falling outside and considered his situation. He, who had never been sick a day in his life, whose body had always been strong and vibrant, could not even walk on his own to use the outhouse. Or whatever it was called when indoors. He was trapped here, a virtual prisoner, and would be so for months. And his keeper! His keeper was none other than the Beast of the Mountain, the subject of childhood nightmares, a monster who snatched away unruly children and put them into her stewpot! He stopped himself and chuckled self-consciously. Had any of the village children ever been snatched? No, of course not. That was ridiculous. And yet, nobody ever came up the mountain this far. Those few who had ventured past the second ridge told wild tales of the large, dark shadows they’d seen, and sometimes their dogs didn’t come back after chasing game further… Mentally, he shook himself again. A shadow is a shadow, he told himself, and sometimes dogs don’t come back for reasons other than being eaten by monsters, he laughed nervously at himself. Marcela didn’t act like a monster. Without her help, he would still be lying in the forest, his broken ankle useless under him. But still… was she merely waiting for an opportunity to slit his throat and cook him?
The door opened unexpectedly, and he started in his chair. In she clamored, bearing an armload of firewood, and paused to stomp the snow from her boots. Out of habit, he moved to rise and help her, but when he lifted his foot from the stool, an arrow of pain shot him.
She saw his gesture and its accompanying grimace. “Thank you, but I’ve been carrying firewood for a very long time. Your only job right now is to sit there and heal up.” …and let me enjoy the view!
As she stacked her armload next to the hearth, he cast about for something to say, feeling guilty for his apprehensive thoughts.
“Why do you have all these books?” he asked, gesturing to the nearby bookcase.
“I’m sorry?” she asked, blankly.
“What are all these books for? Do you read them?”
“Yes,” she said, uncertain whether she understood the question correctly. “What else would I do with them?”
He laughed in response, rich and full, and her ears sang with the sound. “I guess that’s what people do with books. You have so many though. I can’t sit still long enough to read a book. I’ve never read a book the whole way through.”
…and he’s got dimples, too, she noticed. Heaven help me! When the timbre of his voice had melted into the air, she cocked her head to one side, bewildered. Wait–was he actually bragging about never having read a book in his life?
“How did you get through school?” she asked.
“Oh, I did well in arithmetic and geography. Not that great in reading and writing though.”
No, I imagine not, she said to herself. To Adam, she said, “You’ll be sitting plenty still over the next months while your leg heals.”
He groaned in frustration. “I can’t believe this. What will I do if I can’t get up and move? Or hunt? Or work?”
“Sit still and heal,” she said. Then privately, and maybe read a book or two. “Tell me of your home life,” she said. “Is there a special lady who’ll be missing you these months?”
“Not really,” he said. “Well, there’s Linnae. She plans to marry me.”
“Does she? And do you plan to marry her?”
He shrugged. “Sure. I mean, yes.”
Marcela raised her eyebrows, “That Yes didn’t sound very sure. Is there someone you prefer?”
“No,” he said. “I just don’t want to get married.”
“I see,” she said. “You’re too busy buzzing around the garden to commit to a single flower.”
He gave a sheepish grin and shrugged again. “It’s what people do, though, you know? Everyone pretty much has to get married eventually, right?” He gave a hearty laugh, and although she warmed to the sound, she mentally reviewed her own situation and inclined her head as if to shield her wrapped face further.
His laugh faltered when he realized she hadn’t agreed with him, and also why she hadn’t.
“Well, most people do, anyway,” he finished lamely.
“Tell me about Linnae,” she said. “What do you like about her?”
“She’s beautiful,” he said immediately.
Of course she’s beautiful, thought Marcela. Aloud, she said, “Does she make you laugh?”
“Not really,” he said. “I make her laugh more than she makes me laugh.”
“What a crime!” Marcela blurted. “You have the loveliest laugh I’ve ever heard!”
Surprised, he looked at her with a slight smile. “Thanks,” he said.
To cover her embarrassment, she asked, “Does Linnae inspire you?”
“Inspire me to what?”
“Well, to anything! What does she make you think about?”
He blushed and looked away, again grinning sheepishly.
Marcela sighed in disgust, thinking, This man is nothing but a gland! She went into the kitchen and began to churn some milk she had brought inside. He straightened in his seat and craned his neck in order to see.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Making butter,” she replied without looking at him.
“May I do that for you? It’s another thing I can do while sitting,” he offered.
She looked up, gratified by the subject change, and by his offer of assistance. “All right,” she said, and brought the churn over to him. “Look, here’s how it’s done—“
“I know how to make butter,” he said, and began to churn with practiced efficiency. “Where did you get the milk?”
“I keep a goat for the purpose,” she replied. “The mountain usually provides many goats, so I make sure to keep one during the winter whenever I can. She’s out in the shed with your horse. You’re doing that very well,” she said curiously, “Do you know your way around a kitchen?”
“Can I cook?” he asked, “Yes, passably well. Not as well as a woman though,” he said with no trace of irony.
She turned away so he couldn’t see her roll her eyes derisively. “You like to eat, don’t you?” she asked as she busied herself at the hearth.
“Of course! I am a man, after all!” he said, smiling jovially.
“I do too,” she said. “Which is why I learned to cook.” It may be a long and tedious winter after all! She thought with an inward groan.
Day after day of living in close quarters with the Beast, Adam began to see her as human, as the person she was, instead of as the monster that his first glance had shown him. Although he still found her appearance startling, his affable nature allowed him to appreciate her company; his innate restlessness and good manners prompted him to offer help where he could.
“Your bread is very good, Marcela” he said. “Is there any cheese?”
“Not at the moment. I ate the last of it just before your arrival.”
“There seems to be quite a bit of milk today. We could save some back to culture and I could start making cheese from it tomorrow.”
“I don’t know that I’ll have time to make cheese tomorrow. I ought to wash our bedding. Even in winter, I don’t like to let it go longer than a week.”
“No, I said I can start making cheese tomorrow,” he repeated.
“You make cheese too, do you?”
Adam shrugged, “It’s simple enough.”
“So simple that a man can do it?” she commented, amused.
“Yes,” he said in all seriousness.
“In that case, let there be cheese!” she proclaimed.
“There’s something else I’d like to do, if possible,” he began.
She looked at him enquiringly. Would he offer to launder the bedding too?
“I’d like to shave. I don’t suppose you have anything I might use?”
She was silent a moment, appreciating the growth he wanted to remove, then remembering the flawlessness of his face underneath.
“You may use my father’s razor,” she said, turning away so that he couldn’t see the excitement which must be in her face at the prospect of seeing his face bare again. She went up the stairs to his room to fetch her father’s shaving supplies which had been in the closet all these years. Down the stairs again, she filled a basin with water and brought it over to the table so that he could sit and shave in comfort.
“Thank you, Marcela,” he said as he looked over the supplies she had brought down. “There’s one more thing I’ll need though… it’s just occurred to me that I haven’t seen one…” he trailed off, hesitant to bring up the subject. She waited. He took a breath. “I can’t do this blindly. I’m going to need a mirror. Is there one?”
She looked at the floor and nodded. “Remiss of me,” she said, “I’ll be right back.” As she rose, she considered going up to the treehouse. There was a small mirror there, which she used in her experiments with the sun’s power. But there was another mirror in the house. Cracked, it was true, but bigger, and it stood on legs, so would be more practical for Adam to use while he shaved himself. She went back up the stairs to her parents’ former room.
Downstairs, Adam sat at the table and considered his request. Would the Beast even possess a mirror? Of course not, why would she? Yet her response indicated that there was one in the house, even though he hadn’t seen it. He hadn’t meant to touch on a sore spot but naturally the Beast—woman—would be loath to ponder her own image. Still, he was unaccustomed to wearing so much hair on his face, and he wanted to feel at least a little bit normal again, even if he was out of his element.
Lost in contemplation, he jumped a bit in his seat when she placed the mirror on the table in front of him. “Here you go,” she said. “I’ll leave you to your grooming and be back shortly to clean up.” She put on her cloak, wrapped her warm scarf around her face and neck, and stepped outside, closing the door gently behind her.
He looked at the mirror she had left for him. It had an ornately carved frame and a trio of little feet which allowed it to stand free on the table. In the middle was a large web of cracks, as though someone had hurled a ball at it, or even a stone…or a fist. What had happened? Adam furrowed his brow as he considered the possibilities. He glanced uneasily at the door out of which the woman had stepped. Was she responsible for the violence done to the mirror? Had she suddenly become the hideous monster he saw, or had she only suddenly seen herself as one? He looked around the room carefully, as though it might contain some clue. Finding none, he tilted the broken mirror so that the bottom half, which was more intact than the rest, reflected the chin he felt necessary to bare, and he reached for the soap in the basin.
Marcela climbed the stairs of the treehouse, trying to ignore the darkness creeping in at the edge of her soul. It was there more often than not; familiar, but unwelcome, like a toothache or winter’s deepest chill. It was a morose feeling, nothing she would try to put her finger on, just a general malaise that came when she thought of her parents, and their life together as a family, her life before she became a Beast. It was a pang that shot through to the very core of her being: a mourning for what should have been, but wasn’t and would never be, could never be. She couldn’t have articulated the feeling because she didn’t analyze it; she ignored it as best she could. But still it came, settling in around the periphery of her psyche, casting a shadow over her every bright day.
At the first thaw after her parents’ deaths, she went down the mountain, past the village, to the town across the river, the first time ever on her own. She sought the home of her uncle, her mother’s brother. As the air was still chilly, she had wrapped her face and neck well with her warmest scarf, so that only her eyes showed. “Marcela!” her uncle had welcomed her warmly, recognizing his sister’s handiwork in the scarf. “How splendid to see you! Come in! Come in!” He hugged her and escorted her to the sitting room, taking her cloak and hanging it up. “You’re by yourself this time? Did your parents stay behind? Are they well?” She burst into tears as she told him of the hardships they had endured that winter past, her father’s frozen death, and then her mother’s.
He held her and rocked her like a child until her sobs subsided into hiccups. As she calmed down, he suggested, “It’s warm in here by the fire. Why don’t you take off your scarf?”
She stiffened. “Uncle,” she said, hesitatingly, “I was out in the snow with my father for a long time. It’s not a pretty sight.”
“Sweetheart, I’m sure it’s not as bad as you think.”
She took a deep breath. “Just consider yourself warned,” she said, and she slowly began to unwrap the scarf from her face.
Her uncle’s eyes began to widen with horror at the sight of the newly-healing blister residue and puckered tissue which now dominated once smooth, young skin.
“Marcela,” he gasped, “Those blisters! And your nose—it’s…gone!”
“Yes,” she said, tears again streaming down her cheeks. “And so are my ears.”
“Oh, poor darling,” he said, holding her close again.
She stayed in her uncle’s house, basking once more in the love of family; indeed, he was now the only family she had. Time was essential in Marcela’s healing. At first, she picked at her food, and refused all meats. She did not like to look at herself, so she covered the mirror above the dressing table in the bedroom, lest she accidentally view her new face. However, after the shock of his first sight of her wounds, her uncle looked at her only with fondness and pride, and her heart began slowly to heal.
She began to venture out into the town, although still she kept her head covered so as to spare others the sight of her. She went to the apothecary for advice on a salve for her injured skin. She sought out her father’s former partners and presented to them the plans he had been working on, with the familiarity of one who had also been involved in their creation. Because the group was more interested in concepts than in people, her startling appearance went unremarked, possibly even unnoticed. They were impressed with her knowledge and ideas, and encouraged her to return as often as she might be able, as her father had done. Slowly, she began to feel that life might have more to offer than merely loss.
Until the day her uncle put it together.
“I’ve been wondering about something, Marcela,” he said. “You said that you and your father had gone out to hunt because there was no food in the house. How did you and your mother survive after your father died? And how did you survive after your mother died?”
Marcela held in a sob and looked away, trying to compose herself.
It was shortly after that that she left her uncle’s home forever.
It was shortly after that that the rumors began to circulate in the village.
She returned to the mountain, the solitude felt more strongly in contrast to the lost familial love she would never again receive.
She brought herself back to the present and focused on her books.
Adam was cleaning razor and brush when she re-entered the house. He turned toward her, somewhat warily. Her stomach lurched as she saw his newly-bared face again. “My goodness,” she said, sitting at the table with him, delighted at this opportunity to stare so frankly and unapologetically.
He smiled broadly and rubbed his chin, “It makes quite a difference, doesn’t it?”
Beneath her scarf, she smiled too, charmed again by the sight of his dimples, and wishing she could reach out and caress his face as well. “I’d think you’d want an extra layer of warmth for the winter. Animals don’t shed during the cold months, you know.”
He laughed, making her glow with pleasure. “I know. My brothers don’t usually shave during the winter either, but I do. After more than a few days’ growth I feel like a grizzly bear!”
She grinned further, and rubbed her own chin through the scarf, “That’s a problem I’ve never faced,” she said, “although living alone, I could use the extra warmth, and nobody would ever know that I was a bearded lady!”
He laughed a bit more at her joke, when his eye fell on the mirror, reminding him of the unease he’d felt earlier. He decided to be direct, since after all, the razor was closer to his hand than to hers.
“So, what happened to this mirror?” he said casually.
“I broke it,” she said, equally nonchalantly. “With my fist,” she added for clarification.
He leaned back in his chair, inching his hand toward the razor. “And why did you do that?”
Dear Lord, she thought, there’s another slow-witted question! “I know what I look like,” she said evenly, reaching out to adjust the stand just enough so that her image was not reflected. “There was no need to preserve the mirror.”
“Was there really a need to break it?” he asked, mentally gauging the distance from his hand to the razor.
She rolled her eyes. “You’ve seen the damage to my face. I don’t need a constant reminder of my own shortcomings.”
He decided to ask, “What happened to your face?”
Self-consciously, she turned her head away and, still watching him, tucked the scarf in a little more tightly. “Frostbite,” she said simply.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “How is it that you can live here all your life and not protect yourself from the weather to the extent that it’s done you such damage?”
She looked away momentarily. “This was the result of one horrific night. It’s made me very susceptible to the cold ever since.”
“Is that why you wear the scarf?”
“Outside, I wear it for warmth. Inside, I wear it for you.”
“Yes. So that you don’t have to look at…this,” she gestured at her face.
With a twinge of pity, he reached out and tugged the scarf down, gently exposing her face with its unnatural waxy sheen. She felt mortified, and exposed under his gaze, but was unable to move to either cover herself or turn her disfigurement out of his sight. Lightly, he traced a finger on the largest of the taut, icy-looking patches. “Does it hurt?” he asked.
She flushed a little, wondering that he should want to touch her. “Not so much anymore. I don’t have much feeling there anymore, which is why I need to make sure my face is kept warm. And my hands.” She spoke automatically as she drank in the closeness of his face, his deep, dark eyes studying her.
The razor forgotten, he pulled off her thick mitten, and held her hand in both of his, examining it closely. It was a strong hand that indicated years of doing everything for herself, by herself, and he realized that the fingers were slightly discolored, although not at all to the degree of her face. He tenderly rubbed her fingers between his hands, as though sharing his warmth could negate the cold she had suffered those years before. The heat traveled from her fingers, up her arm, to the rest of her body like a lightning bolt.
Alarmed, she snatched her hand away, stood up abruptly, and began to put the shaving supplies back into their box. Perplexed, he watched her as she unceremoniously dumped each item. “I can do that,” he began.
“No, no!” she said, quickly, “I need to go upstairs anyway, so I’ll put them away for you.”
“But I’m not finished cleaning them yet,” he objected.
“It’s all right, I’ll wash them up. Can I get you anything else?”
Puzzled, he shook his head, and she turned and went hastily into the washroom and closed the door firmly.
She had been playing in the forest when she came across a bird with a broken wing. It was the most beautiful bird she’d ever seen, with inky feathers so soft as to feel they were barely there at all, and a little plume on its head. It flapped around pathetically and protested when she picked it up, but she held firmly and took it to the cabin to show her mother.
“He’s exquisite, certainly,” her mother commented, “but you know you can’t keep him, don’t you, darling?”
“Why can’t I?” Marcela had asked. “If I’m able to nurse him back to health, won’t he be grateful and want to stay with me and be my pet?”
Her mother had smiled down at her and stroked her hair lovingly. “No, darling. He’s still a wild creature who wants to be free. He wants to go back to his family. He doesn’t want to live in a box away from the other birds who love him.”
Marcela had pouted a bit, convinced that her mother was wrong.
She spent the next several weeks digging up worms, finding the ripest berries, looking for seeds to bring to him, that he might be happy to stay, but his wing healed in good time.
“You’re a lovely healer, Marcela,” her mother had said. “Now it’s time to let him go.”
Marcela cupped him gently, and together they took the bird outside. She slowly opened up her hands and watched him look around. He stretched and flapped his wings. She gave him a light toss, and he flapped his way up to a low branch. She and her mother watched as he looked around speculatively and began to sing. They then heard an answering call in the forest. Marcela turned to see whether she could see its source. When she turned back, her bird was gone.
With the dark feeling creeping back in, Marcela trudged up the stairs, and put her father’s shaving kit back in the closet where it had stayed unused these many years.
Marcela and Adam lived together thusly, forging a routine together. Adam’s ankle began the slow process of healing; Marcela continued the cold compresses, and she was relieved when the swelling went down again. After a time, he couldn’t bear being seat-bound any longer, so she fashioned a crutch for him so that he could more easily move around, gaining a bit of autonomy and building strength at the same time. In the evenings, they would sit by the fire. He told her stories of his life in the village, and she told him about the mountain. Sometimes she would read to him. She liked to read light, comic tales to him because then he would laugh, its deep, appealing sound nourishing her ears and making her soul take flight. He liked to tell her about his brothers, and their adventures and misadventures, because it made her eyes light with an interest and admiration he needed in order to truly feel alive.
As they became more comfortable with each other, she was more wont to leave her face uncovered in the warmth of the house. As time passed, he noticed her scars less and less.
He missed his home though, and his family, and his independence. As his ankle became stronger, he no longer required her help for his basic needs. With the crutch, he was able to go out to the shed where his horse was lodged, and feed, brush, and talk to him, and even milk the goat.
On one of these outings, he noticed the stairs leading up the tree and realized that this was where she went sometimes when she left the house. Curious, he tentatively climbed a few. The steps seemed sturdy enough, and he could see that they were kept free of ice. He climbed a few more, realizing that the crutch allowed him to easily climb the stairs to the bedroom each night, and so he made a goal of climbing at least that many now. Then he climbed a few more, until he could see over the roof of the cabin. He looked up and realized that he could see a platform in the branches above him. Would his ankle let him climb that high today? With his free hand on the rail to steady himself, he set a goal to go at least as far as he’d already come. One more step, then another. He could see over the tops of the trees now, to the mountains in the west, and some of the plains which lay at their foot, all of it covered in ice and glistening like crystal in the sunshine. He looked up again to where the platform was. He was two-thirds of the way there! Although his ankle ached, he determinedly climbed the last of the steps to reach the small balcony and then the door. He squinted at the letters above the door, ancient and faded: “Procul, este profani!” He mouthed the unfamiliar words, shrugged, then opened the door.
Marcela, startled by his unexpected entrance, whirled around from the table at which she sat drawing. “Good God, what are you doing up here?”
The winter wind still blew, but the treehouse was tight and reasonably warm. Adam looked around the room at its bookcases filled with books and gadgetry, and the telescope pointed out the window. “What a marvelous place!” he exclaimed. “I wasn’t sure I’d be able to climb this high, but I did,” he said proudly. “I’m a little winded though. Do you mind if I sit?”
Marcela gave a little frown, but removed some papers from a second chair and gestured to him to sit.
“Thank you,” he said, easing down into the proffered seat.
“What possessed you to come all this way, Adam?” she asked again.
“I saw the stairs and wondered where they led. The view from up here is spectacular! What were you doing? I didn’t mean to interrupt,” he said, looking at the paper on which she’d been drawing. It looked like pipes and gears, with arrows pointing this way and that. He turned his head sideways, trying to see it from her angle.
Sighing, she sat down again. “How does your leg feel?”
“Overall, not bad. Sitting feels good though. What is this place?”
“It’s my sanctum…my laboratory, of sorts,” she clarified, seeing his confused expression. “In the cabin, I get distracted by domestic duties,” and you “so I come up here to think, and to work.” …and to get my mind off of you, if briefly. So much for that!
“What are you working on?”
“I’m just revising some plans I began last summer,” she said, shuffling the papers into a neat pile. “Look, Adam, I’m not quite comfortable with your being here. Nobody’s ever been up here before, except for my parents and me. I’ve never shared it.”
“I’m your first guest, remember?”
Touché, she thought, feeling cornered.
“…and as such, I ought to get a complete tour of the facilities.”
“All right, all right,” she said peevishly. “Now you’re up here, it’s not as though I’m going to push you out the window or anything!” He gave her his heart-melting grin, delighted at the ease with which he’d won his victory.
“Show me this gadget,” He commanded, marveling at the giant telescope pointed out the window, and gingerly crossed the room to it.
“Be careful,” Marcela warned him. “It’s very temperamental.”
He pulled his hand back and bent over to squint into the viewer. “I can see forever!” he said, amazed. “I’ve heard of these devices, but never seen one. Where in the world does one get such a thing?”
“Actually, I made that one,” she said, modestly. “It’s fairly simple: two lenses, two pieces of pipe.”
“You came up with that on your own?”
“Not exactly. There are some books which explain it all,” she said, waving a hand toward the shelf.
“What do you look at?” he asked, “Do you ever look into the village?”
“Most recently, I look at the stars, not the village often, but it’s possible. Would you like to see it? We may be able to see your home from here. Now would be the best time for viewing, before the trees leaf out.”
“Yes, I’d like that more than anything!” he said, excited at the thought.
She made some adjustments and stepped aside for him to look. He bent down once more to the viewer.
“Ohhh…” he breathed, reaching his hand toward the window. “It looks so close, as though I could touch something there.”
Marcela smiled at his enthusiasm, and at the acknowledgement that she had done such good work.
“I can see the main thoroughfare…there’s the smithy…I can’t see my house though. May I move it a bit?” he asked, and without waiting for an answer or assistance, he tapped the scope to the right. As he did so, a lens from inside the scope fell out of place. Nimbly, Marcela caught it before it crashed onto the floor.
“Oh, no!” he cried, “I’m sorry! Is it fixable?”
“I did say that it was temperamental, didn’t I? I can fix it, but it will take a little time. I don’t think we’ll be able to stay up here that long; the wind is picking up already.” Indeed, as she spoke, the treehouse creaked and swayed.
“Is this safe? Should we leave now?” asked Adam.
“It’s completely safe, only a little uncomfortable for long visits during the winter months. We have time for a cup of hot tea, if you’d like.”
“Hot tea? How can we have hot tea up here?”
She smiled again and turned to a device in the corner of the room, flipping a small switch at its base. “The water will be ready in about five minutes.”
“Hot water in five minutes? With no fire? How can this be?”
“This is what I spent this past summer working on,” she said proudly. “I put what’s basically a windmill at the top of the tree. It catches the energy in the wind and funnels it down here to this little makeshift stove. Flip the switch, and voila! Close-to-instant heat,” she beamed.
“Remarkable!” he said, moving again toward the window to see if he could see the windmill. “Oh! It’s rather big. That’s a lot of contraption just to make tea.”
“You’re absolutely right,” she said. “I’m sure there are other uses for it. Tea is only the beginning. Maybe it could be used to heat a house one day, or even create a light without fire.”
He laughed at this, though not unkindly. She let herself enjoy the sound, knowing that he didn’t fully understand the importance of this idea, and knowing that other people would.
After they had their tea, she announced that it was time to go, and led the way so that she would be in front of him on the stairs.
“Marcela, what does the inscription on the door mean?”
She glanced back, the inscription having been there so long that she had forgotten about it. “Oh,” she said dismissively, “that’s my father’s joke. It means ‘Go away, uninitiated ones.’ It’s also a reminder that the work he did here was sacred.”
Adam nodded. “I guess I’m initiated now, aren’t I?”
Marcela smiled and shook her head. “You’re also going away,” she said, leading him down the stairs.
After dinner, Adam commented, “You’re quite a good cook, Marcela. Do you ever bake? Desserts, I mean.”
“No, not much. Since I carry my own supplies up the mountain, I don’t bring much sugar. It only adds needless weight to my pack. If you’d like something sweet, I have some pears I put by last fall.” She got a jar from the cupboard and handed it to him to open, enjoying his expectant smile as he spooned several slices onto a plate.
He took one into his mouth, and got a curious look on his face. Interested, she fished a slice out of the jar with her own spoon and popped it into her mouth. As always, it wasn’t nearly as good as fresh, but then what was?
He swallowed another, then remarked, “You used too much pressure.”
“Excuse me?” She asked.
“When you canned these. You used fifteen pounds, didn’t you?”
Marcela stared at him in disbelief. “Yes,” she said, “that’s standard up here.”
“Ten would have been better. The texture comes out better if you use less pressure. Firmer. These taste good, but they’re mushy.” Her jaw dropped, and he took great pleasure in having rendered her momentarily speechless. “I’m more than just a handsome face, you know,” he said smugly.
“Adam, how is it that you know so much about canning? How did you learn to sew, and to make cheese and butter? That is, if you don’t mind my asking. And there’s nothing wrong with a man knowing how to do such things,” she added quickly, lest he take offense, “It’s just that it’s unusual, that’s all.”
“As unusual as a woman living on her own on a mountain top?” he asked, with a small smile.
“Well, yes,” she smiled back, “Just as unusual as that. But I was born here and have lived here all my life. You surely weren’t born knowing how to run a household.”
He turned and gazed out the window at the never-ending snowfall. “No,” he said after a moment. “I wasn’t.”
Seeing that he’d grown sober, she waited to see whether he would continue.
“I grew up working in the fields with my father and my brothers. Our mother ran the household, of course,” he said, with a faint smile. “One day, my brothers and I got up for breakfast as usual, and our father’s seat was empty.
Adam had run out to the barn to call his father in for breakfast. The barn was empty of his father, and of his father’s horse, but full of the other horses waiting to be fed, and the cow lowing with the ache of her swollen udder. He took the time to milk the cow and ease her pain, then quickly took the pails into the house. His brothers were already eating at the table. His mother was seated at the window, her face impassive.
“What’s going on?” Adam asked. “Where’s Father?”
“He’s gone on adventures!” said his oldest brother, excitedly.
“Adventures!” echoed the brother who was closest to Adam in age, brandishing his fork as though it were a sword.
“Eat your breakfasts and attend to your business!” said their mother, sharply, not turning to look at them.
Adam looked from his brothers to his mother and back, trying to understand. He slipped into his own seat and began to eat, not tasting much of what had been placed in front of him.
In the weeks ahead, his brothers speculated as to what sorts of adventures their father might be having, the older ones expressing indignation that they had not been invited along. Their mother made it clear that the matter was not to be discussed in the house, or anywhere in her presence. Life remained as usual for the older brothers, but Adam noticed the shadow in his mother’s face, saw how her hands shook when she wasn’t clutching them tightly in her lap, how although she kept her head as high as ever, it suddenly seemed heavy.
He began helping in the house whenever he could. When he saw his mother staring into space over a task, he would gently take it from her and begin work on it himself, asking her to guide him when necessary.
Over the next few years, life shifted into new routines: Adam and his brothers still worked in the fields, but he divided his time between the fieldwork and helping his mother with the household chores. Slowly, her back became less rigid, and the light began to shine in her eyes once more. His brothers never noticed a difference.
“My father’s absence weighed heavily on my mother. I helped her in the house any way I could.”
“How lucky for your mother that she had you,” commented Marcela. “Did your father ever come back? Do you know what sort of adventures he had?”
One day, Adam and his brother Enoch went to the town across the river. They passed a tavern and heard one laugh ringing more loudly than the rest. When they looked inside, they saw a familiar figure pulling a woman into his lap. He fondled her lewdly and she laughed along with him and pretended to push him away.
Adam was momentarily shocked into stillness. Enoch elbowed him, “Look, it’s Father!” he cried, and grabbed Adam by the shirt, pulling him toward the door.
Adam wrenched himself out of his brother’s grasp. “Are you mad?” he demanded, “We can’t go in there!”
Enoch grinned at him, “’Course we can! Father’s in there, and besides, I mean to get a little bit of that myself!” he said, nodding at the scantily-clad young women who were inside, cavorting with the boisterous men. He gave Adam a friendly cuff on the arm and said, “High time you got some, too!” He entered the tavern, not bothering to notice whether Adam followed.
Adam watched through the window as Enoch approached their father and the woman. Although he could not hear what was said, he watched the events unfold in pantomime.
Enoch greeted his father, whose face registered surprise, then happiness. He stood up to embrace the son he had not seen since he had left the family home, dumping the woman from his lap. She looked inquisitorially from their father to Enoch, then looked Enoch up and down, appraisingly and gleefully. His father noticed her look, and his face turned cool. He pushed Enoch roughly away and gestured toward the door. Enoch looked bewildered and Adam saw a stubborn look come over his brother, a look he well knew. A man came out from behind the bar and put his hand on Enoch’s shoulder as the woman grasped his arm proprietarily. Enoch smiled down at her, and his father pushed him toward the door, the man from the bar helping to propel him. Adam saw Enoch’s free hand curling into a fist, and his father downed his drink and slammed it onto the table. In a flash, Adam rushed inside, grabbed his brother and dragged him out.
“No,” he said shortly. “He never came back home.” After a pause, he said lightly, “So. Now you know how I came to know women’s work. Can I know about you?”
“Me? What would you like to know?”
“Well,” he began thoughtfully, “how did someone as clever as you, and as familiar with the mountain, come to get injured by the winter?”
“Oh…” she said, taking the empty dishes over to the sink, “it’s not a pretty story at all.” She stacked them carefully, then looked up to see him watching her, and she realized that he expected her to continue. “All right,” she said. “I was out hunting with my father when a storm blew in unexpectedly. We could barely see our hands in front of our faces and got disoriented in the woods. We tried our best to keep each other warm, but my father…didn’t survive the night. And my face was not as well-covered as it should have been.”
“How dreadful! I’m sure your mother was beside herself with worry.”
“Yes, she was. It was an extremely hard winter, on the heels of a lean summer. My mother had been very sick, and there was no food in the house; otherwise, my father and I should not have left her.”
Marcela was impressed at the steady voice in which she told the story. She did not tell him how she dragged her father’s body back to the cabin the next morning. She did not tell him of how her mother died within another seven days.
“You poor thing,” he said, touched with compassion for the lonely, frightened girl she must have been. “But then your mother must have been overjoyed when you returned, even if you returned alone.”
“It was a mixed blessing,” she said in a low voice. “With the loss of her health and her husband, my mother also lost her will to continue.”
“Mine did too, for a time, although she hid it well.”
“She was very lucky to have you,” Marcela repeated.
“Marcela,” he said, “I was thinking… maybe when spring comes, we can create memorials for your parents. Wouldn’t you like markers for their graves?”
“NO!” she shouted, making him jump. “No. Thank you,” she said, as she rose and quickly put on her wraps and went outside to the tree house, leaving him taken aback as he stared at the door she had closed behind her.
Adam and Marcela passed many long, snowy winter evenings in this way, tentatively handing out pieces of their lives as if feeding morsels to newly-tamed animals, each backing off suddenly when the other got too greedy.
She would tell him of her father’s inventions, or her own, and of ideas she had to make machines to do things so that people would have more leisure time. He listened intently, arranging his face in a manner which he hoped suggested that he understood her ideas. He told her of parties, music and dances, and the many partners available in the village. When he spoke of such things, her mind began to wander, her ears reveling in the smooth, deep cadence of his voice but paying little attention to the topic at hand.
“Don’t you get lonely up here, with no company? No parties?”
“I have your company,” she smiled.
“But I’ll be leaving in the spring. Don’t you want to come and be around people?”
She reflected silently. She hadn’t felt lonely in a long time, but she enjoyed his company dearly. With a twinge, it crossed her mind that she would indeed be extremely lonely once he had gone. But she couldn’t be around people—that is to say, they wouldn’t want to be around her. Adam was such a sociable person that he seemed to no longer notice the disfigurement on her face. But others certainly would. No, she could not live in the village.
Summoning courage, she answered him, “No, I don’t much care to be around people, and I’ve been alone here for a long time. This is my life.”
“What about music? Don’t you like music?”
“I don’t know much about music as you know it. I know the songs that my parents taught me, but I have no instruments, nor would I know how to make them sing properly. I know the music of the mountain, and it’s beautiful to me.”
“What do you mean by that?” he asked.
“Listen,” she said, and turned her ear toward the window.
He turned too, and listened carefully. He heard the wind as it blew across the chimney. He heard the tree branches creaking slightly around them. He heard an owl calling outside. He heard the flames as they shimmied in the hearth, and he heard his own breathing and the pulse in his ears.
She smiled at him. “Winter plays a quiet lament. Summer’s songs are louder. Happier.”
“What are summers like up here?”
Her face lit. “They’re lovely. Loud… effervescent! The sun hits the windows in the morning, but by noon, the trees have shaded the house enough that it feels like spring inside. The entire mountain comes to life in the summer, and provides food in abundance! There’s a stream around the other side from which the fish virtually jump into my net. The forests are green and dewy and there’s a grove not far from here where you can’t turn around without knocking fruit of some sort or other off the trees! All the animals are out with their young, and they pass through the glade here like visiting gypsies. I think they only come to raid my garden, but no matter. The mountain gives enough food for all of us in the summer.”
“I’ve never before met anyone who speaks with such reverence about food! You’ve tasted every inch of this mountain, haven’t you?”
“Most of it,” she smiled.
“You make it all sound so idyllic.”
“Summer is a very busy time though. I need to make sure there’s enough food put by to last through the winter. And apparently, I have some experimental canning to do this year,” at which he laughed, as she had meant for him to do. “It’s warmer, of course, but still cooler up here than down in the valley.”
“Do you wrap yourself up as you do during the winter?”
“No, of course not,” she replied. “It’s not cool enough that I’m in any danger. I just wear the normal light summer clothes that anyone in the valley would wear.”
A vision flashed through Adam’s mind of Marcela in a sleeveless summer dress with a deep, scooped neckline, the skirt thin and airy, barefooted and bare-legged, holding her skirt up as she waded into the river with a net. He gave his head a small shake, and said in happy anticipation, “I want to see a mountaintop summer! After I see my family, I’ll come back to see you, and the summer too. And I’ll help you with the canning,” he added.
Marcela smiled politely at his enthusiasm, but said nothing. She heard an empty promise and would put no stock into it.
Adam’s wrist knocked against the honey pot and knocked it over. It rolled between the table and the wall, and crashed to the floor.
“Oh no!” he said, “I don’t think my ankle will let me crawl under there just yet. Would you mind?”
“Not at all; I’ll get it,” she said. She crawled under the table on her hands and knees, feeling carefully for the pieces of the honey pot in the shadows. Gathering them up, she backed out from the darkness, took the broken crockery to the kitchen, and returned with a wet towel, licking the honey drops from her fingers. He watched as she once again got on her knees under the table. Leaning on one elbow, she meticulously mopped the puddle of spilled honey from the floor, hoping to catch it before it seeped into the floorboards. Painstakingly, she swiped the wet cloth over as much of the area under the table as possible, unaware of the way her rear end swayed, sticking out from under the table while she worked. Finally satisfied, she backed out, holding the wet and sticky towel away from her dress. “Done!” she proclaimed. Adam quickly pulled his eyes up to her face with a pleased expression. She put the towel on the table and rose to her feet. “What?” she asked, self-consciously brushing off her skirt.
“Nothing,” he said, smiling a little and looking down at his plate.
Marcela frowned a little, suddenly realizing that her behind had been just about sticking up in the air. Had he been watching? It seemed unlikely. Just because you watch him at every opportunity, it doesn’t mean that he looks at you at all, she reminded herself sternly. He’s friendly and polite, as he surely is with everyone. You misread that look. Still, the thought nagged at her, as it was not the first time he seemed to be watching her with an interest that was more than casual.
Adam’s leg continued to heal in good time, until he rarely used the crutch at all. He wanted to help with more strenuous tasks now, to keep up the momentum of healing and gaining strength, even volunteering for tasks which she hadn’t realized needed to be done. With reluctance, she stepped back and let him do things for her, reminding herself that it was part of his healing. She watched him as he seemed to be in constant motion. Each movement of his body seemed deliberate, important, full of potential. She often had to remind him to sit and rest, to give his ankle a chance to rebuild on its own timetable rather than on his.
One such afternoon, she left him with a pile of darning, exhorting him not to move from his chair until she returned from the treehouse. As he sat, his mind began to wander in the direction of home. How was his mother? What were his brothers doing? Did they believe him dead? Or that he had abandoned them, as his father had done? Linnae had probably moved on to the next suitor. He realized that this idea did not bother him at all. He remembered what had passed for conversation between them: she’d prattle on about her dress, or complain about her mother and sisters, or make catty remarks about the other girls, while he’d feign interest and try to sneak looks down her bodice. He smiled at the memory, even as his thoughts came back to Marcela.
She certainly never prattled on about anything. He himself was more likely to prattle on, he thought wryly, then chuckled at the idea of Marcela trying to sneak peeks down his bodice. Had she ever gotten excited about clothing or parties, or been infatuated with any boy? But when would she have had the chance, isolated as she was? He thought about how, when he had first arrived on the mountain, she would often talk to him with her head down or turned away. When she forgot herself though, her eyes would glow as she talked about the stories she’d read him, or her wild ideas and creations. Even when he didn’t understand what she was talking about, watching her talk about it was much more interesting than letting Linnae assault his ears. And he had to admit that he enjoyed her physical closeness. When she’d had to help him move around, her body had felt quite nice close to his own.
He thought of a recent afternoon: he had been sitting in this very chair, and she had been sweeping around the hearth and woodpile, when he realized that he was staring, watching the form of her body move as she danced the broom around the floor. He turned in his seat for a better view. When she had pushed all the stray wood chips and ashes into a pile, she gathered her skirt, tucked it up out of the way of the mess, and bent over to brush it all up into a dustpan. He couldn’t help smiling as he watched the curves of her backside take a very pleasant shape through her skirt. She bent over a bit further, causing her skirt to ride up just enough to allow him a glimpse of a bit of her thighs above the tops of her stockings. As she straightened and turned around, he had nearly fallen out of his chair, trying to pretend that he hadn’t been twisted around with his head virtually upside down, staring at her body. She said nothing about it, but had she noticed? She probably had. He hoped she hadn’t. But ever since then, he found himself waiting for or creating opportunities to observe her as she moved.
He’d never known a woman as strong as she, but the women in the village didn’t need to do everything for themselves. Neither did the men, for that matter. She not only had a physical strength that the women he’d known could never possess, she also had a strength of spirit that he’d never known could be possible.
He remembered how repulsed he’d been by his first sight of the scars on her face, and felt a small ache of guilt. After all this time, he didn’t much think about them anymore, and now that he did, they were simply a part of the person he’d come to admire and care about. He considered Lucy, the pock-marked dairywoman with her gappy, yellow teeth. She too was not exactly the sort of woman a man dreamt of, but her husband seemed well-satisfied and their children were fair enough. Marcela’s children wouldn’t have her scars, of course, and they’d certainly be fine-looking if he were their father. He shook his head in astonishment. Where had that thought come from? Well, it had been a while since he’d been with a woman.
It was just-spring, and the snow had melted enough that they could easily go further than the normal boundaries of the glade, although not much further. The air still held a chill, but after the long months of being indoors, it was almost pleasant outside. It was the time of year when Marcela normally began to air the house a bit. She decided to bring the rugs outside to freshen, and after so much relative inactivity, Adam wanted to swing an axe again.
Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! sounded his axe on the fallen log.
Pud! Pud! Pud! sounded her beater on the rug. She paused and listened to the rhythm of his work, then timed her beating to syncopation.
Thwack! Pud! Thwack! Pud! Thwack! Pud! He caught her eye and laughed, sending her soul soaring.
“You were right; there is music on this mountain!” he chuckled, then Thwack-Thwack! he made two quick chops on the log, continuing his work, but adding in play. They experimented with different tempos, enjoying the sounds they were making. When they finished, they sat down together on the stump of the tree Adam had just chopped up. “That was a good song,” he said, still smiling.
“Yes,” she said, “but the mountain’s not finished singing. Listen to it,” and she raised her face to the sky. He heard the wind again, but lighter than it had been the first time she’d made him notice it, a happy sound, not the mournful one that had blown over the chimney in winter. He heard the cry of a bird, then a few chirps, some movement in the forest. She turned to him and watched with pleasure as comprehension lit his face.
“How glorious,” he breathed, then turned toward her. “Come dance with me,” he said, standing and offering his hand.
She looked at him questioningly, then put her hand in his and stood as well. He led her out into a clear area, put her other hand on his shoulder, and put his on her waist. “Follow the sound of the wind,” he instructed, and led her backwards in a small circle. The wind began to pick up a bit, and he increased his tempo, leading her firmly. She gave a soft cry of joy and tripped to keep up. He grinned down at her, and when the birds began to call, lifted her slightly so that together, they bounded along with the birdsong. She threw her head back and began to laugh, her scarf falling away, and her hair fanning out freely in the sunshine.
It was then that he stumbled over a branch. His hands clenched her waist and hers grabbed both of his shoulders in reflex as they righted themselves. He laughed a little. “We don’t usually worry about tripping over branches at parties,” he said in apology.
“Maybe your ankle isn’t quite ready for dancing, not just yet,” she suggested, stepping back.
“Maybe less strenuous dancing is in order,” he countered, pulling her near again. “Listen to the forest.”
She put her hand on his shoulder once more, and tilted her head in the direction of the forest. She could hear a slow creaking, the sound of the wind slowing down in the trees. He pulled her closer than he had before, and moved slowly, swaying with the rustle of the newly budding leaves, his cheek brushing her hair. She felt awkward at the unaccustomed and unnecessary closeness, wondering if she had permission to enjoy his nearness. She moved her head just enough to look at his face, and to her surprise, he was looking down at her with tenderness in his eyes. Could that be for me? She wondered, astonished. Just as quickly, she banished the thought. Ridiculous! She turned her head away again and felt his face lightly touch her hair. Had he been moving in to kiss her? Oh, surely not!
“The snows are melting now,” she murmured. “In a few weeks, the paths will open up, and you can go home.”
“Yes, I will be leaving,” he said quietly, and he let go of her and stepped away.
He picked up the axe and carried it back to the shed. Dear God, he had actually intended to kiss the Beast of the Mountain! That she had turned away at the crucial moment both embarrassed and relieved him. It would be cruel to lead her to believe in a life together with him. She would never fit in with his life in the village, and what’s more, she wouldn’t even want to. On the other hand, life here on the mountain with her was much more agreeable than he ever would have believed… He shook himself. This isolated life was giving him the most insane fancies!
The weather continued to improve, the snows continued to melt. They both knew that their time together was drawing to a close.
One afternoon, Marcela commented, “The snows are melting so quickly that I believe that in another week, the mountain passes will be safe to cross.”
“Does that mean it will be safe for me to go home?”
“Yes. When the snows on the main pass melt, I go down into the town across the river to share the winter’s work with my partners. I’ll help you get down the mountain safely and then be on my way.”
“Wonderful!” he exclaimed. “My family will want to meet you and there’s plenty of room for you to stay the night before you go.”
Marcela considered what meeting his family might be like. It was still cold enough that she might leave her scarf on with little comment. Except for meals. Then would come the stares, and the shock. And besides, the scarf would be considered odd.
She forced a smile and said, “Oh, the partners will be expecting me. I can’t wait to show them the drawings of the turbine and let them know what it does so far. I know they’ll have even more potential uses for it than I do!”
He frowned a little. “But surely they don’t expect you at any specific date? The thaw can’t be predicted that exactly.”
“They know I always come as soon as the pass is clear.”
“On your way back then. You can linger a while and my family can get to know you.”
“Oh…we’ll see. I may do that if there’s time,” she said evasively. With that, she stood up and gathered her cloak and scarf. “I’m going to go check the snares,” she said, and left the cabin.
When the appointed day came, they rose in the dark, as she always did when she made her excursions down the mountain. She put her drawings carefully into her pack, along with her clothing, some money to pay for her ferry and lodgings, and the list of supplies she intended to buy while there.
They made their way down the mountain carefully, he holding on to her waist under the pretext of holding himself steady, her hand on the small of his back under the same pretext. As he also held the reins of the horse, there was little danger of him falling, even if he were to stumble.
They reached the village just as the day broke, and it took little time to arrive at his mother’s house. He put the horse in the barn, and turned to her. “Are you ready for some breakfast? My mother’s omelets are almost as good as yours,” he said, eyes twinkling.
“Thank you, but no,” she said, stepping back. “I cannot stay here if I hope to get to the town by midday.”
“Must you be there by midday today?” he asked, hurt. “Surely your partners won’t mind if you get there tomorrow. I can take you there myself.”
“No, no, it must be today. Take care of yourself, Adam, and have a happy life!” she quickly turned and started down the path leading back to the main thoroughfare.
“Marcela, wait!” he called. When she half-turned, he said, “My mother would like meeting you. She’ll want to thank you for saving my life.”
“That’s not necessary,” she said. “Saving your life is thanks enough.”
“Will you come by on your way back home then?” he asked. “I can escort you back up the mountain, and the horse can carry your things so you don’t have to.”
“Possibly. I don’t know. We’ll see.”
“I’ll see you soon, right?”
She gave a brief wave, and with her head down, she walked on.
Adam was greeted by his mother with joyful amazement that he’d survived the winter on the mountain. He was greeted by his brothers with the same enthusiastic indifference that they generally held toward life, and he wondered whether they even realized that he’d been gone. He was greeted by friends with warm welcome, and with gladness for his survival and return. He was greeted by Linnae with chilly disdain for his having left her, and by her new husband with a guarded welcome. Several of the young women of his acquaintance expressed their sorrow for his prolonged absence by offering favors that he was certain their fathers, brothers, and in some cases, their husbands, would not have approved. Where previously he might have accepted the offer of a dalliance with one of the unattached ladies, he now felt somewhat removed from the situations from which he tactfully extricated himself.
Time and again, his thoughts focused on Marcela, comparing her to the village women. He had known them all of his life, but now he saw them as only a row of china dolls, interchangeable and equally dull. Certainly none had ever mentioned to him such interesting ideas as Marcela came up with. What had her partners thought of her windmill idea? Did she think of him as often as he thought of her? When would she come to visit him? She hadn’t mentioned how long she planned to stay in the town, and he had been so confused by her abrupt departure that he had forgotten to ask. “I may come by if there’s time,” she had said. Time before what? She had no timetable; the only person waiting for her arrival was he himself. He resolved that if she did not come by the time three weeks had passed, he would go back up the mountain to her.
Spring bloomed in the valley more quickly than it had on the mountain top, and Adam could see the trillium and snowdrops peeking out of the beds along the village’s main thoroughfare. He wondered whether Marcela ever planted flowers just to enjoy their prettiness. There was so much about her he still didn’t know! The trees in the village were in full leaf here, and as he walked throughout the village, he heard the wind rustling them about, and thought of her proclamation about the music of the mountain. What would she think about the music of the village? Would she dance with him again?
Naturally, the villagers asked about his absence. Being an honest and open person, he told them of his accident, and how the woman who lived on the mountain had nursed his injury and cared for him during the winter. It was then that some of the elder men of the village began to take him aside and tell him what they knew of the woman, or what they believed they knew.
Back on the mountain, Marcela settled into the solitary existence she knew so well. This time it was harder though, and she had known that it would be. The years that she had spent alone seemed to melt away in favor of the few months that she’d had Adam for company. Everywhere she turned, the memory of him superimposed itself onto the present. The memory of him was with her constantly: Adam sitting by the fire, darning; Adam chopping wood; Adam across the table from her; Adam leading her in a dance, looking down at her—but no, that memory she shut down nearly as soon as it popped into her mind. She tried to remind herself of how stupid she had originally thought him, and how shallow. Occasionally that strategy worked to once again satisfy her with her status quo. But only occasionally.
When a few weeks had passed, she was out working in the garden one day, and he approached. “Good morning Marcela,” he greeted her.
“Good morning Adam,” she responded, as she did every morning.
“How have you been?” he said, “I’ve missed you.”
Dumbfounded, she straightened up and looked at him. “You’re back,” she said, wondering whether she should trust what she thought she saw and heard.
“Of course I’m back,” he said, “why else would you say ‘Good morning Adam’ if you weren’t talking to me?”
She gave a surprised laugh, “I thought–I imagined—oh, never mind—you came back!” She took a few steps toward him, still not wholly believing.
He gave her the bright smile which warmed her heart so well. “I said that I would, remember?”
“I know you said it, but…Oh, Adam, I’m so happy to see you! I’ve missed you too!” she reached for his hands. “Shall we go inside?”
He squeezed her hands back and, not letting go, he said, “Yes, let’s go sit down. I see you have a windmill for the cabin now too. Did the partners like your idea of using the wind’s power for domestic purposes?”
“They did! I’ll have to show you what I’m doing with it now. Oh—and this summer’s plans too! There is much to tell you. You didn’t bring the horse this time! You must be tired from the hike. How does your ankle feel? I see you used a walking stick. Good thinking! Are you hungry? There was a fat rabbit in one of the snares this morning. How was your return? I’m sure your family was thrilled to see you. I’m thrilled to see you too!” she babbled elatedly.
He chuckled at her enthusiasm and led her inside. “My mother was thrilled to see me, and a few of my friends were too. I’m not sure my brothers noticed I was gone. For the most part, I became an interesting topic for discussion.”
“And Linnae? Was she thrilled at your return?”
He laughed heartily at that. “She was absolutely not thrilled! She’d given me up for dead after only a month and married someone else!”
“What?!” cried Marcela, “Without even a mourning period? There is something seriously wrong with that woman!”
He laughed again at her indignation, and the enjoyment of watching her vibrate with excitement. “That’s true! But for Linnae, a month is a mourning period!”
“Were you very disappointed?”
“Disappointed? I feel like I escaped a hangman’s noose!”
She turned away to hide the utter glee which must be shining on her face, and went to fetch him some water.
They talked together animatedly, sharing news of their lives during the weeks they’d been apart. When she once again offered a meal, he remembered part of his mission.
“I heard some rumors about you, Marcela,” he said.
She stiffened, and waited silently for him to continue.
“If there was no food during that difficult winter, just how did you survive?”
She looked away, closed her eyes for a moment, and exhaled deeply. “What does the rumor mill say?”
“People say that you ate your parents,” He stepped toward her, reaching out. “It’s insane, right? I knew that couldn’t be what happened, but how ever did you make it through the winter?”
She straightened her spine and turned back to him. She fought to keep her voice steady. “When my father died, he provided meat for my mother and me.” She held his gaze levelly. “If we had not eaten it, we both would have died. As it was, my mother soon followed him. Her death gave me my life.”
He blanched, “Oh God…Marcela, please tell me you’re not saying…”
She saw the revulsion and horror in his eyes, but refused to look away. Instead, it was he who whirled around, stumbling to the washroom, violently emptying the contents of his stomach. Numbly, slowly, she sank back into the chair, folding into herself tightly as possible as she listened to him purge his disgust.
Marcela would not let herself remember that darkest of all times; the moment of acceptance, her mind skirted around, allowing her to remember only that it had happened, and necessarily so. She would remember only snippets of the few weeks after that first moment, that first meal. Her mother had vomited copiously, her body, weak with long illness, had rejected the offering of her husband. Marcela’s body, young and determined to survive, greedily demanded and kept any nourishment she could bring herself to ingest. Then came her mother’s death, her lonely disposal of what remained of her parents in the forest, her solo trek down the mountain at the very first sign of a thaw, when it was still dangerous to cross the pass. She determined to never return, to live with her uncle as her mother had urged. She recalled with sadness her naïveté, and her mother’s, that he might accept her into his home after her desperate action. Her uncle’s denunciation of her had served as a warning. She had been irresponsible to herself in forgetting it.
When there was nothing more to come up, Adam straightened, splashed his face with water from the sink, filled the little cup that sat at its side, and rinsed his mouth. Then he spat fiercely, and wiped his face and mouth with a towel. He leaned against the wall and closed his eyes. Was there any way out of this untenable situation? He knew he had to go back out and face her, but how? And what would happen next?
He looked at himself in the mirror which she had attached to the wall once he was able to stand at the sink while shaving, and in the spider’s web of breakage, he saw a hundred images of himself looking back, each looking as lost as he himself felt. He could not reconcile the gentle, sweet person he knew her to be with such a monstrous deed. He knew he would need to listen to her story in its entirety before he could make any decision on what to do next. He shuddered, gave his face one last swipe with the towel which he himself had hemmed, and stepped back out into the living room.
He faced her with a guarded look, breathing heavily. Hiding deep within herself, she turned her head toward him, not really seeing, and not wanting to hear what he would say next, wishing he would leave and finish this nightmarish scene.
“I just…want to know…” he said haltingly, “I want to know…why. Why?”
“Why?” The surprise of being asked a question instead of getting a volley of accusations broke through her trance. “Why?!” she repeated, incredulous, and rose from her perch. “Do you think I chose that?” her voice rose, “I didn’t want to eat my parents! I wanted to live! There was nothing else!” She shouted, “Do you think a large stag appeared at my door and offered its meat to me, and I said, ‘Why no thank you, Mr. Deer, I’d rather eat the body of my father, who gave his life to keep me from freezing to death! And while I’m at it, my mother’s body looks tasty as well, having just died of starvation and heartbreak, so please take your healthy, well-fed meat away from my kitchen because I’d rather eat human—‘” her voice cracked, “’Eat human—flesh!’” She broke off with a sob, tears streaming down her waxy, mottled cheeks.
“Wait,” he said, “your parents were already dead? You didn’t kill them?”
She shrieked in disbelief and pushed him aside as she clamored up the steps to her bedroom.
“Marcela, wait,” he said, starting after her.
On the third step up, she turned, her posture defensive, “What?” she spat.
He stepped to her so that they were face-to-face. He fumbled for something to say, then clumsily blurted, “If I had died, would you have eaten me?”
To his surprise, she gave a bitter laugh. “This is truly what you think of me, after all this time.” It was a statement, not a question. “Luckily for you, the mountain provided for me this year.” She gave him a contemptuous look through her tears, “The meat on your bones is quite safe. Now get out of my house.” She turned and stalked up the stairs.
Deflated, he stood a moment, then turned and quietly left the house. Outside, he sat on a stump. That didn’t go as I’d hoped, he thought, so what now? He had come up the mountain expecting her to deny the rumors, to somehow explain away the impossible stories he’d heard. His ankle ached where the break had occurred those months before, reminding him of her gentleness with him, and her generosity, and he knew she spoke the truth about the hardship, and the impossible choice she had been forced to make. He buried his face in his hands. Dear God! He had emerged from the washroom intending to hear her out, and instead made a bigger mess by insulting her, trampling on her already wounded spirit.
He was an absolute ass, and he knew it. “If I had died, would you have eaten me?” Could he have come up with anything more stupid and pitiless and asinine to say? He slid his hands up and grabbed fistfuls of his hair. What an incredible fool he was! He, who had always been respectful of other people’s feelings, and would go out of his way to make others feel comfortable, had just shown disregard of the worst kind to someone who had been only good to him, without ever asking for anything in return. How in the world could he have believed some wild tales spun by bored old men, instead of the character of someone he knew to be true and good?
Adam had walked out of the church surrounded by people, as usual. He was saying his goodbyes and looking around to find his mother when Elder Tomason pulled him aside.
“Young Adam,” he said, “a word?”
Adam followed the older man around the corner of the building, where a few of the other elder men were waiting. Seeing the ghoulish looks on their faces, he got a sinking feeling about what word might be in store for him.
“Yes, sir?” he said politely. “Gentlemen?”
As one body, they surrounded him, flanking him against the wall of the church.
“You spent the winter on the mountain,” Elder Bratt said. “We understand that there was a woman who took care of you.”
“Yes,” he said guardedly, “she lives there alone.”
“Was it Marilla?” asked Elder Peate in his crackly voice.
Adam was dismayed by the prurience in the older man’s voice. He didn’t like hearing Marcela’s name coming from any one of this group of men, even mangled as it was.
“Close,” he said warily, wondering what more these men might have to say.
“What did you eat while you were there?” asked Elder Frye, with a strange gleam in his eye.
Bewildered, Adam answered, “Foood?” He looked from one face to the next, unsure where this was leading. “Bread, canned vegetables, rabbit, an occasional deer…”
“Are you sure it was deer or rabbit?” smirked Elder Frye.
Elder Peate let out a loud guffaw. “Did she try to eat you?” he cackled.
Annoyed, Adam asked, “What kind of a question is that? Excuse me, sirs, I must get home.” He tried to make his way past them, but they stood fast.
Elder Bratt put a hand on Adam’s shoulder. “Did she tell you what happened to her parents?”
Not exactly, thought Adam. Still, he felt protective toward her. “Why don’t you gentlemen say what you have to say?”
Elder Frye said, with a morbid grin on his face, “She killed her parents and ate them!”
“That’s why she lives alone,” added Elder Peate. “Bashed her father’s head in, slit her mother’s throat. Then boiled ‘em up!” the man practically sang out with glee.
“This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” Adam had scoffed. “These are tales told to keep children in line.”
“My cousin Hubert lives in the town across the river,” said Elder Bratt. “His son-in-law went to church with Marilla’s uncle, and had been acquainted with her mother years ago. He tells me it’s true.”
“The uncle’s barber confirmed the story!” came Elder Frye.
“Your cousin’s…son-in-law…uncle’s barber…oh for pity’s sake!” laughed Adam, “Did this grapevine also tell of seeing witches dance under a full moon and then turn into serpents?”
“Laugh if you must,” said Elder Tomason self-righteously, “but we just wanted to make sure you’re all right.”
“As you’ve been able to see during the fortnight I’ve been home, I’m quite all right. Nobody ate anybody, least of all me.”
He’d walked away disgusted with the older men. Pretending to be interested in his well-being, but really just spreading hate, and hoping for more fodder for their gossip! And of course, everyone knew the worth of tales told at the barber’s chair. Adam snorted. And yet…how had she survived that winter? The question settled in like a splinter into a callus: easy to ignore most of the time, but still under the skin, demanding eventual attention.
He recalled that conversation with anger and shame that he hadn’t defended her. Then he thought of the way he himself had spoken to her. He was no better than those busy-bodies down the mountain! In fact, he was worse, because those pathetic old men didn’t know Marcela or her parents, and only wanted to create interesting stories to liven up their dull days; he himself was a pathetic young man who knew better than anybody the kindness in her heart. He knew that when it came to Marcela, there was always more to the story, yet he’d still attacked her disgracefully. He felt more sickened by his own behavior than by Marcela’s confession, and needed desperately to make things right between them.
He stood and re-entered the cabin.
Slowly, he climbed the stairs, wondering what he could possibly say to mitigate the damage he’d done. He paused outside her door and realized that the muffled sound of crying was coming from the room which had been his for those winter months.
He stepped cautiously to where she lay curled up on the bed, face buried in a pillow.
“Marcela,” he said softly, and laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. She stiffened and became silent.
“Marcela, I’m so sorry. What a jackass I’ve been! I had no right to accuse you of such heinous crimes, especially when I know you, and I know what a gentle and sweet person you are. Please forgive me.”
She turned and sat up, her eyes snapping fury.
“Didn’t I tell you to leave?” she spat at him.
“Marcela, please,” he began.
“It’s true; you had no right to come and accuse me of anything. In fact, I never invited you here in the first place. I only helped you up so you wouldn’t die on this mountain! Well, you didn’t die—instead you’ve ruined my whole way of being! I was contented enough before you came here, and now there isn’t one inch of my home you haven’t claimed. You even invaded my treehouse–my personal, private space!–without my permission, so now I can’t go even there without seeing the shadow of you! It would have been better for me if I’d left you where you fell. So why don’t you take yourself back down to the village and enjoy your parties and good times and shallow existence and leave me in peace!”
Wounded to the core, he tried again. “Marcela, I’m sorry!” he said again. With eyes prickling with the beginnings of tears, he sank to his knees at the bedside, reaching for her and putting his face in her lap. “I already told you I’m sorry, and that I’m an ass. What do you want to hear? What can I say? Or do? I want things between us as they were before. I was completely insolent to the most wonderful person I’ve ever known. I don’t know why I said those insensitive, stupid things to you. I can’t begin to express how mortified I am to have let that come out of my mouth. Please, please forgive my rudeness!”
His anguished speech butted against the wall she’d built around her heart, and slivered through a small crack she hadn’t realized was there. Despite her hurt and anger, the desolation and loneliness which had been her recent companions recognized this chance at respite, and screamed at her to forgive him and accept the first bit of human warmth freely offered her since her banishment from her uncle’s home. Hurt and loneliness warred with each other, and she was at a loss as to how to respond.
At her silence, he tried again. “Please, please!” he begged. “I know I was uncivil and horrible. Can you find it in your heart to forgive me? I can’t stand it if I’ve made you hate me now.”
She felt the tears begin in her own eyes again at his humility. “I don’t know,” she said dully, leaning against the wall and touching a hand to his hair. She’d wanted for so long to touch him, but now that she finally felt she could, she got no pleasure from the gesture. “I don’t think there’s anything you can say, Adam. It’s not as though the basic facts are wrong.”
“But that doesn’t matter to me!” he cried. “I understand—you did what you had to do. If you had died that winter, I would have died this past winter. But you didn’t, and you saved my life, Marcela. You saved my life!”
“I did,” she said quietly, “and the world is a better place because you’re in it, Adam. Now please, go rejoin the world.”
At that, he lifted his head, and she could see the tear smudges on his cheeks and lashes. “But I don’t want to rejoin the world,” he said plaintively, “I want to be with you.”
She blinked. “With me? Why would you want this?”
He grasped her hands and sat on the bed next to her. “Why wouldn’t I?” he said softly. “Why wouldn’t anyone?” He reached out and touched her cheek. “You’re the most remarkable person I’ve ever met. Who else could live up here all alone and accomplish so much? I’ve never before met anyone who had such fascinating ideas, let alone who could bring them to life as you do. And you make me laugh! When I first realized I was stuck here for the winter, I thought it must be incredibly dull to live in such solitude. But Marcela, I was never bored with your company, not even for a moment! You always had me wondering what you might come up with next, and I loved hearing what you had to say! Just being near you makes me happy. I thought you were happy having me here too.”
Marcela couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “I don’t understand. Where did all this come from? How can someone like you want to be with someone like me?”
Adam dropped her hands in vexation. “I just told you! It comes from a winter spent getting to know the loveliest person I ever met!”
Still not comprehending, Marcela stated, “But I’m not lovely at all. And you could be with anyone you want. You’re so very perfect…” her voice trailed off.
Adam took her face into both of his hands, probing her eyes with his. “I’m not perfect, Marcela. You of all people ought to know that. And if you’re talking about your skin, it’s part of who you are.” He paused a moment, then continued, “And I love who you are,” he gave her a little half-smile, “… even your terrible temper,” He tickled her under the chin, and she squirmed a bit, trying to frown self-righteously, and not smile back. He touched his forehead to hers. “Of course I want to be with you! How could I want anything else?”
“Even though I’ve done awful things,” she said quietly.
“I’ve already told you that it doesn’t matter. And I’ve already told you that I’m not perfect! I’ve done things I’m not proud of too.”
“Like what? Did you hide your mother’s knitting needles?” she asked, genuinely curious as to what he could possibly have on his conscience.
He gave another small smile at this and said, “Nothing I’ll tell you about until I’m sure you love me.”
“I do love you, Adam. I love you more than my own life. I want you to be happy, and I don’t think you’d be happy up here for very long. And I can’t live down in the village, knowing that people know what I’ve done.”
Exasperated again, he drew back. “Can’t I decide where I’ll be happy? And with whom? You’re hiding up here, Marcela. I know this is your home, but you hide away from the world and use your injuries as an excuse. I can live with your scars. Can’t you? I want you in my life, scars and all, and not only when I come up here to you, but all the time.” A thought occurred to him. “You know, I could be horribly disfigured myself one day. What if a tree were to fall on me? Or I were attacked by an animal? Would you stop loving me?”
“Of course not.”
“You need some confidence, dear. There’s no need to spend your life in hiding.”
“It’s not a question of confidence—“ she began.
“Do you know that once I was home, I thought of nothing but you?” he asked. “I talked about you to my friends and family constantly. It was always ‘Marcela, this,’ and ‘Marcela that,’ until my brother said, ‘If you love her so much, why don’t you marry her?’ I had to laugh at that, because it’s exactly the sort of thing we said to each other as boys only, you know, about trivial things, but my mother had this look on her face—you know how mothers get those eloquent looks—that said ‘James is right.’ And he is! I want to marry you, Marcela. I want to be with you always. Forever. I don’t care where we live, whether it’s down there, or up here, or we could split our time between the two places. Nobody down there will dare to bother you for any reason because I promise I won’t let them. Please say yes! Please consider me! Marcela, without you, I have nothing but a lonely, loveless life ahead of me.”
“I want to, Adam. I want you more than I want air in my lungs…”
“But…?” he prompted her.
“Love is a risk. What are you afraid of losing?”
“You won’t lose yourself. Yourself is who I love and if you weren’t yourself, I would be lost. If you ever feel you’re about to lose yourself, together we’ll go to the ends of the earth to find you again—we’ll move this mountain if that’s what it takes to get you back to yourself. You won’t lose yourself because I don’t ever want to lose you. When you ordered me out, I wanted to sink into the floor and disappear because there’s nothing I want more in the world than to be with you, who make me happy.”
“I’d like very much to meet your family, Adam, but I wonder how they could accept me, knowing what I’ve done?”
Adam was silent a moment. “In point of fact, nobody knows a thing. Most don’t even know your real name.” He moved closer to her, and put a hand behind her head, caressing her hair. “The story that’s been circulating is this:” He closed his eyes briefly, then made himself meet her eyes. “The Beast of the Mountain—“ at this, Marcela flinched, and he held her head more firmly. “The Beast of the Mountain murdered and ate its parents. Since then, it hunts for naughty children to eat. The naughtier, the tastier.”
“Oh, God!” Marcela wailed, bursting into tears again. “It’s worse than I thought! Do people truly believe these things of me?”
“You’re not listening, Marcela,” Adam said. “I’m saying that they don’t know you, and that the story has gotten very twisted. Do you want to set it straight?”
“It will make no difference, Adam!” she cried, “It’s not as though I can dismiss the entire story out of hand, and that’s the only way people would accept me for you! I don’t want you to become known as the man who took the ugly cannibal witch to wife!”
“Stop feeling sorry for yourself!” he thundered. “Have I not made it clear that you’re lovely to me? Have I not made it clear that your scars—visible or invisible—don’t matter to me?” He took her by the shoulders and gave her a little shake. “Are you a cannibal who eats children?” he asked, glaring into her eyes.
“You know I’m not!” she flashed, stung.
“Exactly! You did what was necessary at one terrible time in your life. Now it’s time to stop letting it define you and limiting your life. The story is wrong. That’s all! You don’t owe anyone any further explanation.”
“They’ll still whisper and talk,” she said.
“Of course they will. It’s a backwater village where nothing interesting ever happens. I can protect you and any children we may have to a certain extent, but the rest is up to you. You’ll have to let people in. Let them get to know you as you’ve let me know you. They’ll see you’re not a beast.”
She considered his words, and he went on. “Tell me something, Marcela. You’ve been going to the town across the river on a regular basis. How are you treated by the people there? Obviously your partners accept you. Do they know what happened?”
Marcela shook her head. “The only person I told was my uncle, who rejected me immediately. And now I’ve told you.”
“I’m not rejecting you,” Adam said quickly. “What of others? The keeper of the inn where you stay while there? Or the taverns where you take your meals?”
“I’ve always gone to the same few places far enough away from the area where my uncle lived that even if they had heard the rumors, I doubt they would associate me with this ‘Beast of the Mountain’ you spoke of,” she said this last bitterly. “I don’t believe they know the particulars, and I’m treated as courteously as their other patrons. None of them is my friend though; even my partners don’t know everything. All they know is that I suffered severe frostbite the night my father froze to death, and that my mother died after a long illness. None of them ever asked for any more detail than that.”
“That’s all anyone needs to know.”
“I’m still afraid, but yes, I will marry you, Adam,” she nodded her assent. “I don’t know whether I could live in your village, but I could begin by meeting your family.”
His face lit up as he realized she’d agreed. “They’ll love you as much as I do! Well, not quite as much–that wouldn’t be possible! But they’ll love you!” he promised.
And they lived happily, for a very long time.