When dew gathers on the Spanish moss on the mangrove trees in the swamps, it glistens like little stars caught on the branches. It drips slowly into the water of the bayou, with a plink and plonk. It disturbs the algae and the water plants that sit on the water, and sends out ripples that are shaded gray like storm clouds and inky black like the world with your eyes closed. And when the owls hoot in the depths of the mangrove stands, and the dew showers down like sudden rain as branches quake in a swift wind, that's when they say she walks.
They call her Sugarheart, because they don't know what else to call her. Some say she looks gray and tattered, her skin the gray that skin goes when it's been out in the mossy mud for weeks. Those folks that see her swear that her mouth is just like a tear in a cloth, her face tight-stretched leather on a bony skull... Those folks also say that if she breathes her sweet, poisonous breath on you, that you forget everything you ever loved. You forget the warmth of the homes that sit closer to New Orleans, you forget the good wines and the hot spicy gumbo and the clink of silverware over a fine, fine meal.
Those folks (though they try not to talk about her much) say that if you dare come close enough to her to catch that sickly sweet smell and hear the rustle of whatever crawls under the ripped bedraggled robes, you're liable to get asked for a kiss, and liable to forget everything that you love. You'll end up a poor soul doomed to a life of poling ghostly barges through the swamp, heading to a home you don't remember, folks you think maybe you knew once. To your very own children that look at you wondering why you turn away their hugs.
Others say Sugarheart looks mighty different. That her straight black hair and white robe look like a debutante stepped mincing from the carriage. That she smiles with red sweet lips sweet as can be, and her eyes are full of laughter in the night.
Me, well, all I know is what I know of the girl I called Sugarheart, the girl I ran away from wedding, nigh on twelve years ago, when I was too young and stupid to know what was good for me. Her name was Stephanie, pronounced with a lilt the French way, and I was just a Yankee wanderer brought down seeking riches. It was near on 1850, I would guess, when I stood with her outside the door of her family's house. And told her that I didn't know about settling down, didn't know if her family would take me, didn't know if we could ever make a go of it.
New Orleans had me all in a dazzle, you see. The way the houses with their candles in the windows reflected off the water, the way the smells from the farther corners of the city stank of spices and darker things. You have to understand about that city, the magic it can work on a man's heart. The parties, with the houses split in two, where the men went
to one side and the women to the other, so that the mistresses everyone knew they had could be civilly kept apart. That was the way the whole city was, the way that my whole life had become, split apart. On one half, my seeking of fortune--and on the other, Stephanie.
She wanted to stay in New Orleans, she said. "Ah," in that French lilt I always thought was an affectation, "but there is no other city in the world!"
Her father had offered to put me up in his business, but I was proud in those days. Too proud to accept what I saw as charity. It was a miracle we were allowed to step out at all, and a miracle each time I danced with her.
By day, I worked near the docks, where the catches of fish were brought in and scales on the cobbles made the ground seem paved with silver. I was a clerk, keeping tally of shipments, earning a pittance. What choice had I, but to step away from her?
Now, if you ever see Sugarheart, this is what they say to do. They say, don't avert your eyes. She takes offense to that. She finds it an affront. They say, look at her clear and free, right in the face, and don't show what you may really feel. They say that her face in either guise is like a mirror. It reflects what you fear and what you most cherish.
Some say those two are the same thing.
They say don't ever step close enough to her that she might seize you. They say she likes to dance, only her feet glide above the quicksand and the knotholes, where yours are more likely to catch on roots and drag you under.
Some have told the tale of staying there with her until dawn comes, and then she glides away. She leaves you all a-sweat and all a-tremble, with the cold light of morning washing over your face.
None have followed her back to where ever she goes. Not and told the tale, that is.
Stephanie's family had lost patience. A week, they had given her, knowing how her heart was tied to my future. After the week, they said, off she would go to the summer house, away from the noxious airs of the cities, from the time when disease ran through the streets. She was desperate, I see that now.
That last night, as we rode out to the summer house, all her pleadings and broad hints having failed, she grabbed my arm and held it tight. "Please," she said, "if you cannot make your pledge, tell me now," she said. "Tell me so that I can forever close my heart and harden myself against love."
At the time I thought it the fancies of a foolish girl. Gently I said, "You will love again, Stephanie. Do not say such foolish things."
She shook her head. "You do not understand." And she pointed out of the carriage window. "There, you see the moss, the silver moss that hangs from the tree?"
I nodded, unaware of where she was going with her line of thought.
"I am like that," she said. "I am nothing unless I have the strong branch under me, the steadiness to hold me aloft. I am incomplete--if you look close, I am tattered, I am ragged, I am like a thinly woven net."
As I looked at her, I saw how translucent her skin was, like delicate china. A pampered girl, I thought her then.
"Swear to me," she said suddenly. "Swear that even if you now turn your back on me, that should I ask, you will always reveal your heart to me. You will always love me."
I shook my head. "Too grand an oath, Stephanie. Who can say what might happen a dozen years hence? If I should meet and marry--if you should do the same?"
Her eyes grew bright with tears, as the carriage rumbled up the drive to the grand summer house, with the lace curtains and the lovely fenced in gardens.
I was to return with the carriage promptly--otherwise, there might be talk. I helped her down, and gave her a chaste kiss on the cheek. As the driver clucked to his horses and brought the carriage around, she spoke fierce and sudden to me. "Know this, then. I shall not wait forever. You shall regret this, I am sure of it, but I cannot wait forever. A dozen years, you say? Very well. For a dozen years, a spinster I will be, if it come to that. But after that, no more!" She stamped her pretty feet, and her reticule jangled with the small golden bells that were broidered onto it. "You may think that now I am sweet and my heart is sweet on you. And so it is. But even sugar becomes bitter if left too long." And with that, she flounced back into the house, and I rode back to town, my heart heavy.
But by the time I was home, back in the garret above the bakery near the docks, where I did my clerking, where I translated ribald Greek plays into pretty English for the proper young ladies to read and feel erudite, where I did the sums that earned me my bread and wine, where I even pretended at verse in the evenings by candlelight--well, I felt lightheaded.
I felt free.
You know--the night here in the swamp is very dark and still. I hear the slippery sound of wood and water, dank green ivies and clammy mist all around me. I have grown wet, sitting here on this bank, my barge beside me here where I have poled out into the unmapped reaches of the bayou. They say she wanders near these parts, that Sugarheart.
It was ironic, what happened with the yellow fever that year, that summer. It passed by the city, with its stinking prison, its crowded slave pens, its filthy docks. No, that year the fever went straight to the summer houses of the rich, and ravaged them.
They say she went peacefully.
She fought every inch, all sweat and tight-stretched skin as the fever rose, delirium rising within her and issuing forth from her eyes and her puckered mouth. I saw her once, but they ushered me away, saying that it lacked decorum, to see her in such a state, her nightgown plastered to her body and effluvia staining her flesh and beddings.
After, the fear of epidemic meant an unmarked grave. And much as the doctors who had trained in France warned against it, they with their fancy notions of cleanliness and sterile instruments and "proper disposal of corpses", the grave was set beside the water, where moisture leached in, and eventually undermined the bank one stormy night.
They tell the story, still, of how the dead rose from the graves, struggling through mud, vestments tattered, skin mummified and mouths agape, only to wash away into the bayou, floating away into darkness, away, away.
I fear I must stand--the ground is too damp for me. And my bones do not take so well to it, anymore. Twelve years, it's been, since the day I stood before her beside a carriage. Twelve, since that summer fever. Hush--
Do you hear?
No, it must just be a snake a-slither in the mangroves.
I married, you know. Had children. Lived the life of an ever more prosperous clerk. I bought a house, and eventually held galas there in my own ballroom in New Orleans. I delighted in my little girl's first pinafore, in the reckless joy
of my son as he raced hoops down the street or played in mud crafting lofty castles. And my wife... Nothing like Stephanie. Robust and full of laughter. Steadfast and joyful and a pillar of my strength.
But the fevers this year... have been very bad. The doctors, they say there is nothing to be done. The caskets are already purchased. The funeral cortege is assembled, and the servants have already gone to dance their vodoun dances in the woods. And I--I wait here, in this bayou.
Some say Sugarheart comes only to those who need her. I wonder if she is still flighty and fanciful, still the girl I knew who stamped her foot prettily in the drive. I will not look away, whatever guise she offers me. I will come close, and offer to dance, like we did years ago, beneath chandeliers with tinkling glass. Look! The Spanish moss shines like that even now.
Some say that to taste her kiss is forgetfulness. It would ease my heart, to know it so. If it drive me mad, any madness is better surcease than the dreams I have at night.
I think, however, that she may ask me a question. Whether I still love her. Whether I have come to take her to bride. This is the last year she will come, you see. I am sure of it.
A dozen years, it has been, since she asked my oath. Soon she will go to her rest. And if she offers forgetfulness, or whether we venture deep into the waters as lovers, well.
Is there a difference?
Water drips from the boughs. I hear the coming of a barge, poled through the mangroves. Look--there.
Isn't she beautiful?
Ptah says, 'Well, proceed, Ganymede!'
Ganymede chuckles politely.
'You are,' Marcel says in a courtly fashion to Ganymede. 'Tell us a story of what kids get if they don't behave.'
'Very well,' Ganymede says.
'This is a story handed down through many a generation in the land where I grew up, a realm seperate from this one,' Ganymede says.
'The land of Alvalenn is one of extremes compared to this one,' Ganymede says. 'Many great deeds and accomplishments, and many true horrors.'
'At one extreme, the regular, innocent folk huddle together in cities, large expanses of buildings, breathtaking to behold,' Ganymede says.
Ganymede says, 'At the other, the forests far from the cities teem with beasts and wicked things.'
'The bloodfiends are well known, and feared, by adults and children alike,' Ganymede says. 'I believe in this realm they are known as vampires.'
'Though bloodfiends in Alvalenn are different,' Ganymede says.
'Less...civilized. They are animals...hunters. Hunters of humans, their source of sustenance. And men--those who know what is best--stay well clear of them.'
Ganymede says, 'This story is called the Boy and the Bloodfiend.'
It came to pass that one evening, a boy took to walking among the trees a short way from his family's modest, one floor house.
He rarely strayed far from his home, as his parents warned him of the sinister things that would hunt him at night, but on this night, his pleasant mood gave way to forgetfulness and he strayed further than customary.
The trees thickened as he wandered, and soon the gnarled canopy over his head thickened and blocked out the dying gasps of red light from the sun.
When the boy realized the mistake he had made, he stopped, and glanced quickly around him. Worry seeped into his youthful disposition as he failed to recognize his surroundings.
He chose a direction and began walking, but it soon became clear that his choice had been the wrong one. Quicker than seemed possible, full-on dark was upon the forest, and the boy.
His vision at night was excellent, and enough moonlight filtered through the ominous overgrowth that he could see, though not well.
Was it only his imagination that the boy felt as if he were being watched?
Fear crept under the boy's skin, recalling the warnings his mother had thought sufficiently planted in his mind to preclude such wandering as he had done this night, but he continued to walk.
The boy began to wish indeed that there was no moonlight, for what little there was turned trees that might look innocent enough in bright light into brooding, grotesque figures with snarled fingers grasping for his throat.
The boy whirled around. Behind him. The sense that he was being watched was coming from behind. he was perfectly still, but heard nothing but the light breeze rustling the leaves above.
An hour passed, then two, as the boy nervously trotted along trying to find something, anything familiar. All the while, that feeling of being watched by a malevolent presence from behind grew stronger.
The boy knew he was being hunted, but he pressed on, refusing to panic.
In this way the boy came to a clearing, through which the moon shone brightly from overhead, casting a silvery glaze over the grass rippling in the wind.
Near the middle of the clearing was a rotting tree stump. The boy knew he was not protected from anything here, but at least he would see what came for him before it took his life.
He ran for the stump and sat upon it, gazing wide-eyed at the spot where he had emerged. He waited, feeling the presence growing stronger still.
Gradually he felt the thing, whatever it was, was at the edge of the clearing, watching him from just inside the trees.
For over an hour, he sat staring at the place where he thought some apparition gazed hungrily back.
Finally, the boy's breath caught in his throat as he saw a shape moving across the clearing towards where he sat. Coming from the spot he had been watching.
The shape seemed that of a man, though it was ghostly and pale in the moonlight, and moved gracefully, turning no earth or leaf in its path and uttering not a sound.
The boy's little heart tried to beat its way out of his chest, but he swallowed and bit his lip. When the apparition reached a spot about halfway across the clearing he called to it.
"You there! Stop and identify yourself!"
'The shape halted, and waited. A full minute passed without a sound. Finally there was a reply, in a low, earthy voice.
"I have come for your life, little one," it said matter-of-factly. "Give yourself to me."
The boy pondered this a moment and called back, "I believe that would not be quite preferable to me. Could ye not let me live, just this once?"
The ghostly figure rumbled back in its low voice, "You are mine, little boy. This night shall be your last."
Again the boy thought on this a bit and, still trembling, answered, "If I am indeed to be slain this night, would ye at the least give me a few things, that I might not die entirely unhappily?"
The thing was quiet for a long while, and just when the boy was about to call out and ask after its health, the shape replied reluctantly, "Very well. What is it ye want?"
The boy did not need long to think. "First," he said, "I should like a bit of fresh water, to dampen my tongue and wash myself that my mother may not find a dirty corpse in the woods."
The shape hissed, but retreated from the clearing for a moment, and when it returned, it carried with it a small flask filled with water from a nearby spring.
The boy drank a bit and washed his face with what was left, and said, "My thanks are yours. Will ye not now reconsider slaying me?"
The thing rumbled, "I am the hunter and ye the prey, boy, and this night, ye belong to me."
Sighing, the boy said, "Very well. I do have another request, though."
The thing growled and muttered to itself, but finally it said impatiently, "Well, what is it then?"
The boy replied, "I should be thankful for one final meal, that I might perish with a full stomach."
The shape stamped its foot and roared, "No! No more delays! Prepare to die, boy!" and it lunged at him.
The next morning, the village was abuzz with the news of death.
"Damn fool boy," the men muttered, and shook their heads in disgust.
The corpse, they said, had been found in a clearing in the woods, a short way from the stump. The boy had ventured into the woods hunting bloodfiends, and apparently had found one. They found him with his blood drained, and two little fangmarks in his neck.
It seemed this bloodfiend had been a young one.
The boy's tracks led to the clearing, and then into the woods near a stream where he had knelt, and then back. No one knew why.
And the little boy bloodfiend was never found.
'That's it,' Ganymede says.
Naomi claps for Ganymede approvingly.
Livia claps for Ganymede approvingly.
Gwajeth claps for Ganymede approvingly.
Ganymede also made that up on the spot.
Ganymede scuffles his feet around in the dirt.
Ganymede sits down and rests around a blazing bonfire.
Livia smiles at Ganymede.
Lorenzo smiles happily.
Chimera says, 'Sure, I can tell a story.'
Ganymede smiles at Chimera.
'About a pwincess,' Naomi says to Chimera.
Chimera sits down and rests around a blazing bonfire.
Chimera says, 'Alright, I'll take silence for assent.'
'This story goes along with my long awaited and hardly worked on area,' Chimera says. 'It's one version of an incredibly old Cheyenne Indian myth.'
'About a Cheyenne pwincess?' Naomi says.
'It was and it wasn't,' Chimera says.
A great chief lived long before all of us, ruling over the Great Camp of the Cheyenne people with a wise mind and impartial hand. His son was a fine young man, both strong and clever, having recieved a vision from Coyote upon his vision quest. And he was betrothed to his one true love, a girl from the Sioux village of Nun'nahi. Her hair was like black silk, her voice like the summer rains, gentle yet commanding. She loved him very much, and he loved her as well. When they were of age, and their fathers, both chiefs, decided it was time for them to marry, they were married. And their marriage was rejoiced by everyone.'
They lived for the spring and fall with the Sioux, and the summer and winter with the Cheyenne. One summer, however, as they passed from Nun'nahi to the Great Camp, a great storm blew up and they were forced to take cover in a cave.
The brave young man went out to find some wood or dry grass with which to start a fire to warm his wife, yet he found none. He ventured far out onto the plains to find anything he could use to warm and dry himself and his wife...
But to no avail.
He turned around to return to the cave, and saw a terrible silhouette behind him, 50 times as tall as a man, an enormous ghost with two faces stared down at him.
"Ho, ho, little man. Why do you venture out onto my plains?' The giant's voice rumbled.
Unafraid, the brave answered "I have come to find firewood that I may warm my wife and I, who camp in a cave not far from here. We were caught in this storm. That is all I seek."
"Well," chuckled the double-faced giant, "I can see that you are a small man. You would pose very little challenge to me. In fact it was I who blew this storm in from the east with my MIIIIIIGHTY breath..."
And as he said such he exhaled with such force that the brave was lifted from his feet and high into the air!
Only to be caught by the double-faced giant!
"Now, little man, I can step across the WIIIIIDEST rivers. I can catch enormous herds of buffalo in each arm. I will kill you, and eat you unless you give me the one thing in the world you love the most."
The man gasped, horrified at the thought of losing his wife, the one thing in the world he loved the most. Yet he thought quickly, blessed with the wit and trickster spirit of Coyote.
"My wife is what I love the most. Take me to her, double-faced ghost."
And the ghost stepped lively across the plains, returning the man to his wife.
The wife, attracted by the sound of the giant's footsteps ran out of the cave to see what was causing it. She was frightened of the giant she saw, but saw her husband alive and respected his intelligence, knowing he had a plan.
"Put me down," the man commanded the two-faced giant.
"I will give you my wife, yes. On the condition that you honor the age old marriage custom of the Cheyenne. We will play a game of hide the plum-pit, and if you win, you may marry her and eat me. But if I win, you will spare my life, and stay away from her.
The ghost, vain and stupid agreed to the game, and the Cheyenne brave moved to be with his wife. He produced a plum-pit from his travois, and showed it to the ghost.
As he put his hands behind his back, however, his wife deftly snatched the plum-pit from him so that the pit was in niether hand!
The man smiled and held his hands out to the ghost, who agonized over his decision, then picked the brave's left hand.
"Wrong!" yelled the brave, loud enough to be heard in both camps! "Now go away!"
And the giant, in disbelief that he was bested by a mortal, did as he was told.
This is not the end of the story, however. For the two-faced ghost learned some humility that day. From that day forward, he no longer terrorized people who passed through his plains, nor blew up unearthly storms to ravage them.
And every spring, just before the first hunt, an armload of buffalo was left just outside the entrances of both the Great Camp, and Nun'nahi.
Chimera says, 'And that is the end of this tale.'
Ganymede cheers for Chimera - huzzah!
Naomi claps for Chimera approvingly.
Livia claps for Chimera approvingly.
'One of my favorites,' Chimera says. 'Not really a ghost story, but close enough.'