Part 104: Episode XCVII: TraumEpisode XCVII: Traum
Music: Village Tunes Mix
In the distance, Kainé heard the steady sounds of an axe striking wood. The noise had a purposeful quality to it, as if she was hearing a master woodsman go about his work. The firewood being produced, however, was as far from a work of art as could be; pieces of every shape and size were being flung about a barren yard with wild abandon. Anyone trying to stack such wood would probably die of frustration before the job was through.
"...Stupid piece of shit axe!"
Kainé's grandmother flailed away with the axe, filling the air with both splinters of wood and words that would make the most hardened sailor blush.
"Grandma!" called Kainé.
"What!?" yelled the old woman, taking her eyes off the wood for a moment. "Oh, it's you, Kainé? Don't get too close, or I might take your goddamn foot off by mistake."
She brought the axe down on a piece of wood, sending chips flying in every direction. One spun past Kainé close enough for her to hear the whistle, at which point she decided to step back. Once she'd scuttled to a safe distance, she cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted.
"Grandma! Do you need help? I can get you water or lunch or...uh...a new axe or something!"
The axe, poised to strike another wobbly blow, paused in midair. The old woman considered her granddaughter's offer for a moment, then smiled.
"Hmmm... Tell you what. Since I'm doing such a piss-poor job of choppin', why don't you come here and take over so I can go get the water. Shades have been restless lately, you know, and I don't want you runnin' into one of them bastards."
Relinquishing the axe, her grandmother picked up a long pole with wooden buckets on either end. Gathering water was by far the more difficult of the two jobs, but Kainé knew better than to complain. Once Grandma's mind was set, there was no changing it.
Kainé did her best to help with chores, but Grandma took every task that required travel to the village. Though she had a long list of plausible excuses, Kainé knew the real reason: She didn't want her granddaughter to be taunted and harassed by the villagers. Once Kainé moved in, Grandma decided to take up residence a good distance from The Aerie. Out of sight, out of mind seemed to be the best policy when it came to the villagers and her granddaughter, and rare were the days when any but the two of them could be found on the rocky acre of land they called home. Kainé enjoyed the solitude, but harbored a secret resentment that her grandmother was forced to spend her golden years in such a place.
After watching her grandmother leave, Kainé turned her attention to the task at hand. She had never chopped wood before in her life, and soon discovered why the old woman hated the chore. Swing after swing of the axe produced only a tiny crack in the wood, and when she finally managed to connect with a solid stroke, the tool embedded itself in the log and refused to budge. Frustrated, Kainé swung the axe around her head and threw it, log and all, across the yard.
"Dammit! Dammit! Uh...crap!"
She suddenly understood the joy her grandmother felt in a good curse. Happier now, she picked up the axe, forced it from the wood, and resumed chopping. She had a natural skill with a blade, but the task was challenging, and blisters soon began to form on her small, pink hands.
This is tough. And my logs are all weird sizes.
Spitting on her palms and ignoring the pain, Kainé redoubled her efforts. Just as she was developing a rhythm, Grandma returned from the village. Setting down her buckets with a small sigh, she took one look at the logs and coughed out a wheezy laugh.
"Pretty clumsy, girl! You better practice if... if you..."
Her grandmother suddenly collapsed to her knees, causing one of the buckets to wobble precariously. Eyes wide, Kainé dropped the axe and ran to her grandmother's side.
The old woman shook her head and pointed a trembling finger at the bucket.
"Get...get the bucket... C-can't let it spill..."
Kainé steadied the bucket with a foot as she knelt by her grandmother. A small bit of water sloshed over the side and made a new home in the hem of her dress, but Kainé didn't notice.
"Grandma! Grandma, what's happening!?"
Crazed with panic, she grabbed her grandmother by the shoulders and shook. After a moment, the woman lifted her arms and batted Kainé away.
"S-stop that! Just stop now!" she cried, breathing heavily. "It ain't like I'm dying! Just tired from the trip is all."
Kainé desperately wanted to believe her, but one look at the old woman's shaking hands and worn face told her more than words ever could. Her grandmother had lived a long, hard life, and it seemed the bill was coming due. The time when her grandmother watched over Kainé was ending. Sooner than either of them had feared, the positions would be reversed.
Music: Village Tunes Mix
The next morning, Kainé came to the side of her grandmother's bed and took her wrinkled hand.
"Grandma, you're sick, and you need medicine. I'm going to the village."
The old woman shook her head and tried to rise, but Kainé gently pushed her down. "It's all right, she said, "I'll be fine."
Her grandmother fixed her with a gaze that could melt steel. After what seemed an eternity, she finally lowered her eyes and sighed.
"Well, I don't like it, Goddammit. But I guess I should quit bein' so stubborn and let you grow up."
The old woman watched as Kainé strapped on her boots and made her way down the road to the village. Hours later, as an unseen sun made its way across a dark and rainy sky, she was still watching.
Kainé moved at a brisk pace, checking her pockets every few minutes to make sure the money her grandmother gave her was still there. Every noise caused her to spin on her heels, making sure she wasn't being stalked by a Shade-or worse, Dimo and his gang. But she encountered neither tormentors nor Shades, and Kainé finally found herself at the entrance to the village. The few adults she could see glanced sideways at her, then muttered to each other behind raised hands before slinking away into the shadows.
He heart racing, Kainé took a series of rapid, shallow breaths and tried to calm herself.
I have to prove myself. I have to help Grandma. I...I have to be strong.
She chanted those words to herself over and over as she slowly made her way. Finally, her eyes settled on a rotund older woman who was angrily waving her arms in the air and telling anyone who would listen exactly what she thought of Kainé's presence.
"Hey, lady," said Kainé with a bravado she did not feel. "Where's the apothecary?"
The woman's flabby cheeks shook in bewildered anger. How dare this...this thing speak to me! they seemed to say. But Kainé saw that her eyes held a different emotion: fear.
Yeah, we're both scared, lady. Trust me on this one.
"Which way?" Kainé repeated.
The woman pointed at a small building to her right before hitching up her dress and stumbling off in the other direction. Kainé cringed, expecting a stone to come flying from the assembled crowd, but none came.
Her mind was filled with a strange sense of pride as she made her way to the apothecary. But the new emotion had little time to take root, for as soon as she opened the door, she noticed a familiar customer at the counter. It was Dimo. He'd clearly been sent here on some kind of family errand, because his gang of followers was nowhere to be found.
"Oh my g..." he sputtered. "I mean, uh... What are you doing here, freak!?"
The insult was delivered without force, and Kainé happily ignored it. Stretching on tiptoes to see over the counter, she asked the shopkeeper for the medication.
"Ha!" barked Dimo. "That old bitch finally keel over!?"
"Go to hell, Dimo!"
The boy's eyes grew so wide they seemed ready to fall out of his head. But before he could let fly a comeback-or worse, a punch-the apothecary told them to knock it off before he kicked them out of the store. Dimo slunk out of the shop, cursing Kainé under his breath. Once he was gone, she allowed herself to breath once more, taking a brief tour of the shop while the owner prepared her medication.
Countless tiny bottles filled the cramped store, each with a label written in some indecipherable language. An ocean of aromas assaulted her nose, creating a scent that was exotic, but not altogether unpleasant. Seeing such a variety of supplies gave Kainé a sense of peace. Surely, in a world so vast, there would be a place she could call home. On the far wall, behind the counter, rested a portrait of a stunning young girl. The picture had once contained bright, vibrant colors, but time had worked its magic, and they were beginning to fade. The beauty of the work, however, remained undiminished.
"You like that picture?"
Kainé turned to find the apothecary with a small vial of medicine in his hand. His eyes were gentle but sad, and they seemed to stare through her and into nothing as he spoke.
"That's my daughter. I sketched it when she was just a little girl. ...She's been dead a long time now."
Kainé didn't know how to respond; she just stared at the portrait and tried to come up with the right words.
"Pictures are wonderful things," continued the shopkeeper. "They let the ones closest to you live on forever."
He shook his head slightly, then looked down at Kainé and smiled. Handing her the medicine, he reached into his sizable green apron and produced a handful of old wax crayons.
"You should have these. There's no one left that I wish to draw."
Kainé took an instinctive step back, causing the shopkeeper's face to darken.
"Yes, I've heard the rumors about you," he said. "It's a small village, and word travels quickly. Between you and me, I'm not sure which of them to believe...but I also don't think they matter much. I knew your grandmother Kali, and I think the way she was driven out of this town is just deplorable."
Grandma's name is Kali? thought Kainé suddenly. She was still mulling this new fact over in her mind as she reached out and gently took the crayons from the apothecary's hands.
"Your grandmother is an old friend of mine," he said as Kainé scooted away yet again, "and I owe her that much. I'm willing to wager that she would like it if you drew a picture of her. Yes, I think she would like that very much."
Kainé murmured a quiet agreement, but inside her heart was bursting. Never before had a villager treated her with anything but complete contempt. It was a tiny, almost imperceptible step, but it was a step nonetheless-and with enough tiny steps, she might one day discover the rest of the world.
When Kainé returned home, she found her grandmother asleep in her bed. Her feet were blackened and raw-even bleeding a bit in places-leading Kainé to think that she had been pacing around the room until exhaustion finally caught up with her. She placed the medicine by her grandmother's pillow and turned to leave, but found the old woman's hand clasped around her arm.
"Back already, are you?" asked her grandmother with a yawn. "Come here, let me have a look at you."
Grandma sat up and examined Kainé from head to toe. Finally satisfied that nothing terrible had befallen her grandchild, she leaned back and allowed herself to relax.
"Well, how was it? Did those bastards give you any trouble?"
"It was kinda fun," said Kainé with a small smile. "No, seriously, it was."
"It was fun, was it?" asked her grandmother in a voice which implied she believed anything but.
"Uh-huh. So anytime you need me to run an errand, just let me know!" As she spoke, Kainé removed the crayons from her pocket. After a brief explanation of their source, she informed her grandmother that she was going to sketch her portrait.
"A portrait of me? Ridiculous. No one wants to stare at a wrinkled old crone."
"But Grandma! It'll make you live forever!"
"Horse manure!" said her grandmother, throwing back the sheet from her bed. "Livin' forever would just piss me off. Now put those crayons away and help with dinner!"
But Kainé would not relent, and in the end, Grandma found herself leaning against the wall of their house as if posing for a master artist. Kainé took up the crayons and eyed her subject carefully...
Just as her grandmother was about to nod off, Kainé finished the work. After staring at it for a bit, she released it from her grip and let it slowly drift to the floor.
"It's...terrible! It doesn't look like you at all. I'm sorry, Grandma. I thought these crayons would...you know? Make drawing easy or something."
The old woman's eyes narrowed at her granddaughter's disappointment. "Let me be the judge of that," she said, ignoring the pain in her back and reaching for the paper.
The sketch could have been a person's face. It also could have been a boulder, a lump of clay, or an incredibly misshapen loaf of bread-all rendered in a chaotic array of colors. The old woman stared at the picture for a long time, then slowly wheezed out a laugh.
"Oh, Kainé!" she said between laughter. "You truly are my blood! You're as clumsy as me, and I love it!"
"Hush. I won't hear any more bull about how ugly you think it is. It came from the heart, and I'll treasure it always."
True to her word, the old woman gave the picture a place of honor above the kitchen table. In the days that followed, Kainé would often catch her staring at the portrait with a strange smile on her face-an action she interpreted as silent, mocking laughter. A week later, Kainé could stand it no more, and asked her grandmother to take the artwork down.
"Posh!" said the old woman. "I'll take this down when they roll me in my shroud!" She pondered this for a bit, then turned to Kainé and dropped to one knee. "Listen to me, girl. Seein' this picture makes me happy in a way I've never felt before. And it makes me want to go on, so that someday you can feel the same happiness."
It was a moment that burned itself in Kainé's memory: a perfect blend of pride and love and joy that came together to form a lifelong remembrance. She swore to never forget this moment; to never forget the old woman who had made her place in the world possible. Time moves on. People and memories come in and out of life like ghosts passing through a hall.
But this moment will be different, Kainé swore, because I will remember it forever.
Music: Village Tunes Mix