Written in 1999, aged 15.
Warning: violent themes
The storm broke with a sudden violence. The white flash of lightning heralded a crash of angry thunder. A moment later the rain began to fall, in solid icy droplets.
The horse and rider had just emerged from the shelter of a thick dark forest, halting on a ridge overlooking a vast valley. The rider was a waif of a girl, clad in a long woollen cloak, thick and warm, wrapping her body against the storm’s ferocity. She turned her gaze to the sky, unafraid of the frenzied tempest. The clouds were a dark grey mass, rolling close to the ground, obscuring the distant mountain tops like a shroud. Against this menacing background were patches of a darker, more sinister cloud, black and ominous, bringing the threatening thunder with them.
The girl was aware of this but wasn’t troubled; she wasn’t really concerned with the weather for it merely reflected her mood. She was remembering a long forgotten period of her life which she had hoped to never revisit. She wished she had taken the road she had been advised to take. It had shelter, from both the weather and bandits. She then would never have stumbled upon the little brook running through a quiet thicket in the forest. She would have never have fallen back into her memories on hearing the cackling rusty voice of an old woman.
* * *
Ever since she could remember, she had known the old woman. The old woman didn’t have a name, not one the girl had ever heard. The old woman was just the “old woman”. She was very ugly, the girl remembered. She had a big hooked nose, bushy eyebrows and a heavily wrinkled face. She was tall to the little girl, towering over her like an ogre. The old woman wasn’t just ugly in appearance; she had an ugly nature as well. The girl remembered sly smacks across her head, just for the sake of violence. She remembered so many of these attacks, maybe that was why she didn’t like the old woman, why she hated her. Maybe it was the fear that was driven into her, made her hate the old woman so much, that feeling of helplessness.
The girl remembered one particular incident quite clearly. It was the turning point. The old beast had slapped her around the head, over and over. She could still remember the ringing in her ears, the watering eyes, the smarting face, blood trickling from her nose, the taste of it in her mouth. She couldn’t cry, or even make a sound, she would have just been hit harder. The old woman had cursed her, taunted her, yelled at her to stick up for herself, to fight back, to stop being so weak…
The girl had controlled her rage, her fear, hard as it was, and tried to block out the pain. She had hated with a passion that people would not have associated with a mere seven year-old, children are not meant to have such strong feelings. It was hard for the girl but she had a strong will; she was not one to be ground into nothing. She had wondered if the old crone was really a witch. A girl-stealing witch who killed mummies and daddies, spiriting away their beloved children. The girl now realised this was fantasy, but it held hope for the unloved and mistreated child she had been. Hope was what kept people going, without it they just shrivelled up and died, losing their soul and identity. So hope kept her going, helped her to survive. The girl knew she could not endure this treatment much longer – if she wasn’t beaten to death she would have been beaten into submission, and that was much worse than death could ever be. Dying meant no more: no more pain, no more senseless violence, no more reasons to hate, no more anything.
She had woken with a start that night and found the terror she was feeling was a nightmare – although it was hard to discern from the fear she constantly experienced. She had known then that she needed to solve her problem – there was no one else to help her – she only knew the old woman and the forest, no one else… She crept back to the cottage, hoping the old woman was fast asleep; if she was awake the girl would never get another chance. She quietly opened the door and snuck into the kitchen-end of the hovel, and finding cloth, she tore it to pieces. It was hard to be stealthy but she crept over to the nest of rags that was the old woman. The girl remembered dispassionately staring at the sorry excuse for a human being, hesitating a breath. Regaining her stance she had started to methodically bind the crone’s limbs, first her arms and then her legs and eyes. When she had finished, she retrieved the butter-lamp from the corner, the brush and timber from the hearth and the flint from the mantle. The girl then placed all the items randomly around the old woman, pouring the lamp’s oil over the rags and the old woman’s hair. Striking the flint she lit the fodder, watching as it became a blaze, hearing the now-conscious crone’s screams of fury, fear and pain. She remembered feeling a kind of release, like she was no longer an object of violence but a human being. It felt good, so good. When the heat of the inferno became too fierce she had retreated into the forest, back to the embrace of her solid oak tree.
* * *
The girl started, suddenly aware of her surroundings. She was still sitting on her horse, overlooking a vast valley. It was still raining heavily, and the rain was still accompanied by fierce thunder and iridescent lightning. Her cowl was now soaked through and she was shivering uncontrollably. The girl decided that the other side of the ridge was too far to ride too in such a storm, so she turned the horse and rode back into the shelter of the forest.
After she rubbed down the horse and lit a fire, the girl sat down – staring over the fire into the distance.
* * *
She thought back to nine years ago when she had woken at the nunnery. After the fire she had fallen to sleep under the kind old oak, then woke and walked forth in a daze of dehydration. A helpful traveller had found her, given her some water and taken her to a building atop a cliff overlooking a river. The kindly nuns there had nursed her back to health – she couldn’t remember most of it, she had been encased in a shell of shock and delirium. She wondered how much she had revealed to them as she raved through her fever; she must not have mentioned the fire, as the gentle nuns had never pressed her about it… They had raised her, given her an education, and when the time came, found her employment.
Stretching, the girl walked to the edge of the forest to check if it had stopped raining. She liked watching rain, so she sat on a log under a trees embrace. The tree’s wood reminded her of her room back in the broch. She was a messenger for the Lord Baron. She liked belonging to the household, she felt content and safe.
On that thought there was a sudden gust of wind. The rain ceased and thunder faded away, the lightning dispersed. And the sun slipped from behind the boiling mass of clouds and shone down on a single drop of water settled on a leaf. The drop glowed golden and sent out rays of light into a fresh new world.
I was asked to write a short story in Year 10 at school. We weren’t given any guide lines, we were just told to write something creative. My teacher had a lot of objections to Rebirth’s themes. At first she wanted me to rewrite the story, she refused to accept it the plot as it stood. She believed the girl deserved some retribution for having such a violent act in her past. She didn’t comprehend that the girl had violence in her past, but she wasn’t the perpetrator. She didn’t deserve more ugliness in her life. The girl was exorcising that violence from her life. Violence follows you if you run. Only the lucky ever truly escape it. Yes, murder is wrong, violence is wrong. But sometimes running away is no escape. The old woman was never a person, but a concept. Mrs MacKay, my English teacher wanted me to rework it and when I refused to mutilate this story that spoke to me, she asked me to write a different story, one which had no violence. I had a big heartfelt discussion with her and she refused to accept this story for submission (despite the fact she had given us no guidelines, and had expressly stated such). I was my passive aggressive little self and instead I sat down and wrote her a story which was exactly what she wanted. Something that was cheap and easy, with a gimmicky twist at the end. She was so impressed with that one that she gave me an A+ and read out loud it to the class. But it was a shallow piece I had written especially for her, one with no emotions, no issues, nothing of substance… It was a good piece of writing, however, so I buried a copy in my writing file. I am ashamed about how cheap it made me feel. I think this response is why I still appreciate this story. It was never meant to be something that people would feel all warm and cuddly over. People don’t always have happy childhoods. The world is filled with hate and violence, normally with no discernible reason. People aren’t being punished when they become a victim. I know Rebirth isn’t the best short story, and I have friends who have better skills with the pen, but it speaks to me, so I wanted to share it here… Just remember I was only 15 when I wrote it, and forgive some of the sentence structure and writing style clichés. I’ve always had the problem of having overly flowery descriptions – it’s how I see the world.