20. April 2011 · Comments Off on Original Short Story – Atalanta and the Erlking · Categories: Uncategorized

(Because – the Civil War began, 150 years ago this month – a short story of mine, about the Civil War in the Texas Hill Country – a story about the dreaded Hangerbande, the Hanging Band, and two children … although after this day, perhaps neither of them could ever be children again, no matter how young they really were.) 

            “Sabine!” called Mama from the bottom of the garden where she was making soap on a mild spring day. Mama did not wish to bring the smell of wood-ash lye and tallow near to the house, or the heat of the fire that it bubbled over, “Will you bring me more wood now!?”

            “Yes, Mama,” Sabine answered hastily. She emptied the tortoise-shell kitten out of her lap and set aside the book of her Papa’s that she was reading to her little sister Auguste. Sabine and her sister and the kitten had curled up on the rustic leather and wooden settee that sat in the breezeway of Heinrich Stalp’s farm, on Grape Creek in thePedernalesValley. Sabine was thirteen years old; the older of the Stalp’s two daughters in this year that Papa said was 1864.

“A cursed year,” Papa had said with a sigh to Mama last night after supper, when he thought that Sabine was not listening, “A war that shows no sign of ending and the hanging band stalking these hills again! They took the schoolmaster from his house, onMarket Squarein the middle of Friedrichsburg, as bold as brass.”

“Who?” Sabine asked, curiously, “And what is the hanging band, Papa? Is it like the Erlking in the song that the singing-club sings?”

Papa and Mama both looked startled. They were accustomed to talk of adult matters in that hour after supper, while the sunlight faded from the sky and the pale moths began to flicker around the lamps hanging in the breezeway between the two tiny rooms of the Stalp’s log house. Mama would sew and knit, while Papa mended or sharpened his tools, or cast lead bullets for his long old-fashioned flint-lock rifle.

“They are bad men, Liebchen,” Mama answered quickly. Sabine thought that Mama would have said more, but Papa gently pinched Sabine’s cheek and said,

“That’s my clever girl – they are rather like the Erlking and his minions… but they do not steal the souls of children…”

“Rather, they take away the men who will not join their army, and fight for them, and hang them from trees,” Mama knotted and snapped off a thread with an abrupt gesture, her face tense and unhappy, “Heinrich, why didn’t we join my cousins in Milwaukee, in the north….”

“Juliana, don’t frighten the children,” Papa answered soothingly, “Because the Society offered us land here and there were already many of our folk,” and he smiled with affection at his daughter, “And the girls are happy here, are they not? No, the Erlking here does not harm children, so my girls have nothing to fear.”

“What does the Erlking look like then?” little Auguste piped up.

Papa put on that face that he used when he told stories, making up marvelous adventures to amuse his daughters and the other children from the little farms scattered along Grape Creek. Now and again he held lessons for them all, in the breezeway of his house – when the work of all their farms permitted such. “He’s a tall man on a tall horse,” he answered, “And he wears a tall black hat with a narrow brim… and the way that you can tell him from among his minions is that…” and he paused enticingly, until both Auguste and Sabine chorused,

“How, Papa… how will we know the Erlking?”

“Because,” Papa lowered his voice dramatically, “He has odd eyes… one pale blue eye and the other no color at all! That is how you will know the Erlking! Now!” he swept them both into his arms for an enthusiastic embrace, “It is time for sleep, both of you. Your mama wishes to finish making soap tomorrow, and I have to finish planting maize and beans.”

Sabine had taken her little sister by the hand, leading her into the part of the house that served as their parlor and at night their parent’s bedroom. She and her sister slept on pallet-beds in the loft over the parlor. They climbed the short ladder, and Sabine helped her sister take off her dress, and then she took off her own. Each of them had only the one dress, a simple garment with a narrow skirt, sewn out of sturdy janes fabric, originally blue but worn with wear and washing to the color of a bruise, or the grey-blue of the thunderstorm clouds when they pressed close over the Pedernales Valley and the little farms in the cleft of Grape Creek. Sabine had a plain linen shift to wear underneath and a pair of drawers, Auguste only the drawers, patched out of a piece of faded calico. Sabine had once overheard Mama upbraiding Papa, blaming them for being so poor, but Papa said that it was the war that made them poor, the war which ruined the district and kept him from seeking work outside their farm. Sabine considered for a moment, thinking on that. Were they poor? She didn’t think so, for no one else along Grape Creek had any better than what they had… except for Mr. Burg, and he had so many horses! She and Auguste, Papa and Mama, they had enough to eat, Papa’s books to read, the kitten and a roof that kept out the rain, the iron patent-stove in the parlor that kept them all warm in the winter and the other children to play with, all the summer day long. She tucked her sister into bed, after hanging up their meager garments on the pegs set into the end roof-beam over their heads, and saying their bedtime prayer.

“Good night, Auguste,” she said, as the tortoise-shell  kitten hopped nimbly onto the foot of their pallet and curled up at their feet, purring so heavily that Sabine could feel the vibration of it. “Don’t fear what Papa said about the Erlking… that was just a story. Anyway, Papa and Mama are just outside – and they will always keep us safe.”

“I won’t, ‘Beena,” Auguste yawned. “Good night.”

The straw in the pallet rustled gently as Sabine and her sister found a comfortable position. The very last thing she remembered before she slept was the sound of Mama and Papa’s voices, outside in the breezeway.

 Now, Sabine went to the woodpile, trailed by her little sister, where Papa had split rounds of oak tree-trunk into slabs that would fit into the stove, or onto the fire under the soap-kettle. She gathered up two armfuls and carried them to Mama. Mama smiled, as she wiped sweat off her forehead with the corner of her apron, an apron dirty with smears of ash and black soot. Soap-making was a messy, smelly business, boiling together quantities of wood-ash lye and rendered tallow. Mama always insisted on their house and their clothes being clean – or as clean as they could be, so it was a necessity.

“Thank you, Sabine – that is enough for now. I would like you to run an errand, now – two errands rather. Can you gather fresh greens for our supper? And mushrooms from that little patch in the oak-woods, if there are any to be found at this time. And then if you would take half of what you have found to Mr. Burg and his children…” Mama made a clicking sound with her tongue and sighed. “So sad, Matilde Burg taken from him and the children at such a time! Perhaps you should just ask if they would rather come sup with us? Poor little Maria is hardly old enough to even think of keeping house for her father and brother.”

“Oh, yes, Mama!” Sabine answered happily; it would be more fun to wander the creek-banks and meadows, gathering spring greens and mushrooms than helping Mama with the soap.

“Take your sister,” Mama stirred the bubbling brown soap carefully with a branch of rosemary, “And be careful. If you see any Indians, hide and run home as quickly as you may, once they have passed.”

“Why, Mama? Papa says we are at peace with them – that the Baron Meusebach made a treaty…”

“Not all of them Liebchen,” Mama answered with a sigh. Sabine took her sister by one hand and a shallow basket in the other. The tortoise-shell kitten followed them a little way, before being distracted by a butterfly.

 Sabine loved the creek, water as clear and green as bottle-glass, in places so deep as to come to her waist, and in others only up to her ankles as it slipped chuckling over smooth-polished stones, as pure white and perfectly round as marbles. She made up a story for Auguste, that the creek-gravel was actually pearl-stones from the necklace of the Erlking’s daughter, telling the story to her all through the long afternoon.  They splashed through the shallows below the Stalp place, and wandered along the bank, marveling at the gaily jeweled dragon-flies with their lacy wings, hovering over the water, and tiny frogs, hardly larger than the end of Sabine’s thumb. A pair of long-tailed squirrels frisked with each other, chattering furiously, before one chased the other up the trunk of a towering cypress tree. Auguste gathered a skirt-full of pecans from the grass and matted leaves underneath a pecan tree, but they were from last year, all black and half-rotted, full of little holes bored by hungry insects. Auguste was very proud of her efforts, none the less and Sabine said cheerfully,

“Well, take them home for the pig, then.”

At the end of an hour or so, she had a full basket of field greens, mustard sprouts and dandelions and such, and half a dozen pale round mushrooms. She and Auguste had also come around the bend of Grape Creek to find two boys fishing for minnows in a one of the deeper pools. Peter Petsch was ten, his friend Gustav Burg the same. Sabine knew both of them well, for they had both come for lessons from Papa and to listen to stories. Peter had freckles and a gap between his front teeth. Gustav was the son of their neighbor Mr. Burg. Sabine felt very sorry for him, for his Mama had just died, not four days past.

“My Mama said you should come and have supper with us,” she said to Gustav, who looked at the ground and mumbled,

“Papa won’t hear of it. The brown mare is in foal and he does not want to leave her.”

“Well, then we have some greens for your supper,” Sabine answered, “Mama said for me to take them to your father. It’s easy enough to fix them. I can show you and Marie, if your Papa is still busy with the mare.” Sabine had already noted that it was mothers who did the cooking. Gustav shrugged unhappily, but came readily enough. It was getting on to late afternoon, the time that Mama began cooking the evening meal. She thought it very sad, now that Gustav and Marie would only have the supper that their poor distracted Papa could fix for them. They walked, all four children, along the creek bank towards Mr. Burg’s pastures and the fine log house that he was able to build. It was larger than Stalp’s, having four large rooms and a real upstairs, but much the same kind of furniture; some few treasured things brought from the Old Country, but mostly rustic stuff, with chair seats made of cowhide. Already it had an indefinable aura of neglect about it. Marie Burg, only a few years older than Auguste, sat on the edge of the porch aimlessly swinging her legs and Sabine made the same disapproving “tsk!” sound that Mama made. Marie’s face and dress were dirty, and her hair straggled around her face. She looked the very picture of woe and neglect. The boys vanished in the direction of the stable, around the side of the house.

“Bring me a comb, Marie,” Sabine said as she set down the basket, “And I will do up your hair properly. I guess your Papa is still busy with the mare?”

Marie sniffed, tearfully, “He is. The foal is born, but Papa is just sitting there. I have asked about supper, but he just sits there. He started to say ‘ask your mama’, but then he looked so terribly sad.”

Sabine sighed, “Wash your face, Mariechen, and let me comb your hair. Then I will show you what our Mama does with the greens.”

 By the time that she had Marie’s hair woven neatly into two plaits, the boys had emerged from the barn, with Mr. Burg leading the brown mare by the halter. Sabine thought the mare was the prettiest of Mr. Burg’s horses, dainty and gentle, hardly larger than a pony. And the new foal was a darling, hardly larger than a big dog and still a little wobbly on it’s broom-staff legs. She and Marie and Auguste giggled to see it nuzzling Peter’s hair; even Mr. Burg smiled, momentarily lightening the sadness in his face.

“Take them out to the upper pasture where the other brood-mares are,” he said, handing the end of the halter to Gustav, “Let them have a little fresh air before nightfall, not so? You should all go, so that the little fellow will be used to people. That’s the trick of taming them to harness, you know – if they are already accustomed to people, than the battle is half-won!”

Peter and Gustav disputed amiably over who would lead the mare, and who would lead the foal – who, truth to tell did not need much leading. He just frisked after his mother, now and again nuzzling one of the children with affectionate curiosity as they wandered along the path towards the upper pasture, some distance from the Burg house, and the main pasture. Mr. Burg had taken care to fence them both, for he treasured his horses. Sabine’s Papa said often that he was the best hand at breeding and training both – and that when the war was over, he would be the richest man in Gillespie County. The way towards his upper pasture was on the path that Sabine and Auguste would take to walk home from Burgs’ so they accompanied the boys and Marie

“I forgot the basket,” Sabine suddenly recalled, stopping short when they were halfway up the winding footbath between the trees. “With the greens for our supper…. Go on with Marie and the boys, Auguste. I will run back and fetch it, and meet you at the pasture.” She gave Auguste’s hand to Marie, who took it willingly – after all, what was there to fear along Grape Creek?

Sabine kirtled her skirt to her knees and ran; she was fast for a girl, and her bare feet were toughened by exposure. She ran easily along the dusty track that Mr. Burg’s horses and wagons had worn through the spring grass, but her heart pounded in her ears so hard that she could barely hear anything else, not the sound of distant hoof-beats, or the distant sound of something crackling like ice breaking on Grape Creek after a hard winter freeze.

 There at last was the roof of the Burg house, dark among the surrounding trees – but there were men in the farmyard, men on horseback, a lot of men and more of them in Mr. Burg’s large pasture, yelling and whooping at his horses. What was this? Sabine slowed to an uncertain walk. Who were these men, where did they come from, shouting in a language she didn’t understand. Not Indians, for they wore white men’s clothes. Some of them had calico handkerchiefs or long scarves wrapped around the lower part of their faces. Was Mr. Burg selling his horses to someone, Sabine wondered? She walked a little closer. Now she could see the basket with the greens, exactly where she had left it on the edge of the porch – and there came Mr. Burg from within his house. He no longer appeared sad, but terribly angry, shouting at these men – what were they doing with his horses? Sabine walked faster; surely Mr. Burg would sort it out, now.

Mr. Burg came down from the porch, shouting at the man nearest to him. Sabine was close enough to see that his hands were empty. Suddenly another man on a horse rode in between Mr. Burg and the house, and swiftly drawing a long-barreled pistol from the breast of his shirt, took aim and shot him three times in the back.

The sound resounded like thunderclaps and Sabine froze in her footsteps, horrified. Mr. Burg crumpled, falling like something heavy dropped to the ground and lay motionless, save for a pool of bright red blood steadily widening from underneath his body. Sabine took one or two hesitating steps farther, thinking that this could not be real, this was a nightmare. She would wake on her pallet in the dark loft over the parlor, with the tortoise-shell kitten sleeping at her feet, and Mama calling comfort from below: ‘It is only a bad dream, Liebchen, go back to sleep.’

But no, this was not a dream. Sabine watched the bright tide of blood soak into the dust at its edges, and she lifted her eyes to look at the man who had shot Mr. Burg, a tall man on a tall horse. Just as Papa had assured her, the Erlking wore a tall black hat with a narrow brim… and he did indeed have odd-colored eyes, blazing in a face as pale as deaths’ head. For the briefest of moments they crossed glances, Sabine and the deathlike Erlking, who laughed a cruel and maniacal laugh as he held her gaze with his own, transfixed in the farmyard, like an insect pinned in a case of naturalists’ specimens. He still had his pistol in his hand. As she watched with her own blood frozen for horror in her veins, he lowered it. He aimed at Mr. Burg, lying motionless on the ground at his horses’ feet.

Sabine thought that he fired once or twice more. The sound of that cruel laughter echoed in her ears as she fled, ran as fast as one of the rabbits fleeing the plough in spring, all the world a blur around her until the noise of the men in Mr. Burg’s pasture and farmyard were dim in the distance behind her. Still she pelted, bare feet flying, until she caught her toes on a tree root and nearly fell.

“Sabine!” That was Peter Petsch calling her name, Peter with his face nearly as pale as the Erlking’s. He caught her arm, kept her from falling flat, but she collapsed onto the ground anyway, nursing her bruised toes and gasping for breath.  Behind Peter, Gustav had the halters of the mare and colt both in his hands. He cried, “Sabine, they’re taking Papa’s mares… those men! And they shot the foals, all but this one! Why would the shoot the foals – it was as if they didn’t want them to follow after the mares – but they didn’t want us to have them either!?”

“What is the matter,” Peter’s eyes were worried; he was a clever lad, “Why are you running so fast, ‘Beena – what has happened at Burg’s?”

“The Erlking!” Sabine cried.  She caught her breath again, seeing Marie and Auguste, “The Erlking and his followers… Mama called them the hanging band, come to take away and hang the men who won’t fight in their army! They came to Burg’s to take the horses…. and Mr. Burg is dead. They killed him… I saw…”

Marie began to cry softly; Gustav did not cry or flinch. Only his eyes widened dark in his face, like holes in a sheet of paper.

“They could not take the horses, otherwise,” he finally acknowledged wretchedly. The mare nudged his shoulder, and he stroked her muzzle, almost without thinking. “Papa… he would not let anyone take the horses, like that. He loved the horses nearly as much as us. Who are these men, Sabine? What should we do now?”

“If it is the hanging band, they are come here for more than horses,” Peter answered gravely, “Listen!”  The five children held still, listening intently for those sounds which carried but slight upon the ear in the quiet afternoon, up from the lower land around the creek. They heard a faint crashing sound, like that of an ax in wood, and agitated voices. “That is from the Kirchner’s!” Peter added.

“We must warn them,” Sabine gasped, having recovered her breath, “Warn Papa, and all the men!”

“They have already gone to Burg’s” Peter added, “And if they are at the Kirchners, they have already been to Mr. Blanks’ and the Fellers’ as well… we can’t hope to out run them on the track… they have horses already.”

“Footpaths,” Sabine answered, and her chin lifted defiantly. “The little footpaths that only we and the deer know well! You and I, on either side of the creek! We must run to all the houses upstream from here. Gustav… you must take the mare and the foal into the nearest thicket, you and Marie and Auguste and keep them all safe from those men.” She folded her feet under her, kneeling before her sister and Marie. She made her voice sound strong, authoritative, as firm as Mama’s or Papa’s. “You must do as Gustav tells you. It is the Erlking, and he is not hunting children… but rather our Papa, and Peter’s Papa and all the others. Peter and I, we go to warn them!” She kissed her sister and scrambled to her feet.

“I’ll cross over,” Peter gasped, “My house first, then the others on that side…” he named four households, and Sabine nodded.

“Don’t let them catch sight of you,” she answered, “Not for anything – for they might guess what we are doing – and don’t waste time.”

“Don’t worry, ‘Beena,” Peter grinned, a flash of teeth in his freckled face, “I can shift myself faster through the fields and bushes than ever they can on their horses! Good luck!” And he was away, sprinting as fleet as one of the deer. Sabine looked over her shoulder, making sure that Gustav and the little girls were well on their way into a thicket with the mare and the little colt, before she kirtled her skirts above her knees again and began to run.

Thinking of the Erlking, his dreadful mismatched eyes in his face made her run all the faster. She thought of Atalanta, the huntress in one of the old tales that Papa read to her, Atalanta who was faster in a footrace than any man alive, but for three apples of gold. It was the Erlking that she must out-race, the dreadful Erlking on his tall horse – and not on the track through the Grape Creek farms, but on the little paths where a horse couldn’t follow. She could run, Sabine assured herself against a rising tide of panic at the thought of the Erlking shooting at her Papa, they way that he had shot Mr. Burg. She was almost to the Stalp farm – she could smell the faint smell of boiling soap on the wind.

“Mama!” She screamed as she burst out of the thicket of scrub trees that lined the edge of Papa’s fields, “Papa! It is the Erlking – the hanging band is come!”

She saw Mama, frozen in mid-stir over the soap kettle, Papa dropping the ax in mid-stroke as he chopped more wood. He came running to meet her, crying,

“Sabine- what is this!? Where is Auguste!”

“She’s hiding in the woods with the Burgs!” Sabine screamed, “They shot Mr. Burg and stole the horses! Papa, you must hide too! At once! It’s the hanging-band, and they are coming!”

There was only one thing more frightening than seeing Mr. Burg killed in front of her – and that was the expression on Papa’s and Mama’s face – for they believed her, instantly and they were afraid. What shelter was there in the world, if your parents were afraid, Sabine wondered? Mama dropped the rosemary branch, as Papa shouted,

“Juliana – into the woods! Sabine, you also!”

“No, Papa – I must warn the others!” Sabine answered, as she tore herself from her father’s arms and ran. She comforted herself with the thought that Papa would be able to hide himself and Mama, hide away from the house where the hanging-band would surely come looking for them. She ran, fearing at any moment to hear the pounding of the horses at her back, that the terrible Erlking would realize that she was more than just a barefoot girl in a threadbare faded dress – that she was Atalanta, the huntress and a messenger.

She ran to five more houses; each household listening to her gasped-out warning with instant belief, men and boys instantly grabbing hats and weapons, scattering from their supper-tables into the woods in all directions. After the last house her chest ached, with every breath stabbing like a knife. She rested, sitting on the edge of their porch with her head on her own knees, hardly hearing a word of what was said to her by the woman of that house. Her feet were cruelly bruised, but she hardly felt it until she began to walk. Her hair hung in a tangle, half-pulled out of her plaits by thorny branches that had scratched her face.

“You must stay here,” the woman told her, but Sabine answered firmly,

“No – don’t fear for me. I know the ways to go home where they will not dare to follow,” And so she went home the way that she had come, limping on her bruised feet yet feeling oddly triumphant. She saw nothing untoward, no strangers at all, and so she went down towards Grape Creek to soak her sore feet in the cool water. She found a long oozing scratch, the length of her shin that she had hardly noticed, so much had she concentrated on running.  There sat Peter Petsch on the rocky bank, also breathless and disheveled, and he grinned at her.

“I beat you, I’ll bet,” he said mischievously.

Sabine made a fist and punched his shoulder as she had seen the boys do, answering, “You did not – there is none faster than Atalanta!”

 She went limping home, and taking her time about it, for her feet hurt sorely – finding little house entirely empty; the kettle of soap cooling over a barely smoldering fire and the branch of rosemary laying where Mama had thrown it down, covered with congealing soap. The tortoise-shell kitten came and sat on her lap, winding its’ tail with the kink at the end around her wrist and burrowing it’s little face into the breast of her dress. Sabine cuddled it to her, feeling the fragility of the kitten’s bones in her two hands. Something so little and young had to be sheltered, kept safe – and that was the duty of those who were brave and big, like Atalanta. Like Mama and Papa. There was the sound of horses on the track, many horses. Sabine lifted her head – it could be none other, with so many horses in Grape Creek on this day. They spilled into the yard, as they had been at the Burg’s – those men with scarves and kerchiefs over their faces. That tall man, the Erlking, he rode up to the very porch of the Stalp’s house, shouting at her in that language which she did not understand. Sabine stared at him levelly, holding the kitten close to her. So that was the Erlking – Papa had said they did not hunt children. Just the men who would not fight for them, so she had nothing to fear from him and his minions. As Sabine looked at them, and felt no fear, not the least scrap of it. They were only men, neither demons or spirits. Only men, hunting for other men. And because of her, they were baffled in that aim. Sabine stared at him. No, she did not fear him; she was Atalanta. He was baffled, angry.  Papa and the other men were safe, gone away into the woods and hills because she had run the best race of all – and she was not afraid either.

The Erlking shouted some more, and wheeled his horse – he and the others spilled out of the farmyard as rapidly as they had come into it. Sabine sat contented with the kitten in her lap, watching daylight fade into twilight, sensing the quiet that returned to Grape Creek. As the brilliant dark-gold sun set behind the hills beyond and shadows began to lengthen across the yard, Papa and Mama appeared. They came from the wagon track – by this, Sabine knew that the danger had truly departed. Papa carried Auguste perched on his shoulders, Mama led Marie Burg by the hand – and Gustav Burg followed after, leading the mare and her foal.

“My good, brave girl!” Papa said, as he kissed her forehead. “They are gone – all of them. They were frustrated of their intentions – which were, I think – to take and hang every man of this settlement who would not enlist to serve their despotic aims. They are baffled of that, thanks to you and young Petsch!”

“Papa!” Sabine answered, as she clung to him with desperate fervor, “Are we safe? They have truly gone?”

“For now, they have,” Papa smiled at her, “And we are safe…”

Mama made that exasperated “tsk” sound. “They took and hung Clara Feller’s husband, and Mr. Blank – and ransacked Mr. Kirshner’s house looking for money…”

“Hush, Juliana,” Papa smiled but with a warning look in Mama’s direction, “You are frightening the children…”

 That night, Sabine lay in bed, on the straw pallet in the loft over the parlor, with the kitten settling in at her feet and Mama’s threadbare quilt pulled over her– oh, how her feet and shins hurt still! She had a little less room now, that Marie Burg now shared the pallet with her and Auguste.  A little light seeped into the loft, from downstairs, where Mama and Papa still sat in the breezeway under the lantern. Papa was still talking to Gustav, his voice level and comforting.

“’Beena?” Marie asked, her voice tearful and hesitant, “Do you think those men will come again?”

“No,” answered Sabine, firmly, “There is noting for you to fear, Marie. The Erlking has gone quite far away. Mama and Papa are just outside. We will keep you all quite safe from him.”