by Anne Karppinen
“Keep walking,” her mother said. “When you see the mill, you know you’re halfway there.” Ample instructions. Everyone stops to rest at the mill; no one ever goes farther than the Market. So she follows the road, shifts her basket from one hand to another, and pictures the envious faces of the other village girls as she told them she had been sent to the Market alone.
She looks up – and freezes in her tracks, basket dangling. A bend in the road reveals a grey horse, and on the horse a man so finely dressed that it hurts to look. She has heard about earls and kings, and has always imagined them golden and glittering, travelling in fine carriages, hidden from the eyes of common folk. This man is all green and grey and white like a birch tree. Just as familiar; just as foreign.
‘Little sister,’ he says. ‘I am very thirsty.’ This isn’t exactly a question, and even less an order, and yet her hand dives immediately into the basket.
‘Here, my lord,’ she whispers, offering a stoppered flask. ‘Wine. My mother made it.’
He breaks the waxen seal, and brings the flask to his smiling lips. ‘My compliments to your mother.’
She bows curtly, and picks up the piece of wax he dropped. There were three full flasks: now there’s only two.
The man rides away. White birds fly overhead, crying as they go; she pays them no heed. The road echoes hoof beats, and then only silence.
She raises her hand and brings the flask to her lips – drinking deeply, like the man did only moments before. She closes her eyes and imagines his greedy mouth. Quickly she stoppers the flask again and drops it in the basket. For safety, she cords the lid shut, and continues towards the mill, even though her legs would rather carry her homewards.
She drops the stave into the churn. Opening the lid she sees what she’s already felt: the cream sits there, whitely, complacently refusing to turn to butter. She wipes her forehead, pushing back the red scarf.
‘Thunder in the air,’ says her brother walking past. ‘Look at the swallows.’
She nods, gazing along the greenness of the nearby pasture. The birds are skimming the tops of the grasses.
She manhandles the churn back into the coolness of the cow house and cools her arms in a tub of water. Certain that no one is looking, she waits for the surface to settle. Her flat face appears in the rippling mirror. She wants to look prettier, more… different. Different enough to be singled out from all the other flat-faced, work-tamed girls. She knows all the old songs, and longs to be in a song – a Maid in Love, happily or unhappily, but loved nevertheless, and remembered for ever.
She breathes out, seeing the change in her eyes even before she hears the hoof beats. Thunder looms behind the forest. She’s already been struck by an unseen lightning: a live current crackles underneath her skin. In the yard a grey horse stands, turning its ears this way and that.
She approaches the animal without fear. The horse pushes its head forward, and fills her palm with its warm breath.
‘Good day,’ says a voice.
She turns around slowly. Her fingertips strike sparks against the horse’s neck. ‘My lord.’
‘Again I must trespass on your kindness,’ he says, continuing a conversation they dropped weeks ago. ‘I see you have a barn.’
‘Come into the house, my lord. There’s fresh bread. I’m afraid there’s no butter to go with it, the thunder –‘
‘I will not intrude upon your work,’ he interrupts her.
She hesitates. She cannot bring herself to gaze directly at him for longer than two heartbeats; after that, she has to concentrate on the black knife at his belt, or the weave of his leaf-green cloak.
‘Of course,’ she says. ‘Come in, please.’
As she turns to lead the way, the horse follows close behind her, and after a while, the man follows the horse. He moves as lithely as a living flame, and she has to blink hard to keep her bearings.
The space is echoing and empty. She leaves horse and rider in the dimness of the barn; he doesn’t ask her to stay, and she doesn’t know how to insist. She stops by the well, and feels the first flick of lightning. Hurrying indoors, she slams the door shut behind her, a gust of wind clawing at her skirt.
Midday turns to night. Rain pummels at the roof and hisses against the shutters. Her mother whimpers at every flash; even her father lets out a yell when a tall pine explodes into flame at the edge of the forest. Never before has a thunderstorm concentrated so single-mindedly on their little farm. Yet mere water and bolts of fire cannot take down something that has stood solidly for the past four hundred years.
As the crashing finally begins to die down, she opens the shutters. All the outbuildings stand unharmed – even though thoroughly drenched and glistening in the unsteady light. Only the barn is still wreathed in heavy darkness. The building seems to be straining in its wooden frame, as if poised to spring into the air. Yet, turning her better ear towards the barn, she cannot hear anything but the dripping of rainwater.
When she ventures outside, the first thing she sees is the open barn door, and the emptiness within. The stranger is long gone; even the hoof marks have been wiped blank by the downpour. It’s her sister who goes in first, in search of some string. They find her an hour later, alerted by the noises. She’s crouched on the floor, keening, desperately combing the dusty floor with her bare hands. When they ask her, she says she’s looking for her eyes.
Her sister has been blind ever since, and not inclined to speak much.
The old women say that it was the thunderstorm that did it. That such tempests aren’t natural, but are brewed by some unseen strangers. They say that such strangers never approach a dwelling without an invitation, and never eat or drink any mortal foods without permission.
‘How can we cure my sister?’ she asks impatiently.
‘Cure?’ one of the toothless women crows at her. ‘We cannot!’
‘What if I find the stranger, and ask him kindly to give her eyes back.’
‘How do you know it’s a he?’ asks the crone.
‘I don’t,’ she replies. ‘But if there’s something I can do to help her, I’ll do it.’
‘No. Enough harm done already. Don’t meddle where your skill is lacking. Stay at home and help your parents: that’s what you were born to do.’
So she stays put, and works hard to cover her sister’s blindness. But in the evenings, when everyone else has gone to bed, she forces her tired feet onto the road. At first, she walks only a short way from the farm, always towards the mill. Then she turns back. Some nights she makes the journey three times, each time getting a bit closer to her destination. She walks to a steady refrain of her own making: You have taken my mother’s wine, and you have taken my sister’s eyes. What do you want from me?
The first chill of autumn arrives with the dusk. She leans against the gate, watching a harvest-ripe moon roll over the horizon. Her linen dress is pushing her body into an uncomfortable shape. From the direction of the river she can hear the other girls shrieking with laughter, begging to be noticed. As she herself is.
Three nights she has stood thus. Waiting until midnight, and then stumbling indoors for a few hours of dark sleep. This is the boldest thing she has ever done, and it exhilarates her. It also reveals her ignorance. Who can measure the depth of a stranger’s knowledge? Who would even be fool enough to try?
She looks down at her arm resting on the fence. A white hand descends on it, brushing her sun-browed skin. The touch isn’t cool, as she’s imagined it: at first, it doesn’t feel like a touch at all. Just a slight movement of air: a small disturbance of space.
‘There is a place I would like you to see,’ he says.
‘Is it far?’ Always answer with a question; never promise anything directly.
He doesn’t answer. The shadows of the forest reach over them; he seems much more certain of the way.
Boldened by the brisk walk, she asks, ‘What did you use them for? My sister’s eyes I mean.’
‘For seeing, of course.’
‘Of course. But now she cannot see. Do you think that’s fair?’
‘There world is not fair, little sister. Some go groping blind all their lives, others see far too clearly for their own good.’
They enter a clearing full of small white flowers and finger-like ferns. He moves in front of her so that she cannot see anything else but his grey form, and some moonlit branches over his shoulders. He tries to kiss her, but she turns her head away.
‘You cannot win, little sister,’ he says, almost sadly. ‘A pond is no match for a rushing river.’
‘How can you know what I am?’
He studies her face with great concentration. ‘You are all the same to me,’ he admits at last.
Her hand twitches against her pocket. ‘You still have to ask for it, you know that?’
‘No.’ His lips stretch into a smile. ‘Thrice you have yielded to me. That is all I need.’
She closes her eyes. If only he would get on with it. In the back of her mind she hears the voices of the other girls, the light cadences of their laughter. For them, the rules are simple, ages-old. They know the steps of the dance even though they’ve never heard the music. For her, there’s no dance, no tune. Only silence.
Then she understands. You are all the same to me. Nothing special about her; no particular quality that has drawn him to her. Even the simplest village suitor knows the name of his sweetheart, her favorite dish, the color of her eyes. The man who has his hand around her wrist has use neither for food nor companionship.
She flicks her eyes open and reaches into her pocket. Three objects drop into her hand. ‘Do you know who I am?’ she asks.
He doesn’t hear – but he does give her a surprised look when she pushes a bit of wax between his lips. She holds his gaze, waits for him to swallow.
She asks again, ‘Do you know who I am?’ She feels his hand clench on her wrist, knowing it’s trapped there by a holding spell woven into her bracelet by a woman she met at the mill, the night she finally walked that far. His other hand flails for balance, but her anger gives her the alacrity she needs. A small dab of butter in his ear, and he’s trembling all over. There’s more power in simple foodstuffs than she has dared to imagine.
He’s on his knees now. His eyes are getting dim. Yet she stares him down. ‘Do you know,’ she pants, ‘who I am?’
But he’s already past hearing. She waits for a few heartbeats, and then wraps the piece of string around his neck. She doesn’t have to pull hard at all.
She kicks the empty white garment into the ferns. Gradually the sky lightens, and sounds begin to filter through the trees. Dogs barking. A rooster crowing. A pump creaking to life. Her heart thumps like a drum, but her hands are steady. She raises her head and speaks to the shadows around her.
‘I know who I am.’
Anne Karppinen is a university teacher, translator and musician. Her book, The Songs of Joni Mitchell: Gender, Performance and Agency, was published by Routledge in 2016. Besides her academic work, she’s written poetry and prose of various kinds, song lyrics, as well as numerous (pseudo) historical articles for the popular Society for Stereotypical History website (in Finnish).