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The Delicate Grasp of Hanna Lee

 

The Delicate Grasp of Hanna-LeeCopyright Douglas Ironside 2021.

The grove had been tended with love, if one can employ garden tools with such emotion. I had prepared all appearances with great care, as concern for each detail is the measure of affection. In the final touches I entwined spring roses with ribbons of chartreuse, stems lurching up in their lust for warmth, clutched petals daring to show the tiniest beginnings of pink to my hopeful eye.

 

A dappling of sunlight lazed over trees not yet dressed. Only the very tips of the hardwoods were flicked with green buds, as young pollen hovered in the air, all dusty motes. Poetry blossomed in my heart as I bore witness to exquisite scenery.

  

The entire surround of the inner copse I had decorated with natural slivers of crimson, tangles of violet, orangey-yellow pistils, and accentuating bracts of each other color. Mustering all hues, I sought to enchant Hanna-Lee with the glory of spring, as it was her renewal in one more rising. I had not seen her since the coming shards of winter, almost four months past. Ever did she did disappear when the snow came, as truly she could not endure it.

 

She always went just as surely as we pined for her return, our meager pleas never successful. As usual, we three had gone our own way for the long cold months, carving up meaning for ourselves in the hard gap. Through howling storms and the shuddering ice I had endured, dreaming, and at last my faith stirred as I counted days with markings on rock. Hanna-Lee would emerge as beauty incarnate, elegance upon her soul, as glorious as colored glass in the glow of rising light.

I believed in fostering chances, the regrowth of connection, as my mother had taught me in spirit and my father had shown me through the illustration of tenacity and rough labor. A shadowy remembering of them and their penchant for thrift drove my struggling fingers against a broken wooden bowl. As I fiddled with the dry pieces, I imagined that this object symbolized or embodied my own desires. I was the bowl, longing to be whole, once again to be filled for good purpose.

Ezra had snuck up on me, I guess.  

 

“You’re wasting your time with that,” he said, bold enough to make me jump.

 

“I am doing no such thing,” I said, struggling. Never was I one for agility. I’m built of chunked muscle and broad bone. My hands were no implements for delicacy.

 

“Even if your glue holds, which it likely won’t, the thing will still not hold water. Why not just carve a new one?”

 

“Because this one is beautiful,” I said, “Look at the grain. A laboring man gave a month to this, easy.”

 

“Nobody recalls that man,” Ezra said, moving in boldly and grabbing a hunk of my bread and cheese. He was the cheese maker, a shepherd of goats in our nearby clearing, so I didn’t object. I had not built the bread either. “Craft a new one,” he said.

 

I grunted and tried to ignore him. He ate and watched me fumble.

 

“I saw your gardening…” he commented as I fiddled further with the pine gum. I had experimented with various hardeners, powders of this and that. I possessed only hope that it would hold, with no real evidence.

 

“… doesn’t look awful,” he said, chewing.

 

I swirled a stick in the resin and made fast figure eights. He waited for me to fail.

 

“Our elder man is sick,” he finally said, like it meant nothing. I looked up, knowing just glancing away would likely ruin my repair. Honestly, I had realized in the breaking of the autumn that Old Brill was coming to an end. To be silently aware he was ill was one thing, but for Ez to state it aloud, well, this was obviousness boiling up to a stark, troubling truth. From a bush that’s growing in the wrong place and going wild, to a doomed derelict tree ready to fall; there’s a big difference. Accented by the disturbing signs of his own age, Ez held an alarming look.

 

“How bad is it?” I asked, quickly trying to salvage my resin, looking back down, waiting to hear that Brill was already dead.

 

“He was asking for you,” Ezra said. There was an unspoken tension in the breathing, expectation.

 

“Where is he?” I asked.

 

“The only place he could be,” Ez stated, like I was some idiot. “I know you’d want to go, and you have to go, really, so why not let me correct the bowl? You’re terrible at that anyway.”

 

“Don’t bother,” I said, seeing my makeshift glue had set beyond workability. I tossed the pieces in disgust. 

 

“You’ve wasted your pine gum, Jeb.” He shortened my name because he knew I didn’t appreciate it. 

 

“You don’t think we have enough pine gum? It’s oozing on the trunk of each evergreen in the grove. Don’t trouble yourself,” I jabbed, irritated, rising. “I will go. Leave my bowl alone.”

 

“Don’t worry,” he said, “I won’t touch it.” 

 

As I grabbed my cloak and headed out, I gave him a spiteful expression, eyes up and down to the project. With his great knowledge of compounds, he’d fix the damned thing better than I could and try to steal Hanna-Lee’s attention. Laggard. Creep. Opportunist. I didn’t have too many pleasant conceptions of Ezra. But then again, I was the lover, and he was the ex-lover, and ours was not always a congenial relationship. This was why I was going to see Old Brill and he was not, as echoes of the past aren’t quick to fade.   

 

Across the grove I went, pulling my mantle around me to stop the cool wind from chilling my innards. In another month’s time there wouldn’t be such gusts, blocked by foliage and boscage, with warmer air altogether. In the turn of the seasons, Old Brill had relined his trail with white stones, and a few he had painted with various dyes.

 

Other oddly devised curios marked the way. He obsessed with such things, having lived so much of his life in these coppices. His handiwork betrayed his natural eccentricity to have worsened since I’d seen him last, which was… I couldn’t remember exactly. Much about Brill was often muddy. Other days I thought him a surrogate father. Memory is a soggy loaf; pull too hard with the spoon and all the pieces crumble.

 

I found him in the little shack he had built for himself when Hanna-Lee wanted nothing more to do with him. Henceforth he had naught but time, yet by then he’d gotten rather decrepit, worn like a bucket left too long outside the well, dried up and leaky. His muscles were thin, his work suffering and his tools failing. Somehow, he managed even though Ezra and I suspected he nearly froze this past winter, alone and hungry.

 

He was writing something when I went in, moving past the stinky piece of leather that passed for a door. A feather quill, and some strange liquid, the putrid guts of some little creature for ink, and dried skin for a scroll. Not a job for anyone with a nose. The whole place was a mess of filth, an ancient man left to his devices and the creeping onset of madness.

“Brill,” I beckoned from just within the frame. He was moaning low, every part of him withered I could see, for the fact he was covered in moss. Truthfully, I had seen some green stuff on him before, but now he was being consumed. A pair of small mushrooms emerged from his right ear, peeking out from his shag of hair, tangled with little shoots of the wild grape.

“Brill,” I called again, rather reluctant to move inward, seeing his wretched boots half rooted to the dirt floor. I couldn’t assess whether any of this strange propagation was catching. He turned to me, letting go of his quill. A corpse he was, yet living, insects all about him. I was both mystified and filled with dread.

“You came,” he croaked. I saw a seedling, some leafy sprout emerging from his cloudy left eye. I paused, unable to speak, my gaze betraying shock, seeing his whole construct as a morass, a bog.

“Look upon me and see your own fate,” he said, a beetle climbing out from under his tongue. “You must leave this grove, make for the forest edge. You must go.”

The seeds of my mind were failing to germinate. I didn’t understand and couldn’t look past my dismay. I only flinched and stared on.

 

“Don’t you remember?” he asked, reaching for the thin dry hide that bore his writing.

 

“Remember what?”

 

“You were a woodcutter and before that, a priest of the Green Veil. You once had a life of your own. Can you not search your heart and see the past?” In truth, the years gone by were swamps of vague notions, idle visions near impossible to recall. It didn’t matter. I thought Brill dying mattered. He looked at me with impatience, as much as I could still read his face, disintegrating, becoming dry bits of clay. The skin on his cheeks was so desiccated and fragile that a stiff wind would likely blow away little flecks.

“You must cease your concern for me,” he said. “My time is over, I am gone. This letter is all of me that will go forward. So long I’ve spent rotting here, no matter that I fall apart at the end. This message you must bring for me, past the edge of the woods, to Beltaine Downs.”

Beltaine Downs. That name was familiar, some fallow field of the past.

“As you’ve been a mentor to me, nurturing me these long winters, I might indulge your request. Describe what you want, and I’ll consider it.” But then, I was just about to reunite with Hanna-Lee. I had no desire to leave the love of my life, the reemergence of my soul. But if he was absolutely at the end, then I should at least humour a man decaying unto his last breath.

“I was a free man,” he said, a sadness swelling on the vines of his visage. “I was not meant to live here, trapped and forever wasting out my days. I had a wife and daughter. See what remains of my family lives and let them know my fate.” His tone was pleading, soulful enough, even as the stink of him was unbearable.

“Trapped?” I asked. “What part of you is trapped? You are here for love, same as me,” I reminded him. He reached for something to throw in his furor. For lack of a pebble, he ripped off one of his own fingers, now rather like a twig, and he pitched it at me. It had not the weight to match his ferocity, yet his voice carried a coarse bitterness within all his ribbits.

“Love, by the beard of Silva! You… you… ridiculous fool Jebediah, you’ve lost your mind and your free will both. Can you not see what’s she’s done to us three? And countless numbers before?”

“I am the lover,” I said simply. “Love is enough for me.”

He sighed a terrible sigh, like a mound of heaving vegetation releasing marsh gas. He held himself and gently wept, tears coming forth like two miniature creeks of despair.

“I… I cannot think of what would set you free. No more than I am only loose of my fetters now that I hover at the edge of the end. Ezra will be of no use, for all he cares. Please. Just think on delivering my letter. Please do this for me, or for my memory. You will not be the lover for long, perhaps then—”

“What? How do you know that?” I asked, outraged.

“Jebediah, you are overthrown. Do you not remember that I was once the lover? Surely that Ezra was the lover before you? We are but fading flowers, our time in the sun all gone. In all our long days, has this not occurred to you?” He coughed to spew out the last words. He hacked and pieces of him fell to the ground as he choked on specks of his own dirt, traces of flesh pulled into the loam of his lungs. I couldn’t stand him anymore, watching him decompose, come apart, dematerialize. He would nurse the ground and no hole would need digging. I would forget him.

“The letter…” he managed as I turned and walked away, muttering curses and frustration at his audacity. His ramshackle cabin disappeared behind me. By the time I made the main circle of the grove, my thoughts were clear. Ezra was sitting there, and for the sight of Hanna-Lee, my beloved, I almost forgave that he was tempting her with a miraculously refurbished wooden basin with a lovely grain. Their eyes turned to me, even as I swelled with jealousy for their shared moment.

“Jebediah, my gorgeous man,” she said, standing.

 

I saw the pear and walnut shades of her lengthening hair, the softness of her russet skin, like bark in aspect but silk to me. Those exotic eyes were upon me as two purple miniature suns, no pupils to offset their virtue. Her lithe form flowed, and I could not help but behold those auburn lips, petals giving way to the filament of her sweet tongue. Her long-angled limbs slid as graceful as ever, a lucid playground of movement. She smelled of the work of honeybees crossed with lilac. A chiding glance from her chased off Ezra, I saw to my satisfaction. After all he had work to do. I had love to make.

 

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The brushing of my cheek was everything. We touched hands to celebrate her renewal, her wondrous return. I inhaled effervescent notes of her luscious scent. Never had the world seemed so intimate.

“Oh, my Jebidiah, you are ever so strong and so virile,” she said, her gaze every bit as fascinating as I remembered. It was admittedly forever ago, the late autumn, akin to the passing of a lifetime. Her green-on-green fingertips brushed my arms in wanton esteem. I was the lover.

“Tell of the work you’ve done, whatever you’ve gotten up to in my winter’s sleep,” she requested. First, I told her petulantly that Erza had stolen my bowl. Then I detailed the planting of bulbs, trimming of so many plants, fertilization, digging until the ground would be worked no more, followed so many days later with the tilling of the spring soil, tending of roots and cuttings, and all the long list she had provided. I had been dutiful. Inside our shelter, the woven living branches of so many pliant young trees, I showed her the precious stones I had dug or found, the little bracelets I had made, the necklace of amber. Hanna-Lee was touched by my kindness and thoughtfulness. She was cooing and making drama of my gifts when Ezra burst in unannounced. 

“We are making love in here!” I said, standing to show I had been affronted.

Ezra slicked back his greying hair and showed his troubled, weathered face.

“Old Brill is gone,” he said, somber, his dark eyes remorseful. Suddenly I remembered. Brill. He was someone.

 

“Ohhh, that’s so sad,” said Hanna-Lee, sliding over to Ezra to give him a brush of solace, her hand to his skin like the caress of violets against burnt granite. But he so cherished that touch, a gift meant truly for Brill, mistaken for his own. A stupid grin half-formed upon his ruddy face as he flushed to absorb her condolences. I huffed to show my displeasure, radiating a vile energy that none could ignore. Eventually they saw me pouting.

 

“What needs doing now that Brill is no longer with us?” Hanna-Lee murmured to the room.

“We shall get to work,” Ezra said, showing strength to get himself away from her rapturous stare. Then he looked at me with heavy eyes, filled with expectation or meaning I didn’t understand. I couldn’t remember what had just been said, except for the interruption of my lovemaking with the most transcendent creature in all… in all these woods. These woods of a name I could not recall. I shrugged.

Ezra went off, shaking his head, but I sensed this was only partly in reaction to my behaviour. Something was happening to him. Even so, seconds later my thoughts were elsewhere as Hanna-Lee traipsed across the room, seductive, entrancing, suffused with mystique. She pulled back a lock of my hair.

“Things will change now that Brill is gone,” she said.

I nodded, hypnotically agreeing. She wasn’t wrong. She gazed at me, tilting her head as if to see me for the first time.

 

“My, my, aren’t there sweet lines upon your face, and creases near your eye?”

 

“Only for beaming at you, my darling.”

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In a measure of time that summer, or the passing of several moons I wasn’t sure, Paulus replaced me. I was now the ex-lover, and thus the meager part-time sower of Hanna-Lee’s affections. It was scant, fleeting, still delicious, yet not enough to truly sustain. I had a lot more time.

 

Paulus planted daffodils. I shoveled. Paulus pruned roses. I irrigated. Paulus panned for glorious little pebbles in the creek. I hauled buckets of water. Perhaps I didn’t have as much time as I thought. I spent most of what energy I had left easing my sore back with stretching and homemade liniment.

But the one thing I didn’t do with whatever discretionary time I possessed was talk to Paulus. That creepy, loathsome, lanky, pasty, rotten little hedgehog. How he had seized Hanna-Lee’s tenderness, I could not fathom. I beheld his twenty-few years, his undesirable masses of sinew, oddly unblemished skin, the unseemly symmetry of his form, his eyes a mere dullish emerald. He was inexplicable, this grand sprite of a man, the thief of adoration. I would curse him, I thought, if only satisfactory curses would recur to my tongue.

I was moving big rocks, rolling them end over end, when Ezra came to me one afternoon. He looked gray and deeply drained, his steps struggling, white-blue lichen on the back of his hands. As he staggered close, I was overtaxed and drenched in sweat. I wouldn’t having bothered with a conversation except rebuffing him would give me a pause from the breaking of my back.

 

“I found this,” he said almost whispering, sidling up to me like we were in confidence. I bristled but stood there as she showed me a scroll made of a dried animal skin. He unrolled it to show writing that was rough, shaky.

“What’s the meaning of that?” I asked. “Why are you showing this to me?”

His eyes scrunched up as he looked around uncomfortably, wobbling. Then he came back to catch my gaze quite deep.

“I think this belonged to Old Brill,” he moaned.

 

“Who’s Old Brill?” I asked.

“You dumb jackface, you’re in so much deeper than I thought.”

“Deeper into what?” I asked with indignance. “Say whatever the heck you mean.” Surely, he could see I was incensed and meant to play no part in any sly motive of his or Paulus, should they be in league.

“I’ve read it. This thing. And now that I’m the ex-ex-lover, I’m removed. I am fading fast now, scary how quick, but I hold perspective because I’m more distant.”

I shook my head. “Distant from what?”

“From the grasp of love, you might say.” Ezra was being cryptic, and I grew even more enraged.

“Ez, you must take me for some nitwit. Paulus is within with Hanna-Lee right now, making love, being caressed like an orchid loves the touch of wet heat, and I’m out here leveraging boulders. You are here with the stripped skin of a raccoon covered in insensible scrawling, trying to convince me it means something, and you don’t even—”

He smacked me in the chin and used the moment of surprise to splash liquid into my nose. I inhaled juniper or diluted cedar oil, or something similar, completely subsuming my senses. I hacked and spit as I fell to my knees.

“Breathe deep,” I heard him say between my rasped inhalations. “Breathe deep and it just might work. Don’t ever say I never did anything for you.”

I heard his footsteps run off, shuttling across dried leaves and snapping twigs. Meanwhile, I was wracked with pain and reeling. I blew my nostrils furiously, trying to get the poison out of me. Instead, I collapsed, gasping. I went almost black, staring at ragged sunlight in the canopy, wind wavering the roof as branches moved. I laid there a long time as ants crawled over me, my struggling body merely some lump on the landscape. Finally, I twitched. I was still wheezing but I rose, thumbing mud from my eyes, shaking off all bits of the forest floor. As I stood, I perceived the world anew. My mind cracked open. I gasped. Brill.

I looked over his rough-spun letter. He was a woodsman, a tracker, a teacher of woodcraft. I was a lumberjack and a priest of Belanus in my younger days, a learned man. Old Brill had a family, a wife, in Beltaine Downs, a nearby town. A town was where people lived in cabins. Log houses. Farms. Barns and horses. People. Civilization, all the lands of King Quentian. Beltaine Downs, where I too was from, I thought.

 

I had to think more if I could. I had to go. I had to make my break, my leave. I had to get away, to deliver this letter, and escape from… from Verdigris Wood!

Most critically, I had to avoid Hanna-Lee. The wood nymph would entrap me again if she but saw me. Where was I in relation to the main hut? Where was Hanna-Lee’s oak from here? I didn’t know. Giving no thought to any sort of plan, I sprinted away. I ran because I could of my own will, choosing my path as I desired. I went right to the stream and drank my fill. As the drops fell from my lips to the purling black water, I detected whispers, scratches, birdsong. The creak of straining elms, living wood groaning in the breeze. Spies on every branchlet. Turncoats behind every trunk.

I could not rely on any living thing among the swaths of stems and undergrowth. Any aphid could betray me, any rogue starling could send me back to prison, any chipmunk rattling his teeth would sound the alarm. I spun in circles as my thoughts jumped from idea to idea, unknowing my bearings. Whatever trail that brought me here in the first place was a forgotten path, all leads to the outside world a mystery. Everything was green and disordered, all nebulous and random. I did the only thing I could do; I followed the stream.

If I breached the woods, I could orient myself to the sun, and with luck the knowledge of the world would flood back to me. In the meantime, I splashed forward like a wild thing, wading, working, plodding onward. Past slight rapids I went, over slippery rocks, fighting tall reeds and the cold of spring-fed stream. Above me the sky changed, the golden orb shining down like a hot beacon.

 

With only a few more beats of freedom I might know which way was east and have an inkling of my destination, a direction, some clue. I turned left then right, at the mercy of the flow until I ducked under a bough and brought my head up to stare at Hanna-Lee looking right through me. She was hovering above, sitting on a fallen log that crossed the creek, dangling her pretty feet.

“Hey there, stranger,” she said, chewing idly on her bottom lip.

“Umm, hello. There. You. Hi.” Nervous laughter came upon me.

“Something wrong?”

“What would make you say that?” I asked, water flowing past my chilled thighs. The scent of sweetness was strong, even with the wind at my back. Looking at her now with refreshed eyes, I could not deny she was beautiful, a spirit of the oak untouched by time.

 

Stop. Stop that, I thought. 

She was supple, radiant, the nectar of a butterfly aloft within the rapture of a rainbow.

You, you ridiculous fool, you’re falling down her slippery slope.

“Going somewhere?”

“Uh, no. No. Of course not. I was chasing a fish to eat for dinner. Slimy thing just trying to slip my chase.”

“You can catch them near the eddies where they wait quite still, just as I taught you,” she whispered, looking down. She touched me with her big toe, tracing a slippy-dippy line upon my chest.

“Yes,” I said. “You were always so talented. At catching. Things.”

“It is a skill of mine, as ever I was blessed with anything,” she sighed, her voice as a delicate song, a lullaby, the concordance of the earth and sky.  

   

No. Brill. Brill was a hunter. He…

Hanna-Lee looked down upon her fingernails, casually eyeing the perfection of each one with entrancing languor. 

“It has been so long,” she breathed, “since we made love…”

“I… I… I thought I was the ex-lover,” I remarked, hardly able to speak the words.

“Oh, Jebediah. Aren’t you just the jealous type?”

No, I was never that, the jealous type. Part of me so distantly remembered making actual love. Such primitive, animalistic urges, liberated from all account. I remembered when a touch on the cheek and the scent of flowers was not enough to captivate. What I beast I was, a creature of flesh and lust. I could do... I could do so much. I could do so much better.

“Hanna-Lee, I…”

“Shhh,” she said, placing her toe across my lips to shush me. I stood in the wash of water, having it flow past me as the liquid heart of a lustrous realm, unsullied by the touch of men and all their basest instincts.

Her lavender eyes were upon me. Always I knew that love would be enough.

 

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