Birthing Ella Bandita
Silence made her numb. But she didn’t mind. The numbness guarded her against the turn of backs on her approach and the heavy air of rooms gone quiet wherever she went. Nothing could touch her until one early spring morning when that unseen cloak was stripped away.
That day started like any other. She bore her grooming with the usual stoicism. The disapproval of her maid was apparent in the vicious pull of gathers, the servant punishing her mistress for her refusal to wear a corset. The girl turned her head and caught a glimpse of the maid’s prim mouth, lips clamped tight. The graying servant glanced up and scowled, then kept her gaze on task until the laces were knotted at the small of her back.
The girl waited for the click of the door before reaching around and undoing the ties that bound her. Like she did every morning, she twisted until she’d regained freedom of motion. She closed her eyes and savored the flow of breath filling her up and making her head swim. As her fingers finished a loose bow at the back of her waist, she sighed, her lids fluttering. Then she caught the image before her. She froze for an instant, and spun around to find who could be in the room with her. But she was alone. The girl turned back to the mirror and stared.
“How did this happen?”
Even the sound of her voice was startling. Her tone had gotten deeper and her throat was scratchy from disuse. But her attention was still captive to her reflection. The oval looking glass stood tall, and she kept it in the furthest corner of the room so she would never see herself. The last time she saw herself in the mirror, she had been all arms and legs, plagued with the awkwardness of girls who were not yet women and no longer children. She came closer, almost wondering if the silhouette was a phantom, and stopped a few paces away. Her palms roamed down her hips. The smooth fabric was cool against her fingers, her gown the shade of gunmetal, her hair a coil of gold at her neck. The girl followed the gesture in the mirror proving the image she saw was herself. She was pleased her figure was trim, not voluptuous. Yet her body curved in the shape of a woman.
“When did I grow up?”
She realized her birthday had passed a few days before. She was now twenty. The age when she could come into society and attend the Carnival masquerades and seasonal balls, like the one where her father had met her mother. The girl made another move toward her mirror and stepped into the ray of sun streaming through the eastern windows. The light glared on her blunt features and wide mouth and reminded her how ugly she was. She had the face of a savage.
She turned her back, but the pain had already started. Inside her breast, the clawing squeeze came on suddenly, leaving the girl confused and even incredulous. It had been so long since she’d felt anything. Perhaps her heart had come back to life. The girl brought her hand to her neck and pressed her fingers into her throat. But there was nothing. She grew dizzy, making her way back to her bed and dropping into the creamy sea of quilts. She waited for the sensation to fade away, for the numbness to wrap itself around her as it always did. Instead, the clawing descended and writhed in the apex of her belly.
Then the girl saw herself on one of her father’s stallions, pushing the animal to run until she could disappear. She sat up, craving the sensation that would make this go away. She pushed off the bed, taking a pair of peasant breeches from the armoire and donned them under her skirts and petticoats.
As the girl rushed down the corridor and down the stairs, she was vaguely aware of the aroma of warm bread and coffee, the portrait of her mother glowing in the eternal flame of lamps that were never extinguished. She felt the attendants in the dining parlor staring at her back when she hurried for the front door. Outside, the air was chilly from the lingering memory of winter, yet the fragrance of early bloom refreshed her.
But the girl had no mind for anything but the stables. She ran down paths and weaved through masses of lilies. The stable doors were open, and her gaze was fixed on the lean, young stallion with its head over the stall. The cinnamon coat gleamed and strands of honey mane shined from a recent brushing. This stallion was fast, perfect for what she needed. She waved the stable boys back to their chores and readied the horse herself. The clawing had relented by the time she swung her leg over its powerful back, but she ached everywhere. The girl warmed up the stallion, cantering him along the peach trees and preparing him to run.
When she turned her mount towards the western fields, she saw her father. The Patron was with his best farmers and the darkness of the Ancient Grove loomed behind them. The men must have been taking a respite from their labor because they stood with their backs straight. The sounds of cheery talk peppered with lusty chuckles echoed across the expanse. The girl listened to them and remembered her birthday had been forgotten. Even she had forgotten. She thought of riding towards the group, but hesitated. Her heart was dead, yet she could still hurt. The girl set off towards them and the men fell silent on her approach.
She almost lost her courage, almost rode past them. She flushed uncomfortably warm when she stopped before the group. But seven years had passed. How much longer could this endure? Ignoring his farmers, she focused on her father. The Patron faced the manor on the highest hill. The line of his rugged features was even more handsome in profile. The girl had to force herself to remain, staring at the Patron until he finally turned to her. When the girl met her father’s light brown eyes, she saw the same emptiness she had her entire life and the pain clawed through her again. In that moment, she knew nothing would ever change. There’d be no Carnivals, no balls, no masquerades. She was an outcast and that was all she would ever be.
The farmers began to shuffle the ground, averting their eyes from their Patron and his daughter. Their silence echoed across the fields, but the girl thought she might break apart from the mute scream trapped inside. Tears stung the back of her eyes, but she refused to cry. She kicked her mount and left her father and his devoted tenants behind. The girl was desperate to lose herself in the run, shouting at the stallion to go faster, faster, faster. She couldn’t make herself disappear, but she lost herself in perpetual motion.
She didn’t recognize where she was when the stallion slowed down. The grasses were long, and they grazed along her feet while her mount cut a swathe through them. She came to the edge of a forest where the freshly sprouted leaves reflected the morning light softly and the song of birds could be heard from the trees. She turned the horse around and almost laughed out loud when she saw the river and the Ancient Grove far southeast of her. The girl hadn’t been to this place in years: the northwest border of the Abandoned Valley where life returned once inside the trees.
Even with the clawing inside her, the girl burst into laughter from the onslaught of euphoria flooding through her. Such beautiful memories she had of this place, they made a bittersweet ecstasy, as palpable as the days when she came here with the Horse Trainer who had come as a Vagabond. She could still see his face, the warmth in his golden brown eyes and smile. The girl remembered the wild gray colt the Trainer always rode, and wondered if the animal still ran in the Abandoned Valley. As she recalled the day the colt escaped her father’s stables she started to weep. The bliss that caught her unawares became a torment. She would never have that kind of joy again.
She spurred the horse to go, and her vision blurred from the hot tears streaming down her cheeks. Her mount stopped suddenly, startling the girl when she found herself staring up at the dark trees of the Ancient Grove before her. She heard the roar of the river beneath her and realized the stallion would stop where the current was most dangerous.
The girl closed her eyes. She knew this was the last place she should be. The Ancient Grove and Abandoned Valley had been forbidden for centuries. Only trouble came from being anywhere near here and she knew that more than anybody. But the thought of going home almost made her laugh again, and the image of her father’s manor as her home was, somehow, absurd. Instead of guiding the horse downriver where the current eased up, the girl remained where she was, listening for anything beyond the rushing water. But she heard no birds singing, no rustle of animals in the trees. Here, the silence was soothing to the girl, coming as it did from an absence of life. Again, there was that squeeze inside her breast and the girl hoped for the resurrection of her heart. She pressed her fingers into her neck where she felt nothing.
“Enough,” a soft voice murmured from her belly. “No more.”
The resolution echoed through the girl as she opened her eyes to the river. Long sheaths of water sliced into each other, the snowmelt pushing the current to violence. The girl imagined herself falling in, her relief more frightening than the thought of drowning. She would never have to go numb again, for that would certainly make the pain stop. The girl closed her eyes again and breathed in deep. The water smelled so fresh.
She dismounted and slapped the stallion’s rump until he left without her. Then she turned back to the river, becoming lighter as she came to the edge where water met earth. She cried out when she stepped in. The cold stabbed her feet and ankles. The impulse to get out made her angry and she resisted, biting her lower lip until her feet lost all feeling. Then she took a longer stride into the river, the hairs rising on her flesh when she nearly lost her balance. The current tugged at her calves, whirling her skirts and petticoats around her knees. An icy shiver ran up her spine and set her limbs to shaking. The rushing made a dull keening sound, and the girl wondered if the water yearned for her. One more step and the river would take her. But the girl found she couldn’t move and cursed herself for being afraid.
Then he spoke. His breath teased along her right ear, just before she heard him murmur. His was the deepest baritone she had ever known.
“There’s a better way.”
His voice rang clear, even over the thrashing water. The girl froze, and her fear exploded into terror. She could feel him right behind her, standing at her right shoulder. Turning her head, she saw that the Sorcerer of the Caverns looked just like the Cook had always described him. His hair and beard were the color of dust, hanging in matted ropes to his waist. Lines were etched into the papery skin of his face and his frame was shrunken from the unnatural passage of time. The blood drained from her face and her head grew light. The girl opened her mouth, but no words came out. She should have known better than to come here. Pieces of legend about the Sorcerer came to mind. He’d been born an ordinary man until he sold his soul for the powers of magic. Then he preyed on virgin girls so he would never die.
“That way,” the Cook always concluded at the story’s end. “He keeps two steps ahead of the Devil and two leagues out of Hell.”
The Ancient Grove and Abandoned Valley had been forbidden ever since he came here. Even her father was powerless against him, just like the Patrons were before him.
His eyes terrified her the most. When the Sorcerer beckoned, the girl screamed. She pulled away and fell. The freeze knocked the wind out of her when she hit. Then the river buried her. She flailed in the churning depths, the water choking her when she tried to draw breath. The last image in her mind before all went black was the Sorcerer of the Caverns, and those colorless eyes that could endure the unblinking stare of the dead.
At least it was over. The girl found comfort in that. But she could still feel the crash of water against her back and smell the river. But now, the odor was dank and her clammy gown hugged her body. The girl shivered and tried to ignore her senses. She ached for the black soothe of death. But velvet pulled her to waking. She recognized the plush dryness teasing her fingertips, and stroked the pillow. The girl sighed, and finally admitted she was alive.
“Your face is so ugly, it’s beautiful.”
She stiffened when she heard that voice. The baritone rang even deeper and those words echoed around her. Then she remembered the last moment before she fell into the river and opened her eyes. The Sorcerer sat on a massive chair, a throne carved from gold and cushioned with blood red velvet. He was watching her with a shadow of a smile on his face.
The girl shuddered and looked away, but all she saw was stone and fire. The walls were black and gleaming from the light of torches. Her flesh prickled and her stomach was in knots when she realized the Sorcerer had her. She must be in the Caverns.
She pulled herself up. She rested on a sofa made of gold and velvet pillows the color of blood. The sofa matched the Sorcerer’s throne. The girl closed her eyes and forced herself to breathe slowly, trying to quell the panic rising inside her. There had to be a way out. The Sorcerer couldn’t force her to stay. She knew that from the stories she had heard. She opened her eyes and searched among the walls for hidden corridors, darker spaces that would take her back to the world outside. When her gaze brushed over the Sorcerer, one finger pointed over her head. The girl followed his lead and gasped when she saw what rose above her.
She was at the bottom of a tunnel carved deep in the earth. The descent of black stone glistened from the fire torches spiraling with the staircase falling down into the Caverns. But it was the colors that riveted her attention. Thousands of crystals were embedded in the tunnel walls, and the light from the torches bounced off the facets and set their essence free. The colors made the most of their captive freedom. The crystal essence swirled in an orgy of coupling and rebirth, a vivid provocation dancing and whirling in the empty space. Every shade of the spectrum came together and apart, transforming into other hues, and the progeny bounced off the walls before rising to disappear in the bright blue afternoon sky. The girl stared into the cyclone of color. Her terror on waking lifted and was gone.
“Go on, Miss,” the Sorcerer said. “Go on up the stairs until you find one you like. You can take it as a gift.”
Without looking at him, she drifted from the sofa to climb the staircase. She’d never felt so light in her life. Her feet almost hovered above the steps. She caressed the wall with the hand trailing behind her, scarcely touching the cool stone, fingertips gliding over the mounds of crystals. Then her fingers clung. At first, she struggled to go on. She was halfway up the spiral, her gaze fixed on the circle of blue above her. She would be free if she could get to where the sky was infinite. She pulled harder and the stone surrendered. The girl stared into her hand at a crystal shaped like a star with eight tiers stretching around her palm. Then she waved it before the nearest torch and exploded a whirlwind of color. The maelstrom took her breath away, surrounding her with a disconnected rainbow.
“Excellent choice! Nobody has ever taken a stargaze before.”
The girl started when she heard the voice. She couldn’t remember where she was. Looking down, she saw a kindly old man smiling at her from the bottom of the steps.
“You must be hungry,” he called. “Why don’t you come down, get something to eat?”
The girl blinked slowly, tempted to let her eyes rest from the heaviness of her lids. She must be immersed in a beautiful dream. She heard a faint voice inside imploring her to beware and to keep going up the stairs. But she hadn’t the desire to obey. She rubbed her hand over her belly. She was more than hungry; she was empty. And the old man seemed so gentle.
“I would love something to eat,” she answered. “Thank you.”
Her host snapped his fingers. Of course this was a dream. It was impossible that shadows could pour from the walls, carrying heavy golden platters and piling them on the round table. The wood was dark and the girl suspected the table was carved from the trees in the Ancient Grove. She floated down the spiral like a specter while a feast fit for a banquet of kings was readied just for her. Her nostrils fluttered from the aromas rising to meet her: savory, pungent, bitter, sweet, and spice, hints of the flavors to come. The girl took her seat, eyes wide, looking upon the mountain of platters towering over her. Closest to her were the desserts: fragile cake layers held together with ribbons of silken frosting, steam rising from soufflés, while berries of blue, black and red bulged from the delicate confection of mousse, making a perfect marriage of sweet and tart. This wasn’t a supper, but a festival of the senses.
“Go on,” the old man said. “You can have as much as you want.”
The girl weaved in her seat, almost intoxicated at the realm of choices before her. She hesitated before reaching for a crab culled from its shell, a modest pile of roasted peppers and squash, a small bunch of grapes, and a creamy slice of the mildest cheese. Then the girl tasted of the banquet and awakened her hunger.
Once she swallowed the first bite, her blood was suffused with endless craving. She dropped her fork and knife and ate the crab from her hands and licked her fingers when it was gone. The succulence of the naked flesh started a gnawing that made her ravenous. She snarled, sweeping her plate and utensils off the table and threw herself into the feast. All thought disappeared as the girl became animal. The meats of land and sea were the richest she ever tasted. The cheeses were bitter, mild, and pungent, some creamy, others hard. The fruits were plump, bursting with juice; the vegetables held the smoke of the fire over which they had roasted. The more she ate, the more her hunger grew. The gnawing opened an abyss that could never be satisfied. The girl shred meat from bone with her thick teeth, suckled soufflé from her fingers. She relished the textures while flavors exploded in her mouth and moaned in an agony of pleasure. Hours passed and she devoured the tower until it became the rubble of leftover bits.
The girl collapsed when she was done, falling into the cushions. Her gown was covered in stains and her face was smeared with juices from meat and fruit. She breathed heavily, and placed her hands on her belly, the haze of madness drifting away. She glanced at her host and realized she must have been under some kind of spell. The illusion of a kind old man disappeared and she recognized the Sorcerer. But the girl wasn’t at all afraid when she looked into the colorless eyes gazing at her with that shadowy smile.
“So how did a wench with such a lusty appetite come to the point of throwing herself into the river?”
“If you’re such a mighty Sorcerer, then you should already know the answer to that question.”
“I can see the feasting has made you rather bold,” he chuckled. “Really. You could be fascinating.”
“What do you want?”
“I already have what I want, Girl. Question is…what do you want?”
The girl chortled, the bark cut short from an upsurge of bile burning the back of her throat. The pain of eating too much came upon her in that moment. She curled into a ball and wondered if she would burst from gluttony until her silent memories swept in. The image of empty faces and condemning eyes seared through and emptied her again. But the ache remained in her belly and the Sorcerer looming over her made her uneasy. Yet she also remembered this was the first conversation she’d had in almost seven years.
“What do you think?” she muttered, sitting up. “I want to not be so alone. I want people to care. What else could I possibly want?”
The Sorcerer raised his brows and the hairless arches deepened the grooves in his forehead.
“Come on, Girl. Don’t be so paltry in what you wish for. You can do better than that.”
The heat rushed to her cheeks, but she said nothing. The Sorcerer rested his chin on interlaced fists and waited. That squeeze clenched inside her breast. But this time she wasn’t so foolish to hope her heart beat again. Staring into the colorless eyes of the Sorcerer, who gazed back at her with a bland expression, the girl couldn’t move.
“I want anybody I choose to fall in love with me,” she finally said. “Can you really make that happen?”
The Sorcerer of the Caverns smiled, his teeth the longest she’d ever seen, the dark yellow gleaming against his matted dusty beard. He nodded.
“And what do you want of me?”
“I want to lay with you,” he said. “And I want you to give me your heart.”
The girl froze. Although her heart had been dead for years, she clasped her hands over her breast to protect what rested underneath. The thought of giving it to the Sorcerer made her stomach churn. She shook her head before she spoke.
“Not so hasty, Girl. I think you may like what I have in mind for you.”
“I said no.”
She stood and looked up the staircase spiraling out of the Caverns. Then the snap of fingers made her flinch, and the sound bounced off the stone and reverberated up the tunnel. A boulder slid across the top and the girl watched the nighttime stars disappear. She couldn’t quite believe this was happening to her, but she still wasn’t afraid. A calm descended on the girl as she watched the Gateway to the world above close off to her. She looked at the Sorcerer. His robes cascaded around his throne; his hair and beard were dull against the opulence of gold and velvet.
“I’ve heard stories about you all my life,” she said. “But never once did I hear that you could force me to stay. Not even once.”
“That’s true,” he replied. “However, I can insist that you listen to what I have to say before you refuse me.”
The Sorcerer waved his hand to the sofa. The girl saw the table was clear, the ruins of the banquet gone as if the feast had never happened. Instead, a bronze triad of candles stood in the center of the table beside the crystal she pulled from the tunnel walls.
“Have a seat,” he continued. “You may find my offer enticing.”
She sat down. Her back was straight as a rod, her hands in a tight clasp, her limbs rigid, a silent prayer repeating through her that she had to get out of the Caverns. For a moment, she panicked at the thought that the Sorcerer might read her mind. But he gave no indication he could as he took the crystal stargaze and held it to the candles. Its essence came free, and the colors whirled around them. The girl grew light-headed, but dropped her lids. She refused to look up until she’d made herself blind to everything but the Sorcerer. Then she opened her eyes and focused only on him until the essence was brought home to the crystal and the colors fell.
“You have a strong command over yourself,” he said. “That’s very good.”
“Just tell me what you want and be done with it.”
He set the crystal down and pushed it across the table, its tiers spinning before her.
“If you lay with me just once, I will bless this stargaze with the power to steal the heart of any man you desire. But…”
The Sorcerer paused.
“If you lay with me many times, I will teach you the arts of seduction.”
The Sorcerer slowed his speech to the lulling cadence of persuasion. The girl listened. She couldn’t stop her limbs from softening nor could she hold the tight grip of hands.
“To master the secrets, you must surpass the ancient knowledge. If you can do this and pleasure me more than any woman ever has, I will give you a dust you can use for protection.”
“What does such a dust do?”
“Blow a pinch when faced with an enemy,” he said. “Say the first thing that comes to your mind and thus, your enemy is changed.”
“So far, this sounds…” the girl trailed off. “Why not just make this your offer?”
The right side of the Sorcerer’s brow crinkled deeper. She scowled, hesitating before she continued.
“My heart’s been dead for years anyway. Why would you want it?”
“All or nothing.”
The girl tensed. She thought an agitated serpent might have invaded her belly. The longer she looked into the Sorcerer’s eyes, the tighter the coil around her innards became.
“No,” she said. “I won’t do it. Just let me go.”
“I’m not done yet,” he retorted. “If you give me your dead heart, I will make you immortal.”
The girl opened her mouth to speak, but the words wouldn’t come.
“You could die,” he continued. “Bullet, blade, rope, fire, or water would kill you. But you can never fall sick, so plagues and poison will have no effect on you.”
The Sorcerer uncurled his long fingers and held his palms open in readiness to receive.
“Just think of it,” he murmured. “You’re only twenty years old. You will never grow old. You’ll remain a maiden alive forever in the bloom of youth. The world would belong to you.”
The Sorcerer’s temptation was as powerful as legend told. A chaos of fascination and disgust rioted inside the girl. She stared at the thin papery flesh and the thought of touching him made her recoil. Then she remembered the silence, the backs turning on her, and the eyes averting whenever she turned to face the accusing glares. The possibility that she would never have to suffer that ever again made her tremble, the tingling along her flesh more than she could stand.
And there was the promise of endless youth. Although the girl lacked the vanity that often plagued the beautiful, she had a physical prowess most women never knew. The thought of never having her strength and agility diminished was almost irresistible. But she couldn’t forget the stories she’d heard all her life about the Sorcerer. This offer couldn’t be so simple. There must be something he wasn’t telling.
“What is your hidden price?”
“I’m offering you a chance to change your destiny. Are you really going to ask me foolish questions?”
“I want to know what your hidden price is.”
“I suppose you’d lose your soul if you should ever die,” he snorted. “But that would be no benefit to me.”
Up until this moment, the Sorcerer’s demeanor had been mild, even cordial. His sudden belligerence was unsettling. The warning of danger was a scream tearing through the girl, impossible to ignore. She shook her head and stood, looking up the tunnel to the boulder blocking the way out.
“Girl, do you really think you will ever get a better chance than this?”
“I listened to you, as you insisted. You have my answer. So are you going to let me go or not?”
The girl marveled at how resolute she sounded. Where had this strength come from, she wondered. She held her breath, relieved when she heard a long sigh and looked back at him.
“Ah well, I suppose I must.”
The Sorcerer picked up the crystal and pressed it into her hand.
“Take this and go home to your father. If you decide to keep living the life you’ve always known or not…”
The Sorcerer trailed off and looked at her pointedly. The girl flinched at the hint. She had completely forgotten that she wanted to die. It seemed an eternity had passed since she stood at the edge of the river, trying to muster the courage to jump.
“…then consider this crystal stargaze a keepsake of an extraordinary day in your life.”
The Sorcerer finished and snapped his fingers. The Gateway out of the Caverns opened to the girl. Her limbs quivered when she looked up and saw dawn reflected in the clouds. Had she really been here since the previous morning? She almost wept at being given another chance, but she’d only taken two steps towards freedom before she was arrested by the grip of his bony fingers.
“I’ll give you three days to accept,” the Sorcerer hissed. “After three days, you will never see me again and you will never find these Caverns.”
He released her.