Something a bit longer than normal, today. This is part of a much larger piece – well, a novel that I’m working on, tentatively entitled Confronting the Wolf for reasons that will be entirely unclear in this extract – but I think it stands up well enough on its own. I think it may be the best thing I’ve written so far – certainly the most satisfying to write, though there are a few problems in there, one or two turns of phrase that I might change up in the future. Any constructive criticism is very welcome.
When she was fifteen, Eleanor did the second-worst thing of her life.
Since she’d been able to walk, she’d played with the other children of the village, whenever she could. There was a little gang that she’d hang around with – four boys, two girls. Jack, Owen, Steven, Alfred, Eleanor and Annie. For a few years, they were all that mattered to her.
Eleanor had an older brother, who was their parents’ obvious favourite. He was ten years older than her. He smiled when she talked to him and called her ‘Ellie’, but he had his own life, and she was only a small part of it.
She had an older sister, too, six years her senior. She rolled her eyes when Eleanor spoke, and called her ‘a pest’.
To her friends, she was ‘El’. Owen and Alfred’s sister Annie was very much the girly one. So delicate! So pretty. Eleanor – El – liked to climb trees and taunt dogs.
Jack was their leader. He was a head taller than the rest of them, and a little older. He was like a god, almost. The Sun always shone on him, and he was always smiling.
The all looked up to Jack, even Alfred and Annie, which was the source of some resentment from Owen. Where was his respect? But he loved Jack, too, so this was only expressed in the occasional scowl.
On Jack’s thirteenth birthday, when Eleanor was twelve, they had kissed. She had led him away from the rest of the group, just two minutes into the forest; under the shade of an old oak tree, she gave him her present. Earlier that day there had been strawberries and lamb, so his lips were sweet and greasy and salty. She closed her eyes: she was lost in that taste, in that moment. He smelled, faintly, of soap, but with the much more familiar scent of his sweat intruding on the cleanliness. The birds in the trees stopped their singing. There was not even a gust of wind. There was only the two of them, together, forever.
Eleanor touched Jack’s arm; she felt his hand on her shoulder, pushing her away. She stumbled back, a string of saliva dripping onto her chin, and opened her eyes. Her breath caught in her throat: Jack was staring at her, shocked.
‘El,’ he said, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. ‘What are you doing?’ Then he started laughing.
Jack had many laughs. There was the one he used for a good joke; the one for when they were just out of danger; the one he used when he got to the top of a tree before the rest of them; the one he used when they all lay down under the Sun, exhausted after a swim in one of the rock pools. And then there was the laugh he used whenever little Alfred did or said something so stupid that he couldn’t believe his own senses.
Eleanor felt sick. Blood rushed to her face. She had a ribbon in her hair, was wearing her best dress (which she’d ruined by running through the forest); she’d even stolen some of her sister’s make-up, which had cost a dozen eggs and a pound of butter to a travelling salesman the year before. Even with all of that, Jack was looking at her not as Eleanor, or even Ellie, but El – part of the gang, part of his gang, and that was all.
She took a step backwards.
‘Don’t tell anyone,’ she said, and then she turned and ran, tears pouring down her face.
Nothing was the same after that. She still went out to play with them, but Eleanor always felt awkward around Jack. And then, one day, when they were sitting around being bored, Jack told the rest of them what had happened. The all laughed. Annie gave Eleanor a pitying look, as if to say: well, what did you expect? It’s not like you’re a proper girl, really. Eleanor laughed along with them, because the only alternative was to cry, but she felt her insides shrivel up while she did so. After that, Alfred took to asking her for a kiss every time they met. He loved it. For once, he wasn’t the one being laughed at.
Two months after the kiss, Eleanor’s sister was married, so Eleanor had to take on her share of the chores. She met her friends less and less – once a week, at most. This suited her just fine.
The rest of them forgot all about the kiss, about the laughter, but not Eleanor. She brooded on it, while she swept the floors, while she pulled clothes through the mangle, while she fed the chickens. She distracted herself as best she could, talking to her parents or her brother, but the thought would not leave her alone: Eleanor – El – with her dull hair, her squished nose, her freckles, with all her flaws, with her boyish face – how could she have thought herself worthy of Jack? How could she have been so stupid?
And yet, still, whenever she saw him her heart skipped a beat. He’d pushed her away, but he’d touched her – his hands had been strong, but not calloused yet, not like her father or brother. She’d lay down in bed and close her eyes and think of him, and that thought would keep her warm at night.
One day, when she was fourteen, she saw Jack holding hands with Annie. Her friends, of course, they all knew – the whole village knew. Jack and Annie were courting. How adorable.
Eleanor felt sick.
Jack, Annie, Steven, even Alfred – they’d all forgotten about the kiss; or they’d pretended to, at least. Once, when he saw Eleanor staring at the couple and forcing herself not to cry, Owen put a hand on her shoulder.
‘I’m sorry, El,’ he said. She looked at him, then at his hand. She shook him off. It was far too late for sorry.
There was a market at a nearby town, on the first Tuesday of each month. Eleanor’s brother started taking her along, to man their stall when he was off wooing a blacksmith’s daughter. On her third visit, just two days after she’d turned fifteen, Eleanor met a witch.
‘Oh, now that’s the saddest sight I ever saw,’ said the old woman – the oldest Eleanor had ever seen; ‘Give me your hand, girl.’
Eleanor obeyed without thinking. The old woman’s fingers were bony and strong, digging in to Eleanor’s skin. The girl couldn’t pull away, even if she wanted to.
‘Oh,’ said the old woman, stroking Eleanor’s palm with her thumb. ‘Oh, I see. Yo love him, but…’ she looked Eleanor in the eye and smiled very slightly, sympathetically; ‘He loves another. I can see your whole life in your hand, girl; you die cold and alone, unless…’
Eleanor drew back her hand; the woman let her go. The old woman held eye contact for a moment, then looked down at the wares, running her finger along the edge of the stall. Eleanor gulped.
The old woman smiled a toothless smile.
‘Do you know what I am?’
Eleanor had heard stories, of course. Houses with chicken-legs; cats that could speak. There’d been one old woman that Alfred had been terrified of, but she’d died four winters ago, so if she’d had any powers they hadn’t been of much use. There had also been a man dressed in black who’d passed through the village when Eleanor had been nine, that her sister and brother and parents had all been afraid of.
‘Yes,’ said Eleanor.
‘Good. I can change your fate, girl, for a dozen eggs and two of those chickens. Come away with me for an hour.’
At the witch’s house, with the curtains drawn, the old woman stirred a pot while Eleanor described Jack.
‘He’s tall,’ she said, ‘taller than me by two heads. And he’s strong – you can tell by how he walks. His hair is like…’ she bit her lip, hesitant to use the phrase she’d heard in a fairy tale. But if you can’t use it when talking to a witch, when can you? ‘His hair is like spun gold, it shimmers under the Sun. His eyes are green; a really light, clear green.’
As Eleanor spoke, the witch would select one or another sprig of herbs or some little vial of powder or oddly-shaped stone, and she’d drop it into the pot.
‘When he smiles, you can see all of his teeth, especially the pointy ones. Oh, and he’s got a scar, just a little one, on the palm of his hand.’
The witch nodded and dropped a little silver coin into the bubbling liquid.
‘That’ll do,’ she said. ‘Give me your hand, girl. There’s only one last thing.’
The witch clutched Eleanor’s hand; with one swift motion, she picked up a knife and cut the girl’s palm. Eleanor gasped. She tried to pull her hand away, but the witch was too strong. Blood trickled down into the cloudy water, which began to boil more vigorously.
‘Creating love,’ said the witch, ‘is a hard thing. Done properly, it takes at least a month. Destroying love – well, that’s much quicker, that’s the work of an afternoon at most. Easiest of all, though, is transferring it – from this Annie to you, girl.’
The witch let her go; Eleanor pulled her hand back, nursing it, and shrank away from the pot. The cut wasn’t very deep. The witch threw her a cloth, to soak up the blood.
‘Didn’t see that coming, did you? Ha. Wear a pretty smile, carry a sharp knife – that’s me. Here we go.’
The witch dipped a ladle into the pot, stirred three times, then pulled it out. She took an empty vial from the shelf next to her, and poured a little of the liquid into it. She got out a stopper with some string threaded through it, and jammed it into place, sealing the brown potion away.
‘Keep it next to your skin, near your heart, until you’re ready to use it. Your Jack must drink the whole lot down. You can keep that cloth.’
Eleanor found her brother waiting at the stall, angry. He called her an idiot and slapped her on the back of her head – she’d left it unattended, had she even thought about what could have happened? His breath smelled of beer.
It took her a month to work up the courage to do what she wanted. In that time, she never took off her strange little necklace, not even to wash. In that time, she watched Jack and Annie get closer and closer. One say she saw them kissing, and that was her limit.
She took her chance on his birthday. She slipped the potion into his drink; shortly afterwards, he had a headache.
‘What’s wrong?’ asked Annie.
‘I don’t…’ Jack shuddered. ‘I just feel a little ill. Just tired, probably.’
He was so stoic: though he was clearly in pain, he kept talking to the others; he smiled, even though he had to grit his teeth. It made Eleanor love him all the more, but it also made her worry – had she poisoned him? Had the witch tricked her?
She didn’t sleep that night. The next day, without doing any of her chores, she went to check on him. As she approached his house, she saw him throwing scraps into his family’s pigsty.
Jack turned and looked at her and smiled. He walked up to her, grabbed her shoulders and – before Eleanor knew what was happening – kissed her.
‘I love you, El,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know why I never realised it before–’
She kissed him back.
Eleanor took great joy in the next few days. She watched as Jack broke Annie’s heart into tiny little pieces. She felt a pang of guilt over this; but balanced against that was every insincere smile, every raised eyebrow, every pitying look that pretty little Annie had ever sent her way. It was satisfying to see those perfect blue eyes go puffy and red through crying; to hear that pitch-perfect voice crack.
Jack took Eleanor out into the forest, and they lay down together under an old oak tree.
Every time he looked at her, Jack’s gaze was full of adoration, as if she was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. He would come and find her, in secret, every day, and they would kiss; and when there was an opportunity, they would do more than that.
She loved it at first – that adoration, that devotion – but it was tiring. She started to feel guilty, ill: she didn’t deserve this. She didn’t deserve his love, she had stolen it.
And then Jack died.
It was a stupid thing, a small thing. On his way to meet Eleanor, as he had been doing every day for three weeks, Jack tripped. He hit his head against a fence-post, and that was that.
Eleanor felt numb all over. It was her fault – her greed and jealousy had made it happen. She went to a stone ridge a little way into the forest, where the six of them sometimes played. There was the remains of a rope swing dangling from a tree on one of the river banks. Eleanor looked down into the water, she leaned over the wall until she was on the tips of her toes. A sudden gust of wind could have sent her over the edge: that was what she wanted. That was what she deserved. She offered up a brief prayer to whatever gods were listening; but the air stayed still.
She went about her chores in a daze, mechanically. She’d respond to attempts at conversation with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, or even a nod. She didn’t smile. She barely slept, because when she dreamed it was of him: of the life she could have had. One month passed like this, then another; and she realised, sluggishly, that she must be pregnant.
Eleanor went to the bridge once more, and put her life in the hands of fate. The next day, she told her parents everything – the witch, the potion: all of it. From the looks they gave her, Eleanor thought they might kill her.
‘A witch!’ shouted her father. ‘How could you be so stupid?’
She felt so small, so isolated. She just wanted to dig a hole and curl up and be buried and forgotten.
There was a certain kind of mushroom that could be useful in this situation. Her mother collected them and boiled some into a tea. Eleanor sat, with a cup in her hands, for close to an hour. Several times she brought it to her lips; but inside her was the only piece of Jack left alive. Finally the tea was cold, and she poured it away.
Since Jack’s death, Owen had come into his own. He’d been just as shaken by it as everyone else, of course, and he mourned his friend; but it was as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders, and he was able to stand up tall for the first time in his life.
When Owen was twelve – just two weeks from his thirteenth birthday – Jack had told them all about the kiss Eleanor had given him. Owen had laughed along with the rest of them at first, but as it went on he started to feel bad. He could see Eleanor’s face turning red, even though she was laughing too. But he didn’t say anything.
That day had changed everything. He’d never thought of Eleanor – El – as being any different from him, or Jack, or Steven; now he looked at her in a different light. His gaze started to linger. He memorised all the little actions she did – the little flick of the wrist when she pointed at something, the way she scratched the back of her neck when she was embarrassed; the closed-mouth smile she’d only use when Jack was speaking.
He was in love, but so was she.
Owen had tried to confess his feelings to Eleanor many times, but he’d never managed to actually say the words. For her part, Eleanor was completely oblivious to his love. But now that Jack was gone, now that he had this new confidence behind him, he went to her home and told her what he felt.
Two weeks later, they were married.
Eleanor tried to feel grateful. She’d been saved, after all. But Owen’s house was strange to her; they did everything slightly differently; Annie was suspicious of her, though she and Jack had been careful not to let anyone know of their relationship; Owen’s parents were all but actively hostile towards her, because they thought that fifteen was too young for a man to marry. And she didn’t love him.
She had hoped that love would grow, as her mother had said it would; but instead Eleanor grew to resent her husband, then to feel contempt for him. All these years he’d wanted her, but had been too cowardly to speak up. Oh, he’d stood up to his parents and married her, but that didn’t matter: he wasn’t Jack.
Eleanor gave birth six months after her marriage. As if the timing wasn’t enough of a give-away, the boy had Jack’s eyes and hair. Even his smile was like his father’s. But Owen would have none of it.
‘He’s my son,’ he said, ‘and that’s the last I want to hear of it.’
She felt something for him, then – not the love she’d felt for Jack, not even close, but something strong and warm, nonetheless. Then he turned and looked at her, and she saw that he knew, that he was performing an act of charity by claiming her son as his, and her feelings turned upside-down. She wanted to spit in his face and shout ‘No, he’s not yours! He’ll never be yours!’
There was only one name the boy could have.
Her worst suspicions confirmed, Annie refused to even stand in the same room as Eleanor. Owen’s parents avoided looking at her, and only spoke to tell her to keep ‘her child’ under control. Alfred was at least bearable; he would nod at her when he came in from the field, and sometimes even smile. Eleanor knew that she could have told Owen all of this, and that he would try to put a stop to it, but she didn’t want any more reasons to feel indebted to him. Besides, it didn’t matter: she had her little Jack, and the rest of them could go jump off a bridge.
Later that year, she was pregnant again. There was no mistaking it this time – this child would be Owen’s. Eleanor worried or her son: so far Owen had been as good as his word, he’d treated little Jack as his own. Would that change? Owen’s parents softened against her – they were still not nice, but they seemed happy that a real grandchild was on its way. Eleanor would look down at her Jack and think to herself that two must be better than one. Maybe it would change things: maybe bearing Owen’s child could lead her to love him.
Her daughter was born a month early, and didn’t draw a single breath.
The years passed. Alfred moved away, Annie got married. Eleanor had more and more stillborn children by Owen. It was his fault, she decided: her husband wasn’t one tenth of the man her Jack had been. Whatever affection she’d had for Owen died out over the years. By the fourth, fifth and sixth time she didn’t even cry. First came dread, then resignation; none of it mattered. She had her Jack, and that was enough.
The years passed. Owen’s mother died, and his father collapsed in on himself. Owen kept treating Jack as his own son, teaching him everything he needed to know, but the boy’s grandfather refused to acknowledge him. Nine years after Jack’s birth, Eleanor was pregnant again.
Eleanor’s heart was hardened against loss, but this time everything went perfectly. Their daughter had Eleanor’s squished nose and Owen’s bovine eyes: she was an ugly child, and Eleanor did not like her. They named her Sally, after Owen’s mother.
She tried to love her daughter, as she had tried to love her husband, but Sally was ugly and loud and inconvenient. Eleanor felt no connection there. Once, as she held the infant’s head, Eleanor considered just how easy it would be to break the girl’s neck.
Little Jack loved his sister, though, and that was enough to keep Eleanor going. He was a sweet, nice boy: as adventurous and strong as his father had been, but without the old Jack’s mean streak.
Sally was a troublesome baby, but she soon grew out of that. She learned to be almost a shadow, staying out of her mother’s sight and following her brother around.
Then came the war. The boy-King of Camlen wanted to crush the free towns, and all able-bodied men were needed. Eleanor begged on her hands and knees, she screamed at her husband with tears flowing down her face and phlegm choking her throat, but it did no good. Jack wanted to fight, he wanted to prove himself.
The war was over quickly – only three months later men started arriving home. Jack and Owen were not amongst them.
Eleanor felt numb all over. It was her fault. She should have tried harder to stop them. Now she was alone with an ugly girl she neither loved nor liked and a stupid old man she hated. She went out to the stone bridge one day and balanced on the wall. She waited and waited for the wind to blow, but it never did.
She went about her chores automatically, as if she was in a dream. She thought of her Jack, who’d been the same age as her Jack when he’d died. She didn’t ever speak to Owen’s father, and only spoke to Owen’s daughter to give her instructions. Alfred and her brother visited a few times, and she forced herself to be polite, but while they were with her Eleanor always wished that they had died rather than her son. They soon stopped visiting, which suited Eleanor just fine.
One year passed, then another. The old man died. Sally as upset by this, and Eleanor forced herself to touch the girl. She was surprised by the vice-like hug around her waist that she got in return. Another year passed, and the winter was cold, and the harvest was poor. Another year passed, and there was another war, and one day men in armour came to her door.
There were three of them, and a fourth staying with their horses.
‘May we come in?’ said one of them. Eleanor’s eyes flicked from their swords to their scarred faces. She nodded silently and backed away from the door frame.
‘We don’t have much to eat, I’m afraid.’ It was the truth, and had been for a long time. Her stomach was almost empty. The first man snorted.
‘We’re not here for peasant food.’
Eleanor led them through to the dining-room, trying not to show her fear. If they didn’t want food, then what? She clenched her fists to prevent a shudder from shaking through her. She hoped that Sally was outside, somewhere far away, though Eleanor had left her not ten minute before kneading dough. For a few, long moments that hope was all that mattered; Eleanor was almost surprised at how far her stomach sank when she saw her daughter there. Before she could say anything, before she could shout ‘run!’, the first man moved to block the other exit.
One of the men was very young, only a little older than Jack had been, though not half as handsome. He never smiled. Eleanor pulled Sally in front of her and held onto the girl’s shoulders as tightly as she could; the man sat at the table and picked at the dough. He looked Eleanor in the eye, and in his gaze she saw no pity.
‘Do you know who I am?’
She shook her head, unable to break away from his gaze, unable to speak. The young man opened up a purse and flicked a silver coin through the air; Sally caught it, looked at it, and gasped.
‘Mum,’ she said, ‘look! It’s him!’
Eleanor took the coin: the portrait there was of the young man. Once dead, twice born: the boy-King of Camlen, sitting in her house.
‘Yes, yes,’ he said, waving the formality away with the flick of a wrist. ‘We have business to attend to with you. What’s your name?’
‘Very well, Eleanor. A portion of my army needs to go through the woods by your village, but we need permission from the owner to do so. The price for that permission,’ he nodded at Sally, ‘is your little Sally.’
‘What? How do you know…?’
‘This is the right house, then.’ The King took his purse and emptied it on top of the dough. Eleanor tried to count the coins, but there were too many – enough to live off for three or four years. ‘If it was was anyone else asking for this, I’d run them through, but my sister wants a servant. She wants your daughter.’
Eleanor looked at the money, that could keep her going for a long while. It could fill her stomach. She looked at the King, and the man standing behind him, both of them wearing swords.
When she was thirty-six, Eleanor did the worst thing of her life. She turned her daughter to face her and knelt down and said:
‘Sally. You’ve got to go with these men and do exactly what they say. Do you understand?’
‘Yes.’ Sally’s eye’s were starting to water. The girl was scared but, Eleanor could see, she also trusted her mother. Eleanor felt a stab of guilt, then, at every resentful thought she’d harboured towards her daughter. It was like a thousand knives were stuck in her heart.
‘Don’t cry,’ she said, ‘be strong. Wear a pretty smile, carry a sharp knife. You go with these men. You do what you’re told. Be good.’
And with that, Eleanor was all alone.