Martha Musil

Lady Wilhelmina’s Tale

As some of you know, I am a metropolitan sophisticate disguised temporarily as a rustic hayseed. The town I live in was mostly empty, even before the plague. And it was not at all unusual for me not to see or talk with anyone for days, even then. Like many of you gathered together in this idea of exile, I hide many things from my neighbors and friends. More than just my secret former life as an interpreter of dreams in Vienna. Behind an appearance of caring and nurturing anxiety for the comfort of others, for ethical behavior and justice, I hide a more complex appreciation of crime, of danger and death-defying recklessness. An attraction to the aesthetics of sacrifice and the dynamics of pleasure and despair. I have been a home-wrecker and I have been known to covet my neighbor’s husband; or her son. I am not nearly as nice as they think I am. Nor do I ascribe to all of their political and social pieties. The following is a dream one of my subjects told to me on a rainy afternoon in the autumn of the year two thousand and two. Here, in the relative safety and loveliness of the countryside at the first savage cry of spring, in quarantine from our current global distress, I am thinking of all of those who are directly in the eye of the storm, who wander on empty streets once teeming with people, gazing at blank, blind windows, which just a week ago were filled with blinking, twinkling marvels, those whose lives are already more palpably changed than mine.  This is what my subject, who must, of course, remain anonymous for ethical reasons, told me:

In a small valley in the basin between two mountains on the boundary between Austria and Slovenia there is a town where all of the residents either play the accordion or do not; are either in love or not; are happy or not; and where they all are descended from Partisans. They all have high cheek bones and almond-shaped eyes. And the very old are bent in two and wear their wrinkles like trees their bark.  It is told of these brave people that when, during that brutal war at the turn of the former century, the Partisans were hiding with their guns up in the hills, the enemy would come marauding in the valley and threaten the children and old people left behind: “Tell us where they are hiding or we will burn your houses”. But they did not tell. No matter what the evil men did to them.  Now, over a century later, these people still bear traces of their ancestors’ stubborn glory and when they sing the old songs, they sing them all night long.

Of these descendants there was one particular young woman with black hair falling in waves down her back, who tended to wander just before dawn away from the singing, circling in ever wider arcs around the valley until she found herself upon one of the forest paths leading up into the hills, winding and winding upward until she could no longer hear the sound of the words and then, finally, not even the drone of the accordions. It was rumored by those who noticed her leaving that she was going to an assignation. That she had a secret lover who lived, perhaps, in the next town over, which, considering the isolation of the town, would have been sensational enough, were it to be true. When she would return to her people in the afternoon, they would still all be sleeping off the party, so she was usually able to slip into her own bed and sleep for a few hours before being woken by her grandmother to get up and help lay out the cheeses and the salty bread upon their simple wooden table and to fetch the pickled vegetables and carry the jugs of beer that her kinsmen were so very thirsty for as an antidote to the aches in their heads.  After she had served the elders and taken a chunk of bread and cheese for herself, she lay down under one of the nearby pine trees, on a bed of fragrant needles, and fell asleep again. When she arrived at the middle of her dream, she saw something, which I may tell you about some other time. But it was not what you are thinking.

For she did not have a lover and the person she met was not someone from the next town over, but a hermit who lived in a cave carved out of the hills, a man so old that he remembered the days of the Partisans. A man so old that he had, in fact, been one of them, and had simply never come back from out of the hills when peace had been restored and everyone else had returned to their everyday lives. His name was Vesuvio and he had become addicted to danger. And could not bear to return to normal, safe, comfortable life. He and his lover, who had also been a fighter, had stayed behind because she had been, for a moment, in love with someone else and had wanted to prove to Vesuvio that she indeed still loved him and did not really love the other man, whose name has even been forgotten, so insignificant was he to her. In any case, Vesuvio and his lover, the Partisan Luisa, lived for the spring and summer in the cave, gathering mushrooms and berries and killing small animals with their rifles and then, when they ran out of bullets, using bows and arrows that they constructed out of willow branches and Luisa’s hair. Until one day she was eaten by a bear, which he then killed, covering her with the pelt and burying her beside a stream, marking the spot with a black stone he found that had a white mark on it in the shape of a lightning bolt;  but before that she had given birth to a child, whom she brought down to the town one night and left before the door of the church.  In any case, Vesuvio survived, and lived there and lived there and lived there and lived there. Over the many years. Not knowing anything about the inventions of the new century, neither their miraculous delight nor their discontents, but taking joy in thunder and lightening storms, avalanches, and courting death by flirting with wild beasts. He grew insensible to the cold and to pain; eventually nothing really scared him anymore and he thought he was ready to die of boredom, when one day he was in fact astonished to see a young woman crouching at the entrance to his cave.

It was because of her grandmother that the young woman had gone looking, because she had told tales that others had thought better not to tell. The young woman in the dream wanted to see the place where her mother had been born, not at all expecting to find much trace of anything, let alone her own grandfather, still alive, but barely able to speak.  And, before he finally died a few months later, he showed her how to stand at the very edge of a cliff and teeter just slightly forward; to spin herself dizzy; to catch birds with her bare hands and then let them go; to lock eyes with a fox.  For she liked danger, too. And wished, even, for a war or some other enemy with which to wrestle. Or a lover, perhaps from the next town over, to love and to lose, to betray or be betrayed by, to bite and be, in turn, devoured by. But he did not come. And she suffered a great, endless tedium.

Let us therefore remember, when we are under the onus of some misfortune or struggling against some discomfort, how much, in times of peace and plenty, we all secretly long for something surprising—even if it be something bad.

Genese Grill
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  1. Kinton Ford

    I really like this. And I’m a sucker for untold secrets in a fiction.

  2. Roman

    What a strange tale. It seems to have seeped into my pores, like a cool morning mist, and now I’m covered from head to toe with a layer of fiction-magic, through which the world looks a bit more magical as well. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  3. Yes, we must strip off the layers of perceived safety we are swaddled in to dance around in our bones and flesh and fear.

  4. Beautiful and true. Thank you for this tale.

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