From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Petrella

Petrella is made of wood. Burls form the bowls of her knees and heartwood fills the cage of her chest. Her legs are sturdy oak, her slender arms linden, limbs finely shaped and lively as young trees stretching up toward the vernal sun. Her supple joints flex smoothly on hidden gimbals, and her body is stained a deep amber, oiled and glossy as close-napped velvet. Long shavings of pale ash curl upswept about her brow, and her face is mahogany, dark and hard and proud.

Petrella has no eyes. The wood beneath her brows is smoothly curved but blank, with neither iris nor pupil nor creamy white indicated in its grain. Yet this is not a flaw. There is about her a look of something rare and mysterious. Like a foreign statue carved in stone, her expression is serene and also knowing. Blind though she appears, there can be no doubt that she is also absolutely aware.

* * *

It was late afternoon, after the spring rains, near the village of Shey’s Wending. Gleaners picked through the debris along the river’s edge, looking for salvage. The baker asked the blacksmith to help him carry a great tangle of drifted brushwood back to town. “This will make excellent kindling for both our hearths,” he said, and the smith agreed. Together they bent to lift the bundle — but the sound of a woman’s cry from the midst of the snarled branches made them start back like nervous cats. Petrella rose from the stormwrack then, and they thought she was only a woman, naked and sun-browned, a slim, shapely young maid. The baker stepped toward her, but the brewer cried, “Stop!” for he was the first to see that she was not human, hard wood instead of soft living flesh.

Axes held tightly, wary of her every movement, the men brought her before the scarlet-robed village priest. “I have never seen her like before, Brother Gar,” said the weaver, for he went downriver each spring to sell his cloth and so thought himself well-traveled.

“Peace,” said Brother Gar, raising his hands open-palmed. “I will examine her.”

* * *

The priest is a young man growing old too soon. Silver threads glimmer in his black hair, and his fine-drawn features grow more deeply incised each season. Only his voice, one of surpassing power and beauty, remains as it was nine years ago, when he first came to Shey’s Wending.

He trained for the faith in Carreton City and could have worn the lush crimson and gold robes of Autis there. Surely his rich voice could have filled the vaulted stone of Autis’s Great Church, drawing fame and renown as well as the faithful. But the priest was sent to Shey’s Wending instead, to serve Autis in the tiny chapel of riverstone at the forest’s edge. He accepted the decision of his superiors without question. Surely, he told himself, there is as much good to be done in a rural village as there is in a great city. And surely the quiet life will give me time to explore my own faith, to enrich my belief as well as that of my flock.

But the time has not passed as he’d hoped it would. Each season the pettiness of the villagers seems stronger, and their weak faith has begun to wear away his own. He prays nightly for a sign, for some challenge he might master and thereby renew the villagers’ faith as well as his own. His prayers have gone unanswered, however, and the bright threads of his own blind trust have become as brittle and gray as the ever-accumulating strands that taint his young man’s hair.

* * *

When Brother Gar came forward, Petrella knew his presence by the hesitant scuff of his sandals in the dirt. She could feel his eyes like the touch of spider legs against her skin as he circled her. His breath rumbled as he cleared his throat, and his voice came at her back: “The men tell me you can speak. Do you have a name?”

“Petrella,” she said, turning so that her sightless eyes followed his voice as a flower faces the sun. “I am Petrella.”

“Foreign,” the priest murmured, and she heard the scrape of his feet as he came to a stop before her. “Tell me, Petrella, what manner of men dwell in your land, that they would carve a naked woman out of wood?”

“My father is a forester,” Petrella said. “He took me to see the river. The water swept me away.” She felt a tug at her brow as Brother Gar fingered her white ash hair.

“I do not believe you.” The priest’s voice shook now in anger — or perhaps it was fear. “Methinks you are a thing of evil, some puppet for heathen pleasure. Now — ” He grabbed her by the hair and yanked her head back. “Tell me the truth!”

The strength of the ash fibers surprised him. Only a single strand pulled free, coiling along the back of his wrist like fine silver ribbon. Petrella said nothing.

“You will not hide your nature with silence,” he cried. “The Good Books say evil must be destroyed!”

By now most of the village had gathered, and many shouted their support. “We must burn her!” the weaver’s wife cried. “My oven is free, Brother Gar,” the baker offered. “My fire is hotter,” bellowed the blacksmith. And the men with axes shook them in the air.

“You see what fate awaits the unholy?” the priest barked, pulling Petrella close; but her wooden face stayed as still and calm as always. He jerked her head back again and shook her roughly. “What are you, wooden Petrella, that you show no fear of the flame?”

“Why should I fear?” Petrella said, her low voice steady as the river current. “I have done nothing wrong.”

The priest looked long into her dark face and finally noted the curious flatness of her eyes. “Are you blind?” he asked, and Petrella said, “My eyes see nothing.”

Again she felt the touch of his gaze like the brush of a falling leaf. “You are proud, woman, and that is a sin,” the priest said softly. “But I swear before my master that you shall be redeemed. I myself will save you.” He raised his hand and the crowd fell silent.

“Good people of Shey’s Wending,” he intoned, “The Holy Books teach us to be merciful. Therefore, in the name of mercy I will bring this woman into the Church of Autis, and from me she shall learn the True Laws. I ask your help as well, so that together we can redeem her ill-used soul.”

The crowd cheered its approval. Brother Gar asked the brewer’s wife, who had many clothes, to lend Petrella a gown to cover her nakedness, and so the woman fetched her an old kirtle and shift. The clothes were a poor fit; the bodice hung loose, even with the stays pulled tight, and the skirts were too short, showing far more calf than a decent woman should. At the sight, the weaver’s wife vowed she would make the necessary adjustments, and Brother Gar blessed her for her charity.

He brought water from the chapel and bade Petrella kneel there in the path before the entire village. She did so with an unconscious grace. “Now bow your head and accept Autis’s gift,” the priest said. As she did, the bodice of the borrowed dress gaped open. Averting his eyes, he poured the water over her head and invoked the baptismal blessing. In the light of the westering sun, beads of moisture glittered like molten gold in her pale hair and rolled down her throat, disappearing beneath the loose gown.

“Autis is good,” said Brother Gar, his voice swelling with belief. He took Petrella’s hand, marveling at the intricacy of its smooth joinings, and raised her to her feet. The villagers looked on with pride as he led her into the chapel and closed the iron-bound door behind them.

* * *

Inside the church the air is always cool. The tight stone walls hold back the heat and the light of the sun, leaving the interior dark and slightly damp. There are shutters but only one window, for Shey’s Wending is a small village and stained glass is expensive.

The window is in the west wall. It shows a man and a woman, naked, standing in the midst of a garden in bloom. The woman has long chestnut hair wound with leaves and flowers curling down around her knees, and her head is bowed. The man regards her boldly, with a vast self-assurance, as if he knows she will respond to him. As if he knows she dare not say “no.”

* * *

Petrella went to the window, reached up and touched the glass; wooden fingers made a tapping sound as they met its unyielding surface. Brother Gar turned from securing the door and came to her, worried that she might, in her blindness, do some harm. “Be careful,” he warned, pulling her hands away and dropping them at her side. “That is stained glass from Thill. It depicts Autis Taming Primitive Nature, a story from the earliest days of our faith.”

“It blocks the sun,” Petrella said, shaking her head. “This place would be warmer without it.”

“You are blind,” the priest told her. “You cannot see the beauty of it. The glass is tinted with many colors; it glows when the light is behind it.”

“And when the sun is gone?” she asked. “What shines through it then?”

“Don’t be foolish.” He couldn’t tell if she was truly an innocent, or deliberately trying to goad him. He laid his hands on her shoulders. In the living wood he felt a peculiar heat. There was also a scent, the sweet aroma of foreign spice and something else, a dark, heady fragrance that he found himself leaning closer to breathe. Her hair — silvery in the dim light — brushed his face, and his hands tightened. There was a certain resiliency to her, almost as if flesh did cloak her wooden form, soft and pleasant to the touch, redolent with the smells of a distant yet oddly familiar place.

Under his grip her shoulders moved and then she turned, plucking at the dress that hung about her. “I do not wish to wear this,” she said, and began to lift the muffling skirts.

“Do not!” He caught her wrists and held them against his chest. His heart had begun to beat very quickly. “Autis teaches that it is unseemly for a woman to go naked. Would you be no better than an animal?!”

“What harm is there in it?” Petrella turned her hands easily through his grip and stepped away. “I am no woman. — At least, no woman of your kind. You should not judge me as one.”

She stripped off the gown and the thin shift together and threw the clothes to the floor. Sunlight spilled through the stained glass, raining facets of fevered color onto the glossy amber of her throat and breasts, across the mooncurve of her abdomen. The sight drove the breath from his body and stole his voice as her fingers fastened tight on the front of his robes.

“I wore the cloth,” she said, moving closer; her breath was moist, scented with wild spices. “And I bowed my head to the water that fell from your hand. I thought it a poor gift, but now I see that you have nothing else to offer.”

The emptiness of her unfinished eyes made him shudder. He took a step back, tried to pray. She slid a hand up his chest and cupped his face at the hinge of his jaw. In his belly long-smothered embers brightened, feeding on his racing blood, burning in his veins. He caught her wrist, felt soft flesh under his hand, but she was stronger than human muscle and would not let go. “Do not torture me,” he rasped, all beauty and control driven from his voice.

“I will not,” Petrella murmured, and brushed her lips across his. His knees trembled. “You are poor,” she said. “I will give you riches.” And then she kissed him; the taste of her was heady and sweet as new wine.

His hands crept up her arms to her face, her throat, her breasts, while the fire beat harder in his blood. Her fingers wound inside his robes and touched him. His legs gave way and she sank to her knees with him, opening his clothes and pushing them aside; she freed his white shoulders and let the robes cascade to the floor alongside the rejected dress. Colors streamed down from the stained glass and flashed in his eyes; he shut them tight and saw only scarlet, felt only the heat of her hands moving over him, her lithe woman’s body moving against him. He smelled the wild spice strongly now, in her hair and in the dampness he felt between her legs. The world tilted and then he lay with her, their clothing beneath them, between their bodies and the chill stone floor.

* * *

Petrella is made of wood. In the moist darkness, rootlike filaments grow from her arms and legs, from her abdomen, from her hair and the side of her face where she rests on the priest’s bare chest. Over his warm, pale body the filaments grow and spread, matting together in a soft, fuzzy mass that blankets him, pushing tendrils down between the stones of the floor to reach the deep rich earth underneath.

Petrella has no eyes; she has no need of them. The tendrils stretch down and down, feeling their way through the ground. They grow and thicken, until the stone floor buckles and cracks. More and more strands root in the exposed soil, grinding the stones to pebbles and then to dust with a gritty rasp, a sensation so low-pitched it is felt more than heard. In his sleep, dreaming, Brother Gar feels it like waves stroking the sand of a far-off shore.

All night long, blind, wooden Petrella grows. Her roots grip deep and draw sustenance. They toughen and multiply, and from her back fragile stems burst up and stretch toward the vaulted ceiling. They swell, sprouting bright new leaves with edges jagged-toothed as a woodsman’s saw. A central stem forms a trunk and the trunk divides, forming limbs and then branches. One bough thrusts through the stained glass window, popping free the colored spangles so that they spill with a bright, clear song, alive as a sudden gust of rain. Other branches press the ceiling, heaving against the curve of the vault in the one direction the stone cannot resist. Seams open, mortar powders and sifts down in the dark. And all the while Brother Gar lies and dreams, smiling, as the filaments gently enfold him, cocoon his body and pierce his flesh and, finally, begin to feed.

* * *

The brewer’s wife was a light sleeper and so it was she who heard the first of the stones fall from the chapel roof. “Wake up,” she cried, shaking the brewer. “Wake up. Something’s wrong!” There was a great cracking sound and then the rumble of more stone tumbling down. The brewer went to the window and flung open the shutters. The time was near dawn and the gray light showed only the bulky shapes of the nearer houses. In his nightshirt the brewer leaned out the window, listening to the crumbling stonework.

“It’s coming from the church.” He thrust his bare feet into his shoes, struck flint to light the lantern and carried it outside. His wife followed, wrapping herself in a woolen shawl. As they hurried down the lane other villagers joined them, lamps and tools meant for weapons gripped fast in shaking hands.

“It’s that woman,” the brewer’s wife said to anyone who would listen, because she had said nothing earlier. “I knew she should have been burned!”

“By the Good Books,” the smith roared, “if she’s harmed our priest, I’ll set torch and tongs to her!”

“Gather wood for firebrands,” the baker ordered, and would have said more, but the rest of his words were lost in a swell of thunder that shook the ground as it filled their ears. Those who kept their balance pulled the fallen to their feet, and as one the crowd swept up the lane to the church. There in the unsteady light of new-kindled torches they gaped at the change.

Of the church, there was nothing left but a necklace of broken rock; the iron-bound door leaned drunkenly outward from its remaining hinge. In the center of the ring a great black column clad in pale heart-shaped leaves grew and branched and stretched out bent twig-fingers, rising up to the predawn sky.

The villagers stood well back, silent, their faces red and yellow in the torchlight that ringed the fallen church. The baker took a step forward, his brand held high. A slant of stone slipped, rock rattled down, and the baker stumbled back, dropping his light. A wind rose and trembled in the grass, set the leaves to rustling.

“I hear something,” the weaver whispered. After a breath the bakewr’s wife said, “I do, too.”

“What is it?” the brewer asked. “Shhh,” his wife said. “Listen.”

There were sounds in the leaves, notes, chords, a delicate melody that seemed familiar, but no one could identify it.

“Brother Gar?” the potter called. The lip of the sun appeared at the edge of the horizon. The leaves turned in the breeze and revealed flower buds which slowly opened into white stars at the touch of dawn. “Oh,” the weaver’s wife breathed, and the morning was filled with airy music and the scent of spice.

The brewer’s wife walked forward, shrugging off the brewer’s hand when he tried to stop her. She clambered over a low place in the ruined wall. Her shawl caught on a branch and slipped free of her shoulders; she left it there, hanging from the branch, and stretched out a hand to touch the smooth red-brown bark of the tree.

The baker’s wife climbed atop the crumbling wall, reached up and plucked a star-flower from the branch above her head. The baker called her back; she ignored him. She held the flower to her face and breathed deeply of its fragrance.

“But where is the priest?” the brewer cried. “Where is the woodwoman?”

The villagers searched the ruins and found nothing but bits of broken glass near the wall where the window had been. In time, they came to mourn this loss nearly as much as the disappearance of the priest, for the window had been a village treasure.

* * *

When the weaver made the long journey to Carreton City for the season’s first market, he carried with him a letter to the clergy of Autis at the Great Church. The missive told the story of Brother Gar and asked that another priest be sent to the village. The doorkeeper at the priesthouse, a nervous fellow in gold and crimson livery, assured him that the matter would be investigated and quickly sent him on his way.

Meantime, the villagers could hold no fear of the tree, despite its mysterious provenance. The perfume of its sun-loving flowers was too sweet, and its heart-shaped leaves seemed a kind of omen, a symbol of victory over evil and a final blessing from the lost priest and the power he had served. They considered rebuilding the church, but concern for everyday matters made them keep putting it off. No priest was sent from Carreton City, and soon enough they forgot to expect one.

The potter took the bits of stained glass and set them in a pair of candleholders for the woman he handfasted with at Midsummer. The stones of the fallen church were hauled off, a few at a time, to rebuild the pasture fences and repair the bridge across the river. The last of them went to the smith when he enlarged his hearth at the end of summer. By then the tree had born fruit, an enormous crop of fine-tasting nuts encased in smooth, ruddy brown hulls.

So the tree is called the garnut tree. Within each nutshell are two nutmeats, one twisted round the other in mortal combat (so the villagers imagine). The tree will spread. In the spring lovers will crown each other with its flowers, and lie in its shade in the summer heat. Bakers will devise recipes using garnut flour, and in autumn bears and squirrels will grow fat on the fallen nuts. The story of Brother Gar and Petrella will be told by successive generations, and it will change as the village grows and prospers. Storytellers will argue over different versions, each claiming his own to be original. Eventually one might even invent a story to explain the sole failing of garnut wood: no matter how intense the heat, no matter how bright the flame, it will not burn.


Charlene Brusso has worked as an archaeologist, an astronomer, a baker, an editor, a janitor, a tutor, a physicist, and a scientific programmer. Her short stories have been recommended for the Nebula Award. She writes for Black Gate, Publishers Weekly, SF Site, and Space.com, among others.

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