Clever Elsie listened to the wind in the grass. She didn’t think of herself as clever any longer, not since she’d learned how her husband had tricked her, but the name survived among the people who lived in her valley.
They heard the bells of her hat and closed their doors to her.
All save the desperate. When a child was near death or a milkmaid needed to remove evidence of an unwise dalliance, doors opened.
They opened just far enough for a voice to ask whether she could help. If Elsie said “yes,” then they opened further, surrendering to the situation.
“Have you magic?” they asked.
Elsie would smile sadly and say that she didn’t.
“But your coming is announced by fairy bells.”
Elsie said it was just her hat that held bells. Then she would study the patient and dispense the medicine: herbs, advice, a slim helping of hope.
A gift would be placed in her hand — food, coins, anything poor families might have to hand — and the door would close behind her.
Elsie walked on. The wind knew where she should go next, and she listened.
Until, one fine spring day, after breakfast, the wind died. The sound of her bells, her constant companion since that evening on which her husband had tricked her into a life of eternal walking, fell silent.
Elsie looked around. The dusty crossroad was the same as always, set in a bowl between four low hills where the market road crossed the village lane. The wind always blew there, funneled between the hills.
Now it was silent.
Without the zephyr to guide her steps, Elsie sat and rested.
At midafternoon, a middle-aged man leading a cow appeared on the village path and asked if she needed help.
“Do you not know me, young Johan?”
The man scratched his head. He looked straight at Elsie and then sighed. “My memory isn’t what it once was. And I’m young no longer.”
“Young enough to steal strawberries from my mother’s patch when you were a boy.”
Now his eyes narrowed. “Clever Elsie? I’m sorry… I didn’t hear the bells.”
“There’s no wind for them to sound in.”
He contemplated her features. “You’re much older than the last time I saw you.”
“Last time you looked at me was the day of my wedding. No one has looked at me since Hans tricked me into walking. It’s been bells and wind since.”
“Hans is dead,” Johan replied, his tone measured. “This morning.”
“Yes. He was getting on in years.”
She sat in silence, barely acknowledging Johan’s departure with a slight nod. She thought and wondered. Wondered that he’d still been alive. Wondered that she’d never passed the door of her old home after he convinced her that she was not herself, that she was a spirit of the valley… all by the simple trick of putting the ringing hat on her head.
But had he actually done it to her? Or had she, with her own cleverness, convinced herself of it all?
She didn’t know, but felt a sadness come over her. A sadness she hadn’t felt when he left her. A sadness she hadn’t felt when she overheard two village girls speaking of it.
A sadness she hadn’t felt while he lived.
She got up. Her bones creaked. That was new.
How long had passed? A long time, if young Johan was a grizzled man. Fifty years or more.
She waited for the wind to push her in the right direction.
Nothing came, and for the first time since she’d lost husband and home, Elsie didn’t wait. She walked down the familiar village path, up the hill and stared at the view she’d seen so many thousands of times over the years. Instead of trooping blindly past, she looked. She smelled the air.
Memories of girlhood washed over her and she started again, eager to see her old friends with new eyes.
She remembered that many had died; she’d ministered to some. But still she hurried.
In the center of the village, where the mail coach stopped and Olaf’s store stood, a pair of farmwives studied her without much curiosity.
Elsie took the road to her house, the road she hadn’t followed in all her wanderings. The wind had never taken her that way.
Now she realized how much her feet hurt. She hadn’t noticed before. Not since that night.
The cottage was small and dark, but it smelled of the man she’d loved. The man who hadn’t loved her enough. Tobacco and beer and sweat.
Elsie took off her hat and looked at it. She couldn’t recall taking it off, not ever.
There were no bells in the hat.
She sat on the single chair and cried for the life stolen from her until she noticed that there was something darkening the open door. Something small.
A child, enormous eyes visible, even in the glare of the sun stood at the threshold.
“Come in, little one,” she said. “I’m too old to hurt anyone.”
The girl entered. “I’m not afraid.” She couldn’t have been more than six or seven years old. “Are you Clever Elsie?”
“Not so clever. But I am Elsie.”
“My mother said you were. My aunt said you weren’t. They both said not to come here.”
“Your mother was right. But you can come whenever you want.”
The girl smiled. “I know that.”
“Because you were the one who saved my mother when I was being born. Everyone says she would have died if you hadn’t been there. And me, too.”
Then, as if she had seen and said all she wanted, the girl scampered off, leaving Elsie alone once more.
Had her life been stolen from her?
Perhaps not. Perhaps simply steered onto a different path by a gentle wind.
She smiled at the thought, and slept for the first time in decades.
The wind was still, the bells silent.
Gustavo Bondoni is novelist and short story writer with over three hundred stories published in fifteen countries, in seven languages. He is a member of Codex and an Active Member of SFWA. His latest novel is Lost Island Rampage (2021). He has also published three other monster books: Ice Station: Death (2019) and Jungle Lab Terror (2020), and Test Site Horror (2020), three science fiction novels: Incursion (2017), Outside (2017) and Siege (2016) and an ebook novella entitled Branch. His short fiction is collected in Pale Reflection (2020), Off the Beaten Path (2019), Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011). In 2019, Gustavo was awarded second place in the Jim Baen Memorial Contest and in 2018 he received a Judges Commendation (and second place) in The James White Award. He was also a 2019 finalist in the Writers of the Future Contest. His website is at www.gustavobondoni.com.