There once was a man who left his home after trying, and failing, to win the love of a married woman. He travelled for weeks, sometimes on foot, sometimes hitching a ride here and there. Sometimes his body ached with weariness, and sometimes the nights of the waning summer got cold, but he pressed on.
One autumn evening, just as it began to grow dark where the lonely road yielded no inns or fellow travelers, the man saw a winking light on a hill in the distance. The light looked just like the light in the married woman’s house late at night, or so he recalled.
When he came closer, he realized that the light was emanating from the entrance to a cave. Though this struck him as strange, he pressed on and saw a deep cavern, dimly lit by a small fire. A girl in rags, no more than thirteen by the looks of her, sat by the fire and stirred something in a copper pot with a long white spoon. She was humming a tune he couldn’t place, except for the fact that it may have been sung by his mother to him.
The girl jumped when she saw him, but he reassured her with calm words and what he hoped was a warm smile. She told him that she had been banished from her village on suspicion of dark magic.
“And are you?” He asked.
“And am I what?”
“An evil witch.”
“No,” she smiled back at him. “I am a good one.”
The girl fed the man some broth from her pot in exchange for a promise that he would go into her village the next day, and re-claim for her the things she was forced to leave behind, among them her hammer. “It belonged to my father,” she said. “He had been a blacksmith.”
The man looked at the darkness behind her and asked if the cave extended further.
“Perhaps, ” she shrugged. There was something about the possibility that made the man uneasy, so he slept with his face turned toward the entrance, while the girl sat by the fire and hummed her strange songs well into the night.
In the morning, the man journeyed into the nearby village. He quickly found out that the girl’s home had been taken over by her neighbors, the same neighbors who had accused her practicing black magic. The man waited until nightfall and entered the house. He took the hammer and few other things and escaped unnoticed, because the new mistress and new master of the house were too busy pleasuring each other to notice an intruder. At the threshold, however, the man stumbled over a crouching cat, causing it to hiss and spit loudly, and the house’s naked master chased the man with a pitchfork.
The man had a lot to complain about when he reached her cave. He didn’t appreciate being chased with pitchforks.
“Chased?” The girl laughed. “Seems to me that you have been looking for adventure for a long time. Yet when it finds you, you run. There are more frightening things in this world beside pitchforks.”
At this, the man was ashamed.
“I heard that somewhere in this case, there is an entrance to the realm of the Underground King,” the girl mused while he stood with his head hung. “I reckon my father’s hammer could crack the stone.”
The man had no idea who the Underground King was, but he did feel a strong desire to hit something. He picked up the hammer, which suddenly felt heavier in his hands, and advanced toward the back walls in the darkness, and swung without thinking of the possible danger.
The wall cracked with a groan and behind him, rocks began to fall. He instinctively jumped forward, into the light.
In the land of the Underground King, snow was falling. There was no sky, there could not have been a sky, at the very least, and yet the snow fell from somewhere in the twilight and got caught in the man’s hair, and melted.
It was very quiet.
All that there was beside the snow was a faint trail of blood, and the man started following it. He wondered if there had been a cave-in, and if his accidental friend was dead, but he also had hope and it warmed him in spite of the cold air.
The twilight never faded.
The man had no real way of measuring time in that strange land, but he supposed that it was after a few hours that he first glimpsed the Underground King’s castle. It was dark, but it also shone, and it had no sharp edges – as if it had been cut from a single hunk of basalt as enormous as an entire city. The trail of blood lead him there.
In the heart of the castle, under a black blanket as shiny as beetle-wings, the King slept. There would be a feast, later, the snow would melt and the lanterns would be lit, and the stony sky overheard would sparkle with crystal and quartz. For now, the King was dreaming of blood on the snow. He was also dreaming of a man advancing warily to his bedchamber.
“I’ve waited for you for a long time,” said the married woman that the man once loved, or thought he loved. She was sitting not far from castle moat. Her feet were bleeding. Her eyes shone as they never did before. Overwhelmed, he stepped toward her, but, at the last minute, something pulled him back. She was so beautiful – a little bit too beautiful to be alive.
The vision faded and he saw that it had concealed a deep and echoing chasm.
His heart pounding with fear and relief, the man entered the castle, and followed the sound of light breathing, and reached the King’s bedchamber.
The King was stirring awake. He was smaller than the man had imagined him, and his skin looked like diamonds, so clear and pure it seemed as though it would have been possible to see his insides.
“Sometimes my dreams do behave strangely,” the King mumbled when his puffy eyes fixed on the intruder. “And what do you want? Gold, I suppose.”
“You suppose correctly,” said the man. The truth was, thoughts of gold had not entered his mind in the slightest, but he did know how to pursue an opportunity.
“Well, well. It’s true that I give away half of the gold harvest at the feast that marks the beginning of the season. But getting it requires more ingenuity than you have shown when you got past the ghost haunting the outside of the castle. What did it appear to you as, anyway?”
The man recalled the vision hovering over the chasm, and said nothing.
“No matter, no matter,” the King climbed off the bed and slapped the man’s back jovially, nearly sending him flying across the room. “We will see what you’re made of yet.”
The snow melted with a hiss and in the permanent twilight, all of the rocks shone. Slithering creatures with long tails and strange faces swung from enormous tree-root to tree-root on their way to the castle. In the banquet hall, a blue fire danced in the hearth, and a goat sat by the right arm of the King and played the fiddle, sending the jugs and the plates dancing on the table.
“Keep the beat!” The King shouted, winking at the man. “Keep the beat and you keep the gold!”
So the man measured out the beat of the dance with his spoon, faster and faster, until he felt as though he was about to shatter the bones in his arm from the effort, but still he kept on. The vision of the woman he had loved tapped its boots on the table in front of him, but still he kept on. The ceiling cracked and rocks rained down, but he kept on anyway…
… And woke up in a dim cave with his head resting on something hard. Upon closer inspection, the something turned out to be a sack of gold.
“Just a sack?” The man wondered out loud. “What about half of the gold harvest and all that?”
“The sack is bottomless. Bottomless to a human mind, anyway. It can’t be measured.” a familiar voice said. The girl was still on the floor, still in rags, still stirring her pot. “You couldn’t spend that gold in your entire lifetime.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” the man said. “Cannot be measured?”
“Think of it as you would think of grief. Or love. Or wanting to fuck. See if you can measure that, and get back to me.”
“Here,” the man dropped the sack next to her, an uncomfortable feeling creeping over him. “You can have a new house made.”
The girl shrugged. “Gold won’t solve my problems. I am a good witch, remember? But you are only a man, and your future is not set.”
It was then that the man saw that the long white spoon in the girl’s hand was actually a bone. He stepped closer, and saw that she was stirring no ordinary broth: she was stirring stars, and blood, and the dark void, and a lock of hair from his former love, and his life, and his death.
“Who are you?” He asked the girl.
“I already told you that,” she said, and took him outside, where clouds laden with snow hung low over the road he had yet to travel. By the time he reached the next town, the snowfall had covered everything for miles, covered the earth so thickly that he was sure he would not be able to find his way back to the cave even if he had wanted to. Instead, he drank spiced wine by the fire in a tavern, and nearly persuaded the innkeeper’s wife to go to bed with him, and in the morning set out on freshly bought horses toward his destiny, or, at the very least, another inn.
- copyright: Natalia Antonova (moi)