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Chasing the Wind - a fairy tale
She heard the cackle of geese and the wind howled around the house, sweeping away the last traces of summer and the harvest season; winter was coming.
She was sitting at the big kitchen table, near the fire. It seemed as if the wind had blown the dust off her memories as well. It was almost nine years ago now. Almost nine years since Ian, the man she loved, had disappeared.
They’d lived together in the city then. One morning in February, Ian had said he’d go and visit his great-aunt Evelyn that day. By car he would’ve reached her cottage, situated at the edge of a small village, in an hour. No one had ever seen him again.
She had visited Evelyn after his disappearance, and found that he’d never arrived at her house.
‘This is a strange place though,’ Evelyn had said, looking at her with alert, blue eyes. ‘Many of the old villagers, and I among them, still remember and believe the old folktales. The cold winter storms are still seen as the passing of the Wild Hunt, the old gods and spirits forever chasing through the dark nights. There have been many unexplained disappearances here. Who knows what happens to one who is carried off by the Wild Hunt? Time is on your side; perhaps you’ll find him.’
Strangely enough, she had believed Evelyn’s tale. The winter wind, the Wild Hunt; somehow it had all seemed to make much more sense than any other explanation. Even now, after nearly nine years had passed, she couldn’t believe Ian would’ve left without telling her, and she just knew he wasn’t dead.
A few months after Ian had gone, Evelyn died at the age of 90, leaving her cottage to her. Hating the city without Ian there, she’d moved in as soon as possible.
Since then, she’d heard many strange tales. The Wild Hunt, the wandering man dressed in the colours of the night and wearing a hat that always hid his face, the two spectral hounds roaming the countryside; it had fascinated her to hear how much of the old folklore still lived in this village, especially since she knew Ian’s ancestors originally came from these parts.
She specifically remembered the story an old farmer had told her. In his youth, he’d lived in poverty and had often been hungry. One day he’d caught a hare, but the second before he killed the creature, it had looked at him and he’d felt that this was no ordinary hare.
‘As I washed the blood off my hands, I washed away all possible hope of redemption,’ he’d told her, and indeed he’d neglected his farm ever since, spending all his time carving small statues of animals. ‘Always pay attention when you see a hare, girl. They’re special creatures, guides and messengers,’ he’d cautioned her.
She knew that somehow, these tales and the land itself would help her find Ian.
Looking up, she saw the old apple tree outside, and the gray stone wall that surrounded her cottage. Both looked cold. Last summer, she’d often sat underneath the tree, leaning against the wall, warm from the sun, and caressing its Braille-shaped crevices.
On one such summer day, she’d found a young hare huddled against the wall, a doe with a broken leg. She’d taken the animal to the vet and had looked after it. Though it had soon regained its health, the hare had kept coming back to the cottage for food and comfort. Remembering the story of the old farmer and wood carver, She had named the hare Jill and considered her as a pet.
Jill was lying in front of the fire now, stretched out and asleep. Crows cawed and the storm continued, but it didn’t rain. Soon, night fell and she was glad it did; day never provided enough cover for her weariness. At night, she often took long walks, with Jill loping by her side. She’d seen the silent, night-cloaked man the villagers spoke of, but always from a distance. The murmur of voices had seemed to travel on the wind at those times, but she’d never been able to make out the words.
After dinner, she decided to go on one of her midnight walks. Jill joined her as usual and together they braved the cold wind, their path lit by a full moon. After about half an hour, they suddenly came upon a down of hares, silently gazing into each other’s eyes. Perhaps because Jill was with her, the hares didn’t run off immediately but remained there, frozen in time and seemingly without fear, for a few seconds. Then, as quick as water, they disappeared into the woods. When she looked around, she saw the wandering man, with his hat and dark cloak, standing right behind her.
‘A beautiful sight wasn’t it?’ he said. ‘You were lucky to see that. Write this winter, and look after the hare that travels with you. Pay attention to her; one day she’ll lead you to a path lit by the dew of memory and then you might find what you’re looking for. Listen to my words, and may they bring you luck.’ With that, the man turned and walked away, two black dogs running away ahead of him.
She gathered up Jill in her arms and walked home. She decided she had to trust the man’s words.
November made way for December, and it started to snow as the village turned red and green in honour of winter’s feasts.
For the past nine years, she had been waiting for something unknown to happen, patiently passing her time in limbo and sometimes almost content to put her hope in fate. But now, after the cloaked man’s words, she became impatient and nervous. How much longer did she have to wait? And what if it had all been the work of her imagination, what if there was no truth behind the man’s words? She could keep up hope for the rest of her life, but without Ian it would all be meaningless. After she’d moved into the cottage, she often imagined Ian had moved with her and tried to picture what each of them would’ve been doing if their life together had continued. Now, her fantasies had lost their power to help her get through each day.
However, she spent the months writing as best she could and walking with Jill, paying close attention to the hare’s every move, looking to her for some sign or even, ridiculously, a miracle.
January was a month of rain and the village looked bleak under the low-hanging clouds. By February the heavy downpours had stopped, but it remained cold; snowdrops and a few pale daffodils were the only visible signs of spring.
Though each separate day seemed endless to her, time passed quickly, as it does when life is empty.
One evening, Jill kept leaping wildly through the cottage, refusing to go outside alone. Deciding she might as well join the hare, she grabbed her coat and walked out into the windy night. That strange night in November seemed to repeat itself; the moon was full and soon they came upon a down of hares once more. When the animals fled, they left a path of glittering dewdrops, gold in the moonlight. She thought of the cloaked man’s prophecy and when Jill leapt away, she followed. They were walking in the direction of the old abandoned estate; the mansion had never been rebuilt after a fire had destroyed it in the 19th century, and the gardens had been left to become part of the surrounding countryside. As she stepped over the few remaining stones of the wall that had once surrounded the estate, she saw that Jill had halted underneath an old yew. She steadied herself by leaning against its rough trunk; hope and nerves had made her heart beat so fast that she could hardly feel her legs. On the wind, she heard a song and this time she was able to understand the words:
In the distance, she saw the walls of the ruin, lit by the moon. The fire had destroyed the roof and only the lower parts of the house had been spared. Jill ran on and she went after her. Pushing open the door, she stepped over the threshold and then stood still, breathless. The mansion was no longer a ruin but had recovered its full glory. The large hall was brightly lit, blue-and-gold carpets covered the floor, and groups of well-dressed people stood around in animated conversation. Then, at the other end of the hall, she saw Ian. As she started to run towards him, a strong hand grabbed her arm and held her back. It was the wandering man she’d met so many months ago.
‘Not so fast,’ he said. ‘Nine years have passed for you, but time runs differently in our realm. Your Ian thinks he’s only been here for one night. He’s learned a lot in that time, though he doesn’t know it yet, and so have you. I’ll give him back to your world on one condition: did you hear the words on the wind? If so, repeat them to me now, girl.’
She had managed to remember the strange verse and, keeping her eyes fixed on Ian, she recited it. ‘Good. Then go, and I wish you both luck,’ the man said and released her.
She ran to Ian and sat down next to him. Ian’s surprise changed to concern when he saw the tears in her eyes. ‘What’s wrong, how did you get here?’ he asked, and took her hands in his. With some difficulty, she began to explain what had happened. While she spoke, the people in the hall started to fade and the lights dimmed. By the time she’d finished her story, the roof had been replaced by the midnight sky, the bench they’d sat on turned out to be a broken column, and moonlight filled the room. The mansion was just a ruin.
‘Well, this is...strange, to say the least. For heaven’s sake, I can’t even say I missed you, except in retrospect. I can’t believe nine years have been wasted,’ said Ian.
‘I can say I missed you, but now I’ve found you it doesn’t matter anymore. I’m not even sure those years have been wasted,’ she answered.
Looking around the hall, Ian said, ‘Well, the music was wonderful, and it was nice to see the old place as it used to be. You know, my great-grandfather was the last of our family to grow up here, before the fire destroyed it. They couldn’t afford its restoration, and left for the city. My great-aunt Evelyn was the only one who moved back to the village. My grandfather still called the estate “our family seat”, even though Evelyn laughed at him since he’d never even seen the place as it once was. Yes, I’m glad I saw it. As a child I often played here when staying with Evelyn. She told me some of the stories you’ve heard in the village; they interested me, but I could never have imagined they’d turn out to be true. I’ll miss Evelyn, she would’ve loved to hear all this. I still can’t believe nine years have gone.’
Both suddenly feeling cold and tired, they got up and left the ruin. Jill sat waiting for them underneath the old yew. When they approached the tree, the hare looked at them for a minute and then ran away.
Some time later, the old farmer who’d first told her about the strangeness of hares came to the cottage one morning and gave them a young black dog. ‘A new guardian, and good company for you both, on your midnight walks,’ he said, and quickly left before they could ask him in. They named the dog Ibor. He was indeed a good companion and sometimes, when he ran out ahead of them during a walk, he was joined by two black spectral hounds and a man dressed in the colours of midnight. They never got to speak to the man again, but at times, when fierce winds swept the country, they heard the murmur of voices.