Ochre and Earth

This is the story I wrote for round 2 of the YeahWrite Superchallenge. It had to open with the sentence “Everything I had known was wrong” and incorporate this image:

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Everything I had known was wrong. The thought plagued every step as I returned from hunting, empty-handed again, to the hut I shared with Joséphine.

I thought I’d find her painting by the cabin’s tiny south window, but she was outside, tending the garden we’d started in the sunniest part of our clearing. A few blonde curls had escaped her sun-bleached scarf. Her welcoming smile faded when she saw that the game sled I dragged was empty.

“What happened, Isabelle?”

“I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.” I sank into the dirt by her side. She slid my hat from my head and ran her fingers through my hair, loosening my braid. Her touch sent soothing shivers to unknot my shoulders.

“I think it’s the wrong wood,” I continued. “It’s too fragile – the deer just break the traps. It’s too dry, or too thin, or…I don’t know.”

I crumpled my hat between my hands. Joséphine extricated it before I could ruin it.

“You’ll figure it out – you always have so far.”

“I was a stationer’s daughter,” I snorted. “How did we ever believe that we could survive on what I read in books?”

Her hand on my hair froze. “Don’t tell me you want to go back to Sarlat.”

I caught her other hand and kissed it. Under the dirt were her omnipresent paint stains: scarlet and mossy green settled into the fine lines of her skin. “Never,” I said.

“Then we just have to keep trying,” she said. “Don’t discount all you’ve learned because of a few mistakes.”

“This isn’t painting, Josie, it’s survival. Mistakes out here will kill us.”

“We knew this would be hard, but what choice did we have?”

We could have chosen lies; I could have chosen Paul-Edouard. Joséphine could have hoped for a patronage, but most likely she would have ended up some merchant’s miserable wife, or in a nunnery, or worse. We’d chosen each other instead, and in this tiny cabin in the Aquitaine wilderness, we were piecing together a life of our own.
I smiled, tracing the outline of her stained palm. “The best choice.”

#

Later that week, I bartered the first of our pumpkins for lessons with a woodsman who traded at the tiny local market. He was reluctant to share his secrets, especially with a woman, but I must have convinced him that I was no threat to his business. As the summer passed, I cut lengths of the wood he recommended and treated the sinews the way he’d shown me. Finally, I spent an exhausting August day replacing every single one of my traps and setting new ones.

When I returned home at sundown, weary and nursing several blisters, Joséphine was painting.

It was beautiful – a walnut orchard, its soft dawn colors amplified by the golden evening – but she was supposed to have made our strawberries into preserves to sell, and the jars stood empty on the kitchen table.

“You’re back!” She set her brush down and kissed my cheek. “Look! It’ll be ready to sell next week.”

“What about the preserves?” I asked tightly.

“Oh – I didn’t get to them today. But the painting will sell for so much more than jam, Belle.”

I rubbed my temples. “Josie, we needed the money from the preserves to buy flour. We have less than a week’s worth left!”

“This will be my final painting, anyway.” Her jaw clenched in a way that I knew meant she was holding back tears. “This is my last canvas.”

I stared at her. “What?”

She nodded. “And tomorrow I’m going to find work in the village.”

“Josie, no – you don’t need to give up your painting! We’ll work something out – I’ve almost figured out these traps, and then I can buy you more canvas!”

“No, you were right.” She took my hands. A smudge of ochre transferred to my thumb.

“This is about survival.”

“Just give me more time,” I pleaded. “If it’s a bad winter, you can look for work in the spring.”

Joséphine withdrew her hands. “If you think that’s best.”

She closed the door to our room behind her. I stood in the fading light, watching the smear of ochre dry.

#

Joséphine was already gone when I woke the next morning. I assumed she was out foraging for mushrooms, or perhaps gone early to the market. I wanted to talk to her about the previous night, but there wasn’t time to wait – I had traps to check. I avoided looking at her unfinished painting as I left.

When I returned from the forest at sunset, Joséphine was waiting for me at the edge of our clearing.

“You were gone so long – I was worried.” Her eyes widened when she saw what I was dragging on my sled. “A deer! It worked!”

“All those hours with that grouchy hunter finally paid off.” I kissed her, feeling her lips smiling beneath mine. “I’ve found a second game trail, too. Soon we’ll have enough to be comfortable this winter, and to buy you more canvas!”

Her smile faltered. “Isabelle, I went to the market today. I sold my paints.”

The sled’s rope fell from my hands. “Oh, Josie.”

“I knew we’d need money long before winter, and it seemed…for the best.”

“But Joséphine, you love painting!”

She stretched out her hand. I could see green and ochre, the colors of the walnut orchard, on her fingers. My heart broke to think she would never finish that painting, that instead of paint on her hands, she’d only have dirt. Her upturned palm encompassed the canvas upon which we’d made our home: the clearing, the wooded hills, the setting sun tingeing the low clouds with gold.

“Yes,” she said, “and perhaps we can afford paint again someday – but I love this life with you more.”

Her lips touched mine and for the first time in weeks, I felt certainty: that about love, at least, I could never be mistaken.

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The Occultists of Moytura Hall

I’m through to the final round of YeahWrite Super Challenge #6! To celebrate, I’m finally getting around to posting my Round 1 story, which had to feature a sword-fighting librarian, a phone call in which the caller hangs up without speaking, and the emotion joy.

“Mother, this is exhausting.” Angelica pushed up her face mask, feeling tendrils of hair stick to her sweaty face. Why they had to have a roaring fire during fencing training was beyond her. “I don’t see how swords can help us against demons when the last war was fought with machine guns and gas.”

Mrs. Burke removed her own mask and signaled for a break. Maria, Angelica’s sister and Mother’s assistant librarian, came forward offering towels for their faces.

“Swords have sufficed since the arrow,” Mother said. She wasn’t even breathing heavily; she patted her face lightly with the towel and handed it back to Maria. “Perhaps Lord Carlisle will succeed where others have failed and bespell projectiles to be fatal to the arcane, but until then, you will learn the sword.”

“But I know the sword!” Angelica dropped her soaked towel on the floor and gestured to the bookshelves surrounding them. “I’ve read all four volumes of Shieldmaiden Shoji and both translations of Galica’s Gladii et daemonorium!”

Mother swept her blade in an elegant circle as she took up her stance. “All these books are dear to me, but all the knowledge they offer is only part of a demonslayer’s arsenal.”

“‘Book and blade shall dispel darkness,’” Maria added, parroting the Carlisle family motto written all over Moytura Hall: wrought in iron along the gates, carved above the front door, gilded over the library’s fireplace. Angelica rolled her eyes. Lord and Lady Carlisle, Occultists to the Crown, employed Mrs. Burke to keep their library of grimoires and defend Moytura Hall from demons. One day, Maria might take a position at the Royal Arcane Library, and Angelica could serve as a ladies’ maid and private demonslayer at court—however, she had no particular interest in anything arcane.

She glanced longingly at the telephone hanging by the door. The only thing that would dispel her darkness was a call from her beau, Edward. Her arms ached, and her brain felt feeble from all the facts and stratagems Mother made her recall during training sessions. Demonslaying might offer better prospects than being a governess like their cousin, but it was quite a bit more work.

The telephone rang.

“Ah!” Mother held up one hand and Angelica halted.

“But I’m expecting a call from Edward!”

“You know the rules—no social calls until we’re finished.” She gestured to Maria. “Dear, would you please?”

Angelica stifled a groan as her sister answered the telephone. Maria was too far to hear clearly, but it didn’t sound like she was talking to Edward. Perhaps she hadn’t missed him after all.

Mother pulled her mask back into place. “Again!”

Angelica lunged. Mother parried easily, but Angelica caught her in a feint and pressed her attack. Through the padding of her mask, she heard the faint chime of the telephone receiver and felt renewed hope: the sooner they finished sparring, the sooner she’d be free to return to her social obligations.

Mother’s next attack came low; Angelica parried, catching the blade and twisting—

And for the first time ever, Angelica disarmed Mrs. Burke. Her mother’s blade clattered against the bookshelves. They stared at each other, stunned. Angelica slowly removed her mask. She’d surely be lectured for humiliating her mother like this.

Instead, Mother burst out laughing. “Marvelous, Angie!” she cried, tossing aside her mask and seizing her daughter in an embrace. “Truly excellent!”

“Thank you, Mother.” Angelica wriggled free, trying to hide her smile. Maria, who’d been tidying shelves, grinned at her over a stack of books. “Can we be finished now?”

“Oh, no.” Mother waggled a finger at her, but she was still beaming. “You would quit when you’ve achieved such success? You must learn to replicate it!”

The telephone rang again. Angelica looked up hopefully. “Please, Mother, may I answer?”

Mother nodded, still smiling. “Oh, very well. Just be quick.”

Anxious to take advantage of her mother’s good mood, Angelica ran to the telephone and lifted the receiver. “Miss Angelica Burke speaking.”

No one responded. There seemed to be no one on the other end—only silence.

“Angie? Who is it, dear?”

But Angelica couldn’t answer—she was frozen, unable to even breathe. Cold seeped through the receiver into her hand, her ear.

“Angelica?”

Trembling took over her muscles. She felt her sight go dim—“Even the breath of the demon is fatal,” she thought distantly. Watson’s “Arcanology,” page nine—

Her blade fell from her twitching fingers; it must have clanged against the floor, but Angelica couldn’t hear it. All she could hear was silence.

Then the receiver was wrenched from her ear. Angelica gasped for air. She could hear again, everything from her own racing heartbeat to the crackle of the fire. Closest and loudest, though, were her mother’s terrified sobs. Her family’s faces swam into view.

“Angie,” Maria cried. “Say something!”

“I’m all right,” she managed. Her own voice sounded harsh, her breath coming in heaving gasps, but they felt all the more precious for having almost been lost forever. Mother pulled her close.

“Maria,” she said, “please inform Lord Carlisle that a demon has infiltrated the telephone exchange, and the connection to Moytura Hall is no longer secure.” Angelica heard her swift footsteps leave the room.

“How do you feel?” Mother asked, touching Angelica’s face. “Is there any lingering cold? Any trembling?”

“I’m fine—it’s passed.” She stood straighter and took a shaky breath. She welcomed the stifling heat of the fire, the way it warmed her face, the way the light glinted on the gold lettering of the books’ spines.

“Perhaps you’d like to call on Edward in person today,” Mother offered, “since the telephone is no longer safe. Mr. Donne could drive you—“

“No, thank you.” Angelica picked up her sword. “I think I ought to keep practicing—if that’s all right with you.”

Mother smiled—an odd smile, sad yet proud, loving yet grim—and saluted Angelica with her blade. “It would be an honor.”