She left the dark mountain behind— she glanced over her shoulder once to see and nearly lost her footing. After that she only looked forward, and at the map. The wriggling lines on the scrap of lace wrote and re-wrote themselves in an attempt to keep up with the ground she covered. A black stain, a tower-shaped ink spot at the far edge disappeared and re-formed, edged sideways and jumped places in the pattern, and Lizzie did her best to adjust, to keep herself on course.
She leapt swamps, hurtled through a red-streaked village where shopkeepers were closing their shutters; she ducked low to avoid branches in dense forests, but everywhere she ran she raced against the sun. It was at her left constantly. With every step she took it sank further, as if she were forcing it down with the weight of her boots. It was one-third gone. It was half gone. Lizzie ran harder. Had it truly been so far? Shouldn’t she be to Baba Yaga’s woods by now? Shouldn’t she be nearly there?
Her breath caught in her chest and her side seized with an ache that forced her to a limping walk and then to a stop. She gripped the offending muscles and begged them to cooperate. A bat darted overhead and a night bird called.
“Stop it!” she cried. “Stop! It’s too early for you!”
She took a step, and then another. Her knees ached, and, now that she had slowed her pace considerably, she felt where she had knocked elbows, shoulders, hips in her too-fast journey, not to mention the ogre’s burn on her arm that was blistering and which did not fare well with this rough treatment.
She hurried her pace, a shuffle that could barely be called a run, but still, every step was seven leagues. On one deserted road she caught the astonished look of a child, and then was alone again. The sun slipped lower and lower. She was still so far from the castle! The tiny map gave her no comfort, even when it turned her westward and the lines ceased their squiggling. She had only to go directly toward the sunset and she would find her way.
But now there was only one-third of the orange disc in the sky. And then one-fourth. Lizzie urged herself on, but everything felt heavy— and then she understood, or imagined, it was the same thing now— it was his heart that weighed her down like stone, like lead. She was fighting to bring together the wrong ends of two magnets. Whereas her heart clung desperately to its place in her chest, the over-large mass in her hand was repelled, repulsed by the body to which she was bringing it. It pushed against her, an unseen wind. She could not hear Bluebeard’s voice, but she could imagine his triumph, his sick delight that even this long-neglected part of himself was stronger than his little wife.
“I am not your wife!” she shouted through clenched teeth. She held out the heart in her hand. “Help me! Any creature, angel or demon— no, not demon, I’ve had enough of those! Anyone who can, who will! Help me bring Bluebeard’s body and heart back together. Help me make the broken whole!” She waited. Nothing happened. No— the heart grew lighter, or she wished so much for it to be so that she believed it. But it was enough. And this hope gave her more hope; it multiplied. She began to run, a limping, jagged, inelegant run, but one that filled her up with each step.
“The birds help me! Their representative the raven show that! And the fish— and the wolves! The bees! The trees!” she laughed out loud, “The little goats! And every farm girl who wishes for love— and she’ll have it, real love, silly, easy love and then something good and grown-up and lasting.” She pumped her arms and the heart sweated blood in her hand, spattering the landscape behind them.
She glanced ahead at the horizon. “Dear sun! Won’t you help, too? A kindness! A small thing for you to wait just a bit, to hover, just a little time— won’t you help me, please?”
She leaped a stile and suddenly there was a rider beside her— the Red Rider of sunset. She leaped a second fence and saw it was a gate adorned with flaming skulls. The rider on his red horse kept pace with her. “Greetings, brother! Are you here to help me?”
The rider said nothing but he reigned in his horse and let her run ahead. She wanted to look back— oh! she wanted to look back! But there was only time for running.
Now she no longer bothered to look at the map. She could feel the way. She felt it through the soles of the boots. She felt it in her heart. And the heart in her hand felt it, too, and trembled more and more.
The sun hovered, it hung on an iron nail, snagged in its descent. She thought she could hear hoofbeats behind her, gaining on her. She thought she could hear Bluebeard’s growl in her head, thought she could see the world split three dozen ways, but the running took all her concentration and the rest grappled at her mind but did not find purchase.
And then, there it was. She felt the shock of the barrier, but the seven league boots carried her through into the yard. She tumbled, rolled over on her shoulder and kicked the boots off. Two worn-thin, muddy and blood-spattered slippers flew into the air and disappeared in the shadows. Lizzie struggled to her feet and pushed herself forward. Around the wall, up the steps and through the front door.
The heart wouldn’t go. She panicked. Then she clutched it to her breast and dove through the doorway. Upstairs there was a cry. There was more than one cry. If she had had breath for cursing or praying, she might have readily done either. But she only had strength left to climb the stairs, higher and higher, until the plush carpeting gave way to cold flagstones. Her thighs burned, her lungs ached. So exhausted was she that she did not hesitate but pushed hard against the unlatched door. The rough wood swung open and away from her and Lizzie stumbled into the forbidden tower as the last band of red died on the walls and the Red Rider vanished below.
“Well, well. The prodigal returns, and just in time. I would have hated for you to miss this,” said Bluebeard as he slid his dagger across Taisia’s throat.
READER RESPONSE: Leave a comment and tell me what you like, what images stand out, or your curious questions. (No suggestions/grammar critiques, please). Thanks for supporting my work-in-progress! -Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux