Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Interesting Beginnings: Old Man with Forked Stick

I don't know where this came from. I got in a mood one day and this beginning unrolled itself like a movie in my mind. I tried to come up with time references that didn't include a clock. I've decided since that the normal ways to address time are the best – they're less distracting.
The old man hung on his staff, leaning painfully against the forked top. The forked top had once been the point of focus for his magic, now it was simply a convenient holder for his armpit so he could walk on his own. His sister had attempted repeatedly to have him move in with her, but he refused. He knew that was the way to losing his independence, and he needed it badly. Very badly. He was old and fading but he still had much to do. And much he could do. He hadn't had an apprentice in half an age. Perhaps word was getting around or had got around about his lack of attentiveness. No matter. 

As he walked along the woodland path he reviewed the eager apprentices who had spent their years in service, learning the way of the mage. He could also lead them along the shamanic path. Only one apprentice had chosen that path. It was longer and more arduous and she had been eager and full of ideas and energy. She hadn't made it, but then that was the point of the shaman's path. To weed out those who were unsuited. He blinked back a few tears, remembering his own shamanic journey. He had squeaked by, he felt, with a lot of luck and the advice of, surprisingly, an old widow in a small village.

As the sun set, the noises in the woods surrounding him changed. He paused and looked up at the torn segment of sky he could see between the tree tops. Soon the leaves would be changing. Already there was a mild scent of rot from the undergrowth. No clouds. Moisture was collecting in the air and on the ground.

He sighed, wiped his eyes. Not seeing as good as he used to. Still able to read the book, though. Smiling vaguely at something that flickered in his mind, he straightened and pressed forward again clinging to his stick.

As he walked along, hobbling every so often and pausing to rest, other memories came and went, flitting through the vastness of his mind like the birds under the canopy.

Dark had arisen by the time he reached his sister's door. He knocked politely, and then waited, adjusting his hat so that it perched once again straight upon his head.

The door opened.

 "Wenzel!" his sister said as she wiped her hands on a cloth. Still clutching the rag in one hand she embraced him firmly. "Come in! come in!" she stood sideways and waited for him to pass. “You’re just in time for supper," she said as she closed the door behind them.

"Here, let me take that stick."

Wenzel stopped walking. "It's not a stick. It's my staff."

"Stick, staff, whatever."

"Well, I can't give it to you. It's holding me up at the moment."

"Wenzel! Have you walked all this way?"

Wenzel said nothing, continuing to make his way toward the kitchen and a bench in front of table he rightfully knew would soon be groaning with food. His sister followed him along the darkened passage.

"You have, haven't you?"

Wenzel sat with an expulsion of air that morphed into a relieved sigh. "Ahhhhh," he breathed. The staff he still held in his hands. He took in a deep breath full of yeasty and beefy fumes. 

"Here, give me that," said his sister take the staff.

"Careful!" he said raising his hands up in a cautionary gesture. "You don't know what you've got there. Place it some place out of the way. I don't want Ned falling over it again."

"No worries about Ned," the sister said, thinking about her husband. "He's got eyes twice as good as yours."

Wenzel muttered something inaudible which sounded like something between indignation and resignation. "Oofff!"he said in the next minute. "Arrgg, my feet."

"Serve you right," said his sister returning to the kitchen. "You shouldn't have walked. You should have sent for us to fetch you."

"And waited for weeks? No. Not when I can get here in under a day."

Priscilla, his sister, turned and looked hard at him. "Under a day. A walk that should be but a few inches of movement of shadow on a wall." Her face dissolved into concern and something that might have presaged tears in another woman, and then, abruptly, became hard.

"That's it. I'm not asking anymore. I'm telling. You're moving in with us." With a flounce she returned to the fire and the pots.

Wenzel sighed very deeply. "Can I get a mug of water?" he asked meekly.

It was fully dark when the threesome, Wenzel, Priscilla and Ned, finished the evening meal.

"Come along," said Ned. "Let's into something comfortable and have that mug of ale."

"Aye," agreed Wenzel.

Priscilla jumped up quickly and disappeared out the door, returning moments later with the staff. "Here you are, grandfather," she said gently.

Wenzel snatched the staff. "I'm no one's grandfather!"

"Well, you look like one." Her gaze softened. "Go on, have your drink and sit in front of the fire. The nights are drawing in and we have a bit of warming before we go to bed."

Wenzel groaned his way to his feet and plodded out the door into the passageway. He came upon Ned already seated in a rough, sturdy chair and the fire crackling as it fed on the dry sticks. Wenzel sank down gratefully in the companion chair, waiting for him. Ned jumped up and reached to the hearth to grab the ale mug warming there.

"Here you are," he said presenting Wenzel with the ale. Then he poked the fire a bit . He added a few medium logs from the hopper and sat down again.

"Going to be a bad fall, I fear. Too wet. Too much rain," Ned said.

"That shouldn't trouble you. You've got cows and goats."

"It will affect the trading and we're close to the bone as it is. Haven't recovered from the harsh winter. Lost three animals in that one."

"A three animal winter," said Wenzel almost to himself. Yes, he thought. Bad. However, he continued philosophically, it's been worse. "You'll recover," he said to Ned in a raised, firm tone. "The autumn will be long and you'll find the fields will give a extra spurt of yield before the winter closes in."

"How do you know these things?"

"Ah ha ha," said Wenzel mildly, "when you choose the path of magic I'll explain it to you." They both laughed at that and sipped their ale. They had been sitting in companionable silence and the fire had burned low when Priscilla looked in.

"I've warmed your bed," she said to Wenzel. "You can go up anytime." She paused. "Provided, of course, that you can get up the ladder."

"Oh yes, still do that. Lots of ladders at my place."

Priscilla sat on the simple, lighter chair that remained. "Perhaps we should add on a sleeping area down here." Priscilla looked at Ned. He pulled the pipe out of his mouth and blew gazing thoughtfully at the fire.

"Yes, we can do that. We've still time before the true winter closes in."

"Oh, no, no," Wenzel protested. "Don't go to any trouble for me. I'm not staying that long."

"Yes, you are and that's an end to it," said Priscilla firmly with a look in her eyes that softened the tone.

"Then you'll need to build more than a sleep area. I need room for my scrolls, books, implements and animals." Wenzel smiled to himself knowing this would be a difficult request. "Wait until next summer. I can get through one more winter on my own."

"You've been saying that for many slantings of the sun. No more. You're not safe there anymore. You won't be able to take care of your place when the winter hits. You can't make the repairs anymore and Ned and I can't be running over every day to check on you. What if something happens in the night?"

"Then it was meant to be. What is, is."

Priscilla stared into the fire, carefully keeping her face turned. A hand went up to her eyes. "No, Wenzel," she said more softly. "I can't leave you alone for one more winter. I could never forgive myself if something happened to you that could have been prevented by you living within these walls."

Wenzel said nothing. Ned rose and tapped his pipe out into the hearth. He kicked the remaining embers which had burned low. Sparks flew as he pushed the remaining hot pieces together with his hobnail boots. He stretched and made a deep noise in his chest. He yawned.

"Gotta get some sleep. I'll see you in bed, Prissy," he said. He turned and left the room. Priscilla and Wenzel rose together, Wenzel leaning on his staff. Priscilla took a last look at the fire, ascertaining that the embers were too low to cause any trouble in the night. Then she put her arm lightly around her brother's shoulders.

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