By Marlene Simonette
Tranquility waited on the edge of the frozen pond, watching the far side. Every year, the White Mare came with gifts of blankets, sweet fruits, and new clothes. Her family didn’t care where they came from; they needed it, now more than ever.
Tranquility held her breath, listening for another scream from her mother. She was always in pain lately. The traveling midwife had said it was twins.
Her father had said not to wander into the forest. It was, after all, an unexplored place. In addition to that were the rumors of strange creatures. But the Mare was a week late.
“Sorry, papa,” she whispered to her fuzzy reflection on the ice. She hated to disobey, but someone had to go look.
Tentatively, she put one foot out. The ice held. She made her way to the other side, keeping well away from the middle and going around the edge.
Her father didn’t come bounding out the door like some great hound as she’d imagined, nor did her older siblings run out screaming her name. They must have been too busy caring for mother.
“Which is why I’m going,” she said to a passing bird. Humming happily, she ventured further into the forest.
Presently, she came to a glade that she knew well. She passed the broken tree stump that had once held a bee hive, the bare bushes that produced berries in the summer, and all that was familiar.
Tranquility wasn’t afraid. She’d never seen her papa afraid when venturing further in, so why should she be? She did what she’d seen the rest of her family do: she sang.
She’d gone a long ways before her singing was interrupted by a strange noise.
Tranquility cocked her head. It sounded like speech, but it didn’t make sense to her. She crept nearer to the sound and rounded a rock.
Crouched in the snow was a man with a thick cloak draped about him like a bird’s wings. He rocked back and forth, rubbing snow between his hands. A cowl shadowed the upper half of his face, but left revealed a pointed chin and thin lips.
Tranquility, moving quickly to keep warm, approached. “Hello?”
The man jerked, and crawled away on his hands and knees. He stopped, then said something garbled. Tranquility frowned. “What are you saying?”
The man sucked in deep, trembling breaths. “Roebuck,” he gasped after a time. He then pointed to himself.
“Is that your name?” Tranquility giggled, hopping from foot to foot. “That’s funny.” Not to be deterred in her quest, she asked, “Have you seen the Mare?”
“Mare?” Roebuck stilled for a moment. “Yes, that way.” He pointed further into the forest. “I’m trying to catch her.”
“Me, too. Can we work together?”
Roebuck stood. He loomed over her like a tree. “Please.”
“Okay.” Tranquility clenched her teeth and rubbed her semi-bare arms. The cold was beginning to hurt. “Hurry, though, or papa will worry.”
She ran ahead, calling, “Mare, where are you?” She found the horse, still bearing the gifts she commonly brought to the house. Foam lathered her sides and her eyes were wide in fright.
Tranquility stopped a distance away. “What’s wrong?”
Roebuck came up behind her. He whispered, “What do you want her for?”
“She brings my family gifts.”
“Hmm. Hmm. Hmm,” Roebuck undulated.
The Mare shied away, almost coming up on her back legs. Tranquility gaped. “You’re really scared,” she whispered tenderly. “What frightened you?”
Roebuck laughed. “I did, I did.”
Somewhat angered at her companion, Tranquility scowled. “What did you do?”
Roebuck’s thin lips twisted into a shaky smile.
A sudden winter breeze cut through the last of Tranquility’s resistance. She shivered, her teeth chattered, and she wanted nothing more than to get warm.
Roebuck’s cloak fell about her. She “oomphed” beneath the sudden weight.
“The mare will be fine. She has been told to behave.” Roebuck gently tucked the folds of the cloak about Tranquility. She clutched at them and sighed. The cowl covered her entire head, so she couldn’t see. She lifted a hand to raise the hood.
“Not yet!” Roebuck’s frantic voice and trembling grip on her small wrist made her pause.
“I…” There was the sound of shuffling snow. “I don’t want you to see me.”
“Why?” As she spoke, her curiosity got the better of her. She lifted the hood. For a moment she saw a gaunt face, bright eyes hollow and ringed with fatigue, pointed ears, and scraggly hair.
“I told you not to!” Roebuck screamed. He leapt behind the nearest cover—the Mare.
Tranquility fell back, alarmed. The Mare took a step to the side but continued to hide Roebuck from Tranquility’s gaze.
“I told you, I told you…” After a few moments of sobbing, Roebuck sniffed. “Naughty child. I shouldn’t let you ride now. I was going to, give you a ride back to the hovel.”
“I’m sorry.” Tranquility trembled and brushed snow from the cloak. “I didn’t mean to.”
“Will you hide your eyes now?”
Tranquility pulled up the hood. “Yes. I’m sorry I scared you.”
She heard Roebuck shuffle around. “Good girl. You’re still learning. Full of life.” His thin hands guided her to the Mare, and lifted her onto the horse’s back. “Precious thing,” he whispered.
As they went, Tranquility began to feel sleepy. Roebuck continued talking. She listened more to the soft tone of voice that blended with the wind than the words.
“Don’t take it lightly. I have. But not a tale for young ears, or old ones if they can help it. You should be afraid of me. You’re not. Sweet, innocent thing. I hope it takes you long to learn terror.”
~ ~ ~
Tranquility woke in her home, on the bed she shared with her three siblings. Except, she was the only one on it. Shifting sleepily, she called out, “Papa? Serene? Cheer? Hardy?”
The first to answer was the eldest, Cheer. “Thank goodness, you’re alright!” She practically flung herself onto the floor beside the thin mattress. She took Tranquility’s head in her hands and kissed her repeatedly. “Foolish little savior.”
“Where is everyone?” Tranquility rubbed her eyes.
“Hardy and Serene are caring for the Mare. She brought things that will help mother’s pregnancy. Father is with mother. I should be, too.” With a fond smile and one last kiss, she moved away to a partition of worn sheets. “If you want to help, you can go brush down the Mare. She was very scared.”
Tranquility scrambled from the bed. Near the small fireplace—barely lit, but slowly coming to life on a few new coals—a short distance away, she found winter clothes. She changed into these, wondering at the softness, and went outside.
Her siblings and the Mare were between two large pines. The first branches were above their heads, and acted as a makeshift roof. Hardy saw her first. “Want to help me brush?” He held out the item in question, and lifted her so that she could reach the Mare’s neck.
Tranquility worked gently, cooing to calm the horse. When she moved to work on the mane, she gaped. Beneath the thick white hair was a red scar. “Hardy, look!”
Hardy set her down. He whispered a curse that Tranquility knew papa had told him not to say. Hardy sighed. “I’m sorry you had to see that.”
“Who did it?”
Hardy shrugged. He continued currying without a word.
Serene, who was caring for the Mare’s legs, gasped. “There’s another one here, Hardy! How could he do such a thing?”
“Tranquility’s here,” Hardy snapped.
Serene stood up and forced a smile down at her sister. “Hello.”
Completely confused, Tranquility just stared at them. “Who did what?”
Serene and Hardy looked at each other. Hardy said, “Go inside. Cheer probably has something for you to do by now.”
Tranquility headed for the house. Halfway there, she stopped. To her right, footprints were gouged in the snow, and headed to the pond. She followed them. The footprints vanished at the edge, and she thought she could see more on the other side. In the center of the pond was a hole.
She continued to the house. When she was in the doorway, she called out, “Cheer?”
Her sister came scurrying from the partition. “What is it?”
Cheer froze. “Who?”
“Roebuck. He helped me home, and caught the Mare.”
Cheer rubbed her fingers together. She always did that when she was nervous. “He’s a bad man. He left long before you woke.”
Tranquility sighed. “Okay.”
“Why don’t you come in for some cider?”
Tranquility shook her head. “I want to play outside.”
“Hurry, then, it’s getting cold in here. Tranquility.” Cheer knelt and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Promise you won’t go far.”
“I promise.” Tranquility smiled. She wouldn’t go far; only to the clearing, maybe to where they’d found the Mare. That wasn’t too far, was it?
Tranquility crossed the pond again, this time going off to the left instead of straight across. Sure enough, they were Roebuck’s footprints. She followed them.
She found Roebuck huddled beneath a pine. “Roebuck?”
“You came after me?” Roebuck sounded amazed. “But…”
“For what, little one?”
“Bringing me home, and helping the Mare.”
“Helping,” Roebuck choked, “helping the mare?” He shook. A sad laugh rattled out of him. “Helping? No, I wasn’t helping. I haven’t helped in a long time. I’ve hurt so many things…”
Tranquility had no idea what he meant. “Well, you helped me,” she ventured.
Roebuck sniffled and wiped his nose. “I did? I did. I did!” He crawled forward and embraced her. “I helped, I’m so glad.”
Tranquility hugged him back. “Will you come home with me?”
“Home?” Roebuck darted back and slumped at the foot of the tree. “I can’t. They’ll, they’ll, ah, I didn’t, experiments, ah…” He broke down sobbing.
Tranquility rubbed his back, like she remembered her papa doing when she was smaller. “Shh, it’s okay,” she crooned.
Eventually, Roebuck calmed. He sat up. “Your sister threw me out. She chased me, I almost fell into the ice. I don’t think they want me.”
“Cheer?” Tranquility tried to imagine her sister doing anything more menacing than a quick glare. “Why?”
“I hurt the horse.”
“You did that?” Tranquility put her hand to her mouth, the way her mother did when she discovered that a fresh pot of stew had been filled with rocks and insects. “How could you?”
“That’s what your sister said.” Roebuck broke off and shivered. “But you won’t chase me, will you?”
In the distance, someone screamed. Tranquility shouted, “Mama!”
“Wait!” Roebuck sprang up, picked her up as if she were no more than a grass doll, and hid behind a tree. “Shh, shh,” he whimpered. “She’ll come after us, think I hurt you, she’ll hurt me. Ah, that I should live to fear a human girl!”
Tranquility squirmed, her face against his chest. He smelled like the forest, only unwashed by rain or snow. “Put me down, please.”
Roebuck did so. Tranquility gasped for air, then started running back. “Mama’s hurt! I have to go.”
Roebuck matched her stride, loping like his namesake. “You are far from home, but you are not tired because you were looking for me. You will go faster if I am with you.”
Tranquility gave up trying to unravel the riddles of adults. She kept running. The trees went by in a blur, and she saw the pond, the house…and something small lying in the snow.
Tranquility had never seen a baby before, but she recognized it from her mother’s descriptions: small, messy, and beautifully ugly.
Tranquility glanced from the still form to the slightly bloody footprints that trailed in and out of the house. “Why isn’t he inside? Why’d they put him out here?”
From inside came screams and hurried instructions. Near the wall, Tranquility heard Cheer sob, “Don’t tell mother, he’s dead, papa.”
The deep voice of her father replied, “There’s another coming. She must know, but not now.”
Roebuck knelt. “Dead?” He brushed his fingers over the baby’s face. Roebuck chuckled. “I know dead. Dead is…” He glanced at Tranquility. “I know dead. He’s not dead. I will help.” He picked up the form and cradled it beneath his cloak. He murmured softly.
Tranquility couldn’t understand what he said. She wanted to help, so she stroked the baby’s head, cooed, “It’ll be alright,” and occasionally brought herself to kiss the sticky mess that was his face.
Roebuck patted her head. “Lean back. I need room.” He proceeded to do things to the baby’s nose, stomach, hip, and chest. A press here, a blow there, a rub. “Persistence and time. That’s all he needed.”
The baby shuddered, coughed, then sputtered.
Roebuck shoved him into Tranquility’s hands as if he were a brand. “Go inside, he needs to be warm. Don’t tell them it was me!”
With that, Roebuck dashed away on all fours. Tranquility hurried inside. As she crossed the threshold, the little thing yowled. Surprised, she almost dropped him. An answering yowl came from behind the partition.
Serene, hands and arms covered in gunk, looked out. She gasped. “Cheer, Tranquility has it. And it’s…he’s alive!”
Amidst the following noise and questions, Tranquility said nothing. She beamed when she saw her new siblings—both boys—cradled in mama’s arms. She chuckled to herself when she noticed that one had a mark that looked like an animal on his hip.
That night, after putting away the supplies the Mare brought and celebrating the births, Tranquility snuggled up between her older siblings. “Thank you,” she whispered before closing her eyes.
She could have sworn she heard an answer, though no one else seemed to notice. I helped. Ah-haha, I helped!