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Stand-alone stories




Story for "Sensory Overload" original fiction ficathon, August 2006.

- About 2800 words. Rated MA. Details on my specific assignment at the end.


Words Are Very Unnecessary

The sun is very bright tonight. Somehow it feels even more blinding than in the morning, now that the haze that shrouded the sky has been blown away by the afternoon's slight breeze. Now the rays are sharp and slanted, and all of a sudden they take me by surprise as I walk forward between the houses. They peer straight into my eyes over a roof and force me to stop and wait until I can again see where I'm treading.

That's essential because I don't want to step on any of the cats. They are everywhere, the lazy beasts, they lounge in the sunniest spots and in the deepest shadows equally, each according to their preference. Motionless, self-assured, they are unable to comprehend that anyone might disturb their peace.

Just the other day one of the village youngsters quite accidentally kicked one of them. Didn't see there was anything underfoot, carrying as he was an ample armful of hay for the horses and donkeys. One might imagine that a cat, when kicked, would slink shrieking away, but not these monsters. Instead, it sank its claws into his bare calf and hissed like water hisses when the smith immerses a red-hot horseshoe in it. I could hear the boy's howl even though I was indoors and he at the other end of the village. Poor lad, those scratches looked ugly the last I saw them. When was it, yesterday or the day before?

There's no complaining about those mottled and striped and moth-eaten buggers, though, because the Mamma will smack you roundly on both ears if you do. She's the one who feeds them and protects them, and of course it's true that we don't have many mice or rats around here, so in a way they're a blessing, too. I don't think we'd need nearly that many of them anyway, especially as some of them are nothing but fat, lazy, old fleabags that much rather gather at Mamma's doorstep towards nightfall and meow loudly until she shuffles to the door and gives them something to eat.

Many of those cats couldn't catch a mouse even if they tried, is my opinion. But you don't say that to Mamma, she'll win you in a shouting match anytime.

Luckily there are no cats to trip over as I make my way along the winding dirt street with my bucket of water. It's heavy, the walls around and the ground under my feet breathe heat from every direction, and sweat trickles down from my hairline and still further down, over the cheek and to my jaw. From there I can wipe it off without having to switch the bucket to my weaker hand. I don't want to stop for that, I want to get back. I've got work to do.

At the door I have to stop again. My eyes are still outside and the inside of our tiny house looks like a gaping black hole after the bright sand and pale sandstone walls, but after a few blinks the sparkles dancing before me begin to dissolve and I can again make out shapes, distances, shades. The water, it goes into the larger basin underneath the side table, the bucket goes to sit in its own corner.

The dough is waiting patiently in the window recess where I left it last night in its bin to leaven. I raise the lid and a strong, sour smell wafts into my nostrils. Yes, it is ready.

Flour puffs up in a cloud as I pour it into the bin and push my hands into the dough. It's hard and unyielding at first, but little by little it begins to soften under my fists. It squeezes between my fingers, gives in, molds, absorbs more flour. The smell is subtly different now, sweeter and less pungent. I lose myself into the rhythmical, repetitive task. The longer I knead the better it will be, I know that, and so time vanishes, everything else dims around me. I only hear the moist sighs of the dough against the walls of the bin. The shrill laughter and cries of the children playing outside, the bray of donkeys, the shouts of men maneuvering an overloaded cart through the maze of houses huddled close together along the streets 每 it all drifts somewhere far away.

At last the dough begins to form into a ball. When I poke at it with a finger, it slowly retreats back into its own self-determined shape. My hands are clean again, just a breath of flour coats them all over, flour that the dough refuses to swallow any more. I tear the lump into smaller pieces and start rolling them smooth. They resist, I continue, and at length they submit to my will.

I place the loaves on the table, one by one, caressing them under my palm. So smooth, so soft yet tenacious they are, now they just need some more time.

The oven gapes at me, a black mouth that swallows my hand as I scoop away the feather-light, soft ashes. They float up, they fill my nose and I sneeze so that more ash billows from the scoop in my hand. Against the light shining in through the doorway it looks like smoke, alive and streaming and curling upwards. I wave it aside and get up.

My weaker right hand is aching a little and my grip of the scoop nearly fails, but I manage not to spill any more ashes on the floor before pouring them into a small can of water. When the scorching heat eases a bit, I'll use it to water the meager row of onions growing by the wall. We planted them together, broke the surface of trodden ground and carefully placed them in the softer earth that we carried from outside the village. They've grown nicely and multiplied, I can see fresh new onions all around the seed, already swelling. I can still feel the earth, remember how it felt to dig into it with my fingers and hide those precious bulbs there. The memory brings a smile on my face.

I used to be the one who never smiles. That's what they would say, the villagers, with reason. I seldom saw much reason to smile, at least when someone was around. Much better be careful. I still don't know why my stepfather hated so much to see me smile, but I learned to keep my eyes downcast and my lips pressed together whenever he was nearby. I guess it stuck. Don't want to think of him now, though, not any more. I need to make the fire.

The flint strikes a spark, then another, and at the third try the handful of soft, fine, dry grass catches it. How the ball of heat glows inside it as I shove it into the oven and blow oh so gently. It crackles, shrinks, then leaps onto the thin twigs and flares up once more. Soon the black mouth of the oven is full of flame as the wood catches fire and a steady hum begins to sound from the chimney. I nod to myself as I squat in front of the stove and prepare to feed it.

Such a tedious task, but I hardly notice the passage of time. The stove heats up and sweat rises again on my face. I should move further away but don't feel like it. The heat, the inconvenience, they tell me that I'm alive to feel them.

The stove is so small that I have to keep feeding the fire while baking the bread in one corner of the oven. The bigger houses have large ovens that will bake dozens of loaves at one heating, but not this little hovel. Our oven wouldn't keep the heat long enough, and so I've learned how to work with it. I've learned at which point I can brush part of it clean enough to insert whatever I want to bake, and how often I need to turn the loaves so that they don't get burned on one side and remain still raw on the other.

Outside, the sun is already setting. There are voices, men shouting greetings and goodnight wishes to each other as they make their way home from the fields and the mill and the smithery. My heart starts to beat faster. I'm waiting for a familiar footfall.

Another loaf out, the next one in. Steam pours from the freshly baked one, I tap it with a finger and smile at the dark echo. Yes, it's properly baked. Just right. Then I hear steps, someone who drags one foot a little, and my heart skips a beat. I know that step. I know who's coming. He's home.

For a moment the hut is still a little darker as he, too, stops at the door to let his eyes adjust after the glare of the sun. He fills the small door completely, and to me he looks like a black lump outlined by shimmering light, but I know the figure and smile to him even though he can't see me yet. Or maybe he can, with the oven glowing next to me?

He steps in and I can smell him. It never leaves him, no matter how often he washes himself, that stench for which the tannery is not allowed to operate within the village walls. The tanner and some of his workers live there, in small houses built on the clearing next to the actual tannery, but he has this tiny house at the edge of the village, house that he inherited from his mother. I'm so lucky that he lets me live here with him, otherwise I'd most likely be someone's servant, despised and abused because of my feebleness. But he doesn't blame me or beat me even if I don't always get everything done, and I do my best to make ends meet.

His hand is big and callused as it brushes over my shoulder. I press into the touch and he lets out a little chuckle. He's tired, I know, and I hand him the loaf I baked first. It's had time to cool down, he breaks off a piece and stuffs it into his mouth, then hums his approval. I wish I could tell him how good that sound makes me feel, hearing that he approves my effort, so I move to sit a little closer.

I don't mind the smell, this mixture of decaying flesh, tallow, bark, all that stuff they use in the tannery, this mad combination that is spiced with the pungent odor of the urine used to make the whitest, finest leather. What does it matter? It's him underneath it. He's warm and strong as he puts an arm around my shoulders and squeezes, so gently that it doesn't hurt at all even though his body is hard with muscle and my bad arm is pressed against it. He's always mindful of it, maybe because he knows what it's like to hurt. He with his leg, broken by the kick of a donkey and never quite straight after that, me with the arm my stepfather twisted. Others keep forgetting, he never does.

I push the last loaf into the oven and take the chunk of bread he puts in my hand. It's soft on the inside, still warm and succulent, I gnaw on the hard crust and the pieces crunch between my teeth. It tastes good, and only now I realize how hungry I am.

He's hungry as well and so we huddle together here, by the stove in the middle of the hut, eating. The men have got their cart taken wherever it was going, the voices barking instructions and urging the horse forward or backward or to either side haver vanished at last. The only sound is us eating.

Other people seldom come inside, and when they do, they are invariably put off by the customary silence. Why doesn't he speak to me, they ask, surely I can still hear and understand something even though I'm mute? He just shrugs and replies that we understand each other without it, most of the time.

And it's true, we do. He's the only one who does, though. The others shun me, my silence and gestures and strange gurgles unnerve them, and I'm sure many of them don't quite believe that I can still hear and see and feel and understand perfectly well. That it was only my arm and shoulder and throat that my stepfather broke.

Or maybe they are right after all. Maybe I can't understand. It's true that there are so many things I don't remember, big gaps when I try to think of those times and of what exactly happened back then. Before I woke up and my upper body was hurting so much that I could hardly breathe and yet I couldn't make a single comprehensible sound. Maybe they are right and something happened to my head, too?

Maybe they are right, but still I don't think it's right that they sometimes laugh and point at me, sometimes shoving me so that I lose my balance and twist my bad arm. It's so easy to trick and taunt me, because I'm not able to tell anyone what has happened and they know it 每 or rather, they used to know. The taunting has more or less stopped since he took me to live here. Limp or no limp, the crooked leg doesn't really slow him down at all, and he's so strong and has hard fists. When he gets angry, he's someone to reckon with, and he invariably notices if I'm upset or feeling bad. Then he always holds me close, asks me questions until he's clear about what's happened, and goes to exact revenge.

He's given a few bruises and black eyes to various people, but when he holds me, his grip never bruises. Nowadays the villagers mostly leave me in peace, and for that I'm so grateful.

It's getting darker outside, the sun is at last setting behind the nearby hill and bushes. Everything is falling silent in preparation for the night. No more noise to echo from stone walls. Even the animals are quiet. I sit here, so close to him, basking in his warmth, listening to his slow movements. He's tired, I know. I offer him some more bread but he shakes his head and presses a kiss on my cheek for thanks, then laughs a little as I wrap my arms around him and hug tight.

I often wish I could tell him how much he means to me. I've tried so many times but it's no use. My speech has gone for good, I have no more voice to speak with, and I'm ashamed of the squeaks and whines that come out when I try very hard. Others make fun of that but he never does, just hugs me and smiles. He knows it anyway, what I want to say.

I know it, too. That he cares. That I'm not just a convenient servant but something more, and the way he touches me tells how much more. It's gentle even when he's overcome by the heat of my body, and his lips never crush mine, not even when his weight pins me down and he groans his passion into my mouth.

The mere thought makes me breathe quicker. His arm is slack around me, but he senses my agitation anyway and it squeezes a question as he turns to look at me. I just shake my head and wiggle to sit face to face with him, wedge myself between his legs and spread my own so that I can hug him with all my limbs, mold myself into his body. The soft chuckle feels good under my cheek.

He's warm and a little sweaty, so strong and safe, as he murmurs something into my hair. I can't really make out the words, because his hands are rubbing circles on my shoulder blades and lower back and I feel the growing hardness through his coarse breeches. It doesn't scare me any more. No, I rub eagerly against it, savoring the want that has flared up in my lower belly, then raise my head as he nuzzles my forehead.

He cups both hands around my face, brushes my chin with a thumb, and our lips meet. The kiss tastes of bread, his breath smells of it, and I smile.

Yes, he knows what I feel for him.


My prompts:
Sight 每 contrast
Sound 每 shouting
Smell 每 acrid
Touch 每 pliant
Taste 每 bread

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