Meeting Ms. Leading

This short is based on the first half of the song “The Bitter Suite I: Meeting Ms. Leading and Through the Dime

“What’s your name?”

The patter of rain on cobbles almost drowned out his words. Rain ran in rivulets between stones along gutters, drowning the world with wind-swept sheets. Overhead, the smog of industry mingled with the grey of storm clouds.

His clothes clung to his body, every fibre soaked. The heavens had opened the moment he had stepped from the train. It smelled different – this rain wasn’t the same as had fallen on his home by the river. It was somehow acrid, dirty, corrupted.

She had emerged from the downpour as if the rain parted before her. A small umbrella, clutched in glove hands, protected golden hair. Twisting this way and that, dancing between the crowd, she had appeared before him. The bitter smell of polluted rain was replaced with the scent of spring – fruits, flowers, lavender.

She wore a blue linen dress, bound by a black sash at the waist. A light scarf, speckled by drops of moisture, rested lightly on her shoulders and neck. She had a silhouette to serenade the soul and one which lifted all his worries in an instance. A welcome loneliness fell upon him – her gaze was like a spotlight, clearing the stage to bathe him in attention. These two actors were, in his world, the only ones in existence.

Her words washed over him, running over his nerves. A summer’s smile and winter’s skin. She had taken his hand – a gesture implying an answer he did not have.

“Ms. Leading.”

She had spoken softly, sadly. The man, more a boy, was untainted by the sobering reality of the City. He was strong, in both body and soul, she could see it. A small flame in world both numb and cold. Breathe in, breathe out, she had thought. Let them all fold.

She could feel the crushing weight of this façade on her shoulders, the filth and the ire and the lechery of her profession and its sinful home. His eyes had darted to its lights, its garish paintings, its shining silver sign. Hearts finish in this place, she thought. Here is where love decays.

She held his hand tighter as they descended into the belly of the beast, through its doors and its perfumed curtains. She danced, twirling in his grip. Breathe in. Breathe out. She could feel his trembles. She carried him, endearing, past tableaus and last days and scenes of mercantile lust. All the while she prayed that the masked proprietor, the twin of sin, would not see her.

Finally, through a final set of doors, she laid him down. She asked if he needed a rest, somewhere to stay the night. The boy, drenched and wide-eyed, could simply nod. Naïve, blissfully trusting, innocent. How had such a man ended up in such a place?

She tossed the damp umbrella to the floor. With practised ease the binding at her waist came loose.

Lace by lace she revealed herself to him until at last, in the dimming light of a waning candle, they fell together.

The Oracles on the Delphi Express

This short is based on the song “The Oracles on the Delphi Express” by The Dear Hunter

The carriage rocked gently from side to side, a soothing motion once you get used to the jolts of a train running over misaligned tracks. His compartment smelt of old wood that had been varnished too heavily. The brown leather seats were worn and faded from years of use. Outside the world rushed by, wreathed in smoke from the engine ahead.

He glanced at his hands – they still had dirt under the fingernails. Perhaps he should have washed himself, but something had driven him from that place. It had been his home for so many years, yet now it was nothing but an empty shell of a life once lived.

Where would the train take him, how far would he ride it? As far as possible, he figured. His mother had never told him about The City, but he knew it would be somewhere along the line. As soon as the green of the hills and trees turned to the grey of buildings and roads, he would know he was in the right place. She had told him never to go there, never to stray too far from the small piece of land they had called their own. She had forbidden him, but now she was dead.

Time and endless work had taken its toll on his mother, yet at the end she still smiled. She always had the saddest smile.

“Tickets please.”

The sound made him jump, not least because he had boarded the train without checking for a ticket desk. Reaching instinctively into his waistcoat, he mumbled his apologies. A sharp bark of a laugh caused him to look up. Stood at the sliding door to his compartment, a grin creasing her wrinkled face, was an old woman.

“Oh darling, you should have seen your face.” The woman, a shawl wrapped around her head, stepped into the carriage. “Don’t worry yourself, though, you won’t need a ticket. The inspector will forget to check this room.”

Two other figures followed the woman – one, tall, lithe and beautiful, was a girl around his age. She wore a tight dress around her midriff and a chequered scarf across her shoulders. Her face, hidden behind thick golden hair, was shadowed by a wide-brimmed straw hat. Behind the beauty shuffled a young girl – maybe four or five. The child kept her eyes on the floor, hands grasping at the young woman’s dress.

“Who-” he begun to say, before the old woman silenced him with an upheld palm.

“You don’t need to know, child. What does concern you, though, is where you are headed.”

He frowned. “What do you mean?”

“The City.” Squeeked the little girl, who had hoisted herself onto the seat opposite him, in between the old woman and the beauty. “Why do you want to go to The City?”

“He’s angry,” whispered the beauty. Her lips, full and red, appeared fleetingly between strands of blonde hair. “Confused. Distraight. So many emotions for such a young soul.”

He crossed his arms, leaning back against the seat. “Look, I don’t know who you are, but please find another carriage, I’d rather be alone, I-”

“Buried your mother today.” The girl interrupted. She looked up, tears in her eyes. “So sad. She was all you had.”

He felt his heart clench within his chest.

The old woman broke the silence. “Your luck is running thin, Hunter. There is nothing but pain in The City. No matter what you do, it will find you.” She leant forward, placing a wrinkled hand onto his knee. He felt instantly warm and comfortable, as if he were sat by a roaring fire on a winter’s night. The fact the woman had said his name passed over him like the lightest breeze. “Crimson hands will brandish masqueraded words. Your innocence will shatter.”

He brushed himself free of her grasp. “What are you saying?”

“Beware the man of duality,” replied the beauty, wringing her hands. “Prose with one face and pride with the other. A theatre of sin and a palace of hypocrisy.”

“She loved you,” sobbed the little girl, cuffing tears from her pink cheeks. “She loved you so much.”

“You’re stuck, Hunter,” continued the old woman, taking the beauty’s hands in hers. “You lust for some solidity, but your cryptic history will lead you down a dark path. Trust us. Do not go to The City.”

The beauty looked up. Her hair flew from her face. His gaze was suddenly trapped by her eyes of golden brown. “She is there. A rose among thorns, a flower among swine. A mislead heiress to mystery.”

“Stop this!” The old woman grasped at the beauty, but her hands were pushed away. The beauty lurched forward, pulling him into an embrace. The old woman raked at her dress, trying to drag her back. “Stop this now!”

With a whisper as light as cascading feathers, the beauty’s lips brushed his ears. “The mimic of the matriarch, the silver queen, her embrace is your salvation.” She fell back, panting.

“Do we have to go, nana?” The little girl asked the old woman, who was recovering her composure.

“Yes, dear,” the old woman smiled.

The child smiled sadly. She hopped from her seat, and crossed to tug at his shirtsleeve. “She loved you so much” she repeated.

He looked up at the old woman, who was adjusting her shawl. “Trust us, child. Do not go to The City. Go back to the lake, go back to the river. Your luck’s running thin.”

The train burst into a tunnel, plunging the carriage into darkness. Slumping back against the dusty seat, Hunter wiped the sweat from his forehead with a sleeve. He could feel his heart beating within his chest.

“Next stop, The City!” A train guard holding a small lantern passed down the car, holding the light up to scan for passengers. He stopped outside of the door for a moment. The guard shifted his weight, sniffed, and then set off again. “That’s The City, next stop!”

Light filled the carriage again, revealing it to be as empty as when Hunter had boarded. Outside, obscured by grey-black smoke, a great city stretched. Suddenly exhausted, Hunter leant forward, elbows resting on his knees. He glanced at his fingers – the nails were spotless.

The Poison Woman

This short is based on the song “The Poison Woman” by The Dear Hunter

Whenever she had been sick, her father had always told her “trust the medicine more than the man”. Medicine, he had reasoned, is documented, regulated. Smooth oils will soothe a sore throat, alkaline will calm a turbulent stomach. Medicine is impartial, clinical. It gets the job done. Man can’t be trusted to solve his problems, her father had said. He’s an emotional creature, impulsive and brash. Put your faith in medicine, he had told her, and you will never be disappointed.

The boy coughed, breaking her free from her thoughts. She was bent double over the table, pestle in hand. Somewhere miles away, through the tangled roots and trees of the forest, the silent heartbeat of artillery thumped rhythmically. Many had stumbled from those rancid battlefields, bloody and wild-eyed, more animal than man, into her homestead. Few had returned. You can trust the medicine more than the man, her father had said. You can trust it to kill, as well as save. She turned to look upon the boy, laid across her quilted bed as if in state. His hands clasped at something across his neck, gripping tight in the throes of some shock-bred dream.

She had seen many soldiers breathe their last in such dreams. At first she had tried to help them, hands bloody and soul filled with grief and empathy. Others came, though, demanding treatment, shelter and more unsavoury favours. Those she had dealt with in her own way. Years in the forest had taught her well – taught her how to use certain roots, certain flowers, to deadly effect. Poison, she had discovered, was just as trustworthy as medicine. Her father would be proud.

The grinding of her mortar and pestle accompanied the rumble of war. A crushed bulb here, some leaf oil there. Her hands worked without instruction, so many times had the concoction been made. One drop was almost always more than enough, but she liked to be sure. She laughed silently. A million men had reached their end in the war that surrounded her little sanctuary. Trust the medicine, not the man. Trust the poison.

She would bury him with the rest, with reverence but without emotion. None of it was her fault, she reasoned: incompetence was his killer. Dwelling on things like empathy and sympathy were not her way. Vials, concoctions, boiling pots and sweet, sickly smells were her everyday, not mud and blood and war. War was a man’s folly, and you never trust the man.

She had heard the rumours, the names and the myths that had cropped up around her and the her woodland home. “Don’t stray too deep among the oak and ash,” men would say, “for there a foul creature resides. She’ll offer you something savoury, a smooth intoxication, then watch you breathe your last. La femme posion.”

At last the boy stirred. He was a handsome young man, though his face, like all those shipped to the fields of modern war, had aged beyond his years. He had not been wounded badly, his dark green uniform was spattered with blood but it was not his own. No matter, though, he would meet the same fate. She crossed to him, gently, as was her way. The vial felt warm pressed between her fingers. The boy sat up, confused, wincing at the pain in his chest and legs. He hands loosened their grip on the thing clutched to his chest: an armband, sewn with a tree.

She started. She had seen one of its like before, on another soldier. One of the few to cross her home’s threshold and live. On impulse she stepped forward, grabbing the young man’s face. In the dim light she finally saw – he was the image of that same soldier. She let go, allowing the boy to fall back onto the bed. In frustration she squeezed the vial in her palm, feeling its edges dig painfully into her skin. Trust the medicine not the man. The young soldier coughed once more, his hands were shaking, his body still the throes of shock. He reached out, grabbed the hem of her dress. He smiled.

Her father had been a wise man, but he had also been a man. He, like so many others, had left, uniform bright and hope undimmed. She had trusted him, and he had left her alone in a world of roots, potions and herbs. As she watched the soldier disappear through scrub, trunks and brambles, she smiled for the first time in a long while. Sometimes it felt as if the weight of the world was on her shoulders, passing on one sin made no difference.

She would need a new vial, though.

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