Silence Made Her Numb

The girl turned back to the mirror and stared.

The girl turned back to the mirror and stared.

Silence made her numb.  But the girl didn’t mind.  The numbness guarded her against the air grown heavy with quiet wherever she went and the turn of backs on her approach.  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 prim mouth, lips clamped tight.  The graying lady’s maid 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, and like she did every morning, twisting 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 the girl 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.  She had been all arms and legs the last time she had, 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.

“How did this happen?”    “When did I grow up?”

“How did this happen?”

“When did I grow up?”

“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. 

 

But the girl had no mind for anything but the stables.  She ran down paths weaving through masses of lilies, her gaze fixed on the lean, young stallion with its head over the stall when she came out of the garden.  The cinnamon coat gleamed and strands of honey mane shined from a recent brushing.  That one 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 the powerful back, but she ached everywhere.  The girl warmed up the stallion, cantering him along the peach trees and preparing him to run. 

 

She saw her father when she turned her mount towards the western fields.  The Patron was with his best farmers, the darkness of the Ancient Grove looming behind them.  The men must have been taking a respite from their labor, standing with straight backs.  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 and hesitated.  But her heart was dead.  Yet she could still hurt.  The girl set off towards them and the men fell silent on her approach. 

Then the girl saw herself on one of her father’s stallions, pushing the animal to run so she could disappear.

Then the girl saw herself on one of her father’s stallions, pushing the animal to run so she could disappear.

 

She almost lost her courage, tempted to ride 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 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.  She couldn’t make herself disappear, but lost herself in perpetual motion.

 

She didn’t recognize where she was when the stallion slowed down.  The grasses were long, grazing along her feet while her mount cut a swathe through them, coming 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.    

 

Memories of the place flooded through her, an onslaught of euphoria that burst the girl into laughter, even with the clawing inside her.  It 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.  Then she recalled that day when the colt escaped her father’s stables and started to weep.  The bliss that caught her unawares became a torment.  She would never have that kind of joy again.

She would never have that kind of joy again.

She would never have that kind of joy again.

 

She spurred the horse to go, 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 looming 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, the image of her father’s manor as her home 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 who 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 stabbing 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, 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 the murmuring of the deepest baritone she ever heard in her life.

 

“There’s a better way.”

Then he spoke. His breath teased along her right ear, just before the murmuring of the deepest baritone she ever heard in her life.    “There’s a better way.”

Then he spoke. His breath teased along her right ear, just before the murmuring of the deepest baritone she ever heard in her life.

“There’s a better way.”

His voice rang clear, even over the thrashing water.  The girl froze, her fear exploding into terror.  She could feel him right behind her, standing at her right shoulder.  Turning her head, she saw the Sorcerer of the Caverns looked just like the Cook always said he did.  His hair and beard were the color of dust, hanging in matted ropes to his waist.  Lines 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, and preyed on virgin girls so he would never die.

 

“That way he keeps two steps ahead of the Devil,” the Cook always said at story’s end.  

 

The Ancient Grove and Abandoned Valley were forbidden ever since he came her.  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 and pulled away, falling until 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.

This excerpt is the beginning of my novel “Ella Bandita and the Wanderer,” and the first novelette, “Birthing Ella Bandita.”

To buy the entire novel as an ebook for $3.99, click here.

If you’d like to see more before buying the novel, download the first novelette for free, click here.