Anecdote II. The Scarlet-Eyed Stranger

Lask has been with me my whole life, or so he says. I only ever have his word to go on, so I hope he tells me the truth. He came into the world with me on the day I was born, but didn’t show himself right away. He didn’t want to frighten me, didn’t want to risk overwhelming me, or losing me before we’d even begun. Instead, he waited a few years, biding his time unseen, suffering the trivial monotony of life and his own turmoil, as I learned to crawl, make sounds, and dress myself, until I was eight.

In the preceding year, I was enrolled in a Tae Kwon Do class. I think this was in part out of concern for my odd tomboyish fascination with swords, battles, and all manner of medieval lore. For my seventh birthday, I asked my parents for a sword. I got a wooden scimitar and Tae Kwon Do lessons instead. More’s the pity. My older cousins had achieved black belts in this particular class, so it came highly recommended. What they failed to mention was that the instructor was a retired drill sergeant, who took sadistic pleasure in beating his pupils with a bamboo cane. We were only ever allowed to call him Sir. He would line us up in ranks, and if our posture was poor, he would strike us in the gut with the butt of the cane and bark, “Straighten up! I don’t teach slouchers here.” Sir would march through the rows of students as we worked through our forms, and if he noticed a misaligned foot, or poorly executed jab, we would find the length of bamboo snapping across our shoulders or backsides. I often plotted ways to hide his stick before class began. These plans proved futile, since the one time I succeeded, he just struck us with his hand instead. I found his callused cobblestone palm to be more unforgiving on the backs of my legs than the cane, so I only hid the stick once, and took him seriously every subsequent time he threatened, “If you don’t get that kick higher, I’m gonna put you over my knee.”

It took “people” over a year to realize what was really happening in the class, and the effect it was having on me. By the time they withdrew me, I was a skittish thing, more introverted than I’d ever been, and terrified of anyone who raised their voice or seemed at all aggressive. Even being out in public seemed dangerous; Sirs could be lurking around every corner, behind every face I met, waiting for me to make a false move and unleash their fury. I had few friends at school; making new ones involved talking to strangers, no matter how small and unthreatening they were. Perhaps Lask chose that time to reveal himself because he knew I needed a friend and a protector.

The first time I met him was in a dream. I thought it was a dream, at any rate. I have since decided that humans occasionally wander into the spirit world while they sleep. Regardless of what it was or how I got there, one night, in the wee hours of the morning on October 3rd, 1998, I slept my way into the midst of an awful blizzard. I struggled in snow up to my waist. My face felt raw from the wind-whipped pellets of stinging ice. The roar of the storm was so loud, the night so dark, I did not see or hear the horse approach until it was right in front of me.

I loved horses, so even in the storm, I knew it was a Frisian– black, immense, sleek even in the wind that knotted his mane. He snorted a puff of steam into my face as the rider dismounted. He, too, was cloaked all in black, so I could not see his face, but I knew he watched me. I offered no resistance as he gathered me into his arms, and placed me on the back of his horse. When he climbed up behind me, his thick cloak closed over me, shutting out the shrieking wind, and and enfolding me against the warmth of his chest.

The horse started off, and the smooth rhythm of his gait lulled me until I nodded off in the shelter of the stranger’s cloak. I only woke when the cloth drew back, and I found the blinding warmth of the sun on my face. I blinked in the sudden brightness as the stranger pulled me down from the horse, gathering me again into his arms. I clung to him, finding my hands twisting themselves into the folds of his cloak, and the ends of soft black hair. He carried me pressed against him, so I looked behind us as he walked. All around us were towering trees, their leaves brilliant gold with veins of green, and they whispered almost-words in the wind, making the sun seem to dance and flash through the canopy above us. The stranger knelt and placed me on a bed of soft moss, nestled among the roots of one of the trees, and as he released me to place his fist over his heart in salute, I saw his face for the first time.

His skin was white as the snow that had raged around me, and his thick mane of wind-tossed hair as black as the night we had left. He had sharp, elegant features, with high brows, a long pointed nose, and a finely honed jaw like the edge of spear. I took in these features only on the periphery. I was transfixed by his eyes. They were sharp, keen red, a blazing scarlet as if he had been filled with blood and fire, and his colorless body only hid the real makings of him. There was a wildness about him, as if he carried the winds in his heart. He seemed a man with no master, and a king with no country.

“Hello, child.” His voice was like the toll of a distant bell in the quiet; a smooth, resonant baritone chime.

“Hi,” I answered. He was a stranger– the strangest-looking stranger with whom I’d ever locked eyes. I wondered distantly why I was not frightened, but there was a warmth about him, a softness even in the predatory gaze of those eyes, and it comforted me.

“I need you,” he said.

“What for?” I couldn’t imagine someone like him would have any use for me. In my innocence, I did not even know the possibilities that should have frightened me.

“Many things. For now, I need you to write for me.” He had a strange accent that enchanted me. It was vaguely European, but unlike any I had ever heard, with smooth l’s, breathy vowels, and hard r’s that seemed to growl from him like a rumbling lion. “You shall have no shortage of stories if you will accept the words from me.”

“I don’t know how to write,” I admitted. “Not very well, anyway. I’m only in the third grade.”

“I know.” He smiled a bit, and it seemed to soften his face more, the way sunlight might halo a cloud. “I shall teach you, if you let me.”

“What will the stories be about?”

“They shall be about me, and all the things I know and do.” He was an ambitious fellow, even then.

“Alright,” I told him. “Who are you?”

“My name is Lask.”

“Lask,” I echoed. I liked the way his name felt on my tongue, and he smiled at the sound of it on my lips.

When I woke up, it was morning. I found myself tangled in the covers, with the hem of my pink rose-printed pajama shirt bunched up under my side. I struggled free of my bedding, and sat up, rubbing the sleep from eyes. I felt strange, but didn’t know why. There was a drafty sensation in the back of my mind, like a door had been left open, and I thought of the blizzard I had dreamt of in the night. As I blinked my way to wakefulness, I gave a sudden start at the sight of a figure lounged in the chair in the corner. I fumbled for my glasses and looked again, seeing a tall, black-clad man resting there like a half-folded letter blown in by the breeze.

“You!” I exclaimed.

“Lask,” he reminded me.

“I know!” I drew my knees up to my chest and hunkered back against the pillows, as if three more inches of distance would make me safer. I peered at the corner. The chair was empty. I knew it was empty. I could see the undisturbed cushion, the white wicker of the back, and yet… there he was, simultaneously settled in it as if he were part of the decor. The disconnect between what my eyes saw and what my brain saw was disconcerting at best. Even then, I didn’t want to contemplate the worst.

“What are you doing here?” I asked. I don’t know why I was wary of him then– I had been so comfortable with him the night before. Perhaps I thought he was a dream, but I was certain I was awake, and knew he was sitting there.

“You brought me here,” he said. “You agreed to write for me, remember?”

“Yes,” I grumbled, wondering if I had been hasty with that decision.

“That’s why I am here,” he told me.

“How did you get in here? I was dreaming about you! If my parents knew you were here–”

“They won’t. No one can see me. No one but you, anyway.”

I watched him a moment, then slipped out of bed and tiptoed to the corner. I reached out, with all the hesitation one might reach toward a viper, and poked him, recoiling quickly as if I expected his chest to pop open and a spring-loaded jack-in-the-box leap out at my head. Instead, I felt the smooth weave of his cape, and the strong muscle of his shoulder beneath. Yet at the same time, I knew I had felt only air. I reached for him again. There was nothing under my hand, yet I was able to trace the shape of his shoulder, feeling the folds of his cape, the stitching of intricate gold embroidery. I shook my head, disbelieving.

“I’m still dreaming,” I announced, stepping back, deciding it was the only explanation.

“Afraid not,” Lask replied with a smile, allowing me to conduct my study of him.

I pointed a finger at him to silence him, backing away. I’d heard you could wake yourself from a dream by pinching, so I reached down and pinched the soft underside of my forearm. Things stayed the same, excepted for the sudden “ow!” I elicited from myself. Lask chuckled.

“I am here,” he told me, “And I shall be as long as you’ll have me.”

“What’s that mean?” I demanded.

“It means, dear one, that I will be at your side until the day you command me to go and mean it with all your heart.”

“I just have to tell you to leave?”

He hesitated. I can only imagine what he must have been thinking, and I noted his pause, but still he nodded. I watched him in silence. He was a strange creature, and the eerie sensation of seeing him yet not seeing him troubled me, but I couldn’t bring myself to say those words. There was something in his eyes, something pleading and vulnerable that seemed out of place on his otherwise fierce and fearless countenance. It wasn’t until I was older that I would recognize what it was: the desperate wish to be loved and wanted, and the terror of being found unworthy.

“Fine,” I told him after a moment. “I guess you can stay.”

His face broke into that sunshine smile, which melted me even then. “You are a very generous girl, Emily.”

“Don’t call me that!” I snapped.

“Whyever not?”

“I hate that name,” I muttered, stalking back to my bed. I plopped there, glowering at him from a patch of sunshine with what I thought was venom, but it only made him smile more.

“Very well,” he said. “You will have to tell me when you find a name you like better. Until then, you shall be my Sunflower.”

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