Swylce

Musings and Writing of GG Alexander

An Unseen Hand Pushes the Analog Stick (Stranger Tales No. 1)

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They found the girl at sunrise. Under a pale pink sky with feeble grey clouds, next to a riverbank swelled to brim from the night’s rain, sat an unknown young woman, drenched from toe to tip, staring up into the sky. Ann’s father thought it best to take her home.

‘Must be a runaway from the abbey,’ he said. ‘It was struck hard last night.’

The thunderstorm had ripped up the trees and splattered them onto the roads, and the fields were pools of mud. There would be no taking her back to the abbey for a day or two, if that was indeed where she came from. The people they looked after at the abbey had problems. It must have been intuition that made her father see that figure staring up at the sky, and pronounce her mad straight away.

They led her away from the bank, and she came without a word. She remained silent all the way back to the house. Ann wondered if she was deaf, but spoke to her anyway once they were in the bathroom together.

‘Let me get you out of those clothes,’ she said. The girl allowed her to pull her dress over her head without protest. It was scorched black and ripped, but the untouched patches showed that it had been a white robe of fine, heavy cloth. Ann put it aside, feeling the sodden weight of it in her hand, and wondering how it became so burned and yet so wet.

She turned back and found the girl standing in front of the looking-glass, her naked back turned towards it. Her scrabbling hands searched all over her shoulder blades and spine, as if she had never seen a normal back before. A cloud of worry glazed her eyes. Ann grabbed her hands and spun her round.

‘Now, now, let’s get you in the bath.’

‘I don’t need to be bathed,’ the girl said in a hoarse voice.

Ann was shocked to hear her speak, but tried not to let it show.

‘Oh! I understand. Can you bathe yourself, then?’

‘If it is necessary,’ she replied.

‘My name is Ann. What’s yours?’

‘My name is…’

The girl trailed off and frowned into the middle distance. Her face was blank for a very long moment, and Ann was about to ask if she was all right when sentience snapped back into her expression.

‘Miranda.’

‘Miranda,’ Ann repeated. ‘That’s a lovely name. Well, you’re welcome to stay here until we get you back to the abbey. I’ll get you some clean clothes, so just make yourself comfortable.’

The girl kept frowning, as if she was figuring something out. Ann was glad to get out of her sight. The tragic figure they had brought in moments ago had somehow transformed into an imperious lady, like a princess brought before commoners.

‘Papa,’ she said when downstairs, ‘are you sure she’s from the abbey?’

‘They have some strange ones there, chick,’ he said from the aga. ‘People you wouldn’t think as mad at first. They show their true colours in the end. Keep a close eye on her while I’m at the smithy.’

When Ann returned upstairs, to tell Miranda that breakfast was ready, she found the girl in her bedroom, rifling through her chest of drawers. The wardrobe door was ajar and her foot-chest of beloved things – items from her mother, presents from friends – was wide open.

‘Miranda! What are you doing? These are mine.’ She stormed over and snapped the drawer shut, away from those long white fingers. ‘We don’t touch other people’s possessions!’

‘You have nothing useful anyway,’ Miranda said, before walking downstairs. Ann checked over her chest to make sure nothing was stolen, and realised that Miranda had taken one of the cotton dresses from her wardrobe, and was wearing that instead of the dress she had laid out for her beside the bath. Well, it was a nice dress, but not worth arguing over. She rearranged everything that had been touched and went downstairs as quickly as possible.

Miranda ate in silence with Ann and her father. After eating, she left her plate and rose, turning to the door.

‘Ah, I suppose I should show you around the village!’ Ann said, leaving her food half-eaten. She knew she shouldn’t leave such a girl alone. ‘Come with me and I’ll show you where everything is.’

Miranda looked singularly unimpressed with her offer, but made no complaint. Ann took her out into the bright morning sunshine and pointed out the few noticeable houses in the tiny village: the inn, the baker and the butcher, the clothes shop, and the road out of town.

‘Left at the crossroads goes to the abbey,’ Ann said.

‘And right?’ Miranda asked. Her only response thus far.

‘That goes down to Mardonlea.’

‘What is that?’

A slight uneasiness of mind came over Ann again. Even mad people, she thought, have surely heard of it.

‘It’s the biggest town this side of Margate.’

Miranda nodded, then resumed listening to Ann’s tour. At the end, Ann took her back into the centre of town.

‘Now, papa’s going to be very busy with work today, so you’ll have to come with me and sit in the inn while I work. I’m sure Erik will understand when I explain what’s happened.’

They reached the inn, and Miranda stood as emotionless as a statue as Ann pleaded with her employer. He agreed that she could sit behind the front desk, as long as someone kept an eye on her and saw she made no trouble.

‘See? Now you can stay with me while I work and–’

Without a word, Miranda walked to the door.

‘Wait! You – you can’t go out alone!’ Ann stammered, chasing after her. ‘I have to look after you while you’re here!’

‘I can do nothing here,’ Miranda said, in the same commanding tone. ‘I must leave. I will come to no harm.’

‘Bu…but…’ Ann felt it was somehow wrong to say to a person’s face, “But you’re mad!”, and she had no other argument to keep her here.

‘I will be fine, Ann,’ Miranda said. ‘I can only go as far as I am allowed.’

‘Th-then don’t leave the village!’ Ann said, wondering what she meant by that, doubting that she could trust this strange woman, but seeing no alternative when she had to work. ‘Not a step outside the gates. And come right back to the house for dinner, understand?’

‘Yes.’

Miranda failed to give even a look of acknowledgement before leaving the inn. Ann watched her go with some trepidation, failing to keep the unease out of her words when she explained the situation to her boss.

‘Well, there’s only a few things to do, and it’s probably going to be a slow day since the roads are so bad,’ her employer said. ‘I’d vouch that you can go early today.’

Still, work had to be done before then. She served breakfast, cleaned the rooms, and after the laundry was set out to dry she finally rested at the front desk, waiting for any potential customers. The locals, especially the old ladies, often came in to chat on slow days, knowing that they’d be good company for Ann. Before long, the runaway from the abbey was mentioned, and then the complaints started to come through.

‘That girl you picked up barged right into my house and began to rifle through my cabinets,’ Mrs Crabtree said. ‘She even took one of my pots of tarragon and put it straight in her bag!’

I didn’t give her a bag, Ann thought worryingly, as she apologised.

‘She’s been annoying us in the shop all day,’ Peter Rogers, from the clothes shop, said when he came in to chat at lunch. ‘She bought a few things, but since then she’s been asking for more, and coming round the back of the counter and saying “Talk to me”, over and over. Oh, I kept talking for a while, but she doesn’t say anything herself, and it’s hard to talk with someone who won’t talk back, you know?’

As predicted, Ann was let off work early, and rushed out as soon as she could, kicking herself for letting the strange lady out of her sight. Barely five steps from the inn door, Mrs Cunningham stormed up to her.

‘Ann, you must keep that insane girl under control! What were you thinking, leaving her to her own devices?’

‘What has she done?’ Ann asked, full of shame.

‘She came right into my house, ran upstairs without so much as a word to my family, and she stole my son’s old shield from the chest in my room. I ran and told Albert, so he went to deal with her. She absolutely refused to hand it over, and when Albert tried to take it from her forcibly, she assaulted him!’

‘Oh dear,’ Ann said.

‘And then she ran off without another word! I really cannot let this pass by, Ann. You must make her give that shield back, and the sooner she is sent back to the abbey, among the imbeciles of her kind, the better for all of us.’

Miranda wasn’t at home. Ann looked all over for her, and finally found her – crawling out of the town well by its rope, stinking of stagnant water and mulch. A small crowd had gathered to gawp at her in disgust, but even with all the people around, Ann could not restrain her anger.

‘Miranda! What do you think you are doing? Have you no shame?’

Miranda did not appear to hear her words. For the first time, she looked pleased.

‘Look at this,’ she said, holding out her palm. Amongst the mud were some slimy old weeds, and a few bashed copper coins.

‘Who cares that you found some coins? It’s not normal to go crawling around wells! Come back home right now – you’ll have to have a cold bath this time, since we used all the hot water for you this morning.’

‘The coins are a mere boon,’ Miranda replied with a dissatisfied frown. ‘But staggernot is very rare and hard to find. I can use it to regain strength, or alchemise it to make an even greater–’

Ann grabbed her other hand, shuddering as the muck transferred to her palm, and dragged the mad girl away from the giggling crowd. She was glad to shut the front door on the village, glad they couldn’t see her make a fool of herself any more.

‘Get upstairs and wash,’ she said. ‘And throw away those weeds!’

But the weeds, and coins, were somehow gone from Miranda’s hand.

‘I am fine how I am,’ Miranda said.

‘No you’re not,’ Ann said. ‘You stink.’

‘I understand,’ Miranda said, before disappearing. Ann sat at the table and put her head in her hands. Maybe we should give her to Mrs Shore, or someone who better understands mad people, she thought. I thought she’d be stupid like a child, or violent at worst – not infuriating like this.

Miranda came down only minutes later, but she was completely clean. Ann didn’t like to imagine how messy the bathroom was. The woman made straight for the door again, and Ann had to physically block her path to stop her from yanking the door wide open.

‘Wait,’ she said. ‘You’re not to go outside for the rest of the day.’

Miranda did not protest or even ask why. All she said was:

‘You cannot stop me.’

Simply, without affect or emotion. The threat made Ann’s stomach flip.

‘No. You’re not going out until you control yourself. Everyone’s been telling me all day that you’ve been barging into people’s houses, bothering them, and even stealing. You’ve taken my dress, Mrs Crabtree’s plant, and Tim Cunningham’s old shield, and you know you have to give them back.’

‘Why?’ Miranda asked.

‘Because stealing is wrong!’ Ann cried. ‘I like that dress, Mrs Crabtree was going to use her tarragon for cooking. And Mrs Cunningham’s son is dead, and that shield is one of her prized possessions from when he was alive.’

‘She does not use it,’ Miranda said.

‘No, but it has sentimental value for her. But it doesn’t even matter if she doesn’t use it – it’s hers. You can’t take what other people own.’

Miranda’s expression changed – really, truly shifted beyond her blank state, into something worse: a sneer.

‘What is the point in objects that are not used? What is the point in having an object that you misuse? I need these items. I will use them as they should be used.’

‘You can’t use my dress in any other way,’ Ann protested.

‘True,’ Miranda said. ‘It is only necessary for the moment. When I find or buy something superior, I will sell it, for the money from it will do me better.’

Ann was truly shocked that she could so easily tell her this, without a single glimpse of conscience.

‘You – you can’t do that! You can’t take my things and then sell them when you’re done with them!’

‘They are not yours,’ Miranda said, sternly as a schoolteacher. ‘Nothing you have belongs to you. All that you claim belongs to god, and I take them by his power, in order to fulfill his wishes.’

You’re mad, Ann thought. It had taken time to reveal itself, but now she could think it without hesitation: this woman is mad.

‘No, no, you’re wrong,’ Ann said, trying to draw herself taller but the woman seemed to have grown in stature, and doubled in power. ‘N-now, you take that shield back to Mrs Cunningham, and apologise to her husband for hurting him. Tell them you’re sorry.’

‘The man tried to fight me,’ Miranda said. ‘And I returned his battle. He is fortunate that I did not destroy him, as I thought I should. God stayed my hand.’

Ann cowered. Suddenly she regretted being between this woman and the exit.

‘Out of my way, girl,’ Miranda said. Her voice deepened to a thunderous tone. ‘I have larger things to do than worry about you and your minuscule lives. My task calls, and my god grows impatient.’

‘What task is that?’ Ann asked, trembling.

‘Completion,’ Miranda said.

She put one hand on Ann’s shoulder and pushed her aside with inhuman strength. Ann stumbled, and knew she must not let her leave. Had Miranda been good, and kind, she might have believed her mad words, and she would have let her go in joy. Instead, she was terrified of what such a woman could do to the world if let loose.

‘You’re not an angel,’ she cried, grabbing her arm. ‘You’re just insane!’

Miranda stopped and looked back. Ann tried to look up defiantly into the woman’s face. She was devastated to receive only a pitying smile in return.

‘You people are small, insignificant statues, and this place is but a base point from which I jump to the further story. You will never change, you will never grow to greatness, and you will never even know when the world is threatened by catastrophe. To everything, you are blind. That, Ann, is insanity.’

She walked away from Ann’s grip with little effort, and set off down the road. At the end of the village, she paused, and in a blink a shield appeared on one arm, while a sword – evidently taken from the smithy – was gripped in the other. Miranda stepped out into the road, and all sight of her body disappeared instantly.

Ann remained frozen in the doorway, unable to speak, unable to move, as if the puppet-master that had been moving her strings had suddenly abandoned her, to go play some better, greater game.

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Written by G.J.

03/04/2013 at 6:13 pm

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