Once upon a time,when the world was younger than it is today, there was a girl
who yearned for wisdom.
Her name was Katia, and she lived in a village in the forest. There was one road through the village, and everyone knew that if you went west you would reach the village of Even, where they held a fair once a year. If you went beyond Even, you would find another village, and another, spaced out like beads on a thread, each with their village green, their inn, and their annual fair. As far as anyone knew, this went on to the end of the world.
If you went east, you would eventually reach Mornington, the largest town for miles. There was a market there once a month, and most of the villagers had been there. If you journeyed on beyond Mornington, eventually the forest ran out, and there was a great grassland, and if you continued over that you would reach a mighty river. If you followed the mighty river, you would reach the Capital, where the Emperor and Empress lived in a great palace. Nobody from the village had been there for many years. Anyone who had gone had never come back.
If you went north or south, there was nothing but forest, stretching on and on. Everyone knew that.
Katia was pretty enough and clever enough. She was a good enough cook, and a good enough housekeeper, and two or three boys looked warmly at her, so that she knew that if she chose she could marry a husband who was handsome enough and healthy enough, and have a home that was comfortable enough and a herd of goats that was big enough. Katia, however, wanted more than this. She wanted to know all the songs and stories in the world. She wanted to know why people are sad, and how the hare changes her coat in the winter. She wanted to know the language of the birds.
In the forest villages, winters are long and dark, and the villagers huddle round their wood fires to keep warm, singing songs and telling stories. There are many stories in the forest, but there was one particular story that burrowed its way into Katia’s heart. This was the story she thought about when she lay in her bed at night, or stirred the soup, or kneaded dough. It went something like this:
If you walk north through the forest, you may find the Garden of Death. Only a few people manage to find it, and of them, only a few are brave enough to enter. It’s a strange place. The gate to it is carved to look as if it is made of bones, and inside the garden peculiar plants grow, with flowers that look like skulls. If you choose one of these skull flowers and carry it away, it will teach you the secrets of the world.
Katia thought about this, and wondered if she could find the garden. It kept her awake at night, made her burn the soup. or stand still at the kitchen table with the dough forgotten under her hands.
Finally, she decided to try. She got up very early one morning, before it was really light, took some bread and cheese and a handful of dried apple and set out. It was hard going at first, in the dim light, and she tripped and stumbled often, but soon the sky brightened. She stopped to eat at noon in a small clearing, and then went on, keeping north all the time.
When dusk came she settled herself down at the bottom of a large oak tree, reasoning that she couldn’t tell which way was north in the dark. As she nibbled a piece of bread she noticed a strange, greenish light coming through the trees. She stood up, curiously, and made her way towards it. It wasn’t long before she came to a pathway made of stone slabs which seemed to be leading in the right direction.. She followed it, and came all of a sudden to a gate that was carved to look as if it was made out of bones. The story was true, then.
For a moment she paused, and then pushed the gate open, and walked into the Garden. All around her were skulls, and the eerie light was coming from them – streaming from the empty eye sockets. Then the whispering started. The first skull she passed whispered:
“I grew from the heart of a chef. Choose me and I will teach you to make pastry so light that one breath will send it floating to the tea table of the Empress. I will teach you to make cakes so soft that they will make the Empress weep. She will load you with diamonds and pearls and praise you above all others”.
And Katia paused for a moment and thought how wonderful that would be. But she moved on, and the second skull she passed murmured:
“I grew from the heart of a great soldier. Pick me and I will teach you swordplay, and the placing of troops. I will make you a mighty general, and the Emperor himself will load you with gold, and praise you above all others”.
Katia listened, and thought how wonderful that would be, but she moved on. The third skull she passed whispered:
“I grew from the heart of a poet. I will teach you all the songs and stories of the world. I will teach you why there is sadness, and why there is joy, and how the seasons change, and the language of the birds”
And Katia stopped then, and put her hand to the stalk of the skull, and picked it, saying:
“You are the one for me!”
When she got home the following evening, her parents were worried, and angry, and finally overjoyed to see her, and everyone in the village gathered round and wondered at the skull. Over the days that followed, the skull talked to Katia, and Katia alone, and taught her all the songs and stories of the world, and the language of the birds. Katia learned why there is sadness, and why there is joy, and how the seasons change. She started to look around her, and realised that people were sad because they were trapped in stories they felt they couldn’t change.
One woman in the village thought she was Cinderella, but no handsome prince was coming to rescue her. Katia talked to her gently, and a few days later the woman headed off to Mornington and apprenticed herself to a milliner.
One man thought he was a woodcutter, defending his daughter from wolves. Katia talked to him softly, and a year later he was dancing at his daughter’s wedding.
The days passed, and the years passed – as they do – and Katia could no longer be called a girl. The young men who had looked at her warmly had found they felt a little cooler towards a woman who spent her nights talked to a skull, no matter how magical it was. They married other young women, and had children of their own now, but Katia did not regret the choice she had made.
People from outside the village heard about her, and travelled to see her. Eventually, even the Empress came, and Katia listened to her, and talked to her gently – but what story she was trapped in, Katia never told.
Katia grew older, as is the way of things, and by now the young men who had looked on her warmly were old and stooped, and their children were grown, and their grandchildren growing. The villagers were proud of Katia, but perhaps they praised her more than talked to her, and feared her more than loved her, but still she never regrettted the choice she had made.
Eventually, when Katia was grown old, and her strength was gone, and her golden hair had turned silver, the skull whispered to her and said:
“The time has come. Take me back to the garden”.
And Katia looked into the skulls empty sockets and answered:
“Yes. It will be our last journey together”.
Next morning they set out, before it was light. This time the skull lit the way, and Katia did not stumble or trip. She found, to her surprise, that the further she walked the stronger she felt. By noon she was striding like a woman in her prime, and by dusk she was skipping like a young girl. If she could have seen herself she would have seen that her skin was smooth, and her hair a golden cloud about her head, as if all those years had been but a dream. And as dusk fell, she saw the eerie light again, and she carried the skull along the stone path, to the gate carved to look like bones, and the Garden of Death.
Katia opened the gate, and carried in the skull.
“Set me down here, by these purple flowers” said the skull, and Katia dropped a single kiss on his shining dome and set him down.
“Now” said the skull “You have a choice, Katia. You can go back to the village, and be with your own people, or you can stay here with me”.
And Katia smiled as she looked at the skull who had been her constant companion for all these years and answered:
“I am the wisest woman in the world. I know all the songs and stories of the world, and I can look into people’s hearts. I think I know my own story, and I think I know where it ends”.
And she curled herself into a ball on the ground by the purple flowers, and let herself sleep.
This is for Jane Dougherty’s Sunday Strange. It’s not at all micro. Sorry.