Short Story: Wagon

Mist turned up from the grasses in the field and echoed with the clamour of tools being unboxed. The clang of iron in the form of hammers and prybars, the clatter of measuring tapes and plumbbobs. Heavy air, pregnant with a dew which was in no hurry to join the Wild Hunt above. Above. The clouds moved quickly. Quickly enough that a keen observer would have seen that their haste did not match the sloth of the world below. The breeze was a lazy one, the thick air lolled about turgidly with scarce the strength to move a hair on the carpenter’s head. Above him circled two ravens, neither cawing now squawking, which went sight unseen by the man who turned his head away from the heavens and back to earthlier affairs.

The carpenter hauled the last of the tools from under the crude overhang he had built on site to house them, having decked them on an equally bluntly lain work bench. There he set them neatly, each to their kind, and would pick through them with ease as the need arose. Sighing, the man put on his hat and buttoned his jacket, trying in vain to blow rings with the steam that issued from his breath. To no avail. Chuckling, he turned his wiry body to the table and reached for his measuring tape and pocket square when he heard a voice.

“Excuse me sir…”

The man’s shoulders tightened into his neck in suppressed surprise. The voice rang with distinct femininity, a mellifluous quality that poets had no doubt written about at good length. Poets that, he was sure, remained unmarried and had never heard the bite that follows the birdsong of some and can suck from a goodly trill all semblance of joy as if it were poison. The man’s lips played at a smile and he subsequently swallowed that smile, returning his visage to the blank slate that typified it.

“Yes…?” he asked slowly as he turned about.

“Are you a carpenter?” came the question before the carpenter had a chance to eye his mysterious guest.

Unable to mask his annoyance with a superfluous question, the man redoubled his ambivalence and managed a respectful, “I am.”

Before him stood a well-fed woman, clothed in a simple flowing dress of earthy colour. Her radiant flesh was unblemished and somewhere between porcelain and velveteen in quality. Her long hair, blonde, fell in tresses like so much wheat sheaf to a harvest. Her searching eyes were blue, much in the way of a cloudless sky. Her hands were delicate, almost painfully so, and terminated in fingernails painted an autumnal faded burgundy, there was no ring to speak of on any of those fingers. It was clear from every inch of her that she had never manned a tool, nor suffered a burden in the way a workingman had. Which spoke well of whoever it was, if any, that took care of her. If ever the archetype of a maiden that comes before the mother and the crone could have stood amongst the folk, it might well have been her. Yet it was those searching eyes that struck him, he could see she had clearly detected his offence, and was herself quite struck.

“Oh, I’m sorry to have bothered you sir,” said she with a hesitant air.

“No, no,” the carpenter said, “it’s fine. How can I help you?”

“Oh,” the woman said meekly, “it’s just that my wagon…” she trailed off, “there’s been an accident. My wagon needs repairs and my horse ran away, and my driver’s gone after him. But that was some time ago.”

“I see,” the carpenter said slowly. He looked back to his makeshift shop, his worksite and his job. He shrugged faintly, almost imperceptibly, “well, the one I can take a look at, and the other I’m afraid is beyond me.”

The woman smiled. The carpenter could swear that the sun seemed just a little bit brighter, and rose a hair quicker, when her plump pink lips showed him the ivory teeth beneath. The man couldn’t help but return the smile.

He walked behind her and allowed her to lead him along the roadside. In the minutes he kept in tow he watched her movements. They were slow, ponderous and gentle, with a grace that was neither practised nor forced. The word idle would have been uncharitable and unkind, but her almost slothlike motions betrayed a kind of undamaged innocence which was cloyingly disarming and simultaneously enamouring. Attractive in a way which defied convention, nor less embraced description.

The houses passed ever so slowly as they came to their destination. There on the grade of a small hill lay a collapsed wagon with the wheel askew and aground. There was no cargo in the wagon, with only a bench to the rear which could have only seated the young woman. He raised an eyebrow and tried his best not to question the queerness of it all. He knelt beside the wagon and made his inspections. “Your axles aren’t bent,” he muttered, regarding the iron shafts running through their collars. He looked at the undercarriage, which utilised the barest minimum of any progressive materials. Still, the wagon’s build was rugged. Beams held the undercarriage, with thick roughsawn boards the sheathing. The rails were similarly hewn by thick posts and sturdy boards. It was a slick rig. But for the front right wheel which had failed her, he guessed, when the horse had slipped his reins, the wagon seemed as though it would have been nigh unbreakable.

“Can you fix it?” the girl asked sweetly, simply.

“Oh, I think maybe,” the carpenter said slowly, distantly, as he squinted at the wheel. The spokes were, unsurprisingly, firm. What had failed, evidently, were the pegs. Pegs had been hammered into the cap which held the wheel in place, but had since rattled loose causing the wood to loosen and spin off her axle. “Oh, I think we can get you straightened out,” he said assuredly. “It’s just a matter of shaping new pegs for your wheel.”

She pressed her palms together excitedly and touched at her cheeks, “oh, thank you sir!”

“No problem,” the carpenter said, rising slowly, perhaps suppressing a grunt of pain from the issuance of his unhappy knees, “none at all.” He picked the wheel up off the ground and turned to her, “I’ll borrow this ma’am, if you don’t mind, it’ll help me shape your pegs.”

The young woman nodded. “And I’ll wait here with my wagon,” she smiled and brushed a loose strand of her out of her face, “if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to sit down,” she added, “I’m not much for walking, and I’m not used to standing around.”

“Of course,” the carpenter said, swallowing a mite of vexation. He hadn’t considered the distance they walked to have been of any consequence, but, to each their own. He turned with the wheel and returned to his site.

The man returned an hour or so and found that, true to her word, the girl had taken a seat. She sat quietly in her wagon, singing a song in a language he could not understand but found hauntingly familiar. There was something in the words he felt he knew, but could not search his mind for the meaning over. While he found this irksome beyond reprieve, he did not let this shadow his countenance. “What language is that?” the man asked, “are you from Away?”

The young woman smiled but did not answer. She regarded him with a kind and grateful smile, but not a gratitude, apparently, deep enough to move her towards answering his trivium.

“I’ve shaped some pegs, ma’am,” the carpenter said, “and a few to grow on if your next horse flies the coop.”

The young woman sniffed a faint laugh, “thank you,” she said.

The man, now wearing a rucksack, gingerly laid the wheel against the rough edge of the sturdy wagon and pulled the bag from his back. He pulled from that several blocks of wood and his prybars. Lastly he pulled a few wedges.

“What are the blocks for, sir?” she asked.

“Oh, not much,” he said, “just a little leverage so I can boost your undercarriage and hang your wheel.”

“Your blocks are thin,” she said, “can they hold the weight?”

The carpenter chuckled, “forgive me, but a good stud can hold hundreds of times its weight if the axis is set just right. You could have a load ten times more and lift it up. Then the question would be, am I man enough to lift it? Trust the wood, ma’am, it’s never led me wrong before.”

“The wedges, then?” she asked.

“Wheel chocks,” said the carpenter. “You’re on a grade, ma’am, if I fix the one problem without looking ahead, I’ll have caused a bigger one. Your wagon did you the courtesy of breaking at the top of the hump, but if I fix the wheel without addressing gravity, well, I think it would be too much to ask a Sisyphus to push this thing up from the bottom of the hill so early in the morning.”

She laughed and rested her hands in her lap. The carpenter proceeded to arrange blocks driving his prybar between them with his hammer. He slowly wedged, pried and added blocks until there was enough gap for him to stand a horizontal plank and pull the blocks. He eyed the scene carefully after regarding the wheel, added a little more height and, satisfied, slid the wheel onto the axle.

“Oh thank you!” the young woman cried, “I don’t know how I ever would have managed!”

“Oh, the best is yet to come,” said the carpenter as he pulled pegs from his pocket. He began to slide the cut dowels into the slots and tap them in with his hammer. The man rested his palm against the edge of the wheel and gave her a playful spin. “I think, ma’am, you should be good.”

“Oh, how wonderful,” she said. Slowly she narrowed her gaze, “I’m ashamed to ask, but could you do me one more favour?” she asked so demurely, so politely, that the carpenter knew he would more than likely find himself disarmed and quite unlikely to say no.

“I don’t think there’s any way I can get my wagon back on the road,” she said, “and you’re obviously strong and smart enough – I’m betting you’ve got some thoughts on how we can do it…”

“Yeah…” the carpenter said slowly, “nothing clever about it,” he said as he took a swing and knocked the holding plank over. The wagon thumped down, and he moved around back and positioned his shoulders against the backside of the wagon, arched his back, aimed his tailbone and drove with his hips and knees. The wheels turned grindingly slow, eating the gravel before the lip of the roadside. He groaned under the weight, but succeeded in forcing the wagon up onto the road. He heaved an exhalation as he found himself and his quarry on flat ground. Breathing heavily for a time, he found the air to speak, “hold on,” he said as he turned himself to the front of the wagon at the hitch where the horses would lead. He gripped the reins tight to his body and dragged the wagon ever so slowly until straightened.

“Oh thank you,” she said.

The carpenter grunted but continued to move. He did not speak until they reached the end of the road. “Have you got anyone you can call?” he wheezed as they came to the end.

“I haven’t,” she admitted.

“Left or right?” he asked.

“The left hand path,” was her answer, “it’s not too terribly far,” she said. A pregnant pause followed, “please stop,” she said, “take a moment to breathe.” The carpenter considered her request and then decided against it, he flexed his muscles and prepared to move, but her voice stopped him. “I’m ashamed to ask yet another favour,” came the woman’s voice as the carpenter stopped, leaning his palms onto his knees and swallowing a bloody cough.

“Yes?” he asked as soon as he found his voice.

“It’s been some time since I’ve eaten, and wondered if, perhaps, you had something to spare…”

The carpenter nodded and reached into his jacket. He withdrew a cloth wrapper and handed it up the side of the wagon to her. In another moment he handed her a bottle from the pack at his side, a clear glass bottle filled with milk. She received this with a peckish grin and turned her eyes back to the cloth wrapper. The man sighed and withdrew an apple from his other pocket, “here,” he said, not knowing how long she had been without, “take this too. It’ll go you the rest of today, I think.” Taking the apple, she unwrapped the soft rectangle to reveal a two day old square of johnny cake. “Grandma’s recipe,” he said, “I’m afraid mine were never as good. And it would have been better fresh, but, you know.”

“Oh thank you,” she said before opening her mouth to eat, “it’s perfect, you’re so kind…” The carpenter turned his back as she chewed and returned to the yoke where he played at the straps and tried to find the most advantageous position. “It’s foolish to travel on an empty stomach,” she said. The carpenter grimaced but elected to withhold the fact that he had given her all that he had brought to the jobsite to eat. Somehow, it felt like the right thing to do. Although he suspected he would have changed his mind by the end of the trip. Still, it profited him nothing to boost of his good deed. To what end? Inflict guilt? He sighed and returned to his flexing.

And so it went. After a time, the woman had finished and the man was ready to go. He heaved and strained to drag the wagon into motion. He knew that inertia was the hardest part, and once the wagon gained momentum, his work would become easier. As the carpenter found his stride he found also the strength to speak, as his heart accustomed itself to his new load. The woman he learned, had come to visit a mother she had known in her youth who had lost a young child, to deliver a gift. She had been on her way to return the wagon she had borrowed when she had lost her horse and the driver that had gone to chase it. It was a story, but it was hers. The carpenter asked no more, and kept his eyes before him.

“Here,” the young woman said as they reached an opening in the woods beside the street. The carpenter looked to the right where the path stretched. The carpenter manoeuvred the wagon and stopped with the front facing the grade. He grimaced inside himself and considered how he might lower the wagon down the grade. He had come this far in a good deed, and felt it would have been in poor taste to stop now. In the end he could only think of the hard way. He swung around again to the rear of the wagon, but this time, he positioned himself to pull. After nudging the wagon forward he pulled with all his might to slow the descent, quietly grateful to see the path was a straight one, relatively speaking.

He let gravity carry the wagon and slowed it only enough to reduce any chance of damage to the wheel collets. After this he lent his weight to pushing, to keep the momentum and ease his own struggles. And so it went. The wagon moved, and the carpenter guided. They came at last to an end of the path. The carpenter eased the wagon into a stop and frowned. There was nothing. Nothing but forest. He turned back and looked, he could now not even see the end of the path where it cleared to the road. Turning back he squinted into the woods. He heard the unmistakable trickle of water and it dawned on him that there was a spring a stone’s throw away, which he couldn’t quite see through the thickening wood.

“Are you sure?” he asked, “I don’t see anything.” The carpenter added, “maybe I took a wrong turn?”

“You were perfect,” the woman said as she extended her hand for the carpenter, who helped her down. The carpenter pulled his hands back, not wanting to get too close, feeling it would have been improper. “This is exactly where I want to be…”

She smiled, “you’ve been so generous,” she said, smiling warmly. “I don’t have anything to repay you with just yet – but if you trust me, I will.”

“Oh, no,” the carpenter said, “I didn’t expect anything ma’am.”

“I know,” she said. “But you could have. You went out of our way, even though everytime I asked you a favour it cost more of your time… And I can see you did it despite your pains.” Those last words she said glancing at his knees. The carpenter opened his mouth to speak but she continued. “Please, there will be none of that. I’m not blind. A gift begets a gift, isn’t that right? Nothing is free.” The man said nothing. He glanced into the woods.

The woman turned to the woods where he had spotted the spring. “That’s my pond,” she said. “Visitors leave things there, sometimes, and that’s how I know they’ve been.” She shrugged, “coins for good luck, that sort of thing.” She turned back to the carpenter, “I’ll ask you one more favour, and then I promise you, I’ll let you take your leave of me – for which I’m sure you’ll be glad.” She laughed as the carpenter fumbled to assuage her. “It’s alright,” she said, “I know this hasn’t been easy, and I haven’t been much help, but…” she motioned to the wagon, “I need your help breaking it down.”

“What!?” the carpenter asked, unable to conceal the insult he felt, before he could regain his composure, “I’m sorry, what?”

“Oh, I’m afraid thieves will try and take it,” she said.

“I haven’t got anything I can use…” the carpenter said.

The woman smiled gracefully and pointed daintily at a sledgehammer that leaned against a tree which bore a marking the carpenter had seen somewhere before. A rune, he thought. But it wasn’t something he knew a great deal about.

“Take this, I have no use for it, but you do,” she said.

The carpenter grasped the hammer, bracing himself, for it looked to be a 12lb hammer. He was shocked to heft the hammer by her choke and find she felt as light as his own 16oz. He asked no questions as he gathered his posture and swung, striking at the axle wheel-cap he had only just fixed. The wood splintered and fell away. He swung again at the rims and shattered the wheel. He went around until the wagon had no wheels.

“Break the rails,” she said, “make it so that not even you could fix it,” she implored. And so he did. He destroyed the wagon so thoroughly that by the noon’s end all that was left was the beginnings of a sturdy floor in the middle of the woods.

“Thank you,” she said. “It will seem a paltry gift, but I want you to take some of the small boards. Maybe someday you’ll have to help another poor girl out, and you can… how did you say it, give her undercarriage a boost?”

“Oh ma’am,” the carpenter said, never realising he had made a faux-pas.

She laughed at him and continued on, “I know the price of lumber has gone up, and it isn’t much, but take them. You might be surprised at how much a price they could fetch at a broker.”

The carpenter smirked and picked up a few manageable lengths. “Put them in your rucksack,” she suggested. The carpenter raised an eyebrow as he saw his rucksack on the platform. While he didn’t remember bringing it, there it was. He filled the sack with as much wood as it would hold and took the hammer she had given him. He smiled as he toyed with the hammer in his hands, being it so wondrously light he thought to himself such a gift was worth all the toil.

“Walk with me a minute,” the woman said, “and then I’ll leave you to your work.”

The man followed her into the woods. She took him to the spring. A spring which stood in the centre of a grove within a clearing in the woods. There was a standing stone beside the mouth of the pond, and a stalwart wooden chair. The woman glid over to the chair and sat herself down, sighing in relief. “It’s good to get out, but it’s better to get back,” she sighed. “You should take a drink. The water’s clean, you’ll find none cleaner.” She grinned, “it sounds silly to a strong man, but I think you’ll find it perfectly refreshing.”

The carpenter knelt, cupped his hands into the water and drank. He twitched in surprise. He could feel the knots in his muscles mending, the gnawing in his guts subside. He felt strong again, the weakness left his limbs and the life came back to his gait. He rose to his feet, feeling chipper, even going so far as to nothing that the aches and pains in his knees and back had all but gone. He felt like a teenager, spry and strong. He gawked stupidly as he looked back up at the woman, but he found that the seat was empty.

“I…”

The carpenter breathed, he looked this way and that, all that remained was his rucksack on the platform, the hammer and an axe of similar make. He looked back to the spring, and then to the tree with the ancient Rune. He traced the shape in his mind’s eye and committed it to memory. He did not want to leave, and he knew he would return. He would, like so many others, come back to leave votives at the spring. He walked gingerly out from the forest with his rucksack full of broken bits of plank, cradling axe and hammer in his arms.

He returned to his jobsite, if only to put away his tools. He left the owners a note explaining the barest of minimums as to what had transpired, that he had met a stranger who needed help. That his work was put back a day and he hoped they understood. And when this was done, the carpenter found himself standing at his makeshift overhang and workbench. He looked at the tree lines, and observed the setting sun as night swallowed the dieing sun. He thought of all that had happened over the course of the day. He thought of the young woman. He thought of the spring whose water had seemingly healed his pains. He thought of the tools he had been given, and the scrap wood in his sack. He wondered what she meant about the price to be fetched, but in the end he put the thoughts away. He contrived instead that he might build something from it, work them into some project of other so that he could always think back to the utter strangeness of the day.

It was not to be. The carpenter took his wondrous new tools and his sack of scrap and walked. He walked and walked, choosing not to call for a ride and instead made his way home. He did not return to the spring, though he considered it, yet it was of the spring and the woman he owned it which he thought of as he went. In the end, he came back to his home. He hung the tools on his wall in a place of honour in his quaint little kitchen where he could always see them. The sack he rested on the floor by his bed and resolved he should deal with it come the morning’s light. He was not so tired as he liked that he felt he should have slept, but found that so being at peace, sleep came regardless. When he awoke in the morning it was still quite dark.

There was no great familiar mist waiting outside his window that he saw. Swinging his legs over the mattress, the man dropped his feet and found his toes struck something hard. Shoots of pain trammelled up through his shins and reached his heart. He hissed. Fumbling, the man reached for his matches and lit a candle. There he saw his rucksack, and remembered everything that had transpired before. He smiled faintly as he stared at the sack. And then his lips played at a frown. Wood, while hard, had a more forgiving grain than what he had struck. With a lingering sense of hesitation he reached his hands down and unstrapped the lid to his sack and opened it. Something of a disconnect formed in his mind as he looked upon the contents. He saw a glint of his candle against the contents of the bag, a gleam which unkept, unstained wood could not have.

What lay within were bars of gold sharing the proportions of the blocks of wood he had harvested from the wreck of the wagon. The glimmer of the dancing candlefire caused wavelike shimmers to erupt and dance along the walls of his now quite bright bedroom. For some minutes the carpenter sat motionless and gazed into the unearthly glow. Finally he reached his trembling hands into the bag and pulled a bar out, stunned at the weight, how much heavier than the wood it had been it was. He set the bar on the floor, and then another, and another. Some fourteen bars of gold he laid out on the floor. Further, he was stunned to find that even the splinters of wood and the fragments of nail had been transformed, and in the bottom of the bag lay a smattering of unrefined chunks and slivers of gold ore as well as bits of diamond.

Memories came flashing back. Her unearthly poise, her unblemished skin – the feeling that no mortal toil had ever touched her. Her magnanimity and innocence, he searching eye and hidden keenness which she could show at will. Her wagon which nobody had ever seen before, moreover nobody seeming to have heard her coming. After all? What nosy neighbour wouldn’t turn their nose out the door at the sound of a wagon’s wheel on their road, when their road laid claim to no wagon? So much of it made no sense, and he had put these thoughts away, having found himself bewitched by her presence. And that in itself struck him – he was no longer a mere child, being smitten here, or spellbound there. Folk came and they went – but in her presence he felt as good as young. Witless, gormless even.

She had not been a woman so much as a Goddess. Her coming and more her going had been accompanied by Runes. Runes he could not read, but knew tangentially exist. Then he recalled if faintly having seen the birds circling overhead, an uncommon though not impossible occurrence. Had they been heralds? He did not know. It was all a riddle to him. But his blood, it ran presently cold, and he knew he would have no warmth in his limbs until he solved the mystery of what had happened. He scratched at his beard as he stared into the heavenly patterns shifting upon his walls. His mind wandered until it rested upon the slightest memory of his great grandmother who had died when he was a boy. His grandmother had told him often about how she had spoken of Wod and Lok who had been something of haunting spirits which harried the unbaptised in the village of England she had left in her youth.

Grandmother had bought books on the subject, which mother hid upon adulthood. After all… in what respectable Cristian society could such heresies mend? He shook his head. The books had come to him upon his mother’s taking ill and dieing. He had tucked them away in a chest to see neither hand nor sun, not for shame, but apathy. It was in no god that the carpenter had taken his interest – until the dawning of the last day. So gingerly he approached the chest and knelt and pulled the books which his grandmother had so often read in his mother’s youth. Books about ancient Gods and Goddesses, heroes and monsters. Some books were myths and fables. Others were researches by men of letters.

In the coming hours he learned that before her leaving, his great grandmother had offered one last harvest to the Goddess called Erce, whom many understood had been called Nerthus. She had attended the harvests, and after the great conversions to Cristianity had even been called God’s own wife. It had been custom for the peasants to hold festivals in her honour and to feed her until she became great and pregnant with bounty which she would release to them in the following year in gratitude. He learned how in earlier times she had been carried about on a wagon, her feet never touching the ground. Always it was she sought to return to a sacred spring.

The carpenter sat amongst the gifts he had been given. His mind searched and rested upon one of the fables read him in his youth, of Mercury and the carpenter. How a man had been gifted a golden axe by the God for his honesty after having lost his own in a pond. His mother had told him that Aesop’s was not the only version, and that very often Mercury was really the same Goddess who became the Lady of the Lake in King Arthur’s tale. If this were so, the carpenter mused, then Nerthus would have had to come very far on her wagon, indeed.

And then, most stunning of all, came another memory. Great grandmother had once told him that it was her husband who sacrificed their very wagon to afford the leaving of England. And there again, tragically, he had drowned that same day during a fishing accident. It dawned upon the carpenter that it was in service to Nerthus his grandfather had offered the cart, and perhaps, mysteriously, then drowned. To return the wagon to the one she had borrowed it from was her stated goal, having come to give gifts to a bereaved mother. The carpenter shuddered. The pieces which fell into place, they could not be ignored. He had been visited by a Goddess, in the blink of an eye, his understanding of the world had changed and grown.

And so it would seem that the Goddess had never left his family, and that it fell to him to take up Her torch. How he would do this, he did not know, what she wanted he could not say. These were mysteries, it seemed. He had the direst feeling that should he return to the spring he would find the seat there empty. And he would return, as he was increasingly sure others had done for reasons similar to his own. Perhaps on his return he would find others. Perhaps it was enough for the chosen few to keep their course. Time, only time would tell. Still, whatever the case, something dear had been lost with the disappearance of the Goddesses from the lands of men. Something nothing else could replace, a kind of chivalry and sense of place. And it would be worth every drop of sweat and blood to lure them back from the Fields of Ida and back into Midgard where their grace can inspire men toward civility and nobility once again.

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