|Morning And Night
2004 by Seth Chambers
The Winter Solstice descended like a shroud and the old man grew weary. The woman dragged him off to bed by one arm. He shook her off, cursed, and spat a wad of tobacco in the spittoon, which he then kicked.
“Why do you fight the Winter Sleep, you old coot?” Chari demanded. “Why?”
“The bridge! It’s so close to being finished!”
“So finish it later. You know you’ll awake all young again in Spring, then soon after that be a man, and as strong as ever. Not to mention handsome. Then for a brief time – oh so brief! – You’ll think I’m beautiful again.”
“I never stopped thinking you’re beautiful, you crazy woman.”
“You’ll fall in love with me all over again, Tomas, just like every year. But soon after that you’ll all but forget about me and go back to building your cursed bridge. You know that’s the way it happens, the way it always happens. Now, the sooner you go to bed the sooner you can get up and forget about me and start working on your precious bridge. So why fight it?”
“It’s almost finished! Don’t you unnerstand nothing, woman? Out on that bridge, I can see forever, even with these ancient eyes. One more day…”
“It’s always just one more day. You always say that. Next year, I won’t be here when you wake up. I’m leaving you, Tomas.”
“Chari! Why you wanna do that for?”
“So you won’t fall in love with me again. So you won’t turn around and break my heart all over again. And so you can have all the days you want to work on your damn bridge. I’m tired of it all. Every year you forget who I am. Every year you wake up a little child and I have to be like your mother until you grow up and remember who you are. Then you get tired of me.”
“I never get tired of you!”
“You do! Oh, we have some fine times together, but that ends. Pretty soon, you’re out in the Blood Swamp every day and every night working on that bridge, and when you’re back here, your mind is still out there. And then you grow old and bitter.”
“That’s not my fault!”
“It is your fault! You built that first bridge and crossed it and got what was on the other side. Now all you want to do is build this other bridge and who knows what will be on the other side of it! Or what it will do to you.”
“I will cry, old man. While you sleep, while you grow young and forget all about me, I will be crying.”
She turned away and would not look at him.
Outside, a sudden rush of wind breathed fierce life into the trees and the branches rasped against the house like animals trying to claw their way inside. The hearth fire flared as the north wind rushed down the flue.
The old man made his way to bed and pulled the parchment from over the window. Through the thick mist, he could just see the bridge and the strange light, sort of a sinister red glow, on the far side of it. “So close,” he mumbled.
“Good night,” Chari said.
“Do you have enough firewood to last you through?”
“You know I do. You chopped plenty.” She turned back toward him, sat on the bed and reached down to feel his arm. His muscles were still taut and strong. “Ah, how I used to love watching you out there swinging that ax.”
“We’ll have more times together. I’ll stay home more next year. So don’t you go nowhere, hear?”
“How ‘bout a story for a grouchy old man?”
“Very well. Once upon a time there lived a man who awoke every Spring as a little boy and went to bed every Winter an old man.”
“Don’t interrupt. Sometimes he awoke as an ornery, biting, screaming child and fell to sleep a pathetic, toothless, moaning old man. Other times he arose a cute and laughing toddler and lay down a bent and cursing hellion, like some ornery old bear slipping into hibernation.”
“He would awake smooth-skinned and fair-haired and nod off wrinkled and hoar-frosted. He rose as the sun and fell as the snow. He lived with a woman…”
“A beautiful woman,” the old man whispered.
Chari glanced over at the reflecting glass and did not recognize the wrinkled face that gazed back.
“But she was a woman who aged naturally. She played many roles for this man: Mother, wife, daughter. She loved him, and watched after him, and had many, many trials and tribulations.”
Tomas’ breathing settled into a long, slow rhythm, punctuated by an occasional snore. Chari pulled the covers up to his chin, kissed his forehead, and turned away to stoke the fire.
It wasn’t always like that.
It had begun many years before.
She was living just outside the city then. It was on a chill Spring evening that she heard the shouting: “Make way, you! Make way!”
Stepping out her door, she saw two burly men hauling a body between them. Striding ahead of them, a smaller man held a rushlight aloft and called to her: “Open thy door, woman! We have need of thy services!”
They approached her house. The smaller man was Alderman Nichol. Nichol doused the rushlight as the two big men hauled the body inside, where they dumped it on her table like a sack of potatoes. The bigger of the men she recognized as Bulrod, a tanner. The stench of his trade filled her small house. She had once set his broken arm. The other man she recognized as Dugan, but did not know what he did, although she had heard stories. Dugan’s nose was bent from having been broken more than once.
Nichol stepped in, closing the door behind him.
Dugan growled, “See here, witchy woman, see what ye can do wi’ this. We found it o’er by the Swamp.”
“The Blood Swamp?”
The body was cold, lifeless, still.
Nichol strolled about the room, picking up and setting down objects from her shelves like a shopper in a trinket shop. He inspected jars, vials, powders and dried leaves as if he had been invited.
“I’m a healer, not a witch,” she told the men. And yet, her hands went to work unbidden, preparing a stimulative poultice. “Heat some water, you. And you: cover the body with those blankets. Be useful or leave.”
She turned the body face up. Seeing the face, she gasped and stepped back.
Bulrod said, “Know ye who he is?”
“Seems like ye do.”
“He looked… Familiar, is all.”
“He’s Tomas, a carpenter,” said Dugan. “Or was. Lived way off by hisself, making coffins, among other things. Now he’ll get a chance to try one out for hisself.”
“Know ye where we found him?” Bulrod asked.
“Your friend just told me.”
“Aye. He had this bridge built. Out where no man has bus’ness bein’.”
“You were there.”
That shut them up for the time. But for how long? She didn’t know, but she did know they were trouble. It would be best to just let the body be. And yet, her hands would not stop working. She was being driven onward from within.
She finished with the poultice and rubbed some on the body’s forehead and face. The skin was clammy. The men watched her with amusement. Were they hoping she would bring this dead thing to life? If she did, the Council could sentence her to the Witch’s Death. And the Witch’s Death was the height of entertainment in this city.
“Yer a’ful pretty for a witchy woman,” said Dugan.
“Please: don’t touch me.”
“And young. Pretty ‘n’ young. Why you wan’ be a witchy woman for?”
“I just want to help people is all,” she whispered.
“You could help me, woman. Pretty, young…”
A good fire was going in the hearth, and Chari reached over, grabbed a poker, and set the end in the flames, all the while keeping her eyes on the men.
“Whoa there, I only said…”
“You said enough, mister. Now you may leave.”
“Wha’ about the stiff?”
“I’ll take care of it.”
The two brutes glanced over at the alderman who made the slightest gesture with his head. Dugan favored Chari with a final leer, then the two departed. Nichol stepped toward her then, seeming unconcerned with the red-hot iron in her hand.
“Chari. I trust you are preparing the body for burial?”
She nodded. Judgment in his eyes. And challenge. Plus a good deal of power.
“That is most fortunate. The soul has departed this corpus. I trust that you shall not allow any evil spirit to animate it while it’s in your care.”
Again, she nodded.
“I will be by at sunrise to pick it up.” He looked over at the bottle of poultice. “That is for making the body clean?”
“Not a physic?”
“No,” she whispered.
“The body will be ready in the morning?”
He studied her with a chilly aloofness for a long time. Finally, the corners of his mouth rose while his eyes remained ice. “I thank ye for your services and apologize for making you work so late. Good night, madam.”
Without further ado, Nichol departed.
Closing the door behind him, Chari let out a long, shaky sigh. A moment later, the body on her table sucked in a deep, choking breath. Her hands sprang into action, soaking a towel in the hot water, covering the body with the towel and pouring some of the poultice over. Her heart pounded as fear and excitement warred within her, but she kept her feelings in check.
First, she had to make sure nobody else barged in. She had just turned to go lock the door when a large, powerful hand clamped onto her wrist. She bit back a scream. The hand, of course, belonged to the body. Only now it was no longer a body but a living, breathing, coughing man. And no longer cold. She could feel his body heat radiating toward her. And his eyes were wide open, wider than she had ever seen a pair of eyes. His gaze fixed on her as he struggled to a sitting position. She thought: Those eyes have seen something few man live to speak of.
He said, “I crossed the Bridge. Across the Blood Swamp. I crossed to the Other Side.”
Her skin prickled at those words as she felt her own destiny reaching for her.
“You need rest,” she said, and was surprised when he nodded respectfully and lay back down. His hand still had hold of her wrist but now the grip had loosened. Before letting her go, he drew her hand over and kissed it. His lips were warm.
“What’s you name?”
“Chari,” she whispered.
“I’m Tomas. Thank you for saving my life, Chari.”
Then he fell asleep.
She had many glass timers which she used for steeping poultices for the exact right times. Now she turned over a three-minute timer and allowed herself that much time to sit in her meditation chair and cry. Tears were good medicine, in moderation, he mentor had taught. The sand in the timer fell and tears fell from her eyes. When all the sand had fallen she stood up, wiped her eyes, and went back to the business at hand.
After some hours, she woke him.
“You must leave,” she said. “Otherwise they will think you’re unhallowed because you came back from the dead after crossing the Blood Swamp. They’ll hunt you down. Maybe you are unhallowed for all I know.”
“What about you? What will they do to you when they come for my body and it’s gone?”
“That’s not your problem!” she snapped. “Here, I’ve packed you some crowdie for the road. Go away. Far away.”
His arm shot out like a snake, then his hand cupped her neck gently. He drew her to him. She did not resist, but after the kiss she turned away.
“Go now, while there is yet time.”
“I see you made a shroud for me, just in case.”
“I didn’t know for sure you would live.”
“It would have been better for you if I didn’t. The best thing you could do for yourself right now is to kill me. You should have driven a knife into my heart while I slept.”
She shuddered. “I’m a healer, not a murdered. But now my job is done. Get out of here.”
“No,” he whispered. “I have another plan.”
Now, years later, listening to the wind-blown tree branches clawing the side of their house and the snoring of the old man, she thought back to that night. Thought of how she had refused to go along with his plan and how she begged him to leave, just leave! But he wouldn’t. He would not put her craft and her very life in danger, as would surely happen if she did not hand his dead body over to Nichol at sunrise.
She cried and pleaded but when sunrise came Nichol came to her door with two other men. Minutes later they were rolling Tomas’ inert body away on a bier.
“You know that I’m a crafter,” he told her. “I can craft just about anything. Houses, bows and arrows, coffins…”
Almost as soon as he started to speak again, she knew what he wanted from her. A scream formed deep within her, aching to be set free. The fire in the hearth burned low and shadows closed in on every side.
“Stop talking and just go!” she cried, pleaded, demanded.
“No! Listen. Every coffin I ever built, I put in a trap door. An escape hatch that can be opened from the inside.”
“Because I’ve always had a fear of being buried alive. It happens, you know. So I wanted to be sure that anyone who went into the ground in a coffin I built would at least have a fighting chance for survival.”
“No… Please don’t… This is wrong. I won’t do this thing you ask!”
“You must! Otherwise they’ll put you to the Witch’s Death.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I do! Young woman, a healer, house full of herbs and potions, not all what they’re labeled, I’ll wager.”
“Some harvested from the Blood Swamp itself, maybe. It was no ordinary herb that brought me back from Death’s Door. That’s why you’re here, so near the Swamp, isn’t it? The power, the vitality, of anything grown there.”
She was silent.
“You can put me in a deep sleep for the time it takes. Wrap me in that shroud, make me sleep. They’ll take me away and won’t harass you further.”
“You’re still weak. A narco potion could kill you.”
“So be it. After what I’ve seen, out on that bridge deep in the Blood Swamp, my life will have been worthwhile.”
Something moved inside her when he said, “the bridge.”
“You leave now, Tomas.”
He put one hand on her cheek and looked into her eyes a long time. He was a powerfully built man, a man of fierce intensity. Handsome, but haunted with a palpable sadness. “Why did you tell that brute that I looked familiar?”
“You heard that!”
She knew she would be doing as he asked, wrapping him in the shroud to be put in the ground. A morbid connection had formed between then. She could keep no secret now and so she told him, “I’ve seen your face before. In a dream. Not once, but many times. The same dream, over and over.”
“You dreamt of me?”
“Not you, exactly. A child with your eyes, your features. In this dream, I’m kissing the little boy on the forehead and saying goodnight. I call him Tomas. And…”
“And I wake up crying because I love him so much.”
“That’s a beautiful dream.” “But…”
“Nothing,” she said. She had not the heart to tell him there was more to the dream. Nor could she get the image out of her mind. “I want you to give me that child.”
“What? Careful what you say! You, a woman alone…”
“I don’t care! I have never loved anything the way I love that boy in the dream.”
He looked at her hard with those intense, haunted eyes that had seen things she shuddered to think about. She looked away until he placed his hand on her chin and faced her back toward him. “You are a beautiful woman, Chari.”
She looked over at the reflecting glass and gasped as she saw herself anew. She had never before thought much about her looks but now…
He enfolded her in his arms. As their bodies came together in fierce passion a final thought flashed through her mind: Just hours ago this man was dead! Then all thought was swallowed in their ecstasy.
Later, she wrapped him in the shroud, hiding a sharpened rock within the folds so he would have something with which to dig.
“The ground is still hard. It is likely you will die. If you do make it, though, cover your grave back up and leave this rock on top. That way I will know you survived and maybe… Maybe I won’t be plagued by nightmares.”
“And go far away.”
She gave him the potion and he drank. He kissed her then fell into a deathlike sleep. She kissed him on the forehead and wished him goodnight.
After Nichol and the other men left, Chari watched the bier, with Tomas’ still form upon it, disappear down the road. Then she sat in her meditation chair to cry. This time, after the sand had all fallen, she picked up the timer and hurled it into the hearth where it exploded into pieces. Then she sat and cried some more.
Some days later she went to Tomas’ burial site and found the sharpened rock. So he had made it out alive. Even so, she was plagued with nightmares for a long time.
After some time it became clear that she was not with child and her heart mourned. The Dream had always been so real, she had assumed it to be prophetic. She went on with her life, but in a daze. Then one late-Autumn day an old man pounded on her door. And old man with his face.
“Yes! It’s me. I have aged as quickly as a squirrel dashes up a tree. Something happened to me out in that Swamp. But it’s been worth it. I beheld Infinity out there!”
“I don’t think I can… Cure… You.”
“Not asking you to,” he told her. “All I want is for you to sit by my side as I die. It will happen at the Winter Solstice, I can feel it. Then you can take my house. It’s far away from this wretched city. You’ll like it. I built it myself. It’s all daubed over so the wind don’t get in. Don’t say anything. Just pack what’s important and come. Please! I have no much time.”
She did as he said and never looked back.
But he did not die with the Winter Solstice. Instead, he fell into a deep sleep and grew young again over the Winter. And when he awoke in the Spring, he was the little boy in her Dream. In time, he came to remember who he was, and to remember her, and to fall in love with her.
This went on for many years.
Once again, Spring approached.
And one morning, the house fell silent. Chari looked in on Tomas, now a small boy once again. His chest neither rose nor fell. She shook him and cried out his name, but still no breath. She tried everything she knew to pull him back from Death’s Realm, but could not. That evening, she wrapped him in a blanket and took his still body out to the bridge he had spent so many years building. Hewn branches, ropes and a box of tools had been lashed to the end of the bridge. Chari knelt down and kissed the boy’s forehead and wished him goodnight. She cried out and gently lowered him into the Swamp that he had loved so much.
Turning away then, she picked up a branch and some rope
and she began to build.
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