In my online writing group, we do monthly writing exercises. Last month, the assignment was to create two characters, then we swapped characters and were to write two scenes– a fight scene and a romance scene– using the same characters. I am sharing my scenes below, which turned into a whole short story. It’s not perfect, but I like it overall. The “fight scene” came out as more of an argument, even though I had one of my characters tuck a knife in her belt (and then it never made another appearance– another member of the writing group called it “anti-Chekhov’s gun”).
Nallie had had her fill of the strange and frightening sights and sounds which regularly assaulted her family’s sensitivity– not to mention the effect it had on the livestock. If that witch up the mountain could not be a more considerate neighbor…well, maybe she didn’t realize she even had neighbors. That was likely, Nallie thought with a sigh of irritation. She consoled little Mya until she curled up in Nallie’s lap and fell asleep for her afternoon nap. Nallie laid the baby in her crib and crept away.
“Nallie,” her father greeted her outside on her way to the barn; Rolain– her brother– had told her that morning of a slat in the barn which needed replacing. Better to take care of it now than have the task looming over her. But that had been before the disruption up on the mountain.
“Something has to be done about that witch,” Nallie said.
“A ‘hello’ first would have been nice,” her father teased.
“No time for that,” Nallie said as she brushed past on her way to fetch her knife from the tool shed. Of course she wouldn’t ever use it on another person, but in situations like these it helped to present an intimidating figure. As she left the farm to follow the path up the mountain, one of her dogs, Bowden, bounded after her and she welcomed his company.
She hiked up the mountainside, and even as fit as she was she found herself breathing heavily with her mouth open by the time she reached the witch’s front door– or rather, what was left of it. A great hole had been ripped through the wood, and Nallie’s eyes followed the likely path of the projectile which had caused the hole until they rested upon what appeared to be a large sphere of solid white ice about halfway down the mountainside, suspended upon a large boulder and leaning against a tree which happened to be in the right place to block the ball’s continued journey down the mountain. A horizontal crack ran up the side of the ball, but it had not split completely.
Inside the house was dark, so that all Nallie could see through the door’s great hole was the spot of floor illuminated by the sunlight streaming in. Every window of the cottage was covered by thick curtains. Nallie reached out a hand to knock on the door, but just as she did the door burst open, sending Nallie sprawling and falling hard onto her bottom.
Tresta heard a yelp and then suddenly a dog stood before her, growling and baring his teeth. “Whoa, boy,” she said, as she took in the rest of the scene which she had missed before, so engrossed had she been in her mental calculations– the contrast of moving from darkness into the light of mid-day didn’t help, either.
“Bowden, heel!” commanded a woman sitting on the ground and rubbing her hands together. The dog obeyed.
Tresta watched the woman as she slowly rose from the ground and examined herself for scrapes and bruises. How long was it since she had seen another human being? Tresta asked herself, but she could not answer her own question except to think to herself that it had been far too long. How else could she explain the fact that she somehow could not take her eyes off of the woman who now stood before her? “Are you alright?” she asked. “I’m so sorry, I guess I must have knocked you down when I opened the door…” Although Tresta hadn’t talked to another person for many days, her voice came out clearly enough thanks to all the muttering she did as she worked alone in her hut.
“I’m okay,” the woman grunted. “Really,” she said, as Tresta opened her mouth to object. “I just came here to– to…”
“You must live at that farm down in the valley,” Tresta interjected.
The woman nodded. “I’m Nallie. There are ten other people who live on that farm besides me, including four children– not to mention dozens of sheep and other livestock– who would all be most grateful if you would please stop with whatever insane experiments you run up here which disrupt our peace and threaten our safety.” Nallie pointed to the ball of ice, which appeared to shine now as it melted in the afternoon sun. “What if that ball of ice had continued down the mountainside and struck one of my sheep?”
Tresta wanted to reply, what is one sheep compared to a new magical discovery? But she had learned enough from experience to know that most people did not take kindly to having their concerns dismissed that way. “I apologize,” she said, tersely.
“But you do not promise to stop.” Nallie stood below and looked up into Tresta’s face, and Tresta didn’t realize she had been leaning so far forward until she nearly stumbled. She grabbed hold of the doorway to steady herself. What was this power which this woman exerted over her? Was she a mind witch?
“You don’t understand,” Tresta said, then had to stop to clear her parched throat. “This is my life’s work. Would you give up your farm to accommodate a neighbor who hated the smell of sheep?”
“That is hardly a fair comparison,” Nallie replied, red-faced. “My family depend upon that farm. Whom do you support with your...trivial experiments?”
“I am on the verge of a magical discovery which could revolutionize the way people store and preserve their excess food! Do not call that trivial!” Tresta cried.
“Take your magic somewhere else!” Nallie shouted back. “We don’t want it here!”
Tresta felt her self-control slipping, so entangled was she in a web of feelings far more intricate than any she’d ever experienced before. She wanted to scream at Nallie…and she wanted to hold her. The woman made her so mad! And Tresta could not stop looking at her– watching the way she moved, and studying her facial expressions and characteristics. Did Nallie know that her freckles grew brighter when she was excited?
“Did you hear me?”
Tresta jerked back to reality; Nallie stood almost face-to-face with her now, and Tresta realized that the woman stood a full head taller than she did, now that they were on a level with each other. The dog, Bowden, stood beside his mistress, still eying Tresta. Tresta usually had a way with animals– she even preferred them to humans most of the time. She stooped down and held out a hand to the dog; he stepped forward and sniffed, then licked her palm and wagged his tail. But Nallie barked his name and he jumped back. “Now you’re bewitching my dog,” she said.
Tresta rose from her squat and shook her head at the accusation. “It doesn’t work like that…”
“Whatever,” Nallie said, waving her hand dismissively. “You evade my point.”
Tresta’s voice wavered. “Your point was…?”
“Ooh. Never mind!” Nallie turned and began to trek back down the mountain path. “Come on, Bowden. We’ll take this matter to the authorities– they’ll straighten things out.”
“Wait!” Tresta called after them. But Nallie hesitated only a moment before continuing on her way. Tresta’s eyes fell upon the ball of ice, smaller now than it had been, and resting in a puddle of water which ran in rivulets across the surface of the rocky ledge. She had come so close to getting the spell right. But Nallie was not wrong– the ball of ice could have hurt someone– or something– and Tresta had been lucky that tree had been there to halt its descent down into the valley where Nallie’s sheep grazed.
Nallie did not go to the authorities. To do so would have taken far too much time out of her day, and she had so much to do. But as she went about her chores for the afternoon, her mind kept wandering back to her encounter with the witch. Tresta, she said her name was Tresta. It was a good name– not the name Nallie would have assigned the woman. If she had been named something ugly like “Grenilda” or “Hildreen”– and had a face to match– it would have been easier for Nallie to reconcile her feelings. Why does she have to be so beautiful?!
She thought about Tresta as she fixed the broken slat in the barn. She thought about the witch’s experiments as she snapped at her nephew to keep a better eye on the sheep. She thought about that tiny hut up on the mountainside as she sat with her two young nieces in her family’s big house, teaching them their letters before dinner. As she ate a tasteless meal prepared by her brother’s wife (everyone else declared the meal was splendid– only Nallie couldn’t know thanks to her poor sense of smell which affected her taste as well), Nallie wondered what Tresta was having for dinner? Or was the witch too engrossed in her work to bother with food? Nallie could believe it– Tresta had looked a little shaky and sunken-eyed.
She stewed on her problem as she lay awake in her bed that night. Tresta would not stop her experiments, Nallie felt certain of that. Would she be more successful– that is, have fewer “accidents” in her work if she had someone to take care of her? Or if she had a bigger space to maneuver in?
No, no, no! Nallie told herself. You do not need to take on another responsibility right now. She’s a grown woman– let her take care of herself.
Satisfied, Nallie at last drifted off to sleep. But when she awoke the next morning, her nagging feelings returned. Nallie stomped around and grumbled as she dressed for the day. She knocked on her brother’s bedroom door to inform him that she was going for a hike and he would have to take care of milking Pennie. “And Grandmother will need a new poultice!”
Nallie did not wait around for an objection; it was about time everyone else started pitching in more, and they’d just have to figure things out without her help.
She bundled up a half a loaf of bread, a block of butter, and some assorted vegetables from the pantry, and set out into the crisp morning air. Bowden bounded up to join her, but she ordered him to stay.
She hiked up the mountain path to the now-familiar hut. The gaping hole in the door was still there, and Nallie added fixing it to her list of tasks. After all, it was the neighborly thing to do. She rapped on the door, but when she listened through the hole she heard snoring. She tried the doorknob and it turned. She pulled open the door and crept inside.
Tresta slept sitting at a cluttered desk, her body slumped in her chair and her head tipped back. Her unkempt hair stood up and framed her heart-shaped face; Nallie watched her for a moment, fighting the impulse to lean in and kiss her like Sleeping Beauty. Instead, Nallie scanned the dimly-lit hut and nearly missed the bed, which was covered with curious-looking instruments. The kitchen table was covered with jars of various sizes and filled to differing levels with all kinds of ingredients and substances. The desk at which Tresta sat was littered with books and loose papers covered in cramped writing.
Nallie’s first thought was to just leave the bundle on the table and sneak back out, but would Tresta even realize the food was there amidst the rest of the clutter? And would she bother with the carrots and onions and potatoes?
Nallie rifled as silently as possible through the untidy kitchen until she found a rusty peeler, a surprisingly-sharp knife, and a stained cutting board. An empty pot hung over the cold fireplace, and Nallie removed it from its hook. She found a barrel of water outside with a handy spigot, and filled the pot half-full before returning to the kitchen and setting the pot on the floor beside her as she began peeling the vegetables.
Tresta awoke to the sound of humming and a pain in her neck and spine. She stretched and rubbed her neck, and then she looked for the source of the music. She jumped out of her seat, but it only took a moment for her to recognize Nallie and her heart leapt higher than her body had.
“Wha- what are you doing here?”
Nallie looked at her and surprised her by smiling. “I brought you breakfast,” she said.
“Breakfast?” Tresta was still waking up and the meaning of the word had not yet caught up with her.
“Breakfast,” Nallie repeated. “Food.”
Tresta sat back down, finally alert. “Thank you,” she said. The words sounded strange to her own ears– so long had it been since anyone had done something kind for her. Her stomach gurgled at the thought of a hot meal.
“You’re welcome,” said Nallie.
Tresta watched Nallie work for a while, chopping the vegetables and dropping them into the pot. “You could start a fire,” Nallie suggested.
It was Tresta’s turn to smile– or rather, grin. “I don’t need to start a fire,” she said. She got up and went to the bed where she picked up one of the larger instruments and set it down next to Nallie’s pot. “It’s a heat conductor,” Tresta explained. “I invented it myself.”
Nallie’s lips were parted in an elongated “o,” and her eyes darted from the instrument, to Tresta, and back again. The heat conductor appeared to be little more than a block of wood with a flat, thick ceramic plate attached to the top, with pieces of metal baked in. A closer look revealed the gap between the wood and the plate, where several tendrils of fine wire extended out from a central post. Tresta touched the wires and spoke a few ancient words to spark the magic in her fingertips. Then she withdrew her hands and the wires began to glow red. “Put on the pot,” Tresta said, and she helped Nallie lift the pot onto the heat conductor plate. Their fingers touched, and Tresta felt a warmth growing inside her which had nothing to do with her magic. For a moment their eyes met, then Nallie lowered hers and her cheeks glowed pink.
Tresta got up and rummaged through her spice cupboard. She returned and began throwing herbs and spices into the pot. Soon, a marvelous aroma filled the room and Tresta felt happier than she had in a long, long time. It felt good to be making something with a friend…or maybe, more than a friend…
Nallie stirred the pot and stared into its soupy depths. She had experienced similar feelings last night, alone in her bedroom; but somehow, being here now, so close to the cause of those unbidden (but not wholly unwelcome) feelings, the reality of their implications loomed large and bright before her. Large, because she could not ignore them, however they might interfere with the busy but predictable life she had led so far; and bright, because Tresta’s presence had managed to illuminate certain things for Nallie which she had hardly dared consider before.
Why should she, Nallie, take on the burden of running the entire farm? After all, she lived with five other full-grown and able-bodied adults– not to mention, even the children could pitch in more with the chores and household duties. Nallie had lived so long by the principle of doing things right by doing them herself, but now she began to see how wrong she had been. What did it matter if everything were done her way, so long as everyone was still alive at the end of the day? After all, Nallie was a terrible cook by reputation, but even she had managed to prepare vegetables for stew; and Tresta had had the knowledge (and the nose) to know what herbs and spices to add, so that together they had made something that either of them alone would have struggled to manage.
Tresta bustled about the hut, clearing a space on the table and setting a pair of bowls and spoons upon its surface. Somewhere in the process of cooking and tidying, both Nallie and Tresta began to hum, and then to sing in impromptu harmony. Nallie had not sung for herself in so long– she sang for her sheep, she sang for little Mya when she struggled to settle into sleep– but now, her own song filled her soul and erupted from her throat in joyous tones. Tresta’s voice met hers from across the room, and this time when their eyes met Nallie did not turn away.
Eventually their song faded, but they continued to steal glances at each other as Tresta brought the bowls to Nallie and Nallie ladled the stew into them. They sat at the table across from each other, but neither of them made a move to lift their spoons.
At last, Nallie spoke. “I– I was thinking last night.”
“What about?” said Tresta, smiling slightly and resting her chin in her hands with her elbows on the table.
Nallie swallowed hard; her heart was beating fast despite her resting state. “I was thinking, I could build you a larger place down in the valley. So you could do your…experiments without endangering our farm.”
Tresta got up from the table and before Nallie could process what was happening, she found herself lifted up into an emphatic embrace. A laugh escaped her, and that felt even better than the singing. So she laughed some more, and Tresta laughed with her. Even her laugh is beautiful!
After the laughter, they returned to their chairs, but now they held hands across the table, neither wishing to break contact completely. Tresta looked at Nallie, with a look of admiration and gratitude and longing. “I would be ever so grateful,” she replied at last to Nallie’s earlier offer. “But would it be too much– would it be too forward of me to ask–” She broke off, hesitating to continue, uncertain of how Nallie might react.
But Nallie understood, and found herself eager for what she anticipated was hovering at the tip of Tresta’s tongue. “You can ask me anything,” she said, and she meant it. If Tresta had asked Nallie to build her a mansion, Nallie believed she would find a way.
“I mean to say– Well, it’s been so nice having you here, I just– I don’t–”
“–don’t want it to end…” Nallie finished the thought. Tresta nodded. “I don’t want it to end, either,” murmured Nallie.
As one, they both rose from the table again and this time, their embrace lasted much longer. While their stew grew cold in their bowls and in the pot, they expressed their feelings for each other both verbally and physically with rapturous abandon.
Down in the valley, the sheep grazed; Nallie’s family labored on the farm without her; the children missed their afternoon lessons, but they didn’t mind; little Mya entertained her great-grandmother with her playful babbling. Life on the farm went on without Nallie there to manage things.
Nallie had never been happier.