***This week we each had to write two pieces for Idol. Mine are best read in this order: canard, then tool box.***
Two strangers came to the town marketplace.
The other was an older woman who looked entirely grey – her hair, her eyes, and her dress. She had a sharp voice and a quick mind and haggled with the merchants for the few things they were there to buy. She always had an eye on the younger woman. When she said it was time to go, they left.
Strangers were news, gossip, in a town this small and set away from the city. People had been speculating all week about who the women might be, and if they had in fact settled nearby. Dark theories were forming about the relationship between the women and the ankle cuff, nurtured by each new speculation and telling.
The next week the strange women were at the marketplace again. Again the Grey was clearly in charge, purchasing some fruits, nuts, and grains from various stalls, but eschewing any meat. Again the Blue was cowed, she mostly trailed behind the older woman. As a protracted negotiation over the price of apples took place –
“They’re mealy and have gone off, one copper for a dozen.”
“That one is merely bruised, I will replace it. A copper buys only two, it’s a silver for a dozen.”
The woman in blue sat at the edge of the fountain. She bent over to rub at the skin on her ankle alongside the cuff. The baker’s daughter offered her a dipper of water, she smiled her thanks and drank. It was her smile, on top of her looks and obvious need to be saved, that propelled the mayor’s son to the fountain.
“Dear lady, will you tell me your name?”
Blue shook her head no and looked nervously at her feet.
“No matter, I am Thomas, and in this place I can do what I will. Does that old woman hurt you?” He sat next to her.
Blue shook her head no and stayed focused at her feet.
“She doesn’t treat you well, at least. Come have supper with me, leave the crone behind.”
Blue glanced sideways at him with wide eyes, then looked back down and again shook her head no.
Thomas lowered his voice further. “You are beautiful and I would like to know you better. The girls of this town are all silly and unsuitable and I am in need of a wife.”
The baker’s daughter sniffed and took her water bucket away, shaking her head.
“My father is the mayor and I will follow in his footsteps. It is a good life, won’t you at least…”
The grey woman barked out – a sound. It must have been a phrase, it was paced like words but had too many consonants and was harsh on the ears. The woman in blue immediately slid off the edge of the fountain to her knees, pressing her forehead into the earth for a beat. She stood, and walked to Grey’s side. Grey grabbed her chin and stared into her eyes, then glared over her shoulder at Thomas. She murmured something no one heard, then turned and left the marketplace. Blue followed her, though she glanced back one time.
For the next week after necessary talk of the children or the harvest everyone in town talked about the women. Thomas proclaimed everywhere that he needed to hear Blue speak but if her voice was as sweet as her looks he would marry her. The town was divided on this idea, some thought it good, some thought Thomas would end up bewitched himself, and some thought Thomas was an ass (those holding the last opinion included all the ‘silly’ girls of marriageable age, who had been certain long before this). People tried to repeat the grey woman’s command, but no one could come close to the consonant-heavy harshness.
The next marketplace day arrived. Many people found excuses to be in the town square so they could finally see these women themselves instead of hearing third hand well-worn stories of them.
The grey woman arrived after the noon bell, and was walking with a slight limp. Thomas stood on the edge of the fountain craning his head to catch a glimpse of Blue behind her. But the young woman in blue was nowhere to be seen.
Thomas climbed down from the fountain and walked to the grey woman, noticing for the first time the small cage she carried. In the cage was a songbird, a thrush, he thought. He immediately saw the small glint of gold, a tiny cuff, wrapped around the bird’s right leg. He planted himself in her path.
“Crone” he said, and immediately thought better of it when she looked in his face. “Kindly mother, what is this bird you have?”
“This is a songbird I keep. It has been singing falsely and keeping me awake with worry. I want to try it on different foods.”
“Perhaps the bird doesn’t like the cage?”
“Sonny, there’s always a cage, but most can’t be seen. The bird is happy enough, is well cared for, and sings beautifully until recently.”
Thomas thought quickly. He knew the bird was the blue girl and he had to get her away from this horrid old - witch. He put a hand to his purse, where his allowance for the next six-month from his father had been placed that morning. He didn’t want to offer it all, but was certain the old lady wouldn’t haggle and was afraid if he offered too low he’d lose the blue girl forever. Perhaps half would get him the girl, and when he had made such a fine match the wedding gifts would make the amount up again many-fold.
“Kindly mother, I offer you 30 gold for the bird.”
“For this bird? It’s mine, you can catch your own. A cage doesn’t cost much.”
“But the markings of your bird and the fetching way it hops have convinced me that it is the bird for me. Please, kindly mother, will you sell it?”
The grey woman stared at the young man. “You have the money with you?”
Thomas opened his purse and counted 30 gold into his hand. “It’s all yours if only I can have the bird.”
“Of course, young sir.” The grey woman thrust the cage toward him, which he took carefully. He poured the gold out of his other hand, she caught it in her sleeve. The grey woman turned and left, buying nothing that day.
The grey woman returned to a small hut in the woods. Puddled on the floor was a dress that was all the blues of the sky. She whistled, and smiled when she heard the door open behind her.
“How did it go?”
“He wanted you badly, we have 30 pieces of gold.”
The young woman with bright eyes and her dark hair bound up was dressed in leggings and a tunic of browns and greens, the better to move through the forest unseen.
“A rich price for a bird and a poor price for a girl.” She smiled. “But he is stupid enough to be vengeful, even against a witch of your obvious power, grandmother. We’ll need to move on.”
“Of course, Liesel. There is another village, several days walk away. With the harvest no one else has been travelling, with one more stop we should have enough to winter in the city safely before the story spreads.”
Liesel picked up the dress and began folding it around the few foodstuffs they had to carry with them. “Oh, I caught the next.” She nodded at the corner, where a cage hung with a new thrush inside. “I haven’t added the cuff yet, I don’t want to give away the game too soon. Besides…”
“Of course dear. Bring it here.”
Liesel set the cage on the table beside her grandmother. Grandmother reached into the cage and the thrush perched on her hand. She brought her hand out and smiled at the small delicate bird. She spoke harsh words that had too many consonants and couldn’t be repeated. Both women held their breath.
After a time Grandmother put the bird back into the cage. “Not yet, Liesel. But we’ll keep looking for your mother.”
Liesel nodded with tears in her eyes, and continued packing.