• Norma Hughes

THE RED LADY

A long day was coming to an end as the sun dipped below the tree line, setting the nearby lake ablaze with light and transforming the spider’s webs into strands of golden hair. The wayfarer looked out across the shimmering lake, watching the blue shadows lengthen as he set up his camp. Upon a crackling, chirping fire, the wayfarer placed his cast iron pot and cooked his nightly meal of forest mushrooms. He was lucky to have found anything in these forests, and he poked at his withered stomach in an attempt to make it grateful. Needless to say, it did not work. It was not the hunger that bothered him though, but the eternal loneliness. He feared he would lose his voice for having not used it in so long. As the moon rose, and the stars sparkled, he lay out his bedroll before the small fire, and before drifting off to sleep he thought, how lonely I am! If only I had someone as warm as this fire to keep me company.

By morning the fire had burned away leaving naught but blackened wood and white, wisps of ash and lying next to the man was a naked woman. She was beautiful beyond anything the man had ever seen, but what was most striking of all was her garnet skin, as bright red as the sand of unforgiving deserts. She stirred under his gaze, feeling uncomfortable, and opened her eyes, the irises of which were black like little coals.

“Where am I? How did I come to be here?” she asked.

“Why, I wished you to be here, you are going to be my wife” laughed the man, rejoicing at his good fortune.

The Red Lady did not smile, “You are wrong, I do not belong here” she said, but the man did not listen. Instead he clothed her in one of his old sheets, for no other man should look upon her, and bade her follow him. The Red Lady hated the disgusting, dirty sheet, and felt trapped under its weight, but try as she might she did not seem to be able to take it off. As they walked, he spent all his time trying to talk to her, telling her of his life, his childhood, his woes and his wants. All the birds were silent as the man talked, unable to compete with his noise. He spoke of his ill fortune, bad bets and how he deserved this good luck, his woman. To which she would reply, “You are wrong, I do not belong here.”

At night he need not light a fire for he would hold her close and she would be as warm as a hot piece of coal. As his deep breathing turned into snores, the Red Lady would lie awake, staring at the stars and longing to be far away. When they came across lakes during their walks, the man would bathe and swim. The Red Lady, however, would not go in, and instead remained seated on the sandy bank.

“Why don’t you ever come in? No one will respect me if my wife is dirty” he would say angrily, starting to become frustrated with her stubbornness and aloofness. She would turn her face away from him and stare longingly into the forest. She wished to run away but the sheet lay heavy on her body.

Silence soon returned to the wayfarer, for he could not get any kind of conversation that he wanted to hear out of his wife. This frustration extended into the night, and he soon found her too hot in his bed, forcing her to sleep by herself on the forest floor. This, she thought, was slightly better, but she was still unable to escape the blanket he had wrapped around her.

On a warm afternoon, the wayfarer and the Red Lady walked past a glorious river. It shone beneath the midday sun, and the swirls and eddies within its flow caused ripples of emerald greens and crystalline blues. Small fish could be seen to dart between the smooth river rocks, while moss and algae housed a myriad of beautiful insects and flowers. All was peaceful and tranquil. The wayfarer quickly undressed and jumped into the river kicking up mud. The clear water dirtied, the fish darted away, and the crickets grew silent.

“Wife” he said, and the blanket on her grew heavier yet again, “it is beautiful here, come, swim with me as all the other wives do for their husbands.”

But the Red Lady shook her head. “This is not my place, not my duty” she said again, and sat down against the hollow of a nearby tree.

The wayfarer would not have it. He got up out of the river and grabbed the Red Lady by the wrist. As soon as his wet skin touched hers it began to smoke, and she cried out in pain.

“Stop” she said, but he continued to pull. He pulled and pulled her towards the river. She dug her feet into the muddy, sandy shores, but the earth slipped away beneath her.

“Why do you do this?” she asked, “is this not what you wished for?” but he did not answer. Finally, her foot hooked in a root and she fell, causing both of them to tumble into the water. When the wayfarer surfaced, the Red Lady had disappeared, and only smoke lingered above the water’s surface. The blanket, which the wayfarer had wrapped around the Red Lady, drifted away downstream.

“I’ll be happy to have my own company back” said the wayfarer with relief, and he got out of the river, dried himself, and set up camp against the hollow tree. That night he lit his fire and placed his bedroll next to it as he had done countless nights before and fell asleep. As the snores echoed across the forest, quieting the owls and cicadas, small embers leaped from the fire onto the bedroll. Needless to say, nothing was ever disturbed by the wayfarer again.

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