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Curled up in Your Secret Place · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
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Grunhilio and Priscilla
One afternoon when his hunting band had gone as far out as the upper ridges, Grunhilio saw a doe leaping through the bushes, and he left his companions to pursue it with a great spear he had fashioned from a stone he had found by one of the crags. He would put it to the test; the doe trembled before him with large, granite-colored eyes, and he took her down with all the swiftness and bloody exhaustion of the day’s hunt behind his throw. He had pierced her to the heart—a painless death, he thought, as he sat near his kill to rest his limbs in the satisfaction of his success.

As the afternoon began to wane, the other hunters wondered where Grunhilio had gone, and they began to discuss the circumstances of his demise—perhaps a boulder had fallen on him, perhaps he had been in a stream and knocked his head, when they heard a woman shouting at them from a short distance.

She was middle-aged and stout about the ankles, clumsy-looking, but with powerful, pouchy shoulders. At first, the men couldn’t understand her; but then, when they asked if she had seen Grunhilio, she sneered at them, “I am Grunhilio! And by your damned limp foot, Pelo, if this isn’t some trick you’ve played on me!”

The men had a big laugh; Grunhilio’s fate was far more hilarious to them than his getting stung to asphyxiation by a swarm of bees, and Pelo replied, grinning, “If it were my prank, Grunhilio, heaven knows I would have made you a portrait not so wanting in grace, so that you wouldn’t get confused for a wild animal!”

And as they went home, with Grunhilio’s deer fastened to two heavy birch branches like a palanquin, Pelo and the others continued with their japes. They made remarks about the hair around Grunhilio’s knuckles, about her thick, burnt fingers, and about her blunt nose, until she gave in and roared above the trees, “Bastards! Lucky your mother loves you, Pelo, as though your club of a foot were not a stream of excuses for your own uselessness! Just remember who caught this deer, and we will see the witch doctor when we get to camp, and put an end to your deception! Yes, we will see him, right away.”

By the time they arrived home, the evening had already come on; but Grunhilio wasted no time in making good on her promise, and stormed into the witch doctor’s hut with the hunting band close behind her. They murmured with amusement and curiosity as Gruhilio recounted what had happened on the ridge, all the while pointing and making accusations against fat-bellied Pelo, who cast an eclipse in the glow of the witch doctor’s fire.

“So you see, Fambalo,” cried Pelo, “that our poor Grunhilio has been transformed into a wolverine!”

For his joke, Grunhilio turned and gave Pelo such a pummel that the latter winced and fell backward, smashing an earthen pot under his tremendous weight. The scene drew revelry from the hunters, who jumped and laughed like a torrent of rain; and when the excitement had settled, Fambalo turned to Grunhiio as though they had disappeared with the sun, and said:

“It is a curse. There are certain gods whose duty it is to protect the life that walks on Earth, and I am afraid that you have stepped into one of their snares. You will have to pay the penalty, Grunhilio.”

Grunhilio’s cheeks grew hot with shame and blasphemy on hearing Fambalo’s words, but she could not let the men in the hunting band see her cry, and so pounded the dirt with her fist, and said, “A curse, is it? So the gods would ruin intercourse forever for me, what a silly, spiteful punishment for doing their handiwork! What, indeed, will my dear Priscilla think?”

She recalled her caresses and patient charm, the softness of her kisses, her high cheeks and gentle nobility, so characteristic of a woman of the tribe. She thought of her, made round by a lose fur, and again could hardly keep from weeping; so she turned to her men, and said in a brass tone, “Well, then! Let’s see what my Priscilla thinks of her new maid-servant—for a servant I have always been to her, but we’ll see how long she will incline keep a crone in her employment. Summon her to the meeting hall, I say!”

And the men laughed and cheered and scattered from the tent, and Grunhilio, with a flame burning in her stomach, made her way toward the light of the main hall.
Grunhilio and the hunters took a spot in the corner of the tent, chatting loudly over a round of stew. Before long, Priscilla appeared: she had long, dark hair which fell almost to the backs of her knees, and had on a robe to guard against the chill of the night, which she held tight with a small, white hand. Grunhilio stood up at the sight of her, and swaggered over wearing a smirk.

“How do I look?” she said, striking a pose with her hips. “Not too shabby, eh? Perhaps you would like to start a collection?”

“Forgive me,” said Priscilla, glancing at the men.

“Of course!” replied Grunhilio. “It is I, your dashing husband, returned with the prize of a long hunt!”

There was more laughter from the company; a note of distress came over Priscilla’s features. “Grunhilio?”

“My dear,” answered Grunhilio, “I am a joke of the gods. I killed one of their own, today, up on the ridges, with my proud spear, for the providence of our wretched village, and they decided that I ought to be deprived of you and humiliated before you. Well, then, we must let them have their toast, for that is the order of things which maintains the world, as Fambalo says. So turn me away, now, and recommend me for work with your sisters in the field, for I am quite strong.”

For her speech Grunhilio received a hurrah from the hunters, and a silence fell. Then Priscilla, seizing Grunhilio’s large hands, and looking at her seriously, said, “I wonder, Grunhilio, in all of your harsh brags, if you have considered whether I would be worried that you would no longer love me? Unlike that witch doctor, I have the sense to tell appearances from reality, and I say, indeed, that a man stands before me,” she declared, letting fall Grunhilio’s hands.

“My dear,” said Grunhilio, pulling her back, “how sweet are your words, as they always are, to a hunter’s parched ears! It is no lie—I say this now before all the men—that I was nearly in tears, nearly tearing my hair out at the thought of losing you! I see now—it is a test—that no play of the gods will diminish you in my thoughts—you, the azure in the ash, without whom this camp for which I have suffered is nothing but rocks and idiots.”

Priscilla and Grunhilio embraced, brimming with warmth and exuberance in the light of their renewed affection for one another. And, in a few weeks, the incident of the slaying of the doe and the transformation of Grunhilio had receded into the memory of the tribe, like an old pendant necklace.

Grunhilio, at the encouragement of her wife, resumed work hunting up in the forests and crags. Her enthusiasm for the hunt had not diminished; but the first night she and Priscilla made love, after a long day on the rocks, Grunhilio found that she could accomplish nothing with her hands. Priscilla’s touch, on the contrary, was satiating, but uncomfortable and embarrassing for Grunhilio, like taking food through a straw; above all, she felt selfish after their sessions, and eventually asked Priscilla if she would be content to desist.

“What a silly, spiteful punishment,” thought Grunhilio one night with tears on her cheeks, as her wife slept with silent breath beside her in the dark.

Grunhilio began to lose her taste for making excursions into the wilderness. She had less tolerance for the jokes and excuses of the men, who, it now seemed to her, looked for ways to prevaricate and extend their sojourns beyond what was necessary for the village, to keep away from where they might otherwise be employed in cutting, curing, and tending to practical governance.

Once, while traipsing some steep rocks, Pelo slipped and got his limp foot stuck in a small crevice. It was a half of an hour’s work, and a hunter pulling on each arm, to dislodge him satisfactorily, for he whimpered and wailed as though suspended from the height of a sheer cliff. After the episode, all of the hunting band were laid up like lizards in the sun, panting and making oaths over Pelo’s whining.

“All you do is make him feel sorry for himself,” Grunhilio interjected.

“He has squandered an afternoon’s work,” replied one of the hunters. “This is the reason we will come back empty-handed to the camp this evening.” He added, “He eats enough for two or three villagers, then impairs our attempts to find more food to feed his fat stomach. Our curses are the least of what he deserves.”

“Perhaps,” answered Grunhilio, “if you didn’t pour your wits into mockery, into all the foolishness over his club foot, it would not so often find a crevice. Let this be a lesson to you.”

The man groaned. “What a nag you have become, Grunhilio!”

Then, on other occasions, perhaps twice or thrice, Grunhilio caught one of the other hunters passing a glance at her.

“Idiots!” thought Grunhilio. “Thank goodness for the dogs in the village that we take these long trips. At least there is some use in it.”

This, Grunhilio supposed, was her final humiliation under the gods. She left the hunting band and took up tanning, but dreamed all day about how she had no place among the hunters. She had broken her word to her wife, and, though Priscilla had been understanding of her, Grunhilio lapsed into a long depression. She began to make trips in the evening to a secluded jetty on the lake, where she could be alone and away from the village, just like the craven men in the hunting band.

As she sat one night, watching the water as the sunset cast an orange coat over its service, a deep stillness entered into her. She saw in the dimpling patterns of the water striders the play of the hunt; not just her hunt on the rocks with its sordidness and confusion but every hunt, every Pelo, every misplaced step and every success, every far-off and waiting village in the whirr of the cicadas in the night air, all of it situated above a cool, embracing, unfathomable depth.

A question took flight in her thoughts and her heart—just what was this depth?

“I am here, I am alive,” she thought, looking into herself. She let out her breath into the cool air as though she had stepped from a smoke-filled room. “I am a hunter.”

The glow of the lake filled her, and made her warm between the ribs, just like the fire in her belly that night in the witch doctor’s hut. She felt scars as it burned, but they were her scars, the scars of seared attachments, extracted pride, and with a deep breath of the lake air she understood the truth she had known all along, but couldn’t see—that, after all, she really was doing the work of the gods--and new life, born of equal parts passion and quietude, rose up inside her.

“Priscilla,” she said, returning home, “fetch me one of your coats.”

Priscilla startled up, and said, “Grunhilio, are you cold? You have been out for so long.”

“Will you let me have it?” asked Grunhilio, before Priscilla had brought it back. “Will you let me do whatever I want with it?”

“Of course,” replied Priscilla. “I thought you had no interest in my clothes.”

Grunhilio took the coat and started to work. She cut its sleeves, and then began to bore holes all along its hem. Then she fit it to a tanning rack and took a piece of charcoal from the fire pit. She made quick dashes against the leather, emulating trees, antlers, and movement under the moonlight, and continued to work long after Priscilla had gone back to sleep.

When the light of morning crept in through the tent, Grunhilio was still at the rack, lost in contemplation of her drawing.

“It is so beautiful, Grunhilio,” said Prsicilla, yawning and placing her hands on her lover’s shoulders. “I have never seen anything like it—I feel as though the deer are alive, that they have some question for my being in their presence.” She laughed and said, “I want to step back a little, so that I am not too much in their way!”

“I need bones,” said Grunhilio.

“Bones? Goodness, for what?”

“To show that this is not simply entertainment,” replied Grunhilio, fixing on the drawing.

Priscilla blushed, and stood up—she had never been addressed by Grunhilio with such frankness. She began to preen her long hair, and said, “I have an idea. Perhaps the hunters have something they can lend us from one of their recent expeditions. I will go and speak with them about it.”

“Not lend,” Grunhilio corrected her. “Go and see if the men will give us the bones, and if they object, remind them that they have no use for them, anyway.”

Priscilla folded her arms and left the tent, and soon returned with a handful of hog’s bones and a rodents skull. She laid them out on the carpet, and said in a somber voice, “This is all that was available.”

“That will do,” said Grunhilio. “Tell the men when they return from the expedition tomorrow to come see me, and we will add more.”

Over the next few months, Grunhilio and Priscilla were able to extract the skulls and femurs of large bucks, rabbit’s feet, clipped wings, ribs, and talons, the tails of beavers and fragments of the thick jaws of herbivores—everything that passed through the village as refuse. Grunhilio added other hides to the tent, and made tools from what wasn’t needed for the altars. The hunters began to respect her vision, and would come with special offerings of bleached and in-tact bones, seeking advice on the hunt. Through her, the men began to feel new solidarity with one another, as brothers in a sacred art. They adopted a new law that no part of a slain creature could be wasted, which might otherwise be put to use in the life of the village.

Grunhilio’s tent had become so filled with shrines, incense, and tributes, that there was hardly any room for Priscilla. Yet she waited for Grunhilio, sitting on the dirt floor with her legs folded, without coverings for her feet in the winter, and sweating so that her hair lost its texture in the summer. Finally, one day, Grunhilio looked up from her work, and took pity on her wife languishing in the corner.

“Priscilla,” she asked, “why do you insist on staying here with me? I cannot perform the duties of a husband. I cannot even provide for you—we live on alms, and certainly not as comfortably as one of the other hunters or their wives. Go and find a man of the wilderness, let him take you in his arms, and be happy, for my sake, if not for yours.”

“I am happy, Grunhilio,” she said. “When we married I said that I would follow you. And what an extraordinary place you’ve gone, different than any man—though I have become pale, your drawings and your hope touch my spirit. A vagabond wandering the desert would sooner part with the sight of water.”

“I am no man, Priscilla.”

For the first time in many months, Priscilla enjoyed a tittering laugh. “Oh, Grunhilio! Look at you, all concerned with sorting your own thoughts. Nothing has changed with you—you are as much a man as the day we first shared a bed.”

“If that is so,” snapped Grunhilio, “then you will leave this tent at my bequest, and never return to my dark, dusty quarters, where there is no life for you but to wither and exhaust yourself in your sympathy for me. Go sit by the lake, go rejoice in the coming and going of the seasons, until your raven black hair turns white with wisdom. If I am a man, as you say, then here is my last edict—our marriage is dissolved! Go and find your true way in life.”

Then, Grunhilio went back to her drawing table, more concentrated than she had ever been, ignoring the silent protest of Priscilla; she worked for so long, shutting out everything, that she hardly noticed, one day, when she looked up and realized that she was alone in her tent. With Priscilla gone, Grunhilio felt as though the bones and pictures that she surrounded herself with had been the very things born with her. Now, at once, she not only saw the work of the gods, but understood their meaning: in the transformation of her hands she had lost her wife, but gained in her work a direct contact with the benevolent pulse of life itself—a benevolence which made beauty a lie, but love an actuality, a thing so delicate that it needed only to be seen and not desired or chased.

After another winter had passed, the camp received news of a tribe of traveling marauders. They were burning through the countryside, scaring warriors with their horses, and either destroying the livelihoods of the villages or taking it for themselves; the little hunting band of the camp would be of no use in opposing their attack.
“We must go to the plain,” said one of the elders in a talk late in the night, “and join our fellow clansmen. There will be a greater safety in numbers, and we can learn to ride horses, and survive a nomadic life. It is hard, but we will be made stronger for our decision.”

All of the council were in agreement, save Grunhilio, who rose from her seat and said, “What does it matter how strong we are, or where we are scattered, if we let perish the land which has given us life at the clutches of some clever bandits? A homeland is not something you find by some sterling mountains but is only the place where you have lived and breathed and loved. If you try to move a tree it will die, and we have long roots that grow from our feet.”

But this time the hunters did not take Grunhilio’s advice. They tried to convince her about the whims of nature, that even the deer must sometimes change their path for a better life. Grunhilio, for her part, condemned her tribe for their cowardice and lack of piety, all the while recoiling in a state of inward terror and helplessness as the village made its intention clear. She holed up in her tent during the days of preparations, and everyone considered her to be a lost cause, wishing for death.

She received a final visitor on a gray, windy day when the tribe was beginning to make its tracks for the plains. It was Priscilla, come in a topaz necklace and a fine coat which her new husband had given her, come to try and persuade Grunhilio to embark on a new life. She stepped in, quietly, as her tired old friend was hunched over a shrine.

“Please, Grunhilio. We will have new bones. There will be new lakes to draw. A thousand lakes strewn about golden, rolling fields, and a hunt of a grandeur incomparably greater than these narrow crags. Do you remember your dreams, Grunhilio? The way you used to work hours into the night, channeling moonlit visions in deep blues and purples, spectral herds galloping through ageless moss onto your tanned, trembling canvas? Is this how your dreams end? How many times will you die?”

Grunhilio said nothing.

“You must find your own way, Grunhilio,” said Priscilla, exiting the tent for the last time.

Three days after the tribe had left, Grunhilio heard the sound of hooves galloping outside her tent. She stepped outside and saw the approaching bandits, like cinder creeping up and crumbling an old branch. She saw the mountains in the distance, where her old clan had gone—she could picture the crevice where Pelo had jammed his foot. She stood before the little fire pit with its white, cold ashes, under the pine trees which pointed heavenward and disappeared within a glorious blue sky, beneath which all creation, which had fed her and nourished her and pleased her and humbled her since birth, and formed the jar of her very spirit, dwelled; she felt herself standing on the very cradle of the gods, as they watched over her and every other soul that would live and die on this land, and was washed by a consummating peace as a great helmeted warrior rode up to her on his steed.

“Stupid woman,” he said. “For you, this will be a painless death.”
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#1 · 2
· · >>Heavy_Mole
Nice language use, and the strength of the writing kept me interested throughout. I do feel for Grunhilio's predicament, but to me, there wasn't a payoff at the end. I was prepared for her devotion to nature to have earned her respect in the gods' eyes or something, but in the end, she's just led a cursed life that ended up being pointless (partly through her own doing, to be fair, from her own stubbornness and rejection of Priscilla). Maybe the painless death is a mercy afforded by the gods? It could potentially be better than the rest, who run and hide and gradually get tracked down and killed one by one. The end effect is that I liked it while reading it, but it's not sticking with me long after.
#2 ·
· · >>Pascoite
If I might ask, did it stand out to you that the words of the helmeted soldier were similar to Grunhilio's thought, after he/she had slain the doe back in the first paragraph? Or was it lost in the wash?
#3 ·
No, I didn't catch that. I'm not necessarily the best person to gauge that by, as details don't always stick with me well, but I do think maybe it was buried a bit. There's a limit to what you can expect a reader to remember. I've told authors when editing before that the minor reference to something from 5 chapters ago is not something they can expect any reader to notice. 3k words back is more reasonable, but it probably would have stood out better if some emphasis was given to it, or it just stood out naturally anyway, like if it was the very first line of the story.