Aphelion Issue 224, Volume 21
December 2017 / January 2018
 
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Dust

by N.J. Kailhofer





"Do you not ever clean, child?" old Vala snapped. "You cannot let him in!"

Young Anna regarded the shriveled woman in filthy rags that smelled like grime and soil with obvious credulity. "Let who in?"

Vala grabbed the broom from beside the empty fireplace and spun it on Anna in her fine, flaxen dress, holding the straw end only inches from the surprised girl's nose. "He is a monster, a devil of the night."

"Who?"

Vala ignored her. "He will come with the dust. Keep him out."

Vala shook the broom insistently and Anna realized the old woman wanted her to take it.

"Clean, now." Vala said. "Clean well, that I may tell the Elders you are fit to marry Johan."

Anna grabbed the broom and set it aside. Indignant, she asked, "What do you mean, fit? Who are you to judge me?"

Vala strolled to the broom and calmly picked it up before abruptly smacking Anna over the head with it.

"Ow!"

"Listen, now. No one in the village may marry without my word to the Elders." Her eyes dropped. "The cost is too high. Clean!"

Chastised and a little afraid of her visitor, Anna snatched up the old broom and hurried to cleaning Johan's small cottage. Vala crossed her arms and stood in the middle of the room, watching the girl's every action like a hawk. When Anna was done, she looked up.

Vala's face was a mask of disappointment. "Do you wish that devil to take your child?"

Anna stepped back. "What child?"

Vala snorted. "Johan's seed already grows within you."

Anna instinctively put her hand on her belly. Ashamed, she asked, "How did you know?"

Anna steeled herself for a fluid burst of abuse, but instead, Vala sighed and sat slowly into the creaky rocker by the fireplace. "You are not from this village, so you cannot know. I was once in love with a man, too, except he was not a man."

Anna sat at the table to listen.

Vala's eyes glazed, happy for a moment.

"Reynaud," the old woman said. "That was his name. Oh, he was fine. Tall, handsome, with good hair and teeth. Neatly-kept, dark, curled mustache. His clothes were nice, a rich man's, which I suppose he was. He owned a perfumery, and he always smelled delightful. He called on me late in the evenings, always after dark, and we courted... He said he traveled the land to trade his perfumes, so I loved to hear his tales of exotic lands and strange people. So different from here."

She paused, "He never smiled. His eyes would look happy, but his mouth never smiled. That was strange about him, but that was all that was unusual. In every other respect, he seemed the perfect man."

Vala looked sheepish. "I loved him, 'tis true, and I lay with him out of wedlock."

Anna raised her brows at this, but she held her tongue and did not call the old woman the hypocrite she wanted to.

"Once I knew I was with child, I had to tell him. We talked late and then lay together. He grew restless as dawn approached, but I didn't want to let him go. What if he was angry, or rejected me? I was sure I couldn't live without him. He said he must go, but I held him and said I must tell him a secret. He asked if it could wait, and I said it could not. He bid me hurry, but telling a man you have his child is not easy. I struggled. It grew light out, and finally he shouted for me to tell him, for he must leave."

Anna was at the edge of her seat. "What happened?"

"Tell him I did." Vala lost herself, remembering. "Reynaud smiled wide for the first time, and that's when I saw his huge, sharp fangs!"

Anna gasped.

"I thought he was about to rip me open and drink my blood. I was never more afraid! Then, just then, the sun came through the window and landed where we lay. The moment it did, he collapsed to dust there on the blankets. Oh, the shriek he made as it did!"

Anna's jaw fell open.

"I screamed and tossed the blankets outside, shaking his dust out into the strong wind. I watched it blow away, out of sight."

Vala continued, haltingly. "I was wrong. I was so wrong!"

Anna came and set her hand on Vala's shoulder. "What of the child?"

"Turned to dust with his father." A tear rolled down Vala's wrinkles.

Anna asked, "If he turned to dust and blew away, why do you think he could return?"

Vala held up a finger. "On the blankets the next night was the outline of his body, but made of dust. He was trying to come back together, to return from death. This is why the village must be kept clean, foolish girl, lest he steal you or your child away into the night. You must not let his dust in!"

"I won't!" Anna gathered her sweepings into a bucket. "What should I do with this?"

"I'll take it, as I do for all." Vala smiled. "Now that you understand, I must go."

Anna thanked the old woman profusely for telling the tale and bid her goodnight.

"I have kept him from the rest of the village for fifty years." Vala felt pride as she stepped out of the door, carrying the bucket of dirt and dust.

Vala decided, Anna will keep Reynaud out.

The happy crone patted the bucket, tottering away. She knew just where to empty its contents: at home.

Vala dumped every bucket from the whole village inside her home. From everything she had collected, Reynaud's dust was nearly all there.

"If only I hadn't tossed you out in the first place," Vala mumbled. "I'm sorry, my love. You'll be with me again... and not with anyone else."


THE END


2017 N.J. Kailhofer

Bio: This story is a sample of  the kind of tale you can find in the Flash Fiction Challenges here at Aphelion. This and over 600 similar stories by a host of authors can be found in the Fun and Games section of our forum, in Index I and Index II.

E-mail: N.J. Kailhofer

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