Knots, Cracks, Trees, Hills

by Patricia Russo
(USA)

We climb up the hill, and then we climb down the other side. Watch out for the cracks.

She keeps her small rectangle of pavement, three meters down from the corner of Dewey Street and Fourth, between the pole bearing the bright red No Parking sign and the licensed vender selling fruit from a board laid over a couple of overturned trash bins, spotless. She sweeps up dirt and torn lottery tickets and cigarette butts with a scrap of folded cardboard and deposits the debris in the gutter. And may the gods help anyone who tosses a crumpled wrapper or spits a wad of gum into her area. The fruit vendor says he has never seen her smile. She squats on her rectangle of pavement and makes her chains. Because she can bend metal with her fingers, tourists often stop to take pictures and ask questions. She is more than willing to pose with her creations, and she tells the old stories succinctly, and with passion. If a tourist wishes to give her something for her time, a gratuity in appreciation for her tales, she accepts politely, but she will not sell her chains to visitors. They are for the people of the city, she says, when the people of the city finally come to their senses.

You don’t imagine we really believe those stories,” Brully says. He is a little drunk. They have been entertaining colleagues from out of town, and he has thrown himself into the task with great vigor: sightseeing, shopping, music, dinner, bars. Rasa muttered to him several times, “We don’t have to do everything in one day,” but Brully ignored her. He’s traveled more than her, gone to business meetings overseas, even attended a trade conference as far away as Resenna, once. He’s been on the receiving end of hospitality, and now he’s going to do more than respond in kind; he is going to slay these visitors with bounteousness. Brully is cheerful, grinning, laughing; he has marched his guests up and down a hundred hills. Rasa gave up trying to rein him in hours ago. The day must end sometime; they are on their fourth bar of the night. Of the three foreign colleagues, two of them look wrung out; they’ve slipped their shoes off, and can barely manage to sit up straight. Brully is holding forth to the third out-of-towner, an older woman with a streak of white hair. Brully introduced them all to Rasa at the start of the day, but their names have seeped out of her mind. She thinks of them as the older woman, the man with the bulgy eyes (she suspects a medical condition), and the fellow (the youngest of the three) with the nice smile. She also thinks that the older woman is aware of the hostility behind Brully’s insistence that they must go here, must stop there, mustn’t miss this activity, could not possibly pass up this sight, must, must, certainly must taste this, sip that, sit here, stand there, go up that hill, go down this other. Brully himself may not be completely aware of the anger whipping him to whip them on; self-analysis is not one of his strengths. The fellow with the nice smile begins to slump sideways, and the man with the bulgy eyes keeps looking at the timepiece over the door with a longing expression. This is torture masked as generosity. But the older woman is enjoying it; she has been goading Brully for some time. When did they start talking about the trees? A couple of drinks ago, at least. That morning Brully had taken them all to the museum park, of course. Nobody visits the city without seeing the museum park. The man with the bulgy eyes had posed for a picture with his arms around a chained-up tree (the chains replicas, of course, allegedly accurate historical recreations), hugging it while putting on an expression of terror; the fellow with the nice smile bought a souvenir miniature tree (not a live tree; those are possible to get, but not at the museum shop, which sells only officially-approved merchandise) draped with souvenir miniature replica chains (it is not possible to acquire real chains, miniature or otherwise; the only ones that still exist are on display inside the museum building—separate entry fee required—or are owned by the University, which does not put them on exhibit. Everybody knows there are real chains in a few private collections, but nobody talks about that.) Rasa noted at the time that the older woman did not pet any of the bound trees, did not pose for a photo, did not purchase any souvenirs. Rasa herself bought a post card; she had liked the image, a close-up of an intricately constructed binding, a knot around another knot around another knot, like three hands, fingers spread and hooked, overlying each other, the metal not iron, but copper, green with age. She has the post card with her now, in her bag. She doesn’t know what she’s going to do with it. Nobody sends post cards anymore. Possibly she’ll stick it up in a corner of her workstation. She thinks of her grandfather, who never walked under a tree in his life. She remembers how appalled he was when her parents allowed her to go camping. When the older woman started talking about trees, and the old traditions (she did say traditions, and not superstitions, but her tone of voice was subtly, yet clearly, mocking), and how some of the trees, the ordinary city trees on ordinary city blocks, had bits of string or wire fastened around them, Rasa wanted to say, Yes, well, you know, it’s like lighting a candle on the longest night of the year; and, To tell the truth, some old people, but Brully preempted her. He launched into a lecture about the myths of the six-sided world, and how walking trees were connected with the stories that centered around two sisters, the ones that began, “When the world was full of people,” and always ended up with that world being destroyed and a new one established. The older woman smiled as she listened. “I know those tales,” she said. “The two sisters fought. One pushed the other into a pit, and it took her a hundred days to climb out of it. I forget now, the one that was pushed in was the one who chained the trees, yes?”—“Yes,” Brully said. “But you see—” They went on like that, and they went on like that. “So your trees never walked,” the older woman says.—“No, of course not.” “They never tore people apart, ate their entrails, cracked their bones to suck the marrow, stole children and swallowed them whole—” Brully interrupts, “If they did, they did it the same time the gods of your city pissed to make the river and crapped to form the mountains.” The older woman laughs. The other two guests stir slightly, but say nothing. Rasa feels sorry for the two men, and opens her mouth to suggest that it really is time to take the group back to their hotel, but the older woman says, “So many lengths of colored string, so many loops of wire, so many knots.” There aren’t that many, Rasa thinks. Surely not. The older woman is exaggerating to provoke Brully: torment us all you like with your shopping districts and your unique instrumental music performed on your unique instruments, your special dishes and your array of traditional and modern drinks, you’re still a backwater city of inconsequential people who hide under the bed when there’s a thunderstorm. Or perhaps, Rasa thinks (she is not drunk, only quite tired, and long past fed up with Brully’s nonsense, which makes it difficult to pin her thoughts together), the older woman is not exaggerating that much; it could be that Rasa is so used to the strings and cords and loops around the city trees that she no longer sees them. Brully slams down his glass. “You don’t imagine we really believe those stories,” he says. “The museum, the tours of the bit of the old forest the authorities have preserved, the day-and-night long storytelling session on the last day of the year, the doom-calling preachers in the city square? None of us take any of that shit seriously. We only do it to fuck with the tourists.”

The fruit-seller tells his children, “There are people you have to say hello to, even if you don’t feel like it.” He wants them to grow up to be kind people. For his part, he greets his customers with unfailing cordiality, even the pain-in-the-testes ones that argue over every blemish, real or imaginary, on the produce they buy, pushing for markdowns; he is respectful to his neighbors, always exchanging pleasantries when leaving or returning to the street of small, two-story houses where he has lived for the past fourteen years. The maker of chains is a neighbor, as well. Of a sort. She is not talkative; weeks can pass without her uttering a word. Not real words, not words of conversation, the sort that people use to connect with each other, to share parts of themselves. The old tales, those she will tell, to any city dweller or any visitor, who asks, or even just stops to look on with curiosity as she bends and twists and braids her lengths of metal, thick metal, old metal, rusted metal, bright metal: all of it scrap, all of it gathered from worksites and trash dumps and the interiors of abandoned buildings, unless the fruit vendor misses his guess. She is usually already on her rectangle of pavement when he arrives to set up his stand, has already swept it, is already crouched over her metal, head down, working away. What she does with the chains she makes, the fruit vendor does not know. In a week, she can construct a dozen. She does not sell them, not to tourists, not to anybody. He has heard her say, “They are for the people of the city,” but he has seen her turn away people of the city who asked the price of this one or that one. He remembers, though, that in the old days, in the old ways, one tree would be bound by ten or a dozen chains. Ten or a dozen at least. Perhaps she is waiting for a customer willing to buy in bulk. There’s no telling what thoughts swirl in the minds of the mad. Then again, the fruit vendor is not certain the woman who makes chains is mad. She dresses neatly, though her clothing is old, and old-fashioned; she keeps herself as well as her territory clean. She does not speak much, but then some people prefer silence. Her chains are good work, meticulously crafted. They look sturdy, and many of them, the ones made of differently colored, differently textured, metals, are even beautiful, if the light hits them just right. He wonders if she knows how to fashion the knots they used in the old days, in the old ways. He wants to ask her, but is afraid she will merely stare through him, the way she does when a city official comes to roust her. She is not licensed, but then, as the fruit vendor has pointed out on her behalf more than once, she does not sell anything. Neither, technically, does she beg. If the tourists who take pictures, or who listen to her stories, offer a coin or two, she accepts. The fruit vendor does not consider this a violation of city ordinances. Still, she has been hauled away several times, her completed chains and her sorted piles (sorted by some system he does not fathom, but sorted nonetheless) of scrap metal left behind like trash. Each time, the fruit vendor gathers up what he can (some of the bits are always kicked into the street in the struggle, for the woman never goes quietly, and crushed under the wheels of vehicles, or scattered where the fruit vendor cannot find them) and puts it all in a carton. The way the woman fights makes him think she must be impaired in the mind, for she kicks and strikes wildly with her fists, and bites; the chains, the finished ones he touches (and drops into the carton very quickly) make him believe she must be something more than mad, something greater, for the chains tingle with power, the way the chains that bound the trees in the old days, in the old ways, are said to have done. He can feel the vibrations in his fingerbones for hours afterward. This does not happen with the odds and ends of scrap metal she has not yet selected for use in the fashioning of a chain, so the power must come from her, from her hands, from her mind. She puts it into the chains. When she is taken away, the fruit vendor always fears that she will not return, and what will he do with the chains and the metal he has rescued then? It’s bad enough keeping things like that in a storage shed for a few days, or a few weeks. He dreads the prospect of having to safeguard such objects for the rest of his life. But so far, she has always returned. A few days, a few weeks. He comes to set up his stall on Dewey Street, and she is there, with more metal, already working, head down, frowning in concentration. He brings her the carton, and she glances at him, and nods. It is the same type of glance and nod she gives him when he brings her fruit, fine pieces, fine enough pieces, but too ripe, or too bruised, to be kept to be sold the next day. Though they do not speak to each other, not true conversation, the fruit vendor considers the two of them to be friends. And so, when he sees her, not on her rectangle of pavement between the pole bearing the bright red No Parking sign and his own patch a few meters west, but on the main northern avenue of the city, early one morning on a day on which no street vending is to be done, for there is a celebration or commemoration, he can’t remember which and doesn’t care, and everybody is expected to make obeisance at the municipal shrines and then go home and listen to the same interminable concert of the same interminable music that is played on every media channel every year on this date, and eat pastries and play the traditional games of chance, but only within kin groups, the fruit vendor stops. The woman who makes chains is standing in front of a tree. The tree is an commonplace city tree, one of several on the block, planted to provide shade. The fruit vendor notices that someone, or several someones, have tied strings of different colors around its trunk. The chain-maker is staring at the tree. The fruit vendor considers walking on, for she has not seen him, or acts as if she hasn’t. But they are friends. He gives her fruit; he rescues her work when the authorities drag her off. When she tells her tales to the tourists, he listens, as well. You say hello to your friends, if you have any manners at all. “Hello,” the fruit vendor says. The woman doesn’t turn around. “They walk,” she says.—“Still?” he asks. And she replies, “Yes. It’s hard to tell from the back, though.” The fruit vendor has no answer to this.

There is a crack across the face of the six-sided world. The crack is a recurring motif in one of the long, story-inside-a-story-inside-a-story epics that used to be recited when people didn’t have any better entertainment. Rasa’s grandfather knew a little of it, but he was not a good storyteller. Not that it mattered, or matters; all of it is in books, and has been for ages. Anybody who wants to can read all the myths and legends and tale cycles and songs and everything else. Adapted, expurgated excerpts used to be forced on students in primary school; Rasa wonders if they still are. She asks Brully, who just grunts. He has been surly for days. The three out-of-town colleagues are long gone, but the memory of them remains. Rasa has found herself wishing Brully had drunk more that night; if he had, he might remember less of it now. He beat the young fellow with the nice smile and the man of middle years with the bulgy eyes, ground them into exhaustion and cultural appreciation; the young fellow even said he hoped to return soon, on his holidays. The older woman, however, emerged not only unscathed, but quietly, condescendingly, victorious. Her smile as they saw her off at the train station lingers in Rasa’s mind; she knows it festers in Brully’s. It’s his own fault; he was the one who initiated hostilities. Rasa doesn’t blame the older woman for fighting back. And what does it matter, really, if the older woman thinks the city an insignificant place, its history irrelevant, its customs humorous? (Its people nothings.) Let her, and let it go. Brully doesn’t; he won’t. And Rasa is getting tired of it. She needles him: “There is a crack across the face of the six-sided world.” He frowns, shakes his head. “What?” She says, “The firetenders try to mend it, but it always gapes open again.”—“Was a crack,” he says, after a moment. “The six-sided world is gone.” She smiles. “Is a crack. That comes from the northern braid of the tales. The two sisters aren’t in that one. In that braid, the six-sided world never ended. We’re living in it now.” After another moment, he says, “Oh. Yes. That’s the one with the hills.”

We go up the hill, and then we go down the other side. Again and again. Look out, there are cracks.

The fruit vendor watches the woman who makes chains. His regular customers are people who work in the offices and shops between the central station and the streetcar line four long city blocks to the west. Mostly, he serves them automatically. So many buy the same thing day after day. He smiles, he takes their money, he hands over their purchases. There is the late-for-work crowd in the morning, snatching a bit of breakfast; there is the lunch throng, the ones who have made a vow to eat healthier; there is the finally-finished-for-the-day cohort, grabbing something to tide them over until they get home. The members of all these groups, in general, know what they want. Many of them just hand over the money and point. Some of them do not even bother to point, assuming that he will remember their preferences. He does. He smiles, he thanks them, he wishes them a fine day, or afternoon, or evening. His hands move mechanically; his smile and his words are long-engrained routines. It is not difficult to divide his attention between his business and the woman squatting on the pavement a few meters away. And then there are the slow stretches, when he’s lucky if four or five customers stop by per hour. Between customers, he can lean on the board laid over the overturned trash bins, rearranging his stock, replenishing it sometimes from the not-quite-yet ripe fruit he carries with him in his minivan. He does not stare at her; he knows better than to do that. But it seems to him that she has grown gaunt over the past few weeks. Her clothes hang loose, and the bones of her face are sharper than they should be. She is consuming herself, he thinks. He worries. The power she puts into the chains comes from her, her own blood, her own heart. He begins to bring her fruit twice a day. And she smiles at him, instead of simply nodding. This is new, and it frightens him. She has never smiled before. Why does she smile now? He notices that the chains she constructs are growing longer, the links more complicated. He has seen her experimenting with knots, though she always undoes them after scrutinizing the work. And she has taken to stroking the finished chains, as one might stroke a delicate carving, or the face of a child. She has found a customer, he thinks, or a patron. He is sorry when she undoes the knots she makes, because they are beautiful, as arresting and intriguing as any found in the glossy-paged books sold in the shop of the museum park.

Fruit,” Rasa says, nudging Brully’s elbow. “Come on, I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast. Look, he’s got nuts, too, and diced sweet-root.” This is a part of the city she does not know well. She works across town. Brully used to live in this neighborhood, though not on this street. A couple of blocks south, he says, before the old communal buildings were torn down to make way for private flats. She has set aside her work today to walk with him, to endure his sullen silences and his sudden outbursts, to see if exercise and company will force a crack in his mood. The fruit vendor smiles when they stop, but he is not one of those pushy sorts. He waits patiently as Rasa peers at this pile of pomes, that heap of yellow-rinded, fist-sized melons, the clear, lidded containers of raw nuts and roasted nuts, the clear, sealed bags of diced sweet-root. It takes her several moments to realize that Brully is not standing beside her. It is the vendor’s gaze that alerts her; he is looking toward the corner. Rasa turns. Brully has gone to stand before a woman with wares laid out on the pavement (against city regulations); Rasa does not see what manner of goods they are until she, with an apologetic glance at the fruit vender, hurries to join Brully.

Because these two are strangers to him, the fruit vendor feels nervous. The chain-maker can take care of herself; she has done so for years. But the male of the couple wears a dark expression. The fruit vendor knows that they are people of the city, not tourists. Still, he calls out, “She will not sell to you.” And, “Friends, do not bother her. She is working.”

Working,” Brully mutters. The woman looks up at him. Her hands keep busy, bending metal. He glances at the finished chains coiled on the pavement to the woman’s left; he turns his head and marks the piles of scrap metal, each separated from the next by a few centimeters, all arranged so that the woman, who is squatting, can reach for a piece without having to shift her position. The woman is smiling. She is, in fact, grinning. Mad, he thinks. Mad, mad, embarrassingly mad. He is struck by the impulse to kick out, destroy her neat piles of worthless metal, obliterate that grin. Rasa catches his arm. He could still kick, still lash out, push Rasa away and demolish this display of superstitious nonsense. He will do it; he feels the red tide rising. Then suddenly the fruit vendor is there, grabbing his other arm; the vendor and Rasa haul him back. The woman squatting on the pavement never stops grinning. “Leave her alone,” Rasa says. “She is happy.” And that angers him even more. “Why is she happy? She shouldn’t be happy! She should—” He stops himself before he says, be locked away, gotten out of sight, have some sense slapped into her. The fruit vendor’s fingers are digging into his biceps. Rasa lets out an exasperated sigh. “She is happy because she loves what she is making,” she says. “Now stop being an idiot.” Brully snaps, “It’s people like this who hold us back,” and Rasa swivels and smacks him on the forehead. He is stunned; she has never done such a thing before. She says, “It’s people like this that might save us some day,” and he doesn’t know what she means. He has no idea at all. She recognizes this; he sees the change in her eyes. “She does no harm,” Rasa says, and Brully wants to protest, to point out all the thousand ways in which Rasa is wrong, but the fruit vendor is hurting him, his clamping hand much more painful than Rasa’s whack. The woman bending metal with her fingers is still smiling widely. Brully closes his eyes so as not to meet hers. Rasa and fruit vendor pull him toward the corner of Dewey and Fourth, past the bright red No Parking sign. “All right, all right,” he says.—“I want to get something to eat,” Rasa tells him, firmly, and again he says, “All right.” Though nothing is all right. He will dream of this chain-maker for weeks, just as he has been dreaming of the older woman with the streak of white hair and the scorn that coated every word from her tongue. The fruit vendor lets him go, but Rasa does not, until they have crossed the street.

She loves the things that she makes. The female of the couple was right. That is what has changed; that is what is new. For years she has worked grimly; now she works with joy. What caused this he doesn’t know, and also knows that he never will. The fruit vendor glances at his stall. No customers waiting. He goes to the chain-maker, and kneels, so that they are face to face. “How many chains to bind a tree,” he asks. “A tree that has gone savage.” The woman replies, “Ten, or twelve. Fifteen, sometimes. It depends on the size of the tree, and also its viciousness.”—“In that case, I would like to buy fifteen chains from you,” he says. The woman looks up at him, and there is starlight in her dark eyes. “They have to be knotted correctly to bind such a tree. Each tree is different, and there are a thousand different knots.”—“Can you teach me?” the fruit vender asks, and the woman answers, “Yes. But only if you promise to teach three others the knots that I teach you.”—“I promise,” the fruit vendor says, though he has no idea which three people he can persuade to follow him up this hill. Perhaps he will find them along the way; perhaps they will find him. “I will bring you your chains tomorrow,” she says, and he thanks her very formally. “And the price?” he asks.—“You have already paid it,” she says.

We go up the hill, and then we go down the other side. Watch out for the cracks.” The woman who makes chains sings softly to herself. The fruit vendor knows these words, but not the tune. The crack was never mended, he thinks. Old songs of the old days and the old ways. He has never been afraid of trees; most of the stock he carries is born, and borne, on trees. He will take the chains, fifteen chains, and keep them inside his home and not in a storage shed, and he will learn knot-tying, not out of fear, or a conversion to the belief that the six-sided world never ended and they are living in it still, but out of admiration. He must tell her that, he thinks. It would not be fair otherwise. But the words come differently than he intends. “I love the things that you are making,” he says. And the woman smiles, and begins to sing his words to the melody of the song of the hills and the cracked face of the world.

Blocks away, Rasa hums. Brully takes long strides, not pausing to look for a good place to stop to eat. She does not press the issue, because she feels guilty for striking him, even though it was to prevent him from attacking the woman, or attacking her work, which amounts to the same thing. “Stop that noise,” he says, but she doesn’t. She likes the tune, and it popped into her head, and she will hum it if she wants to.

The trees never walked.” They are climbing up a hill. The city is full of hills.

Perhaps not.” A bit of guilt she may feel, but not enough to let Brully launch into a rant unchallenged, unanswered. No more of that, she thinks.

The six-sided world is myth.”

Perhaps.”

Think of the example she’s setting! For fools, for children, for the ignorant!”

Yes, a very fine example. To love what one makes is a wonderful thing.”

She is wasting her time. Wasting herself. Trees don’t walk. They didn’t, they can’t, they won’t!”

They have reached the top of the hill. This hill. There are many, many others. She takes his hand. Though he will not look at her, he does not pull away. He is shaking, a little. “Perhaps they will no longer need to,” she says, and leads him down the hill toward a café she has spotted. The pavement here is old, and has many cracks, but they do not bother her. Rasa knows a metaphor when she hears one.


Patricia Russo had her first professional short story, “True Love”, published in 1987 in the anthology Women of Darkness: Original Horror and Dark Fantasy by Contemporary Women Writers. Since then her work has appeared in Lone Star Stories, Electric Velocipede, Abyss and Apex, Talebones, Tales of the Unanticipated, Not One of Us, in the anthologies Corpse Blossoms and Zencore, and in many other publications. Her first short story collection, Shiny Thing, was released in 2011. Read more at www.shiny-thing.com.


2 Responses to "Knots, Cracks, Trees, Hills"

  • This is so excellent–a great exploration of people’s relationship to their past culture, and the **realities** of it. And, great character portraits. Wonderful story.

    1 Asakiyume said this (June 27, 2012 at 10:44 pm)


  • Another fine example of Russo’s work, of which I am a big fan. One could stretch a point here and see this entire story as a metaphor for the creative process, especially when it comes to “The Weird.” But I have never know Russo to be so easily parsed. The village could have come straight from the mind of Ligotti; the story could only have come from Russo. More!

    2 Tim Emswiler said this (June 28, 2012 at 7:05 pm)