Science Fiction & Fantasy

CHOSEN ONES

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Fiction

Ann-of-Rags

I have heard it on the rumors that when the tale-spinner’s guild gathers in their secret places, a full half of them are sworn to never tell the truth, and the other half to never tell a lie, even if it mean their life. Being one of that trade myself, I can tell you that that’s more or less the shape of it, and I tell you so you’ll know that this tale I tell you is true, just as I heard it and just as it happened, for I am one of the ones sworn to the truth.

The name I’m called is Dusty Boots, I come from the valley of Erwhile, and I am in love with a girl that I can never have. The story I tell you know comes from the endless forests, out north past the mountains, past the Loedlands, where no man has been king for a thousand years and the winter sleeps only small and restful beneath an inch of ground.

One day a little girl, no one remembers her name, was out with her old doll in the endless forest, playing hide and seek and princesses-pretend, all surrounded by those bleached white trees that reach thin up to heaven. As the day wore on, the girl and her doll wandered deeper and deeper into the forest, and by the time night fell the girl was completely lost.

At the night, the forest took on a different character than it had while the sun still lit it. The trees were more jagged and more pale, reflecting thin moonlight between them in some silent song. New animals emerged, strange ones that only knew the night, and they made creeping sounds from the undergrowth. The frost awoke from beneath the earth to walk its chill once more upon the land. The little girl grew frightened, and curled up with her doll in her arms and began to cry. Her tears were so sad that they would have broken the hardest heart to her plight, and shortly after she began, her doll spoke to her in comfort.

“Don’t cry, my darling girl,” said the doll, “for I will get you home. Listen to my words, and you will not suffer frost nor night nor monsters from the dark. As long as you have me in your arms, and heed my words, no harm will come to you, and come morning you will be safe and sound at your hearth once more.”

“But, Ann,” said the child, for the doll’s name was Ann-of-Rags, and had been so through the whole of the family’s history, “it is dark and cold and I am all alone. How will we ever find our way out of the forest?”

“Fear not, my clever girl,” said Ann-of-Rags, “for I am not stranger to the nighttime animals, and one will be along shortly to assist us.”

Even as the doll spoke her reassurances, a great owl, with wings a span across, came to rest on the tree before the little girl. Terrified by its enormous yellow eyes and fierce sharp beak, the child hugged her doll even tighter to her chest, and began to wail and cry once more.

“Don’t be afraid,” said Ann-of-Rags. “My dearest girl, there is no reason to fear this old Owl, for he is a friend of mine, and wise in the ways of the wood, and if you follow him surely he will lead you home.”

“True!” said the owl, and nodded sagely. And, with that, he began to fly slowly out of the wood, expecting that the girl would follow him.

But the little girl was so afraid of those big yellow eyes that she stayed exactly where she was, too terrified to follow the owl, even when Ann begged her to follow his lead and thus find her safety. And so the girl remained in the woods in the night, with the frost wandering further and higher, shivering as she wept into Ann’s straw hair.

“Don’t cry, my lovely girl,” said Ann, “for I have other friends amongst the nighttime animals, and surely one of them will hear your crying and come to our rescue. But this time, you must do exactly as I say, or else surely we are lost.”

And, true to her doll’s word, in due time a great gray wolf came padding up to where the little girl lay crying and nuzzled her with his big wet nose. Terrified by its yellow eyes and sharp teeth, the child hugged her doll even tighter to her chest, and began to wail and cry once more, this time even louder and more pathetic than the last.

“Don’t be afraid,” said Ann-of-Rags. “My precious girl, there is no reason to fear this strong Wolf, although his appearance is fearsome, for he is a friend of mine, and wise in the ways of the wood, and if you follow his trail surely he will lead you home.”

“Yes,” said the Wolf, “for my friend Ann I would do anything. To lead a lovely girl like you from these dark woods is as if it were nothing at all. I am happy with only the chance to help you.” And, with that, he set out from the woods, expecting the girl to follow him.

But the little girl was so afraid of those big sharp teeth that she stayed exactly where she was, too terrified to follow the wolf, even when Ann begged her to follow his lead and thus find her safety. And so the girl remained in the woods in the night, with the frost growing up around her hair, shivering and chattering as she wept into Ann’s cloth bosom.

“Don’t cry, my pretty girl” said Ann-of-Rags, her voice now faltering a little, “for though you have feared my two good friends, there are other animals in this forest, and they are not strangers to me, and surely one of them will hear your crying and come to our rescue. But, this time, you must do exactly as I say, no matter how ferocious the creature, or else surely we are lost.”

And, in due course, just as night snow began to fall around the girl, along came an old woman, with a back hunched like the mountains and fingers long like your arm, blind in the right eye and deaf in the left ear, clad in sugar and wine. In truth—and you would already know it if you had any sense—it was Bone Grandmother, the long-fingered woman, wandering this way and that in her nightly witcheries, conspiring with her son the frost, harvesting the work of her thousand poisoned daughters, and other things so awful that mortal and decent folk, such as yourselves, do not even know the words to speak of them.

But as soon as Bone Grandmother saw the beautiful little girl curled crying in the snow, she put to rest all the other nefarious plans she had for that evening, for she knew just from the pretty sound of the girl’s crying that this girl would have the tenderest finger-bones she’d ever eaten, and eyes so innocent that they had not even seen one suffering, and a heart unbroken by even a single betrayal. Oh, yes, she was already smacking her lips in anticipation when she came up to the girl and, taking on a friendly visage, said:

“Oh dear! What a splendid little girl! How is it that your mother let you wander so far away from home? Well, there’s nothing for it! You’ll have to come back and spend the rest of the night at my little cottage. I’m afraid it isn’t much to look at, but at least it will keep you warm for the night.” And she came up and wrapped the little girl in her cloak and dabbed away her tears and for all the world acted just like a kindly grandmother.

The little girl stopped crying, and even started to uncurl a little, when Ann-of-Rags gave a sharp cry. “No!” she said, “Don’t go with this old woman, for I know her like I know all things of the night. She is Bone Grandmother, and she will lock you in a cage and eat your hands and your eyes and your heart and then surely you will die! Stay here, it is better to leave ourselves in the grip of the dark and the cold than to be in her cottage, which holds nothing for children but pain and death.” It was well known that Bone Grandmother preferred to eat only from the smallest children, for as they grew older, their fingers grew gnarled through labor, their eyes jaundiced by suffering, and their hearts broken by betrayals.

But, despite Ann’s warning, the old woman’s appearance was so comforting and her actions so kind that the little girl let herself be swept up in her arms and carried away. The woman’s hut was a lonesome, tiny place right in the heart of the forest, thatched with skin and walls of bone. But, in the dark, it seemed just another small hut like all the rest in the girl’s village, and it did not matter anyway, for the girl had fallen asleep, still clutching her doll, in the old woman’s arms.

“Don’t open your eyes, my love,” said Ann as the girl awoke from her enchanted sleep, “for if you see what you will see, surely you will scream and cry, and then we will truly be lost. But, if you are quiet and you do exactly as I say, you might yet survive this night.” The little girl, still tired from the sleep, did as she was told.

“Child, you are in a bad place,” said Ann-of-Rags. “You have been seduced and captured by Bone Grandmother, most evil of all twelve witches, and she plans to eat you up this night. She is down in the kitchen, making ready her tools, and you are trapped in a cage made of the bones of less fortunate children, who did not have dolls like I to protect them, or did not heed their words. Now, my most favored child, you can open your eyes, but you must not make any sound.”

The girl opened her eyes, and saw that everything was as her doll had said.

“Now, blessed child, soon the wicked woman will be done with her preparations. When those are dispensed with, she will come over, reach up to your cage with her long fingers, and ask to feel your hands. When she does so, you must place my hands out of the cage, and not your own, for she is blind in her right eye and half-blind in her left, and will not see the difference.”

Just then, Bone Grandmother looked up from her vials, ovens, and pans. “What’s that noise?” she demanded of herself, and then remembered. “Ah, my dearest little child has awakened. Since your mother clearly could not care for you, I’ve decided that you’ll stay with me a while longer.” She smiled at this, showing rows of sharp, yellow, crooked teeth. “Now, let me see how horridly she’s fed you. Hold out your hands through the bars, so I can feel your fingers.” And she reached out with her knotted fingers, just as long as my arm is here, with wicked claws at the end of each.

The little girl was terrified, but she remembered what Ann-of-Rags had told her, and held the doll’s hands through the bars in place of her own. Since the old woman was blind in her right eye and half-blind in her left, she could not tell the difference between the doll’s hands and the girl’s. Rather, she wondered at the softness of those cloth-stuffed hands. “Oh, what soft and lovely hands,” she said to herself, “your parents probably spoilt you, didn’t they? Never worked a day in your life!” And, with that, she dug her claws into the doll’s hands and tore them off at the wrists. “And now you never will!”

Even though the girl was not harmed, she screamed and cried out with shock at the old woman’s violence and evil laughter. “Yes, that’s right,” said Bone Grandmother, “Grandmother will be taking good care of you, so you won’t be needing these hands anymore.” Then she laughed again, and went off to cook her prizes.

“My heart-held girl,” said Ann-of-Rags when the witch had gone, “do not cry for me, for my blood is cotton and straw and there’s no harm to me that a needle can’t fix. We should both be glad it isn’t your hands that she’s cooking right now.” The little girl listened well, and stopped crying. “Now, when she discovers that my hands are not the feast she hoped, she’ll be angry, and she’ll reach up to your cage with her long fingers and demand to feel your face. When she does this, you must put my face through the bars, and not yours, or else it will surely end badly for you.”

Just then, Bone Grandmother had finished preparing those hands of cloth and cotton and straw. When she bit into them and tasted only dusty rags and not the soft bone and succulent flesh that she had expected, she spat the fingers across the room.

“However your parents have spoiled you, girl, they certainly haven’t fed you very well,” she exclaimed aloud, “for your flesh tastes of damp straw and dusty cloth!” Standing up, she paced around the hut, clearly agitated and angry, until finally she stopped beneath the cage, reached up towards the girl with her long, long fingers, and said “Well, so much for your hands. Let me feel your face, my dearest little child, so I shall know the sins that you have seen.”

True to her word, the little girl did not hold her own face out between the bars, but held up Ann-of-Rags for the old witch’s inspection. The long fingers slowly caressed the doll’s eyes, which were really nothing more than glass beads, and Bone Grandmother exclaimed at their fine qualities. “Why, I have never felt eyes so smooth, or so round. They are perfect in every quality! It is like these eyes have never seen suffering!” She paused a moment, admiring the eyes, and then she said “We’ll see to it that you never see any suffering at all,” and tore the doll’s eyes from her head just like that.

Even though the girl was not harmed, she screamed and cried out with shock at the old woman’s violence and evil laughter. “Yes, that’s right,” said Bone Grandmother, “Grandmother will be taking good care of you, so you won’t be needing these eyes anymore.” Then she laughed again, and went off to cook her prizes.

“My brilliant child,” said Ann-of-Rags when the witch had gone, “do not cry for me, for my eyes are glass and my mind is string and there’s no harm to me that a needle can’t fix. We should both be glad that it isn’t your eyes that she’s cooking right now.” The little girl listened well, and stopped crying. “Now, when she discovers that my eyes are harder than she’d like, she’ll be angry, and she’ll reach up to your cage with her long fingers and open up the cage and try to grab you out of it. When she does this, you must make sure that it’s me that she grabs hold of, and not you, or else surely this whole tale will end quite badly.”

Just then, Bone Grandmother had finished preparing the glass bead eyes that she had taken from Ann-of-Rags, thinking that they were from our little girl. But, when she bit into them, not only did she not feel the fine juicy pop that she was expecting—the eyes shattered in her mouth, cutting her tongue and cheeks in a thousand places. She screeched in pain, and spat blood and shards of glass across the room.

“However your parents have sheltered you from the world, they clearly haven’t kept your mind very well,” she exclaimed, “for your eyes are harder than ice in winter and more fragile than an oriental teacup!” Standing up, she paced around the hut, agitated and angry and spitting bits of glass from her bloody mouth, until finally she stopped beneath the cage, reached up towards the girl with her long, long fingers, and said, “Well, so much for your eyes. Let me take your body, child, so I can keep you safe from all the harm in the world.” With that she flicked her long fingers in the locks of the cage and, as the bone-barred door slid open with a terrifying old creak, the girl huddled in the back, terrified.

“Child!” said Ann-of-Rags suddenly and desperately, “Fast, clever, brave, and faithful child! You must throw me now in your place, and after I am gone you must run from this house, not looking back, until you have left the forest forever. Do not fear for me, for I am only a doll, and who will mourn my passing?” And, though it grieved the girl to lose her favorite doll, she threw the doll into the long fingers that crept along the cage.

The witch snatched Ann-of-Rags out of the air, and cackled as she said: “You thought you could escape me with your little leap for freedom, but know that this world has never seen a child fast enough, clever enough, or brave enough to get the better of this old grandmother, with my fingers long as your father’s arms, and my son Frost guarding the door. Hah! Enough of this foolishness—let’s put you in the oven and be done with you!” And, with that, Bone Grandmother took Ann-of-Rags off to the kitchen to be roasted.

The little girl in the cage did not hesitate for an instant, but dashed out of that house, not looking back, while the witch put Ann-of-Rags to roast. But, even as the girl was running out from the clearing, the doll caught fire in the oven, for she was made of straw and cotton and not of flesh, and she burned up not only herself, but the kitchen, the old woman, and the whole house.

True to her word, the girl did not turn around, even to watch the flames of the house or to listen to the dying cries of the witch, but kept straight on running until the sun rose, and she found her way back to her village again and into the arms of her mother and father.

I can’t truly say what happened to that girl after her terrible night in the forest, but I’ve heard that she married a boy from the city, and together they lived a long time, and had many children, sons and daughters both. The doll, of course, was burned up and never seen again, but soon the girl had outgrown such childishness and did not give her family’s doll a second thought or tear. Her husband was not a poor man, after all, and her daughters had dolls of their own, made from porcelain and silk. What good would they have gotten from an old straw patchwork like Ann-of-Rags?

That is the story, the whole and the heart of it, just as it happened and just as it was told to me. If any man call me a liar, he has only himself to blame.

P H Lee

P H Lee lives on top of an old walnut tree, past a thicket of roses, down a dead end street at the edge of town. Their work has appeared in many venues including Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Uncanny Magazine. From time to time, they microwave and eat a frozen burrito at two in the morning, for no reason other than that they want to.