Sunday, November 7, 2010

A selection from "Chopper's Tale" by Jason Rubis

Chopper’s Tale
by Jason Rubis

t woke to life in slow bursts of sensation: a baffling storm of sounds
that gradually faded, only to erupt again moments later; a colourless,
weirdly-angled vision that likewise came and went. Later it would associate memories of that first moment with droplets of rainwater gleaming, then going dull on the oiled blade of its head.
There were two women in attendance on it as it woke; one was very old, and muttered to herself incessantly. It was she who actually woke it, muttering in time with the painful, exultant eruptions of consciousness. The other was smaller in stature than the crone, and not as old, though she seemed every bit as hunched and wrinkled. The mutterer’s was the first voice the axe heard, but the other woman exposed it to actual language.
“Is it working? Will it do the job?”
The muttering went on—hurried now, exasperated, and the axe’s broken consciousness set suddenly, gelling into a painful clarity. It did not know what it was or why it was; one thing only it understood, and that was a hunger deep inside it. It wanted to do the thing it had been made to do, longed to do it.
Feet shuffled on an earthen floor; there was a wet gulp overhead as the mutterer drank deeply from a flagon of water. Then:
“You’re impatient, Nola Amee. And impertinent. My sisters would not have tolerated you for such measly wages as you offer.”
“You took the cow quickly enough,” the other woman snapped. The axe saw her suddenly, stooped over it, her sour face glaring with pursed, liverish lips. It was being appraised, judged—and found wanting.
“I see no life here. Your precious powder is a sham.”
Idiot,” the older woman sneered. “You’d have it writhe like a python and chop your foot off? The powder of life doesn’t work that way. It operates on the principle of Like Effect—not that you’d understand such. Had I used it on that table yonder, it’d be gamboling like a spring calf, being four-footed in its way. A statue sprinkled thus would move quicker than your old bones. An axe reproduces no living shape, thus cannot move once the powder gives it life.”
“But it could move as a serpent…you said yourself…”
“Ever seen a serpent with a head so huge? Fah. You suspect my honesty? Want proof? Here, then.”
The axe, having no choice, watched. The muttering woman lurched briefly into its line of vision; she was bent, and so thin as to be nearly skeletal. She glanced once at it in passing, giving it a satisfied but wholly unpleasant grin. Her eyes were piercing and intelligent but somehow wild-looking. 
She carried a leather bag in one bony hand. She reached inside and sprinkled a pinch of something on a footstool near the blazing hearth. A moment later the stool was clattering about the flagstones like a huge beetle. The woman called Nola Amee shrieked as it made for her. The older woman laughed heartily, then seized the stool up in one hand and threw it onto the fire. It landed on its cushioned back, and—too heavy to extricate itself—twisted and burned and eventually died.
“I’ll have another chicken, to reimburse me for that stool. They’re not cheap, you know.”
“You’ve convinced me. But without movement, how will it kill Nick?”
“It has its ways. My spells have seen to that. This man you hate so much is a woodcutter, yes?  He will suspect nothing so little as his own tool. Trust me, the deed will be done before you know it.”
“But hear me, Nola Amee: once your woodman is dead meat and that poor girl is forever bound to you, get rid of that axe. Bring it back to me if you like, or throw it in a river if you don’t trust me. On no account let it find a name. Now it’s little but an animal. A vicious, unnatural child. But it will learn quicker than any youngling, sopping up knowledge as a rag takes spilled wine. Its power of influence is bound by my spells to Chopper only, at least for the moment. But if it happens on a name for itself, let all this wretched country beware; there’s no telling what it will do.”
The axe was lifted and thrust into Nola Amee’s flinching hands. Its hunger surged; it saw exactly how it could accomplish its purpose with this greedy, stupid woman. But something frustrated it. It could not find a way into her. Her desires and thoughts formed a tangle it could not penetrate or grasp. Had it a mouth it would have cried out in rage.
It would have to wait. Allow itself to be carried towards an unknown destiny. As Nola Amee left the hut and hobbled along, the axe caught a final glimpse behind them of the older woman’s cottage. 
      Crush her, it thought ferociously at the cabin. Fall on the old bitch, smash her bones to paste. A house, yes. Someone should drop a house on her one day.

The woodman was a fool to begin with, and love made him a moron, so perfectly suited to the axe’s purpose that its wooden heart sang with the first curl of his idiot fingers round its haft. Nola Amee had left it in its accustomed place the previous night, leaning on the outer wall of Nick Chopper’s poor hut. Come morning, he had picked it up, shouldered it, and went whistling off to work, as he had thousands of mornings before.
This was true joy. Nick Chopper’s every thought, every idle fantasy presented itself for the axe’s delectation. Which of these mental hiccups would provide it the entry it needed to do its work? Any of them might do: memories of the bread and cheese Nick had enjoyed for breakfast, vague worries about inconsequential aches and pains, obscenely detailed reminiscences of that morning’s bowel movements, the girl…
The girl. Yes. Nimmie Amee. And their wedding, of course, the prime cause of his present stupor. Why waste time on other trivialities? Nick Chopper’s daydreams of the girl would provide the perfect entry-point. The axe got to work as the woodman swung it against a fine tall oak.
“My sweet Nimmie. She loves me so.”
Does she? She has no other lover? She’s never looked at any of the other young bucks in the village? Never once?
The woodman’s mind accepted the axe’s insinuations as thoughts of his own. The rhythm of his strokes against the tree helped them sink deeper, unnoticed, as he met them with hidden doubts that till now had been kept smothered.
“The butcher’s lad. She’s turned an eye to him more than once…”
The butcher’s lad, yes. A fine brawny specimen. You’re a good-enough looking man, but you’ve some years on you, eh? And chopping wood doesn’t build the muscles that hefting sides of beef does.
Nick swung the axe harder, biting more fiercely into the white wound it had chewed into the tree. Sweat began to flow. His blood quickened.
He was confused.
He was angry.
And how much coin does a woodcutter make? Any fool can gather a few twigs for the fire, but who these days cares to bloody their hands slaughtering their own pig?
Nobody. She’ll tire of you eventually. After all, what can a clodhopper like you give her? A hut in the woods is all very well for romantic fantasies, but women are practical, Nick. Love? They harp endlessly on the subject, yet it means nothing to them. Not really. Men are toys to them. She laughs at you, this girl of yours.
It took the axe less than an hour to get the woodman to turn its hungry head on his leg; it needn’t have taken even that long. He was a very faulty vessel, this Nick Chopper, full of hidden rages and embarrassing flaws. Once he began listening to the axe in earnest, leading him to that final red moment was no work at all.
Even so, the axe was somewhat disappointed. it had its heart set on something a bit tastier than splintered femur and a ruby-glistening mess of thigh-meat. In reviewing Nick’s fantasies of the marriage bed, it had formulated a delightful idea involving Nick laying his shrunken manhood on a stump. Then, holding the axe’s blade in both hands, chopping it off. Perhaps it had taken too much pleasure in its own plans; perhaps Nick had somehow gotten a whiff of them and at the last moment chose a less insulting blow.
      Still, it was done now, and done well; the idiot was howling like a madman, clutching his ruined leg with a luscious, betrayed expression. Already a couple of other bumpkins—a pair of fools come calling from the village—were running to him.
Oh, Nick, what did you do?
Nick suffered himself to be seized and carried clumsily into his hut. The axe lay in a spreading pool of gore, waiting patiently for one of the clods to seize it up and take it inside as well.
Because it wouldn’t do to leave the man’s tool behind. It was his livelihood, after all, and more than that, the measure of his character.