Storied Lives, Part 2

Dingus’s portion of Storied Lives.

Blood of Legends

eight years later

If there was one person on the Mother’s whole face who understood Dingus, it was Grandpa. Nobody else exactly got it. Grandma tried, but she wasn’t all the way there, not like Grandpa was. People said he was crazy, but Dingus kind of thought he was the sanest person ever.

They didn’t look anything alike, him and Dingus, except for both being thin, and the eyes. Dingus was inordinately proud of that, like he had anything to do with how his eyes came out. He never said so, but he was proud to be at least a little bit the way Grandpa was. As for thin, he’d rather not be that. Anyways he wasn’t thin and slight like Grandpa, all muscles like ropes made of wire, looking lean and, if you really saw him, strong. Dingus was just skinny, the skin-and-bones way, with all his sharp places poking out. That, he did mention to Grandpa; just today he’d mentioned it.

“You won’t be skinny forever, little shadow,” Grandpa said, sort of wistful, like he wished Dingus would be.

“Yeah.” To try and cheer Grandpa up, Dingus took a big breath and puffed out his cheeks. “I’ll get old and fat like humans do.”

Grandpa laughed, though not as hard as Dingus had hoped, and went on pulling guts from the boar carcass. Those purple-red innards were slick as anything, he’d learned, but they didn’t slip through Grandpa’s little fingers, never. “Maybe so,” Grandpa allowed. “But first you’ll be about the size of a horse. Wait and see.”

“You think so?”

“I’ve seen your father.” He rummaged in the boar, practically up to his shoulder, then took his hand out and held it palm up. “Knife, please.”

Dingus picked up the broad knife Grandpa always used on the joints and gave it over. He’d known since he was only so high which blades were wanted when. They hunted a lot, him and Grandpa; always had. Before he’d started shooting up tall there was lots of extra meat to cut up into strips and dry. Now… not so much. But he knew how to make jerky pretty good.

“Angus the Red,” Grandpa started to say, but he paused to whack through the boar’s ribs on one side, “resembles nothing so much,” and he pulled the chest open with a grunt and a loud crackle, “as a baby whale.” Blood from the cavity ran out in thin streams and rang on the bottom of the metal pan they’d put beneath.

Dingus laid a palm on his concave stomach. As if sensing his attention, it growled. If he thought about it, whenever he thought about it, he was hungry, and none of the food he ate seemed to stick on its way through. He couldn’t imagine resembling a baby whale, but then, his only idea of a whale was one Grandpa had drawn in the dust one day to illustrate a story he was telling.

His eyes wandered over Ma’s yard. He could hear the chickens complaining. Not too far off, he saw the chimneys of Thundering Hills sending ribbons of smoke up into the blue, blue sky of late autumn. You didn’t get a sky like that any other time.

The last brown leaves clung to the trees’ twiggy fingers, and already it had snowed twice, the second time just last night. Most of it had melted into lacy crust during the day, but there’d been enough this morning to make the hunting easy. Dingus himself had tracked down the other boar, which waited on the second hoist for Grandpa to talk him through the dressing of it.

Normally they’d only take one boar, but Grandpa had said two this time: to give Dingus the practice, and because winter was coming on so hard. The nights were long and cold enough, he’d said, to keep the meat fresh for a while.

Dingus knew what that meant.

Moira would go to sleep soon, all winter long. If it weren’t for the extra hunting, it’d be Dingus’s least favorite time. It still was. Moira was his only friend, besides Grandpa anyways, and he didn’t like to lose her when it got cold, but it happened every year. He’d have to get up and see her today, somehow, except it was already midafternoon and by the time they finished the boars it’d be time to cook supper. Maybe if he did his real fast, he could—

“Don’t be woolgathering now,” Grandpa said. He held the heart in one bloody hand.

“Sorry!” Dingus grabbed the pan they’d been using for the organs.

Grandpa tossed it in. “Try to pay attention, that’s all.”

“Sorry,” Dingus repeated. “What now? Wash it out, right?”

“That’s right.”

While Dingus threw a couple buckets of water over and into the carcass, Grandpa wiped his hands on a rag.

“Now we’ll break it down for storage.”

Dingus picked up the second-heaviest knife, and Grandpa gave him a quick smile and stepped in to dress the boar further down, into cuts they could hang in the smokehouse. After that, Dingus took off his shirt so it wouldn’t get bloody, but his own boar didn’t go as smooth. He tried to hurry so he could get to Moira, but it kept slowing him down more. He almost cut the intestines by the pooper, and made a dozen other stupid mistakes that set Grandpa to frowning.

Finally, he almost cut his finger real bad—like if he’d gone half an inch farther it’d be hanging by a thread—and Grandpa said, “You know better than this. It’s not going to escape, so why are you in such an all-fired hurry?”

There wasn’t any excuse. Dingus hung his head. When he saw himself, he noticed he had blood all up his arms and on his stomach, even some on his breeches.

“Are you cold?”

“No,” he mumbled.

“Then what is it?”

“I’ll slow down, I promise. I’ll do it right.” He took a deep breath and turned back to the carcass. Another breath, then he reached out to continue.

Grandpa laid a hand on his knife wrist. “This isn’t like you. Tell me what’s on your mind.”

“It ain’t important.”

“Yes, little shadow. It is.” Sometimes he wished Grandpa would get mad and yell like everybody else, but it never happened. The more he should be annoyed, the gentler he was.

“There’s something I wanna do before dark.”

Grandpa nodded slowly and looked up at the sky, gauging the light. “Finish dressing it,” he said. “I’ll take care of the rest, and you can go on your errand—but mind your work this time. If you take off a finger, you won’t be able to go.” He smiled at Dingus again, faintly, didn’t even ask where Dingus meant to go, or what he meant to do—never did. Grandpa trusted him, which nobody else did, and he was so grateful for it he’d never once wanted to break the trust.

“Thank you,” he said. He breathed a couple more times, trying to slow himself down again—he was gonna get to see her after all!—then returned to the carcass. It went much quicker now that he wasn’t screwing it up constantly. Who knew? he thought ruefully.

The moment he’d stripped the last of the skin, Grandpa waved him away. “Much better. Go on now, do your something.”

“Thank you!” Dingus repeated, dumped one of the clean-water buckets over his head, shuddered, shook himself dry, and bolted, pulling his shirt on as he went.

He ran up the hill in the dusk, so fast he was out of breath by the time he got to the top. Frosty grass crunched under his pinching shoes. “Moira!” he gasped. “Moira, did you go to sleep yet?”

No answer. He waited, though; this time of year she was slow, real slow, winding down to rest. For a minute he stayed where he was, catching his wind with his hands on his thighs, and then he straightened and walked to her trunk. When he touched her, he felt a little stirring under his cold fingers. “I’m sorry if I missed you,” he whispered. “I had some stuff I had to do.”

Slowly, the bark smoothed, its rough gray turning silvery as her face pressed out of it, her neck. She was upside down, and she gave him a sleepy smile with her papery lips. “Hello, Dingus…” she said faintly. Her bright black eyes were only slits.

“Hi.” He didn’t know why he usually whispered to her. Something holy about her made him want to talk soft. His family didn’t go down to the temple very often—not even Longday and not always Longnight—but stepping in there and coming up here gave the same feeling. Here it was much more comfortable.

“I’m glad you came,” Moira yawned, brushing his cheek.

“You’re about to go under.” He caught her hand before she drew it back in. “I’m going to miss you.”

“When the green wood grows,” she mumbled.

“I love you.”

“Hmm.” She began to settle back into the bark. Quick, before she was gone, he bent his head and kissed her on those cold lips, and she sank in smiling.

Dingus’s eyes burned. He rubbed the heels of his hands into the sockets—fifteen was too old to cry, if he’d ever been young enough—took a couple of deep, shaky breaths, and walked down the hill. He’d been saying goodbye to her since he was six. He should be used to it by now, but every year it got harder, and he glanced over his shoulder more than once on the way down.

Maybe that was why he didn’t see Grandpa until he got to the bottom. Then again, Grandpa was disconcertingly sneaky, so maybe it was just because he hadn’t wanted to be seen. His dark face showed deep concern, and he looked past Dingus, straight at Moira, but he didn’t say nothing. Nothing besides, “Are you ready to go back for supper? I have the fire going.”

“Last one outside, huh?” Dingus said awkwardly. The family had a tradition that right before it got too cold, they cooked out one last time and made a whole thing out of it.

“Yes, I think so. We nearly missed it this year—winter’s bearing down so fast. Next week, it’ll likely be too cold.” Both of them put their hands in their pockets and walked back toward Ma’s house. It wasn’t far, but it wasn’t close either. They went along quiet for a few minutes, and then Grandpa said, “I hope you’re being careful.”

“About what?”

“About her.” He jerked his head back toward the hill. “What else?”

“Oh.” Dingus kicked at a rock. “I guess.” He didn’t know how he was supposed to be careful, but the kinds of things he’d been doing with Moira lately probably didn’t count as that.

“So what you mean is, ‘Not really.’”

He kicked the rock again and sent it flying out of reach.

“If she had the power to do it, she’d drag you into that tree, and who knows if you’d survive it? Who knows where you’d go if you did?”

“No she wouldn’t,” he blurted. “Moira wouldn’t do that.”

Grandpa stopped, didn’t move even when Dingus turned to look at him. “They weren’t like us,” he said. “They didn’t think like we do.”

“Who didn’t?” Dingus asked, tight with frustration. He didn’t want to be questioned about Moira. She was his: his secret, his most zealously-guarded heart.

“The fairies. She’s a fairy thing, Dingus. Ancient and powerful, for all she’s trapped now. She has no understanding of these pretty moral structures we mortals so love to build. Wickedness, virtue—it’s all the same to her.”

“She’s good to me,” he said. His face heated.

“I imagine she is. You must make her a nice little toy.” Grandpa sounded hard just then, like iron. “I’m not telling you not to. I am telling you to be aware of what she’s doing. Does she have your name?”

Dingus shifted uncomfortably. “Yeah.”

“I know you’ve been visiting her for a long time. I wouldn’t be saying anything, but I saw you kiss her. You’re in dangerous waters.”

“She wouldn’t hurt me!”

“I’m sure you know best,” Grandpa said, but his tone said Dingus didn’t know any such thing.

“I’ll be careful,” he muttered.

For a while they walked in silence, and night fell faster and faster. After a few more minutes, Dingus made out the square of light in the single window of Ma’s cottage, and the big fire growing just there, past the chicken coop. Shapes moved in front of it, Grandma cooking, Ma pacing.

“I don’t blame you,” Grandpa said, stopping again. “She was beautiful once. Is she still?” That they were still out of Grandma and Ma’s earshot didn’t escape Dingus, and he stopped too.

“Very,” Dingus said.

“I saw her dance.” There was a husky thickness in Grandpa’s voice, and Dingus didn’t say a word, waiting for what he’d say next. “Her every step was music. There were drums in her tread and melody in her crown. They loved her, the little ones did. More than they loved me, which was saying something back then, believe me. I think—” He swallowed hard, nearer tears than Dingus had ever seen him. “I think I’m the only one who remembers.”

“What do you mean, the little ones?”

“They loved me,” he said. “The fairies. They used to come to me and touch my face with their tiny hands, and sing my name in the dark of night. It’s been such a long time. I miss them…”

Dingus didn’t know what he was supposed to say to that. He settled on, “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry, little shadow. That time was over long before you were born. It’s just that I can’t let go of it.” Grandpa cleared his throat again, but the frog that seemed to be lodged there wouldn’t be moved. “I can’t let go of what I used to be. It was so much better than what I am. I wouldn’t trade you,” he added hastily. “Never think that. But I could wish myself less broken.”

“You’re not broken.” It was out before he had a chance to think.

Grandpa said nothing, but Dingus felt his eyes drop away, saw the shape of him bend.

“So what if you are, then? You’re still good. The best ever.” Dingus fought to keep his voice from cracking. “Remember when I found that one sparrow?”

“No.” It wasn’t more than a whisper.

“I was eight or nine. I don’t know. I found a sparrow with a broken wing, remember? I didn’t wanna show nobody ’cause I thought they’d kill it, and I brought it home and put it in a box in my corner, and you found me with it a couple days later. And I cried and said don’t kill it, and you said no, we don’t kill broken things, we help them heal. You said that and then you helped me fix it up, best we could.” He breathed through his nose, desperate. “Never did fly right again, but it was good for a song. Remember?”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Grandpa said softly.

“You’re still good,” he insisted. “Nobody understands me but you. Nobody gets in front of me but you, either.” Grandma had, some—when he was littler—but a few years ago he’d asked her to take it easy. She’d got a real hurt look on her face until he’d explained she made things worse, talking to the other kids’ parents. Even then she hadn’t liked hearing it. Grandpa had flat told him no, and kept on sticking up for Dingus every time he saw a chance. At least he talked to the kids themselves, rather than their dads. Dingus kept his mouth shut about the shit they did to him that Grandpa didn’t see, which was a damn lot.

“You don’t have to love me,” he went on. “Not really. But you treat me real good and teach me stuff. I don’t care if you’re broken. You’re the best there is.”

Grandpa gave a long, slow sigh. He sounded like he was relaxing. Dingus couldn’t quite see if he really was. “I think you are, too,” he said at last.

Dingus put an arm around Grandpa’s shoulders, like Grandpa used to do before Dingus got taller. “Are you gonna tell a story tonight?”

With an offended snort, Grandpa drew a little away from him. “Of course.”

“Good,” Dingus said, meaning it.

They walked together, tall boy, short man, to the bonfire, where their family waited.

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