There was a squeaking of wood as the old man leaned forward in his chair to take the hand of Berla’s grammy. “You’re hot as a firebrand!” he exclaimed. “Have you been to see a physician?”
“I don’t need a physician to tell me what I already know. And I don’t want any of that wormwood they pass off for tonic in these parts. The last time I drank some, I wore a trench from the basin to the chamber pot. When it’s my time to go, I want to be lying right here in this bed, staring out this very window and looking at these same clouds.”
“I don’t see any clouds,” replied the old man.
“You’re not looking from the right spot. Here, lie down next to me.” The oaken bedframe creaked under the added weight. “Lay your head back on the pillow. That’s better. Do you see them now?” Her voice took on a dreamy quality. “They look just like they did on the day they brought me the news of your death. I shut myself up in my room and refused to come out. I had this big pitcher for washing, and I got this notion that every day I would fill it up with my tears and pour it out on the roses that grew outside my window, causing them to grow until they twined their way up the wall to me. It would have been a lovely gesture, don’t you think? Fit for a ballad. Only it was a bad day for collecting tears. The clouds were breaking up and the sun was showing through in places, sending down these great golden shafts. How can you be expected to weep on a day like that? Before I knew it, I was pretending we were down by the Horseshoe Pond again, staring up at the clouds and seeing visions in the sky. See there where it billows up?” She pointed. “There’s a white castle sitting on a hill. Below that, there’s a blue lake with three swans floating upon it. And over there, hills covered in queen’s lace with horses galloping among them. White horses.”
Berla gazed up at the clouds. It was a game they often played, she and her grammy. Berla was very good at it. As if for her own personal enjoyment, the clouds arranged themselves into the most whimsical shapes whenever she turned her gaze upon them. It did not take her long to locate a towering white castle, a blue lake, hills of snowy wildflowers, and leaping white horses.
“Now tell me what you see,” her grammy said.
Forgetting herself, Berla was about to answer when the old man spoke up. “I see a small roadside inn in the hills with smoke rising from its chimney. The snow is deep on the ground, covering the land like a newly laundered linen. A girl in a snowy wool coat is trudging back from the barn. She has a pail of fresh milk in one hand and a pail of eggs in the other and she’s singing sweetly to herself, How does the wind blow? How does it blow-ee-oh-oh?”
“Hm-hmmm-hm-hm-wo. Hm-h-hm-wayo-wayo,” her grammy hummed along, just as she had hummed to Berla on so many dark nights. “Hm-hmmm-hm-hm—” Her voice broke off in a spasm of coughing. Worried, Berla peeked over the windowsill to see her grammy doubled up on the bed, her head flung repeatedly forward as if an invisible foot were kicking her in the gut. Berla had never seen her look so shrunken and frail. Her eyes were swollen and her matronly face was haggard with pain and exhaustion. The old man sat beside her with his hands on her shoulders, holding her steady as each successive wave of coughing passed. Gradually, the coughs ran their course and she began to take shallow, choppy breaths. The old man pressed a cup to her lips. She took a few sips, swallowing with difficulty. “Go on,” she said breathlessly. “What else do you see?”
“Ah, yes, let’s see…” continued the old man. “I see a boy hiding behind a woodpile. He’s shivering and the tips of his ears are pink from frost-nip. He’s pressing a ball of snow between his bare hands even though it stings most dreadfully. He’s waiting for the snow-girl to come along so he can give her what she’s got coming.”
“He’ll cause her to break her eggs!” she protested.
“And send her crying home to boot if he’s lucky. It’s her own fault. Can you believe she had the gall to trade away the blue cut-stone he gave her? Traded it to that clod Barmey Blithestone for a beaver’s tail and a useless bluejay feather. You see then, he had no choice. He had to show that wretched lass what’s what.”
“And this snow-girl?” she coughed. “Was she pretty?”
“Pretty?” The old man whistled. “All the poetry in the kingdom cannot begin to describe how pretty she was. Her hair was like the mane of a chestnut stallion. Her eyes were like black pearls set in amulets of lacquered mahogany. Her skin was smooth as an oyster shell. Oh, and she had a very fine bosom.”
There was a dull, fleshy sound, the kind a sharp elbow might make when thrust into someone’s rib.
“I was just answering the question.” The old man massaged his side. “Now where was I? Oh yes—so this snow-girl was passing by the woodpile when out jumps our brave young laddie and pelts her right upside her cherry red cheekie. It was quite a throw, frozen fingers and all.”
“The devil!” her grammy breathed. “Why, the vile… chicken-hearted… pap-sucking… dung-eater!”
Berla gasped. She had never heard her grammy use such bald language before. She covered her mouth, hoping they hadn’t heard her.
“Ah, yes, that girl had quite the temper on her,” the old man went on. “Why, she took off after that boy like a snow-cat after a jackrabbit. She would never have caught him, of course—he was much too quick—had he not stumbled into a rut.”
“Perhaps if he had been minding where he was going instead of turning to stick his tongue out.”
“No matter. In any case, when the snow-girl caught up to him, in what manner do you suppose she repaid our noble young paramour for his gesture of heartfelt devotion?”
“She plastered him from foot to crown in milk and eggs,” her grammy said with obvious delight.
“But the story doesn’t end there,” said the old man. “All that commotion has alerted her father, the innkeep. And he’s angry as a swatted hornet.”
Her grammy’s voice turned grave. “I thought he was going to skin us both alive.”
“Indeed. Such wrath as I’ve never seen. I would rather have faced a dragon.”
“But you took all the blame.”
“Quite gallant of me, I must say.”
“And my father made you gather milk and eggs every morning for a month to make good on the loss.”
The old man cleared his throat. “More like a week, actually.”
“But I distinctly remember…”
“Yes, well, your father was gracious enough to extend my punishment after I entreated him ever so kindly.”
“Why would you do that?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” The hermit let the question hang on the air. “I did it for the breakfast. I do so love fresh cream and eggs.”
“You’re a rake and a scoundrel, Moribus Ansol,” her grammy said.
“That may be so. But you should not judge me too harshly, for this was no ordinary breakfast. I would get up hours before dawn so I could finish my own chores and get over to the inn to finish yours. Then your father would ask me to stay for breakfast and you would fry up eggs and a slab of ham and ladle warm cream over top of them. The egg yolks were yellow and bright as the sun, the cream frothy and thick as a cloud, the ham salty as a sailor’s tongue. Never at the king’s table did I taste anything so delicious.”
Neither spoke for several moments, savoring the memory. Berla hadn’t eaten lunch yet and her stomach set to growling so loudly she feared it would give her away.
“I always knew it was you,” her grammy said suddenly.
“What?” The old man sounded confused.
“That day you returned from the dragon-quest. I knew it was you the moment I saw you standing beneath our tree.”
The hermit did not seem to believe what he had just heard. “But if you knew, why didn’t you come with me? It was the riches, wasn’t it? Your position and titles? Blaise? The Lady Densa?”
“No, none of that.” Her grammy’s voice was barely more than a whisper now. “I was prepared to leave all that behind. Even after I saw the body, I never truly accepted that you were gone. I always hoped you would return and carry me off one day. The truth is, I was terrified—terrified of what you would think of me. When you left with the dragonslayer, you were this simple boy from the village. I could always tell what you were thinking and knew it was within my power to make you happy. No matter how we quarreled, the one thing I could always count on was your blind devotion. But when you came back, you were changed somehow. There was something hard and desperate in your eyes, like you had gazed upon things no mortal being was ever meant to see. In order to survive out there in the wilderness, you had stored away this perfect image of me in your heart. I knew I could never live up to that and I couldn’t endure the thought of trying and failing. You might have loved me at first, but once you really got to know me, you would have seen how petty and pretentious and stupid I was. I would disappoint you and you would grow to resent me for it. I could never forgive myself for that. So I sent you away.”
“Resent you? How could I possibly—”
“Don’t deny it,” she said sharply. “I saw the way you looked at me. You were looking for an angel and I was a mere earthly princess, flawed in a thousand ways. Besides, if you truly loved me, how come you never came looking for me again? I knew you returned to the city. I saw you standing at the king’s side—Xoron, was it? You could have come.”
“I didn’t think you would have wanted me to.”
“You should have come,” her grammy repeated.
“Yes,” the old man sighed. “There are a great many things I should have done. But I’ve come now. And see, I’ve brought you white horses.” He raised an unsteady arm toward the window.
Her grammy’s laughter was as brittle as autumn leaves. “Just in time for a pavilion wedding.”
The laughter died out, leaving only the rhythmic whistling of her grammy’s breath and the sporadic smacking of the old man’s lips. Berla was left feeling more confused than ever. She felt happy, content and overwhelmingly sad at the same time, though she could not have said why.
A week later, her grammy died and went to be with the angels and unborn babies in Rho.