In Pursuit of the Heart A Short Story by E. P. Young
Rehmira marched determinedly toward the village ahead, avoiding eye contact with anyone who passed her by. The shawl covering her black hair fluttered in the breeze, bringing brief respite from the beaming afternoon sun. Facing straight ahead, she did not notice the man riding horseback a few paces behind her. A moment too late, she heard the hoofbeats picking up their pace and was flung into the air and down, onto the hard saddle. The figs in her basket were now
scattered on the dirt path.
“Casslen, why did you do that?!” she seethed. Her brow furrowed as his face lit up in a boyish grin. “That’s a month’s worth of food you’ve spilled. I was going to sell them today.”
“I’m sorry, my dear, I’ll be more careful next time.” Casslen leaned in for a kiss before she smacked him in the mouth. Rehmira slid off the horse, rubbing her behind from the hard landing she took a moment ago.
“I’m not your dear, and there won’t be a next time.” Rehmira squatted down on the path and retrieved her figs, carefully inspecting each one before returning it to her basket. “It’s inappropriate to handle someone that way. The least you could do is help me.” She spotted a nasty bruise on one particular fig and tossed it into the grass, a few feet away, for the birds.
Casslen grinned and nodded emphatically, spotting his chance at redemption. With a flourish, he was off his horse and sauntering toward the mess he’d made.
Rehmira squinted at him as he helped her. “How did you recognize me, anyway? I’m trying not to be noticed today.”
Casslen laughed loudly. “Then you should pay better attention to what you wear. You made that shawl, nobody else in the village has one like it. And you wore it to the Summer festival, with that beautiful flower headdress.”
She groaned in disapproval. This was her favorite shawl; she couldn’t just stop wearing it. With a grunt she stood back up again, brushing off her old skirt, as green and mottled as moss.
“Thank you for your attempt at assistance, now be on your way.”
The young man frowned for a moment, looking for a way to stay near the enchanting woman.
“Would you like a ride into town? I wouldn’t want your feet to become bruised on the rocks.”
“I enjoy walking. Alone.” Rehmira continued on as she had before, only this time knowing for a fact he was still behind her. Luckily, this one was mostly harmless. If it were one of her other suitors, she might be more anxious at the company.
Soon enough, she reached the village. It was not large, there were only a few families that lived here. Most of the people who considered themselves residents actually lived on the outlying farms, miles away. This is where everyone gathered for feasts, celebrations, to sell the wares they had, and buy the wares they needed. Rehmira was not from here, she had only arrived a few years
ago. Just about everyone in the area became enamored with her very quickly, to the point she almost considered moving again. Staying here was better than the alternative, though, for now at least.
Rehmira made her way to her first stop, the bakery. The baker always requested first dibs on the fruit, so he could make a fresh batch of tarts before Rehmira left town. As long as the baker paid for them, she didn’t mind the special attention. It was better than getting kidnapped in the middle of the road. Next on her agenda were the two families who lived in town. The littlest son from one
of the families presented a fistful of dandelions, claiming “It’s a wishing bouquet!”
It made Rehmira smile, and that’s all the little boy wanted. The leftover figs went to the feed store, to be made into jam, and to be sold to any passing through who wanted a sweet treat. Rehmira wasn’t particularly fond of this part of her trip. Jod, the store owner, was pushy almost to the point of being violent. This time he was trying to pay far more than was agreed for the figs.
“I’ve already told you, Jod, I won’t take more than what we decided last time I was here.” Rehmira avoided eye contact, knowing it would only make him angry.
“Now, Mira, you’re being unreasonable. I’m just trying to help you out.” He leaned forward across the counter and looped his finger around a lock of her hair. “If you really feel bad about it, I’ll let you pay it back in other ways.”
Rehmira smacked his hand away and glared up at him from under her shawl. “Pay me what you owe me for the figs so I may leave.”
Jod slammed his fist down on the table and opened his mouth to yell, when he was interrupted by the door opening. A woman walked in carrying a bundle wrapped in butcher’s paper.
Jod glared at the woman for a few moments before mumbling, “Give me a minute,” and counted out the silver for Rehmira.
Satisfied with her errands for the day, Rehmira gathered her coins and prepared to leave. The woman stepped up to the counter and untied her bundle. “I have some clothes to sell,” she remarked with a shaking voice. “I made them all myself. A cloak, two skirts, and a man’s work shirt.” She pushed them toward Jod, awkwardly.
“It’s not even a full set,” he scoffed. “Nobody will buy this; everyone makes their own clothes, anyway.”
“I’ll take the cloak and one of the skirts,” Rehmira piped up, stroking the stitches of the orange skirt. “I’m terrible at sewing, and these look like they were made by a skillful hand.” The woman beamed proudly at her handiwork.
“Be quiet, hag,” Jod yelled. “You were just leaving.”
Rehmira gripped her basket tightly, preparing to scold him. After steadying her nerves, she turned around and left. He was only going to become angrier, and it had been a long day. She stepped outside and breathed in the cool night air. The wind tussled her hair as she walked with ease toward the tavern, and her brown eyes glowed amber in the torchlight.
Casslen’s horse was tied outside the boisterous tavern, but Rehmira knew he was likely asleep at a corner table, by now. Upon entering the dimly lit building she was welcomed by the smell of beer, roasted meat, and the baker’s fig tarts.
There he sat at the bar with his wife, Cayenna, a lovely woman that Rehmira had befriended. Across the room a musician sat, singing a tune of a sad maiden
who probably lost her love to a dragon, or something along those lines. He flashed a smile at Rehmira and continued strumming amorously. Before he could get the wrong idea, she made her way to the bar and sat next to Cayenna.
“How are the tarts today, Pepper?”
The baker smiled and pushed the plate full of warm pastries toward her. Cayenna daintily took one from the plate and described it. “The dough is light and flaky, practically melting on the tongue. We doubled the butter and toasted the flour this time, and it seems to have done the trick. And the figs were incredibly ripe this month, which made for a very sweet sauce.” Pepper gestured with a precision Rehmira couldn’t quite keep up with.
“According to some,” Cayenna raised an eyebrow at her husband, “this sauce is too sweet, but I quite like it.”
“Sorry, quite a few of the figs were dropped on the way here, that might be why they tasted different.”
“How did you manage to drop them? You’re not that clumsy.” Cayenna passed a tart over to Rehmira, and gestured her to eat.
“I won’t take the fault for something I didn’t do.” Rehmira glanced in the corner, where Casslen sat snoring. “I said they were dropped. I didn’t say who dropped them.”
A muscled arm came into view and snagged a tart from the plate. “Pepper, I think these are the best yet. I would ask for the recipe, but then I would have to make them myself.” The tall woman laughed as she stuffed the pastry in her mouth, brushing back sweaty tendrils of hair from her face. “You’ll have to make some for my wedding!”
“Oh, Tess, don’t start with that again,” Rehmira groaned.
“Yes, I can see it now,” she crowed, “the tavern filled with your pastries, everyone coming from miles around to weep and mourn that I have finally stolen away their beautiful Rehmira from maidenhood.”
“It would never work between us.”
“I would make an excellent wife, and you know it."
“You would never submit to selling the tavern, and I would never want to move here. Where would we live?”
Tess gently laid her hand on Rehmira’s, looking intently into her eyes, as if trying to conjure a vision. “I will build a new tavern, on top of a mountain. Far from everyone else, but a few lonely travelers. It will be like a fairy realm, a myth, a story men tell from across campfires to warm their spirits: The mighty tavern owner who can lift five kegs at once, and her mystical wife, who is rarely seen.”
“Also, you cuss too much.”
Tess pulled her hand away, face flushing red. “I have never said a single bad word around you. Who ratted me out?”
“So, you’re a hypocrite, and you cuss too much.” Rehmira took a bite of her tart, smiling at her victory.
The barkeep retrieved a rag and started to clean sheepishly. “Let’s talk about something else. How was Jod today?”
As if on cue, the door swung open, and in sauntered the store owner, Jod. He smiled as if he had won the most important game there was to play. His predatory eyes scanned the room and landed on Rehmira, standing up to leave.
“Mira! I have something for you!” Jod walked forward with ease, extending a package out to her. It was plain paper, but it was wrapped with a pink, satin bow that didn’t look cheap.
“Open it, it’s yours.”
Rehmira took a deep breath. “Jod, I don’t accept gifts. I never have, and I never will.”
He frowned and snarked, “You take those tarts every time you come into town.”
“I pay for those. Just like everything else.”
“Oh, I’m sure you do.” Jod glared at Pepper. “Now I know why you spend so much time with women. Give them a few treats and they follow you home like a stray dog.”
“That’s enough out of you,” Tess growled. “Get out before I toss you out.”
He continued to press the package toward Rehmira, as she took a step back. “Just open it, you’ll like it.”
Rehmira pushed it away as she took another step back. “I don’t need it.” Tess stormed around from behind the bar, skirts billowing out around her. She grabbed Jod’s arm and lifted it into the air, causing the package to fall to the ground. She leaned in close to his face, meeting his eye.
“Final warning,” Tess crooned sweetly. “You choose how this ends.”
Jod’s nostrils flared in frustration, refusing to look away from Rehmira. After a tense moment he ripped his arm away and stomped out, muttering under his breath.
Rehmira’s heart continued to race, even after he left. She looked down at the package, now crumpled and torn, and saw a familiar orange fabric peaking out. She scooped it up and raced out of the tavern, into the night. Spotting Jod about 30 feet away, she threw the package at his head with all her strength, turned, and fled to Casslen’s horse. In a moment she was mounted and galloping back to her farm, ignoring the fracas occurring behind her.
The evening air welcomed her, tossing her dark hair and worn shawl behind her. At the farm, Rehmira realized in frustration that she’d left her basket and money at the tavern, not to mention the groceries Tess always sets aside for her.
“Oh, well,” Rehmira mused, brushing the silvery coat of the horse she had stolen. “I have to go back into town to return you, anyway.”
Finger-like shadows reached out to Rehmira from the trees surrounding her house. It was small, and somewhat disheveled, but she loved her dark little corner of the world. The windows were covered by black curtains, and many potted plants surrounded the porch, like a magical barrier to outside intruders. One of her mint plants was yellowing and falling over. Rehmira frowned and
coaxed the plant upright against the wall of her home, hoping it would gather its
strength and live another season. Inside the house, Rehmira started a small fire to make tea. She sat at the fireplace, musing about her problem. Was it truly time to move again? Many of her suitors were becoming quite a problem. She worried one would come and exact revenge for their unrequited love. The
tea in her cup grew cold, the sun rose with birdsong, and Cayenna knocked at the front door, startling Rehmira from her thoughts.
“Rehmira? Are you in here?” Cayenna slowly opened the creaking door. “I brought your things.”
She opened the door wider and put a hand on her hip. “Have you been awake all night?”
After a minute of light- hearted scolding, the two women enjoyed the remaining embers together.
“Cayenna, what am I going to do? I don’t want to leave.” Rehmira rubbed her eyes, despair clouding her mind.
“You could marry someone. It’s silly, but everyone around here respects the marriage vow. You would think they could respect someone, regardless, but apparently not.”
“There’s no one I want to marry, though. I like the life I have, and I don’t like any of them.”
Rehmira poured herself and Cayenna fresh cups of tea. “I just wish they would go away.”
They sat in silence for a while, wrestling with the problem in their minds.
Suddenly Cayenna chuckled to herself. “My sister used to think she was going to be courted by every man who saw her. She said she would give them impossible tasks, and whoever managed to complete the task could marry her. Things like, catch a cloud in a sack, or bottle up the sound of a tree singing. She was married off to an onion farmer.”
Cayenna stood to leave. “I’ll take the horse back, don’t worry. I hope you decide what to do. I would hate to see you leave because of some foolish suitors.”
Rehmira stared into the fire, not hearing Cayenna leave. She was focused on her story of the impossible tasks. Nobody would try for an impossible task, but perhaps just a highly improbable one. Something that nobody would be able to complete, but they thought they might have a shot at. That should keep them busy.
A week later Casslen rode up to the farm on his shining steed. A red rose was between his teeth, and his grin was more devilish than ever. He waltzed up to the door and saw a note nailed to the front. It read: The door is locked.
To whomever catches the key my cat is wearing, goes my hand in marriage.
“I never even knew she had a cat,” Casslen said, scratching his head in confusion. He turned to look back at his horse, wondering what to do next, and saw a brown tabby cat with bright yellow eyes rubbing against the horse’s leg.
Around the cat’s neck was a shining key. “There you are, you mongrel.”
The bored cat suddenly jumped down from the tree and darted into the grass, stalking a mouse.
“You’re a terrible hunter,” Willow smirked. “That mouse saw you coming a mile away.”
The cat meowed irately, sitting in the middle of the path to groom a paw. The suitor reached into a satchel and retrieved a piece of bacon, throwing it several feet away, toward the cat.
“Here, on the house.” The feline eyed it suspiciously, then, quicker than the eye could catch, seized the bacon and ran up to the roof. “I didn’t mean that literally, but whatever makes you happy.”
Willow stood and waved a hand goodbye. “I’ll see you tomorrow, kitty.”
Each day the suitors would return, trying to get the key, but Willow only wanted to talk about marriage, family, previous cat friends, anything and everything.
Eventually the cat realized Willow really didn’t want to get married, and they would sit together, or nap under the shadow of the trees. They formed a bond of trust that Willow had never experienced before.
When the leaves began to turn gold and scarlet, the suitors gradually stopped coming to the farm. They had to prepare for winter, bring in the harvest, tend to their own.
“Kitty,” Willow thought aloud, “There’s no one in that house, is there? I haven’t seen any trace of a tragically beautiful woman, or any woman at all.” The cat purred and rubbed on Willow’s hands. “Can I have the key? I want to settle this, once and for all.” Gently removing the key from the cat’s neck, Willow stood and walked toward the dark house. The note had long since rotted away, and the door was creakier than usual. The inside, however, was surprisingly clean.
The floors were swept, the fireplace fresh, a few dirty dishes, but only enough to feel lived in. Someone was definitely still living here.
“Where is she, kitty?”
Willow turned as the cat meowed and crawled under a large blanket. The blanket started to move and grow, and all at once the head of a woman appeared, brown eyes shining like amber from behind locks of black hair.
“My name is Rehmira,” she said quietly. “I’m the owner of this house, and the cat everyone has been chasing.” Rehmira looked away sadly. “I don’t want to get married.”
“That’s why you put forth this challenge,” Willow nodded, understanding. “I don’t want to be married, either.”
“Perhaps,” Rehmira looked up hopefully, “we can be not married together?”
Willow laughed softly, taking her hand. “It would be my honor to not be married to you.”
The couple returned to the village to proclaim their marriage, to the joy of their friends, and the sorrow of Rehmira’s suitors. Their wedding was held in the winter, the white blanket of snow contrasting beautifully with Rehmira’s blue wedding dress. Willow and Rehmira, though married to the outside world, never considered themselves any different from best friends. They lived together in companionship for the rest of their lives.