Tulok

A stark white cloud of breath poured from Tulok’s mouth and he passed through the cloud as he trudged through the snow with the swagger of youth and boyish arrogance. Frigid air filled his mouth, cooling his throat then pouring back out, warmed by his body. A clear, crisp night, cloudless and still, a good omen for the Chosen; a good sign for the warriors. Leaning forward, Tulok persevered up the hill, pushing through frozen reeds and frosted grasses. The stillness amplified the rustling reeds. Any nocturnal predators would know in advance of his journey. Not knowing his reputation for swiftness and agility, the predators may come, but they would die at the hands of the Chosen.

As a child, Tulok was blessed with vitality and a voracious appetite, requiring a wet nurse to aid his mother to satisfy him. He walked early and ran earlier, joining older boys in their violent play. Proud and aloof, his mother watched her youngest son as her matched and surpassed her other seven sons in strength and strategy. His cunning grew and the old men called Tiqriganiannig, Fox, and Amaguq, Trickster. Old women no longer sat by the fire commenting on virility and who would lead when Apaata, the aging leader, passed away. Tulok would rule the people; Tulok would lead the men in the hunt; Tulok would take women to his bed and make strong sons. Tulok.

Tulok.

Pausing, he listened. A keening howl from miles away; the steady, slow bump of his heart; the rasping of cold air filling his lungs, warming, and pouring back out into the cold. Amarok did not walk this night, dared no walk near Tulok, the Chosen.

Resuming a brisk but unhurried pace, Tulok reached the frozen dunes with frosted grasses pointing to the sky. A thin, well-traveled path curved through the reeds, inclining gently up a slope and ending in supported stairs. Tulok waited at the wooden stairs looking up into the black sky with brilliant white fires burning through. He could see the beginning of the smoke over the hill in front of him, just beyond the rise of the stairs. Carefully he lifted a foot to the bottom stair when a reed broke. Dropping to a low crouch, Tulok scanned the frozen reeds and stark grasses looking for the predator. Sliding his knife free with  a soft swish he adjusted his feet for balance to run or to spring into an attack.

To take the stairs now was certain death, the only safety in the grasses which barely came to his hips. He must stay low, and he must get off the trail. Sliding to the left, he eased into the reeds, listening, waiting for his assailant to move and cause a sound.

Silence.

Tulok waited with the patience of a warrior. Tonight was his night; he would night die this night. Tulok, a soft voice whispered, rippling across the grasses and away again. Tulok, he heard. Flexing powerful legs he raised himself slightly, eyes scanning across the valley he had crossed, looking now for the woman who called him. None but his village knew his name, of that he was certain. None but his village knew this night was his night, destined to be Chosen. He stood. “Come to me, woman,” Tulok called into the dark, his breath pouring from his mouth.

Stillness.

Tulok chided himself. Hearing things, most likely; hearing nothing, most likely of all. He turned and began up the stairs. Tulok. He turned; seeing nothing, he continued on. Stepping over the rise and onto the final step Tulok saw destiny spread across the sky. Vibrant green and blue smoke rippled across the sky, raining down glowing fire of victory and fortune. Tulok raised his hands to the air, chest held high, face raised to the clear night sky. The wind chose this moment to race across the water toward Tulok, lifting his long black hair off his back and shoulders to fly in a whirlwind of chaos and coal.

Tulok.

Tulok turned and saw an old woman standing on the trail, her white hair like bone against the dark. Tulok’s black hair fell still around him as the wind faded and stilled. “Woman, you are in danger here,” Tulok said, stepping slowly down the wooden stairs toward the frail and strange crone. “Amarok walks the night, mother, you should not be here alone.” In the dark, Tulok could not recognize the old woman, but did not fret. The woman was frail as a child. A rasping, perilous voice hissed from her bony form.

“Tulok, Amarok walks this night. Amarok stands before you, shadowed and cloaked that you, great warrior, might move in to protect that which will see you dead.” The crone lifted golden eyes to meet Tulok’s. Her lips lifted back to show wolf teeth and her cackle turned to a throaty howl. Tulok sprung back from the predator but not before the bony fingers had turned to razor sharp claws and slashed out at his belly, raking the thick fur and leather leaving a giant tuft of fur floating through the air.

Tulok scrambled up the stairs to his destiny. He could not die in the sight of his destiny, this everyone knew. He ran up the wooden steps and crested the rise, his eyes falling on nothing but a black sky sown with the white fires of the dead and gone. Tulok spun around to find Amarok, now a giant wolf filled with menace and hunger, standing there. Tulok’s breath poured from his mouth in a white cloud and mingled with the white cloud of breath from Amarok.

“Please,” Tulok whispered.

“Warriors who would lead do not beg, or they die,” Amarok growled and sunk his teeth into Tulok’s throat.

Breathe, aka Eddie's Fortitude

Breathe. Oh god oh god oh god. Breathe. Just. Just don’t look down or forward or move. 

Stillness settled over the chilled crag. With shallow, unsatisfying breaths Edward tried desperately to remain calm.

“Come on, Eddie! You can do this!” a voice boomed through the air startling Eddie. He gave a small jolt, his shoulders breaking contact with the rock. For a moment Edward stood on a fifteen inch ledge with his feet the only part of his body offering support. In that moment, Edward knew he did not want to die and no living human was worth standing on this ledge for. 

Edward was no one. He worked an entry-level job at a corporate behemoth in an accounting department with other accountants. His sole job was to make sure that one general ledger account never held funds for over 48 hours and if a 49th hour started, he was to transfer the funds out of the account and back into the account, achieving 6 additional processing hours. He participated in no other job functions. Most of Edward’s days were spent staring at websites, finding specks of humor in tired, altered internet photographs and lengthy forums in green text. 

Friends, for Edward, consisted of internet handles and a few friends who went out for drinks every few months to pretend to have actual affections with real humans. With a dysfunctional family on top of that limited social life, Edward was the poster child for lonely single Americans. All the ways to communicate and no one to communicate with. Edward knew he was a sad member of the human species and a sad representation of the modern man. Pretending to be comfortable with his mediocrity, he avoided true intimacy. 

And then he met The Girl. 

Replacing Edward's cube mate – an old woman with dentures who had been an accountant for 53 years – was a girl named Bethany. Bethany was the antithesis of Edward. With friends, an avid social life, loving family, mainstream hobbies, and a flair for extravagance, Bethany embodied everything Edward wasn’t and assumed he could never be. Bethany’s bright outlook on life matched her million dollar smile and shimmering golden hair. A goddess walks among us, thought Edward, when she sauntered in on her first day, glowing in a pale blue sweater and tailored, slim-fitting navy jeans. 

“Hi, I’m Bethany. We get to share a cube!” she beamed at Edward.

“Sup.” Edward replied wishing desperately he had some witty anecdote to begin conversation with. Luckily for Edward, Bethany carried on most of the conversation without prompting. He found her zest for life endearing and her passion for the extremes invigorating. Yes, Bethany was clearly a little crazy, but weren't we all a little off? 

Fast forward four months and here is Edward, standing on a minuscule strip of rock overlooking a drop which would kill anyone, regardless of their constitution. Bethany spent the entire four months dragging Edward on death-defying adventures. Sky diving where the divers threw their parachute out first and then dove after it; zip-line tours where half the zip-lines were vines where participants swung Tarzan-style over crocodile infested water; and now a climbing expedition where participants were encouraged (sometimes coerced) into shimming out on microscopic ledges to face their fears and discover their “inner warrior.” Edward could feel his inner warrior escaping in a warm stream down his leg. Terrified, longing to tremble or shake but certain any movement would end his life, Edward eased his back against the chilled rock again. 

Breathe. Oh god oh god oh god. Breathe. 

“Eddie!” Bethany called encouragingly. Edward hated being called Eddie. “Eddie, find your hero, Eddie. Find that warrior deep inside you and let him-“ Bethany’s final words were cut off as a violent gust of wind tore across the cliff face in a violent torrent. The freezing wind tugged at Edward’s jacket, coaxing his body forward and away from the rock, pulling him toward the openness. Edward knew falling would end his life; Edward knew allowing the wind to pull his inner warrior out would also end with his insides on the outside, likely splattered over rocks and trees. 

No girl, no matter how golden her hair or velvety soft her lips, was worth falling down a rock face. No inner warrior was worth discovering if the warrior had lain dormant this long. Edward knew this was the end. Not the end of his life, he would work his way back across the rock face and to the safety of his harness and well-grounded climbing ropes. No, this was not Edward’s end. 

This was the end of Bethany. 

Slowly working his way back along the ledge, feeling carefully with his thin, flexible shoes, Edward eased his was over to the waiting group and the harness of safety. The group stood on a wide, safe ledge, easily four feet wide and ten feet long. When his foot scooted onto the wide platform and his life was no longer in immediate danger, Eddie fell to his knees, placing both hands on the solid rock. Bethany knelt next to him and took his face in her hands.

“I’m so proud of you, Eddie! You did it! Wasn’t it amazing?” Her eyes bright with apparent insanity, she smiled at him, confident Edward had found his manliness. Edward placed his hands over hers, pushing her hands away from his face. Looking deep into her eyes, Edward whispered, “You’re a psychopath. And my inner warrior said to run as far and as fast from you as I could.” 

For the first time in his meager life, Edward knew what it was to find the inner warrior and rest upon that hidden strength. 

The Lady's Beloved

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The boat shifted listlessly on the dark water of the lake. An eerie calm hovered on the water and through the hushed spring wood along the bank. Unperturbed by the stillness, the Lady’s eyes wandered across the fast fading morning mist, picking out the familiar shapes of trees and reeds. Rocking slightly on an unseen current, the black boat felt like home. Built by a master craftsman at the behest of her father, fashioned with the meticulous precision only money could buy, the glossy black wood was inlaid with filigree and obscure Latin phrases. A painted gold curl adorned the prow of the boat, pretentious bordering on gaudy. Like many of her father’s purchases, the boat and all its ornamentation served the single purpose of proclaiming her father’s importance.

She shifted her slim hips and stretched her spine, with small movements to keep the boat still. Even with heavy quilting, the seat cover under her did not stave off the hardness of the wooden seat. After an hour of sitting no amount minor shifting could return the feeling to her hind end. The Lady leaned forward slightly, wishing desperately for some distraction from her seat.

Two thrushes flirted through the warm, muggy air, perching on a stand of cattails and reeds. Their song trilled through the air, piercing the calm and startling the Lady which subsequently rocked the boat sending black ripples across the lake. From across the lake, another thrush called, and from off to her right yet another, causing the momentary joy in her heart to freeze in place. A third call? In four months, never had another thrush come to this lake in the morning. Always these two thrushes singing to each other, and then the second call from across the lake followed by stillness and then the soft splash of oars signaling her Beloved had come. Slowly she looked to the right from where the sinister third call had come.

The sun, risen in full, burned away the morning mist, but still the mist lingered in the shadows and recessed places along the bank. Shivering despite the warmth in the morning, the Lady peered deeply into the shadows, longing to see nothing yet knowing – knowing! – somewhere lay hiding a cause for heartache and fear. Forestalling tears, yet knowing they would come, she lifted her chin with dignity and pride, waiting for whatever may come. She heard the familiar soft splash of an oar in the water followed by silence at the coming boat glided through the somber silence of the morning. From the shrouding mist the boat emerged, plain, unadorned, the kind of boat any many could buy for a small price. Her heart thrilled at the sight of the boat and the hooded man steering it.

From a distance he was nothing, a common man in a common boat on a common errand. But beneath the dull brown cloak, curls of brown hair untempered by oils or powder, flashing blue eyes the color of the sky at noon in the summer, a rugged but handsome face made of angles and planes and tanned by unrelenting work in the sun. The sight of him brought forth the memory of his scent, musky and dry but clean and honest, unlike the heady perfumes men of stature wore. Her pulse quickened at the memory of his worn, rough hands on her hips and the heat of his body as he drew her close, and for a moment she forgot any peril awaiting them. The coarseness of his unshaven cheeks, the softness of his voice whispering her name, the freedom that came with his embrace. Her life was myriad of restrained moments and stifled passions. Except with him. With him her life was the wind, soft and sweeping or a screaming gale, a tempest. He asked no restraint of her and mocked her when she tried to assuage her love for him in the name of decorum.

Her focus on him she did not see the archer slide out from the shadows. The beating of her own heart drown out the quiet step into shallow water and the keening sigh of a drawn string. The unmistakable thrum of an arrow released was her only warning and the splash of the oar was the sound of her despair. Crumbling over the side of the boat, her Beloved fell with an ungainly splash.

Her chin still lifted in indifferent elegance, she smoothed her face of her horror and grief, refusing to turn to see the archer disappear back into the wood. She sat for another hour with her unrelenting heartache, watching as the empty boat drifted aimlessly across the black of the water.

The Red Woman

A snowboarder sailed down the slope turning his head to continue a lingering look at the scarlet silhouette sliding down the mountain behind him. A frigid wind whipped across his cheeks and jaw and a small wave of pure white floated up behind him. Unimpressive trees jutted out from a thick coat of snow, blocking the view of the mountains towering around the ski slopes. Glancing to the front he noted a slouching curve and took a quick last look at the woman in red growing smaller as he slid away. With a gentle lean he slipped around the curve and on to more complex maneuvers down the line. His thoughts remained on the red dress and the smiling woman who wore it.

            At a small chalet midway down the run, the snowboarder cruised to a stop, throwing a wide arc of snow into the air to land just shy of the few steps leading into a shop. Leaving his board at the rack, the snowboarder entered the chalet, purchased hot chocolate with an excess of whipped cream pile on top, and stepped back onto the chalet veranda to watch skiers and boarders cruise by. Sipping approvingly, no longer focused on getting down the mountain, he waited for the woman in red to pass the chalet in a streaking fluff of crimson and coal. He thought of the careful way she held her hat in place, a fitted glove showing a delicate hand. The confidence of a woman in a dress on a ski slope piqued his interest. Especially this slope.

            Frequented by obnoxious boys and middle-aged men reliving their obnoxious boy days, this slope was considered unfriendly by most. Not especially interesting or complex, this run was perfect for casual skiers and untalented snowboarders. Or people without sufficient funds to go to Aspen, Copper, or Vail, as in his case. He imagined the draftiness of a dress, picturing Marilyn Monroe standing over a vent with her skirts lifted up to her hips. Considering the few times he’d had to adjust a pant leg to resolve a chilly draft while boarding, he could not fathom how cold the red woman’s legs must be. He took a long drink of his cooling hot chocolate, grateful for the warmth.

            The woman in red rounded the corner above the chalet and slid to the left, slowing gracefully to stop just below the stairs. Against the pine log exterior of the chalet her ensemble seemed almost normal, her late-Victorian era red dress flounced full around her hips. She stepped easily out of her skis, placing them in the rack, and wandered into the shop. The snowboarder stood up from the railing he’d leaned on, watching as the woman stepped up to the purchasing counter, ordered hot chocolate. Waiting for her order, she stood in easy view.

            The dress fitted as if tailored for her, the fitting along hips and bust impeccable. Rose red fabric ran from neck to ankles with a black pigeon breast and black piping to accentuate the corset line. Full sleeves covered her arms and perfectly matched red clothes covered her hands. A black bonnet style hat tied tightly under her chin and covering her ears, completed the outfit. The only items out of place were her ski boots which, caked in snow as they were, could have been any style of more appropriate footwear. The barista handed the woman her hot chocolate and the woman wandered out to the veranda, stopping near the snowboarder whose curiosity had turned to fascination. She held the chocolate near her face and breathed deeply the rich aroma. Sinking her face to the edge of the cup, she took a small sip of the scalding liquid, licking some of the tower of whipped cream.

            For a moment the snowboarder lived in a different time and place. The brown logs of the chalet behind the elegant woman seemed only appropriate. He envisioned her living in the chalet, now a mountain home, a snug fire warming the room for her. He forgot, momentarily, about Marilyn Monroe and the question of draftiness while skiing in a dress. The woman turned sparkling eyes and a ready smile to the snowboarder. “I love this slope because of this shop midway down. Just when you’re cold enough to wish you were through but happy enough to keep going, you encounter decadent chocolate with a mountain of whipped cream.” She lifted her cup up to the boarder in a coy salute, laughter never leaving her eyes. Taking another soothing sip, she watched as a horde of snowboarders raced past the veranda, laughing boisterously as they flew by.

            Unsure what approach to use for so poised a woman, the snowboarder stammered for words to inquire about the draftiness of skiing in a dress. “Does your skirt every fly up like Marilyn Monroe?” he blurted out, his cheeks turning slightly more crimson than the wind and cold had made them. The woman threw her head back in a perfect arc of laughter, settling her eyes on the young man. Placing one hand on her hip she grinned and shook her head. “No, I can’t say as I’ve had that problem in this dress. There are layers upon layers under this frock and it would take a mighty wind to lift all this material. But that does offer quite the image, doesn’t it?” She laughed again, not mocking or cruel, but with genuine jest and amusement. The snowboarder grinned a sheepish smile, ducking his head at the flirtation.

            “Enjoy your chocolate,” he said, suddenly shy now that his question had been answered. He ambled over to his board, clipping in his boots. As he started down the slope he turned, looking back at the woman in her red dress standing on the veranda. She raised a delicate gloved hand in farewell to the young man which he returned. For the second time he watched as the red dress faded away behind him.