Strong Roots Amongst The Clay

Clay Boy

Once there was a kindly woman who was known all about the town as Lovely Lucy, not so much for her appearance, for she was endowed with plain features—which wasn’t a bad thing at all—but she was called this because she was arguably one of the sweetest people who ever walked the face of the planet. The only parts of her life that suffered were her love life and her inability to bear children.

One morning, Lucy went to market and spoke with the town sculptor, who made statues large and small, some for himself and some which he sold. Lucy hadn’t much money so she explained what she wanted to do and begged the sculptor to spare some clay and promised to pay him another day. The sculptor remembered how Lucy had brought soup and sat by his bedside when he had taken ill, and gladly gave her as much of his special clay as she could carry, free of charge.

Thanking the sculptor for his kindness, Lucy rushed home and began working on a life-sized statue of a boy, aged five. She made the little boy perfect. His reddish-brown features depicted an unblemished beauty and innocence such as no real boy had ever possessed. Although she had no skill at sculpting, she crafted the statue with such love that upon first glance it seemed to be a live boy standing still. She took great care in painting her little angel, making his eyes blue like the sky, his lips and cheeks pink like the sunset and his hair black as twilight.

Lucy marveled at her creation. She held his little clay hand, kissed his rosy cheek, and told him many times a day how much she loved him. When she went out to market, he was always in her mind, and she searched for presents for him – flat, smooth rocks for skipping across the lake, seashells for tooting like horns, and twigs and vines woven into a ball. She bartered her baked goods for hand-me-down children’s clothing and dressed him in different outfits each day. She even brought him a puppy from the neighbor’s litter for company while she was away.

Lucy was not able to manage the other part of her suffering as easily. For reasons unknown to anyone, she attracted the wrong sort of suitors and was far too kind of heart to dismiss them, despite their many transgressions against her. It pained the townsfolk to see a woman so intelligent in all other respects remain so foolish in love.

Her most recent failed relationship was with a traveler who suspected her of being unfaithful one day when she had gone out to market, so he barred her from her own house and drew obscene pictures of her and posted them about town. Lucy begged and pleaded with the traveler and after a week or so, he changed his opinion and let her back into her home to be reunited with her clay boy.

That evening the traveler fixed her dinner and his mouth was sweet with words of love and a possible reconciliation. Cautious at first, Lucy finally let her guard fall, assured that his feelings and his intentions were genuine. That was the last thing she remembered before she awoke the following afternoon, face down in her bedding. She felt groggy and her body ached in unspeakable places as though she had been violated. She knew she had been drugged.

Lucy reported the incident to the authorities. The traveler confronted her in public, on the road from the market, after the authorities questioned him. Wishing to avoid an argument, she simply turned to walk away. Her next waking recollection was being bound to a chair in her home. The traveler had struck her a cowardly blow to the back of the head. She was helpless as he raged against her with rock and branch. But fortune smiled upon her when a neighbor heard her cries of anguish and contacted the authorities. This time, he was imprisoned.

From his prison cell, the traveler requested an audience with Lucy, and she, having a forgiving nature, went to visit. And his tongue was dipped in honey and he spoke sweetness and there was yet again talk of a possible reconciliation, which she honestly considered.

All was calm and happy between Lucy and the traveler when he was once again a free man. They sat together and talked, went out to the seashore and walked, and the traveler also lavished attention on the clay boy. All seemed right with the world and Lucy’s life was as close to being perfect as it had ever been.

Until one night she bolted upright out of a sound sleep and found the traveler standing over her, eyes doused in rage.

“I know you play me for a fool!” He spat through gritted teeth. “I know you have taken a lover! Who is it? The neighbor? The sculptor? Tell me who it is or you will never know a moment’s peace ever again!”

When she did not answer, he stormed out of the room and Lucy hoped he would leave the house but instead the sound of his thunderous footsteps headed in the direction of her private room—the room where the clay boy lived.

“No!” she cried as she dashed from her bed.

In the private room, she found the traveler with the wood axe resting over one shoulder. He stood next to her perfect little boy.

“Shhh,” he said. “If you wake him up, I will have to kill him.”

Lucy hadn’t a clue what to do so she started begging for the statue’s life, whispering as not to anger the traveler.

“What can I do?” she kept asking him. “What can I do to make this right?”

The traveler commanded her to her knees and she did this without a second thought. “Down on all fours.” And she complied. Then he made her crawl from the room backward, back into her bedroom.

“Now, on your knees,” he said, closing the door behind him. “Close your eyes and smile.” She was nervous, of course, but she obeyed. The next thing she felt was the ax handle as it smashed into her mouth, shattering her front teeth.

“Your life is mine! Your sad statue is mine! You both will cease to exist if I so wish it!” the traveler ranted.

She felt his foot on her shoulder, pushing her over, toppling her flat on her back. She wanted to look at him but was afraid, so she squeezed her eyes shut as he straddled her and beat her. Her head swam with pain, but Lucy knew she couldn’t scream for fear of this madman destroying her little boy, so she took the beating until she passed out.

Lucy dreamed she that she was an eagle soaring through clouds misted with morning dew above a river where children frolicked and although she was too high to hear the sounds of their tiny voices, she knew they were happy and having fun. But something tugged at her tail feathers like a dragging weight, pulling her back down to a place she did not want to go, a place of pain and sorrow—

When she woke up, regaining consciousness piece by piece, she was surrounded by the sharp claws of searing pain that pawed at her like a hungry animal. As her mind struggled for clarity she wondered where she was. In her bed? But how did she get there?

All around, the walls were covered in blood, so much blood. Too much to be her own. Then she saw the bits and pieces. Parts that belonged at one time to a whole, red soaked clumps of the remnants of the traveler. Divided from one another and from life itself by the wood ax buried in the man’s severed head.

She looked at her hands. Had she done this terrible thing? Then she heard a voice, tiny tingly, that chirped in song, “Not to worry, not to fear, everything is fine, Mama, I am here.”

She stared at a living boy whose eyes were blue as the sky, cheeks the color of the sunset and hair as black as twilight.

He hugged her neck and kissed her cheek and whispered, “I love you, too.”

©1989 & 2017 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

About Strong Roots Amongst the Clay: As a kid I never had much interest in fairy tales. In fact, I hated them. My mother told me that someone had given her a book about Squanto, also known as Tisquantum—the Native American of the Patuxet tribe who assisted the Pilgrims after their first winter in the New World—thinking it was a book of fairy tales. And where Mother Goose and The Brothers Grimm failed to put me at rest at night, the adventures of Squanto did the job nicely.

And I wouldn’t fully appreciate the cultural richness and power of fairy tales until revisiting them in the 1980’s. For the longest time I searched for something to spark an idea for a fairy tale story that I probably would never bother writing—there’s a difference between the wanting of a thing and the doing of a thing.

Then one day a story was relayed to me about a coworker at a retail job that I absolutely hated and the first thought that popped into my mind—after showing proper concern for my coworker, of course—was to give my fairy tale story a spin.

At the time I wrote the story, I wasn’t a fan of the fairy tale narration. I didn’t like reading it and I didn’t like writing it. I’m still not a big fan of a lot of the story’s voice,  but finally sitting down and writing a fairy tale piece taught me appreciation of it.

I’m still not sure if I like the ending or not. There’s a fine line between chilling and cheesy and I’m not sure which side I’m on.

The Hooded Redahlia

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“Alas for those girls who’ve refused the truth: The sweetest tongue has the sharpest tooth.” ― Jack Zipes, Little Red Riding Hood and Other Classic French Fairy Tales

The various herbs and tinctures had been gathered from the garden and the cooking cupboard, carefully measured and mixed into the secret family recipe that had been handed down in their family from generation to generation and when all the baking was completed, Mother asked her only daughter, Redalhia, to take the specially prepared galette and pot of cream to Grandmother’s forest cottage.

Redalhia had not quite felt up for the journey as her body was undergoing a significant change and she found herself trapped betwixt and between being the girl she once was and the woman she would one day become. But she loved Grandmother so very dearly, enough in fact that she put her own cares aside, happily gathered the food into a wicker basket and donning her crimson hooded cloak before setting off for the forest.

How could she have done any less? Her grandmother had recently fallen ill and the severity of her malady forced her to live apart from the family in a cottage deep within the forest, for fear of passing the sickness unto anyone else.

***

The road on which Redalhia walked led to the tree line of the forest where it split in two and at that fork stood the changeling-wolf known in the village as Bzou. The shapeshifter’s senses were sharper than that of a human so he smelled the nectar of her menses long before she would have spotted him, an advantage he put to use by quickly assuming the form of a wizened man. When the blood-hooded girl grew close enough to benefit from the power of his bright smile, Bzou flashed his teeth and asked, “Excuse me, dear, where are you going?”

“To Grandmother’s house, sir,” Redalhia answered with that shy look young girls often wore, behind slightly pursed lips that teased a smile which required just a bit of coaxing.

Bzou sniffed the air, “And what, fair creature, do you carry?” but it was not the scent of the food in the basket that tempted his nostrils.

“Why, Mother’s cooking, of course. Bread and cream for Grandmother’s supper. She lives in the forest cottage.”

“And which path will you take?” Bzou asked, gesturing at both paths, one after the other. “The Path of Needles or the Path of Pins?”

Redalhia pondered this a moment. “The Path of Pins, I think, since it is the quickest.”

“Are you certain?”

“Yes, very. I have traveled both paths and Pins is the quickest.”

“Let us put your expertise to the test, shall we? I will take the Path of Needles, and we will see who gets there first.”

Redalhia shrugged for she knew she was right, but if the silly old man wanted to waste his time, who was she to stop him? She set off down the Path of Pins and thought it strange that he simply stood there, grinning, and watching her walk.

Bzou also knew the girl was right. Of course, the Path of Pins was quicker and she definitely would have reached the cottage first had the shapeshifter walked on two legs. But using all four? There was no way she would be faster than he. When the girl disappeared within the dense patch of trees, the wolfen shook off his human guise, trotted down the Path of Needles, and as he knew he would, reached Grandmother’s cottage first.

The cunning wolf altered his appearance to resemble the cherubic Redalhia and rapped gently on the door. When Grandmother answered, her thrill at seeing her favorite grandchild was short lived as Bzou slaughtered her, quickly and efficiently as not to leave a mess. He gnawed her flesh, lapped up her blood and ate her bones to the marrow, leaving only a small portion of flesh that he placed on a little dish in the pantry, and a bit of blood that he drained into a little bottle. Then Bzou cleaned himself, took the form of Grandmother and dressed in her cap and shawl before climbing into bed.

When Redalhia finally knocked on the door, Bzou carefully disguised his guttural voice before calling out, “Come in, my child.”

“Grandmother,” the girl beamed, removing her cloak and hanging it on the hook by the front door. “Mother sent me here with a galette and cream.”

“Put them in the pantry, child. Are you hungry and thirsty?”

“Yes, I am.”

“There is meat in the pantry for you to cook and wine beside it to drink.”

Redalhia cooked the meat and as she began to eat it, a little cat perched on the open windowsill and mewled. It must have been her imagination for she swore it sounded like the cat said, “You are eating the flesh of your grandmother!”

“Throw your shoe at that noisy cat,” said Bzou, and so the girl did.

As Redalhia washed the meat down with wine, a small bird alighted on the very same windowsill as the cat before and impossibly cried, “You are drinking the blood of your grandmother!”

“Throw your other shoe at that noisy bird,” Bzou commanded, and the girl did so.

When Redalhia finished her meal, Bzou said, “You must be exhausted from your journey, child. Take off your clothes, come to bed, and I shall warm you up.”

It was true, after the meat and drink, her head did spin slightly. There was something in the flavor of the meal, a familiarity basted in sorrow. “Where shall I put my clothing, Grandmother?”

“Throw them on the fire, child, for you won’t need them anymore.”

Normally, Redalhia would have questioned this but a sudden weariness fogged her mind. She tossed her bodice, skirt, petticoat, and stockings on the fire, and climbed into bed.

The nearness of her, the smell of her budding womanhood, caused Bzou’s concentration to wander and his guise slipped a bit.

Even through the sleepy haze, Redalhia noticed the change. Her once frail grandmother was hairier, her arms stronger, ears larger, and her teeth — those teeth were familiar but they had not belonged to her Grandmother. Where had she seen them before?

Bzou spoke in gentle tones to allay the girl’s suspicions, “My hair is to keep you warm on cold nights, my arms to hold you close, my ears to better hear your sweet voice, and my teeth…”

Sharp teeth. Sharper than any human has ever had. “The better to eat me with?” Redalhia leapt from the bed. “Bizou!”

The wolf smiled and let the disguise fall away completely. “Yes, ’tis I.”

“But where is Grandmo–” the truth slowly dawned on her. “You ate her!”

“I am afraid we share that sin, my dear. Now come and lie beside me.” Bzou patted the empty side of the bed.

The realization made Redalhia retch. “I — I feel ill…”

“Do it in the bed, my child, I do not mind.”

The girl backed out of the room, snatched her hood off the hook to hide her nakedness, staggered out the cottage door and vomited the undigested bits of her late grandmother against a plum tree.

Bzou followed her outside, shaking his canine head, “What a waste of good meat. Are you finished yet, deary, so that we may attend to our affairs?”

“My only affair is to see you dead!” the girl spat.

“You are welcomed to try after I take from you what is mine.”

Redalhia sprinted from the tree and took off down the Path of Pins.

“Ambrosia sweetened by the chase!” Bzou grinned as he darted down the Path of Needles, powerful legs carrying him to the fork in the road with a swiftness unmatched by any human. He braced himself for the girl to appear from the tree line. He would take her straight away, no more games. He waited. And waited. Until waiting turned to impatience and impatience turned to fury.

Bzou used his hind limbs and shoulders to propel himself through the Path of Pins at a full gallop until she saw the red hooded cloak crouched before a bush. He pounced–

And at first his mind was all a muddle. The cloak was in his teeth but there was no girl and he was suddenly upside down, tangled in something that bit at him. He was thankful for the sharp pain because it was enough to wrest him out of confusion. He was caught up in brambles. That clever girl draped her hood over a briar bush! Bzou concentrated on what he would do to the girl when he eventually caught her, to block out the sound of his screams as he slowly began to right himself and pull himself free of the tangle of prickly scrambling shrubs. The wetness of thick blood trickled from the rends in his flesh but he couldn’t afford to waste time nursing his wounds.

***

Redalhia had doubled back once she heard Bzou on the Path of Needles. Her first instinct was to run to the safety of her home, but she quickly realized how foolish a thought that was. She could not risk leading the wolf to her house, could not afford to lose Mother as well.

Branches and thistles and thorns and bramble tore at Redalhia’s naked flesh as she ran past the cottage and through the woods which had no path. And when she thought she could not run any further, she reached a river, swift and deep, where laundresses on both banks were hard at work.

“Help me cross,” she pleaded with them. The washerwomen took pity on the girl and spread a sheet over the water and held tightly to its ends. No sooner than when Redalhia had begun to cross the bridge of cloth, Bzou reached the river and jumped upon the sheet as well.

She too was on all fours now, scrambling to reach the other side of the river, and when the wolf was almost upon her, Redalhia dove off the sheet onto the river bank and yanked the linen from the laundresses’ hands and let it go.

Bzou’s paws clawed at the muddy river bank. looking for purchase but Redalhia kicked them away. He bobbed the surface a few times, shifting forms from wolf to the old man in the road to Redalhia herself to Grandmother and finally back to his true wolf self, desperately trying to swim against the tide but was too badly tangled in the sheet.

“Think… you have won… foolish whelp,” Bzou gasped each time his head resurfaced. “But you… tasted… the meat… you are tainted… cursed… I curse y–”

The wolfen let out one last pitiful howl before he drowned.

One of the laundresses, the elder of the group, gave Redalhia a sheet to wrap herself in and escorted her home, where she described to Mother in great detail the events of the day.

They held a funeral service for Grandmother and in a roughly hewn box they placed the bits of flesh Redalhia had been unable to digest, wrapped with an heirloom kerchief and buried it under the plum tree.

And as it often was in life, everything eventually returned to normal — with the exception of the four nights each month when the moon was at its fullest which always coincided with Redalhia’s personal cycle.

Just before her daughter’s bone structure began to realign itself, before her musculature changed and her hair grew, Mother would walk Redalhia to the forest cottage formerly occupied by Grandmother, secure her to the bed with silver, and cover the doors and windows with wolfsbane until the curse of the beast ran its course.

– Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys