Daimôn, part 3 of 3
* * *
She pleaded with him to move them both into town. There they would be surrounded by people and so close to other houses. His apartment was even right next to the police station. But Dagmar persisted in saying they stay for the animals. He cited responsibility.
“I’d love to take us both into town,” he said, “but where could we keep ponies and goats at a grocer’s? The chickens we’d get away with. The rest –”
“But we could sleep in town,” protested Dove. “And drive back here twice a day to feed them!”
“That would be cruel, to leave them at night.”
“I could lodge them at the Taylor’s.”
“That’s the worst idea. You’d give what reason? – Fear of a fox? You’d say, ‘Keep my chickens and ponies because I’m scared of a fox, which is just as likely to run through your farmyard, too’? Remember that’s what these people are thinking. You can’t let them know your idea of a daimôn. You can’t.”
“Oh – well –”
“Promise me you won’t.”
“I won’t.” Dove paused. “And ours.”
“It's our idea.”
“Right. And think of this,” said Dagmar, suddenly laughing, “If old man what’s-his-name spreads this monster rumor, they won't believe him…but their Puritan mentality, still in them, prone to superstition, will keep them away from here. From you and from me. Think of that – no socialites poking around. No trouble. They’ll be scared of our woods, though they won’t admit it.”
“Oh, Dagmar, it’s not isolation I want. I’m not like you. I don’t have projects to work on. I must share my tea and make my gifts and talk with –”
“People who deride your brother?”
She was silent.
“No,” she finally said sullenly. “No. You know I don’t like that. I hate that. Didn’t I tell you I cried?"
"- Their words about you affected me so much.”
“At...the party.” She lost her sense of surety.
“Well – ” Now she was going to flounder, and try to find a way not to have to repeat the girls’ words. Or to be vague enough to push her first point: to convince him of her ardent and perpetual defense of him.
“What did they say?” he asked, though he channeled any aggression into the towel he was gripping.
“Nothing – nothing. Just repeating the rumors – you know – the rumors…”
“The forgery ones?”
“Oh, just – general ones.”
“What did they say?”
“You know – you know – let’s not get into this. Oh, Dagmar – they’re idiots. It breaks my heart. Let’s shut up about them.”
“...You’re right. Why do I care what they say? And besides…” He tossed the towel onto the counter. “No one will be coming around here. That’s for certain.”
He stared out the window and Dove was, for some reason, grieved.
“Sometimes I wish,” she said, with a heavy heart, “we could just leave this town.”
“Where would we go?”
“You want to be back in the city.”
“You hate the city.”
“I do, but you don’t.”
“So – there. It wouldn’t work,” he said.
“But it suffocates you, this town. You hate that, and so I hate that.”
He made a noise of assent in his throat.
“It's the isolation.”
“No, it's being trapped. With the hypocrisy.”
“So, see - I’m keeping you where you don’t want to be.”
“No, I’m keeping myself here, too,” he said calmly. “I couldn’t go back to the city if I wanted to. At least not now. My plays are failing – they aren’t doing well. And we both know we have no fortune.”
“We could sell this farm,” said Dove, in a sudden passionate and all-sweeping sacrifice, for the land was her home.
“You know it’s town-owned since Martje died and your living here is just a concession to her descendants. It’s not in our power to sell it.”
“Well, I’ll get a job.”
“No,” he said gently, but his fingers rubbed the skin above his eyebrow as if tired. “You’re not constituted for that and you know it.”
“I am, too, you coddling moffet. Though I admit days like these are doing nothing to strengthen my nerves.”
“I know,” he looked up at her. “I know. I’m sorry.”
“Psh. I’m fine. I’m tough. I’m strong.”
“I’m going to get us out of this town fast.”
“Where will we go?”
“I don’t know. Soon.”
“I wonder which of us the daimôn will kill first,” laughed Dove. “Probably me. You are tougher.”
“No. No, I’m not,” he said, with unusually white lips, looking at her strangely. “I’m as scared as you. I’ve come to realize we both can’t live under these conditions. It’s taking over – ”
“Taking over what?”
“Well –” He fiddled with the towel again. “Not really.”
“Look – just don’t,” said Dove, “don’t do anything…wrong. Do what you want but not what would get us in trouble. Right?” Her tone was supplicating.
“You don’t think I’m really counterfeiting, do you?”
“No,” said Dove.
“But I am doing what I can to get us out,” he said, with a sudden and shocking intensity. He actually put his hand over his sister’s small one. He grasped it heartily and shook it, as if to mask any suspicious tender feelings. “I’m doing everything. Believe me.”
“Just let’s not get hurt in the meanwhile,” said Dove. “Not with all of this going on.”
“I know I’ve been unorthodox,” said Dagmar, “but I’ve always tried to do what…I thought…was right.”
“I stay away not just because it’s hard to connect to people, but because I have my projects.”
And then Dagmar looked out the window again, abstractedly. “Well…maybe we should…” he said, “maybe I should kill it.”
“I’m just worried,” suddenly exclaimed Dove, “that you are counterfeiting!”
He looked at her sidelong, cryptically. “What reason do you have?”
“No reason. Just worry.” She ran her hands along her dark hair. “Oh! I’m losing my reason!”
She turned and went up to her room.
She shut the door and looked around. Dagmar’s Christmas gift sat underneath a pile of clean nightgowns on her dresser.
She took it out and stared at it. Two days before Christmas, and pathetically unfinished.
Dove jumped to hear him coming up the stairs, his usual two at a time. He started to open the door but she shoved his present back under the flannels and flung herself against the wood.
“No!” she shrieked. “Can’t come in! Can’t come in!” She held her weight against the door, but he was stronger and put up a fight, play-growling at her.
“I need your cotton! I need your painter’s ink!”
“No! Never!” she roared back, laughing, and pushed harder.
He relented and the door stayed shut. “Well, what do you have in there I can’t see?” His voice was slightly muffled but genuinely curious.
“Lady’s privacy. Gentlemen can’t ask.”
“I just came up to tell you I’m going into town. And I’ll get you tea, right, while I’m there?”
“And do you want to be on your own here?”
“I’ll go visit Betty, I guess. I need to drop off the Taylors’ presents anyway.”
“Okay. When will you be back?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Two, maybe? I won’t stay long.”
“Okay, I’ll make sure I’m back by then.”
She was filled with affection from his solicitude.
“Want me to drop you off there?” asked Dagmar.
“No, you go ahead. I’ll ’phone Betty to collect me. I’ll see you later!”
When Dagmar had gone, she turned again to the dresser and changed her mind.
The doors of the house were locked and she needed to finish his present.
Christmas was only two days away. She would use this time while he was gone and complete it.
* * *
A half an hour had passed, but Dove could not concentrate. Her brother’s gift was in her lap, but her fingers were still and her body tense. Being utterly alone had proved within minutes to be a greater strain on her nerves than she thought it would be.
She found herself, unintentionally, listening to every noise in the house. When a gust of wind hitting the side of the old frame made such a cracking sound that she jumped, she finally took hold of her mental faculties, shook herself, and went down on her hands and knees to look under the bed for a bucket of paste. The combination of this motion and the pervasive thought of the daimôn suddenly made her remember something splendid.
Her great-aunt’s letter.
From thirteen years ago!
Her head spinning, she dived down again and fished with her fingers until she touched a tin far in the back. When she was a child, she kept correspondence in old cookie boxes. It was the wrong container – sugar cookie – but she located the one she was looking for, and the letter – for her aunt used rose-colored envelopes – was easy to find.
She perched herself up on her bed, with the shortbread tin on her knee, and drank in the familiar handwriting. She was sure she would find a clue.
You asked me in you last letter whether evil things existed in Sagolandet, but did not explain why. I am curious. What have you seen? So many slithering and fanged things crept in the shadows when I was a child, too.
So, in short, the answer is – yes, they did: at least when I lived there. (Rowan almost always carried his sword.) But your next question is ‘Why?’ and that is harder to answer. You perhaps can come up with your own theories – and if you do, write them back to me. I like nothing better than getting your letters.
Why did they exist, especially when I ruled the land? But I felt I had no say in the matter: they were just there, to fight against and to protect ourselves against. Or maybe I believed, even as a child, that Sagolandet would not have been a true place without imperfection. I had no desire to keep the blot from the land: perhaps to show to myself that evil could be conquered.
I am going to wax philosophical for a moment and this may be over your head. If so, no matter: read it when you’re older. But I want to tell you that evil – insanity – twistedness: it exists in all of us, alongside the good. To ignore it makes it stronger. Conversely, to embrace it lessens its power. But you must embrace it with love. Acknowledge it with love. And that helps it die.
Well…no, I take that back. I certainly have not lived long enough (do not laugh: I know I am an old lady) to know whether this helps it die…but embracing it certainly weakens it. Enormously so. And what a relief that is. Yes, I have lived long enough to know this.
Jag älskar dig, för evigt.
I love you,
Dove folded up the letter, and just then, downstairs in the front door, it sounded like a key was inserted into the lock, and turned with a scraping and clacking sound. She was about to jump up and greet Dagmar, wild with relief that he was come home so soon, but some invisible hand of steel held her back: whether intuition or her great-aunt’s spirit, she did not know: it was too early for her brother to be back.
He had never before opened the door with such deliberation, and she found herself sitting stock-still, frozen by some force. Her body weighed a thousand pounds and she was nailed to the bed. She just sat there and listened: and perhaps it was her animal instinct telling her not to move. Wait. Listen.
It was as if a dial were turned up in her senses. She listened and heard, very clearly, someone - or something - begin to ascend the stairs.
Dove's eyes went about her room and she calculated how far her jump was from the window.
Whatever it was seemed heavy, or unsteady on its feet, or as if it were carrying a burden, for its step was slow and dragging and weighted.
It seemed to be skipping every other step, but its slow thuds came onward and did not cease.
Dove turned her head to look at the window again and she must have moved her body ever so slightly, for by some chance the tin on her knee suddenly slipped and fell to the floor, clattering like a dozen rocks against a gong.
The sound was magnified by the situation and the clash seemed to reverberate through the halls, and at these echoes, she felt a holy calm settle over her and spread through her body, as if her mind was now prepared, in its apparent last moments, to behave with a body-numbing serenity.
Her stabs of anxiety vanished, and her mind was clearer than it ever had been before. She knew she was not going to go out the window. When it came in, she would draw it to the other side of the room and attempt to leave through the door. She would play a game of risk and try her luck on her legs, running to the Taylors'. If it had any of the qualities of a bear, such as speed, she would lose the game, but she would try.
She listened again. To her shock, all was silent. Nothing moved on the stairs.
Then at last - a labored shuffling, as if something were turning, and a slow and even softer descent down the stairs. Whatever it was seemed not to want to be noticed.
Then the front door gently clicked shut. If she had not been listening so acutely, she would not have even noticed it.
She let out the breath she did not know she holding and felt herself go limp, but she knew she had to look out the window.
She slid off the bed and found that her knees buckled at once, and she crumpled to the floor. But she forced herself to crawl on her hands and knees to the window, which overlooked the farmyard and the woods.
She stared for a moment at the white paint on her walls and noticed where it had split and cracked. Her heart throbbed again so sharply it hurt. Her breath was struggling up her throat. She would rather stay and just look at this white wall. What a fascinating splinter.
The splinter bobbed and blurred before her.
But slowly she lifted her head - and looked.
There was nothing.
Then as Dove slid down and turned and leaned her back against the wall, exhausted, one knee up, the other leg extended before her limply, she believed she might have understood. And it was this understanding that gradually filled her blood with strength, and, eventually, a great steadiness.
* * *
Dagmar returned at two, promptly on the dot, but neither sibling spoke much to the other. They did not even cursorily ask how each other’s day had been. Conversation was short at supper. While they ate, Dagmar spoke of the Massachusetts tribal carvings in the caves on Daimôn Hill, and casually asked Dove if she remembered them. She said she didn’t, and he went to bed early.
They had made a pact long ago that if one did not make it, the other would stay. She would honor that pact forever.
Going to bed, she looked over at her bureau. In the top drawer sat Dagmar's gift, finished. A tremor went through her. They might not even be there to see Christmas. To save them both, she knew what she had to do.
* * *
He told her he was going to town again, and she replied, in a relaxed way, that she was fine with staying alone. He assured her he would not be gone long.
After he left, she ran to the barn and climbed down into the cellar, but it was empty, and not even a canning jar was moved. Yet this only solidified her resolve.
She ascended, fetched a leather satchel, slung it over her shoulder, and entered Sagolandet.
She traversed the forest until she came at length to Skinande, a stream named by her aunt for its playful movement and its defiance as well, for it flowed through the Mörk Dal, a craggy valley shadowed on both sides by steep hills.
The late afternoon sky was unusually dark, and the sun was only a glowing silver and seemed very remote.
Keeping herself steady with her staff, she navigated the uncertain underbrush as she began to descend. The water was flowing, but its edges teemed with foam and ice, and on a low-hanging bush she saw where the water had leaped up, clung to its low branches, and formed large frozen spears. It was a ghoulish crown, and made her involuntarily shudder.
She continued picking her way along the river, letting herself down the slick face of sheer boulders, often only by holding onto the slim hand of a pine.
The air got cooler. Her ankle began a slow, low protest. Her foot broke through frozen leaves twice and went in between holes in the rocks.
At long last she was on solid, level ground, and in the heart of the valley.
She turned from Skinande and the river sobbed away, growing quieter and quieter in the distance.
She arrived at the foot of the berg. Her heart was fluttering madly and the muscles in her legs were quivering, but not from exertion: she had reached her goal. She was looking up at Daimôn Hill.
She felt light and her heart beat fast. Every impulse in her body was turning her away. The hill rose steeply upwards, forested with feeble pines which obscured the sight of the summit. The whole face was studded with boulders that looked as if giants had thrown them into its side, or piled them on top of each other in formations like playthings.
It was much, much higher than she had remembered.
She stood still for a moment, staring, holding her breath. Nothing was stirring in the valley: neither the rustle of a squirrel nor the twitter of a bird. Above the trees in the west glowed a pale yellow: the effort of a sunset. But to the west above Daimôn Hill, only gray fell over the heavens.
She slid her satchel around her neck, hanging it before her, and began to climb.
She slipped once, but saved herself by catching hold of a sapling. She laid her staff down and continued climbing, keeping low with her hands outstretched. By the time she had reached the first cave, her ankle was throbbing and she was perspiring.
The structure was a large slab resting on two smaller rocks. The sheltered ground was clear and dry, but there was nothing there, and there were no markings on the walls, though she inspected them.
The next cave was farther up the hill, but she found a thin, winding path, barely discernible in the leaves, and her ascent was easier. She no longer had to use trees to pull herself, and she could walk almost upright.
This cave was made of many boulders, massive ones, and had small crevices and one yawning opening. It was the place she first saw the daimôn. She stood many paces away from it, looking into the blackness, and trying to steady her breath.
"I'm not frightened of you," she thought. "I'm not frightened of you."
But even if this place was not haunted, she would have been frightened. She was now half-way up the hill and very high. She was on slanted ground, steadied only by a carpet of slippery pine needles, and surrounded by disorienting piles of granite. It was a chaotic and brutal place, and she was already tipped on her side. She knew that if she was overtaken here, and things did not go as she planned, she had little chance of escape: running upwards was impossible to do with any speed, and running downwards - she would of course try, but a fall could be fatal in itself. She was in danger of something even as ordinary as a mountain lion at this point.
She was almost level with the horizon, and happened to look behind her shoulder. That pale color had deepened to a stronger yellow, and...in a flash...she was taken away by its winter beauty.
To Dove, beauty was simple: that is, there was never any confusion in her mind when she apprehended something as beautiful. Because of this, beauty had always been one of the purest and most real experiences for Dove on earth.
This yellow color gave her a sense that there was a reality outside of the bizarre fable she was living in, and, strengthened, she turned towards the hill again and gave herself over to the oppressing elements. She moved forward with an almost fatalistic vigor, as one in an inescapable dream.
She approached the entrance and was strongly tempted to call out before the cave, but she did not. She stood a few paces away from it, and looked into the blackness.
And looked. And waited.
She became aware that it was empty. She heard no breathing, no growling. She would have already wakened whatever was in there, had it been sleeping.
So she moved forward, step by step, and, hovering a few inches away from the mouth of the cave, she peered inside.
Each corner of the enclosure was empty: there was no beast.
But the ground was carpeted with feathers and each corner was crammed with exactly what she thought she would find.
...In horror and relief, Dove filled her satchel. Relief because her suspicions were confirmed and she felt closer to safety now: for the objects she touched were man-made, and she knew the man. They felt familiar, even lovable, in her hands: but the mere copiousness of them, and the moral implication, was horrifying. She filled her bag half-way and quickly left.
* * *
Dove knew that the path to Eagle Look-Out on the top of Checkerberry Hill lay just ahead, if she could make it to the summit. She passed the boulders and the ancient structures, recklessly crashing through the underbrush which began to grow more closely together - wild blueberry bushes which stung her legs and clung to her skirt. For miles anyone would have known she was coming. She pulled herself up - she was almost there - she could see the summit -
And then she broke into the clearing.
She was at the summit. She could no longer see the shine of the Skinande, nor hear it: it was far below. The path was broad and clear. The pines in these upperlands grew short and scrubby. Feeling audacious, and strangely confident, she sauntered to Eagle Look-Out. She wanted to feast her eyes on the yellow sunset again.
She emerged into the overhang of flat, open granite. For countless miles before her flowed the waves of green hills. She could see a blurred white town nestled in a hollow in the distance. The sky burned gold above the pines, and above that, a saturated gray. It would snow on Christmas morning. Her face felt like it was being bathed in a bucket of ice water: she could feel the storm coming.
She turned back to the path. And there it stood, hulking, giant: a massive man over six feet tall, covered in thick brown hair, its face neither a bear nor a wolf's, but more like a boar's, with a snout and tusks. The creature was turned away and not moving. She did not know how long it had been there. It was in her path and her back was to the cliff.
Her legs almost gave way but she held tightly to her satchel and swallowed hard. Her heart rate shot straight up, but she tried to calm her breathing.
"I am not afraid," she whispered to herself. "I know it. I know it. I understand it. It's part of me. It's part of him."
And she took a step towards it.
The creature turned towards her. It had beady red eyes and a dripping snout and boar-like tusks. She continued walking. She held out her arms, lifting them up as if to embrace a child. She went to it so willingly.
"It's me. It's me. I love you. Come out of your costume. Come out. Feel the force of my love, Dagmar. It will save us both. Dagmar, listen to me! Listen! Dagmar, I am here! Dagmar, it's Dove! Dagmar, Dagmar, Dagmar!"
The creature tossed its head, flexed its claws, and began to run at her.
In the very last moments she believed it was her brother coming to swing her up in his arms in an embrace. And yet the thought flitted through her head - if it was her brother, in the final grips of insanity, about to maul her, she would stay willingly. She would stay, with her arms out, believing in him to the last moment, believing in his goodness, in his love for her, and her love for him, and the days they roamed the greenwood as children.
And just as the beast's hot breath was upon her, she embraced it and kissed it and all went black.
* * *
When she came to, she was lying on the ground, deep scratches on her forearms, and a short distance away, her brother was rolling across the bracken with some hairy thing. He raised his flint knife and drove it repeatedly into the bulk of fur, but she could not see clearly.
He struggled with it for what seemed like hours, but what was probably minutes, his own strength seeming to leave him – his face white – his shoulders hulking as he rose, and plunged his knife, and dropped to his knees, and got up again, and plunged again, and rolled and seemed to be thrown.
Finally the hide lay still.
He stood, and kicked it aside.
Dove shakily got to her feet. He put out his hand. "You don't have to come close if you don't want to. Can you go get a shovel? I want to bury this thing. And then I'm leaving Moguncoy tonight and you can come with me. There is nothing for us here anyway."
But she went close, and saw a mangled hide of claws and teeth and brown hair. There was no blood, but perhaps the fur was too thick.
"I'll stay, and can you get the shovel?" asked Dagmar.
"But...the Daimôn Hill."
"You're safe," he said. "I promise you, you are."
She looked at him.
"I wouldn't say that if you weren't. I'm your protector, remember? I came to rescue you." He flung the hairy knife in a gesture toward the hide.
"What happened a few minutes ago?" she asked foggily.
"I was out," he said. "And I heard you calling my name."
* * *