A Pardon of Sorts, by Maude Larke
The light went out slowly. It passed to black, then to gray, as of a slow dawn. But soon it became more powerful than a northern winter dawn could produce. All this came to Anne through or on her eyelids. She found that she felt surprisingly patient, of an imperturbable calm. She lingered, floated, drifted. Then, when the slow evolution of dark to light seemed to have ended, she opened her eyes.
Anne stared around her in confusion. A waste of snow lay all around her. It was uninterrupted to the blue horizon in three directions, glinting like mica in the sun, reflecting some of the blue in some places. In the fourth, before, there was a forest. The leaves were all gone from them, no last one clung desperately, and they stood straight, untouched by any wind or breeze. Not a twig tossed. There was no sign of tracks, let alone a fur-laden troika on which she could ask to travel, from whose driver she could ask directions, and ask many other questions besides. Directions where? Which way did she want to go? No merest hint of troika bells, no distant chimney smoke, no countryside noise of peasants or playing children reached her.
What reached her, suddenly, was the answer to her questions. Where did she want to go? Did that not depend on where she had come from? But just where had she come from?
With a jump and a shudder she remembered. The train, its noise like screams and dragons hissing. She remembered no pain. Only great light. This light was nearly as bright, mostly helped by the carpet of white. But it spread all around her. The one that shone as she launched herself onto the tracks was near. She could have said that that light had been literally in her eyes.
Now she felt her cheeks burn, her overpowering shame. She sensed now how horrifyingly exposed she was in this space. She longed suddenly and violently to know just what it was. Was snow her punishment? Was isolation her doom? She longed for a single hand to teach out to. Devastation invaded her soul. She was amazed that she still stood. She yearned to throw herself into the glittering snow, to abase herself before the Eternal and All-Powerful. Her body, this time, would not obey her. She stood immobile, like the birches before her. Even the relief of weeping seemed to be denied her.
Her head felt oddly light. Not dizzy, but clear and almost floating over her cloaked shoulders. They had become red. She could not remember owning a red cloak. Would she have chosen red for the train?
Anne felt something in her hand. The purse that she hade taken with her? It was harder than that. She looked down into an empty basket gripped in that hand. Why a basket? Where was she to find mushrooms at this season, under this quilt of snow? And who would she prepare them for, should she find them? No one would follow her here. A pang pierced her heart for her dear life and for her willful loss of it. She was ready to dig through that snow, find any lingering shreds of mushroom, offer them tearfully, hands and mushrooms laced, gauzed with snow, to anyone who would show surprise and joy at the offer. But, she thought with a chill to her heart, would they show joy? The panic at the idea that they might not left her panting.
She suddenly noticed the sound of snow moving against snow, an ogre’s breathing. With it came the sound of real breathing, weighty and huffing. A horse stalked out of the grove. Not a draft horse. He . . . she? was not nearly heavy enough. He-she showed all the signs of a thoroughbred. And she-he had no harness on, but a riding saddle. She-he strode calmly toward Anne, then stopped a few paces away. Anne silently admired the regal quality of the bel animal, the rich color, the calm pace.
Now she felt the cold, and set the basket down to rub her arms. She wondered that the horse showed none of that shuddering of coat that would have suggested that she-he felt it also.
The horse had stood quite still, but now it bowed and tossed its head twice, then said, “Good day, Anne.”
“Do I know you?” Anne cried out.
“You saw me die.”
“Yes. My name is Quaint Lady.”
Anne remembered it all. The race, the fall, her public weeping, her fall. Her cheeks burned anew, and the shudder that went completely through her had nothing to do with the cold.
“I . . . am very sorry you died,” she uttered in a strained voice.
“That is a generous gesture of you,” the mare answered back. “But I know that you were otherwise preoccupied at that moment. You were so worried about my master.”
“I am sorry for that, for your sake.”
“He and I were rather alike, though. We each were concerned for ourselves. He did appreciate me, in his own animal way. I basked in it. And so I did not offer him what you did, a return.”
“Can we speak of a return, at this point?” Anne asked ruefully.
“Yes, and indeed a rather expected one. Just as he blamed you for my death, he blamed you for your uneasiness. I expect that only now he blames himself, as only now there is no one left to blame.”
“And you?” Anne asked fearfully. “Do you blame me for your death?”
“I can blame you for nothing,” Quaint Lady answered evenly. “I can understand the human notion of love and in general that a species must follow its instincts. I blame him, for the kick to my belly while I was lying on the ground. I blame him for allowing himself to try and live in two spheres at once; on my back, in a race that we both wanted to win, and by your side. Where he could not have been, in all events, but where he could not stop being. He came as close as he ever did to stepping outside himself when reaching for you. It seems to me that your love for him was more a misfortune. It destroyed us both. But we are both victims.”
But you are cold,” Quaint Lady said. “Come, mount.”
Quaint Lady stepped forward and sank to her knees. Anne felt an élan of emotion toward the mare, its calm, its seeming gentleness. She now found the use of her limbs, heretofore so recalcitrant to her urges. She stepped forward, buckled the basket onto the back of the saddle, adjusted the stirrup to allow her to sit properly side-saddle, and sat. Quaint Lady stood slowly. Anne spread and settled her skirts.
“But where will we go?” Anne asked.
“There is a sort of paradise for the wronged. I have found the way. We will be welcomed.”
The mare turned and walked back to the grove. Anne felt a softening of the cold as they approached, then a cessation as they entered. The trees seemed to exude this warmth, in the same way that her eyes seemed to have produced light. Their trunks looked like all silver birch trunks that she had ever seen. But somehow they felt different to her. The warmth seemed to take the form of arms and to encircle her.
As they advanced farther into the forest, Anne’s thoughts drifted. Her lover, her son, her daughter, her brother, her husband. What were they doing now, back in that former world? Was it of weight? She thought with trembling of the agonies that she must have caused them. She shed a tear for her son, searched with her being the embrace of her lover, appalled herself with her gesture. And she wondered about these questions. Were they her concern? Did they touch her here, now, where she was? She felt at the same time ashamed and detached, woebegone and bereft of woe. She searched the birches for her response. Atonement? relief? Regret? Revival?
At a certain point three branches of path splayed before them. Quaint Lady stopped. Anne could feel her tremble, and tried to rub her shoulders to warm her.
“That alters nothing,” the mare said, voice trembling also. “I did not find this fork in the road when I came in the other direction. It was hidden, and now it is revealed.”
“But what of that?”
“It is a trap. I know the legend. If we go the first way you lose me. If we go the second way, I lose you. If we go the third way, we are both lost.”
“We’ll take the third, then.”
“For equality. We are equals already in suffering and in death. Let us be equal before the fates.”
Quaint Lady bowed her head once, then turned right.
Maude Larke lives in France with the ghost of her last cat. Her credo is ‘never wear two things of the same color when hiking’. She has this bad habit of collecting things and getting antsy when people begin to touch the items in the collections. Especially the pebble collection. She thoroughly admits that she teaches as a day job out of sadism.
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Tags: accidents, death, loss, Maude Larke