Day 12: Knowledge
Harold did not like the forest, and he did not like the wet. He also did not like his step-mother Hilda, who made him wear the atrocious, over-sized brown suit he was now struggling to ruin with the mud and the rain and the branches green. He did not like her eyebrows, which arched menacingly when she tried to cajole him into doing something of her wishing. He did not like her lipstick encrusted mouth that hid the fangs he knew were surely embedded in her ruby gums. He did not like the way she chewed her food at the dinner table, or the way she held his father’s hand in public. He did like his father, though, but now that his father was dead there was not much of him to like anymore.
Harold had escaped from his fathers funeral just in time to evade having Hilda smother him with her vague attempt at “mothering.” His sister, Veronica, told him rather sternly that Hilda was “trying her best” and that Harold ought to behave himself. Veronica had told him this in a sad, irritated way when she had rang to say she couldn’t attend the funeral. Apparently, plane tickets were very expensive and Veronica had no money, which was not very surprising as Veronica usually did not have money, although she was very bright. That was why Hilda had sent Veronica away to boarding school the year before, and now that Veronica was at University, Hilda had also convinced their father it would do her no good to coddle her financially. Harold thought his father would rather have regretted siding with Hilda now, since his own daughter could not attend his funeral and it was all because of his own stupid rule Hilda insisted on enforcing.
“It’s what your father and I agreed on, Veronica, and I want to honor his wishes. Besides, there is no money. It’s all gone to your father’s funeral and we have to take out another mortgage!”
That’s what Hilda had told his sister on the phone. She didn’t know Harold heard her, because he was hiding in the stairwell, crying. He hated being in his cold, dreary house with his father gone, and he didn’t want Hilda to see him cry. He had made a rickety fort in the hollow space beneath the stairs. It was the only place Hilda did not know about, and therefore, could not take away from him.
Harold pushed through the forest, his teeth chattering. The sky churned mercurially above him, spitting rain in violent spatters as if it were just as disgusted at Harold’s father’s funeral as Harold was. He was shivering, however, and regretted not grabbing his rain coat from the back of the car when he had ran–the suit was successfully being soaked and muddied, but at the expense of his own goose-pimpled skin. Further he dashed into the forest, blinded by tears of rage and heartache, gnashing his teeth and stumbling over branches and rocks. He did not notice that he was being followed, nor that the forest was slowly transforming around him, becoming creepier and darker by the second. The trees closed in above him and soon the sky’s angry face could not have been found at all were Harold to look up and examine his surroundings, which he unfortunately did not, as he was so distraught that he had no interest in disappearing skies or dark, scary glades in forests.
He ran on like this for several more minutes, huffing and puffing and having his face continuously smacked and scratched by brambles that were all conveniently located at his eye-level, until his foot connected with something very hard and still, and he tumbled into a clearing, brown, ugly suit and all. He laid in a heap for a moment, with his face pressed up against the moist brown dirt and his eyes squeezed shut as he tried not to cry. It had hurt very badly when he fell and the ground was compact and littered with tiny rock–his palms and knees burned like they had been skinned from his fall. He thought about how he wished he could just disappear, and a tear escaped his closed eye. Then he though about how he wished Hilda would get found out for the monster she was and the police would lock her up forever, and another tear came sliding down his face. His last thought was about how his father was dead and would have picked him up and dusted him off and made him a tomato sandwich if he had been alive, but he most certainly was not alive and it was all Harold’s fault, because if Harold could simply have known that his father was going to die that day, he could have prevented it. Tears were now coming hot and fast down Harold’s grimy cheeks, and that was when he heard the shuffle only several feet away from him.
Harold scrambled to sit up and wipe away the salty brine flowing from his tear ducts. He had the brief, panicked thought that somehow the demon Hilda had found him in the deep of the wood and that he would be scolded and chastised and made to go to bed without dinner that night, the very night of his own fathers funeral, because Hilda was heartless and cruel and liked to “teach him lessons.” But when Harold sat up and scooted back on the cold, hard ground, rubbing his runny eyes and sniveling from the damp, it was not Hilda he saw standing at the edge of the very dark, very cloistered clearing he was now sitting in.
It was an old woman.
She was very ugly, Harold thought, before he realized how dark it had become and that he did not know which way the cemetery was from where he sat. Fear replaced his grief, just then, and he scooted back until he bumped into something that rattled dangerously behind him with a hollow sound he did not like at all. When he glanced out of the corner of his eye, Harold saw that it was a shiny, white bone. His stomach plummeted and his skin blossomed with shivery goose pimples that had nothing to do with the cold.
The woman, whose back was hunched and had eyes that gleamed white and wispy in the sudden moonlit night–had Harold not been terrified out of his wits he might have wondered where the silver moonlight was coming from as it was 1:00 o’clock in the afternoon, but he did not think about this at all as the woman began to blindly shuffle in his direction with a wide, gap toothed grin that chilled him to the core. As the old woman moved, decrepit with age and degeneration, she raised a skinny arm and pointed a bony, sharpened finger at him.
Harold forgot all about Hilda and her wicked ways as a blood curdling scream welled up in his throat. He whimpered a bit, too afraid to move backwards for fear of finding the rest of the skeleton the white bone belonged to, and he was so afraid he had forgotten that his legs has the capacity to carry him out of the forest as fast as he could run. Just when he thought he certainly was a goner and would be joining his father before long on the other side, the old woman halted at his feet, looked down at him with her unseeing eyes and spoke.
“You want to Know the future? I can give you the sight you desire.”
Her voice was like night unfolding, speckled with dust mites and meteors. She loomed over him, breathing in the dark air and rattling like the bone beside him.
He choked back tears and swallowed, clearing his throat; he did want to know. If he had known his father was going to die he could have saved him. If Harold could know the future, there were so many things he could prevent from happening. He could always protect Veronica from harm; he could know when Hilda was plotting a devious plan to crush his dreams and he could outsmart her; he would never have to eat brussels sprouts for dinner again because he could be mysteriously absent for those meals. Maybe he could even know when his own death was imminently approaching, and avoid it.
The old woman smiled, but it was a nasty knowing smile, the kind a worm might make after finding a particularly delicious carcass to cuddle up in. Harold found himself gagging at the thought.
“Yes, yes…” The woman muttered gleefully, clasping gnarled hands above him. “You can do all those things with the sight, but use your imagination, lad! There is so much more. Many a soul has sought my service, but you’re the youngest I’ve had in years. Yes…You can do a great deal more than avoid brussels sprouts…” She shook her head in disappointment, smacking and licking her lips.
“No, no… Perhaps the sight is not for you. What’s that?” She suddenly looked up from him and cocked her ear towards the blackened sky. A shiver bolted down Harold’s spine.
The old woman put her finger to her grisly chin. “Mmm… Could be. Could be true. Never bestowed the power to see and change the future to one as young before…could be. But here’s the question…” She turned her milk-white eyes upon him again and the wind began to blow as she spoke.
“Are you willing pay the ultimate price to See? You will be as mad to others, and a god unto yourself. Do you want this weighty mantle laid upon your shoulders? It will be your glory, and your doom!” At the word doom she smiled and her rotting teeth winked at him from her gaping mouth. The wind tickled his ears as it sped up, dancing around him, moaning and sighing with words–with words. Names were riding the air, whispering, screaming, crying and shouting.
Cassandra! Cassandra! The wind shrieked, and it was a hellish cry that stole into Harold’s grieving heart and wound clammy, suffering fingers about his bones.
Harold clamped his hands over his ears and began rocking back and forth, shaking uncontrollably. The voices continued to assault him and he closed his eyes, telling himself it was all a dream. As he chanted, the wind died down and silence ascended. He snivled, slowly raising his eyes hoping to find himself alone.
Yet the old woman stood in front of him, seeming much more real than she had before.
“Terrifying, isn’t it?” She spat, her words dripping with disdain. “And it can all be yours, if you just say the word.” She said the last bit in a sing-song voice, the kind adults often use when trying to goad their toddlers into eating unsavory things like mashed peas and carrots.
Harold did not want this gift, but as she said the words the goading found some small, imperceptible part of him that still longed to be told what to do. He felt greed steal into him and he thought, just for a moment, at how much power he might have with a gift like this.
The old woman smiled.
“That’s what I thought. Do you feel it? The authority you will carry! Do you want it? To be all-seeing?”
His heart quickened and he nodded, wiping snot from his nose.
“Then you must take a bone from your fathers corpse and bring it to me.”
“What?” Harold blurted, or rather gargled, since he had been silent up until that point.
“Well, you didn’t think the sight came freely, did you? Come now, simple boy. You must bring me a bone from the line of your forefathers, so I can get a taste of your lineage and bring it full circle. Lucky for you your father’s already good and killed. Most have to do the killing themselves.”
Harold had hoped the bone on the ground beside him was a coincidence–the remains of an innocent animal who died of something nice and natural, like old age or as another animal’s meal, left to decompose on the forest floor. Terror washed over him and, sneaking a glance out of the corner of his eye, he saw piles of ivory laying in wait, glowing in the shadows.
Her withered voice stole softly by him.
“The bone marrow’s the best part, but it’s all used up in those dry shells.” She smacked her lips again, and her jowls quivered like jelly in her anticipation.
With sudden agility she swept over him and spread her arms wide. The dark air churned and the trees howled and the wind danced maniacly over their backs.
“What are you afraid of? Take the sight and receive your due, a bone from your fathers grave is a small price to pay for omnipotence and all-seeing knowledge!”
It was then that he began to see his life play out before him in the reflection of the old woman’s eyes, swirling and turning and becoming muddled with millions of the other endings from the lives of people he had never met.
First, he saw Hilda and his father, then Veronica, then his teacher Mrs Smith. Then he saw cities collapsing, and bridges breaking and buildings caught on fire and people screaming and bleeding and sobbing. He saw babies beig born, and birthday parties and first kisses and funerals. He saw hospital beds and car accidents and people brandishing guns and knives and scared children cowering and people in padded cells. As all of it unfolded before him, the old woman’s face crumpled and she began to wail and gnash her teeth, crying out in words he did not understand. But the universal sound even Harold recognized was pain, and terror welled up in his heart as he realized that even if he lived to be 182, it would not be enough years to sort through all of the information that was trapped behind her skull.
It was then that Harold longed for the unremarkable comfort of what he already knew, like his fort under the stairwell, tomato sandwiches, and even Hilda.
He opened his mouth to speak, and simply whispered, “No.”
Everything stilled, and with a flash of lighting and final shriek of wind, the woman was gone.
Harold did not think after that, he simply ran. His legs became so tired they turned into flimsy licorice sticks beneath him and sweat trickled down his back and face. When he tripped over a root and fell down, he was so exhausted and confused he fell into a deep, unsettling sleep.
When the police-man found him in the middle of the night and carried him out of the woods, Harold had never been more happy in his life. And when Hilda tore around the corner in her creamy Mercedes and sprinted out of the car towards him, he was glad. She was still wearing her wrinkled black dress and her hair was ratty and tangled and mascara was smeared in big smudgy, rings beneath her eyes, but for some reason Harold thought she looked rather sane and pretty.
When Hilda asked him where he had been, he told her the truth, or what he remembered to be true: all about how he had run away and gotten lost in the forest, and how he had finally just sat down and fell asleep on the ground. Hilda smoothed his hair and her hand was cool and soft as she sniveled and nodded while he talked, pursing her lips and clicking her tongue in bewilderment.
As they drove home and Hilda quietly cried, reaching over every so often and patting his leg, he decided it was nice that Hilda was still around. For a brief moment he wondered why he had found her so vulgar to begin with.
He sleepily sank into the warm leather seat and a wave of mixed emotion washed over him. It was sorrow and grief, anger and doubt, and oddly, happy, thankful relief. Harold did not know what was going to happen now that his father was gone, but for some reason he thought that was just fine. Mostly, he just wished that in the future Hilda would stop making brussels sprouts for dinner.