Microfiction Challenge: The Innocent

https://janedougherty.wordpress.com/2016/12/16/microfiction-challenge-27-rescue/#respond

There was a time when innocence walked the world. With all of the magnetism usually given to heroes, she walked among us drawing the animals and children to her. What was most unusual was the lack of pretense she had  of her own value. Adults in the village thought her simple and childlike. They preferred to ignore her and her gifts. But the children understood that if they stood quietly enough, they would see a miracle. So they stood at her side and waited. Soon a fawn, or mother cat with kits, or a fox would come and sit by her side. When she smiled at the children and bid them welcome, the animals would rise and greet them as if they were equals. Sometimes they would allow themselves to be petted by children.

Rumors of her ability to see the simple but exquisite left the village and found the ears of a merchant. He came to the village and brought her gifts of magnificent beauty. He begged her to marry him, but she refused. Angered by her decision, the merchant went to the town’s mayor and demanded that the woman be given to him. The mayor, ignoring all that the children had gossiped about her, agreed that it was well past time for her to be married, as a single woman was a danger to the balance of harmony in the village. Sending a group of elders to the woman they demanded that she comply with the mayor’s orders. Again she refused. The merchant left, angry and full of lies. These lies spread through the country. Lies that told of her possessing the souls of children and animals. Lies that called her a witch or sorceress, lies that gave her power over the divine, and lies that gave her the power of ensorcelling an entire village spread like wildfire.

Eventually the king heard of the woman, and believing a village in his domain was at risk of demonic possession, sent a squadron of trained soldier to arrest her and bring her back to be tried for her crimes.

They found her in her home, the fawn and mother cat by her side, and bound her arms and legs. They slew the animals. The children screamed and cried, they protested the cruel treatment of their friend, but no one paid heed to them. Those that cried the loudest were also bound hand and foot and were taken to the king to show how the innocent had stolen their souls. The parents of the children now cried out in terror, fearing for the lives of their children. They were ignored as hysterical. If the soldiers had any qualms at all it was because of the innocent’s stillness. For she made no cry or complaint, only turned to the children and told them she loved them.

On the trip to her trial, she waited calmly, sure that no one could find a complaint against her. She was wrong. Arriving at the capitol city, she found that a pyre had been erected in advance, her guilt assumed. The trial began immediately. No time was given for her to freshen or eat. No kindness was extended to her or the children. The chief witness against her was the merchant who spoke of how she had refused his marriage proposal. He spoke of how she had so ensorcelled the town that even the mayor’s orders were not obeyed. He said he only wanted to give her the protection a married woman needed, for no woman was complete without a husband.

The children were called to testify, but were to terrified to do more that speak of her friendships with the creatures of the wild. They spoke only of her kindness and sharing. Enraged, the merchant called out. How dare they speak of something they were too young to understand. Surely the judge must see that they were under a demonic curse, that they were possessed. The judge was a wise old man, kin to king, and of a noble house greatly revered.

“Let the woman be led into the forest with myself to guard her. Let us see what she does to free herself.”

The judge led the woman and a squadron of soldiers to a clearing in the nearby woods where it was rumored that one of the great tigers lived. She was tied to a pole and a cut was given to her arm. Bleeding, she sobbed that she had done nothing wrong. But she was mistaken, she had done one thing she didn’t even know she had done. The blood pouring from her arm was pure of evil and malice, and it drew the tigress from her den where her young ones were growing.

Tigress smelled the blood and was drawn to it like a moth to candle. She entered the clearing, ready to kill this scent, for it was like a forbidden wine and she must have it. Finding the sobbing woman, she paused.

“Why do you sob and bleed the tears and blood of the innocent?”

The woman didn’t reply, but she also didn’t fear the great cat. The cat, coming close, tasted the blood flowing from the woman’s arm. The woman stopped sobbing, and did something unexpected.

“You must go, Tigress, for there is a squadron of soldiers hiding in the bush watching and they will kill you. Flee for the life of your children. Roar at me and run. I am doomed as it is. A man has made false charges against me and I can not prove my innocence for I did refuse him.”

“I am not afraid,” answered the tigress. She continued to lick the bleeding arm until the bleeding was staunched. Then she bite through the ropes that held the woman, freeing her. At once the judge jumped into the clearing.

“Take her now and kill her for she has captured the soul of the tiger.” And on that command, soldiers burst into the clearing fearing not the tiger but that innocent who had no protector to stand before her. Intent on killing her, they did not see the whirl of the tigress and she turned and used her claws to strike down the first soldier. They ignored the death of a second soldier, thinking that the woman controlled the tiger. As the third soldier fell, a spear point stabbed the woman in the abdomen and she crumpled to the ground. Enraged, the tigress stuck right and left until at last only the judge stood before her. He cowered, crying out, “Leave me be, I am a righteous man. It was a fair sentence.”

The tigress was disgusted. How had all of the adults missed the sign of a goddess on earth in human form. She turned to the woman who was dying. The last thing she expected was about to happen.

Opening her eyes for a final moment, the woman blessed her and her offspring. “Thank you for your protection. I will be with you in the afterlife to protect you and all of your species for your kindness. I ask only one thing. Please escort the children who were stolen from their homes to a place of safety. Make them part of your litter and care for them as  you care for your cubs. Children deserve wonder in their lives and should not be deprived of it. My mistake was to let others know that kindness was a virtue. Forgive me, Tigress.”

She died, as all true heroines must. But the tigress having heard her words, called  upon her people to join her in taking the children from the soldiers as they were being returned home. Striking with great violence, the children were liberated and given tiger back rides to the forest where they met their new brothers and sisters. No one saw them again, but it is said that if you wander into the woods and sit still and listen, you can hear the shouts of joy as the young of both species played together with great respect for each other and with kindness to all they met.

Innocent died but others came that taught over and over that kindness was a virtue. The tigress still waits for us to learn that lesson.

Microfiction Challenge: Isle of the Dead

I didn’t intend to write this story. I had something else in mind. But as I looked at the isle, something hit a dark place in my mind. The Isle of the Dead is where an atrocity had to have happened. The music that goes with it, well, it just pushed me to write. A harsh challenge to take on.

https://janedougherty.wordpress.com/2016/10/28/microfiction-challenge-20-isle-of-the-dead/

They called it the Isle of the Dead, but no one was sure why. Townsfolk from the nearby town wouldn’t talk about the island, nor would they venture near it. Being a stranger on vacation as a change of venue, meant to help me overcome the malaise that haunted me, I didn’t understand the hesitation that followed every enquiry I made about the island I had seen from the plane upon landing.

“It’s not a fit topic, lady, for someone as young and beautiful as you. Best to avoid it. Best to find something else in this town to occupy your mind. Just let it lie.” My landlady was the first to give me that advice. She wasn’t the last.

I wandered through the town’s market, a strange combination of “Made in China” and woodcarvings. The buildings of the town were straight from a tour brochure. White stucco houses with red tile roofs contrasting with the business section where the colors alternated between yellows, blues, creams, and pale greens. It was all organized. The creams were restaurants, yellows were full of odd local creations, blues were clothing venues, and pale greens were all of the artsy stores. With each store declaring it’s originality, they were all the same.

I saw the painting in the window of the very last green store on the left as the road went back into the residential section. It contrasted with the soothing color of the store. A slim man dressed in white being ferried to the island. Grays, blacks, whites gathered together like storm clouds on the horizon and created a chill that went up and down my spine. I’d never fully understood that cliche until that moment. Taking a deep breath and gathering what nerve I had left from living a daily life so boring as to be insignificant, I entered.

“About that painting in the window? Is it for sale?”

“No.” That was all the clerk said, meeting my eyes with a hostile look.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend. I’m from out of town. We flew over the island when we arrived and it’s striking in its natural beauty. But no one will tell me about the island, they just hush me and tell me to move along in my thoughts to something cheerful. Can you at least tell me what the painting is called?”

“The Isle of the Dead.”

“So it’s like that story with Charon and his love from the world of the living?”

The clerk sighed, her disappointment in yet another tourist etched across her forehead. She fumbled behind the counter for a moment, then produced a tablet, brushes and watercolors.

“That will cost you 250 Euros. Your shuttle to the island will leave tomorrow morning at 6 am. Are you sure you need to know the story?”

“Wait, you run a shuttle to the island? Why did no one tell me about it? I’ve asked all over.”

“Do you want the tour or not?”

“Yes, I guess I do. What are the paints for?”

“You must be an artist to be permitted on the island. You are an artist, are you not?”

I paid the money, gathered the bag of supplies and my ferry ticket to the island and left. For the rest of the afternoon, I wandered the galleries, but found no other paintings on the subject.

Dinner was somber at my accommodation that night. My landlady had seen the package I carried tucked under my arm. She had asked what was inside, but my answer had left her with a haunted look. Lamb, potatoes, green peas, leaks, and a desert of peach strudel filled me, but the silence emptied me as quickly. Finally, pouring a glass of wine for the two of us, all of the other tenets having retired for the evening, she broached the subject.

“So, you decided to pursue the matter. You have the tour in the morning? You mustn’t go. Keep the paints and tablet, but keep your sanity, as well. Don’t go. Don’t get on that ferry for any reason, I beg you. I’ve seen the results all to0 often.”

I didn’t listen. The power of the unsaid mystery had gripped my soul, and it wasn’t letting go.

Gray mornings, the light just before dawn, had always delighted me. The morning would sneak in, one little strand of the sun’s rays at a time, the color would return to the world. I had forgotten how much hope the early hours had given me. Life in reality ran into the dark for me, this was a pleasant change.

The boat wasn’t a ferry, but a skiff. There was one crew member who took my ticket, shook his head and pointed me toward the last seat in the skiff. He untied the ropes mooring us, pushed us away from the dock with his oar, and off we went. Waves don’t bother me, and that day there weren’t many. The man said nothing until we were well away from the town’s dock. Then he began to tell a tale in time with the thrusts of the oars that carried us swiftly out into deep water.

“It used to be called the Island of Hope, back before the war. Youngsters would go camping there, their parents staying overnight on a yacht that was more a hotel that a sea going adventure. Newly married couples from all over Europe would come and stay overnight, and when they left the island the next day, they were more in love than when they had arrived. The Isle put roses on their cheeks. Then the war came. and the Isle became troubled. Youngsters complained of hauntings, of chills, and of noises that struck the soul numb. We laughed it off, there in the village. A bad wind calling, a wave that struck the rocks in the distance cracking against them whiplike, or maybe it was the tucker that the youngsters filled themselves full of before they arrived. A bit of seasickness compounded by a stomach plagued.”

I was fascinated. He never looked at me, telling the story as if to himself.

“Was there a haunting?”

“Ain’t no such thing as a ghost, Miss, ain’t no such thing.”

“What caused the change in the visitors to the island?”

“Now, Miss, if we knew what started the change, I’d tell you. But listen on, there’s more story than this.”

I nodded, spellbound like a child in the reading circle at a library.

“The Nazi’s came, of course, bringing with them their particular breed of fear and loathing. We tried to live our lives with them observing everything we did, oh dear God, we tried. But the suspicions they sowed between us, the hatred of all good, the theft of all that was ours being sent off to one of them storehouses that evil man created for his great museum, it was more than a fellow’s intellect could handle.”

“But that was before your time, surely. You don’t look a day over 45. Is this a tale from your grandfather’s time?”

“No, no, I was there. I’m the last one who was there. They brought a bus full of old timers down to the docks, said it was a trip to celebrate their age. The town was all for that. Giving some old folks a trip to the sea was worth the effort to prepare them a picnic lunch and a few of the fisherman’s boats for a holiday. It was a present of goodness out of a fearful black existence. We were such fools then. I was a boy, fourteen and barely grown into my legs. I was a good looking boy, too. I had the tousled hair from the wind, a deep brown, brown eyes that could see the frigate birds in the distance and  the occasional kite. I loved working for the fishermen. School had never filled my head with the excitement being at sea gave me. So, I helped rig the sails, then I dropped down with the Grandpas and Grammys and gave them a cheerful story of escaping school and falling in love with a girl whose nutty brown skin and green eyes had captured my interest for all times. The sun was up, sky was blue, and how could anything be better in the world.”

“So it was wonderful then?”

“I’ve already said to much.”

He focused on his oars, turning the small skiff into the wind, and the island came into view. Breathtaking would be an understatement of what I saw. There was one other skiff anchored six feet offshore. No one was to be seen. The gray of the morning had risen to be lemon yellow behind the island, and the rocks stood in grim contrast to the sun’s cheerful face.

“I’ll set you out on the sand then. Just wave to me when you are ready to leave. One other thing, be careful. There’s things out there you don’t want to find.”

Taking my shoes off, I stepped out of the skiff and waded the three feet to shore. Pines grew on the island, junipers with that biting aroma treasured in candles. The beach was white sand, created by pounding waves against coral. Warm and soothing though it was, I rinsed my feet and put on my shoes. There was a trail that led into the island and I took the tablet out, sketching a quick view. Wandering down that trail led me to an area that was blackened by a great fire. Nothing grew there. The rest of the island was full of life trying to climb above the rocks, but not here. No moss to soften to jagged edges of rock. Looking closer, I realized that the rocks were cracked by the heat of the fire.

As I stepped onto the first of the burned rocks, there was a cry of sorrow and fear. There was no one in sight. I took another step and a soft cry of sadness rose to blend with the other sounds. With each step I took, the cries became more. First a duo, then trio, a quartet, an ensemble, a symphony of sadness.

I noticed a glimmer of something on the far side of the area. Stepping carefully between rocks and soil, I found a small bracelet. It was engraved.

“I forgive you.”

Astounded, I looked around to see if there was anything more. In my haste I set the tablet and paints to one side. For the next two hours I searched, finding two wedding rings, a broken locket with a badly weather picture inside, and a lapel pin.

Noon brought with it a reminder that I was hungry and thirsty. I walked back to the beach and waved at the captain of the skiff. He rowed to shore for me.

“Is it lunch then?”

“Yes, I found the strangest things.”

“Where is your tablet?”

“Oh dear, let me run and get them. I set them aside as I explored. I only started one sketch.”

Back I went, picking up my things and returning to the skiff.

As he poured me a cup of water and opened the sandwiches for the tow of  us, I washed my hands in the sea. “Salt water to cure anything ill,” my grandfather had said.

“So, what did you find?” A question to pass the time with.

“There is a section of the island, behind the pines and below the mountains, that was subject to a terrible fire at some point. The rocks themselves cracked beneath the heat. I walked out into the area and found that some soil had eroded between the rocks. I found this.” I showed him the bracelet. “I was so excited by the find I put the tablet down and kept looking. These wedding rings, engraved with “Forever and Always” on each. The bracelet, look it says “I forgive you.” Who would give a gift like that? and I found a tie pin. It looks like the one my grandfather wore for his toastmaster meetings, but it isn’t quite the same, it’s…take a look. I’m not sure what it means.”

The man sat there silently for a minute. “You should take these back after lunch. They belong to the island.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. Take back my new finds?

“Take them back, young lady, you have no claim to these.”

“Okay, but why?”

“The Nazis arrived after the picnic was finished. They sent us to the fishing boats, but the promised the old ones a walk. We never saw them again. No one has entered the island since the fire the Nazis ignited on the island. We should have done something.”

I put the items down on the skiff’s seat and moved to sit on the same seat as the captain.

“I don’t see how you could have done something without endangering your whole town. Those days lacked hope for a reason when the nazis came.”

“I should have done something, anything. By not doing anything, by not protesting, I sold my soul. Now I carry passengers to Hell in my skiff as my penance, and I will continue until the sun no longer shines in our world.”

“That can’t be true. There’s no such thing as a curse. You must forgive yourself.”

“Go put the things back.” So I did.

I returned to the skiff, but the captain was gone. While I waited for him, I opened my tablet and looked at the first sketch. Someone had finished it. Color had been added, people added, and joy added. I turned the page to look at the backside, seeking a note from my collaborator. It was blank, but the next page was filled with scenes of a picnic. The page after that had scenes of the boats moored close to shore and there was a drawing of a boy, maybe fourteen years of age, with legs that were just a bit to long for him. He matched the description that my escort had given of himself. I wondered how many trips this man had taken to the island. I turned another page, and the sky turned red with flame against black mountain. The theft of the items the old folks carried was the next photo. The horrors continued.

My captain didn’t return. As the time passed, I began to wonder how I was going to be taken back to town. The ocean was getting rougher, the sun was now setting. Still my captain was missing.

I was lucky that evening. Eventually a fisherman, returning with full nets and lots of gulls, saw me waving at him. He sent a young man, legs just a little to long, to get me to his ship. I told the fisherman my tale, but he said the skiffs had been abandoned many years ago. I told him of the tablet, and his face grew clouded with sorrow.

“An emotional wound of such horror leaves a mark on the world. That man you saw sounds like my great-grandfather. He died in 2000, bitter at the world. May I see the tablet?”

“I found a bracelet there. It had engraved upon it, ‘I forgive you.'”

“I hope she has.”