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FICTION: Little Bit By Michelle Hauck  

Posted by Scott Wilson

Little Bit held the basket filled with a heaping pile of laundry in one hand. The wicker handle at the other end balanced precariously against her hip, digging in painfully with each stride. Her free hand gripped the shaky railing as she climbed the old wooden stair which wound in a spiral around the tower. Her eyes fixed firmly on each tread, careful not to look at the gaps where no backs had been fixed and through which the height of the drop showed. Whoever had constructed the narrow steep passage had not intended it for toting heavy loads.

Ralph promised again and again to block in the open spaces, but his promises flitted around like blueflies, impossible to pin down. He worked on his own leisurely time schedule, and no amount of pleading on her part moved him to attend to the stairs.

Movement in the garden caught her attention—Tabitha bent over, doing the weeding. Little Bit gulped, feeling dizzy. The yard of short-cut meadow grass containing the outbuildings, the trout pond, empty coney hatch, and the garden spread out before her in a frightening vista. Why did the tower have to be so high? She fixed her gaze back on the climb and plodded on.

At last, she reached a square wooden landing several paces wide, built against the upper entrance. Hidden from prying eyes by the tower, she set down the basket. Here, she could be alone. Squatting, she hiked her cotton skirt, embroidered with clover and their purple blossoms, up to her knees. A wink of gold glittered in the morning sun. The chain of delicate gold links clasped around her ankle seemed to mock her. Little Bit held up fingers from each hand, reaching for the anklet, then chewed her lip.

She squared her shoulders before taking an end of the chain in either hand and pulling with all her might. Her fingers began to burn. With each pulse of her heart, the sting increased like a thousand nettles, and still she pulled. The tiny links refused to part. The anklet proved stronger than its fragile workmanship implied.

With a gasp of pain, she released it to stare at the identical red marks on her hands. Faded lines below the new crisscrossed and covered all her fingers. She put the fingers in her mouth, sucking, as a tear made a track down her cheek. It would never let her go. Twisting the links with sticks made not a dent. Prying with anything that came to hand did no good.

She entered the tower, the anklet jangling up and down her leg with every other step. Near the door, she came to Tabitha’s immaculate room and left a neat stack of laundry on the tightly drawn bedding. In Ralph’s room, she deposited his shirts on a chair, pushing a pair of dirty socks aside. The messy pile of blankets and sheets made his bed an impractical place to leave anything. She couldn’t help smiling. Ralph would no doubt curl up just as happily on the dirty clothing as his sheets.

Outside Master’s door, she paused. Her nose twitched until she soothed it with aching fingers. The door waited. The laundry waited. She gathered herself and pushed open the door.

Master stood among his bottles and potions located under the open window. Stacks of books littered the floor and more crammed onto the bookshelves lining the walls. Making herself small, she crept to the chest and laid the sweet-smelling, fresh robes inside. As he muttered to himself, she tiptoed to the bureau, hiding herself behind books. There to slip undergarments inside, sliding the drawer shut as soundlessly as she could.

Master spoke without turning around. “Why do you persist in using the outside stair when it frightens you so, Little Bit? Have I not said to use the one inside?”

Her ears quivered, eyes darting to the door. How did he know? “Yes, Master.”

“Then why don’t you obey?”

She dipped her head to stare at her bare feet. “I did not choose to, Master. I am an ungrateful whiner.”

His sigh echoed in the tower room as he swung around. Handsome blue eyes in an agreeable face met her reluctant gaze. Brown hair cut crisply short barely touched the collar of his sky blue robe. She stared down at her feet, mouth slanting downward at the compassion on his face.

He held out a hand. “Show me the chain.”

She lifted her skirts as he bent down to wave a hand over the anklet. He shook his head, rolling his eyes. “You’ve been trying again, Little Bit. Go put on the ointment I gave you, then stay in your room ‘til I give you permission to leave it.”

Little Bit ducked her head as the chain began to burn where it touched her skin. A step forward and the pain vanished. As long as she complied, it acted like no more than a piece of jewelry. But take one step in the wrong direction, and the anklet would spring to life. Continue to rebel, and she imagined it could send her writhing on the floor with agony.

Before she knew it, she stood inside the small chamber that housed the copper bathtub. The small earthenware pot containing the ointment rested on a shelf directly above her head. She stood in front of it, unmoving. The anklet could not detect she refused to follow the master’s words. It only recognized she had gone where he’d ordered. When enough time elapsed, Little Bit retreated to her room. Her burns continued to sting, each throb a celebration of her small triumph. Petty, to be sure, but satisfying.

She pushed her bed with its homey quilt under the window so she might sit and look outside at the herb garden spread under her. The breeze brought a faint hint of catnip and lavender. If she were braver, she might dangle from her window, all except her ankle and foot, and enjoy the outside and so defy Master. She rested her elbows on the thick stone sill and slowly stuck her head out. Giddiness spun in her stomach. She dropped back inside. Perhaps another day.

The light faded and the plain white walls of her room turned dark. Thirst troubled her, but Master said she may not leave, not even for water. The anklet would stop her. Ralph, at least, should have spared her a thought. Surely, they missed her. But no. They’d all forgotten her.

Lips trembling, Little Bit gave up on watching the sky and garden to crawl into bed. Snug with the quilt over her head despite her thirst, she dreamed of a home she couldn’t remember, where she roamed broad grasslands with an innumerable family as constant companions.

***

Something heavy resting on her legs woke her. She jerked and almost upset the full tray of food. The tray held enough food to feed a starving woman, most of it undercooked meat. She looked up to meet Ralph’s soulful brown eyes watching her with hope, and she repressed a rebuke. “Thank you, Ralph.”

He grinned. “I saw no one fed the chickens this morning and knew you were stuck here again. I fed them for you.”

Little Bit took up the mug of cold water and gulped half of it down. Then she turned the tray to better reach the very small plate of greens.

Ralph pulled up his patched work trouser, revealing his anklet made of knotted leather cord. “Why do you do it? I try never to touch mine. I even wash around it.”

She chewed slowly, thinking. “Because I must. I have kith and kin out there. Somewhere. There’s a place where I belong, and it isn’t here.”

Ralph scratched at his ear and leaned against her. “There’s nothing out there. Master says so. It’s to protect us, because we aren’t equ. . . equipped,” he finished triumphantly.

Little Bit ate the last piece of spinach and carrot, then forced herself to take a bite of the fatty bacon for Ralph’s sake. “Maybe we should decide that for ourselves.” As soon as she said it, she shrank down, astonished at her own audacity.

“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that,” a voice said.

Tabitha stood twined around the doorframe, peeking in at them. Ralph’s eyes went wide at the sight of her, and he beat a quick retreat, leaving the tray.

“Shall I ask Master to let you out? He likes me best, everyone knows that.” Tabitha blinked her eyes against the sunlight streaming through the window and preened her fingers through her long tail of black hair. “Otherwise, who knows when he’ll remember.”

Tabitha obviously didn’t want to shoulder the extra chores. Little Bit swallowed her pride. She needed to visit the outhouse, then she’d have to retrieve the laundry she’d left in Master’s study. “Yes please, Tabitha.”

With a switch of her hair, Tabitha turned. The tiny bells on her silver anklet chimed faintly as she silently ghosted down the corridor. Her last words drifted back. “It’s your day to clean the kitchen. Ralph made a mess.”

***

Little Bit studied the outer wall while holding the gate of the pigpen. The empty pail of slops rested against her thigh. At a considerable distance from the tower and twice Ralph’s height, the solid stone encircled her world, enclosing the stable and workshops, Tabitha’s dairy, chicken coop and gardens. Weeds grew head-high for at least ten paces in from its base. The only place on the property they could not tend. The anklets would not allow them near. No door broke the gray of its length, no window or any point of exit. She rubbed one foot over the other. Nothing showed over the wall, but sky. So how had they come to be here? How did one get inside with no entrance? It was like the ship in a bottle Ralph kept in his room, only more puzzling.

A high pitched squeal caught her off-guard. The gate shoved her backwards hard. The pail flew from her grasp, acquiring a new dent upon landing. Matilda sprang forward, driving one hoofed foot into Little Bit’s flesh. Little Bit screamed in agony and landed on her butt as Matilda shot forth.

She was half aware of Ralph dropping his tools and hurrying over from the fence he had been mending. Tabitha snatched a tablecloth from the clothesline to head Matilda away from the garden. The sow ran in wild circles, escaping all pursuit. The cows in their pasture placidly chewed their cud, watching with mild interest. As Little Bit rolled, clutching her foot, her friends managed to push the angry sow back into the pen and slam the gate.

Her shrieks changed to whimpers. Master loomed over her. He wore the particular frown he reserved for interruptions to his work. The frown faded when he saw the raw red mark on her foot. “No boots, Little Bit?” He bent to take her foot in his strong hands and delicately tipped it this way and that.

She couldn’t answer to tell him boots didn’t belong to such a fine day. That she preferred to feel the grass and would lay in it all day if she dared. Despite her efforts, another cry broke free when he moved her foot too far.

Master gazed at her under raised brows. “It’s broken.” He set her foot carefully down as a collected Tabitha hunched down at his back. Ralph dropped down beside her, panting, to pull at her elbow.

“She was daydreaming,” Tabitha said with a smirk. “I saw her.”

Master grunted and placed his hand over her foot. His eyes closed. A pain like the worst snap of frostbite swelled followed by a powerful heat. As quickly as the pain started, it vanished.

Master stood, then gestured her to get up. “Walk on it.”

She stared up at him, uncomprehending. Ralph grabbed her arm and tugged. She let him drag her to her feet and took a halting step. No pain met her. Master reached out to touch her

nose, stifling its twitching, then he turned and strode back to the tower and his work without a word.

“Ungrateful,” Tabitha huffed. She threw down the now dirty tablecloth and stalked back to the laundry, slender body tight.

“I told you so,” Ralph said. “Master protects us. You shouldn’t doubt him.”

He stuck his tongue out at Tabitha, then took an unhurried path back to his work. Little Bit gingerly flexed her foot. Not even a twinge. She touched her nose, sending a puckered glance at the tower. Ungrateful?

***

Little Bit stood before the Master’s table, shifting from one foot to another. She set down his nightly cup of tea. Through the window behind him, the sun sank like a swollen red ball in the cloudless blue sky. He waited, forcing her to speak first and making her duty endlessly more difficult. They both knew this chore was Tabitha’s privilege so her presence here held a purpose. For this chance, she would spend the next morning in the dairy, churning and further hardening her calluses. Guilt prodded. He took up his cup and sipped, staring at her over the rim.

“Thank you for healing me.” She immediately turned for the door. His words stopped her.

“Who could predict a child so timid could be so persistent.”

She swelled with anger as he intended. Timid, was she? She would show him timid. “I am not a child. I am a grown woman and not so much younger than yourself. Master.” She groaned inwardly. He was always most talkative at the end of his day’s work. She squandered this time for questions with taunts. She raised her eyes to his. “Do I have a family outside?”

“What am I to say? Were I to say no, would you believe or continue to doubt?” He cleared his throat and sighed. “I swear upon my honor, you have no family but what exists inside these walls.”

Little Bit’s face furrowed as she took a step backward.

“This place is a sanctuary, Little Bit. A place of safety. It takes all my energy to keep it so.” He sipped his tea, smiling at her.

“You have little left to heal our minor injuries,” she said, ducking her eyes to the floor and burning with shame and anger. “We don’t matter.”

“On the contrary, without you and Tabitha and Ralph, I would be devastated. You do not know what it is to be alone.” He set down the cup. “I see no words will convince you, Little Bit.”

He pushed back his chair and went to the window, clasping his hands behind his back. “Believe what you will, but I am most concerned with your welfare. Your resistance enters my thoughts at night and provides a constant puzzle. The others obey, but you are different. You always have been. It is I who has failed to reassure with the correct words.”

Little Bit frowned and worried at her guilt. She troubled him? What if . . .?

Outside, the sun faded, and he turned so that his blue eyes bore into her. “The anklets are for your welfare. In the morning, go to the wall beyond the compost heap. You’ll find a door. I beg you not to venture more than three steps outside the doorway. I cannot protect you if you do not heed me, Little Bit. Find your answers and then judge me. For the love you bear yourself if not me, only three steps. No farther or you will be lost. Do not mention this to the others.”

He moved around the table to stroke her brown hair with a gentle touch, then he handed her the teacup and retreated to his inner room, leaving her to shut her mouth with a snap.

***

Little Bit tossed and turned much of the night. Master would be devastated without them? Without her? Could it be true? Did she mean more to him than a mere servant? He had made the ointment for the only purpose of soothing her burns. That had taken both time and thought. He tried to get her to use the inner stair to ease her fear of heights, but she wouldn’t allow it. Her chores never took her climbing higher than a stepladder. The mild punishment he handed her was always reluctantly given. He never uttered a harsh word against anyone no matter how provoked. And Ralph’s absentmindedness and constant devotion building on Tabitha’s fawning and her own hostility had no doubt provoked him. Master bore it with unflappable calm.

Then there was the healing. He squandered his magic in tending their hurts. As when Ralph cut himself with the axe chopping firewood last fall. Or when Tabitha developed that high

fever in the spring, and all the many other such times, including her recent injury. He must have run from the tower to reach her side so quickly. She pictured him hearing her screams and dashing from the tower, taking the steps in leaps, to comfort her.

She wrapped her arms around her knees and fingered her ever-present anklet. The gold links cold in her hand. That couldn’t be the truth. She didn’t warrant such concern. Master tried to trick her to keep her from going to the wall. It wouldn’t work.

Early in the morning, before the old rooster crowed, she made her way out of the tower. She hopped with excitement across the dew-stained grass, waving her hand to disperse the smell of the compost heap, then pushed aside bunches of weeds. The anklet made no complaint as she entered forbidden ground. A small door with a simple wooden bolt greeted her. She was certain

it didn’t exist before. Or had it, and Master’s magic simply concealed it?

She drew back the bolt as the sun crested the wall behind her, and the compound came to life. A cow lowed, the sound as familiar as her own heartbeat. Ralph would be up soon to milk them, and Tabitha would claim the rich cream. The door opened inward to reveal a short passage hewed through the stone of the wall. She had to stoop to avoid brushing her head on the ceiling as she ignored the trembling of her knees. Her palms sweated like when she faced the climb up the tower.

The opening before her revealed sky spread with an angry, orange-tinted red color. The air that entered her lungs had a burning quality, equal parts hot and dry. She gasped in a breath and reached for the edge of the stone before her, but the scene did not change. A glance behind her reassured the way back remained. She walked forward. The sky remained the wrong shade, totally excluding the gentle blue of the compound. Words she’d heard Master mutter swam up from her memory—sun-driven radiation. Everything before her vision took on a red tinge, including her own figure. Her skin prickled and reddened like a million tiny needle stabs. She bent to touch a red leaf of what looked like raspberry vine, and it crumbled under her fingers. Who could eat that?

The anklet flared in warning when she took a step forward to stand outside the sheltering wall.

Devastation. Her brain had trouble understanding without any greenery to guide it, but it appeared almost nothing grew here. The only plants stood in the shadow of the wall. The ground beyond composed mostly of bare dirt or scattered giant chunks of too-smooth stone dropped half-haphazardly. Not stone, she realized suddenly, but pieces of impossibly strange and tall shelters which surrounded and hemmed in her position. They sparkled in the glare and nothing moved. She held her position, remembering Master’s warning; the air heavy in her open mouth. She could not live here. No kin could have survived this.

A shadow played across her. A giant, red bird flew overhead, featherless, its hide thick and wrinkled, its eyes directed elsewhere. Little Bit reacted nonetheless. From some not dead instinct, her heart leaped, and she darted forward. The anklet scorched her skin, bidding her to retreat. Feet heeded too late. One step became five. The wall shrank out of reach.

The magic holding her form snapped. Her body twisted in agony. Shrinking. Changing. Ears grew long and covered with soft fur. Hearing and smell increased. Limbs pulled inward, blurring and diminishing in size. Her nose twitched as her scream lost human sound to become a shrill squeal. The compound! She had to return home.

She tried to dive back, but consciousness fled. Danger came from the sky. She dodged and accelerated to hide under a rock, back legs propelling her with powerful kicks away from the shadow. The anklet dropped from her paw to lie disregarded in the red dirt. Fabric entangled her, but she fought free. She scampered deeper under the rock and dug.

***

“No!” At the top of the tower, Master dropped to his knees, flinging an arm outward in entreaty. Too late. Little Bit had vanished beyond his range. Her true form recovered. She wouldn’t remember him now. Even if he could leave this place to search for her, she would only flee farther. Lost.

A cold hand clutched at his throat, grief swelled. Another gone. Every soul he’d known or loved. How could he tell Ralph or Tabitha? How undergo this pain again?

The sanctuary was to stay open at all costs. Survivors might find them. So his mentor, Marcus, had believed anyway before he was lost looking for their colleagues at the other towers. He shook his head and forced himself to his feet. He did not believe. Not anymore. Survivors would not come. He was the only human. His head snapped up. Then it mattered not what happened to him.

He walked. Tabitha and Ralph dogged his heels, asking questions, shoving each other aside to reach him. He sent them away with lies of reassurance. His pace increased. He left behind the tower, the empty coney hatch, and the stables. He approached the compost pile. The weeds swayed against his shoulders. He stooped through the open door and entered the glaring mad sun. Something shuffled weakly under the shade of a rock as his skin burned and crisped. A gold anklet winked up at him beside an empty dress. He kicked it away. His hand descended on a small brown rabbit.

This entry was posted on Monday, October 10, 2011 at 3:52 PM . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

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