Here is the first part of a short story I’m working on. It keeps getting longer, might end up being a novella. Hope you like it
Something lives in the shadows.
I’m just not sure if they’re friends or enemies.
I first began to wonder while in the middle of trying to get Michael to like me. I was fifteen; he was a year older. I scoured the village for any information I could get about him; he didn’t know I existed. I saw him in town at times, sometimes alone, other times joking with friends. His friends were nice looking, but Michael stood out like a king among them. I never let him get near me; I stayed with my friends the whole time I would spy on him.
How was I going to make him notice me? I wasn’t the most beautiful girl in the village. Surely he would want someone better than me. But I couldn’t imagine settling for less than him.
It took days of careful planning with my friends, Miri and Jaz, before I was able to find an excuse to talk to him while he cut down trees at the edge of the forest. The village was growing, and while the elders grumbled, they knew that trees had to be cleared to make room for people to live.
We couldn’t live in trees. That much seemed obvious.
So Michael followed his father and others who were big and strong and they started cutting down the trees. Not easy work. The tree could be cut down fairly easy, but getting the stump out, that took a lot of work. We’d heard that some villages had animals that worked for them. They called them horses.
We’d also heard that there were no soothing nights in the cities. But we didn’t put much stock in the rumors.
So the men worked on getting the trees cleared. After a few days, I was picked to bring them some soup at midday, although the other women in the village were suspicious of my motives. Smiling to calm them down, I went to the edge with one of the older women, Anna, and found the men there, working. Miri told me to serve Michael last. That way I would have an excuse to talk to him once it was his turn. And he would become jealous until then.
It didn’t work out quite as planned. I had on a nice blue dress, light blue, not too flashy, with a white apron on. I let my brown hair hang down. Once I got there, Anna started setting up. I stopped a moment to admire Michael. His muscles seemed to grow with each strike. I could feel myself blushing, but resisted the urge to fan my face. Mostly because I had soup in my hands.
“I brought soup,” I announced.
Almost as one, each man dropped his tools and came lumbering over, forming a line, looking hungry. Several were joking among themselves. I was afraid they were making fun of me, or my face.
Taking out the bowls, I started serving them. To my distress, Michael was in the middle of the line. As each man came up, I felt like a mouse under his shadow, and wanted to go scurrying off. As Michael came closer, I tried to think of what I would say. Everything practiced with Miri and Jaz was lost in the sea that was my mind. My breathing grew quicker and my heart faster. What would he say to me? Would he even notice me?
Finally it was my turn. I picked up his bowl and bowed slightly, afraid to meet his eyes. But if I didn’t, he would never remember me. I forced myself to look up and smiled, probably awkwardly. “Here’s your soup, Michael.”
His hands cupped mine as he took the bowl from my hands. I could see the sweat on his face, perhaps even smell it, but it didn’t disgust me like it did on the other men. The smell mixed with the leather he was wearing. Michael was such a hard worker. His hair was matted on his forehead. He smiled slightly, eyes sparkling, and left.
I stood there until the next fellow coughed. Hurrying, I started serving again. My chance had been lost. I felt listless as I served the men. Anna looked at me shrewdly, and I knew what she was thinking. She had guessed what happened, but it didn’t appear she cared, as she told me to hurry up the pace.
I was picking up the dishes once everyone ate when I turned around to see Michael behind him, holding out his dish. “Thanks for the soup. It was delicious.”
Stupidly, I muttered that I hadn’t made it, just brought it. I still couldn’t meet his eyes. “Hey, how’d you know my name?” he asked, interrupting me.
“When you gave me the soup, you called me Michael. I didn’t know you knew my name.”
It was only engraven onto the insides of my eyes. “Yeah, well, some girls I know pointed you out.”
“Really? What girls?” He looked interested. Wrong thing to say. I was such an idiot.
“Oh, I forget.” I was talking to him like I dreamed about, but nothing was going right.
“Oh, well, I guess I’ll see you around.”
He was leaving! I had to do something. Flirt. What did Miri always tell me? Thrust out my chest? Not that there was much to see. Sway my hips? Wink? No no no, I couldn’t wink at him. “Evaling.”
“What?” He sounded confused.
“That’s my name. Evaling.”
“Evaling.” He said it slowly, but it sounded glorious in his voice. “That’s a nice name.”
“You know…” He stopped, scratching his hair and looking away. “We could, maybe, I don’t know, take a walk together some day. If you want.”
My smile was genuine, however goofy it might have looked. “I would love to.”
Michael smiled, too, looking sweetly shy. His brown eyes shimmered. “Well, see you around. I have to get back to work. Evaling.”
Waving goodbye, I forced my face to have a light, serious smile on it. Once I was sure he couldn’t hear me, I squealed and ran to Anna. The woman tried to scold me, but my giddiness was too contagious for her to stay serious. I ended up telling her everything.
Once I was free, I ran back home, tripping once and bruising my knee, but that didn’t matter. I limped the rest of the way home. I found, as expected, Miri and Jaz at the front door. They lit up as the saw my face. My mother couldn’t get a word in over the fire as we rushed to my room and slammed the door shut. We talked for hours, analyzing every move Michael made, and what it meant. Serious doubts appeared in my mind, but in the end, at least I knew he wanted to take a walk with me.
“But he didn’t say when,” Jaz pointed out.
“Maybe he saw that you had a crush and didn’t want to hurt your feelings,” Miri said.
Some friends they were. Later, when they had left, my mother came in, my father having arrived home from his carpentry and was taking care of my little brothers, who were making plenty of noise outside. My mother was a big more optimistic than my friends. Her hair was matted down much like Michael’s had been. She saw my knee but didn’t think much of it, even though it was purple.
“Michael sounds like a good young man, and a little shy. Be nice to him.”
“Shy? Mom, he talks with the other men, even the older ones, like he’s one of them. He didn’t seem shy when talking to me. I was the one looking down.”
“Eva, even the best of men are often a little shy around women. If they’re too comfortable around us, that’s probably a warning sign. Your dad was terrified of me.”
I couldn’t imagine my dad being terrified of anything. Mom’s wisdom seemed dubious, but I felt she must have known something. I decided to go to bed and hope Michael would come talk to me.
At night, I dreamed of him before sleeping. So many ideas of what our lives could be like together, so real, yet so impossible. Crazy, I know, since he had only spoken ten sentences to me. My heart beat faster when I thought of his smile.
I eventually dozed off. In the morning, after the soothing night, I jumped out of bed. I was too excited to stay down. I finished my chores as the rest of the family was eating breakfast. My mom knew what this was about, but dad was perplexed and my brothers didn’t care, picking up sticks and fighting each other as soon as breakfast was over.
I didn’t really have any excuse, but I asked Anna to let me help again. She had another girl with her today, Lily, who was a little older than I was. I didn’t spend much time with her, but I knew that she eyed Michael as well. Taking Anna aside, I begged her to let me come. She finally agreed. I guess her inner romantic wasn’t dead yet. Lily didn’t seem too pleased.
Arriving, the men were still working. A few trees were missing. There was a strange feeling once I got there. A vague sadness, although not from the men themselves. They seemed to be a little less cheerful, but they didn’t seem to be the source. It’s hard to explain. Nor was it very strong.
I didn’t let that thwart me from looking for Michael. While scanning them, I saw one man lift his axe and strike down at a root, but it glanced off and hit his shin. I gasped, seeing blood fly out as he fell, clutching the leg. The men around him stopped what they were doing and went to his aid, but didn’t seem too worried about him.
“Ethan,” one man said over the man’s whimpering. “It looks like you broke your bone. We’re going to bandage you and get you home. You’ll be fine by tomorrow.”
The man, Ethan, clenching his teeth to keep from crying, nodded. Tearing his sleeve into bandages, they wrapped Ethan’s leg to keep him from spilling blood on everything. A few men made a sling to carry him home.
“Eva,” Anna said.
“I need you to go with them as they take Ethan to the village. He needs soup to sooth him. Only the broth, mind you. These fellows will need to come back as soon as possible and I want you to get Ethan as comfortable as possible so he can sleep. Knock him out with sinkroot if you need to.”
“What?” I knew why it was needed, but not why I was needed. “Doesn’t he have a wife?”
“No. He lives alone. He had a falling out with his mother, and lives far from her as well.”
“What about Lily?” Lily looked at me with venom in her eyes.
“No, she stays with me. I didn’t really need you, but now I do. For this.”
It wasn’t fair. I hadn’t even seen Michael yet. And Lily looked at me with triumph. She was so pretty, with long black hair and a small nose. And thinner and taller than I was. How would Michael ever look at me once Lily got ahold of him?
Fighting to stay strong, to keep from shedding tears, I straightened my back and started marching with the men. Anna gave me a sympathetic look, but I refused to look her in the eye.
We arrived at Ethan’s house a little while later. It was nothing special, fairly small. Inside, my mother would have gone crazy, it was so disorganized. Blankets on the floor, dirty dishes, and rotten food. There was a chair my father had made; I recognized his handiwork.
The men left me with moaning Ethan, who wasn’t really that old. Not much older than I was, really. I kind of felt sorry for him, all alone here. He barely seemed coherent. I think his wound was getting infected. Blood kept soaking through the bandages, which I tried to clean up. It wasn’t the most pleasant job in the world.
“Eval…” he began my name. I was surprised he could even tell who I was, let alone know my name.
I kept hoping he would doze off, but he stayed awake. I couldn’t find any sinkroot, so I had to leave and ask one of the neighbors. It was taking much too long. I wanted to rush over to Michael. The sun in the sky was slowly starting to sink.
Finally I was able to make the tea and get Ethan to drink it. It took a few moments but he fell asleep. He wouldn’t be waking up until morning. The wound looked pretty bad, the leg still dangling, but he would be fine.
Freedom! I ran as fast as I had yesterday, but was more careful to not fall down. It would not do to have unsightly bruises before nightfall. Nor would it do to have a dirty dress, so I picked that up around my waist. I saw a few women staring at me, scandalized. I managed to wave cheerfully. Not that I was cheerful inside. It had taken much too long. Lily might already be kissing Michael by now.
When I arrived, the men were cleaning up. My heart fell deep into my chest. I couldn’t see Michael. Nor could I see Anna and Lily.
Gathering my courage, I asked one of the men if he knew where Michael was. He shook his head and said that he might be a bit deeper into the woods. There were some crews that were thinning that part out.
Thanking him, I sped off into the woods, losing sight of the village. The trees grew thicker here. It was late afternoon; my mother would be wondering where I was. But I wanted to make sure Lily hadn’t taken my Michael.
My feet crunched the leaves as I walked. It smelled fresh here, but also sad, like I had felt before. The man had told me to go deeper in the woods, but the deeper I went, the more I felt I was going the wrong way. I couldn’t even see where they were cutting down the trees. I decided to turn back and start over, or wait for Michael outside the woods. It was kind of frightening to be here.
I turned around and went back. Or at least I thought I did. But after walking a few minutes, I was still in the woods. I couldn’t see the son to know what direction I was going in. A squirrel ran by and I nearly screamed. Then, ashamed of myself, I did scream, hoping someone would hear. My voice soon became hoarse, though, and I didn’t hear anyone coming. Was I really so far in?
I was getting hungry. I should have eaten at Ethan’s house, but I was too anxious. Now I was lost and had no idea where my village was, let alone any food.
It was frightening, really. There was almost nothing to fear in the village. Fear was the occasional nightmare. Pain wasn’t even feared much, just by little children who didn’t understand it would go away soon enough. But this was different. What if I never made it back home? That wasn’t something that could be healed.
I wandered about for another half hour. The sun was setting, I could tell from the level of light. Looking up at the light leaving the leaves, I saw something seem to shine in the fading light. An apple. It was higher than I could reach on my own, but if I climbed up the tree, it should be within my grasp.
Feeling undignified but driven by the emptiness of my stomach, I jumped and caught onto a branch. It caught on to me as well, or on my dress. I did not want to ruin it, so, untangling myself and getting back to the ground, I took it off, hanging it on a branch. I had my shift on, but if anyone came now, especially Michael, I would die of embarrassment.
It was kind of cold as I pulled myself up. How did my little brothers make it seem so easy? After grunting and other unladylike sounds, I pulled myself up and lay stomach down on the branch with the apple. There were probably others as well, but higher and I had my eyes set on this one. I just had to crawl forward and reach out.
I kept looking to see if I was alone. There seemed to be some presence in the shadows. Was someone watching me?
Slowly I moved closer to my objective, breaking off smaller branches on the way. Some of them scratched me, but my stomach refused to give up. I nearly fell a few times, but managed to hold on. Finally, I was able to grab that apple, sending the branch waving dangerously in the process. I held it in my hand for just a moment before bringing it to my mouth and taking a bite out of it. It was delicious, although my hunger might have had something to do with that. Relaxing a bit, I took another bite. Then I heard the branch crack. Panicking, I tried scooting in reverse.
The whole branch fell down, me screaming with it.