Pure at Heart
written by: Patricia Furstenberg
When she comes, always at night and when the sleep’s the sweetest, she is invisible. None will even dream that they hear her approach, not by the sound of her footsteps. She is the slumbered moan of one’s breath in the night. She is the scuttering of mice over tread bare floors in the dark. She could be anything. When she comes.
Some imagine her human. An old hag so wrinkled that her eyes are but shards of glint, her nose and her chin the only friends she’d ever known. Some picture her a monster. A woman’s head. A thicket’s gnarled fingers. A wolf’s thirst for warm meat. Hooves. Some say she’s a maiden with a snake’s heart. What she is, is what everyone envisaged her to be.
‘She is not! She hasn’t arrived here by force,’ a different kind of woman tried to explain to us, the villagers. This different kind of woman, a witch, how the pastor called her once and branded her (people can never escape their labels in a congregation as small as ours, where the pastor speaks for all, it’s either his voice or the road’s end, with the lone tree), this different kind of woman, the witchy kind that can (although she shouldn’t) communicate with the unseen ones. Who also can (although the pastor says she shouldn’t) mend wounds and make dust maroon, burst into flames the way chestnuts burst in the fire; this woman told what she’d learned. The pastor laughed at her fabrications, but I listened and on the nights when I was too scared to sleep, afraid that the night one will come, I whispered to myself all that the witch had said.
‘She hasn’t arrived here by force. She never chose to be marooned, shipwrecked in our woods. But she left her world branded as a wild one, forsaken on an island where she could not escape from, nor survive on.’
An island? I pause and glimpse towards the thicket that begins just outside our door. A thin paneling fastened with a rusty metal bar, that protects us against wolves in the dead of winter and now against her, at night. An island? I remember the trick-or-treating disguise, when a handful of us, all scrawny and ragged, patched up with twigs, were willing monsters for one night. An island then, I understand, disguised as a thicket.
‘She doesn’t arrive here by force; her misfortune is that she cannot remember when, nor why, she made this particular choice. How it was that she entered into that predicament for the first time; that turned her into a castaway, shipwrecked in a remote place, and dying with that stigma on her soul. Unable to undo it. Oh, but it can be undone. And the rules are simple. None can see her. She may roam the woods freely but, yet when she comes into the village, she may cast no shadow. Until a pure heart casts her eyes upon her.’
Oh, the witchy one saw her. The deer have seen her too, eating from her hand in winters when even the sky froze over.
Mother believes I have a pure heart.
Could I do it, ten? Find her. Cast a light on her. Give her a shadow. Free her.
I shiver under the rugs at the thought of setting foot in the thicket at night, alone, at the thought of losing my path, of never returning home to mother. The shape of her body curled next to mine gives me comfort. I inhale her sweet scent of soap and flour. Even in her sleep, she carries the warm, heavenly aroma of the loaves she bakes daily. I glance at her rising babes, as she called them, almost ready for the early morning baking, by the first call of the rooster. Soon she’ll be up. Another day will start. If I wanted to do it, it’ll have to be now.
I slid from under the covers and feel for my coat and shawl. Pick up my boots and the fat lamp, avoiding the creaking floorboards I am familiar with. Nearly bump the through, standing by the door, not lying down, so the loaves of bread will grow. Tiptoe outside, feeling like a thief.
Why is my good deed feeling wrong?
I am into the woods before I know it, my feet following the path, my heart heavy with remorse, my ears alert, and forward facing like a horse’s. The mulching leaves of early autumn soften my steps, the earth smells wet and rotting. I pulled it in crisp, clean air to steady myself. The moon is about to go, relinquishing her hold onto the forest. Good.
Where will I find her? Where does she live? I have no idea.
What was that, rustling to the side? A rabbit? A fox? A wolf? I freeze on the spot and hold my breath, my ears humming with the agitation that fuels my body, fear growing inside me. I rub a hand over my upper lip where droplets of sweat have formed. I spin and open my eyes as large as I can. Something’s moved behind me. Footstep? Hooves? A monster? It stopped now, went off as quickly as it started.
I am further on the path, clutching the lamp to my chest. Doubting my venture. It was foolish of me to have gone into the forest at night. Without the slightest idea of where to look for. What to look for. In the dark, everything is possible. Any shape can lurk behind any tree. Good or bad. Beast or monster. Branches brush my shoulders, hook my shawl. I suck in breath. Something could grab me right now.
I should turn, the heavy blob in my stomach urges me. But as I twist my shoulders, I hear it. The song, reaching me filtered by barren, twisted branches. My body follows it before my mind does, like a silent hunter advancing against nature’s breath. Drawn to it. Faster and faster as its sweetness grows not in intensity, but in charm, and pain, and love, and longing. I am panting now, my feet lifting to jump over fallen branches, scattered bushes, the remains of a summer’s vegetation littering this lonesome part of the thicket. While I followed the song, my compass star in the night sky.
I haven’t realized how hard I’d labored until the forest opened into a clearing. I double over, keeled. My heavy breath envelopes me in the chilled night and for a moment I wonder if that’s how the soul must look like when escaping a body. From behind a cloud, the last of the moon shines bright revealing a rocky formation occupying the center. Like a stage. From there, from its hidden bowels, the voice echoes, enveloping me in a melancholy so sweet, that I feel like nothing else matters, but to remain here, grow roots and listen to it, for as long as it took. For as long as I can.
I sit, not minding the frozen earth, and listen, captured by the voice sweeter than any other sound I ever heard. The notes carry, swirl, not allowing for any breaks, or ending.
Only the thought of mother worried sick over my disappearance makes me cover my ears to that enchanting, witching tune and aim for home. I don’t remember reaching our front door and crawling back under the covers, my soul torn between the bewitching melody and my daughterly love. When I wake up in the morning, I imagine it all to be a dream and I carry in my heart its delightful joy, like a wicked secret. Only the mud on my shoes is proof of my night ventures and her existence, in our woods.
I never take the oil lamp with me during my night surreptitious trips, so I can hear her sing once more. Once more. And I knew, now, that she never comes to us, but we go after her, bewitched by her enchanting tune, like cursed, shipwrecked sailors.
I knew, now, that my heart is not pure after all.
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