I wrote this story 4 years ago for Singapore’s Golden Point Award and was really pleased to receive an ‘Honourable Mention’ award. At the time it really made me feel as if I had a future as a writer, and 21 year old Ai was extremely flattered and excited with the idea that life was a lot bigger and brighter than she thought. That was then, this is now, and now, I feel like I connect more than ever with this story than I had when I was writing it, and that has made me realize that what I really want is to connect with people, so I let me know if this lil story of mine connects with you, cause that is all the reward I really need.
Now for the story:
When the devil came, I had been behind the house pulling out the weeds in the old man’s garden. It had been a few years since my brother’s death/disappearance, and I was almost over grieving for him. My mother and I never spoke about him and the old man seemed to have drunk himself into a semi-delusional state, only good for the occasional plowing of the garden and chopping of fire wood. I did the rest of the seeding, planting, tilling and harvesting of the garden’s meager produce as well as the house hold chores, for which my mother forsook as she couldn’t bear to dirty her fair soft hands with kitchen work.
The old man often went into the woods for firewood and it wasn’t uncommon for him to return late in the evening, looking rather pleased with himself and claiming he’d caught a glimpse of Guniper darting through the trees, or sitting on a branch, waving down to him. He’d insist that the boy was hiding out there, and would be a good sport and let him be till he decided to come home.
So when I rounded the corner, cleaning my hands on my apron, I wasn’t surprised to see the old man beaming from ear to ear, as though he had found a most wondrous treasure and wanted to share it with mother and I.
However, when he caught sight of me, that expression of happiness and bliss contorted to a sort of strangled look of horror and he stumbled back, his gaze going back and forth from the house to myself, as though he had not expected me to be coming around from behind there.
“You stupid girl!” the old man suddenly roared and came at me as though he was going to beat me.
I fled into that house just as mother came out and screamed at him to restrain himself. She had been cleaning a vase at the window, which to me looked highly suspicious as she usually never cleaned anything, and began to reprimand the old man for his brash behavior. However at that point, I was just glad that she intervened. I hurried up the stairs and locked the door of my room behind me.
“What is the matter with you? She has only been tending to your garden which you have not seen for weeks! Quiet man! What is the matter with you?” My mother yelled as the old man continued to shout things, but in a deranged sort of way, like a man in panic.
Things quieted down after a bit and my mother and the old man went into a room and muttered things to each other in a low hushed voices. For some reason I felt very scared at their sudden secrecy. Usually in our family if there ever was something to be discussed, it was discussed out in the open where I could hear too and be aware of what changes were to be taken place in the family…did this mean that the change had to do with me, and they didn’t want to let me know yet?
I went to bed that night with a broken heart full of fear.
The next day I bathed and changed and went down to draw water from the well near my house. It was a Sunday and usually my family and I would go to church, but I could see neither the old man nor mother and assumed that they were sleeping in. I went about my chores as normal and around midday, began to make the midday meal. I did not think to check their room as I knew when the old man and mother were in there, it was indecent to pry and I was to leave them to themselves until they roused themselves and got about their own business.
Just as I set the food out on the table, the front door opened and closed and my mother and the old man strolled in. They were dressed in Sunday’s best and seemed to be rather pleased with themselves. They took off their coats and mother came to my side and held me, one arm slung across my back, her hand cupping my shoulder and squeezed it gently.
“We have great news for you, my darling” Mother said, smiling prettily at me.
Mother has always been a beautiful woman. Her long eyelashes framed sapphire irises and her golden hair fell past her shoulder in a golden river. When naked and standing in the sunlight, as I once glimpsed her doing through a gap in her bedroom’s door, she looked like a goddess basking in her own glory. I was nothing in comparison. I was the reflection of an old marriage in an old land, were there had been only famine and rage until the old man picked up my mother and carried her away with her young child. Away from the arms of a man with reddish chestnut hair and green eyes who had died on a snowy night a long time ago. Only my own hair and eyes told me about him, for my mother never would. She swore to me that if I ever asked, she would take me into the forest and loose me there, for she never wanted to remember that life again.
“Yes mother, what would that be?” I asked nervously, walking out of her embrace to set the table for the meal.
I was already wondering why it was that they had gone to church without me. In all my sixteen years I had never once been left behind and yet today I was. For what reason was it?
The old man walked in then, undoing his collar button and loosening his t-shirt as he sat down at the table. He looked rather pleased with himself and when he looked up at me, he winked, making me crawl with disgust.
“Darling, you are to be married. In fact, your husband is waiting outside for you. Why don’t you go and see?” My mother said, placing a hand on my shoulder and steering me around the table and towards the front door.
I looked back to see the old man wolfing down what I had set aside as my portion of the food. Then mother pulled me gently through the kitchen door and I found myself blinking against the sudden brightness of the sun.
There, standing in a man’s suit, with the front button undone of his T-Shirt, stood the devil. He was red-faced, large and fierce-looking. Long-black tipped ears poking out from underneath black locks of hair which fell like a river of tar and curses around his face and down his back. He leaned on a silver-handled cane leisurely as he took a good look at me.
“I see, the dear virgin bride. Come, you are mine now” The devil smiled. He held out a hand, expecting me to walk into his arms so he could take me away and kill me.
I looked at my mother and she smiled. It wasn’t the smile of a mother, but the smiled of a woman who had killed my step-brother on a winter’s night, and buried his poor body underneath the tree he was named after, the juniper tree. It was the smiled of a witch who took me by the hair and shook me as she told me I must never mention what had happened to Guniper or else I would be lost in the forest as well.
Why had she killed Guniper, you may ask? Because no matter how goddess-like her body was, it was Guniper’s kind brown doe eyes, and his even kinder heart, that had made the old man smile. It was also because for every step Guniper took, his poor dead mother who had died in childbirth walked with him. The old man had loved Guniper far more than he had love my mother because Guniper was all he had left of his deceased wife and mother couldn’t stand it.
Guniper had had black hair, as black as midnight, as black as opals. His eyes were a deep sea-blue, which reflected the old town his mother had been brought up in before she and the old man had moved to a quiet cottage in the woods to have their first child. His features had been delicate and sweet, just like his mother’s, although he had, at the age of sixteen, grown into a strong slender young man.
His smile is still radiant and peaceful whenever I thought about that last afternoon, just as I had gone to the kitchen to get him an apple to eat. Guniper had been leaning against a wall casually, reading a book. He was so quick and intelligent, he had been coming up with new ways to efficiently help the old man with his farming business, and had been hoping to go into town that afternoon to make the first purchases to make a proper hand-held plow for his father and himself to work with.
Mother had come in, looking the splitting image of one of those commercial-moms, with the apron on and a tray of cookies in one hand and a large rosy smile on her face. I should have been there. If I had, I would have immediately recognized that smile for what it was. It was the smile she had worn when I had watched her strangle a dog that had bitten her on the way to the old man’s home when we were traveling away from our old land. It was the smile I remembered seeing just as I remember glimpsing her thrown a chair at a reclining figure of a red-haired man on a sofa in a dark house a long time before the old man had ever appeared in our lives.
When I came back with the apple my mother was holding Guniper’s head by the hair and it was not connected to his body. She glanced at me as she stuffed his head in a sack and dragged the sack and the limp headless body out of the house, grunting with the exertion as Guniper had been a rather large boy.
I had trailed behind her and watched nervously as she pulled out from behind a tree a shovel, which suggested that she had planned this all, and began digging. It didn’t take very long as it seemed she had already been digging a large hole at the base of that tree for some time now. Once she was satisfied, she dumped the head first, then the body, and grunted at me to help her. I picked up soil with my bare hands and tossed it into the hole, quietly crying as I watched the lumps heap up on top of my brother’s body.
When we returned to the house, I had been expecting to see the old man, who I had still called father at that time, standing in the door way staring at us like we were murderers. Later when I was older, I heard that my mother had actually convinced him to go on a week’s journey into the city to get something for Guniper. She had acted as though she was very supportive of Guniper’s education, which would of course remove all suspicion that she had anything against him.
However for a young child a week had seemed like hell. First we had scrubbed the blood from the floor, the rugs, the walls and the furniture. Then we took everything outside to sun. All this time I had been looking over my shoulder in fear, wondering when father would return and kill us for killing his precious boy. But the old man didn’t show up to witness any evidence of the heinous murder and as the sun dried the tapestries and the furniture and the wind swept out any hair left behind by Guniper, the scene of the crime was cleaned up and put away so when the old man returned, he immediately believed the words of my old mother witch, and went in search of a boy, who could never be found.
“Child. Child!” the devil said, smiling as though patronizing me “Come back to reality. Why do you glare at your own mother so? Come here. We have far to go and I’d like to get a good look at you before we set off on our journey” he grinned.
I shook of my mother’s touch and stood away from them.
“Where did you go this morning, mother” I asked her, ignoring the devil.
“I went to church my dear, why do you ask?” She replied, her smile broadening.
“Which part of the church did you go to, mother” I asked again, my fears rising in my heart. If I could have taken them out and used them as a shield, I would have had a huge, vast and heavy one.
“I went to the cemetery my dear, why do you ask?” She grinned, her eyes turning slit like. There was nothing beautiful about my mother at that moment, and yet, in the sunlight, she still looked like a goddess, a cruel one.
“Because that is where you met the devil, is it not? And what have you bargained my soul for? A comb for your pretty hair? A calf for your plate tonight? Mother?” I asked, seething.
“Why I would never! I went to the cemetery to get the ashes of a dead man to purify the place once you were gone. It was father who met the devil in the forest yesterday. He foolishly promised whatever was behind the house for all the riches in the world and to be honest, who could blame him?” mother shrugged, her eyes twinkling in the sunlight.
“Whatever was behind the house…” I said to myself. Then I remembered the scene again. The old man coming home, beaming… Me emerging from behind the house… The old man turning to me, entirely horrified… My mother intervening… The whispering in the room… The visit to the cemetery…
I looked at my hands and for a moment, saw the blood of my brother on them. I thought to myself, if this is who I am, a murderer like my mother, then I do indeed, deserve to die. But then I remembered I was also my father’s daughter.
Memories of him suddenly rushed back to me; his glasses perched on the edge of his nose as he looked down at me as I babbled about something unimportant. He had been smiling. Then I remembered him throwing me in the air, then holding me close and kissing my checks. I remember long quarrels with my mother, after which he’d come to my room and pick me up and tell me to be strong and to remember that no matter how awful things could get, as long as I believed, things could get better. It was his voice that had warmed my heart when I had been scrubbing the kitchen floor late at night in the chill of winter’s frost, forced to do it by a seething mother. It was his voice now that gave me the courage, to say the things that needed to be said. For we not only shared the same hair and eyes, we shared the same heart.
I looked up at mother and glared “ No mother, this has your hand prints all over this. You planned this from the very beginning. You made the pack with the devil but have pinned it on the old man to free yourself from suspicious once again. You gathered ash from a dead man not to cleanse, but to allow the devil to walk right in. You are killing me to get yourself a horde of cash, for what? To buy a pretty comb? For your pretty hair?”
At the word “comb” being repeated for a second time, my mother’s smile faltered. Then the meaning dawned on her and she glared at me as though she herself was the devil.
“ I told you not to remind me of the past. That comb fell in the dirt when we road off and I couldn’t care less that it stays there for all eternity” She snapped, fuming.
“But it was your wedding gift from father. It was-“ I began but a tight slap cut me off as mother huffed angrily, visibly trembling with rage.
“You are on your own girl. I have no dealings with a rut like you. Take her, I do not wish to see her face again!” My mother bellowed and pushed me towards the devil.
I wanted to retract but something yanked me towards the devil and I stumbled forward, heading into the devil’s arms.
Just as the devil’s hand was about to close around my shoulder, he jumped back and hissed.
“This girl is too clean. She radiates the purity of a blessed child. I cannot take her as she is. Let her not bath for the rest of the day and I will come for her the same time at noon tomorrow” The devil snapped, sniffed and turned on his hoofed-feet, disappearing as quickly as he came to be.
I turned to glare at my mother but before I knew what hit me, I was out cold.
I awoke in a dark room. It smelled like socks and coats and I immediately knew I had been locked inside ofthe coat-cupboard.
My stomach growled and I huddled into myself, hoping my torment would be over soon.
I think at some point I feel asleep again as I found myself waking as I was being yanked to my feet and dragged out of the house again. This time the old man stood there as well, looking at me as one would look at a prize pig.
“She’s good with her hands too. Her bread is the best I’ve tasted, of course second only to my wife’s” He babbled.
“Old man, you’re talking to the devil!” I shouted, unable to control my wrath.
“Quiet child, don’t called Sir that. It is very impolite” He said pleasantly, un-phased by my outburst.
“Well, come forth my dear” the devil said, crooking a finger in my direction.
I shook off my mother’s grip and walked towards him, intending to spit on his face, if it was the last thing I’d do.
However as I walked the distance from my mother to my tormentor tears fell from my eyes uncontrollably, leaving streaks through the dirt and grime that had built up from being in the dusty closet for hours. I wiped the dirty away, and as I did, the devil practically jumped out of his skin!
“This is preposterous! This girl cannot be tainted! Chop off her hands! Or else I will chop you both to pieces!” The devil shouted at the old man, who looked at me and mother in bewilderment, and then back at the devil.
The devil spun on his hoofed feet again as before and disappeared.
The old man for the first time seemed to see me. He looked in horror at the place where the devil had been, then looked in horror at his wife.
“What have I done? What should I do? Shall we go to the church? Perhaps they could help-“
“Help a murderer?” Mother said breezily, letting the word hanging the air.
“Murderer?” My father repeated, practically chocking on the word.
“Why of course, I have been trying to protect her up till now, as mothers do for their children, but I believe it’s time you know; this tart murdered Guniper. So sought after to be the only child of your affections, she took an axe and cut off his head! What is cutting off her arms, to cutting of Guniper’s head?” Mother grinned, looking at me deviously.
I stared in shock at her. I couldn’t believe it. I just couldn’t believe it. It was all too horrific. Up till now, I hadn’t grasped the true horror of the situation, but it was slowly dawning on me; when my mother’s smile was turned on someone, that person rarely stayed alive thereafter. Now that smile was on me.
What happened next was like a blur. Mother held me tightly and whispered how much she was going to enjoy this, but I couldn’t hear her for the roaring of fear and my crazed heart beat.
Then the old man came at me. My arm was laid out on a wood stump. Then it lay on the ground, a lifeless limb. Then the other was stretched out on the wood stump. My mind was as blank as a piece of paper. There was a long slender arm, then it was no more.
My mother tossed me aside afterwards like a gutted pig and took the axe out of the old man’s hands, taking it to the river to wash it herself. The old man stared at me as though he could not believe what he was seeing, as I lay there on the ground gasping like a fish out of water. Then he turned, his back for a moment blocking out the light of the sun, then lumbered back into the house, a soulless man, wandering in his own darkness.
They left me there to bleed to death. I tried to roll myself away but the pain in my arms was excruciating and many a times I would black out and then return, only to faint again when it got too unbareable. The wolves howled close by but the ashes mother had sprinkled warded them away; even they knew not to venture where the devil is welcome.
Then came the dawn and with it mother, kicking me about, making me hobble and sit on the bloody wood stump as she rubbed ash into my bloody limbs and cleaned up what she could in an attempt to make me more presentable. Then she stopped and laughed a cruel laugh.
“Well the blood looks good on you; it compliments your new husband’s complexion” she sneered and spun around on her slender feet, sashaying back into the house.
If there was anything I had learnt from stories my mother had told me when I was younger, stories about how to meet devils, and how to get out of traps, which now I realize must have been real instructions from old witchery that she had learnt long ago, everything comes in threes, and if the bargain is not settled by the third account, the ensnared goes free.
Thus I tried to look for anything I could use to clean myself once more. However not even the water for the pigs was left outside and the sky looked to be a clear day with no sign of rain.
I hung my head.
Once again, at noon, there came the devil. He looked approvingly at me as I sat on the wood stump, unable to do anything for myself. He turned and nodded at mother in agreement to their bargain.
“Consider it settled” he grinned as he took a step towards me.
Just then, a rain drop landed in the middle of my forehead. Then a whole torrent of rain beat down on all of us, washing the ash from my wounds, washing the blood from my face and neck, washing the dirt from my skin.
Mother howled in rage, and made to dive for me, maybe to slam me into the mud and roll me about in it, however the devil waved her off.
“She has been damaged, she still can be taken” the devil grinned.
“Not if I have anything to say about it”
We all turned to see a tall slender green man standing at the edge of the forest. His eyes were as blue as the sea, and his hair as brown as the deepest wood bark. He looked strange, inhuman, and yet, very familiar.
“Who are you?” mother asked. She had brought the axe with her, and looked like she was prepared to use it.
“The one you buried under the juniper tree, the one who you are killing your own daughter to atone for. Is that not one of your laws as a witch? If you kill a human, you must pay the price, either you’re your own life or with another’s life sacrificed to the devil as a tithe” the green man said as he strode towards us, staring not at the devil, but at mother.
“I-I don’t know what you’re-“ mother stuttered.
“First you killed your husband, so you atoned for that by killing me. Then you realized by killing me, you still had to kill another to atone for my death. So you planned to kill Handsell, and then kill my father. But woman, you know that in the end it is you who will go to hell, not the rest of us” the green man said as he put an arm around me, pulling me up by my waist and pulling me close to his side.
“Release that girl, she is mine” The devil growled, lunging for the green man and I.
The green man merely held up a hand and a tree grew in place of the devil. It was a crocked, gnarled and cursed looking tree that seemed to howl at the ground as it curled in on itself.
Then the green man moved his hand up to cup my shoulder and pressed his hand over the wound. A tingling sensation rippled through my body and suddenly vines shot out of my wounded muscles and burst arteries.
“What? No! You can’t! It’s impossible! She cannot be healed, she cannot!” mother screeched and charged at us with her axe.
Just then the old man appeared, as though out of nowhere, and as the axe was about to fall on us, it collided with the old man’s chest.
“You alright son?” the old man asked the green man over his shoulder.
The green man stared in shock. He had had his hand raised, ready to turn my mother into a tree, but had hesitated when the old man suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Then the green man smiled a sweet, radiant smile that I knew I had seen a long time ago on a cold winter’s night.
“Yes dad, I’m alright” the green man replied, green tears glistening on his eye lashes.
The old man turned to look at mother, who was still holding onto the axe in the old man’s chest. Her eyes were wide with horror, and she trembled as she held onto the wooden handle.
The old man reached out a hand and touched mother’s face gently and smiled.
“I still love you, even though you did kill my son and tried to kill your own daughter. May you find peace, my little goddess” the old man said and mother, for the first time in her life, burst into tears.
She released the wooden handle turned around and ran, disappearing through the trees.
“ I’m sorry Handsell, my dear. I’m glad our boy has found a way to restore you. And son, I’m going to see your mother. You’ll be along soon, yes?” the old man said and tears overflowed from not just the green man’s eyes, but from mine.
“Of course father, but I’ll stay a while to look after Handsell” the green man said and touched his father’s shoulder. The shoulder blossomed leaves and the old man’s feet took root.
As the old man’s soul ascended to heaven, his body became a great oak tree which crushed the crocked tree as it ascended to the sky, growing tall and proud in the rain.
The green man released me and as he did I realized that I had a new pair of arms. They were strong, green, sturdy and alive. I smiled up at the green man and said his name.
Immediately color blossomed all over his body. His skin became pale beige and his body grew slender. His dark brown hair darkened to black and his eyes shone with unshed tears as he enveloped me in a hug. He was still wearing the clothes of that night long ago, except it now had twigs and leaves in it in places.
“Handsel I’m so glad I made it in time! I wish I had known sooner, but it was only when your blood, screaming and in agony, touched the soil did I awaken from my slumber beneath the tree and pull myself together to come and rescue you. I’m sorry I was late. I’ll never be late again”
“No, it’s alright. I’m just glad you came. I’m just glad you came” I said as I clutched onto him, my tears running down my face like a waterfall.
The days to come were peaceful and pleasant, full of happy days and pleasant nights. Mother never turned up again and Guniper assured me that there was no trace of her in the woods around our cottage.
Many a times people from the village would come over to check up on me, having found out that my parents had apparently “deserted” me, and they’d wonder at how an armless girl could take such good care of herself, for they could not see my green arms just as they could not see my green brother, who would lean against the door as I made apple pie, eating the apple I had handed to him and laughing at my silly jokes as he planned what he’d fix up for me to make it easier for me to plow the fields and live my life, a free woman.
There would come a time when Guniper would go to his father and mother and I would seek out new lands and find true love, but that, is another story.
Thanks so much for reading this little story of mine. Remember to leave me a comment to let me know how much you enjoyed this story, and let me know if you would like me to post up more stories~! :3