Birch Skin by Erik Amundsen

All of nature is divided on the subject of a loving fool. The arctic swifts and the squirrels that search through the silver skinned birch trees love love and love fools, but the seals love only love and the squid in their homes down deep know nothing of love but are impressed by the antics of fools. There are some owls that do not suffer fools and will tear at the scalp of a loving fool until their hat runs red at the brim; the reindeer are much too practical to give either love or fools a thought. Witches, the ones who live in the places where the ground is always frozen, whose feet, whatever color they may once have been, are the red of an ice bear’s fresh kill and whose hands are the color of a great squid’s ink, they hate fools, love and loving fools most of all.

The Gods, we must assume, love them, for they make so many.

There was one who lived near the haunts of those witches and who loved and was a fool. She was of the old people who lived in the birches and painted orange spots above their eyes, and you will not have ever seen them, for they are long gone, dead for the most, and the rest dissolved into the lines of others so many generations back that no one knows if there still flows some of that blood, and in which vein. The world forgot her old name long before it forgot her people, because that’s the way of the world, and so for now, her name is Love Fool.

Love Fool had a lover who she much desired to marry, a lover who much desired to marry her as well, and maybe that could have been the end of it, but the people who painted orange spots above their eyes don’t work that way. In the big, grey hall where the banners hang, silver-white banners for wisdom and red banners for war, the old ones, the ones who have suffered all the pain a person can and still survive, meet and decide things. For Love Fool they decided on a different spouse, a man who did not love Love Fool, and who resented her for being chosen as his wife. The decision came late, five days before the height of summer when all the weddings are performed in long, double lines. That day, each newlywed from each couple bore a gift for the old ones to the big, grey hall and waited in turn for their blessing.

Love Fool wasted one day in shock and one day in weeping. On the third, she went to her betrothed, but he would not see her. The old folks, they liked gifts, and Love Fool, in her poverty, had no gifts to give, but perhaps the unhappy man they chose to be her husband would be able to buy his freedom and hers. Love fool spoke this to the birch planks that made his door. She would pay back half, she would pay back all, but his threshold was silent.

“Say something, even if you cannot look at me!” Love Fool pounded on the door until her fist was red and her eyes were puffy.

“Even if I could change their minds with gifts, they will remember, and return for more, and more and more. They will remember when I tried to argue with their decisions and never let me join them. I will marry you, if that’s what I must do, and wait, and when I am sitting in the big grey hall, I will know the names of their children’s children and I will squeeze them dry of happiness.”

When Love Fool heard this, she was filled with disgust. She picked up a piece of flint and gouged the warm, yellow wood of her betrothed’s door. Then she fled.

On the fourth day, Love Fool walked the stony road up to the big grey hall and pushed her way under and between the banners to the place where the old ones were taking their meal. They threw bones at her feet. Bones struck her each of the first three times she opened her mouth to speak and silenced her. The fourth time, the bone went off its aim and she spoke.

“I’ve come to beg you, do not marry me tomorrow.”

“What is this?” The old ones looked with one eye each, talked with mouths full and chewing. “Such a shabby coat. Such a shabby little mouse with such a tiny squeak has come to us. Squeak up, little mouse, our ears are hard of hearing.”

“I cannot marry the man you decided me to marry. I love him not, nor does he love me.”

“Where is your betrothed, then, if he objects to this union, shabby coat? Where are his flutes and furs and bracelets and oil?”

“They’re plotting his revenge, the misery of your grandchildren in payment for this marriage.”

The first of the old ones laughed. “You should be grateful we gave you a husband wise enough to keep his counsel.”

The second finished worrying at a bone and threw it at Love Fool’s feet. “He should curse us for fixing him with such a fool. Not even married and already dashed his chances to join our company.”

The third one grinned at her look of horror. “If you’re seeking comfort, find it in the knowledge that no one for whom we choose a shabby spouse such as yourself has any hope of coming here to live in the big grey hall. Your husband’s thoughts of vengeance are neither novel nor unexpected, and they have no hope of bearing fruit.”

The fifth took aim and struck Love Fool on the jaw with a greasy end of bone. “And find comfort in the knowledge that you may yet be a widow ‘ere too long.”

Love Fool pulled up her sleeves, showing the places on her forearms where the leaf-like marks of her lover’s sign were inscribed in ink and pin and ash on skin. “I love another! Please!”

“Oh, how her husband will beat her when he sees those on her wedding night.” The old ones laughed as one and threw their bones and leavings at her, staining Love Fool’s coat.

Love Fool ducked and when she found her hands close to the floor and the laughter raked at her like hailstones, she picked up a bone and threw it back. It struck the second of the old ones, struck the beautiful coat and fell back on the table, leaving a spot behind.

The hall fell silent.

“You little snake, slither in here with empty hand and shabby coat to question what we decide, what we want. You don’t judge us, you can’t question us. We have suffered all the pain a human being can suffer in life. We deserve everything we decide is ours and don’t you dare to tell us no. You have earned nothing, and learned nothing and suffered nothing. You are worth nothing. Begone!”

All the old ones rained cups and plates and dinner knives down on Love Fool, forcing her from the hall. Their guardians chased her with spears down the stony road, past the place where her betrothed lived, past the place where her lover lived, past the place where she lived and out into the forest, pine and spruce and birch. They chased her in the trees for hours, shouting, cursing, and promising to kill her.

Love Fool was a fast runner, and she could run for long; when she heard the last of her pursuers, she was very far from home. When she stopped she cried all the tears her body held into the roots of the silver birch, and then she rose and chose a direction to walk.

It grew dim. So far north in the high summer, the sun was never gone, but it did swell and redden and the air grew chilly. Love Fool’s coat was ripped and torn. She walked and hugged her sides and cursed herself a fool. Her wedding was undone, sure, but how to get her lover? How to even tell her lover the news? The old ones would not forget this, and neither would their guardians. Love Fool stumbled in the scarlet midnight dusk as the forest grew thick and close together. It may seem strange, having seen the worst of Love Fool’s home that she should miss it, but she had seen much better of it, and so she did miss it, and she grew tired from the chase and the tears and humiliation. She did not see the hut at first.

A witch’s hut is like a hound that knows to hunt and track and lure. The hut knew that Love Fool was vulnerable, and so it appeared to her, nestled in a stand of glowering spruces. It was a little dome the color of a bee hive. Smoke rose from a hole in the center of the roof and an orange light pushed at every seam. The door was nothing more than a bear hide across the opening. Love Fool called inside.

A hand reached out, the color of squid ink; nails like blackberry thorns, long as Love Fool’s fingers. It pulled the witch out into the clearing, lanky, tall, long arms and blood red feet. She stood head and shoulders above the dome of her house like a snail before its shell. Love Fool had no strength for running, so she stayed. She trembled, but she stayed. The witch’s coat was like a hell swallow, mostly black with flecks of scarlet, red and blue, just like the stray feathers on those birds that flew into caves and accidently learned to nest in the underworld. It was beautiful, and Love Fool could not help but think, had she a coat like that, the old ones would have given up her lover before they even thought to ask for gifts.

“So, what do you want?”

Love Fool shook her head. “Rest. I am tired from running. May I come in?” Love Fool repented those words an instant later, looking at both house and owner together, but the witch pulled back the hide and gestured her in and so she went.

Inside, the house was spacious, the ceiling high. Love Fool could see the beams but no higher. The fire was great and it howled as it burned, shedding birch leaves, green and gold, to float upward and vanish in the dark. The Witch followed her in.

“Now, what do you really want?”

“I don’t understand what you’re asking.” Love Fool didn’t completely understand, but she had suspicions.

“No one finds a witch unless they hold a desire in their heart that their lips can’t form. So, form it. Tell me what it is so that you and I can begin our enterprise.”

“My lover is–” The witch clamped a squid-ink hand around Love Fool’s mouth.

“Your lover is not the architect of this design. You have no trouble speaking those desires or inscribing them on skin. Try again, and waste not my time.”

Love Fool looked down at her coat, where the stains from the bones still spotted the fabric; the tears from fleeing the guardians. One of those tears reminded her of the gash she left in her former betrothed’s door.

“I want to get them.”

The witch smiled.

“She learns slowly, but needs be taught only once. The old ones? Difficult if you come as you are. A disguise perhaps? Something to gull the shallow, vain old bullies. Do you fancy my coat?” The witch held up the hem and posed. It pulled on her attention.

“If you and I traded garments, you could surely get close to your old ones, and I expect you could pull all sorts of terrible promises from them before they ever remembered your face or recognized your worth.”

Love Fool looked down at her coat, threadbare, stained, and torn.

“You would do that for me? What would you want in return?”

“Only what things you wear and the chance to remind the future mothers of your people to recommend me to their naughty children. That ought to do.”

“Just that?”

The witch nodded, and Love Fool paused for a moment, and then nodded back. She took off her coat. The witch took it up.

“All that which clothes you.”

Love Fool turned her back to the witch and stripped off the rest of her clothing. She looked over her shoulder; the witch had not yet taken off a stitch.

“I thought you had understood what I was asking. Oh, she does learn slowly, doesn’t she?” The witch’s squid ink hand shot out and grabbed Love Fool by the jaw, lifting her, kicking and naked off the ground.

The witch’s other hand flickered and flexed its fingers and while its owner sang, it took Love Fool like a stick and whittled her whistle-clean of skin. And when it was finished the other hand released to the floor a red, wet whistle that only played a single shrill note from wheezing, bubbling lungs. Only then did the witch undress. The wet red thing writhed on the stones, and the witch put aside her coat. She put aside her other garments, one by one, as the wet red thing left bloody prints. When she was naked, the witch tore through her skin from the inside and the wet red thing found enough air for a proper shriek.

Under her skin, there was an animal with the wedge shaped head and the webbed paws of an otter, big and sleek as a tiger, with wet fur that was darker than pitch and caught the light in greasy rainbows.

“The coat is yours, as promised.” The beast’s voice was deeper, colder, further away and genderless. It threw the coat on the wet red thing and nosed its way into Love Fool’s skin. In an eternity, a time so short as to be appalling, the beast had become Love Fool. She looked down on her former occupant.

“You don’t seem to want your coat right now?” she asked. The wet red thing could not answer.

“That’s fair. I will hold it for you in safekeeping until you wish to take it. I will be in your former home making our agreed upon mischief. Come collect it when you are ready.”

They were outside. Without moving, the hut had put them out. Love Fool held the dome of it in her hands and folded and folded it until she could slip it into the pocket of her beautiful coat, and then she turned and walked from the clearing, leaving the wet red thing keening in a bed of spruce needles and birch leaves.

Certain other types of story would stop there. This one doesn’t.

The sky darkened to nearly the dark of night with thunderclouds and the rain fell. Each raindrop was the lash of a whip on the wet red thing’s flesh. Thunder echoed off the trunks of the trees, branches lashed back and forth. The rain washed away the trail of blood that the wet red thing left in a tortured march from where Love Fool and her former self parted. Lightning flickered. The wet red thing fell and screamed, but stood up. Fell again, lay still for a moment and stood again. Dark green plants began to sprout scarlet flowers, black at the core, in the trail that the wet red thing walked.

The wet red thing did not die. When it began to hail, the blood flowed. When the water began to soak into tissues, the tissues started to drown. When the forest floor was flint and every flint a knife, those knives pointed to drive in the worst of each fall. The wet red thing did not die, but walked a weary, tormented path to the stand of birches that Love Fool watered once with tears. The wet red thing stopped there and looked at the trees and the world turned white.

There was a sound, too big, too close to hear. One of the birch trees exploded with the lightning strike, breaking apart near head height. It fell, knocking down a sister in the stand. The wet red thing looked up at the sky and did not die, and did not hurt; somewhere along that trail, the wet red thing suffered all the pain that can be suffered in a lifetime, and looked at the fallen tree with only wonder.

Sheets of silver bark hung from the broken places in the trunk; under that, something green and desperate still flowed and pulsed and reached out for its roots. The wet red thing touched the green beneath the bark and the green grew quieter. Here was the iron taste of earth; the wet red thing felt the calm and realized what needed to be done.

In the rain, in the tossing and lashing of the branches, the fall of leaves, green and gold, the wet red thing stripped the bark off the fallen trees with living green beneath, and fitted it, strip by strip to flesh. Once the green beneath the bark came to understand what the wet red thing was doing it began to slough from the dead trunk and shape itself to the body that put it on.

It took longer than it took the witch to put on Love Fool, but it did not take long; Birch Skin’s hands were fast and her heart had moved past suffering into clarity and purpose alone. She made herself a silver girl skin, seamed at first, awkward, tied in places with pine needles, squelching with water from the soaked tissues beneath, but as she worked, it became as skin and hair sprouted at the scalp and grew in thick and long, red-black like the color of birch twigs.

They say the flesh beneath that silver skin became as hard as wood.

Birch Skin took a sliver of flint and carved the leaf-shapes of her lover’s sign into her forearms and blackened them with the ash from where the lighting struck the tree. She made herself a tunic of birch leaves that grew together, green and gold, and a coat of the leavings of her resurrection; the silver of moonlight, the silver of clouds, the grey of flint, the black of the storm that broke above her.

Birch Skin made her way past Love Fool’s home, open and empty, ransacked by her neighbors the moment her fleeing form was out of sight. She passed the home of her lover, the one she meant to steal back from Love Fool when they met. She passed the home of Love Fool’s intended, the one she was meant to marry once the sun was at its lowest on the night of the solstice; that was still hours off, but not many. She walked up the stony road to the big grey hall and pushed her way around the double line of people, happy and sad who had come to the hall to be married. She pressed aside the silver white and red banners and stood before the old ones, where they were holding audience for Love Fool and her lover. They were half enchanted by her stories and her promise of routes to hidden treasure, and half enchanted by her coat.

They half rose when Birch Skin came before them, but they saw that her coat was the kind of silver that any fish would crow to wear and were still.

“You’re welcome here.” They all nodded. Love Fool narrowed her eyes at the newcomer.

“How can we serve you?”

Birch Skin looked them over. Then she looked to Love Fool, and then to her lover.

“I have much business to discuss today, but I know your time is short, so I will be brief.”

Birch skin turned to Love Fool. “I’ve come for the return of the garments you promised me, coat and all.”

Love Fool narrowed her eyes at Birch Skin, but there was no recognition there. “I’ve never met you. I have no idea what you mean, and I owe you nothing.”

“So you’re saying our deal is forfeit?”

“Of course it’s forfeit! How can it not be when–” It was a slip on the part of the witch inside the skin. They’re always a little careless when their skins are fresh. The cunning comes back with the reddening of the feet and the inking of the hands.

“What’s going on?” Love Fool’s lover took her hand and pulled her protectively close. Birch Skin’s mouth smiled, just a little, her heart jumped.

“This isn’t your lover. Look.” Birch Skin pulled back the sleeves of the witch’s coat, showing the marks on Love Fool’s arms, through which black fur poked and the marks Birch Skin had made in her own arms. Love Fool’s lover saw them both.

“Our bargain is forfeit.” Birch Skin took back her garments and thrashed the beast inside the skin up and down the hall with fists as hard as stove wood. The old ones sat paralyzed, and when she turned her eyes back to them, they flinched.

“We’re happy to see you’ve resolved that dispute. Is there’¦ anything else we can do?”

“Yes. I would like to join you.” This caused a moment or two of mumbling, back and forth.

“I don’t think that’s possible. Even though your skin is silver your hair is still black, your face still young, your vigor’¦” They all looked at the result of Birch Skin’s fight with the beast.

“But I have suffered all the pain a human can, so I am eligible, despite my age.”

“How can we know that?”

Birch Skin reached into a brazier and took a hand full of coals. Then stuffed them into her mouth, chewed and breathed a cloud of sparks over the old ones that singed their hair and burned little holes in their best coats. She then stuck her unblistered and unscarred tongue out to the old ones to view. None could think of a counter argument.

When the couples began to come in for their weddings, Birch Skin sat and asked each couple if they wanted to be with one another. Any couple who both said yes she married; any others she sent away. Each one left with a gift from the old ones’ stores.

At the close of all this, the sun was returning to dominance in the sky and the only ones left were the old ones, mortified and yawning, and Love Fool’s lover, looking thoughtful.

“You were my Love Fool?”

“I was, but I don’t think I could be her again.” She left the Love Fool skin where it fell for the old ones to handle; it didn’t feel like it was hers.

“Would you come with me anyway, out into the forest?” She asked.

“Would you have me come with you?”

Birch Skin stretched out her hand, her lover took it. She turned back to the old ones.

“If you are cruel to anyone in your care, I will have them know to come to the place in the forest where the lightning struck down the trees and make their case. I will come back, then and you will have to make yours.”

The old ones, who had not quite suffered all the pains a human being can suffer, had nothing to say. Birch Skin and her lover left them and walked into the forest with a folded witch’s hut and their coats trimmed with thick, dark fur.

Erik Amundsen is kind of an evil person, but he caucuses with good. He lives with his wife, and some animals in central Connecticut.

Image: Birch, photography by Andreas, made available under a NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.