Thursday, February 25, 2016

A Harvest Tale -- Part 4 (New Short Story)

Here is Part 4 (and the conclusion!) of my fairy tale, A Harvest Tale. The story had grown a little too long to be a regular blog post, so I've posted it in four parts. If you haven't read Part 1 yet, you can find it here. And Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here.
For those who are all caught up, Part 4 starts now…
A Harvest Tale
By Catherine Mesick
Marta walked slowly to one end of the chamber and found herself facing a great wall of dirt that stretched up so high she couldn’t see the end of it. She turned then and walked the other way through the darkness. Eventually, she came to a narrow tunnel of earth, and she followed the tunnel upward until it came to another dead end. Marta held her lantern up. In front of her was a deeply knotted tangle of tree roots.
She feared it would take her a very long time to cut through the roots—even if she’d had a cutting tool, which she did not. Marta wondered then if she might be able to pull the roots out of the way, though she feared they were too tough and too thick to be moved.
She reached out a tentative hand. “I will find my way,” Marta whispered.
To her surprise, the roots sprang out of the way at her touch. Marta continued up the tunnel, touching the roots and watching them move swiftly out of her way. Before long, she felt a cold wind on her face, and soon after she broke out into open air.
Marta was free of the lair of the fair folk.
Behind her was a great dark tree, twisting and spiraling up into the air. In front of her was a vast forest with smaller but equally twisting trees.
The Lady was right—Marta didn’t know where she was.
But following an instinct a sudden impulse, Marta reached out and touched the nearest tree.
Nothing happened.
Marta turned then and walked the opposite way. She reached out to touch another tree. Once again, nothing happened.
Marta turned yet another way and extended her hand again toward the nearest tree.
Suddenly, one of the branches shot out and slapped her across the fingers. Marta drew her hand back quickly.
“Just as I thought,” she whispered to herself. “I am human, so this fairy place is rejecting me. That’s how I got out of the underground chamber—the tree roots wanted me to leave. Now all I have to do to escape this place is follow the peaceful trees and avoid the angry ones.”
Marta moved through the twisting forest trees, following her own advice, and at long last she made her way out of the forest.
In front of her was a haze of white fog, and she quickly passed through it. Once on the other side, Marta found to her great relief that she was back in the ordinary, everyday woods from which she had been abducted. She glanced behind her quickly to see that the fog she had walked through had vanished. So, too, had the fairy woods—by the light of her lantern, all Marta could see were ordinary trees with ordinary branches. The dark, twisting trees were nowhere to be seen.
Marta moved quickly through the trees until she was back on the old, familiar path. Then she hurried on through the forest holding her lantern high. When she finally reached home, her mother was waiting for her at the door.
“Where have you been, Marta?” she cried. “You should have been home hours ago! Peter and I have been worried nearly to death.”
“I’m sorry, Mother,” Marta replied. “I’ve had a very strange night in the forest.”
“Why, what do you mean, my daughter? Come and sit and tell me all about it.”
Marta and her mother sat down by the kitchen fire, and Peter soon joined them. Marta told her mother and brother of everything that had transpired. They had lived for a long time on the far side of the woods, and all three of them had heard of things that no one in the town would have believed.
Marta knew her family would believe her. Her story was unusual, but Marta was always very truthful.
When Marta had finished her tale, Peter stared at the basket.
“Are the apples in there now?”
“Yes,” Marta said.
She pulled off the cover to reveal three apples—each one half red, half green.
“The housewife in town said you would know what to do with them,” Marta said to her mother.
Marta’s mother looked the apples over. “I know nothing about apples that would tempt the fair folk. But I know what to do with ordinary apples. I have a little flour and sugar. I’ll make a little pie like I used to at harvest time when your father was with us.”
“Are you sure that is the right thing to do?” asked Peter.
“It is the best thing I know to do,” his mother replied.
So Marta’s mother rolled out some dough and sliced up the apples, and she cooked up a little pie right over the fire.
Marta’s mother, Marta, and Peter all ate a third of it while it was still hot. And it was just as good as the pies Marta’s mother used to make a long time ago.
“Now it’s off to bed for all of us,” Marta’s mother said. “We’ve all stayed up much later than our usual time. We’ll put the apple cores out in the garden tonight. Who knows but that maybe we’ll have some apple trees come spring.”
Peter went off to bed, and as Marta turned toward her bed also, her mother stopped her.
“You’ve had a difficult night, my dear,” Marta’s mother said. “But you are safe now. The fair folk cannot enter a human habitation. You need have no fear tonight. And I am proud of you. You outwitted them and came home to me.”
Marta’s mother kissed her on the forehead. “My brave girl.”
Marta went to her bed and went to sleep.
In the morning, Marta awoke and went outside to feed the family’s few chickens. The sight she beheld when she opened the back door startled her.
“Mother, Peter, come look!” Marta cried.
Her mother and brother hurried to the door.
In the little back yard, over by the garden, were three fully gown trees.
The little family stepped outside and inspected them.
“I do believe they’re apple trees,” Marta’s mother said.
The trees had no leaves, and all through the winter they bore no fruit. But they remained fresh and healthy all through the snows, and the little family marveled at them every day.
One morning, shortly after the arrival of spring—when there was still just a bit of snow on the ground—Marta was again startled when she went out to look after the chickens.
“Mother, Peter, come quickly!” she cried.
This time, the three of them saw that the trees were covered with apples—each one half red, half green. All of them were fully ripe.
“Dare we touch them?” Marta asked.
“You and Peter stay here,” Marta’s mother said. “I will test them myself.”
Marta’s mother walked up to the middle tree and plucked an apple from the nearest branch. She held it in her hand for a moment and then took a bite.
She walked back to her children.
“The apple is perfect,” she said. “We can eat these as they are or bake them in a pie.”
Marta and Peter quickly fetched baskets and picked all the apples they could reach. Then they took them into the house.
They ate several of the apples that day, and Marta was surprised to see the next morning that all of the apples that had been picked the day before had grown back.
Marta called again for her mother and brother to come see the sight.
“It is miraculous,” Marta’s mother said when she saw the new apples. “But I suppose we should not be surprised by now—these trees have done so many miraculous things already.”
“And the apples taste good,” Peter said. “Better than any apples I have ever tasted.”
“When the snow clears the road,” Marta’s mother said, “I believe we can sell them in town.”
Before many days had passed, the spring sun melted the last of the snow, and on a March morning with a sharp wind, Marta ventured into the village with a basket full of apples. She sold them all quickly, and she returned to the village the next day and then every day for the rest of the week. Each day that Marta went to the village she sold all her apples, and soon Peter began to accompany her with a wheelbarrow full of them. Eventually, they bought a cart that they could fill with baskets full of apples, and soon after that they bought a table and set up at a regular spot in the village market. They sold so many apples that Marta didn’t have to look for odd jobs, and her mother didn’t have to take in sewing. Instead, Marta’s mother began baking during the day, so that Marta could sell her pies, too.
One very fine morning at the start of May, Marta was standing at her table in the village when a shadow fell across it. She looked up to see a beautiful woman with shining dark hair dressed in a rich green gown—it was the housewife Marta had worked for the year before. Though she could not have said why, Marta was suddenly glad that Peter had been ill and had stayed home that morning. She had a vague feeling that he was safer there.
“Good morning, Marta,” the housewife said.
“Good morning, ma’am,” Marta replied.
“Do you remember me, Marta?”
“Of course, ma’am.”
The housewife looked around the table. “You seem to be doing quite well now.”
“Thanks to you, ma’am.”
“And how have you yourself been?” the housewife asked.
“Very well, ma’am.”
“And how was your winter? Any adventures to report?”
Again, Marta felt uneasy, though she couldn’t have said why.
“It was a winter like any other.”
“How about your fall, then? Did you come into the town for the harvest festival?”
“No, ma’am,” Marta said. “The forest road becomes treacherous when the cold and dark come to the world. We stay on our own side of the forest then.”
The housewife glanced at Marta sharply. “You know, Marta, there are stories about the night I last saw you—stories about strange lights that appeared in the forest that night. Would you happen to know anything about that?”
Marta was silent.
“Please tell me, Marta,” the housewife said. “Please tell me what happened that night. I need to know.”
“It will be hard to believe,” Marta said.
“I need to know,” the housewife said.
And somehow Marta found herself telling the housewife the tale of that night from beginning to end—all of it—the three people she passed, her confrontation with Lady Frost, her escape from the forest.
All throughout, the housewife made no comment and simply stared at her steadily—not a flicker of emotion crossed her face as she listened.
When Marta finished her tale, she found that the housewife was staring at her still.
“It’s all very fantastic,” Marta said after a moment of silence. “I dare say you don’t believe me.”
“I believe you,” the housewife said. “I believe you went through quite a lot that night. And I believe you taught a great lady a valuable lesson.”
The housewife stared at Marta for a long moment.
“Have you nothing further to say?”
“No,” Marta said, and she began to fear that she had offended the housewife.
“Nothing at all?”
The housewife smiled ever so slightly. “You don’t blame me?”
“Blame you, ma’am? For what?”
“Are you not angry that I put you in danger?”
“I don’t understand, ma’am.”
“I’m the one who gave you the apples. And that’s what drew the fair folk to you. It would be easy for you to blame me for what happened.”
“But the apples were a gift,” Marta said. “And they helped us a great deal. We have a little business now, thanks to you.”
“But my gift put you in danger.”
“Anything of value will attract those who don’t mean well. That is not your fault.”
“Many would have blamed me anyway. And I knew the fair folk were likely to be out.”
“But they were only apples,” Marta said. “What did the fair folk want with them anyway? Even if they do grow quickly? What need have the fair folk for apples?”
“It was not the apples,” the housewife said, “but the seeds. It was the seeds that were important—as with so many things.”
She was silent for a moment. Then she nodded.
“Yes, Marta. You taught a great lady a valuable lesson.”
“Perhaps,” Marta replied. “I think it will take more than one night to teach Lady Frost what it is to be human.”
“Perhaps so. I must be going now. Enjoy these lovely warm months, and thank you for telling me about what happened that night.”
“Thank you, ma’am, for the apples. They have meant a lot to our small family.”
“Lady Frost has a spring sister, so I hear,” the housewife said. “I believe she has often visited my garden. She is the one you should thank.”
The housewife smiled and turned to go. As she walked away, Marta gazed at the woman’s green gown and hair like dark, rich soil, and she wondered.
**The End**
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