Oma Dortchen and the Pillar of Story
After her parents died, she turned their house into an inn, and took in travelers. Dustanschild stood at the intersection of the river and the forest road, and Dortchen could have become the wealthiest citizen of the village were it not for her willingness to take stories rather than coins as payment. Her parlor became the favorite gathering place of the villagers, who came to drink black beer and listen to legends from as far away as Munich or Mannheim or Marseilles.
Dortchen never told stories; in fact she rarely spoke. Nor did she ever marry. But she did have a grandson of sorts. The way it happened was this: a handsome but reticent couple came from the east and lodged at Dortchen's. They listened to the stories told by a merchant from Stuttgart, but themselves paid in coin and retired early. Late that night Dortchen woke to the rattle of hooves, the flutter of wings, and the wailing of a child. In the room she had let to the couple, she found an open window and a boy child on the bed, wrapped tightly in a wool dress.
Dortchen took the boy as her own. She made a sling of the wool dress and carried the boy on her back while she cleaned, gardened, hauled water, fixed the roof, gathered eggs, cleaned the stable, made dinner, patched the bedding and did whatever else needed doing. The only time she stopped moving was at night, after dinner had been served. She sat and drank black beer and rocked with the child in her lap, listening to the stories.
One morning she waddled to the well, drew several buckets, and filled her cooking pot from them. She hung the pot over the coals and stopped to catch her breath, wheezing in such a way that Ham (who sat with his bare feet in the warm ashes) thought she was about to cough.
Instead she chopped carrots and began the story of the sleepwaltzing miners. Her voice, unused to such exercise, was nevertheless clear and confident. Ham, who had never heard his Oma speak more than eight words in succession, asked if something was the matter. She washed the ashes from his bowl and told him the tale of the pirate queen who called the wind with her fiddle.
It was as though she had sprung a leak. All day she told familiar stories, obscure variations, regional oddities that had wandered down the road to her inn. Ham lay upon the hearth and worried.
That night, after Oma Dortchen served her guests (who sat nonplussed as she told story after story without pause), she went out to sit behind the chicken house with a cask of beer. Ham could not sleep for the sound of Oma Dortchen telling tales to the moon.
The next morning while Oma Dortchen was out cutting wood, Ham went to seek advice. It had been so long since he had stirred from the hearth that his hair and skin were gray with ash, and clouds of it billowed from his clothing. But he yawned his way up the road to consult the doctor, the priest, and the merchant.
The doctor told him that Oma Dortchen's condition was caused by an imbalance of humors brought on by the change of life, and recommended a thorough bleeding. The priest said that she was casting heathen tales from her soul in preparation for her transition to the next world, and recommended quarantine. The merchant declared her insane, but suggested that Ham charge admission to anyone who wished to hear her ramblings.
Ham yawned back home, mulling all this over, and found a flock of ethnographers clucking about the inn.
"We seek the proprietor," said the fattest ethnographer, snapping at a fly. "We understand she tells stories."
The shortest ethnographer lengthened his neck to peer into Ham's face. "Have you been writing them down?"
"Writing what down?"
The shortest ethnographer shrieked and spun off towards the stable to interrogate the mule. Two of his brethren chattered back and forth about the breadth of Ham's vowels.
"Do you know where she's gone?" asked the tallest ethnographer.
Ham could not recall his adoptive grandmother having traveled more than five miles in his entire life, but the ethnographers could not know that. They likely did not even know that he lived here.
Ham yawned. "She's not here?" He shrugged and continued down the road past the inn, then doubled back through the brush to watch the ethnographers. They pecked and peeped and milled and muttered until, without warning, the entire flock veered off towards the eastern edge of the clearing and disappeared into the forest.
Ham didn't know what had become of Oma Dortchen, but he didn't want the ethnographers to find her. There was something scavenger-like about them: the smell of rotting folklore, of digesting vernacular. For three times seven years Oma Dortchen had cared for him. It was time he gave back in kind.
Ham took a deep breath and coughed, a terrific convulsion of ash and air. He coughed again and again, with such vigor that he expelled great gray-and-black threads from his lungs and out his nose and mouth. When he finished coughing he vomited chunks of petrified woodsmoke, and when he had emptied his stomach he emptied his bowels, barely lowering his trousers in time to shit out lumps of recompressed wood replete with painful splinters. Urine the odor of matchsmoke dribbled onto the clover.
Thus purged of his idle years, Ham dressed and pursued the ethnographers into the forest.
Oma Dortchen had emptied her cask the night before, and after chopping wood she had set out to buy more beer. The brewmaster was nearly as reserved as the innkeeper herself, and he was accustomed to transacting with her by way of grunts and hand signals. When she came up the path telling stories of far-off Araby, he was so startled that he undercharged her by half for a fresh cask.
Oma Dortchen made her way back through the dappled morning towards the inn, regaling the songbirds and squirrels with a Venetian version of the seamstress who married a fish. As the seamstress's son cast his net into the canal to try and catch his father, Oma Dortchen heard a familiar clatter of hooves to the east, deeper into the woods.
Her feet became restless, and she thought of the world beyond Dustanschild, the world that was only rumor and legend to her. She had been taught to fear the woods, but looking at them now she was not afraid.
Without a further thought to the inn or her guests, she hoisted the beer cask onto her shoulder, and walked towards the sound. The forest parted, listening, before her.
After the sun had fallen behind her, Oma Dortchen came to a pond. She set down her cask and sat at the edge of the still water. Her throat was parched from storytelling, but she had no vessel from which to drink beer. So she rested, croaking out a risqué version of the Maiden and the Beaver.
As twilight neared, she saw that the pond was not still after all; in fact it was a fury of preparation. Spiders cast weblines around the thoraxes of dragonflies and lashed the other ends to water-lilies, which the dragonflies towed into formation. Fireflies illuminated the work, and in the gloaming Oma Dortchen glimpsed teams of tadpoles in the shallows, holding the grid of lily pads in place.
Only then did she see that there were twelve frogs lined up on the shore before her. By their purple markings and their bored manner she knew they must be princes.
Through her telling she heard an imperious croaking, and turning found a venerable frog seated beside her. He wore a ruffled collar around his neck. The frog king—for he could be no other—acknowledged her with a blink of his eyes into his skull, and croaked again. A quartet of moths fluttered up, bearing a cup of leaves between them. Oma Dortchen grasped the cup and gently disengaged each of the moths from the spider-lines binding them to it. Then she uncorked the beer cask, poured herself a draught, and took a long drink before continuing her tale.
As the moon and stars spread their glow over the full extent of the pond, Oma Dortchen saw twelve toads lined up on a log at the other end of the lily-board. Behind them stood a crane which she had taken for a sapling, and upon its back sprawled a great lumpen toad with a crown of purple warts. The toad king belched out a challenge, and the frog king responded with a series of creaking calls. All of the princes took their places upon the pads.
Oma Dortchen did not remember ever having heard stories of the contest of checkers which determined the primacy of croaker kingdoms every one hundred years. And yet between sips of black beer from knitted leaves she told the creatures of night and water the story of what they were about. Stranger still, she felt certain that the outcome of the contest was in the back of her mind, waiting to reveal itself—as if this tale were already told, as if a pillar of story held up the firmament and the randomness of the world was an aesthetic consideration rather than evidence of an uncaring universe. As Oma Dortchen narrated the frog king's first move, the diagonal leap from pad to pad occurring in such time that she could not say whether the act or the telling came first, she felt a contentment that came neither from the beer nor the night but from the story itself.
Then the ethnographers stumbled into the narrative, flattening reeds and cattails, creating ripples that disrupted the neat grid of the board. They squawked at scraps of spiderweb and trampled blindly through the frog king's court. The tadpoles flickered out of sight, the fireflies left the clearing in darkness, and the toad king's steed flapped its great wings and ascended amid a volley of angry croaks.
Oma Dortchen paused in her telling, drained her cup of leaves, corked her cask and hoisted it onto her shoulder. She went on then, but in the noise of the wild ethnographers even she could not hear how the contest should have ended. The frog king leapt to her collar, secreted himself in the cleft between her substantial breasts, and from there nudged her into following a certain firefly who flashed nearby.
She followed the impatient light until they left the ethnographers far behind. She whispered the exploits of noble insects to her companions as they traveled deeper into the forest, guided by the distant clatter of hooves.
The ethnographers were thrown into such confusion by their encounter with the croaker courts that several of them were unable to continue their pursuit. A few swallowed magic flies and became subjects of the frog king; others were bewitched by Elbisch Feuer and followed it to connecting lands not shown on any map. Mud covered the eyes of one, and he fell in love with a frog serving-maid, who taught him to breathe water. He was crouched in the deepest part of the pond, only the top of his head showing above the surface, when Ham arrived at dawn the next morning.
Ham had walked for nearly an entire day. Blisters had formed and broken upon his feet and upon his hand where he gripped his walking stick. Gnats and flies had found their way beneath his clothing and raised angry red welts. But he neither complained to the trees nor thought of turning back. He had spent his entire life resting up for this journey.
At the sight of the pond he realized how filthy he was. He undressed and washed his clothes, leaving them to dry on the low branch of a yellow beech tree. Then he waded into the cool water, leaving a film of gray upon the surface. He scrubbed the grime of years from his skin, submerging himself to wash it from his long, matted hair. He discovered that his skin was pale as swan's feathers, and his hair was chestnut-brown.
As Ham was completing his ablutions he spotted the bulging eyes of the mud-enchanted ethnographer. He seized him by the hair, dragged him to shore and dumped him amid the reeds. The ethnographer was naked save for a ruffled collar and cuffs of the sort fashionable among the frog king's courtiers, which he had fashioned from lily-flowers. He shivered and would not meet Ham's gaze.
Ham pulled on his breeches, his boots, and his shirt, none of which were dry but all of which had brightened considerably. "Where is she?" he asked.
The ethnographer blinked his wide eyes and tried to inflate a non-existent sac at his throat.
"Which way did they go?"
The ethnographer's legs twitched as if to leap, but because he lay on his side, he went nowhere.
Ham looked at the pond, but instead of seeing a pool of algae and insects he saw a stone hearth. He sighed, and tossed the ethnographer back. Then he followed the most likely of several trails, a wide swath of broken branches and muddy footprints leading east.
As Ham set out on the wrong path, Oma Dortchen was descending into a nearby valley. A village stood upon the banks of a river which ran, wild with white yet silent, along the base of a sheer cliff. At sunrise Dortchen's firefly guide had taken its leave, and she strode down a neglected path towards the village, bearing the frog king in her cleavage.
Between pants of exertion, she found herself telling another tale she had never learned, the tale of the village. It had been established by the animal kings, and was the dwelling-place of their human wives and children. As their husbands were so often away managing the affairs of their scattered subjects, the women lived here as sisters. Marriage had given them the ability to take on animal forms, but they only did so when they ventured out. When the kings visited they lived as men with their families.
As Oma Dortchen reached the outbuildings of the village the frog king leapt from betwixt her breasts, hopped into a nearby shed and emerged as a potbellied man wearing simple breeches and an overlarge shirt. He bowed but did not interrupt her telling. Rather, he offered his arm, and taking it she accompanied him into the village.
A great fuss was made over the frog king, particularly by his wife. It turned out that the toad king had already arrived, and while the two monarchs met to discuss the question of dominion the women prepared a welcoming feast.
They gathered in the village square, where they were accustomed to conversing amongst themselves while they cooked and watched over the children. But Oma Dortchen's compulsion to tell quieted them. She took up a small knife to cut carrots, and told this story:
There was a bear maiden who swallowed the moon and hibernated for a thousand years. She dreamed the dreams of the moon dwellers who lived on inside her, walking the tunnels of their underground cities, dealing in greed and death and love.
Every summer the bear maiden pried her eyes open and sniffed air ripe with the musk of males seeking mates. But always the dreams called her back, and she nestled deeper into her den, warmed by the burden in her belly.
She slept while a king came to her land and ordered a castle built over her den. The builders discovered her when they cleared the land, but the king decreed that the great she-bear should not be disturbed. She became the center of his throne room. Prognosticators analyzed the rhythms of her snores, and it was said that when she woke the kingdom would fall.
The aromas of countless feasts penetrated her dreaming but could not overpower the passions of the moon-dwellers. They lived the same stories over and over, never noticing that the moon was shrinking around them as the bear digested it.
The kingdom fell, the castle was abandoned, and the she-bear slept on in the crumbling darkness of the throne room. A nation of bees made their home in the walls of the castle, but even the smell of honey was not enough to rouse the bear. The moon-dwellers had dwindled to a mere three score and ten, and still they warred over what remained of the moon.
A nearby river flooded and changed its course to run through the caverns beneath the castle. The bees moved away, and a court of beavers built a dam downstream. The water lapped at the bear's feet. Fish hurled themselves at the dam and stranded themselves beside her, but she would not leave the dreams of the moon-dwellers. Only two remained—a man and a woman—but they were of different clans and would not associate. They sat at opposite ends of the last moon-tunnel, watching the stomach-sky close in on them. But in their dreams they fell into passionate embraces, their pleasure doubled by the shame they took in it.
The beaver kingdom fell, the great dam burst, and the bear was left alone once more. The castle walls fell, and she lay amid the stone debris until one spring night her eyes broke the seal of sleep. She looked to the open sky and saw the moon in the place from whence she had plucked it so long ago. She rose, and yawned, and took an enormous and very painful shit. Then she wandered into the woods, and was never seen again.
When Oma Dortchen finished her tale, the children were seated in a semi-circle around her, listening with their aunts and mothers. When she began a new tale they moved even closer. But one of the women took her leave as soon as the meal was prepared, and shut herself up in her cottage. This, Oma Dortchen was soon to learn, was Frau Horse.
That night they dined on baked squash and carrot stew and bread with honey and roasted nuts and white asparagus and custard strewn with berries. The kings joined them, and laughed along with Oma Dortchen's tellings.
When dusk fell, however, the frog king and the toad king (Rupert and Douglas, to their wives) brought out a block of wood with squares painted upon it. They each placed twelve colored stones on the squares, and by the light of torches, they began to play.
The women took the children off to bed, but afterwards many of them returned to watch. Frau Beaver sat beside Oma Dortchen, who told tales softly so as not to disturb the kings. Frau Beaver had brought her work with her, and sat stitching the skirts of a saddle to the seat. Oma Dortchen ran her practiced hands over the long flaps and remembered the days when she had worked for Dustanschild's saddlemaker. She told one of his old stories, about the white horses who rode out of the river during a flood and how his great-uncle had tamed one of them. Something about this saddle put her in mind of that story, for just as that horse had been not flesh but water, the material Frau Beaver worked was not leather but something else.
Frau Beaver nodded appreciatively at the story. Then she cleared her throat, and Oma Dortchen began a tale she did not know, that of the love affair between the Horse King and Frau Swan. It had been a great scandal; they had fled the village, but the curses of their spurned spouses had pursued them and locked them in their animal forms. The Swan King roamed the whole of Europe seeking the Horse King in order to demand satisfaction.
Frau Horse still lived in the village, but bitterness was all she had left. Oma Dortchen kept spilling words, and for a moment she was sure she knew what the outcome would be for the Horse King and Frau Swan. But once again, even as the greater story was about to become clear to her, the ethnographers tripped over it.
The ethnographers had fared badly since the pond. They had stumbled upon a troll in the mountains who devoured half their number, and in fleeing this attacker the rest had sustained considerable injury and confusion. One of them, in trying to climb a tree, mistakenly burrowed down amid its roots and became prisoner to a colony of earthworms. By the time the remnants of the original flock had descended the rock face and crossed the silent rapids, they were mad with hunger and fell upon the nearest cottage (which happened to be Frau Bee's) with their teeth.
Frau Bee ran to defend her home, brandishing a hatpin. Frau Bear followed, rolling up her sleeves to display her muscular arms. The croaker kings did not even look up, but remained hunched over their contest. More of the wives went to aid their sisters, and the ethnographers scattered. They stumbled into hedges, fell through windows, and tripped over cobblestones. One of them, pursued by Frau Bear, ran to the village square and toppled a torch, which fell upon the nearest cottage and ignited it.
Soon the entire village was ablaze. The kings continued to play while the women evacuated their children and formed a bucket brigade to try to save their homes. Oma Dortchen raced to help carry Frau Bee's children, made sluggish by the smoke, from their cottage.
By dawn nothing remained standing save the table at which the croaker kings sat, their playing pieces so coated with ash that they could not say to whom they belonged.
The next day Ham met the same troll that had eaten so many ethnographers. He had no idea it was a troll when he came upon it. It was sleeping, and resembled nothing so much as a wedge-shaped outcropping of rock. Only when Ham began to climb the moss-bearded face did the troll sneeze with such force that Ham was blown backwards and the leaves of the nearby trees were stripped away.
"Who's there?" the troll shouted, so loudly that every bird on the mountainside took flight. "Are you another of those bony fools who came through yesterday?"
"What's that?" Ham asked.
"Speak up!" the troll shouted, so loudly that a stream of pebbles began to pool at the back of his head. "Can't you see I've got oaks in my ears?"
This was true; a twisted sapling rose from either side of the troll's head, and their leaves shivered at his words.
"I'm afraid I can't hear you," said Ham. He cupped his hands to his ears. "I'm a bit deaf."
"IT'S RUDE TO MUMBLE!" the troll shouted, so loudly that Ham's ears rang.
Ham filled his lungs, so marvelously clear of ash and soot, and shouted even louder than the troll. "HAVE A CARE," he bellowed, "OR YOU'LL BRING THE ENTIRE MOUNTAIN DOWN!" And with that, he turned and ran.
Behind the troll, the face of the mountain cracked and fell, gathering snow and loose rock to itself. The troll reached for Ham with three-fingered hands veined with coal, and ran after him on legs of stubby granite. But before the troll had gone far he was caught up in the current of rock.
Down and around the mountain Ham ran, hoping to evade the avalanche's path. He might even have made it, if not for the cliff. He looked to the jagged river below and considered his deaths. The fall would almost certainly kill him, but there was no almost about the rock and the troll.
He jumped. Down and down through the rush of air, earth above and water below—he felt as though he would ignite, and be consumed by the only father he had ever known.
Instead he heard the rush of wings, and something seized him at the back of his neck, pinching his skin. He cried out as he was lifted above the river and the rockslide until his consciousness snuffed out.
He awoke in a rowboat beside a silent river, with a woman Oma Dortchen's age seated beside him stitching a saddle.
"Good day," said the woman. "How are you feeling?"
Ham tried to sit up, but dizziness seized him, and the woman pushed him gently back into the boat. "Who are you?" he asked.
"Manners," she said. "I asked you a question. I am Frau Beaver, and you need rest. How are you feeling?"
"Where am I?" Ham asked.
Frau Beaver frowned at this repeated breach of etiquette. "On the riverbank. I'd very much like to know how you came to be lying here, but from the sound of things I'd guess you've no idea." She offered him water, and he guzzled it eagerly.
"I was falling," Ham said. "That's all I remember."
"Rest, and it may come back to you," said Frau Beaver. "We're in no hurry. Frau Bee is scouting a new spot for the village, and Frau Bear is looking for our story-spilling friend. Why she would wander off on her own I can't imagine. Once we've made arrangements with the local predators, certainly, but there's no knowing who's out there now. And with the croakers at war—over a game of checkers, mind you . . ."
There were many questions Ham wanted to ask, but his rush of energy had passed. His mouth would not perform the actions he asked of it, and soon he was asleep once more.
He dreamed, half-awake. A massive bee turned into a stern woman with flowers growing from her hat. Frau Beaver left off her saddle-work and undressed before diving into the river. He smelled fish soup, and saw a bear snoring beside the cooking-pot.
When he finally came to full wakefulness, it was night, and he was propped up against the boat. A small fire cast its glow over the Bee-woman, who offered him a spoonful of soup.
"Open up," she said. Ham did as he was told, and three bowls later he felt strong enough to sit up and ask questions.
The women explained that their village had burned down, and they had been chosen to find a new site for it. He told them that he was searching for his grandmother, who had begun telling stories one day and disappeared the next, pursued by a flock of ethnographers.
"We have seen your grandmother," said Frau Beaver. "She accompanied us out of the village, since unlike the others she could not take a better form for traveling. But last night she wandered away from camp and disappeared."
"I followed her trail as far as I could," said Frau Bear. "South of here, she was met by a group of men—not the same group," she said in response to Ham's groan. "But it seems that they have taken her."
Ham was for leaving immediately, but the women convinced him to wait until morning. "Your legs will not hold you," said Frau Bee. She produced a hexagonal jar from her purse and spooned out a dollop of royal jelly. "Eat this."
The jelly was thick and coated Ham's throat with fuzzy sweetness. He fell immediately asleep and woke in the morning pulsing with vigor, in a great hurry to thank the women and take his leave.
"Hold a moment, Ashlad," said Frau Beaver, working a toothpick around her mouth. "It'll take more than a stiff prick to see this through." She lifted the saddle she had been working on. "This is made of the river's tongue; it will make the wildest stallion as docile as a man after a rutting."
"I thank you," Ham said, and hefted the saddle.
Frau Bear removed the belt she wore around her skirts. "This is made of the mountain's hair," she said. "It will give you the strength to box a man three times your size."
"I thank you," Ham said, and drew the belt around his waist.
Frau Bee took another purse from inside her own. "This is made of the wind's bladder; it will allow you to drink three barrels of beer and remain sober."
"I thank you," said Ham, and strapped the purse to his belt. "I thank you all."
Oma Dortchen had met seven brothers, proper old gentlemen, traveling through the mountains. They wore tall hats and tailcoats and bowed deeply to her. They listened politely to her story of a drone who thought he was the king of the bees, and then insisted that she accompany them, for her own safety.
Oma Dortchen did not believe she needed protection. But from the day she left her village she had intended no destination but the sound of hooves. She had followed that sound from the campsite where her three friends slept, and she trusted that it had led her here for a reason. So she consented to travel with the brothers.
Two of them hoisted her onto their shoulders, and two others took up the eldest brother—a gray, spindly man of seventy who blushed when he met Oma Dortchen's eyes. They ran south along the river. The eldest produced a tangle of thread and two knitting needles from his coat. His needles clicked and clacked between his brothers' wheezing and Oma Dortchen's tellings. She had run out of beer, and so her stories were of travels through endless deserts.
After several miles the eldest called a halt. The brothers set their burdens down and gathered around him; he held up the product of his efforts as though it were a fish on the line. In low voices the brothers appraised his work, pointing out the uneven weave and the dropped stitches. The eldest brother surrendered his knitting to the next eldest, who unraveled it and placed the needles and yarn inside his coat. Then they set out again, but this time it was the second eldest who attempted to knit.
He too made a poor job of it, and at the next stop his next youngest brother undid his work and took the needles and yarn. Oma Dortchen felt badly for him, and for the brothers carrying her; she had lost many stories in the past few days, but she was still a heavy woman.
Each brother took a turn at knitting, but none did it well. At the end of the day, they picked at a meal of nuts and berries, wrapped themselves in their tailcoats and fell asleep watching the skies.
The next day was the same, and the day after that, and the day after that. The brothers followed the river south and west through the mountains. Their fine clothes became dusty and tattered, and they quarreled over the knitting. Every morning and evening they sat to listen to Oma Dortchen's tellings, and laughed in all the right places. But it seemed to her that they were waiting for a story she had not yet told, one that would explain to them just what they were about.
Ham met his father on the banks of the silent river.
The Horse King was a red roan with a chestnut-brown mane and a stripe of white which ran up his nose and between his eyes. He did not browse at the vegetation or shy away at Ham's approach, but all about him there was the impression of movement, as of something swift and tireless which had chosen to stop and show itself.
Ham did not know this was his father, and the Horse King could not tell him so. Yet Ham felt a compulsion to communicate with the horse, and without deciding to do so he stepped forward.
The Horse King made a noise deep in his throat and stepped past Ham. Something gray and stony splashed downstream through the white water, kicking spray up as high as a house, never making a sound. It was the troll.
As the troll drew close, he stomped up the bank and roared. "MUMBLER!" He had acquired a limp, and the oak had been torn from his right ear. "I will make dust of your bones!"
"Forgive me," Ham whispered, and set Frau Beaver's saddle upon his father's back.
Never had one of the Horse Kings allowed himself to be saddled and ridden. It was said that to do so would mean an abdication of divine rule and a lifetime of service to humans. Perhaps Ham's father had not felt like a king for some time already—for three times seven years, the term of his curse and exile. In truth he would have carried Ham without any saddle at all, but he did not flinch as his son pulled the cinches tight and mounted.
"This fellow will be cleaning his teeth with my thigh bone if we don't make some time," said Ham.
The once-king neighed in triumph and galloped away south. Despite the weight upon his back, he felt as though all his burdens had been lifted.
After seven days, Oma Dortchen began teaching the brothers to knit.
The night before, a wedge of swans had passed overhead, traveling south. The brothers had become terribly agitated. The youngest ones fought over the knitting needles; the older ones spoke in low tones, weeping as old men will, without acknowledging their tears.
Had she known their object, Oma Dortchen could have taken the needles herself and knitted what the brothers desired. It was clear, however, that this was a task they must perform themselves.
She had not, to this point, made much effort to tell tales of her own choosing. Just as she had set herself adrift on the winds of story, so she preferred to let her tongue wander the tangle of threads inside her. But now she sought one skein in particular, and tugged at it, and cleared her throat.
She told the tale of the porcupine maiden who knit herself a wedding dress out of wild-flowers. "Twenty-eight stitches for twenty-eight children," she chanted, along with the godmother. One of the brothers brought her the needles and yarn, and she demonstrated. She tied a slip-knot and pulled a stitch, and another, and another. Then she disassembled her work and gave it to the eldest brother to try.
His hands were unsteady, but with her help he finished a cast-on row. The brothers all shook hands and tipped their hats to Oma Dortchen, and then they lifted her and the eldest brother onto their shoulders and took off running at twice their former pace.
As the day wore on the brothers' work accumulated. That night, as they sat passing the knitting around, Oma Dortchen touched her tongue to the pillar of story and told the brothers their troubles.
They had a sister, and many years past she had married the Swan King. But she dearly loved her brothers, and every year at Midsummer she flew to visit them. One summer, three times seven years since, she had not come on the accustomed day. They had not seen her again.
The brothers had consulted a well-woman, who read the reflections of the stars and told them their sister labored under a curse. She must stay a swan, living and migrating with other swans, until twenty-one years had passed. After that time, the curse might be lifted if her brothers met her upon a battlefield and put her in a dress knit by their own hands.
In all those years the brothers had not learned to knit. Their wives did it, and so they assumed it would be the work of a day to learn it and finish the garment. Now their time was short, and they had only just made a beginning.
The brothers nodded at Oma Dortchen's telling. Yes, they agreed, they had been that foolish and arrogant. They continued their work as the moon rose, and after the crickets had gone to bed Oma Dortchen pried the needles away from the snoring fourth brother.
Ten days more they traveled in this manner. Every day the brothers ran harder, and every night they slept less. Mistakes in the knitting led to tears and recriminations, and while the brothers were never less than polite to Oma Dortchen, their smiles became perfunctory, their bows less deep. Still, by the time they came within sight of the wedge of swans once more, the dress was all but finished.
They came over a rise and found a marsh that spread through the entire valley. The swans glided there behind a screen of reeds, their long necks curved into broken hearts. And yet Oma Dortchen took hardly any notice of them, because from the east and west, twin leaping tides of green advanced. This was the great battle between the croaker kings Rupert and Douglas, the battle that would decide the course of the next hundred years.
The swans and the brothers took no notice of the two armies. The brothers raced down into the bog, and as they advanced, one of the great birds swam to meet them.
But before this reunion could be accomplished there was a great cry, and a swan—swollen with rage, its feathers tipped with the red of vengeance—fell upon the brothers from the sky. The Swan King's great wings knocked their tall hats from their bald heads, and his beak snapped at their bellies. The brothers scattered, and Oma Dortchen fell from the shoulders of the two youngest. She landed in the still water, viscous with algae, and sat telling a story no one could hear.
The eldest brother draped the unfinished dress over one arm and brandished his knitting-needles. The Swan King was not cowed, but head-butted the eldest in the chest and knocked him sprawling. He advanced, intending to snatch the dress from where the brother still held it above the water. He would shred it to tiny worms of thread, and the curse would last forever.
A long whinnying cry stopped him, and the Horse King came galloping down the silent river towards his rival, bearing Ham upon his back. The troll limped along behind, still bellowing its anger.
At the edge of the marsh Ham dropped from his father's back and turned to face his enemy. He had ridden for so many days that he could hardly stand, but he straightened Frau Bear's belt and met the monster's charge.
And so battle was joined; frog met toad, horse met swan, troll met man. Blood stained the Swan King's feathers and streamed down the Horse King's breast. The troll boxed Ham's ears, and Ham boxed bare-fisted, scraping flesh on stony skin. Amphibious hordes fought for the territory of lily-pads and spongy earthen hummocks. And Oma Dortchen sat in the shallow water with her eyes closed, grateful she could not hear the tale she was telling.
Ham's ears rang, but he stepped in towards the troll's bad leg, and with a great uppercut he knocked the stone creature upon its back. He turned. The Swan King lay still, his rage billowing red into the water. But the Horse King stood unsteady over his adversary, bleeding from his neck and side.
Ham could not say why he was weeping. He unfastened the cinch of Frau Beaver's saddle and flung it into the river; the sores upon the Horse-King's back glistened pink. Its tongue returned, the river began to sing.
Ham laid his hands upon the Horse-King's neck, and a woman laid her hand over his. "He loves you," she said. Her eyes were gray and moist, and her other arm was a wing. She raised it to his cheek and brushed his tears away.
Oma Dortchen longed to tell a story with a happy ending for Ham and his parents. But unobserved, the troll had crumbled into gravel as the ethnographers crawled from its belly, coated with rock dust and stomach-juices. They slithered into the water and fell upon Oma Dortchen. There were so many that they would have carried her off, but Oma Dortchen's voice had strengthened over the weeks, and she raised it now.
"THAT . . . IS . . . ENOUGH!"
Oma Dortchen's shouts echoed off the mountains and shuddered through the waters. The frogs and the toads and Frau Swan's brothers froze and fell silent. The ethnographers let her go; even the river, its voice only just regained, made no sound.
"Sit. Down," she said, and they did. Ham and his mother sat beside the Horse King, who lay wheezing out his last breath. The frogs and toads sat in heaps, amid and atop one another. Rupert and Douglas sat side-by-side. Frau Swan's eldest brother sat on his knitting needles, and the ethnographers sat in a circle around Oma Dortchen. The incontinent wind stopped to listen, spreading a warm mist over the valley. The bald mountains inclined their peaks to better hear.
So Oma Dortchen told a story of the foolishness of kings, and the beauty of sisterhood, and man's greed for things wild and mysterious. She told this story and they each felt it was their own; they laughed at their follies and shed tears at their losses. And when the story was done, the mountains sighed and the wind turned its head so no one could see it weep. Rupert and Douglas embraced.
"Same time tomorrow?" Rupert asked.
"Of course," said Douglas.
The ethnographers raced to write the story down, but they had no paper or ink, and they argued over the type and motifs and who the protagonists were until none of them could remember it as it was told. They became shepherds and lumberjacks, and married mountain girls who found them insufferable and threw them out of the house at least twice a week.
The Horse King died in the course of the telling, but in the story he heard he lived happily ever after with his beloved and their son. Frau Swan took Ham's hand in her own and stroked the Horse King's nose with her wing, and the singing river washed him down through the marsh and out of the valley, towards the sea. But the wind lifted up the Swan King, and carried him away to lands never seen.
When Ham and Frau Swan and her brothers were ready to return to the human world, they came to Oma Dortchen. The two youngest brothers knelt so she might ride upon their shoulders.
Oma Dortchen shook her head.
Ham begged her to return, but she patted his cheek and told a tale of a bear crone who voyaged to the far corners of the world, and never slept again until her death.
Ham remembered the purse Frau Bee had given him, and he thought to challenge Oma Dortchen to a drinking contest: if he won she would come home, and if she won she could go on her travels. But he hesitated, because all his life she had lived for him, and he did not have the heart to insist that this continue.
Besides, he was certain that she could out-drink him, purse or no purse.
David J. Schwartz's fiction has appeared in such venues as, , and the anthology . His first novel, Superpowers, will appear in 2008. He lives in St. Paul.
[ photo, Paulette Bowes ]
Richard Bowes's most recent novel is the nebula-nominated. His most recent short fiction collection is . He won the World Fantasy, Lambda, International Horror Guild and Million Writers Awards. Recent stories are in , , , , , , , and Datlow Del Rey anthologies.
image, "Scarecrow" © 2006–2007, Richard Bowes—All Rights Reserved