Deep in the heart of a glazy wood,
Existed a magic misunderstood,
Not a single man would ever dare,
To touch a lock of Dana's hair,
For she was a witch, and all men knew,
That witches would turn their toes to stew,
But Dana was different, special even,
Not some earthy and heartless heathen,
Or so thought a man named Tschueda, he'd say,
"That witch only wishes for love today."
So down descended he into the swampy forest,
O'er trunks and logs, 'crost ground so porous,
Wading through bubbling goo and mire,
Twisting through vines of sticky, fuzzed wires,
Until at last, a tired man, he arrived at Dana's door,
Where he summed up the strength of a man at war.
For Dana, it would be a true surprise,
To confront the dazzle of a suitor's eyes,
But she had a will and a hard-headed way;
She'd show the man she didn't need love today.
"Come in," an enticing female voice lured.
Tschueda brushed aside the horsehair curtain with a single hand and proudly strode across the stone-covered earth of Dana's lair to where she sat as she combed her hair. Upon first sight, he couldn't help but ogle her; she was quite a fair nymph with olive skin and chestnut hair, and her green eyes were glinting daggers in the flickering light of the candles that dressed her abode. Her body was curved like rolling hills, and her fleshy lips, glossed with maple sap, were mouthwatering. Her skin, that rare olive skin, was radiantly glowing with youth and health and appeared so soft that Tschueda almost reached out a hand to touch it. Dana's dazzling beauty hit him deeply, and he was in love.
A sly smile crept up the side of the witch's face; it bothered her not in the least that a man should look at her that way. She knew she was beautiful and tempting, far more so than the maidens in the village, and she believed it only just and fair that a man should want to take her to his bed upon seeing her. But she was hardly after lust at all; lust did not make for good magic as love did. Magic was how the witch amused herself. Living alone, she could talk to no one but mindless forest creatures and silent trees, neither of which provided adequate responses. But she could whisper a spell to a boiling pot of herbs and roots, excite the air with a wave of her hands, call up her dead ancestors and demons from hell, and in a fit of a colorful light show, she would create a potion to manipulate a human being, make him or her love or hate another, be stronger or weaker, or overcome an illness. And she would sell her potions to gypsies and apothecaries that wandered the edge of town, draping herself in a thick cloak to hide her face and figure.
"Hello, my good sir," she crooned. "Do you not find it rude to feast your eyes in such a way?"
"Oh, yes, of course; my apologies, lovely lady," Tschueda blubbered in reply whilst trying to compose himself.
Dana laughed. "What brings you so far into my wood? Is it not a rather uninviting venture?"
"It was hardly any trouble to come see you, my lovely lady, young and fair."
"You're only right about that last part."
"The 'young and fair' bit?"
"No, just the 'fair' part."
"Oh? Are you not the young beauty?"
"Remember, good human sir, that I am a witch. I do not age past my prime."
"Well I, myself, am in my thirties and am quite old."
"You'd see a sight higher than that in year count for me."
Tschueda paused a moment, pondering.
"Aren't you curious to know just how old I am?" Dana probed.
"My curiosity does poke and prod me, but seeing as I've already offended you once, I dare not cross the line again
except to bestow my proposal upon you." And Tschueda gave a gentlemanly bow.
"Ah yes, the reason you came to see me
" Dana mused, pretending to be distracted by a moth that fluttered near her ingredient cabinet. She crossed one leg over the other and twisted her torso slightly toward the cabinet, and she slid a pincer made of her index finger and thumb along a strand of her silky mane. Tschueda picked up on this body language that she was eager to be rid of him, so he laid his heart out straight.
"I wish to love you."
Dana cocked her head toward him and appeared as though she hadn't heard him.
"All alone out here in the wood, you must be in need of a husband and a lover, and both I can be for you, lady."
"What on earth could make you think I'd need either one?" Dana asked, half pouting as though disappointed.
"You are beautiful, and you are alone."
"And what, being those things begs I need a man?"
"Yes, lady. No one in the village remains unmarried long after they mature."
"Except you, Old Timer?"
"Except me. You see, when I reached marrying age, my parents' dearest friends gave birth to their first child, a baby girl. It had always been my parents' wish to be united by family means to this couple, and my mother had only birthed daughters after me and did not want any more children. So it fell as my duty to marry the girl."
"So you're here now, then, to marry me so that you cannot marry that repulsive being who, I assume, is marrying age by now," Dana retorted tartly.
Tschueda sighed. "I do not find her repulsive; I just don't want to marry her for the wrong reason. Besides
"You could still be doing some goodwill by helping an old witch out, is that right?"
"You took the words right out of my mouth."
"Do you not feel any shame? That you want to use me to escape your predetermined fate?"
"Absolutely not. I'd rather love than settle."
"And what makes you so certain that you'll fall in love with me?"
"Because I already have."
Dana barely stifled a small gasp. Was there not some way to make this man appear unworthy? She found his company a burden, as he was not attractive in any way. His voice was rough like stones being ground together, and his physical features were harsh like cliff-rock one had taken a sword to. His eyelids were beginning to droop downward and to the side with age, and his nose was curved like a parrot's beak. Perhaps the worst part about him was his dusty black hair that clung flatly to his head. His shoulders were broad, and he was tall with an almost monstrous build. He disgusted her.
he claimed to love her.
Perhaps it was only mistaken lustful interest at that moment, but over time, if she could tease him and enchant him enough, it could turn into real love. And real love was a great magic. She thought of the many potions and musicks she could make if she had real love and became quite dizzy. She settled, then; she would drag out his proposal over a length of time until he was head over heels for her.
"Well, my good sir, I am afraid I cannot accept your proposal unless, of course, you bring me a gift that proves you are worthy of marrying me."
"My fair, fair lady, I assure you by crossing my heart to stay ardent for you only that I will search far and wide to find a gift worthy of your divine beauty."
Dana nodded to him, and then he took her hand, lifting it close to his mouth, and asked, "May I have a kiss, lovely lady?"
Dana laughed once. "You still have yet to earn even that."
Tschueda smiled at her and released her hand. After a gracious bow, he took his leave and did not return for a week.
When Tschueda did return, he was cradling a flower in his hands. It was bright yellow except for the purple tips on its five almond-shaped petals and the pin-thin orange stripe that ran from the purple tip to the center of the flower, and its stem was deep red. He was about to declare his presence when he heard Dana singing, and he held his peace until her song was done.
"The rain, as it falls on the petals so soft,
And drums upon the leaves,
It makes a sad music that strums on my heartstrings,
And through my soul it weaves.
The sky, as it cries, says, "I'll play you a song,"
And lulls you to your dreams,
But her tears keep drumming; the wind keeps humming,
So never are you at ease.
Warmth will leave you 'til skin grabs your bones,
Winter will find you mid-spring,
Our Mother of Nature would calm your fears,
But she can only sing."
Tschueda brushed aside the curtain just as Dana finished strumming her harp. Suddenly the trouble he'd had to go through to find the little flower he held seemed worthwhile, and he felt as though he was more in love with Dana than the week before.
Dana had heard his approach but pretended to be shocked anyway when she saw him enter, parting her luscious, sap-coated lips in a mock gasp and widening her enchanting eyes a little. She then pretended to duck her head in embarrassment and allowed some of her hair to fall forward to make her movement more dramatic. Had she really been honestly and innocently bashful, her cheeks should have taken the tincture of a light blush. The fact that she did not blush escaped Tschueda's notice, however, and he continued to stand before her, stupidly holding the bizarre little flower in his rough hands.
"Oh, my charming lover-to-be has returned! What have you brought me?" Dana asked, though she knew very well the specific details of this particular flower.
Tschueda smiled, clearly proud of himself. "This, my dear, is a Faivre flower. They exist few and far in between the vast countryside, but I have managed to track this darling down. I have carried her a long way, and she hath not faded, as she would in the hands of someone unworthy. And now I pass her to you without the slightest doubt that she will shine brightly in your hands as well."
Dana thought the words of a spell that would charm the Faivre flower to love the moisture of her oiled skin, so as she took it, it kept its vivid color. Only Dana, being a witch, could hear the little flower coo with delight as it curled into the cradle of her right palm. She smiled at the flower's affection which she had created.
"My good, sweet lady, this is proof enough! We are worthy of each other, as said by the Faivre flower," Tschueda enthused, smiling enough to show his teeth. Dana saw with disappointment the gap between the top and center two, and she could not refrain from frowning.
"How is it proof of that? The flower says that you are worthy and that I am worthy, but of what or whom? For all I know, I could be worthy to marry the wild boar that grunts in my forest, and you the young lass born for your sake."
"Let us both hold the flower at the same time, then. That surely shall meanif it stays its colorthat we are meant to be together." As he said this, he reached for Dana's hands. She cringed away and hunched over the flower protectively.
"I don't think that would be such a good idea." For she knew the flower would hiss audibly if it touched Tschueda's hands after her spell. "That would solve nothing, as we still wouldn't know if the flower was saying we were worthy of a particular person or quite simply a material item."
Tschueda's eyes were tinged with sadness. "Isn't there some way to know just what it is the little flower wants to say?"
"I'm afraid not," Dana lied. She could use the flower with some herbs and chemicals in her cauldron to form a vision, but she hadn't a mind to gain any more than one night of real love from this man. She feared the flower would tell her he was worthy of having her as a wife, and she would have none of that.
"Well, what a truth you have revealed to me! The direction of the flower's affection is infinite in possibility! Then what good is it, that flower, except to point out an entirely worthless miscreant, one not even deserving of a single copper? My lady, I do dearly apologize for my offense. You must know I meant no degradation of your character, nor of your beauty, sure."
Dana let out an arrogant little "hmph!" and turned her nose skyward, as though slightly offended. "I will give you another chance, dear, but next time you approach, you'd best bring with you a gift that will benefit me. It is the least you can do to make up for your rude implication."
"Of course, darling, the very least. I will undoubtedly bring you a worthy gift upon my next arrival." And he stood dumbly there, with his lips parted as he breathed.
Dana held the flower up to her nose and sniffed it, and then, pretending to be occupied with studying its features, she lifted her left hand to Tschueda and commanded, "Kiss."
Tschueda eagerly took her hand in his and squished against it with his lips. He left a little dribble behind, and it was all Dana could do to not look positively horrified. She did not refrain from exposing a furious light in her eyes, however, when she turned her head to look at Tschueda once more.
"Depart," she uttered without care. Tschueda was hurt. He offered a rushed half-bow before turning on his heel to leave. Once he was gone, she grumbled to herself, "Detestable oaf
" and, after swiping a rag off her vanity, scrubbed furiously at the wet spot on her hand.
Three days' time found Tschueda at the witch's porch once more. This time he carried the feather of a flithenraben, a small, lilac-brown bird with a cream-white chest and indigo irises. It had the body of a robin and the head of a sparrow, and beneath its soft feathers existed a trademark pink spot. Whether or not the feather was still attached to the flithenraben, the spot would stay pink until the bird died, at which point it would turn mouse-grey. Without the bird's life to channel magic, its feathers were worthless to mages. Tschueda's feather still had the pink spot, and he prayed its owner would stay alive long enough for Dana to make some use of it.
Dana heard his footsteps and was prepared for his entry. She had been running a brush through her hair and set it aside, turning to greet her visitor. She had prepared a seductive smile for him and eagerly did her best to send lustful shivers down her suitor's spine.
Tschueda was, to her great pleasure, quite clearly in pain. He felt his thickly beating heart accelerate, and once again, he felt more in love with Dana than he was at their last meeting. Warmth coursed through him, and his breath became molten and heavy as he longed to claim those sweet, sappy lips with his. Never could his betrothed hold him so captive as he was now by this witch's talons. He had to remind himself to keep his thoughts pure in hopes of controlling his rapacious cravings, but only with great difficulty could he.
"Well?" Dana inquired.
Tschueda advanced to her and captured her hands in his, deftly placing the feather inside. Dana's smile faded, and her eyes took on a stern look of warning. Tschueda released her hands at once and placed his own behind his back.
"For you, love," he rasped.
Without even glancing down at her prize, Dana responded, "Feather of a flithenraben?"
Tschueda then became uneasy. "Is it not good enough?"
Dana shook her head sadly.
"How is it not?" Tschueda demanded. "Flithenrabeni are seldom seen, perhaps one in the entire countryside through which I've traveled."
"Then travel far you have not made. I know many a flithenraben that live around here."
"Then your eyes must be very keen, as the flithenrabeni hide themselves well."
"It is true, yes. And in addition, living out where no people pass, I have the advantage to see them."
"So if it is so hard in comparison to you for me to find this magic feather, is my gift not deemed worthy?"
"Sorry, lover-to-be, but I call one of those birds any day I need their magic. If you wish to speak comparisons, consider it the other way around, the hundreds of feathers I have already used in comparison to your one."
"But dare say I that this is the softest?" Tschueda offered desperately.
"That is not the point. Do not toy with me any longer and try to convince me that your feather is a suitable dowry for an earth goddess."
Tschueda sighed. "I sense that you are frustrated with me. I am trying to please you, you know."
"Oh yes, I know," Dana said distractedly. "I only wish you humans knew how to speak to my heart." Sensing that she might lose him to leave him with this, she added, "If you only serve to disappoint me in the end, I will not be in the least bit surprised."
At this, Tschueda felt his motives for the challenge renewed. Now he was not only involved in a battle for good morals, marrying for love rather than simply settling, but also a battle on behalf of mankind, to prove that men were not entirely inferior to mages.
"Darling, with all my heart I love you. I am now certain I know the gift that will clothe you in a wedding gown. This gift will be different; there will be no other of its likeness. You say I should speak to your heart, so speak lovingly I shall! I am off to gather up this gift at once!" he said in a half-rage, turning on his heel to leave.
"Pause," Dana said simply. And when Tschueda had turned back to face her, she said, "Come here." As Tschueda obeyed her, she stood and took slow, elongated strides to meet him. She felt his eyes trace the steady side-to-side rock of her hips until she was at his toes. She stretched upward and let her lips hover just beneath his nose. Refuting the kiss Tschueda attempted to give her by turning her head, she smacked her lips apart near his left ear and whispered, "This is your final chance. Make it worthwhile."
Just as quickly as she'd spoken, she was seated and brushing her hair again. Tschueda, as usual, stood dumbfounded. Suddenly his hasty quest of the world was halted, his thoughts scattered like broken glass. He'd been close enough to smell Dana's distinct maple aroma, and he very nearly got a taste. Her honey breath had whispered against his skin, and his ear still felt warm, as though her beguiling tongue were still flicking hot, humid, sorghum words against it. He felt the dangerously heated chill of a fever rattle through his body, and suddenly his desires were pure no longer. He shifted uncomfortably, unable to peel his eyes away from the olive-skinned succubus, though he knew the sooner he took his leave, the sooner he'd be back. Instead he allowed himself to remain transfixed by the long, muted brush strokes, imagining that his fingers should be twining through her hair instead of the bristles.
Only with great difficulty could Dana conceal her pride. Staring at herself in the vanity mirror, she uttered an absent-minded, "Was there something else, then?"
"I wish not to think you merely a temptress, but you hold such an impossible appeal and stir emotions I am unused to having."
"Off with you, then. I haven't a mind to be rubbernecked; it disturbs my peace," she lied, not daring to break the eye contact she had with her reflection.
"Yes, there is that matter now
I suppose I shall bid you good evening and be on my way."
"Ah, yes, but keep only innocent thoughts. Right, love? Like so
"When a man seeks a woman to marry,
In hopes that his baby she'll carry,
He cannot make haste
To goose past her waist,
He must remain courtly and tarry."
"You are quite prolific in the art of poetry and songs. I shall set homeward bound with hopes that you produce children and love with the same ardor."
"And there you have it, an innocent mind. I am to be your true love, not your lady of the evening. Never bid me good evening ever again."
"Then good night, my love." And with that, Tschueda left, still a bit befuddled, but at the very least his innocence had returned, the key ingredient Dana was seeking. She needed it in full exposure to take it, but at the same time she had to lace a little lust through his blood for the magic she sought.
And so she meditated, awaiting her potential lover's final test.
Tschueda was back hardly a day later. His eyes had dark, bruise-like circles beneath them, evidence of the sleep he lacked, not simply from the night before, but from the entire duration of Dana's game. His lower lip was drooping much like his lower eyelids, and each weighted step he took was funded by motivation alone. The humidity of the swamp did little to liven him up. Instead, it tousled his tangled treads of stringy hair and greased his face to make it seem as though he'd forgotten to wash up that morning. His haggard appearance greatly complemented his already rugged and monstrous stature, enough so to earn an audible gasp from Dana as he lumbered through the curtain. Strings of its horsehair clung to Tschueda's clothes as though to hold him back, but they proved weak with distance and hung dead once more. Dana beheld the man in her sight with reservation and a little fear, as she hadn't imagined it possible for the man to be any uglier and more brutish than he already was. She had to remind herself that she sought his inner qualities and not those of his exterior, but she struggled so in the process.
"Good heavens, aren't you a sight to behold!" she scolded.
"I beg not to be blamed; your protector has been most unkind to me today."
"Oh, but Nature can hardly be blamed. She is naught but a loving mother, doting upon her children of the earth with admirable care."
"If she is so human, she holds malicious potential indeed."
"You do not know her as I do."
"I live in her surroundings as do you, do I not?"
"One can live with a person her whole life and still not know that person. The two must communicate."
"I am a farmer. If I don't communicate with Nature, I yield no crop."
"Then you have a business relationship with her. Respectable, yes, but you know not of her intimate depths."
"Then how is it that you communicate with her?"
"We sing to each other."
"And singing brings you closer?"
"Most certainly! By singing, I am being most appreciative of the gift Nature hath given me, and since always I sing about her, I double the justice I do her. We are harmonious, she and I, sisters of the same blood." And Dana pulled out her harp and began to sing.
"Blanket of silky night,
Lifted by fingered light,
Wings stretch, and sky yawns,
Doe nudges new fawn.
Dawn is adance in a chorus of light,
Dewdrops glisten as stars of clear night,
Flow'rs all sway in time with the breeze,
Twining and branching does river through trees.
Hear the life melody,
Chirped, trickled harmony,
Before you lies new day,
A spectacular array,
Tschueda felt his enchantment return, and suddenly he could not recover the desire of his debate. He began to see things Dana's way and internally agreed that she had the upper hand in their relationship with Nature. But so as to not make an appearance that he was submitting to a woman, he asked such a question as to smoothly distract from their topic of conversation.
"What exactly is the meaning of our debate?"
Dana laughed, understanding that she had won. "It amuses me," she said.
"But it distracts from the most important matter at hand."
Dana paused a moment, frowning. She gave him a quick search glance and was reminded of how detestable he was. To think that body had the slightest glimmer of hope to claim hers was enough to make her shudder, the thought of that greasy, hairy mass draped over her, blocking the glow of her perfection. But he was ready at that moment to present his final gift to her, and knowing his determination and certainty, he had something beyond worthy. She would do whatever she could to belittle his accomplishment and avoid having to give her body to him.
"Ah yes, that. Alright, what have you?" she said finally, trying to appear at least mildly enthusiastic.
"Last night I wrote you a poem," he said, pulling a folded piece of paper out from where it was tucked securely in his belt. But before he even began reading, Dana interrupted him.
"Wait a minute; so you think that a mere compilation of words that you threw together in a single night is enough to win me over for eternity?"
"Do not make so little of my work before you know its depths, my love. I lost valuable sleep to this profession, and in these lines I crafted, I worship you, hardly different from the way you worship Nature. But since I am not a skilled singer, I must impart these praises by speech."
His subtle way of acknowledging her hypocrisy did little to stifle the sting. Dana wanted to protest but had no reason, so she kept her mouth shut as Tschueda began.
"Like the e'er golden wheat,
Your body sways in dance to the breeze,
And your skin glows caramel in the sunlight,
But only you,
In the wheat field,
Do I see,
For only your eyes sparkle green
And captivate me;
Only you have the magic
To cage me;
Only your touch
Melts me where I stand
And brings me to my knees
To worship you, Love,
My Golden Goddess Divine."
As Tschueda delivered the poem, his normally raspy voice hummed in an alluring way, and the words glided past his tongue like water off rock, crisply cracking every so often, but most often pouring softly. They were delivered with sincerest emotion, deepest love, perfectly twinged with a pinch of tangy lust. Even Dana could not deny its perfection, though she wanted to point out that it didn't rhyme, to say that it was degrading to compare her to a single strand of wheat, but she could say nothing. She knew that if she didn't take the man right then, she would never achieve such perfect ingredients ever again, and never would she know exactly what she was capable to create with this kind of magic. Men in the village feared her and would never come to see her as this one had. Even so, she could not imagine a more sincere soul, a more deserving partner. Though the way he looked proved to be a great offense to her, he had everything she needed.
Dana took a deep breath and stood. She took a few tentative steps toward Tschueda and said, "My love, you have earned me. The name that your heart now beats for is Dana. Who does my heart beat for?"
"Tschueda, my love," she said, putting on the most deceptive mask of being deeply in love as she caressed one of his cheeks in her palm.
"Dana," he breathed just before placing a kiss on her forehead, hardly believing he finally had this woman all for his own.
Dana, a bit miffed at his hesitation, fearing the perfection of the ingredients would be lost with too much time, artlessly seized him in an open-mouthed kiss and pressed her body closer to his. Tschueda's hands quickly took their place, caressing the hollow of her arched spine. He relished in stealing several sensual kisses, tasting the overpowering sweetness of the maple sap on her fleshy lips. Dana wound her slender fingers in his hair, clutching onto him, demanding that he feel her need. When he refused to budge, she took a step back toward her chamber. As she'd hoped, he unconsciously stepped forward to keep her close to him. She took another step backward, and he again followed. But when she took a third step, Tschueda broke the kiss.
"What are you doing, love?" he asked.
"I'm trying to lead you to the bedroom," she growled.
"Oh, are you uncomfortable to stand long?"
Dana could not believe he didn't get it. Rather than try to be blunt, she decided to follow a sneakier approach, wondering if perhaps he didn't want to lie with her. So she said, "Yes, dreadfully. If we could lie down, I'd be able to be more passionate."
"Even more so than now? It's possible? Well if there is more passion that you are holding back, I shall lay you down right away." And he picked her up bridal style and carried her into the bedroom, laying her down gently and resuming their kiss.
Dana figured it was only a matter of time, but as time passed, she wondered why on earth he wasn't stripping her. She reached for his belt and began trying to undo it, but at that moment, Tschueda stopped her hands and again asked, "What are you doing?"
"Tschueda, love, please don't be so ridiculous. We are lying on a bed sharing our passion with one another. What kind of scenario do you think that sets up?"
"Simply that, love. We cannot go further, as we are unmarried."
Then Dana understood. Tschueda had village morals, that no man slept with a woman unless they were married. She supposed she'd always realized that was a possibility but had tucked it away in the back of her mind, hoping that he wouldn't really follow those guidelines. But here was her benevolent, persistent suitor, and she expected something less from him? She was desperate. There had to be some conniving thing she could do to somehow undermine his morality. She needed his current state of mind right then and there. So she threatened his greatest desire.
"But Tschueda, I cannot marry you unless you make love to me."
The corners of Tschueda's mouth turned downward, and his expression became clouded and unclear. In a potentially threatening voice, he ground out, "What kind of a logic is that?"
Dana could sense that she was losing him, but it was all or nothing. She responded, "I must know that you are a good lover; otherwise I shall never be happy. A girl should never wed a man no good in bed."
"Do you think a little rhyme justifies immorality?"
"Immorality, no. Eternal happiness, yes."
"The two persons in a couple do not have to master the art of love to be eternally happy."
"Of course they do! That is the one act they will share with each other alone for the rest of their days, the act of love, and if either partner is no good the other does not feel loved as much. That partner feels cheated out of the greatest pleasure we're given, and what can that person do about it? Once shackled by marriage, there is no escape."
"Is that how you see marriage? As imprisonment? Husband and wife bond themselves together as such out of their love for each other. It is no prison when it is of their own volition! And you think one can feel cheated just because his or her partner is uncertain of how to go to bed? As newlyweds in our prime, we're given the rest of our lives to figure out how to act our love."
"And what if the couple never figures it out?"
"With at least another forty years ahead of them, that's hardly an argument."
"But Tschueda, you are old. You've lost nearly two decades of that time."
"And two decades of it I still have remaining. That's quite a while."
Dana, lacking further argument, suddenly put up a most pitiful appearance and forced a tear out of one eye as she asked in a half-whisper, "Don't you want me?"
She expected Tschueda to soften, to comfort her, to feel pity. She simply wanted him to forget his anger, and then she would sob hysterically and wretch his whole being toward wanting to see her happy again. She had that plan, to take full advantage of him, but her plan suddenly went awry as she saw Tschueda's face heat to blood red and his hands start to tremble with fury. She knew then that it was over, but whether or not "it" included her life, she was uncertain.
Tschueda stood at the edge of the bed and yanked her up by the wrists. She yelped in protest but lost her breath quickly and didn't want to breathe in again for the sudden proximity she had to Tschueda's face. His speech came out in a seething hiss as he said, "You promised me!"
Surviving only on small gasps of air, Dana managed to squeak out, "Promised what?"
Tschueda snarled before yelling, "You promised to marry me!"
"But that scrap of paper
"A worthy gift, that poem! You said I'd earned you!"
"Hmph! I'll bet there is no earning you; you're worthless!"
"What happened? You loved me!"
"Stupid witch," he said, throwing her down to the floor and kicking her once in the ribs to ensure she didn't stand again. "That you would pretend not to know what you've done to me
" He shook his head. "All this time I've spent pining over you, all the effort I've put forth
all of it for nothing! I'll be better off with my betrothed!"
He began to pace away from Dana, but she reached out and grabbed his ankle, still in too much pain to rise. In a ragged voice she said, "It would not be wise for you to leave without giving me what I want. You forget the powers of a witch. Always we do things my way."
Tschueda kicked free of her clutches and stomped on her hands before responding, "Man is superior to woman; we do things my way! Good riddance to you!" And he strode proudly off. Before he was outside the curtain, Dana offered one last phrase in her most tempting voice.
"You have been warned."
Tschueda no longer desired to stray from the path laid out for his future. He spent much more time around Sara and found her to be enjoyable company. She wasn't very bright, but she always complimented him and admired him most greatly. She was perfectly content with doing housework all day long, and it bothered her not in the least that she couldn't read. This was the key to her bonding with Tschueda, as she would beg him to read to her, coaxing him by explaining how she loved his voice. The puppy-like excitement of her chocolate-honey eyes always won him over, and he found the minutes flying by as he recited a tale for her.
She was a very youthful character and took the occasional pleasure of spinning in circles until she was dizzy enough to fall over. She also loved to skip through fields of tall grass and wildflowers, her thin, white-gold hair streaming behind her, sunlight glinting off her fair skin. She would often take Tschueda by the hand and try to convince him to join her in this endeavor, which he agreed to if no one else was watching. When she was confused about something, she had a way of biting half of her bottom lip and cocking her head to the side, which Tschueda found cute. Yet at the same time, the thought would cross his mind that she was more like a daughter in relation to him than a potential lover. He would shake the thought free and distract himself by counting the freckles on her face as though they held no more interest than cracks in a floorboard.
According to plan, the two were married a week after Sara's fifteenth birthday (it would be easier for Sara to remember their anniversary that way) at the village chapel. They rode in a farmer's horse cart to Tschueda's home, where a bundle of Sara's personal belongings were waiting in an old crate outside. After carrying her through the threshold, Tschueda gathered up her items, and the two incorporated the things with the house until sundown.
Sara placed her hands above her buttocks and stretched. Then she took Tschueda's hand and playfully chirped, "Well, it's time to go to bed now, dontcha think?"
Tschueda smiled at her and said, "As you wish, my bride."
A muffled laugh found its way through Sara's nose as she turned to run down the hallway with her new husband in tow. Tschueda stopped her after a couple of steps to ask, "But wait, shouldn't I carry you?" But Sara only ripped her hand free and tore down to the bedroom, giggling the whole way. She paused in the doorframe, poking only her head out for Tschueda to see, and beckoned him once with a hand before disappearing inside.
Tschueda shook his head, still smiling, and followed at a much slower pace. Sara was already fidgeting with her dress, trying to take it off, and with great difficulty. Never mind the romance, Tschueda thought before walking her way. He placed his hands at her waist from behind her and asked, "Shall I help you with that?"
"Uhuh," she said informally, bobbing her head "yes" at the wall.
As Tschueda began lifting her skirt, he heard a woman outside wailing. The sound was so near that he paused and began looking around as though he would find some clue from within the room. He finally decided he could pinpoint the sound at the front of the house. He muttered a quick assurance to Sara before walking to the front door and opening it to see what was the matter.
At his feet was Dana, curled up at the doormat with her hands stretched out toward the door as though worshipping a god. She was sobbing most bitterly, her back heaving up and down. Tschueda's expression changed from concerned to livid upon recognition.
"What are you doing here?" he growled.
Dana's sobbing ceased into a little sniffle, and she sat back on her heels, looking up at Tschueda.
"So you married her," she said, matter-of-factly.
"You sure recover quickly."
"But you and I both know she's not what you wanted."
"As it turns out, I find her to be exactly what I want."
"She's so young. You could be her father."
"Age doesn't matter. She's a woman, mature enough to bear children."
"And bear children she shall, supposing she can seduce you."
"She is eager enough to learn."
"That's probably all she's good for, really, birthing children."
"She does much else besides."
"Like what? Housework? Submissive female chores that won't rattle her fragile frame?"
"At least she is sufficiently feminine."
"Oh, and I am not? You certainly seemed to think so once upon a time."
Tschueda didn't speak for a moment. Choosing not to answer, he finally said in a low voice, "Get off of my property."
"Oh, Shuh-way-duh!" Sara cheerily sang out from the bedroom. "We're runnin' plumb outta night here! I fin'ly got my dress off, but I might need help with my underwear, so's I'll just lay on the bed here an' wait fer you to help me, 'kay?"
Dana had stood up by then and mused, "Charming isn't she? Or no, rather, I prefer brassy."
Tschueda hollered to Sara, "I'll be there in a moment, darling!" Then to Dana he muttered, "Leave."
"Oh, I will. I didn't intend to overhear your erotic performance. 'Oh, Tschueda! Take my panties off for me while I sprawl my legs apart!'" she mimicked in a melodramatic fashion. Then she turned and walked off.
Tschueda took great care to close the door quietly, restraining the desire to rip Dana apart limb from limb. He took a deep breath and let it whoosh out before returning to his anxious bride for the evening.
Following a short time of their being married, they discovered that Sara was pregnant. The news brought them great joy, and Tschueda waited eagerly as months passed, commenting enthusiastically on how big Sara's belly was getting. He had hoped so long for children of his own, and he was finally getting started. He took excessively good care of his wife, helping her get in and out of bed and constantly asking her how she felt or if she needed anything. Sara never became agitated with him, nor did she become spoiled. She merely returned Tschueda's affections in her own way, cooking his favorite meals often and trading little craft things she made for stories the old widow, Annabelle, wrote to give to him.
Both Sara and Tschueda's mothers had decided to be the midwives for Sara, though Sara's mother had priority for the most crucial jobs, birthing the baby, for one. The two women stopped by quite often to visit and fretted over anything and everything.
"This floor is really too cold," Tschueda's mother complained one afternoon while standing in the kitchen. "Sara could take sick this way. You know that the temperature of the woman's feet has a great effect on how she's feeling."
"Yes, Greta, you're right. Did you know also that she could get arthritis in these conditions?" Sara's mother chimed in.
"Arthritis, Melinda? Whatever is that?"
"Oh, I heard that term from the traveling doctor in Fortsbroth. It refers to that terrible ache that the elderly get in their joints due to age."
"Oh, my! Sara becoming an old woman when she is still so young
we cannot let that happen!"
Within the week that followed, the two had woven one large rug apiece and covered the kitchen floor with them. Needless to say, Sara was well looked after and endured a comfortable pregnancy.
Sara gave birth to a charming baby boy whom Tschueda named Heisitch. The couple hardly ever got to hold him for the frequency of his grandmothers' visits. He was a chubby baby with soft, gold hair, and he could be particularly fussy at times. Sara would often try to make excuses that he was crying because he wanted his mother, but whichever grandmother was doting on him then would simply bounce him a bit and put off Sara's explanations as nonsense.
Regardless of the situation, whether Sara was trying to lay claim to her baby or her baby was crying uncontrollably, Sara remained in good spirits, and before she or Tschueda knew it, their first anniversary came around.
Greta and Melinda threw a party for them despite their protests and invited just about the entire village to celebrate. They had spent the entire morning and even part of the night before preparing food for it, and Tschueda knew not how his or Sara's fathers afforded the ingredients. He hoped it would be a one-time ordeal and promised himself to talk to his father about it.
Once the celebration was over and cleaned up, Sara put Heisitch to bed, and she herself went soon after, but not before hinting to Tschueda that they still had a little celebrating of their own to do. Tschueda assured her that he would retire to their chamber in a matter of moments and politely encouraged her to ready herself. He then went about checking the rooms of the house to see that all was in order, stopping last at his son's room and kissing him gently on the forehead. He made his way toward the bedroom before a familiar sound yanked his attention to the front door.
"What is that vile temptress doing here?" he rumbled to himself before pacing to where Dana's sobs penetrated the cracks of the door. He opened it and found her bowing to the threshold, as she had the year before. Without waiting for her to notice him, he asked, "Why are you here again?"
Dana sat up and nonchalantly stated, "I just wanted to wish you a happy anniversary."
"What are these false tears for?"
"False? They are quite real, Tschueda."
"Twice now you've shown yourself, sobbing hysterically, only to straighten up a moment later as though nothing were ever wrong."
"In time, you will see."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"A curse was once a blessing, a killer in disguise,
Age would show its ugly face; age would make it wise.
To gain its power time must pass, and others of its kind,
Are bred in gradual increment, unknown to keeper's mind.
Innocent at first but later to become a sinner,
It feeds on hosted youth and health, outer and the inner.
Once the keeper knows its game and feels its coursed disease,
It's too late to regain the youth; it's too late to be free."
"I don't have time for riddles. Why are you here?" Tschueda almost shouted.
"I have said all I need to say. You will never see me again." Dana turned around and headed in the direction of her woods. Tschueda did not stop her. She had promised he wouldn't see her again, which was what he desired. It was difficult to look at her beautiful body and find the love he'd reserved for his wife afterward.
Suddenly he remembered that Sara was waiting for him. He eagerly went to her and pretended nothing had ever happened.
Sara became pregnant a second time and gave birth to a baby girl to whom she gave the name Hanna. Hanna was born on the exact same day as Heisitch. Their parents marveled at this coincidence, as did their grandmothers, who continued their routine of spoiling the children rotten. Three months passed and brought Tschueda and Sara's second anniversary. Fortunately, their parents did not throw a party for them though Greta and Melinda each begged their husbands to. Instead, the couple spent their day picnicking with their babies. Then they put them to bed and prepared to start their evening of romantic indulgence. But their kisses were cut short when Tschueda, for the third time, heard Dana bawling at the front door.
Sara heard it and asked, "Who is that?"
Tschueda told her he would be right back and stormed off to the door, throwing it open and bellowing, "You promised you wouldn't show your face again!" But Dana was not on the ground, nor was she anywhere in sight. Tschueda could only walk to his bedroom, confused and wondering. Was his mind playing tricks on him?
"Who was it?" Sara asked him.
"Not a soul," he replied.
"Oh, some brats playin' tricks? They really oughtta find somethin' else to do
"It doesn't matter now, my darling. It is in the past, and the past is forever behind us."
This became the routine of their life. Dana would shed tears and moans of agony on their doorstep on the night of their anniversary, and for the next two years, Tschueda would check the porch only to find no one there. For the years following, Tschueda simply ignored the cries he heard and resumed loving his wife. Sara would always become pregnant after those nights and would give birth to a child on the same day that she gave birth to Heisitch, and the family would have a happy three months before the cycle started all over again.
At first, the children were a blessing. But as there came to be seven and eight of them, they gradually, year by year, became a curse. Tschueda, Sara, and even the grandmothers became tired taking care of all of them. Heisitch would knock Yusi down when she tried to walk, Hanna and Beatrice always fought over who was prettier of the two, Dmitri would pull Joan's hair, and Alanna and Jack, the two youngest, were always in tears.
Tschueda and Sara knew they had to do something to prevent another child from being brought into their home, so they agreed to abstain on the night of their eighth anniversary. That night came, and the couple was lying in bed as though asleep. But as soon as Dana finished her round of crying, both husband and wife found themselves wide awake and falling victim to an unyielding fit of passion. There was no way of escaping the curse.
For the next two years, they tried to stick with their agreement, but as expected by the curse, Sara was pregnant with her eleventh child after their tenth anniversary. After Sara gave birth to that child, Tschueda decided he could keep his secret no longer. He told Sara the story of Dana, how he attempted to court her and refused to give her what she wanted. Sara was rather upset by this news, that Tschueda was interested in another woman and that he'd ruined the life of his own family. Most of all, she was upset that he'd kept such a secret from her. She kept herself emotionally distant from him and dreaded the passing of the next few months, knowing she was doomed to become pregnant yet again.
On the night of their eleventh anniversary, Sara went to bed alone, and Tschueda waited beside the front door, ready to capture Dana and demand she lift her curse. Through a crack in the wall, he saw her walk up and kneel down. The door flew open as he tackled her, knocking her over backward and pinning her to the ground by her wrists.
"Why?! Why have you done this to me?!" he roared. Dana could only stare helplessly up at him. "You selfish, lustful creature! I refuse to indulge you in sin, so you bathe my life in misery! What motives have you to destroy me so?"
"You destroyed me, I protest."
"And what did I ever take from you?"
"You denied me your innocence."
"But I kept you yours."
A look of astonishment found Dana's face. "What?" she asked in surprise.
"By denying you a sinful pleasure, you were forced to resist temptation."
"But my mind was still tainted."
"Like always, you distract me. I want to know why you cursed me so unfairly!"
"It's a fair curse, balance for the pain you have caused me and now continue to inflict!"
"Pain eases with time; it does not multiply! Even that said, I caused you no pain."
"I fell in love with you after you left!"
Tschueda released one of her wrists to slap her, and then he resumed pinning her down. "No lies!" he bellowed.
"It's truth, I beg!"
"Falsity, I call! You have no concept of love."
"Innocence with a pinch of lust. I have been at my practice long, recall."
"But you don't love me. You are lust in entirety."
"But you said you kept me my innocence."
"With a mere pinch of innocence, then."
A silence followed, filled only by their heavy breathing. Tschueda could hear Sara calming the children, as could Dana, who finally said, "You have a family now. See to them."
"I am not about to let you curse me with another child."
"Children are a blessing. I have blessed you each year with new life, and that is proof that I love you."
"But as they age, they become sinners. You said so yourself. It is a diseased love you speak of. You love me wrongly, if you do at all."
"Give them time, and they will marry and have blessings of their own. Love has its ups and downs, but its one constant is that, in the end, love has always been worth the pain. So I protest that I love you fulfillingly, and if not rightly, I am sorry."
Tschueda felt his resolve falter a little. He released Dana's wrists and sat back on his heels. "But your intent was to curse me."
"True, I wanted you to feel pain. I was hurting due to my foolishness," she said, sitting up. "I wanted someone else to blame, and you were the most rational reason I could find for my disorder. After I had bestowed my curse, I realized that the curse would again become a blessing, so I never lifted it. But you say for certain that you want no more children?"
"It is true. I have enough blessings," he said bitterly.
Dana sighed an aged sigh. "Very well, then. I lift my curse and leave you my blessing.
"My curse is still a blessing; a killer is its guise,
Time hath shown its ugly face; age hath made it wise.
It gains the power of love with time, when others of its kind,
Are bred in gradual increment, a gift, in Nature's mind.
Innocent at first but later learning how to sin,
Parents teach them right from wrong; their law shall guide their kin.
Love is never perfect, and it can incur disease,
For honest love, there is a cure; the truth shall set it free."
"Thank you," Tschueda warbled unsteadily, tears of relief brimming the corners of his eyes.
"Will you tell me one thing before I go?" Dana asked sadly.
"All this time
have you still loved me?"
In that moment, a wave of doubt washed over Tschueda's mind. He wasn't entirely sure if he believed that Dana truly loved him, that she had matured enough to feel love in the time they'd spent apart. He didn't know if she really intended to bless him, or if that blessing was out of love and not guilt. He couldn't even conjure up what knowing the answers to these questions would tell him. If Dana loved him now, what could he do about it? Abandon his family and run away with her? There was no sense in any of it. There was also the matter that he could admit his love for Dana and that she could shatter him with her pride. He just didn't know her well enough.
To protect his pride and the family he was now responsible for, he said, "No, Dana. I love you no longer." And he stood, leaving Dana crouched on the ground.
Dana's eyes seemed to pierce themselves with sadness as she clung to Tschueda's pants leg, bleeding tears. Suddenly she doubled over as though she'd been punched in her gut. Within her trembling frame, her heart ripped in two. Dana arched back, a horrid scream erupting from her dehydrated lips, the very ones that had once relished in sappy moisture. Her life sublimed from her body in a final desperate exhale as she stretched herself out at Tschueda's feet. Then she breathed no more.
Tschueda at once realized what had happened, and he knelt down to her corpse, grief settling deep in his heart. He picked her up in his arms and sat holding her to his chest. Fugitive tears were lost to his attention as he felt his love for Dana painfully renewed, a wound chafed raw and bleeding.
"What a proud fool am I," he mumbled to himself. Then he kissed Dana on the forehead and said, "The truth is
I always loved you."