by William Pruitt
A boy looked at himself in the mirror. He made a face to scare himself.
He went out into the woods. He shouted a made-up word. He ran back to his house, fear overwhelming him.
In church, the pastor warned the Devil was everywhere. The pews were hard and shiny. The songbooks in their bins were closed and distant. The boy thought of Bela Lugosi. He imagined a face, a stare, that held him. He was in that story and was not able to see the story, sitting on the pew, the preacher’s words like flies, annoying but not as powerful as the image of the stare. He could not think of what the people sitting around him imagined. Their minds felt blunt, impregnable, dead. He was sitting in a graveyard.
The boy grew up and freed himself. He looked around and noticed everybody was behind the eight ball until they stepped aside (or didn’t). He saw the Devil was useful if you didn’t look at him.
Once there was an old man who had seven sons he loved very much. They grew up and the oldest said, “Father, it’s time for us to marry. Give us our horses and provisions so we may go out into the world and seek our fortune.”
“Oh,” said their father. “I couldn’t bear for you all to go. I couldn’t stand that. If you must go, let the youngest, Boots, stay here with me.”
It was agreed. Their father suited up the boys with his best horses, clothes and gear.
Didn’t they look a sight with their tack and provisions! If you had seen them coming from afar, their brilliance would have blinded you. They journeyed into the great world.
Boots stayed with his father. They waited for the boys to return, the brothers, the sons, the anticipated men, the hoped-for women. But the longer they waited, the more the brothers didn’t come. The old man worried and cried, cried and worried. Finally, Boots said, “Father, let me go find them.”
“Oh no, my boy, I could never do that. What if I lost you too? My dearest son, that would be too painful. I could not go on living if that happened.”
“But I’ll come back.”
“Besides, I’ve given my good horses. There’s only Old Groaner.”
Boots bade his father goodbye and set out. “I’ll bring them home,” he said. Old Groaner was not as fancy a horse as his brothers had rode away on, but Boots was glad to have a horse.
Boots journeyed near and far, seeing the world from a different perspective from that of his brothers. His clothes and gear were as motley and tumbledown as his horse, and people paid little attention. As he rode old Groaner down the dry and dusty road, he chanced to see a fish which somehow had flipped itself out of a lake. Boots was tempted to build a fire right there and eat it— it would extend his food rations, which consisted of a small roast beef sandwich– one more day; but he saw it was still breathing, and he decided his desire to see it keep living was greater than his hunger at that particular moment. So he got off his horse. The fish seemed to say, “Throw me back in the water, please.” And that’s what he did. He got back on Old Groaner and moved on.
They rode some more at a slow pace, seeing what there was to see, which was a great deal, even if it did not include what Boots was looking for. They were well past the reservoir and coming into the woods when Boots saw a black shape by a tree stump. As they came closer, he saw what he thought was a dead raven— an odd sight, he thought, you don’t usually see ravens die out in the open. To his surprise, the raven uttered a deep croak. If you have ever heard a raven utter, you know they are very expressive. This raven may as well have said straight out, “I’m hungry,” because that’s clearly what he intended. Boots was moved and got off his horse. He took his sandwich out of his satchel.
“I don’t have much,” he said. “But I’ll split this with you.” He broke the sandwich in two and gave half to the raven. The bird took some of the sandwich in his beak and stood upright. He ate some more and his feathers grew lustrous. When he finished his part of the sandwich he seemed to have grown in size, opening his wings to prepare for flight.
Boots felt stronger just watching him fly away.
That day was a long one, partly because Boots was still hungry after eating half the sandwich, but also because every town he stopped in, no one had seen his brothers, nor heard a thing about them. The sun was low in the sky when he saw something in the middle of the road. Approaching, he saw a wolf stretched across the path, even more withered and shrunken than Old Groaner, looking at him imploringly.
Boots got off his horse. “I’m very sorry for your situation, but there’s really nothing to be done. I shared the only food I had with a raven a while back. I have nothing for myself even. I’m sorry.”
The wolf’s eyes shifted to Old Groaner. “No! I’m not giving you my horse! He’s all I have. Absolutely not!”
And a palpable intelligence from the wolf’s eyes glowed as if to say, There is a world you need to master.
Some people would have thought the wolf was trying to save her own skin. But Boots had a different hunger, and a promise to keep.
Not at all sure he was doing the right thing, Boots lifted the bridle and saddle and blanket off his faithful horse, and led him over to the wolf, who promptly leaped on him and ate him. Boots didn’t watch the gruesome carnage, but looked around for material to build a fire, for he imagined that was where he would spend the night, before continuing on foot in the morning. But when he came back, the wolf was waiting for him.
She looked much bigger than she had before, now nourished and sated. She seemed to have actually doubled in size, beckoning for Boots to climb on. For the second time, Boots did a thing which went against everything he thought or believed, because it felt right: he climbed onto the back of a wolf. When the animal beneath him took off running, it all seemed natural.
They were covering ground. It almost felt like they were flying. Boots couldn’t guess how far they had gone, but it was dusk when they came to a hillside, and the wolf stopped as if to say, Look. There were figures on an otherwise bare hillside. Boots approached, thinking, Are these statues? It seemed a strange place for an open air exhibition. What’s more, the statues were remarkably lifelike. It was as if they had been captured in the moment of movement, so real did they look. For a second, he thought of his brothers, but there were too many of them. Then he came closer and saw that they were his brothers, and with them, women—and one man— on the hillside, frozen solid in varying expressions of fear and panic, a demonic sideshow that would have made him insane were it not for the steadying, calming influence he felt coming from the wolf, who stood and watched it all.
Boots saw a door eight feet high built into the hillside. He knocked on the door, no response; it wasn’t locked so he opened it. There was a young woman sewing by candlelight in the rear of a windowless room. When she saw him, she gave a deep sigh and said, “Who are you?”
Boots said, “I am brother to those outside on your lawn.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. You’ll be joining them as soon as the Giant who lives here comes back.”
“Well, I’m here to recover them after all.”
“You can’t kill him. He has no heart in his body. There’s nothing there.”
“He has it somewhere. Would you help me?” They were silent. “Maybe you would like to be free of him too.”
Her expression changed from one of pity to amusement. “Well, I guess if you must, you must.” Her voice changed as her eyes looked away. “Get under my bed fast!”
Boots scrambled to get under a long sturdy bed in the corner. It wasn’t long before he heard the door open and a voice heavy with the weight of the world say, “What’s that smell?”
“Oh, hello, Dear. How was your day? What smell?”
“I smell a man. A Christian man. Was there one here?”
“There’s been no man here. It’s probably some bones a buzzard dropped down the chimney. Are you hungry?”
Everything became quiet for a while. Boots heard the clink of dishes and utensils and pictured them eating. That is, he pictured her eating. He didn’t want to think of what the Giant looked like. Although he hadn’t eaten much that day, he didn’t think about food. He put all his mind and intention into staying quiet. After a while he felt the mattress above him sink, and was glad it was firm. There was some movement and then stillness, and Boots thought they were going to sleep when he heard her say, “You know, sweetheart, there’s one thing I would like to know.”
“Oh, where you keep your heart.”
“Why do you want to know that?”
“It would be a special place to me.”
“Huh! I keep it under the doorway, if you must know,” he said as he turned over.
We’ll see about that, thought Boots.
The next morning, the Giant got up early and was gone. As soon as Boots heard the door close, he said, “Is it all right?”
“Wait five minutes,” she said. When he came out she had already pulled the carpet away. She handed him a shovel and a sharp-pointed spade and he was digging.
It wasn’t easy— the hillside was more rock than soil— and Boots dug until his calluses bled. Then she said, “He was lying. We’ll have to put everything back.” Boots filled the dirt back in, and the young woman went out and picked flowers, cut garlands, tied ribbons and wound vines around the doorway.
When the Giant came back after dark, Boots was under the bed. “Has there a Christian man been here by any chance?”
“Oh, hello Dear, are you hungry? Man? What makes you think such a thing?”
“I can smell him.”
“Oh, you know how powerful your sense of smell is. That was a bone a raven dropped down the chimney. I tried to fumigate the house, but you have a such a powerful olfactory sense.”
“Hm. Yesterday you said it was a buzzard.”
“Buzzard, vulture, raven, I don’t know. One of those birds that eats dead things.”
After they had gone to bed, the Giant said, “Why did you fancy up the door?”
“Well, that’s where your heart is, you know. It’s a special place to me now.”
“Huh. It’s not there. You think I’d tell you where it was?”
“Oh. But I would really like to know.” There was a long silence.
“Okay. I’ll tell you. It’s under the pantry.”
We’ll see about that, thought Boots. And as great as the Giant’s raw force seemed to fill the house embedded in the hill, he wondered at the bravery and the cunning of the young woman, and he hoped she wasn’t married.
The Giant left the next morning and they pulled out all the pots and pans, skillets, ironware, griddles, grates, trays, and forks, and they started to dig. They dug till noon, and she said, “He’s told another one.” So they spent all afternoon putting everything back and decorating with wreathes, ribbon, spangles, pinecones and garlands, tinsel and glitter and glitz. It was pleasant doing that with her, Boots forgot it was getting late and had to hustle when he heard the Giant coming back.
There wasn’t much time between Boots getting under the bed and the Giant saying, “Hmm, I smell something.”
“What do you smell, Dear?”
“There’s a man been here.”
“No. I wouldn’t let a man in here. You smell a man’s bones. Some carrion-eating bird probably dropped a bone through the chimney. I’ve told you before you need to put a hood on it. You can smell the way an eagle can see.”
“Oh. Why all the finery, frills and frippery over the pantry?”
“Well, you know, you told me that’s where your heart is. So I wanted to honor that place.”
After they had dinner, they went to bed.
“Fool. I would never tell a woman where my heart is. You will never know that.”
There were low murmurings and rustlings of sheets and covers and many indecipherable sounds, like waves rolling back upon themselves, or leaves caught in a gentle whirlwind. Boots listened as intently as he could. Finally he heard her say, “I just can’t help wondering. It’s the one thing I would so like to know.”
Boots heard the Giant give a long sigh, and when he spoke his tone had changed. His voice was calm and steady and slow and grave, as if he spoke of something both inevitable and inexplicable. His sentences came with long pauses in between.
He spoke as if in response to the silence she had brought him.
“Far, far from here, there is a thick woods with no path in between the trees. Not even a bluebird could fly through. In those woods there is a lake with an island in the middle of it. An island that is connected to nothing, yet goes nowhere. Sheer stone slabs surround it. On that island is a church. In that church is a well. In that well swims a duck. In that duck is an egg. In that egg… in that egg is my heart, my darling!”
We’ll see about that, thought Boots.
The Giant left slowly the next morning, and Boots grew anxious, waiting. He had to break away from that house he’d spent three nights in, and from the young woman.
“I’ll be back,” he said after the Giant had finally left. She looked as if she did not see the sources of his confidence.
As soon as Boots stepped out the door, the wolf was waiting. It was a strange mission they were on: looking for someone’s heart whom he had never seen. He did not ask the wolf what the Giant looked like because he didn’t want to know.
It didn’t take long, such was the speed at which they almost flew, skimming the trees like a squirrel. Soon they were through the woods and at the edge of a lake, at the center of which they could see the island. The wolf stopped at the water’s edge. Boots swam. Upon reaching land, he clambered up massive blocks of granite strewn with firethorn. The ground at the top was level. The island was small, the church in the center, its windows boarded up. Two wooden doors were closed and locked. Over them was a key on a nail twenty feet off the ground. He turned to look at the wolf and held his palms up. The wolf just looked at him. Oh, yes. The raven.
“Raven, I need you!” There he was, lifting the key in his beak, then dropping it into Boots’ cupped hands.
He fitted it into the door and pulled it open. Inside was a musty smell. He approached a well in the center of the nave, and looked into it. There was a duck swimming around in a circle. How long have you been here, he wondered. He held out his hands and she came to him. As he lifted her out of the well, she laid an egg, which promptly sank. The duck flew out the door. This time, he didn’t have to look at the wolf. As he thought fish, the fish he had seen on the road appeared, dove and resurfaced with the egg in his mouth.
Boots took the egg and the left the dark church. The island was all rock, the sun warmed it. Boots held the egg up so the wolf could see it. What to do? The wolf slowly shook her head. Boots closed his hand around the egg. He could feel a pulsing. He gave it a gentle squeeze.
A cry of agony from the other side of the world filled the air. Set my brothers and their sweethearts free, Boots said to his hand that had the egg in its grasp. Boots looked up at the wolf, who was nodding her head. “And every living thing you’ve turned to stone,” he said quietly, and counted to four. Then Boots squeezed quickly with all his strength.
It was then that day turned night and back to day, and to night again. The earth shook. A searing scream cut across time and space, a jagged rusty blade of movement that sounded like the undercarriage of the firmament, causing everything to flash and shake three times and ring, as if all creation were a glass bell in pain.
Then everything was gone: egg, church, island, wolf. He was back on the hillside, a brilliant sun shining down, and his brothers were walking toward him, and the others; and the young woman coming out of the hill. And there was a laying on of hands, and a grand feast.
About the Author:
Bill Pruitt is a fiction writer, storyteller, poet, and Assistant Editor with Narrative Magazine. His short stories appear in recent issues of Crack of the Spine Literary Magazine, Indiana Voice Journal, Midway Crack of the Spine Literary Magazine, Indiana Voice Journal, Midway and Hypertext. He has published poems in such places as Ploughshares, Anderbo.com, Off Course, Stone Boat, Otis Nebula, Literary Juice, Visitant and Cottonwood. He has two chapbooks with White Pine and FootHills; and the self-published Walking Home from the Eastman House. He has performed his original story, “Two Kinds of Fear,” a documented telling of the lives of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass at various venues in Rochester. He taught English to non-native speakers for 26 years. He and his wife Pam live in Rochester and have a daughter, a son and two grandchildren.