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L.S. Engler writer

Red and White

by L.S. Engler


            After four days of his consistent, morose brooding, Red Rosie told the Bear that his money was no longer welcome in her bar. He was a grizzled man, which was nothing strange in these parts, but he was also quiet and stand-offish, hunched over his pints with consternation. His heavy jacket was matted with filth, inspiring the other patrons to give him a wide berth, and his hair was a wild, tangled nest with the last twigs and leaves of autumn still clinging to it, despite the heavy snow outside. He didn’t speak much when Red Rosie’s asked after him, but she had a feeling he was softening up once she stopped taking his money off the bar. He was bad for business, buying only a single drink, loitering until last call, and putting off the bigger spenders.

            Even with her refusal to serve him, the Bear still showed up, sitting there to thaw out from the cold. After a full week, Red Rosie finally decided she had to do something about it. She leaned forward on the bar and settled an even gaze on her grizzly guest. “Do I get to be blessed with your name yet, traveler?” she asked. “I’ve gotten to know your surly face so well these past few days, I think I should have a name to go along with it.”

            He grunted his response, as usual, a single sound that said an awful lot. “You know,” she said, “I’m not going to accept that as an answer any more. You can speak, can’t you?”

            A jeer drifted from one of the dark tables across the tavern, filled to bursting with rowdy men. “Leave him off, Rosie! Don’t waste your time!”

            Drunken laughter followed, and she ignored it, a practice she’d perfected to a fine art.  She was only interested in this sullen brute at that moment, determined to coax out some words.

            “When’s the last time you’ve had yourself a bath, anyhow?”  Red Rosie hoped to tread on some nerve or shame with the question, or even just make a point of conversation. “You’re so ripe, I’m worried your stench might start spoiling my beer.”

            When her gentle jabs failed, she leaned back, folding her arms over her chest. She chewed her lip, a bad habit from girlhood that snuck up on her when her brain was working particularly hard. She couldn’t let any nut go uncracked, no matter how hairy or smelly or strange that nut might be.

            “Let’s work out a deal,” Red Rosie said, hands moving to her hips. “I’ll keep wetting your whistle and allowing you to take up valuable space at my counter, but you’ve got to let my sister clean you up. No offense, sir, but you stink as bad as a shithouse in summertime, and my other patrons aren’t too keen on that. Understand? Sound like a deal?”

            She waited for the answer with a barely contained patience. That steady gaze of hers had worked its way into many men and women, and every one of them so far had been broken. She was not about to let this stranger be an exception. It seemed the whole thing would go on for quite some time, but he finally looked up at her, his eyes surprisingly bright and young. For the first time in her life, Red Rosie felt the urge to back down. He still said nothing, only looked at her with his own expectant, patient eyes, like the world could be crumbling down around them and he’d still be holding her in his unwavering gaze.

            “My sister,” Red Rosie prompted, cocking her head toward the door to the kitchen. “I’m sure you’ve seen her around, though maybe not, she’s quiet as a bloody mouse. They call her Snow White, on account on of the fact that if she were to lie down out there on a pile of freshly fallen snow stark naked, you couldn’t find her, because that porcelain skin just blends right in. I’ll have her draw up a nice warm bath, throw in some soap for good measure, and, who knows?  Maybe if you’re nice, she’ll even help you out and scrub your back.”

            She threw in a salacious wink, which was probably lost in those blank, innocent eyes.  Following it with a sigh, Red Rosie turned, ready to mark it up as her first defeat. But as she turned, he spoke, a deep, rumbling voice that she could barely hear.

            “I think I’d like that very much,” he said. “Thank you.”

            “Well, bless my soul,” Red Rosie turned back again with a triumphant laugh. “It can talk after all! Hey, Snow! Get on over here and help me out.”

            Snow White emerged from the kitchen, a meek and timid counter to her bright and boisterous sister. Her large eyes took in the gentle giant at their bar, and she shied back, hands folded to her chest for protection. When Red Rosie explained the situation, though, she complied dutifully, rushing away to find the largest wash basin she could find. “There you are, then,” said Red Rosie. “We’ll have you clean as a whistle in a right jiffy.”

            It took much more than a right jiffy, though. It was nearly an hour and three tubs of water later that the bearish guest had all that grime and dirt cleaned away. Snow White had taken it upon herself to give his clothes a good scrubbing, too, and they were hanging over the fire to dry as Red Rosie shooed the last patron out and closed the tavern for the night. She was surprised to see that her mother up at such a late hour, as well, knitting away at some socks in her old, trusted rocking chair, perhaps too intrigued by these events to retire quite yet.

            “Rosie, dear,” her mother said, “be a doll and fetch a large blanket from the wardrobe for our guest. He’s pruned five times over in that water. It’s about time we got him out.”

            She obliged, finding the biggest blanket they owned and draping it over his shoulders as Snow White helped him out of the tub. They led him to a low bench before the hearthfire then handed him a bowl of hot stew. He hunched over it, not yet eating as his glassy eyes fixed on the dancing flames. Even cleaned up, he still appeared bearish, his long shaggy hair drying, his beard looking fully and inexplicably wilder. Red Rosie pulled up a chair, turning it backwards and straddling it so she could lean forward and peer at him curiously.

            “You clean up nice,” she said. “I told you Snow would do a fine job. Take one of the rooms tonight, too. The beds are comfortable enough, and you look like you could use a good night’s rest in a comfy bed. You’ll stay, won’t you?”

            He didn’t respond, still staring at the flames. Red Rosie looked to her sister, who merely shrugged. She sighed. “You really don’t speak much, do you?” she asked. “Why not?”

            “Not much to say, I suppose,” he murmured, after a moment, when Red Rosie was just about to give up on expecting an answer. He stirred his stew and finally took a careful bite, chewing it thoughtfully before speaking again. “You have been so kind to me. Thank you.  I am not accustomed to such treatment.”

            “Think nothing of it,” Red Rosie smiled, relieved by the magnitude of words coming out of him now, eager for more, “though you must tell us a little about yourself. Seems a fair price for our hospitality, if you ask me.”

            “Not much to tell,” he said. “Just a poor dolt down on his luck. I wander during the warmer months, but travel becomes difficult in such cold, snowy winters. I see you have some books on the shelves. Do you read?”

            Red Rosie glanced over her shoulder to the small bookshelf in question. Some of the volumes were gathering dust, but there were others so well worn and loved they were on the verge of falling apart.  “That’s more Snow White’s thing than mine,” she admitted.  “I’m much too restless to sit long enough to last a paragraph.”

            “What of the games?” he asked.  “I see you have a chess set.”

            A wild grin blossomed on Red Rosie’s face. “Now you’re speaking my language. I love a challenge, but my sister’s too soft.  She always gives up too easily.”

            “Or perhaps,” gentle Snow White suggested with a soft smile, “I merely let you win.  She’s a terribly sore loser, you see.”

            “If that’s what helps you sleep at night, dear sister,” Red Rosie said sweetly, batting her eyelashes, but she laughed, turning her attention back to the Bear.  “How about this, then?  You pay me back by treating me to a few games.”

            “Oh!” Snow White brightened. “And letting me read you a tale from one of Father’s old books! Rosie’s heard them all so many times. It would be lovely to have them land on new ears.”

            “I’m fairly sure I’m getting the better of these deals,” their guest said, his smile crinkling the corners of his eyes. Red Rosie set up a game of checkers while Snow White agonized over the best story to share, deciding on one of her favorites regarding pesky gnomes.

            Their new friend refused a bed, but accepted a cot before the fire, and when they awoke in the morning, they found him already gone. It wasn’t long before they saw him again, though. He was back to his usual spot at the bar that very same night. He easily accepted another invitation to stay, to play more games and hear more tales. And again, the next morning, he was gone, leaving behind two perfect roses, one bright red and the other as white as snow.

            This continued through the winter, and they became good friends with their guest, who still would not give his name. They decided to simply call him Gentle Bear. When the weather warmed, he appeared less frequently, and then altogether disappeared. They kept hoping he would show up again, unexpectedly, but the full spring had arrived and they realized that, like a bear out of hibernation, he had gone forward on a new path. They could scarcely blame him, either. Warm weather opened roadways to countless destinations; they, too, might escape one day, but not while they had their mother to care for. Duty tethered them to that small tavern on the side of the long forest road. Love kept them from breaking free.

            Still, the world grew a little larger for them, no longer trapped by heavy snowfall and biting cold. Snow White liked to gather wildflowers, filling the dark tavern with bursts of fragrant colors. Red Rosie liked to find woodchucks and deer, sometimes foxes and wolves, and follow them to babbling streams to watch them drink and rest, where she would dip her toes in the cold water, dreaming of life beyond the woods. Quite often, the two of them would feel playful and start to hunt for the gnomes of their father’s old tales.

            According to the stories, gnomes lived deep in the bowels of the earth. During the winter, the ground was so hard and frozen that they kept to their underground kingdoms of gold and diamonds, but when the springtime sun thawed the soil, they would emerge to cause mischief or perhaps leave gems and riches for curious little girls to discover. They had grown old enough to dismiss the gnomes as figments of their father’s bold imagination, but they kept it up as a game, laughing as they pointed out glimmers of potential coins or gaps in the tree roots that could be portals to the gnomish underworld. But for all their play, the last thing they ever expected to find in those woods one day was an actual gnome.

            Yet that was exactly what they found.

            A large fallen tree blocked one of the many winding paths through the woods, and there a strange little man stood cursing and struggling with his long beard tangled up in the branches. Red Rosie held out an arm to stop her sister. They held their breaths and tried to be still, but the old gnome still noticed them and shook an angry fist their way.

            “Oi there!” he yelled, his voice crass and rough and unfriendly. “Don’t think you can just stand there like I can’t see you. I can! Gawking like you’ve never seen a gnome before. Think it’s funny, do ya? An old man with his whiskers all caught up in a bloody dead tree? Well, har de har har, laugh it up, lassies, he he he. I suppose it would be too bloody much to expect you to quit your gawking and help me out already, wouldn’t it?”

            Red Rosie snorted, stepping out of the shadow of the trees with her hands on her hips. “Is that any way to speak to your potential rescuers?” she asked. “Our papa always warned us about bad little gnomes that steal young lasses away, dragging them under the earth to imprison them as brides. How do we know you’re not a vile little creature like that, hmm? What with all that hollering and cursing!”

            “Hush, Rosie!” Snow White whispered. “You’ll only make it worse. Here.” She pulled from her pocket the small shining sheers she used to snip roses from their thorny stems. “Don’t worry, sir gnome, I’ll help you out.”   
 
            “Snow, let’s go!” Red Rosie said, but it was too late. Despite her fear, Snow White had snipped the gnome’s long grey beard free from its tangle.

            “Oh, no!” the gnome cried in despair, in misery. “What have you done?”

            Rhe gnome grabbed for the shorn end of his whiskers. “My beard!” he wailed, his voice high pitched and his face tomato-red. “My beautiful beard, you’ve ruined it, you foolish, idiotic, simple girl! How could you?”

            Red Rosie fumed with a spark of anger, and Snow White could only wring her hands in distress at this unexpected turn. She was on the verge of apology when the gnome suddenly and completely disappeared from sight, a faint pop filling their ears. They were stunned in place for a long time before Red Rosie finally turned away. “Come on,” she said. “We’d best be getting home, and quickly, too.”

            The strange encounter stuck with the sisters for a while, turning sweet Snow White melancholy with regret and leaving Red Rosie irritable and quick to rant about anything from burned biscuits to muddy footprints on the tavern floor. Noticing how troubled they were, their mother sent them out to fetch water from the nearby pond, thinking the fresh air would do them good, but it was not their usual cheerful jaunt. They were far too occupied with avoiding the gnome holes and hiding spots they had previously sought so eagerly.

            “Perhaps we only imagined it,” Snow white said softly, as the familiar peace of the forest surrounded her and started to soothe her again. “All those years, and we never saw a gnome, so why would we see one now?”

            “We didn’t both imagine the same thing, Snow,” Red Rosie reasoned, “unless we had some bad mushrooms or some such nonsense. I’ve thought that, too. It does seem a bit odd. It was probably just some mean old man, and him being so small is part of the reason he’s also so bloody mean.”

            “But it didn’t look like just a small man,” Snow White insisted. “Little old men don’t just disappear into thin air, either.”

            It was then that they heard it again, a great storm of curses drifting up from the otherwise peaceful pond. Recognizing the shrill complaints of the old gnome, they considered just turning back, but they had already seen him, flailing and hollering at the edge of the water. A gigantic fish had gotten a hold of his beard, trying to pull him in. Red Rosie would have laughed at the sight if it weren’t for the fact that Snow White had already began to approach the gnome to help.

            “No! Snow, wait!”

            Again, she was too late. Snow White was already there, snipping off the end of the gnome’s beard to free him. The fish dove under the water with nothing but a mouthful of hair, while the gnome tumbled back into the mud, waving his arms in a fury.

            “You again!” he snarled. “You awful, terrible girl! As if before wasn’t enough, now you’ve gone and ruined me beard all over again, you vile, vicious creature!”

            “But that fish was ready to pull you in!” Snow White protested. “To drown you or worse! I was only trying to help! Here…”

            She held out her hand, but he slapped it away. “Haven’t you helped enough?” he moaned. “Begone! Torment me no more!”

            The old gnome disappeared in a pop again, leaving the two sisters as astounded as before. “Well, I never!” Snow White gushed, a rare wrinkle of consternation on her brow. “You’d think with all the trouble that beard causes him, he’d be grateful for the trim.”

            “There’s just no reasoning with some folk,” Red Rosie said, smiling despite herself as she realized how absurd the whole situation was. “Come on, then. Let’s just get our water and head home. Do be careful, though, Snow. I wouldn’t want some fish to snag you up by the skirt and try to pull you in as well, dear sister!”

            Though they laughed about it on the way home, something about the encounter left Rosie feeling troubled. In all her years, they’d never seen these gnomes of her father’s tales, yet now they’d seen one twice in a short amount of time. It made her heart surge in her chest to think there truly were things great and magical in the world, but it made her dread that there might be something sinister to it, as well. She avoided traveling far beyond the tavern if she could help it after that, and only ventured far if Snow White persisted on going. She didn’t seem to be plagued by the same fear as her sister, which Red Rosie attributed to Snow’s unflappable naiveté.

            “I’m certain they’ve always been there,” Snow White said, smiling sweetly, though distantly. “We’ve only just now started to notice them, that’s all.”

            “But why, after all these years?” asked Red Rosie. “What’s changed?”

            Snow White didn’t have an answer and went about her business without sparing it another thought. And just as Red Rosie was starting to get comfortable again with the normalcy of her life, they encountered the gnome for a third time. Their mother had asked them to bring bread across the way to Farmer Hood in exchange for some of his fresh spring berries, and they skirted the fields on the edge of the forest when an eagle caught Red Rosie’s keen eye. For a moment, she was enraptured by the fantastical notion that it was no mere bird, but some grand dragon soaring overhead, returning to his secret treasure horde in the hills.

            The eagle took a dive toward the nearby outcropping of rocks, and that familiar screech tore Red Rosie from her daydream. Snow White clutched her arm and pointed. “Rosie, look! That eagle has the mean old gnome!”

            Red Rosie looked, to see the eagle attempted to emerge back into the sky with a flurry of wings and flailing limbs. Releasing his usual string of curses, the gnome held tight to a branch while the eagle pulled and yanked. “We have to help him!” Snow White said, already dropping her basket and rushing forward.

            Red Rosie wanted to stop her; she wanted to just leave the bitter old gnome to his fate, but she couldn’t. No amount of crass words or insulting tirades would dissuade Snow White from helping someone truly in need, and Red Rosie couldn’t let Snow White handle it all her own. She hitched up her skirts and ran after her sister, taking a hold on the old gnome’s leg and pulling him back to earth with all her might.

            Never in a million years had Red Rosie expected an eagle to be so strong. She may as well have been fighting with that dragon of her imagination. Eventually, though, the struggle came to an end with the eagle screeching away into the sky, clutching nothing but a tattered tear of the gnome’s jacket in its large talons. They all tumbled back onto the ground in a surprised, messy pile, a tangle of limbs and bruises.

            It didn’t take long for the gnome to extract himself, scrambling away from the sisters, already complaining. “What on this wide green earth caused me to be cursed with you two?” he raved. “Just look at what you’ve done to me now! My best coat! It’s been torn to shreds! This coat belonged to my grandfather. It’s an heirloom–”

            “What is wrong with you?” Red Rosie exploded, her temper flaring as brightly as her wild red curls. “You are easily the most ungrateful, insufferable, miserable little twerp I have ever encountered, which is saying an awful lot.”

            She may have continued, but Snow White suddenly screamed, a terrible sound that made Red Rosie’s heart nearly stop. The scream was followed by a great, bellowing roar from the gaping maw of a large golden bear rearing up on his hind legs. As he fell back down to all four paws and glared at them, the sisters were frozen in place by fear, and the gnome backed up against one of the rocks.

            “No, no, no!” he wailed desperately. “Leave me be, great bear, please! I am but an old gnome, nothing but wiry meat and bones! Eat these vibrant young women instead, so tender and juicy and plump!”

            Red Rosie clung to her sister, trembling with fear and indignation both, as the bear let out another ferocious roar. Snow White released a terrified scream as it lifted its large, matted paw and swung it so fiercely that it sent the gnome soaring as high as the eagle, arching toward the dense thicket of the woods, where he would likely scamper off and hopefully, if they were lucky, never be heard from again.

            “What do we do now?” Snow White whispered frantically into Red Rosie’s ear as the bear slowly turned around to face them. Her heart beating so fast she could barely hear anything else, Red Rosie could only think of one thing. She stepped forward, one hand held out to protect Snow White as she glared intently into the bear’s face. Fearlessly, she hoped.

            “Stop right there,” she demanded, praying that her voice conveyed some sense of command despite her terror. “Don’t underestimate us, bear. I have a knife. You may be bigger, but size may work in my favor, for I am quick and I know just where to stab you if you try to hurt me or my sister.”

            The bear looked at her, tilting his head. Something about those surprisingly gentle eyes seemed familiar, hidden underneath his shaggy blonde fur. There was a spark of something there, something almost human. Something she slowly began to recognize.

            Snow White must have noticed, too.

            “Rosie,” she whispered. “Do you…?”

            “Yes,” she gasped out. “Yes, I do.”

            The bear lingered for a moment, as if to make sure, to beg them to understand, and then he stalked away, disappearing into the woods without a single glance back. Snow White and Red Rosie stood there in the field, standing still for the longest time, trying to catch their breath and sort out the strange tight feeling in their chests. It seemed as though it had been so long since they’d seen their friend, and yet, despite his changes, they couldn’t help but still recognize him.

            Returning to their work seemed an odd affair after such an encounter, so menial and mundane. It felt like they were merely going through the motions without really being there. But they got it done and life went on, though they could never shake the familiar gaze of that golden bear. Would he come back? Had they merely imagined it? It was possible, but they didn’t believe that was actually the case.

            Following their encounter, they had no more strange meetings with old gnomes, as if some spell had been broken. The spring turned to summer without event, and the summer made way for fall in the same fashion. Every single day passed with Red Rosie turning her eyes toward the woods, straining as she tried to see past the trees for some sign of a golden bear lurking there, keeping the gnomes away. Once, she thought maybe she’d spotted him, but closer inspection revealed just a patch of goldenrods radiant in a sliver of bright sunlight.

            The cold of winter crept in too quickly, a hound biting at the heels of colorful, temperate autumn. It was inevitable, and Red Rosie felt an odd peacefulness to it. The world was ready to slow down for a while, wrapping itself in a blanket of snow. It was a time of warm fireplaces and thick stews, of weeks without a new face in the tavern, of Snow White reading out loud and refusing games of chess, of Red Rosie wondering if this spring, she might actually find dragons out there in the small world beyond their inn.

            As she leaned in to finish stoking the fire in the main hearth of the tavern, Red Rosie heard the door open, a gush of cold winter air rushing in and making her shiver. “Be with you in a moment,” she called, working until she was content with the size of the fire, a cheerful roar that would inspire instant warmth and cheer. She turned to find a familiar shape filling the seat at the center of the bar, hunched over in a shaggy coat of golden blonde fur.

            “You,” she breathed out, practically a sigh. “It’s you. You’re back.”

            The gentle bear turned his head and met her with a gentle smile. “You know I never really left,” he said mildly. “How about a drink, then?”

            It took a moment for her to respond, but, when she did, it was with a beaming grin and the feeling that this winter would not seem so cold and harsh at all, but rather it might be much too short. “Only for a game of checkers later,” she said, finding a mug, “and I think that, this time, you’re the one who will be telling the stories.”



BIO

L.S. Engler writes from outside of Chicago, though she grew up discovering adventure in the farmlands of Michigan. Her work has appeared in a wide variety of journals and anthologies, including Bards and Sages Quarterly, the Schuylkill Valley Journal, and the Saturday Evening Post. She loves almost all things nerdy, perhaps a little too much, and hopes to one day get that whole novel thing going some day.







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