Friday, May 31, 2013

Brave Flowers (Ugly Stick Bonus Story #1)

Good afternoon, net-friends!

Just in time for the weekend, here is the first installment of my debut novel Ugly Stick's bonus material!

(I talked about this concept in my previous post)

This is a short story from the life of Leili, the first daughter in April's family tree who had to live with the curse, all the way back in 18th-century Europe. I really enjoyed exploring this character, and I hope you enjoy spending a little time with her as well. If you have any thoughts for character back stories you would like to see included in the Ugly Stick bonus stories -- or if you have a suggestion for the title of this compendium besides "Ugly Stick bonus stories" -- please let me know. I want to write the stories you want to read!

Have a terrific weekend, everyone!

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Brave Flowers (Leili's Story)


I gathered my fine horsehair brushes and a blank canvas. The light was not going to hold out for long.
My tiny jar of expensive white paint was all used up. I would have to stop at the village shop with my last few pfennigs for more, or I would never be able to capture the crocuses.
"Leili, where are you going?"
My mother called from behind me, the resentment in her voice as plain as ever. "You aren't thinking of meeting a boy, are you?"
"No, Mother," I answered. "Just going to paint again."
She scoffed, and I turned to face her. Mother had once been the most beautiful girl in the village. Nobles used to travel from neighboring duchies just to see if the rumors of her loveliness were true, and until I had started growing in her belly, they had not been disappointed. Once I came along, though, everything had changed. She would never let it go. I wouldn’t either.
I sighed. "May I go and paint, Mother? Please?"
She blew out a breath and brushed her dark curls back from her face with annoyance. "Be back in time to stoke the fire and prepare the soup for supper."
"I will. Danke, Mother," I said. It had become a reflex. Thank you, I'm sorry, May I, Thank you, Please, I'm sorry.
I scooped the tiny jars of paint into my satchel alongside the brushes and canvas and felt for the pfennigs. Four would have to be enough.
No other daughter in the village had to ask at age sixteen whether they could leave the house, but I did. Leaving the house meant the potential for meeting a boy, the potential for love, and, as Mother put it, the potential for heartbreaking loneliness. Whether she meant for me or for her, she never said, but I could guess.
It was not as if our wooden door was being knocked down by suitors. I was the ugliest girl in town by all measures of beauty. I knew it. It had been true for my entire life, and it had never bothered me. As soon as my fingers had grasped a paintbrush for the first time, I had realized that I could make all the beauty I would ever need.
I hurried from our cottage towards the center of the village, passing the mossy dug-out of our neighbors, old bachelor Tregulus and his ancient brother Trognus. Tregulus had been a suitor of Mother's long before I was born. Now he often sat in front of his door, a pipe puffing above his grizzled beard and sending smoke into his bushy eyebrows.
"Good day, fair Leili!" he called to me with a crooked grin, as he always did. He knew I was ugly too, but calling me "fair Leili" was his way of saying that he didn't care one bit about it. I liked Tregulus.
"Good day," I answered.
"Where are you off to?" he asked.
I held up my satchel. "The crocuses are finally in bloom. I'll only have a few days to paint them before they're gone for the year."
"Very good! Crocuses are quite the intrepid littl'uns, blooming before everything else. Your daffodils from last year are still on our hearth."
I smiled. "Glad you like them. I will paint you another when I can afford more canvas."
I bit my lip and glanced back at my house, hoping Mother hadn't heard. Though we were poor, and everyone that still spoke to us knew it, she preferred to pretend otherwise. Fortunately, she was not in the window.
Tregulus chuckled, and I realized the transparency of my actions. "Well, I had better let you get to your work, then. Off with you, fair Leili."
I waved and hurried onward, careful to keep my worn leather boots out of the many mud puddles that dotted the footpath.
The center of the village was my favorite place: the ancient well, the green where Herr Fredrick let his sheep graze whenever the mayor was away, the blacksmith, and the shop where just about every good in town was sold. If I was as lucky as I was ugly, then Herr Weiskopf would have restocked his paints from the traveling merchants I had seen earlier in the week.
I knocked the heels of my boots against the door frame as I entered; they were free of mud and scow, but I needed to be as polite as possible to get a six-pfennig jar of paint for only four. "Good day, Herr Weiskopf."
"Ah, Leili!" His smile was wide upon his narrow face as he stepped from behind the counter and over to my favorite set of shelves. "I thought you might be by today. Lovely weather for painting, eh?"
"Indeed," I agreed, returning the smile. "I seem to have used the last of that excellent white paint you carry... Is it still four pfennigs a jar?"
"It's still six pfennigs a jar, yes," he said with a chuckle, making his moustache quiver. My cheeks heated up—Herr Weiskopf had seen right through me.
“But if you’re willing to return the old jar, then four pfennigs seems a fair price,” he added.
“Truly? Thank you,” I said, grateful that his generosity exceeded his powers of observation. I pulled the empty paint jar from my satchel and laid it upon the counter, along with the four tiny coins. Herr Weiskopf handed me a new jar, which I tucked carefully in its place. It clinked softly against its glassy neighbors, and I imagined the colors mixing.
“Tell me, Leili, what will you be painting today?” he asked.
“Crocuses.”
He nodded approvingly. “Beautiful flowers. They remind me of my mother. Here.”
He pulled a wrapped canvas off a shelf and handed it to me. “Will you paint a copy for me?”
I glanced at the unexpectedly heavy package and realized it was not one, but a package of five slender canvases. “Sir, I…”
“Consider them payment,” Herr Weiskopf said, with a light in his eyes that I wished I could imitate with paints. He stepped back behind his counter. “Good day, Leili. Danke.”
Danke,” I echoed his thanks, stumbling out of the shop with a half-dozen canvases at my disposal.
The sun’s rays shifted around the ground, as a few lazy clouds in the sky drifted into its path. Fortunately, the clouds were white, and the air smelled of grass and dirt, not rain. I picked up my pace, though, eager to use every drop of light before I had to return home.
The best crocuses grew on the top of a hill just beyond the Zellers’ dairy farm, and the quickest path was through their grazing pasture. The key was not disturbing the indolent cows as they chewed and wandered. Once I had spooked a cow while cutting through the pasture, and Frau Zeller had made sure to inform me (and Mother) that the animal had refused to give milk for a week afterwards. I slipped between the slats of the fence and stepped lightly and quickly through the grass. The cow piles made me wrinkle my nose, and I took extra care to avoid stepping in them.
“Leili!”
It was Milo, the Zellers’ younger son and a friend of mine. He was two years my senior, though I had read the same lessons as him when we were in school together. Milo resembled a beanpole with a mop of blond hair and gentle brown eyes that reminded me of the calves he tended.
“Shh!” I said, realizing my foolishness even as I did it.
“Cutting through our pasture again, are we?” he said with a smile. In his big work boots, he tramped right over to me without bothering to avoid the cows’ messes. After he left the pasture for the day, he could change boots. I couldn’t.
“Sorry,” I said. “It’s the quickest way to the hill, and I—drat!”
In my distraction, I had stepped directly onto a fresh cow pile. If I had been alone, I would have cursed. As it was, I was still considering it.
Milo grinned. “I can help you with that.” He stepped over and scooped me off the ground.
“You’ll scare the cows!” I squealed. I panicked at the thought of my paints or new canvases spilling onto the muck.
He shrugged. “No, to them you’re just another calf I’m carrying around.”
I clutched my satchel to my chest. Milo was stronger than he looked, though, and he carried me easily to the far end of the pasture.
“So what takes you to the hill today?” he asked, setting me upon the clean grass. “Painting?”
I nodded as I wiped my soiled boot. “The crocuses are blooming.”
“Pretty flowers. Well, if afterwards you find yourself in need of ferrying across the pasture again…” He bowed with a grin. “I’m happy to assist my favorite artist.”
I readjusted my satchel under my arm. “Thanks.”
A blush crept into my cheeks. I turned, hopefully before he noticed, and sprinted towards the hill in a most unladylike manner. I glanced back once as I ran, and Milo turned quickly away when he saw me looking. I didn’t let my feet slow until I reached the clumps of gold, violet, and white flowers I was seeking.
Time always stepped up its pace while I painted. I set my first canvas against a rock, mixed little blobs of paint colors on my palette (a discarded wooden shingle), and worked as quickly as I could. Despite the chill in the air, the bright little blossoms stood bravely erect against the worn meadow grass, which had been weighed down and wilted by months of snow and ice. I made the purple and gold tones brighter in my imitation than they were in the flowers before me, knowing the colors would fade a bit as they dried. By the time I brushed on slender ribbons of spring green for the crocuses’ fern-like leaves, I realized that the light had begun to dim.
            There was no one within earshot to hear my muttered oath as I wiped a rag over my palette and sealed the jars of paint. Mother would be furious if I did not return in time to stoke the fire for supper. It was a task we both despised for the pricks of cinders upon our forearms, but she reasoned that since my hands were usually covered in paint anyway (and I had no prospects of marriage that would require lily-white hands), it ought to be my responsibility. If it could have taken away her resentment, I would have stoked the fire every hour of my childhood. As I grew, though, I had quickly realized that no amount of stoking, nor any other task or talent, could rub out her anger—and I had long since given up trying.
I sprinted back down the hill, carefully balancing the freshly painted canvas in front of me like a tray. Milo must have seen me coming, because he was waiting at the near side of the pasture fence when I reached it, puffing my breaths like a workhorse.
“Hello again! May I see your work?” he asked.
Still breathing heavily, I held the canvas upright. Milo’s eyes opened wide, and he let out a low whistle.
“Oh, no, did I smudge it?” I asked in alarm. I flipped it around to look.
He shook his head and moved behind me, looking still at the painting. “How did you create this in an afternoon?” he said quietly. “I could paint for a year and not make anything half as beautiful.”
I felt my cheeks flush under this praise, but I had no excuse to run. “You’re very kind, Milo,” I muttered. I turned to see him staring not at the painting, but at me.
Milo smiled. “You have a bit of paint on your nose.”
“Oh, do I?” I said stupidly. I reached up to rub it away, but he stopped my hand with his.
“I like it,” he added. “It is as if… you are both the artist and the canvas.”
I looked down, feeling embarrassed and elated at the same time. “Well, if I’m a painter, then you are a poet,” I said. I glanced over my shoulder and was surprised to see a flush upon Milo’s face.
“Leili, I… well, I had said I would ferry you homeward,” he said quickly after a pause.
“Yes.”
“Well, hold onto your masterpiece, then.”
I gripped the edges of the canvas carefully, and Milo slung my satchel over his shoulder. He carried me across the cows’ field without another word between us, until he set me down again at the edge of the pasture.
“Well…”
Danke,” I said, slipping between the fence slats. I reached back for my satchel.
“You know, this feels heavier than it did earlier,” Milo said slowly. “And with your canvas still drying, I would feel just awful if a stray mud puddle or cow pile befell you on the way home, all because I was too callous to accompany you.”
He slipped through the fence after me. “May I?”
My cheeks flushed once more, but I suddenly didn’t mind. “Milo, you may.”

Mother would be furious to see a young man escorting me up the walk to our house. I didn’t care. As I carried my brave flowers alongside Milo, I felt for the first time in a very, very long time that I was actually going home.

3 comments:

  1. Lovely snippet of a story. Intriguing ending sentence. Her mother had not given or created a home for her in the sense we all hope for, but one still feels at reading that last sentence an unspoken happy ending. Suggestions for a title for the compendium "Branches of the Ugly Stick" or as you alluded to "A Family Tree for Ugly Stick".

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  2. Beautiful! I can't wait for more.

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  3. Thank you both! =)

    I really like the idea of using "branches" or "family tree" in the title somehow... thanks for the suggestion!

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