A high tower rose in the craggy wilderness, a vision in the night, a shadowy glove pointing at the sky with a bony, accusing finger. Like that, or a guy with really bad arthritis.
Closer, one could see figures. Two figures. One figure with a figure, and one that was shaped more like a splinter. It crawled up the tower wall. If splinters could crawl. And the other figure stood in the tower and made noises.
“Ooch! Ow! Ease up, won’t you?” Rae puffed at a cobweb beside her nose. She patted the top of her long, long, braid which hung down the length of her figure and then twisted around an iron hook, ran through a window and down the tower wall.
An old woman slithered over the window ledge, the black ribbons of her skirt fluttering. She crouched, glaring at Rae.
Another day, another Hate Look, thought Rae. She had to admit the Hate Look was coming along just fine. Maybe needed tweaking around the evil-slanted eyebrows.
“You complain,” whispered the old woman.
“Not complaining, Aunt Hellgot,” said Rae. “It’s just–”
The old woman held up a dagger, her fingers curled around it like sickles. In the other hand she held a jar.
“I don’t think it’s homeopathic,” said Rae. She looked at the old woman, who simply returned her gaze with an empty, cold stare.
Rae sighed. She sat down on the stones and offered her arm for the Treatment. Most days it was just a few ounces anyway.
When Hellgot had finished with the dagger and the jar, Rae groped to her feet. “But I do think it ruins the concept of Tower Living. High-rise in prime location. Spectacular views. Please allow for daily bloodletting.”
The woman ignored her, clutching the clay jar filled with blood. She began her spidery crawl downward. Rae leaned back against the wall, absently humming while folding her threadbare blanket three times, once more into a triangle, and ending with a ritual pat. She lay down for her nap.
Sometime later, she thought she heard hoofbeats.
Rae rubbed an ear sore from the stones. Peered into the mist. Couldn’t see a thing. It must’ve been Aunt Hellgot calling.
Aunt’s voice seemed off. Sinus trouble? Inch by inch, Rae lowered her hair, but when the tug came, it was gentle.
“Aak!” Rae stood stock still as someone came climbing through the window. “You are Hairy of Face,” she blurted.
The man frowned, getting his foothold on the stones of the Tower floor. Slowly. He was very slow.
“No offense,” she added.
The man was shaking. “Are you an ench-enchanter?” he asked. His adam’s apple bobbed like it was in a party game.
“Me? I’m a Tower Sitter. As the decree says, ‘One human girl, preserved in a tower, to protect the land from dragon-raid, fire, flood, volcanic eruption, and miscellaneous acts of God.'” She reached over, gave his chestnut beard a tug. It really was stuck there.
“You have never left this tower?” He took a step forward.
“Don’t step on the cracks!” yelled Rae.
“Bad things will happen. No, haven’t left since I was five.” She sighed. “I can’t tell you how long ago that was. Aunt Hellgot’s not big on sharing.”
The man wrinkled his forehead, opened his mouth.
“What is it?” said Rae. “Why the sad face?”
“I can’t believe anyone would lock up a girl – with cheeks of powdered peach – in a cold tower prison like this!”
“It’s not so bad,” Rae said, rising to her toes. “Naps? Anytime. Contemplative silence? I’ve got loads. Views to die for. And hardly any housework.”
The man turned to measure his steps around the dark room. The stone walls loomed starkly. Here and there lay a discarded torch or a worm-eaten blanket. “I will admit,” put in Rae, “it lacks that personal touch.”
He was inspecting a chink with his fingers. “It’s impossible to scale.”
Rae began coiling and heaving her hair into a high crown which fell past her heels.
“Like a thousand-strand cord,” he said, turning to her. “Our land is known for fine silks, but your hair–”
“Some days can’t do a thing with it. Except rope tricks.”
“Beach Sunset Gold. Or Buttery Caramel.” He tapped his chin. “Dewed Daffodil?”
She beamed. “You talk nice!”
“I came through these woods and heard your songs. Then that woman called, and your hair descended; I’m Friedrick.” He gave a slight bow. “Assistant Secretary Tailor to the Prince of Thesa.”
“Secretary?” She was at a loss.
“A Secretary handles . . . a Prince is . . . oh nevermind.” He shut his mouth.
“What do you do?”
“Silks. I name them. Periwinkle Blue. Petal Pink. Snowdrop White, that sort of thing.”
“Where is Thesa?”
“Across the sea,” said Friedrick. “For which I sail in three days.”
Friedrick grasped her hands. “I am not leaving without you, fair Tresses.” He glanced around the tower, chewing his lip.
What can it mean–to leave? Rae laughed at the ridiculousness of it. “But you haven’t lived until you’ve tasted Wilted Sorrel Gruel. That’s what I get Mondays. I think they’re Mondays. Then there’s Mystery Crepe of the Week.”
Friedrick cleared his throat with significance. “There is nothing here for you but loneliness and death.”
“Please,” said Rae. “When it’s dark, I can show you the constellations. I’m quite literate in stars – especially the comics section.”
He did some calculations on his fingers. “I will bring skeins tomorrow.”
“You’ll be back?” Rae said, brightening.
Next evening, Rae wrapped hair around her knee. She looked up to find Friedrick watching her. “Perhaps you could explain,” he said, “how you were taken by Aunt Hellgot.”
She examined a split end. Number sixteen thousand, two hundred and four, to be exact. “My parents left me with her when I was quite young.”
“What an awful fate!”
Rae blinked at him. One could only ignore his strange remarks. “A Tower Sitter is the highest calling a girl can have, both literally and figuratively.”
Friedrick wrinkled his forehead. “But . . .”
“Aunt wants only the best for me.”
“H-how can you say that?”
“She said so.” Rae stood up slowly. “She. Can’t. Lie. She touched a blue footed booby feather I kissed three times while thinking of my mother on a Sunday.”
“Not to mention,” Rae went on, “the tower is covered in vines, warding off evil.”
Friedrick stared at her. Finally he said, “I brought your silk. In Summer Fawn. Twist it like this–” She copied his movements. As the hour passed, they made elaborate braids and twists, knots any sailor would be proud of. After a time, Friedrick glanced up at the sky. “Stardust Navy,” he said. “I must go.”
When he returned the third evening, Friedrick was downright jittery. He glanced over his shoulder. The moon glistened white hot. “Before we begin the rescue, I must ask: are you well?”
“Goodly. Grand.” Might as well show off a bicep, which she did.
“Bird’s Egg Blue! I can see the veins in your hands.” He clapped a hand over his mouth. “She’s going to put you into a Mystery Crepe! We must not delay!” Into her hands he thrust a gold skein of silk.
“I’m not–” Rae let the fabric fall with a swish, “going.”
Rae peered at the sky. “Last spring, bees nested under my window. Flossie, the fat one–or was it Ferma?–once stung Aunt Hellgot! Would have been hilarious, had I not felt so sorry for her. The bee, I mean.”
Friedrick paced the floor, silk trousers rustling. “The woman leeches your very life.”
“I don’t need rescuing by some Assistant Secretary Tailor,” Rae snapped.
“Fine! Go ahead and rot up here! Turn a nice shade of Luminous Lime!”
Rae sniffed, turned away. It took all her will to keep quiet until her braid went slack.
Late that night came the shrill cry. Aunt Hellgot was soon crouching on the window ledge. “Did I hear a man?”
Rae swallowed and looked away. Cold terror spread in the pit of her stomach. It had never occured to her what the woman might do to Friedrick.
“And were you–shouting?”
“Always shout. Love outbursts. Crazy!” She dared a look at the woman’s face, and noticed her sprig of mole hair. It was getting to be knee-length. “About my parents,” she began. Maybe you could elaborate sometime. Like now. Just tell me–”
“Stop your chatter!”
“Who’s shouting now?”
The woman’s eyes blazed but her voice became cloying. “All right,” she answered. “A woman lived in the cottage next door. She had a difficult pregnancy. Craved garden greens. From my garden. Mine!”
The cold in Rae’s stomach sank deeper.
“I caught the husband stealing my greens,” said Aunt Hellgot. “Being a generous soul, I gave them freely. On one condition.”
Rae’s chest tightened. “Condition?”
“That their child be brought to me one day.”
Rae’s throat was dry. “You told it wrong.” She forced a giddy smile, said loudly. “Oh, quit trying to be funny, Aunt Hellgot!”
“And so,” Aunt Hellgot continued, while Rae covered her ears with her blanket, “the foolish, selfish, ignorant couple sacrificed their only child.”
Rae peeked out. “They gave her into the honorable service of Tower Sitting!” she corrected, in a voice all too feeble.
“Pretend what you will.” The old woman said. She laughed a slithering laugh. She unbound the girl’s braid and flung it over the ledge.
Rae sprawled on the stones long into the night, not bothering to haul back her hair as it tangled and whipped in the wind.
Finally she rose and crossed the floor, ignoring the cracks. She knelt at the crumbling pile of stones where she’d hidden Friedrick’s silk.
He was gone. But he had left something useful. Since she no longer had a high, important calling – or anything else to live for.
The silk noose was in her hand. The man stood below her, arms outstretched. Her hands flew to her mouth and she dropped the silk, lost her balance, and tumbled over the ledge.
There was a scream, a muffled shout, an enormous pile of hair and a soft thud.
“How good to see you, fair maiden,” breathed Friedrick from under the hair, but it sounded like, “Thow goo feeyoo fer mgn.”
“So sorry, Friedrick.” She dug through the hair, found his foot and kissed it. “You were right about Aunt.”
A whinny echoed through the silence with an eery chill.
“Something has frightened my steed,” whispered Friedrick through an airhole.
Rae froze in the act of hair-coiling. Moonlight was shining into a pair of eyes pale as fish scales. They glittered as if to leap from their sockets and cling to her like leeches.
Aunt Hellgot stood over Rae and Friedrick, clenching her teeth, raising her dagger. “Deceitful wretch!”
On the ground, the pile of hair thrashed and wriggled.
“You wicked spawn of a blubbering fool!” Aunt Hellgot shrieked.
Friedrick broke free. “E-evil enchanter!”
“Ha! Expect me to fear you, puny boy?” Aunt Hellgot sprang on Rae, knife to her throat. “I’ll kill you both quick.” She threw back her head and laughed, cobwebby skirts swishing above blue-veined calves.
Rae squeezed her eyes shut, feeling the prick of metal.
Friedrick burst out, “Blacker than Death! Your hair is like Charred Bones!”
“What?” The woman tilted her head at him.
Rae could hear him take a deep, steadying breath. “Your face is Burnt Ash. Your skirts are Bat-Wing Black!”
Rae opened her eyes. With each word, Friedrick seemed to grow taller as he stepped toward Aunt Hellgot.
“Stop it!” she said. “Shut up!” She squinted as if the moonlight was hurting her eyes.
“Your teeth are Pond-Scum Green,” he said evenly. He advanced, shoulders square. “The mole on your chin is Swamp Sienna.”
Aunt Hellgot was twitching violently. Friedrick snatched her dagger and forced her to her knees.
Rae pushed herself to a stand.
“I’ll need something to tie her up with,” said Friedrick, looking around.
“I’ve got this 20-foot rope,” she said. “In Dewed Daffodil.”
“Wait. Forgot my blanket,” Rae said after they had run several yards.
“You’re not–” he began.
“I’ve got to have my blanket,” she said, and so they made for the tower to retrieve it. This put them behind schedule. Once they’d climbed back down the tower, Friedrick sawed off Rae’s hair at waist length. Finally they reached the shore, stumbling and out of breath. Friedrick’s ship was bouncing before them, a mile or so out at sea.
They had to swim for it. When they reached Thesa, they were bedraggled and Rae had never felt so queasy in all her life – even the time Aunt had served Slog of Potato Eyes for supper.
“Come, my Tresses,” said Friedrick, stretching out a hand. “Let me show you your new home.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” she said, and promptly hauled herself up to the crow’s nest. Her rags fluttered in the wind. One, two, three seabirds fluttered overhead, settling in her hair. Friedrick stood below, rubbing the back of his neck. “Never rescue a woman whose hair is longer than her memory,” he muttered.
“For you,” he said, a few days later, hauling a gilded frame onto the deck. “It’s a portrait of Prince Nevahrude. Doesn’t he look like a nice person? Observe his wavy hair, in Burnt Maple Sugar. Don’t you want to see his kingdom?”
Actually, no. He didn’t interest her one bit.
Next Friedrick brought Rae gifts of flowers, candies, exotic pets in cages, silks in Festive Fuschia, and his mother’s chicken soup.
“Not bad,” said Rae. “But I miss Slippery Elm Noodles.”
Then one evening Friedrick rushed on board, flushed and smiling. “An idea,” he said, “has beamed brightly upon me.”
“Promise I’ll like it?” said Rae. She packed her blanket, her gull-feathers and her hair-ribbon into a roll which she handed to Friedrick. “You promise, now. And if I don’t like it I can go back to the boat and live with the birds.” She followed Friedrick from the gangway to dry land.
“I promise,” Friedrick said, nodding.
“And there’s no pressure for a commitment.”
“No pressure,” repeated Friedrick.
As it turned out, the lighthouse was a nice place to live. Rae spent her days in the window, where she could see and be seen. It was quite gratifying, as her hair grew, to set new trends in hair fashion.
As for Friedrick, Rae saw him every Friday evening. Together they would share a Mystery Crepe, and afterward, read the night stars.
One day strolling the marketplace, Prince Nevahrude noticed the appearance of a tonic, imported from faraway lands. “Hellgots” had the power to grow hair, left a lingering, metallic odor and was rumored to attract vampires. Only $3.99 a bottle.
Christi Krug’s work has recently appeared in qarrtsiluni, Umbrella, VoiceCatcher, the Absent Willow Review, Halfway Down the Stairs, Colored Chalk and in her last bowl of alphabet soup. She thinks about the creative life and sometimes writes about it at christikrug.blogspot.com.