Approximately 9,000 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1990. All rights reserved.
+ + + CANTO I + + +
The room was cavernous. Pillars supported the ceiling that arched overhead and they braced themselves in the strips of the polished hardwood floor. A few heavy tables and padded chairs sat amidst the gloom that seemed to permeate the place, and bookshelves dotted the room in a haphazard maze. Books of every size and shape overstuffed these shelves, all blending together in the shadows spawned between the rows. It was a library fit for a king and no man could ever hope to uncover all its secrets in his short lifetime.
To Oona, it was all very frightening. Buildings scared her to begin with, but the dismal dark of this structure put her on the edge of terror. She padded her small bare feet and wound her way through the labyrinth. Her muscles were taut and her little wings stood out and fanned themselves to their fullest, ready to take to the air at any moment. He pale blue eyes glowed in the darkness.
“Willoughby?” she called out in a whisper of a voice.
She came out to the center of the room where the tables and chairs were and saw a lone figure hunched over in the light of a small candle in the far corner of the room. He sat at a small desk under a pair of curtained windows and was reading a large book.
“Willoughby?” she said a bit louder, her voice that of a songbird.
The figure didn’t move and Oona continued on toward him. She felt the shadows tug at the gossamer wraparound that she wore to cover her nudity. Her body was slight and small, but she had the curves of a mature woman. Her face was that of a child, clean and delicate, and her hair, a pale shade of gray, pulled away from it like a mane.
“Willoughby!” she cried out, honestly scared and afraid of her surroundings.
The wooden chair squeaked as the figure in it turned toward her. The candlelight revealed a middle-aged man wearing spectacles and a stiff brown suit. “Oona,” he said. “What are you doing here?”
Oona ran to him. She hugged him as he sat in his chair, standing between his legs and crushing her face against his chest. “Oh, Willoughby!” she cried, silver tears beginning to flow. “Why do you hide yourself away in this awful place? I was so scared!”
Willoughby laughed lightly and put his arms around her, pressing her wings against her body. “It’s my work, Oona. You know that.”
“I know,” Oona said, still clutching Willoughby. “But how can you stand to be in here all the time? This place frightens me so.”
“I know, Oona, I know it does.” He gently pushed her away and held her at arm’s length. He wiped a tear off her child face. “But I have to be here. It’s what I do.”
Oona put her hands on his knees and crouched down, suddenly brightening. “Willoughby! Let’s leave this place forever! Let’s go out to the meadow and live by the light and warmth of the sun. We’d be so happy, Willoughby. Please, let us go right now!”
Willoughby rubbed her small shoulders. “I can’t, Oona. I’m sorry. You know I can’t do that. I have a life outside the meadow and this is it. This room, this desk, these books. This is what I do, Oona. This is who I am.”
“No!” Oona shouted defiantly. “This is not who you are! This place is dark and gloomy and scary. These books aren’t you at all. They’re evil and full of hate. That’s not you, my Willoughby!”
“Oona, please,” Willoughby said. “Don’t say those things. You know how I feel about my work.”
Oona dropped her head. “But I love you, Willoughby.”
Willoughby swallowed hard. “I know. And I love you, Oona. But I must do these things. These books call to me nearly as loudly as your love does. Don’t hate me for that.”
Oona’s head snapped up. “Never, my Willoughby! I could never hate you! It’s these books I hate. They are a sinister mystery to me.”
Willoughby nodded. “I know, my Oona, I know. But to me they give all their answers.”
Oona had no response for that. She placed her cheek on Willoughby’s thigh and hugged his leg to her. He reached down and smoothed her hair like a devoted pet. For a long time the only noise in the room was the sound of Oona’s sniffles. Eventually, she looked up at him.
“Will you come to the meadow tonight? At dusk, when your work is done?”
“Yes,” Willoughby said. “Yes, as always, I will.”
Oona smiled and stood up. “I will go then, my Willoughby. I will go to the meadow and wait for dusk and your arrival.”
“I will be there.”
Oona came forward and kissed him on the cheek. She moved away, leaving one of her silver tears on the tip of his nose. She giggled when she saw it and then came forward again and kissed his nose lightly, spreading the tear onto her lips.
“I love you, Willoughby.”
“As I love you, my Oona.”
Oona turned and ran from the room.
+ + + CANTO II + + +
The meadow behind the house was the home of many creatures. Most of them were like Oona, sweet and innocent. They lived there in peace and happiness, flitting about in the sun and bursting with the joy of their simple lives. But the meadow had its dark places, too, back by the trees where the river flowed. Other creatures lived there, less innocent and much less sweet. They were dirty and mysterious and kept mostly to themselves. Creatures of the meadow would never dream of bothering them.
And so the meadow was the home of two kinds of creatures. There were the good ones. There were the bad ones. And then there was Jack.
He stood at the back of the house and met Oona when she came out. His pointed ears were twitching. He couldn’t understand why Oona bothered with Willoughby. He was astounded that she had actually gone into the house to see him.
“Jack!” Oona trilled when she came back out into the sunshine. “Oh, Jack! It was horrible! You were right, all dark and closed off and confining.”
“I told you,” Jack said, taking her hand. “I don’t know how Willoughby can stand it in there. He’s not like you and me.” He started to lead her back into the meadow.
“Wait, Jack,” Oona said. “I have to wait for Willoughby. He said he would meet me at dusk.”
Jack scowled. “Why can’t he meet you in the meadow like he usually does?”
“Oh, Jack!” Oona giggled. “I want to see him as soon as he comes out!”
Jack looked up at the sun. “It’ll be hours before dusk. We can come back. Come on, Oona.” He tugged on her arm.
“No, Jack. I want to stay.”
Oona looked at him sharply and seemed about ready to raise her voice in anger. But her brow quickly smoothed and her eyes sparkled with a new realization. And in that moment, Jack loved her perhaps more than he ever had before. Her beauty, her innocence, her goodness; they crystallized around her like an aura and Jack would have given his hairy feet to be a part of it with her.
“Why, Jack,” she said. “You had something planned, didn’t you?”
Jack kicked at the pebbles.
“I’m sorry, Jack,” Oona said, lifting his chin. “We can go and come back if you like. What have you planned?”
“Well,” Jack muttered. “I didn’t really plan it, but I was hoping we could go exploring before it got dark.”
“Yeah. You know. Down by the trees and the river.”
Oona chilled. “Why would you want to go there? Isn’t it dangerous?”
“Not during the day,” Jack declared. “It’s nice there during the day. The trees give you shade and you can sit on the bank and watch the river go by.”
Oona’s eyes widened. “You’ve been there before, Jack?”
“Well, yes, Oona. It’s not horrible during the day. It’s cool out of the sun and there’s some soft mud that your feet can sink into. Oona, please don’t look at me like that. I do so want it show it to you.”
Oona grimaced. “It’s just that I’ve heard terrible things about the river and the trees, Jack.”
“Not during the day,” Jack said for the third time. “While the sun still shines on the leaves it’s actually quite nice. Please, Oona.”
Oona looked back at the house.
“You’ll like it more than that stuffy old house,” Jack said. “You can still feel the breeze on your skin in the trees.”
Oona fanned her wings in the sun. “On one condition, Jack. You have to have me back here before dusk. Promise me that, Jack, and I’ll go with you.”
Jack nodded his head vigorously.
“Promise me, Jack. Say it.”
He looked into her eyes and fell in love with her again. He would’ve promised to take her to the moon. “I promise, Oona.”
Oona kissed Jack on the cheek and quickly skipped away before he could grab her. “Well, come on, silly,” she called back to him. “We’ll have to hurry.”
Jack took off after her.
+ + + CANTO III + + +
Oona knew that Jack loved her. She knew it because she was a creature of love and knew what it looked like in others. But she loved Willoughby, and could not return her love to Jack. This made her sad, and she sometimes felt sorry for Jack’s attempts to win her favor. Perhaps it was because of this that she went with him to the river. Perhaps she was inwardly curious herself. She did love Willoughby, after all, and maybe her love for someone who lived apart from the meadow sparked her interest in other worlds apart. Maybe you already know her well enough to hazard your own guess as to why she went with Jack. I certainly don’t know, and I suspect that Oona herself wasn’t quite sure why she went with him.
But she did go with him, remember that. They crossed the meadow together, Jack hopping along and Oona flying above and around him—close, but always out of his reach. It took them about an hour to make the journey, and with an hour needed to return before dusk, it left them with a single hour to explore.
Oona landed gently beside Jack when they reached the trees. They loomed over her like giants, forming a border a few hundred feet thick along the bank of the river. The meadow here was greener and the ground was wetter. The sun, on its way down for the night, shone through the trunks to spotlight Jack and Oona as they stood looking at the trees.
“I don’t like them, Jack,” Oona said, taking his hand. “They’re so tall. And look at the grass. The blades are so thick. And there’s no milkweed.”
Jack squeezed her hand. “It’s okay, Oona. It’s still light out. Come on, it’s really nice.”
Jack led her into the trees. He walked ahead of her and pulled her hand along like a leash. Her feet stumbled a few times as she looked up into the dizzying heights of the trees.
Then, all at once, they were in the shade. Jack continued on. There was no grass here at all. Hard, packed earth and moss-covered rocks made up the forest floor. The air was cool and damp, and it brushed up against Oona like a wet tongue. And the trees. The trees reached their barky fingers into the sky, so high it seemed they would fall over at any moment.
Oona looked around and found herself on the bank of the river. The murky water churned past her slowly and moaned warnings from its depths.
“You see, Oona. It’s nice, isn’t it?” Jack had his eyes closed and his head tilted back. He was smiling.
Oona was shivering. She had never been so cold before. “Oh, Jack!” she cried.
Jack kept smiling. “I told you it was nice.”
Oona only wanted to fly away but the air felt too heavy. She didn’t think her little wings could fight through it. And besides, there was nowhere to go. The canopy of trees seemed to erase the sky from her world.
“Oh, Jack! It’s awful!” She was breathing hard. “It’s so dark and cold. I can’t breathe here!”
Jack opened his eyes. “What?”
“Jack,” Oona said. “Please, Jack. I am more afraid here than I was in the house. It’s so cold.”
“It’s cool,” Jack corrected. “It’s cool here but that feels good. Sometimes out in the sun, I sweat so, the fur on my legs is so uncomfortable. But it is nice here by the river.”
“No, Jack. It’s cold.” Oona hugged her arms to her bosom. “I feel as though my blood is freezing in my veins. Please, Jack. Let’s go.”
“No!” Jack shouted, his voice echoing strangely off the tree trunks. “How can you not like it here? It’s so peaceful.”
“Jack,” Oona shuddered. “It feels like death.”
“Death!” Jack scoffed. “What can you know of death? Flitting around in the sunshine all the time. The meadow knows no death, Oona. Nothing ends there.”
Oona bowed her head. “Don’t scold me, Jack. I can’t help what I am. No more than you.”
Jack tried to take her hand but she pulled away. “Oona, I’m sorry. It’s just that I was hoping you’d like it here. I was hoping we could come here a lot. Sit here by the river and…well, just come here and sit by the river, I guess.”
Oona looked at the river. It was dark and full of little eddies and churning currents. It rippled past her and made her wonder where it came from and where it was going.
“I’m sorry, too, Jack. But I can’t come here with you anymore. Now, let’s go. Let’s go meet Willoughby.”
“Willoughby,” Jack said. “Yeah. Let’s go meet him.”
Oona came forward and hugged Jack. She was a little taller than he was and she pressed his head to her bosom. She scratched the back of his neck.
Jack was trying not to cry. It wasn’t easy. He wanted so much for Oona to be happy here. There was so much they could have done together. Suddenly, Jack realized where his head was resting and, embarrassed, he pulled away from her roughly.
“Jack—” Oona cried as she stumbled backward. The word quickly turned into a scream as a sickly green arm came out of the river and held fast to her ankle. Oona tripped and fell face first into the mud. She gave a final cry and the arm dragged her into the river. She dipped beneath the surface and was gone.
Jack stood on the bank and called out her name.
+ + + CANTO IV + + +
It took Jack a long time to decide what to do. He knew what had happened. Oona had gotten too close to the river and a river hag had nabbed her. The hag would take Oona down to her lair and eat her for dinner. He considered diving in right after her, but he knew that hags had special magic to keep their lairs hidden. He could swim around for hours and never find it. And it wouldn’t be long until the sun went down and the river got really nasty.
He decided he couldn’t do it alone. He needed help, and needed it quickly if he wanted to save Oona. He couldn’t go to any of the meadow creatures. Not now. They would never come here so close to nightfall. Oona or no Oona. There was only one person who could and would help him. Willoughby.
Jack hated to ask Willoughby for help, but Oona’s life was on the line, and no matter what Jack thought of Willoughby and his books, he would likely know what to do.
And so Jack ran, as fast as his fur-covered legs would carry him, back across the meadow and to the house. The sun seemed to race down to the horizon as he ran, mocking him with its speed. No time, Jack. You have no time. It’ll be dark before you get back and it’ll be too late for Oona. She’ll be gone and it’ll be your fault, Jack. Your fault.
“Willoughby!” Jack screamed as he saw a figure come out of the house. He stood in the final rays of the sun and Jack charged up to him and grabbed his hand. “Come on, Willoughby, we’ve got to hurry, come on!” He started pulling Willoughby after him.
“Why, Jack? What on earth is the matter?”
“Hurry!” Jack exclaimed. “I’ll explain on the way. Oona is in terrible danger.”
That was all it took. “Oona!” Willoughby said. “What have you done, Jack?” He was standing his ground while Jack desperately tried to pull him along.
“A river hag got her!” Jack shouted as he broke from Willoughby and took off in a full sprint. “Hurry! We may be too late already,” he sang out.
Willoughby broke into a run after him. His longer legs should have closed the gap between them easily, but Jack was a creature of some magic, and he did not follow all the laws of men. As he ran, Willoughby called up into his mind all he had read about river hags; their characteristics, their protections, and their appetites.
They were creatures spawned from the violent forces of the river they inhabited and were tied to the currents magically and physically. They could not leave the confines of their aquatic home, and this fact evidently pained them deeply, because they held a jealous hate of all life that was free to wander about the earth.
They had powerfully inbred magic at their disposal, which they could use to hide their lairs and assume watery or bodily forms. The lairs themselves were usually underwater air-filled chambers, to which they brought their victims to torture and eventually eat.
Willoughby thought of the horrors that Oona may have been suffering at that very moment and his heart leapt into his throat and made him run even harder. Damn that Jack! If anything happened to Oona, Willoughby vowed to strangle the life out of Jack himself.
But Willoughby knew he would be able to save Oona if he only got there in time. For he knew the river hag’s secret. Each hag was a child of the river in which they lived, and each took her name from that river. This river’s name was the Little Menomonee and with it, Willoughby could call the hag forth and command her to do as he instructed. He would shout the hag’s name from the riverbank, and when she appeared to him, he would command her to release Oona unharmed. And then he would command the hag to leave the river and destroy herself.
But for now he ran. He pumped his legs frantically and kept his eyes on Jack’s torso, bobbing fifty feet ahead of him.
+ + + CANTO V + + +
Oona slowly came back to consciousness, leaving the blackness behind and embracing pure terror. She found herself chained, wrists and ankles, to a cold wet stone wall in a small dark underground cave. She was nude, her gossamer wraparound nowhere to be seen, and her wings were crushed painfully between her warm body and the cold wall. The cave she was in was small and the walls of it seemed to glow with an eerie pale green light. Directly opposite her stood a podium, as if someone was going to deliver her a speech, and on the podium sat a massive dusty tome, opened somewhere in the middle.
The hag entered the cave from a passageway on the right. She was a bent and crooked creature, foul and misshapen, her features a grotesque parody of human. She was large, her humped back nearly scraping the cave’s roof, with impossibly thin arms and impossibly long fingers. She made her way to the podium and began to study the book.
Oona was terrified. This cave was a hundred times more confining than the house had been. There, she had had Willoughby for company. Here, a demon she knew nothing about. Oona tugged at the chains and remembered how she had run freely from the house.
“I’ll get to you in a minute, my little morsel,” the hag screeched in a voice like gravel. “I have to find the right spells to torture you with.”
Torture! Oh, why did she ever let Jack bring her to the river? Oona began to cry.
The hag looked up. She had a smile plastered on her grim face. “No, no. Don’t cry, my little morsel. Not yet. You do not know what sorrow is, yet. I will show you what real pain is.”
“What do you want from me!?” Oona cried out, gray tears streaming down her face.
“I want what I fear you cannot give me,” the hag said, seeming to grow behind the podium. “I want your freedom. But since you cannot give that to me, I want you to suffer very painfully,” She stuck a long finger onto a page of her book. “And this will make that very easy for me. This book is the knowledge of the old ones, the ones who were here before your precious meadow existed. They were the ones who washed themselves in the river and in their washing gave me life. It contains many things. Many things with which I have long wanted to experiment.”
The hag looked down into the book and began to chant. Her voice became a monotone growl in words that Oona could not understand. The words had power, though, Oona could feel it growing in the cave, filling up the empty spaces and pushing her harder against the cave wall.
And with the hag’s words came the insects. Large red bugs seemed to scuttle out of the shadows in a never-ending stream, all making their silent way to Oona. They started at her feet and slowly made their way up her legs and onto her torso. They covered her arms and danced about on her face. They crawled about all over her, their sharp little legs pricking Oona in a million tiny places. Oona screamed in terror, afraid of such awful magic, and fought against the chains to wipe some of the horrid insects from her body.
And all the while, the hag’s chanting grew louder and more powerful. Oona’s eyes stared out at the hag, stared out from a body of bloated, wriggling red insects, and saw the hag’s twisted face beaming with joy. The hag switched quickly from dull chanting to vibrant singing and that was when the insects began to bite Oona.
Quickly and everywhere, their little mandibles bit off pieces of Oona’s flesh, their voracious little minds driven by the power of the hag’s magic. The pain was unbearable. Oona was bit everywhere; her face, her arms, her legs, her belly, her breasts, her genitals. Her body was aflame with agony and she threw her head back and screamed the screams of the insane. And as she screamed, a few more adventurous insects crawled inside her mouth and bit her there.
“Little Menomonee…come forth!”
The voice echoed throughout the chamber and the hag stopped her song and cringed behind the podium. Instantly, the insects were gone. Oona looked down at her body and saw the undamaged smoothness of her pale skin. The insects had been illusions. Illusions of dark magic. But the pain, the pain had been real.
“Little Menomonee…come forth!”
It was Willoughby! Willoughby had come to rescue her. Oona began to cry anew, waves of relief washing over her.
The hag eyed Oona dubiously. “You aren’t saved yet, my little morsel. The fool up there knows less than he thinks he does. He is calling me by the name of the river, hoping to bind me to his will, but he is not using the name the river bore when I was created. And that name has been lost to the modern world.”
Willoughby, Oona thought, oh my Willoughby!
“But patience, my morsel. I shall go see what he wants anyway, for I see in your heart he means something to you. If you think the pain you just suffered was severe, I wonder how you will feel as you watch him undergo the same tortures.”
“No!” Oona screamed. “I’ll do anything! Please!”
But the hag turned and left the chamber.
+ + + CANTO VI + + +
“Little Menomonee…come forth!” Willoughby called for the third time.
Jack was about to make a biting comment concerning Willoughby’s book knowledge, but swallowed it back when there was a sudden swirling in the center of the river. The regular flow of the stream stopped all at once and the swirl deepened into a fast whirlpool. Out of the whirlpool came a shadowy shape that grew brighter and more defined as the whirlpool spun. Its torso was that of an ugly green woman but below the waist it was a stream of dark water that continuously fell into and fed the whirlpool.
“Ahhrggh!” the hag cried. “What would you have of me, human?”
Willoughby looked over at Jack and raised his eyebrows. “I guess it worked,” he said. He turned back to the hag. “Little Menomonee…release Oona unharmed!”
The hag cried out as if in pain. She waved her arms and Oona appeared on the riverbank, nude with whipping scars all over her back. She collapsed to the earth.
Jack ran over to her. He checked her pulse. He looked up and Willoughby was glaring at him. “She’s still alive,” Jack said.
Willoughby turned back to the hag again. “And now, Little Menomonee…come out of the river and stand on dry ground!”
The hag screamed as if physically struck. Her form began to slowly move towards the bank and her voice cried out, “No, no, no!” over and over again. Willoughby stepped back to give the hag room on the riverbank. Her screams got louder and louder as she approached the river’s edge. Jack had his hands on the breathing form of Oona but his eyes were on the hag.
The hag reached the riverbank and suddenly her motion stopped. But it wasn’t just her. To Jack, all motion had stopped. Willoughby stood like a statue and Oona’s form had gone still under his touch. The wind had stopped rustling the leaves of the trees and the crickets in the meadow had stopped chirping. And in this frozen moment in time, when Jack had his eyes fixed on the hag, he saw the hag’s head turn towards him and smile.
Like lightning, the arms of the hag shot out and grabbed Willoughby by the shoulders. The arms retracted and, just like Oona, the hag pulled the body of Willoughby down into the river and disappeared.
Jack’s hands fell to the ground as the body of Oona vanished as well. He placed his head on the cool mud of the riverbank and began to cry. He could hear the crickets chirping.
+ + + CANTO VII + + +
The hag brought Oona to another cave with a strange window on one wall. It looked just like the ones in the house beside the meadow, but it was set into the damp rock of the cave, and looked grotesquely out of place. On the other side of the window was another small cave with no visible exits. Sprawled out in the middle of the floor of this second cave, nude like herself, was the unconscious form of Willoughby.
“Well, my little morsel,” the hag said. “What do you think of my observation room?”
Oona said nothing.
“It’s been a long time since I had a man down here. Are you ready, my little morsel? Are you ready for a lesson in sorrow?”
Oona kept her eyes on Willoughby. “What do you mean?”
“Behold,” the hag said and the air around her shimmered and distorted her image beyond recognition. Oona looked on for a few seconds, and when the form of the hag reclarified itself, Oona thought she was looking into a mirror.
“Now,” the hag said in a voice just like Oona’s. “Listen carefully, my little morsel. You will be able to watch all that goes on in the other room through the window, and watch you will, but your precious Willoughby will not be able to see back.”
“What are you going to do?” Oona asked, horrified.
The hag’s Oona-face smiled. “You will watch.”
In a flash, the hag was gone and had reappeared in the observation room next to the unconscious Willoughby. She looked back at Oona for a moment and smiled, and then turned to Willoughby, shaking him and trying to wake him up.
“Willoughby!” the hag cried in Oona’s small voice. “Oh, Willoughby, wake up!”
Willoughby shook his head and sat up. “Oona!” he cried. “You’re safe.”
Oona pounded her little fists on the window glass. “No! She’s not me!”
Willoughby did not react to her pounding. “Oh, Oona,” he said to the hag, and then recoiled, discovering their mutual nudity.
“Willoughby,” the hag said, capturing Willoughby and hugging him to her bare bosom. “What shall we do? The hag plans to eat us! I heard her say so.”
Willoughby looked around the cave. “I don’t see any way out of here.” He started to get up.
The hag pulled him back down. “Please! I’m so scared, Willoughby, please just hold me.”
Willoughby hugged her. “Oh, my Oona.”
“No!” Oona screamed into the window. “She’s not your Oona! It’s the hag, oh Willoughby. It’s the hag!”
Willoughby rubbed the hag’s back between her Oona-wings.
“Oh, Willoughby,” the hag said. “I do not want to die. I’m not ready to die. Please, Willoughby, help me.”
Willoughby comforted her. “We’ll escape, Oona. I’ll get us out of here.”
“No,” the hag moaned. “It’s too late, it’s too late. I’ll never—” Suddenly the hag pushed herself away from Willoughby and held him at arm’s length. There were tears in her Oona-eyes.
“You’ll never what?” Willoughby asked.
The hag leaned forward and kissed Willoughby on the lips. It was no kind of kiss Oona had ever given Willoughby in her life. It was not a peck, an innocent brushing of lips. This kiss was deep and full, open-mouthed and packed with desire and promise.
Oona stood behind the window, cold as stone.
The hag broke the kiss and buried her face in the curve of Willoughby’s neck. “Oh, Willoughby,” she cried. “Make love to me. Please, Willoughby. I want to make love before we die.”
“No,” Oona mumbled on her side of the glass. “No.”
Willoughby was looking down on the hag’s Oona-head and was doing nothing else.
The hag was kissing and nibbling on Willoughby’s neck. “Please, Willoughby, make love to me now.” She placed a delicate Oona-hand between his legs.
Oona was only saying ‘no’ over and over again, but in her mind, the words were flying. Don’t, Willoughby. It’s not me. It’s the hag. How could you? Even if it was me, how could you do such a thing at a time like this? Can’t you see it’s not me? Can’t you see? Are you blind? Do you know no more about me than that?
Willoughby and the hag said nothing more to each other. They kissed again and this time Willoughby kissed back with a passion that must have been brewing for some time. His large hands roamed all over the hag’s nude Oona-body, and the hag kept her Oona-hands where she had originally placed them, but now grasping, squeezing, and stroking.
Oona watched it all with a face lined with woe. Tears fell down her cheeks and she kept mumbling ‘no’ again and again, as if the word had the power to stop what she was witnessing.
Is that all there is? Willoughby, is that all there is in your love for me? Is this all you have wanted to do? This ugly, painful, mortal, human thing? Is that all?
The hag pushed Willoughby down on his back and crawled on top of him. She straddled him with her slender Oona-thighs and gently lowered herself down.
“Oona,” Willoughby moaned. “Oh, Oona. I’ve wanted to do this for so long.”
The hag began to rock back and forth, taking more and more of Willoughby into her. “So have I, my Willoughby,” she said. “So have I.”
“No!” Oona finally screamed at a pitch to break glass. “No, Willoughby! How can you believe that is me? How can you want to do that to me? Oh, I hate you! I hate you, Willoughby!” She pulled at her gray hair, hoping to rip it out.
Her eyes bulged out of her head as she watched the spectacle before her. She could not turn away from it. She did not even think to. She watched Willoughby reach up and caress the hag’s Oona-breasts. She watched Willoughby’s muscles tighten and his skin sheen over with sweat. She listened to Willoughby calling out her name to the hag in the throes of passion and she thought she could smell the rising of their sexuality through the glass. And with each escalating sensation she witnessed, Oona’s hate for Willoughby and the hag who had shown her what he really was grew to a burning antipathy.
The hag was bouncing up and down furiously on top of Willoughby, her Oona-head thrown back and her Oona-eyes wide with ecstasy. Willoughby’s body suddenly shuddered and with his climax, the hag let out a piercing screech in her own gravel voice and suddenly reverted to her own grotesque form. Willoughby opened his eyes, shut tight in the convulsions of orgasm, and beheld the horror impaled upon him. Before he could react, the hag dug with her green claws into Willoughby’s abdomen and began to draw out his organs.
At last, Oona could watch no more. She fell to her knees and clamped her hands over her eyes. She screamed but she could not drown out the sounds coming from the observation room; the howls of Willoughby’s pain and the squeals of the hag’s delight as she tore the man apart. They seemed to echo in Oona’s head endlessly, until Oona thought she could do nothing more than go mad. To dig at her small ears with her fingernails until they stopped hearing the awful sounds from beyond the window, and then to claw out her own eyes to stop the images of what she had seen.
But at last, the sounds stopped. Oona became aware of her hot forehead against the cold stone floor and she quickly looked up. The hag stood before her, her green and bloated body streaked with Willoughby’s blood and gore. The hag held one of Willoughby’s organs in her bony hand. It was small and made of sinewy muscle.
“Well, my little morsel,” the hag said. “How did you enjoy your small lesson in sorrow? Did you learn anything about what sorrow really is? Hmmm? My little morsel?” The hag smiled and took a bite out of Willoughby’s heart like it was an apple.
Oona put her forehead back on the floor and let her sobs wreak her pale body. Sorrow? Yes, she knew what sorrow was.
+ + + CANTO VIII + + +
Jack was curled up in a little ball where Oona’s body had laid on the riverbank. He wanted to make himself as small as possible. He wanted to shrink down and fall out of this world and into the microscopic. His face was pressed into the cool mud and he was crying.
The voice was warm and familiar.
Jack looked up, his bright eyes staring out from a mask of filth.
“Father,” Jack said.
“My son,” the voice said. “What has happened that makes you weep so?”
“Oh, Father!” Jack cried. “It’s horrible. And it is all my fault.”
“Has someone harmed you, Jack? Tell me, my revenge will be slow and unpleasant.”
“No, Father. It is I who have harmed others. Willoughby and…and Oona.”
“Willoughby and Oona? Who are they, son? What have you done to them?”
“Willoughby is a human from the house on the edge of the meadow and Oona is a meadow creature. A faerie. And I…it is because of me that the river hag has captured them. I brought them both here.”
The voice was silent for a long time.
“Jack, your voice is tender when you speak of the faerie Oona. Do you love her?”
Jack said nothing.
“Oh, Father,” Jack said. “How can I lie to you? You have mastered all lies and can recognize each one. Yes, I love her. I love the faerie Oona.” Jack hid his muddy face with his hands.
“The one she loves.” Jack said through his fingers. “There is no place in her heart for me.”
“I feared this would happen,” the voice said. “You love Oona just as I loved your mother. Oona loves another just as your mother loved another.”
“My mother?” Jack said, lowering his hands.
“You never knew her. I would have given my entire kingdom for her love. She was a faerie as well, and her kind could not love me. She loved another, and spurned me to no end. When I took her, it was against her will and, after you were born, she left the meadow and perished. Have you taken this Oona to be yours, yet?”
“Take her, Jack. If she is what you desire, take her. Take her like I took your mother.”
“Father!” Jack said. “I could not take her against her will.”
The voice was silent again for some time.
“Pity. I see you have too much of your mother in you.”
“Help me, Father,” Jack said. “Help me save Oona, Father. Perhaps I can win her.”
“Do you really love her, Jack?”
“I believe I love her all I can.”
“What can I do to help?”
Jack stood up. “Willoughby said that whoever spoke the name of the hag could control her. Is this true?”
“Well, is the hag not one of your servants? Did she not come into this world through you? Do you not know her name, Father?”
“Tell me, Father! Tell me the name. With it I can rescue Oona and destroy the hag. Tell me her name!”
The voice paused for a third time.
“I will do as you ask, my son, if you promise me two things.”
“First, use the knowledge I give you to save Oona, and Oona alone. Do not rescue this Willoughby.”
“But why, Father?”
“Can you not see? He is your rival. If you rescue him you will never have your Oona.”
Jack bowed his head. Could he do that to Willoughby? He hated him for the place he held in Oona’s heart, but could Jack just leave him to be eaten?
“Must I, Father?”
“What is your second condition?” Jack asked.
“After you have rescued Oona, take her as I took your mother.”
“Father!” Jack might be able to meet his father’s first condition, but he was sure he would never be able to meet the second. There was nothing that could make him take Oona against her will. Nothing could make him rape her.
“If you do not agree to my terms, Jack, I will not tell you the name of the hag, and your Oona will die.”
Jack began to cry.
“Jack, it is a simple thing to do.”
“Must I, Father?” Jack whimpered.
“To save her, yes. I thought you loved her.”
Jack cried into his hands for several minutes. Finally he wiped away his tears and looked up.
“Tell me the name, Father.”
“Do you promise to do as I ask?”
Jack bowed. “I do.”
There was a long pause. Jack looked up at his father.
“Are you lying to me, Jack?”
Jack swallowed hard. He felt very uncomfortable.
The voice spoke to name of the hag.
+ + + CANTO IX + + +
The hag had left her alone. She had brought Oona back to the cave with the podium and had chained her to the cold stone wall. And then the hag had left. At one time, Oona would have been pleased with the solitude. At one time, Oona would have wanted to be away from the hag as much as possible. But that time had passed. Oona now wanted the hag to come back. She wanted the hag to come back and do to her whatever it was she was going to do and get it over with. Oona wanted the hag to torture her. Oona wanted the hag to kill her. Oona wanted to die.
The hag had been right. That was the worst part. Oona had not known what sorrow was. The sadness she had felt when Willoughby was working with his books in the house and she was out in the meadow missing him was nothing compared to what she was feeling now. She had been such a child then. Now, after the things she had witnessed, she didn’t think she could ever be a child again.
What was it that Jack had said? What did she know about death? Jack was right, too. She and the rest of the meadow creatures had no idea about the darker parts of the world. Their lives were filled with the warmth of the sun and the love of the meadow. They knew nothing about death. They didn’t even know how much there was to learn.
Oona’s body hung limply from the chains, still nude and growing paler in the eerie light of the cave. She closed her eyes and saw on her black eyelids the forms of Willoughby and the hag fornicating. She opened them again and saw one of the red bloated insects crawling around at her feet. It was sick and alien-looking. She decided to watch it instead of closing her eyes again.
“Well, my little morsel. Are you ready for another lesson?”
Oona raised her head and her neck moved as if it was lifting a sack of river mud. She watched the hag, massive and stooped over, enter the chamber and take her place behind the podium. The hag flipped through the pages of her tome like she was looking for a favorite recipe.
“There is nothing more you can teach me.” Oona’s voice was that of a funeral bell.
The hag looked up, her hooked fingers holding places in her tome. “No,” the hag pondered. “I don’t suppose that there is. It seems I’ve gone a bit overboard in your education. Shame. There was so much fun we could have had.” The hag closed her massive book with a thump. She came out from behind the podium and approached Oona. “Well, then, my little morsel, there’s only one thing left to do.”
Oona’s head fell and she refused to look up. The misshapen form of the hag drew closer and closer, her gigantic shadow growing darker and darker on Oona’s pale flesh. Oona didn’t flinch when the hag placed her bony hand on Oona’s breast, nor did she pull away when the hag began to tickle her rough tongue against the curve of Oona’s neck.
“You taste good on the outside, my little morsel,” the hag mumbled into Oona’s ear. “I can’t imagine how your insides are going to taste when I draw them out. I can feel your little heart beating. I bet it will taste just like rotten fruit, like the apples that collect at the bottom of a tree at the end of autumn.”
Oona hung limply from her chains. She was conscious of all the hag was doing to her, but it was as if she had been separated from her body. The cut was not complete, however, for she could still feel the hag’s touch on her skin. It did not feel bad. It did not feel good. She could merely feel it.
The hag was nibbling on Oona’s ear, teething on the lobe like an infant, and occasionally dipping her pointed tongue in and touching the eardrum. She massaged Oona’s breasts with her bony hands, tugging at the small gray nipples in the coolness of the cave. The hag ran one hand down Oona’s belly and cupped her fingers around Oona’s crotch. Still, Oona did not respond.
“What is this, my little morsel?” the hag said as her finger probed. “A virgin are you? I said it’s been a long time since I had a man down here, but it’s been even longer since I had a virgin.”
And with that, the hag forced one of her crooked fingers up inside of Oona, tearing flesh and drawing blood. Oona at last felt something beyond the hag’s mere presence and she brought her head up sharply, wide-eyed, and would have screamed had it not been for the meek little voice that filtered down to them, through the rippling currents and layers of river mud.
“Dooessa,” the voice said. “Come forth.”
It was suddenly the hag who was screaming as she was forcibly torn from embracing Oona. She flew up through the roof of the cave with a whoosh.
Oona’s head slumped forward in the darkness.
+ + + CANTO X + + +
The hag thrust up out of the river, levitating above it, her bottom half a waterfall draining back into the currents.
“Ahhrg!” she screamed. “You! Release me, you little troublemaker! I’ll turn you inside out!”
Jack’s hands were clenched into little fists. “Dooessa. Release Oona.”
The hag shrieked and recoiled. The nude body of Oona appeared on the riverbank. There was blood on her thighs.
“There!” the hag shouted. “Now, release me! I have done your bidding!”
Jack went over to Oona and brought her face out of her folded arms. “Oona,” he said. “Oona, can you hear me?”
Oona’s blue eyes were glazed over. “Jack?” she mumbled.
Jack put her down gently. He looked at her nudity and her pale flesh was almost white. The blood on her thighs was like fire compared to it. He turned back to the hag.
“Dooessa. Leave the river and stand on dry ground.”
The shrieks were deafening. Slowly, the hag approached the riverbank. Jack backed up and gave her plenty of room. When the hag reached the bank, still screaming threats, a gnarled leg came out of the waterfall that was her nether half and she stepped onto the mud. A second leg soon followed, and when the hag was entirely free of the river that had been her home for centuries, she gave a horrendous final cry and melted into a green soup that soaked into the mud and disappeared.
Jack went over to Oona, still lying inert on the ground. “Oona,” he said. “I’m sorry. I…I couldn’t save Willoughby.” The words tasted sour.
Oona was trembling. She kept her head buried in her arms. Her voice came out to Jack, cold, aloof, and distant. “Willoughby is dead, Jack. The hag…the hag killed him.”
Jack looked around for something to cover Oona’s nudity. There was nothing. “Oona. Oona, get up.”
Oona lay still as if considering, and then slowly got to her feet. She made no attempt to cover herself in front of Jack. She stood there like a statue, arms at her sides and her eyes dark.
“The hag is dead,” Jack said. “I killed her.”
Oona looked absently at the river.
Jack eyed Oona up and down. He was thinking of what his father had demanded of him. There would be hell to pay, but Jack was sure that he could not go through with it. It was no longer a question of not wanting to hurt her, it was a nagging idea that he no longer loved her, that he had in fact never really loved her in the first place.
Oona looked back at him. “Jack?”
Before, when she could never have been his, he had certainly held a fascination for her, but Jack now wondered if that was really love and whether or not it was really directed at her. He looked at her now, nude, a sight that at one time would have driven him mad with passion, but he felt no stirrings in his heart or his loins.
“Jack?” Oona said, her voice coming back to her own.
And it would be easy. Jack could see that now. He could have done it at any time. Taking her like his father took his mother would have been easy, so easy that the ease almost lent a reason for the doing. But he would not do it. Jack knew he would not do it when he had lied to his father. He would not take her and he would have to leave because of it. He would have to leave her and the meadow.
“Jack!” Oona cried as she flung her arms over his shoulders and clutched him to her. “Oh, Jack! It was horrible! So horrible!”
Jack squirmed out of her arms. “Oona, no, please. You’re safe now, and I must go.”
“Go? Go where, Jack? Come back to the meadow with me.”
Jack turned his back on her and looked up into the night sky through the branches of the trees. “Oona,” he said. “Look at yourself. You’re a mess.”
Jack heard Oona gasp but he kept his eyes on a star he thought he could see through the trees. “Go back to the meadow, Oona. Clean yourself up and forget me and the day I brought you here. Go back to the meadow and learn how to live again.”
“Jack?” Oona said.
“I can’t!” Jack shouted with his back still turned. “Oona, I can’t go back with you. Don’t you understand? It’s the price I had to pay to save you. I must leave.”
“Jack?” Oona said with patience in her voice.
“I’ll miss you.”
Jack kept his eyes on the night sky. He heard Oona turn and slowly move away from him. He heard her move across the bare ground and under the trees, and when she got to the edge of the meadow, he heard her slip into the thick grasses and disappear.
Jack wiped his nose. “I’ll miss you, too.”
+ + + CANTO XI + + +
The night wind swept through the trees and down the river and seemed to swirl around Jack like an old friend.
Jack turned around. “Hello, Father.”
“Your Oona bares a striking resemblance to your mother. She was a virgin too when I took her.”
“Yes, my son?”
“I didn’t. I mean. I didn’t take Oona.”
“I know, Jack.”
“Yes, Jack. I know.”
Jack bowed his head. “What is to become of me, Father?”
There was one of his father’s long pauses.
“You have lied to me. What do you think you deserve? What would be fair?”
“Fair?” Jack’s voice was not angry. “Father, nothing that has happened has been fair.”
Jack’s father chuckled. “Did you expect something more, my son?”
It was Jack’s turn to pause. “I guess I just assumed that it would be.”
“You do have too much of your mother in you.”
“I am sorry, Father. Does that count for anything?”
“It can, but I wouldn’t grow dependent on it.”
“What is to become of me?”
The voice was silent for quite some time.
“What you told Oona is correct. You can never return to the meadow.”
“Where will I go?”
“With me for now. Perhaps we can find a place for you to fit in.”
“This is your last question, Jack.”
“Did you really love my mother?”
“I thought I did.”
Jack looked down at his hands.
“Come along now, Jack. We must be going now. I’ve many things to show you.”
Jack took his father’s hand and together they went off down the river.
+ + + CANTO XII + + +
Life, as it always does, went on in the meadow. The grasses still grew, the flowers still bloomed, the insects still chirped, the birds still sang. The good creatures of the meadow, the faerie folk, still lived amongst the splendor with glee at the warmth of the sun and the gentleness of the breeze. They played in the daytime, free and unhindered by gloom and despair, and at night, tucked amongst the protective blades, they slept and dreamed of things they would do the next day. The faerie folk lived and loved in the meadow, and the meadow lived for and loved them.
All but one. There was one faerie creature, a slender female with gray hair and blue eyes, who would not play in the light of the sun. Though she had pretty wings, she would never fly and would walk anywhere she went. The others would treat her as an outcast, and as she wandered about the meadow, they would flit away and look for another place to play.
She did not mind. She did not miss their company. She felt she was no longer one of them and would wear a heavy black dress on even the warmest day; a dress that fell from her neckline to her feet, covering her wings and the rest of her body.
And it was this delicate little faerie girl who would be found wandering the meadow all day, picking pretty meadow flowers from their living stems, and when nightfall would come and the sky would darken, she would be standing on the cool bank of the river, dropping the flowers one by one into the swirling currents.
+ + + THE END + + +