WOODCUTTER’S KISS • by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Proud of his brawn, he was. Took a delicate bride and broke her like a twig.

Not so clever with me — I a stonemason’s daughter who comes with the hands to prove it.

“Lost your mind,” growled my father, when I told him my choice. “I should lock you up til you find it again.”

My father, who releases the captive heart of living stone, forces nothing to his will. But it irked him I should take a step down in life, a craftsman’s child from a house the wind can’t shake.

“He’s skilled in his own way,” I said.

“He cuts things down,” my father said grimly. “Mind he doesn’t try to cut you down too.”

The town was full of comely men with the courage to seek my hand. But here were Ingeborg’s children, bereft, in a house growing shabby in the heart of the wood. There’s satisfaction in taking what someone was cheated of the time to finish and making it turn out well.

The boy — hands like his father but remembering his mother’s courtesy — helped me with my bundles as I stepped over the threshold.

The girl held back despite her father’s frown. I didn’t mind. Haven’t we all shivered over the old stories? Should you demand love? I was bred to patience and the fitting together of a perfect join. In the untangling of snarled hair and the invisible mending of a torn shirt, yeast is proofed. Let the dough rise, then shape it.

The first year — like taming fox kits to endure the touch of your hand. Of course the boy was easier — glad as any man to push the door open and smell a good stew ready. I taught little Margarete to sew — companionable work that kept her by my side. A girl’s a tempting morsel in a world full of wolves. When I meet her mother at the gates of heaven I want no reproach on the diligence of my care.

And the child likes it now — hair plaited with ribbons and all the women praising her Sunday best. Life knits itself up again and after a while, you begin to forget the dropped stitch.

Margarete knew her letters, but was long overdue gaining the skill of casting them into words. I wondered he’d let them run so wild. But he’d fooled me with his quietness — there were no great depths to him that a woman might lose herself in.

When I pulled down that massive Bible — his family Bible — to start his daughter reading, I found it velveted with dust. He’d never written my name in it.

I wondered if Ingeborg’d regretted — but who would unmake their own children? I lit candles for her each Sunday from my own coin and I made my heart stronger.

After a while I wondered a woodsman could claim not to hear trees groan when the axe bit them.

“How you have the time for such fancies!” my husband remarked. Did he think scrubbing clothes and pulling up onions were all-absorbing tasks?

He was glad of my home-brewed ale but I learned he grew sullen in his cups. My brothers couldn’t have warned me — he’d never had much coin to drop in a tavern. I wasn’t ready for it when he knocked me sideways with that sinewy arm of his.

I might have forgiven it as I’d borne smaller things. But he’d nearly knocked loose what was quickening inside me.

You can love another woman’s children and still hope for some of your own. I’d been close to the borderland and dreading to enter a barren landscape — but I proved a richer field than perhaps he’d bargained for. Did he think to take back what he’s given me? Not a wise thought, if he did.

I filled a basket from my garden’s bounty and sent the children on an errand of kindness, through the wood the other way around. Told them I’d take their father his noontime meal myself.

Perhaps he didn’t remember I have a cunning arm of my own, strong and well-muscled from the work a man scorns. But he knows I know how easily an axe can slip and cut the wrong thing — when your mind’s distracted. In the heart of the wood, a man at his solitary work had better be vigilant, to keep himself from harm.

He’d laughed once, when I spoke what he called my nonsense. Said the trees yielded gladly to the thrill of his kiss.

Are you not laughing now, my man? This oak may have spurned your kiss, but it savors well enough the rich dark blood fountaining from that gash in your thigh — and you’ve little time left in which to get the joke!

Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little.  So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread.  Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds.

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