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art by Junior McLean

Pippa's Smiles

Marcus hadn't thought marriage would be like this after three months. He had expected to love Pippa, but he hadn't thought she would love him so much, that she would follow him from counter to till in his tiny shop where he sold souvenirs and curiosities: stuffed mermaids, filagree jars, and great shark jaws set with more teeth than a carved comb.
Was it that he was all the treasure that Pippa had? Would her need diminish with time, as she felt more secure?
His mother had wanted him to marry Gerta the innkeeper's daughter, who could run a household with easy efficiency, could scald a hog or bleach linen, and who had wide hips that could bear a score of infants. His father had wanted him to marry Lisa the banker's daughter, who came with a hefty dowry and land of her own, and who had wide hips that could bear two score infants. Maybe more.
But he had seen narrow-hipped Pippa the day she'd arrived in the seaport town of Spume, in the pinnace that had rescued all that remained of a capsized galleon: Pippa in her drenched skirts and two sailors, one with a scar across his eye and the other a rangy man with only one hand who claimed that a kraken had eaten the other.
The sailors had moved on quickly, taken other ships, but Pippa had stayed behind when Marcus had asked her to become his bride, enchanted by her small, brown-skinned form, her dandelion fluff of hair, her mismatched eyes, one sea foam green, the other as blue as summer sky, the tiny smile that she only let escape in moments of true delight, and which she kept clutched inside at all other times.
She loved him too. At night, she touched him, laying her hand along his back, to make sure he wasn't dead. They were both light sleepers. Wakened by some outside sound--the last of the late night drunkards stumbling home from the tavern in the next street, the cobblestone clatter of a cart, or the apothecary's dog barking at some imagined monster--they would both lie there for a moment. And then Pippa would turn over and lay her hand on his back or side, feeling for his warmth, and then, reassured, would go back to sleep.
It was because she feared losing him, he knew. It wasn't easy but he hadn't expected marriage to be easy. He knew he was a man set in his own ways. His own mother said, "Marcus was a grown man before he was ever a boy." He had followed a different path than his farmer father, had been lured to become a shopkeeper, though not just any shopkeeper. He did not sell merchants' doings, but the odd things sailors brought from other shores, which had fascinated him since he was a boy, and had first seen a gleam of porcelain luck-beads in a traveler's palm, offered for a bag of apples.
To Pippa, he was a greater treasure than anything in the shop. She'd sit watching him as he dusted, telling her each item's name and making her repeat it to him in her soft, slurry accent. He taught her names of spices that were rarely used in local cooking and the adjective for each historical dynasty's antiques, and left her to pick up the simpler things on her own, like "salt" and "water" and "bread."
She rarely left his side in the shop, but would sit there, weaving lace and watching him with those bright eyes. Sometimes she was so pretty he could not help but come and kiss her, and then she would give him a little smile, brighter than any coin. It worried him that she only gave him those smiles. In front of his parents, he'd coax and joke, hoping to elicit one, hoping that she'd show them why he loved her so, but she hoarded them and would only spend them when they were alone together.
Alone together, and never alone, truly alone, by himself. She was always there. He felt suffocated. He grew impatient. He tried to hide, to catch a breath to himself. But she followed him, bright-eyed and curious, even in the most private moments. He wondered what she saw when she looked at him, what her eyes saw, to make her love him so.
It was too much. It was all together too much.
And so he waited until he saw her drinking the willowbark tea that she took to relieve the ache of her courses. That way he knew she was not with child, for he didn't want to leave her that way. He made love to her that night despite her protest, for he did want to remember her that way, with a wondering smile on her face. And he did not look back in the morning, because he didn't want to remember her that way, bewildered and crying, clutching the key to the shop in her hand.
He took a backpack of clothes and a stout walking stick and a purseful of coins he'd meant to use to buy pearls when Jacobo, a favorite sailor, passed through again. And he went out into the world to escape the love that weighed on him so unexpectedly. His mother had not loved his father so, although they were the best of friends. He had thought that was how his own marriage would be patterned, that it would not come to resemble a yoke around his neck.
He had walked for a month and a day, and seen more wonders than he could count, when he came to a pool beside the road where a waterfall spilled out on great green boulders, which churned the surface into milky foam. He saw naiads splashing in the water, and they waved to him with long, languid arms, their blue hair spilling out around them like weeds, and sang to him, a sweet and unknown song whose meaning he could only guess at.
He had meant to remain true to his wife, for he would not have it said he had been fickle and left her for another woman. But the song called him, and he laid his pack and staff down beside the pool (and hid his purse underneath a stone, for he was a prudent man), and dove in.
But there the women seemed not to notice his presence. He swam down, down in the water and there on the pool's floor he saw skeletons, skulls gaping up at him and grinning at the joke that he might join them. He felt hair drifting around his ankles, his wrists, soft and fine but strong as rope. He panicked and swam upwards despite their pull, and when he broke the surface he clambered gasping onto the bank, blue strands still clinging to his ankles.
The naiads shrugged and combed each other's hair as he walked away. Far below their song, the skulls continued grinning.
The road wore him down. It cracked his heels and sifted dust into the seams of his clothing, so he could not wash it out, no matter how he tried. He began to think longing thoughts of his shop, of Pippa leaving his side long enough to make him tea and bring it to him, hot and sweet as he preferred it. He thought of the lace she wove and how many yards she must have finished in his absence.
He wondered if Jacobo had brought the pearls he promised and if Pippa had reluctantly turned him away, or whether she had managed to scrape together enough coin to buy them. They would have proved a good investment, because merchants' wives loved pearls, and claimed them tokens of true love.
He wondered why he never thought of Lisa or Marta when remembering that vanished life. Only Pippa. And even now, the thoughts made him feel that he was being smothered --or drowned--overwhelmed with the love that she no doubt still held, hoping he would come back.
He thought he would, when he was done walking. But he'd teach her to be independent, to spend time without him. He'd make her go to his mother and learn to sew, learn to sit in the circle of women and natter as happily as they did, stitching away on their husbands' clothes.
Fog overtook the road one day and he walked in silence, thinking that he heard sounds, footsteps somewhere in the white darkness, accompanying him. He saw faces in the mist, mostly Pippa's face: frowning, yearning, wanting. Never smiling. He thought he heard a scrap of song that took him off the road, and he blundered through the forest, wondering if the wood-wives would come to him, try to make him stay there with them. That was how they reproduced, catching travelers and keeping them, he knew.
He kept watching for a trunk to split, a green-skinned woman to emerge to claim him. He was young and strong, and few men walked in the woods here. They must have summoned the fog to snare him, were waiting for him in the cloudy air, waiting for him to discover their hiding place. Surely word had gone out the minute he stepped into their forest: a man, walking, the prize they spent their lives waiting for, arrived at last.
But no trees spoke to him, no arms reached for him, and when he stumbled into daylight, he found himself on the edge of the forest, and back on the road again.
He had walked for another month and a day when he saw the castle far ahead. It sat on a mountaintop, and the road spiraled up to meet its gates. When he knocked there, a guard opened the gate, dressed in gilt and lilac armor, asking what he wanted.
"Whose castle is this?" Marcus asked.
"The Sorceress Alyx," the guard said.
It all made sense now. She had magically summoned him, that was why he had left his wife and come to her. She had glimpsed him, in a scrying mirror or crystal ball, and decided that he would be hers. He would rule in the castle by her side, and see to setting things right. Women had little idea how to govern, and she had probably realized she needed help.
But when Marcus said he had come to see the Sorceress, the guard only laughed, although not in an unkindly way, and said that Marcus might sleep that night in the kitchens, warm and fed, but that the Sorceress held no audiences.
The soup was good and thick, and there were bits of chicken with it, and slices of well-crusted bread, and even a tankard of cider to wash it all down. Full-bellied, Marcus lay down upon the cot he'd been given, but could not sleep.
At least, he dreamed he could not sleep. He would stir, and wait for Pippa's touch on his back, and the little reassured sound she made when she felt him breathe. At length he went wandering through the castle, slipping through the hallways unnoticed, for the guards were outside, protecting the castle from those who would enter unlawfully.
He passed tapestries woven of bone and iron, and wonderful things that he would have liked to sell in his shop: hourglasses that told when sunset would occur, and great narwhal horns, and a clockwork woman who told fortunes when you put a coin in her nose. He gave her a coin, and the little pasteboard ticket he received in return said, "She would have waited forever."
He smiled at this assurance and wondered what Pippa was doing, right then. Surely she was sleeping, dreaming of him dreaming of her. Or did the card speak of the Sorceress, and her devotion to him, so strong that she would have waited forever, had he not responded to her call?
He went up a winding staircase and found himself in the sorceress's chamber. She sat there on a high-backed chair, looking out over the land, her golden hair about her like a curtain. He told her he had come, and expected her to turn and smile and greet him, but she ignored him, still looking out the window. He frowned at this. He was the hero of this dream, and she was meant to turn and smile at him.
He thought, "Perhaps she cannot hear me, or perhaps she is shy and wishes me to initiate things." Going to her, he leaned and said in her ear, "I have never kissed a sorceress."
She pushed a button and he was pulled from the room by soldiers. He realized that he was only a nuisance, like a fly buzzing, for she had shown no rancor on her face, only impatience. As though he was interrupting very important business. As they took him away, he saw her lean forward towards the window again, her face intent. She had already forgotten him.
He had been wrong. She was not waiting for him, or any man.
He thought they might imprison him, deep below the castle. But instead they simply put him out the gate, and even gave him back his stick and pack, and a bundle of bread and cheese. He felt small and unimportant, and above all, impatient as he went back down the mountainside. He would return, and Pippa would give him smiles again, and this time he would teach her better and she would learn when he wanted her to stare at him and when he wanted her to leave him alone.
He had walked very far, and it was almost a year before he saw the walls of the seaport again. They glimmered in the sunlight, for the day was fair and bright, as though everything rejoiced to see him returned, to see him back in his proper place. He half ran down the street, past familiar faces that looked startled to see him, and sometimes filled with another emotion that he thought must be envy, that he had gone so far, was so well traveled now, and was returning to his wife, who had no doubt kept things well till his return, and would give him the keys along with another purse of coins, even fatter than the one he had left with.
But when he came to the window of his shop, he looked in. There was Pippa, but not as he expected. She held a baby in her arms and he thought with great regret that he had erred that last night, that he had left her with child despite his efforts. He felt a twinge of guilt and thought, "I'll make it up to her, though."
He set his hand to the door knob and then he saw through the cloudy glass, amid the strings of glass balls that are said to hold the souls of witches, illuminated by a lantern carved of ivory and fish bones, amid trinkets and trivialities, the lace upon her shoulders and Jacobo's pearls gleaming around her throat, and Jacobo's arm around her waist, and he realized then, bile biting in his throat, that she would never spend her smiles on him again.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, April 19th, 2011
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