An excerpt from my upcoming novel. Out 7/15!
“Well,” Finch muses, “we’ll take the left road. Into the mountains.”
The woman doesn’t look stable enough to make a climb on her own and Finch feels she has done enough killing for one evening. Leaving the hag to teeter off up a mountain on her own will only be adding to her body count. Plus… she’s amused at the similarities, at the tiny part of her playing a childish game of make believe. It’s fun to imagine…
This is Gulbah.
She is an old hag, after all. And Finch met her at a crossroads under a full moon. And she’s asking for directions.
Sophie will find the story amusing.
And maybe, if she can just guide enough old ladies to their destinations, she might have just enough tinder to light up a little goodness in herself again.
Desperate to believe in fairy tales.
Look how far she has fallen.
Look just how essential she’s realized delusions are. Reality isn’t worth living through if you don’t have your dreams at the end of the day.
So Finch risks her life now. All on an old Sakhanan fable.
She steps forward and takes the old hag by the arm. When the half-expected knife doesn’t materialize, plunged deep into her side, they take their first, teetering step forward. And then another.
And then another.
They come to three more forks before they even make it to the foothills, but Finch just keeps guiding them towards the mountain. Twice more the bell lows and Finch follows the sound across gravel and dirt paths and then, finally, ancient cobblestone. On uneven stone, the old hag finally falters. Finch figures she’s dead already if she’s wrong about this woman, so she sidles closer, wraps her arms around a surprisingly stout waist and lets the old woman lean heavily against her.
Even Finch is gasping as they climb. She might be even without an extra hundred pounds weighing her down.
“It’s a sanctuary,” the old woman finally murmurs, answering the question that’s been bouncing around in Finch’s head since they started. “The castle,” the old woman breathes. “It’s a sanctuary. They’ll take you in for a day to forever, or so the stories go. It’s only for the pure of heart, of course. The castle is a convent now. You live and work in the church, side by side with the brides of Christ. They say the nuns of the convent were gifted, or cursed if you prefer, with the ability to look into a man’s eyes and quite literally see his soul. Not just the way we all say eyes are the window and all that. But truly. They look into your eyes and they can see that insubstantial, eternal spirit in all of us. They only let the pure souls through their doors. But once over the threshold, you’re welcome to stay beyond death even.” She nudges Finch playfully. “Most people stay away because it’s reported to be one of the most haunted places in all of Europe. For those of us on the hopeful side of things, we think it’s only all those pure souls they’ve let in. Kind ghosts wouldn’t much bother me.”
Her speech, Finch realizes with a start, has distracted her all the way up the cobblestone until they’re standing now before what her eyes can only just make out aren’t more mountain ridges. The castle’s muted grey blends in so well with the sheer rock of its surroundings that even in the full moon’s light she can hardly make out the difference.
And she’s terrified, she realizes suddenly. Terrified by all that makes this old woman so hopeful. She won’t be allowed inside. And then that silly part of her so desperate to believe in fables, that little part will know she is as much monster as there is in myth. A hydra, she imagines.
So it’s Finch who falters this time. And it’s the old woman’s arm, wrapped across her shoulders, that steadies her.
Simply enough, Finch figures: She’ll just leave the hag at the door. There’s no need to wait around. She’ll hide behind the dilapidated old barn slumped next to the castle walls. Make sure the old woman makes it inside. Make sure this isn’t all just some bullshit story. Head home before she has to see eyes that might actually see her.
But the hag turns as Finch releases her at the door. It’s her eyes that stop Finch, mid-turn. And then it’s her strangely smooth voice. And it’s the haunting way the moonlight seems to shine, in this moment, exclusively on her. The rest of the night around them grows ink-like. The hag seems softer in the soft light.
“Finch,” she finally murmurs. She smiles. “If you could have anything in this life, what would it be?”
A disconcerting question. And Finch feels that tiny, childish part of her clamoring again, whispering, “Gulbah.”
Her heartbeat is suddenly a roar in the still, and the words it’s beating pound past her lips. Before she can stop herself she has answered, truthfully: “Love.” She swallows her embarrassment, admits. “I’d want to love someone who loves me back.”
This time the hag’s smile is blinding. For a split second Finch would swear she’s not a hag at all. Her skin is smooth and as milky as moonlight, the lines melting from her face, her eyes clear and shining.
And then she has turned to the door, and the sound of her pounding on the wood echoes, and Finch remembers herself, and Finch remembers reality.
Finch remembers there is no such thing as Gulbah. That she hasn’t really believed that old fable since she was four years old.
She hasn’t really believed in love since she was four years old either. And she’s beginning to think that might be a distinct possibility: That love is real. Even for her.
She’s frozen by the thought, halfway back down the cobblestones:
She never told the old hag her name.