Adeline stormed home, confused and shocked and a little angry. She looked down as she left town, paying no attention to who she passed or to how fast she was going or to the ground as it changed from cobblestone to sandy dirt to the red clay. She walked past the Tiller’s farm in a daze—a gurgling, red daze—and she didn’t hear the scarecrow singing his songs about the golden sun and the blue rain falling from the sky.
When she reached fork in the road which led toward her cabin, Adeline ran into the furry leg of another pedestrian. She stumbled backward and looked up, out of breath. It was her neighbor, the centauress. Adeline felt the day couldn’t get any worse.
The centauress grimaced. She crossed her arms over her full-figured bust, adorned in a thick, dark leather bustier embellished with brass rivets. The centaurs always wore their armor, even if they didn’t always carry their weapons. “Hello, human child,” she said.
Adeline gritted her teeth, clenching her fists and concentrating on the knobby, wiry-haired knees of the creature before her. “Hello, Centauress.” She tried to be nice. Her father and Belle always told her to be nice to centaurs because they had very short tempers and were always in bad moods.
“What’s the matter with you? Don’t you humans watch where you’re going?” The centauress paused, leaning to and fro, her front hooves clopping back and forth as she inspected Adeline from different, lofty angles. Adeline stood still, enduring the criticizing examination, moving only enough to brush away a lock of hair which blew in her face from the afternoon breeze. “Your face is flushed,” the centauress jibed. “Have you been weeping?”
The girl wiped a hand across her cheek. It was wet. She hadn’t known she’d been crying. “No, Centauress,” she said. “I haven’t been weeping.”
“Well, you look like you have,” the centauress snorted. “Watch where you’re going the next time you’re out. Otherwise, some less kindly creature than I might run into you and then you’ll be in for real trouble.” Adeline said nothing. The centauress began to walk away but lingered long enough to add, “You have a lot to weep about, anyhow.”
Adeline spun around and looked the she-creature in the face. She felt her face shift between hot and cold as she carefully thought about her next words. Finally, she settled on a simple question: “What do you mean?”
The centauress laughed. It was a rumbling, snorting sort of laugh and very unpleasant to hear. Adeline winced. “Don’t be stupid, human child. At your age your father must have told you. Or, at least, that dove.”
Adeline stepped forward. “Why don’t you tell me?” She watched the centaur step backward, looking to either side, obviously surprised by the girl’s eager boldness. Adeline was only a young girl; an uncommon centaur aggressor. But, after seeing that no one else was around and after a moment of what seemed to Adeline some devious contemplation, the centaur puffed out her chest and let out a cackle.
“No. No, I won’t. It’s not my problem. That idiotic bird or your ridiculous father can take that burden.”
“What are you keeping from me? Why is everyone keeping secrets from me?” Adeline burst out yelling. She pointed a dainty finger at the centauress. “What do you know about my mother? What do you know about the Mark of the Dove?”
The centauress stood there, arms crossed, clicking her tongue at Adeline in disappointment. Or disgust. Adeline couldn’t tell the difference. “Your wretched father,” was all she said as she shook her head.
“Your wretched father, dear, has been lying to you about your mother. I admit, I hate humans, but at least a centaur has the decency not to sink so low as to blatantly lie to our own children.” Adeline
“Go away, child,” the centauress said flatly, waving a nonchalant hand at her. She turned her massive body around and began walking away, her hooves falling heavily on the hard, clay road. “You’ll find out soon enough,” she yelled from over a cold shoulder. “For now, perhaps you should find bliss in your ignorance, as the human saying goes.”
Adeline watched the vile creature walk away and then, once far enough, shift into a graceless trot. Her long, black, disheveled tail whipped back and forth to the tempo of her gait, and clods of soil flipped up beneath her as she went, leaving a wide trail of broken soil in her wake.
* * *
By the time she reached home, the sun was low over the horizon. With the lowering of the sun, the day was cooling; so was Adeline’s temper. She was still angry, but, in her walk from the fork in the road, she’d resigned to the fact that she wouldn’t be able to do anything about her situation until her father came home later that evening.
Her hand was out, about to turn the rickety brass doorknob, when she heard a loud crash inside the vacant house next door.
Adeline paused, not looking up. She knew she was forbidden to go inside, but a mysterious noise in an already mysterious house was simply too enticing. Besides that, she was in no mood to care about the consequences of anything. Adults tell me not to lie and they do it anyway, she thought. Maybe being grown up is about doing things you tell other people not to do.
She tip-toed the few yards over to the dusty window of the small, neglected cottage and crouched below the sill, keeping out of sight of whatever—or whoever—was inside making a racket. She waited a minute or two, listening carefully, squatting there on the ground below the window, to see if the noise would come again.
She pressed her ear against the cold timber front of the cabin. She thought she heard crying; then more clamoring about; then what sounded like a woman’s voice. At the sound of the voice Adeline sprung up, standing off to the side of the cabin and keeping out of sight. The voice was somehow familiar, but Adeline couldn’t place it. Her heart raced. She stood stone still, debating whether to look in the window or to go inside her own house.
Then she lightly laughed at herself. Of course! It was the old man’s daughter, come to visit her cabin. She was inside, grieving her paternal loss. Adeline wished to meet her.
Adeline bashfully tapped on the door. She was excited to finally meet the woman who owned this house; she hoped she was nice, and pretty, and that she liked little girls. For a moment, Adeline completely forgot about her current conundrum. When no response came, Adeline reached for the knob, slowly opened the door, and peeked carefully inside. “Hello?” she said.
“Go away,” said the voice. It was supple, shy; a pretty voice. Its owner hid far back in the recesses of the dank cabin.
“I’m Adeline.” She tried sounding cheerful. She stepped inside, leaving the door open a crack behind her, and began moving forward.
“Stop there!” the woman screamed. “Please…” she spoke again, more calmly, “stop there.”
Adeline halted, eyes wide, and then stood up after a few seconds of silence passed. She twiddled her fingers as she looked around her.
The place was too dark to see much of anything. A single window, similar to the one in Adeline’s own cabin, was covered over with a sheer red handkerchief; the only light came in from behind her, through the cracked doorway. In the dim room, Adeline could see that objects cluttered the floors in no particular order. There were wooden crates stacked high up against the wall, and miscellaneous objects—like books, jewelry boxes, empty Mason jars, clothes, long beaded necklaces, and even a red-haired rag doll—were balanced precariously on a number of them.
“I just wanted to meet you,” Adeline said apologetically. “I live next door. I…”
“I know who you are,” interrupted the voice again. There was some shuffling about, as if the woman were trying to recede even further back into the darkness.
“Oh! You do? Then you must know Belle, too!” Adeline started chattering. Her father always said she chattered too much when she was nervous. “Belle’s my nanny. Well, she’s really a dove, but she’s away for a while on holiday. Have you met Belle before?”
“We’ve… met.” More shuffling. More moving.
“How nice! I wonder why Belle didn’t tell me about you. I’m always so excited to make a new friend…”
“Please,” the woman whimpered, her voice cracking. “Please, go away. I beg you.”
Adeline felt bad. She stood still. This poor woman, she thought. All alone. No family around to comfort her. Just these sad things stored away in a gloomy cabin that nobody visited. “I’m sorry about your dad,” Adeline said. She was trying to be comforting.
The woman shuffled around some more. “Um… yes…” she said. “Thank you.” Adeline could hear the woman moving across the room. She stumbled over something. A crate fell to the floor and cracked open. Adeline flinched at the noise.
“Here,” Adeline said, “let me help you.”
“No!” The woman screeched and, distracted, tripped over another object in her path. She fell to the floor with a thud as a stack of objects was knocked loose and collapsed on top of her. The woman let out a series of yelps. Adeline leapt to the rescue.
“Oh my goodness!” She approached and knelt down on the cold dirt floor. “Are you okay? Are you…”
As Adeline had bolted away from the entry, a small gust of wind had blown the door open even wider. The sunset light entered into the cabin and cast a wide, glowing stream of orange onto the floor, illuminating the room and falling like fire across the woman’s face.
Adeline gasped. The woman was pretty. No. She was beautiful.
She was a woman of about thirty-four years. Her wavy golden hair, though tousled, shone in the amber light like the fresh honey which dripped from the suckle trees in the summertime. She had lips that looked as soft and supple and pink as rose petals; her eyes, wide and filled with terror, glowed as green as springtime grass. In the center of her forehead was a birthmark so faint it was almost unnoticeable… except in the dazzling brightness of direct sun. It had the look of a bird’s footprint, like a little bird had stepped right there on her face. To curse her.
Adeline trembled. “Oh, my God…” She lost all sensation; from fingers to toes to the top of her head, her body went numb. She couldn’t blink. All she could do was stand there and stare at the glorious, beautiful, and yet somehow gruesome woman sprawled on the floor before her.
“Adeline, please. Please, let me explain…”
There was only one word Adeline could think of, one question that kept repeating itself in her mind as she stared at this wild-looking creature. She asked it.
The woman immediately burst out in reckless sobbing. With a hand she covered her mouth as she cried and, at the same time, gave several unrestrained, hearty nods.
* * *
What happened after that Adeline couldn’t recall. Her head felt like it was spinning and she ran, screaming, out of that cabin and away from her house and past Malady Tiller’s farm. She didn’t hear the other children who were playing ball on the road calling after her, asking her where she was running to. She didn’t see Mr. Humphrey bolt out of his inn as she ran past, or hear him yelling after her to stop, yelling that it would be okay. All she could think of was that the centauress must have known, Álainn must have known, Mr. Humphrey must have known… her father knew. Everyone had known, except her.
Her only hope lied in the mercury lake. If she could prove that her mother fell in, that she had died long ago, then that would prove what she’d believed as truth all along. The mark on her mother’s forehead was simply a birthmark. Easy as that. Nothing more, nothing less.
She gasped for air. Her lungs burned. Her legs burned. She didn’t care. She kept running.
Adeline reached the lakefront and skidded to a halt. She stared out across the shimmering mercury, thinking how soft it looked and how easily anyone could fall in. She heard Mr. Humphrey calling her name from somewhere behind her. Adeline turned around. He was still quite a distance away, merely a speck on the horizon. But she could see he was running quickly. He understood what she was there to do.
A spark of delight lit in Adeline’s heart. If Mr. Humphrey was fearful for her, then that meant that a person could drown in the mercury lake. That only meant the story was true. Her mother was dead!
She turned back to the lake and watched the heavy edge of the liquid lap at the dense grass on the shore. She heard Mr. Humphrey call for her again.
She had to know for herself.
Adeline dropped all hesitation and ran forward into the lake. She felt her legs go wobbly; she felt she would sink immediately. A rush of joy flooded her and she laughed madly to herself as she fell down into the liquid.
Belle isn’t my mother, she thought. I’m going to sink in this lake. Mr. Humphrey will be here soon to save me. I won’t die. Belle isn’t my mother. My mother is dead…
But there was nothing.
Adeline had lost her balance, but she sat, afloat, on the lake. She watched as the mercury rippled away from the bottoms of her feet, from underneath her hands; she felt like a feather floating on the air. She sat there for what seemed to be a long time, looking around her, waiting for the inevitable, waiting for the mercury lake to suck her in. But nothing happened.
Mr. Humphrey approached the lake’s edge and set one foot atop the mercury. Adeline watched expectantly, but his foot did not sink. He held one end of his cane as he reached the other end out to her. She stared, mouth agape.
“Adeline,” he called, whispering. She looked up at him. Her face felt flushed and hot, her chest felt empty, as if it would cave in at any moment. She couldn’t breathe and couldn’t stop her chin from trembling. “Adeline, darling. Please.”
Adeline looked down at her feet once more and, wishing she were dead, took the end of the cane in one hand as Mr. Humphrey pulled her along the top of the liquid death toward the shore as if she were a spot of air.
This story has been a long time coming. I first used it as a grade in a creative writing class in 2005. In 2006, I edited it as part of my final exam. Today, in 2013, with this new, re-edited, and now public version, I finally feel the tale has reached the apex and depth of its true nature.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this story. Even more, I hope you’ve enjoyed it enough to share it with someone you know or subscribe to my story-blog to be notified when new stories are posted. Some of them are slow to develop; others are more easily obtained. Yes… obtained. Stories are not made, they are not developed, they are not created… they are discovered. Stories and tales of every shade of greatness exist out in the world. It is simply the writer’s job to pioneer, to find those tales, listen to what they say, and write them to share with the world.
I look forward to finding more stories to share with you. I hope you’ll stick with me as I, slowly but surely, discover and piece them together.
Jessica Woken, Pioneer of Tales.
Story Credits and Notes:
Acknowledgement to the song in Part 1:
Artist: Sting; Album: (1994) Fields of Gold: The Best of Sting 1984-1994; Song Title: Fields of Gold.
Some facts about liquid mercury:
Read the final paragraph of this man’s exploratory journey through Spain as he discovers “the liquid mercury is so heavy that a steel ball floats on it.” http://www.marin.edu/~jim/photos/spain/spain2.html
“Back in 1972 (October issue to be precise) National Geographic Magazine published a photograph of a man sitting on a pool of mercury. And I do mean on, not in. I’ve never forgotten that photo, and finally dug it up again (from their CD-ROM collection): (image pictured above).
“Of course, no one in their right mind, then or now, would expose themselves to this much mercury. But, man, doesn’t it look like it would be an incredible experience? Mercury is so dense, and clings to itself so strongly, than the man floats on it like styrofoam floats on water. The pressure inside a pool of mercury rises 13 times more rapidly than the pressure in a pool of water (because it is 13 times more dense). Imagine sticking your arm straight down into a pool of mercury: The pressure on your hand would be as high as if it were 20 feet under water. What must that feel like?” (http://www.theodoregray.com/PeriodicTable/Elements/080.s8.html, Copyright 2003, Theodore W. Grey)