|soldier came walking down the road, raw from encounters with the enemy, high on release, walking down the road with no money. The road was lined with trees, and every so often a hovel hunched right there at its edge, droopy and mean, with a dirt yard like a pale sack at its feet. The soldier thought he was walking home, but at the end of the road no one was there anyway. He passed a hovel with a little dog outside, barking on a rope. The dog’s dish was just beyond the reach of the rope, and he watched the dog run, barking, to reach it, catch itself by the neck at the end of the rope, bounce back yelping, and then do this repeatedly, his white ruff following the jerk of his head. The soldier could see that there was nothing in the bowl.|
|As he walked along, the trees grew broader, filling in space, the canopy more complete and farther above. He passed a little girl on the stoop in front of a blackened hovel door, breaking branches into pieces for tinder, wearing a fancy dress gone ragged. He could see, through the tattered ribbons and limp lace bows, that the fabric of the dress had once been bright, rainbow colored, and shiny. The girl’s eyes looked very big because of the circles under them, but her skin, smudged as it was with ash, seemed to pulse dimly, just as the shine of the dress did.|
|At the next hovel, an old woman was stirring a large iron pot set up on coals in the dirt yard. For an instant, the soldier thought that this was his mother, and he took his hands from his coat pockets to wave to her, but then he could see that it was not his mother; it was a witch. The resemblance, however, remained, and part of him thought that with all he’d done and seen he might have made his mother into this. Another part of him, though he could see she was a witch, still felt the kind of trust and longing you can feel toward a mother, even if she has become a witch after all these years.|
|The witch called out to him, her face rusty and sweating or beaded with steam, holding a crooked spoon in a hand concealed by her cloak: “Soldier! I see you looking at me with your weird eyes. I can see right through you, and I know what you want.”|
|The soldier said: “What’s in the pot?”|
|He thought, I bet you think I want to be a better man.|
|A Tinderbox is a little box that sparks to make fire. Like for lighting things.||The witch said: “I know what you want. It’s money, and I know where you can get it, and there’s nothing to it, you just go and get it, and I know where.”|
|She was right. That’s what he wanted. He even forgot to ask her how it could be that she lived in a hovel and knew where there was money, but then there she was, and she was right, he wanted it, so the soldier forgot to ask about that, and about why the witch’s hovel sagged to the side and why she wore a witch’s rags, and if she had any sons who’d gone off to war, and he forgot about the pot, about what might be stewing and steaming in it, something awful, something good to eat or know. His mind cleared of everything except the idea of money.|
|“Tie this rope around your waist,” said the witch. “Hop down this black hole into this deep hollow tree. You’ll be tethered to me. Don’t be frightened of what you’ll see. Ha! You’ve seen worse than this. You’ll see some dogs. Wink at the first dog, blink at the next dog, and for the third, squeeze your eyes shut, and wait to see. You will find a little leather purse in the earth down there, and all I ask is you bring it to me. If you don’t, I won’t pull you up, and then you’ll have something to be frightened of.”|
|So he wound the rope around his waist and the witch took the loose end. Then he hopped down into the hollow tree and fell deep into it and also underground. Smack! his feet hit the earth, and everything around him was so dark that he couldn’t see anything. In the dark, he thought of the little dog, so stupid for lurching at the end of his leash. He thought of the little girl, and recognized the terrible whirl of ideas that had surged across his mind when he saw her: to hack her to pieces, to feed her soup and rock her to sleep, to gobble her up for himself, to dress her properly. He put his hands to the rope around his waist because he was having trouble breathing and felt like it was choking him from the gut up, but soon his eyes adjusted to the light. He could see the twisty shadows of the inner wood of the tree, all tunneled with wormholes and mudwasps making convex mazes all around him in the walls, but he couldn’t tell a groove from a bulge. It wasn’t only his eyes adjusting, though; the light was changing, too, and he stepped toward where it pushed at him through the darkness. The light expanded its reach, the space expanded with it, and soon he could see a whole inner chamber lit with a hundred burning lights.|
|This reminded him of something, this chamber, with passages leading off. Then he remembered: He remembered tearing open a man’s belly with his sword in battle, and then seeing himself as if within the man’s stomach, looking from that chamber down the man’s bright bowels, which simultaneously lay beating on the ground before them both. And as if brought on by this thought, an enormous blue dog appeared, guarding a golden chest filled with money.|
|The dog had eyes as big as snowglobes, sparkling and swimming with watery light, but the witch was right, the soldier had been through a lot, and very little fazed him. He didn’t even need to think about her instructions; it was as if she were there with him, as if he could feel her through the rope. You need to cut those apron strings and find your way in the world! That’s what people had said to him when they passed him chopping wood for his mother’s hovel, that was one thing he’d thought when he enlisted, and that was what was on his mind, not the witch, when he winked at the enormous dog, and the dog lay down and tilted his head to the side and let the snow settle, an Eiffel tower reflected in one eye, a Golden Pyramid glowing from the depths of the other, and let the soldier open the chest and fill his pockets with promissory notes.|
|This was disappointing. Promissory notes. Would he have to impersonate people in order to collect? Would he spend his life journeying from one debtor to the next, shaking people down in a sharkskin suit? It sounded like a job, not magic, but at least this was a path with money at many branching ends of it. The soldier looked at the affable dog. “You got me,” he said, but stuffed his pockets anyway. The dog shook his head and the snowglobes snowed and then snow settled in heaps on the Statue of Liberty and the Great Wall of China seen from afar. Then the vast lids lowered, and the cavern darkened again.|
|The soldier felt disoriented, annoyed, betrayed. He felt a rise of panic in the dark. He moved his hand to tug the rope, ready to get up there and give the witch a piece of his mind, but the room began to brighten, this time from the bottom up in sharp fanning shafts as from beneath a rising airplane shade, and there before him loomed an even more enormous dog, and bluer, this one grouchily awakening from a nap, yawning and stretching, great shoulderblades shifting like mountains through time, with eyes as big as the capitol dome, magic beaming from beneath the lids as they rose, as the light rose. This dog was so enormous his head pressed the top of the chamber, which even so must have grown to accommodate him and his eyes, and the soldier shook minutely in his boots. His mind went blank, and by luck, or the divine, he blinked.|
|He feels very full of himself because of the money, so he hacks the witch to pieces with his sword and takes the Tinderbox without really thinking anything of it. Then he goes into town, where he gains respectability, spends lavishly, and eventually has nothing but the Tinderbox left, which he finally notices. He strikes it, to light a candle stub, thinking about a princess that the king and queen have locked away, a bit of light in the darkness of a box. He’s heard rumors of her beauty: more glinting in the dark. With the first strike appears the first dog with his great eyes. What does the soldier want? He wants money. Money is fetched. If he strikes twice, there comes the second dog, with its greater eyes and its more frightening character. Three times and the third dog is raised. Very, very scary, largest-ever eyes. But the first is plenty. The first brings the money, and then, when the soldier asks, the dog fetches the lovely princess from her bed in the night and in the night the soldier does whatever he wishes with her, which we know, we know what he wishes, and in the morning the girl tells her dreams to her mother, and the queen sends a fleet-footed maid to keep watch. In the night comes the good blue dog with the eyes and the maid runs after him and marks an X on the door to the soldier’s apartment, which the dog sees, and marks Xs on all the doors in town, but is foiled the next night by a trail of flour from a bag with a hole in it stashed under the girl’s skirt, and so the soldier is caught, and set to be hanged for his crimes. There on the scaffold, with the rope around his neck, he asks for his Tinderbox so he might have one last smoke, and it is brought to him. So he strikes once, and twice, and three times, and there come the dogs and tear the king and queen to pieces and also much of the town and its people. Those who remain make the soldier king, and he marries the princess, who is said to enjoy being queen very much, all plausible enough, except perhaps for the part with the flour.|| This dog guarded jewels the soldier knew he’d have to hock, but still, they were beautiful to look at, calling to the whole histories of the many cultures they came from, dangling golden icons, some inscribed with poetry and the names of families and families of ancestors in uncountable languages and symbologies. Bracelets and brooches, watches and cufflinks, remnants of happy humans behind them, fine times, worth passed down, desire fulfilled. The things that people wanted and created or received. He dumped the notes and heaped his neck and arms with jewelry. He piled it on, all these pieces so designed and discrete, made for a person to shine through. Something about the weight against his naked neck, and gravity pulling his limbs to the earth—he started to feel grand, to sense what it might be like to have all this, everyone’s heirlooms. Each piece blotted out another and they all felt the same, strands from so many lives, and at least for the moment the soldier felt that any one of the lives could have been his. |
What had he been hoping to find at the end of the road? His mother’s arms, his mother dead?
Dog three. Eyes as big as planets, one ringed with rings, and one with a great red spot floating gaseously in it. Hallucinatory expansive light, light filled with fire and ghosts. Light so fragmented and strobing the soldier squeezed his eyes shut and held his breath too, in terror, mind spasming with several horrors: a childhood memory (being poked with sticks), a war memory (being poked with swords), an image of that little girl in her blackened rainbow frock and what he was doing that he wanted to do, a blue three-headed dog coming upon his wickedness and tearing him to pieces, stealing the girl to safety, the girl on the back of the blue dog holding the white dog with its ruff in her lap, both of them glancing over their shoulders and receding, watching them recede, spying his limbs strewn in the trees of the forest around him, these ideas and many more, until he was just as frightened of the world behind his eyes as he was of the monster before him, and only because of this equity did he open them to the dog who lay placid as an ocean seen from space, fierce but distant, and entirely content without him.
And this chest held cash, in large bills for saving, in small bills for handy spending, and what this suggested was endless possibility anchored in safety, and this time when the sun went behind the eyes of the greatest and most awesome blue dog of all, the soldier nestled in the arms of an economic system yet to collapse, sleepy and warm in the dark of the beating chamber. In the womby light he dumped the jewels and lined his boots and cap with bills, stuffed his pockets in a stupor. Then he tugged the cord.
The witch hollered down: “Get that purse!” and he swept his eyes about until he found, in the dog’s afterglow, a limp black leather sack with a drawstring mouth, which he snatched as his feet left the ground. Up, up he went, waist-first, empty as a hollow tree. There he stood on the road in the forest, eye to eye with the witch, adjusting to the light, and nicely. There he stood feeling his money, gripping the wrinkled pouch in his fist. “This is what you want?” the soldier said.
“Yes, and give it to me. You have everything,” said the witch.
“Do you know my mother?” the soldier asked the witch. He peered at her eyes, which were the eyes of a rat—who knows—perhaps they were really the eyes of squirming rats that the witch had carved out and taken for her own. Who knew if she’d ever had her own eyes. Who knew what was behind them, if she’d lost them or had them taken from her by her own mother. “I was on my way to find her,” said the soldier, holding the purse so she could see it, letting a threatening skepticism control his voice, “when, what do you know, I met you.”
“How would I know? Give me that purse. I know some people. How do I know what they do with their loins? I’m just a witch. Give me that purse.”
The soldier picked up the rope, which had dropped in a heap from around his waist. He pushed the witch up against the tree, so that she blocked the hole in it, and then he bound her there.
“Let me go and I’ll tell you how to make the purse work,” said the witch. “I know you’re a bottomless pit and you know, too, you fool. You’ve known it your whole life. Now let me go.”
“Tell me first, witch. Tell me or I’ll tell everyone who you are, because I know who you are, and I know what you’re keeping from me.”
“You don’t know anything,” said the witch. But then she told him. She said: “When you need the purse, the purse will say: ‘I am an old purse with a pursed mouth and squeezed-out skin. I am a purse like a pot you put things in. I am the thing from which all things come and go. I am empty, and I am full, and that is all you need to know.’”
“That’s what the purse will say?”
“That’s what it will say. When you need it, that’s what the purse will say. You don’t need to know anything.”
The soldier thought about that. He thought about what he knew about witches from rumors and from experience. “But I still won’t know what to do,” he said. The more he looked, the more the witch looked both more and less like his mother. He couldn’t tell. It was like she kept shifting, being more like his mother in one way, but then less in another. He could hardly remember that he had any money at all. He tried to hold on to the thought of having money, because of what it meant for his future. But it was slippery.
“You put your mouth to its mouth,” said the witch. “You don’t call with your voice, but you call with your mind, and your tongue, into the darkness. You close your eyes and feel it there. You will know what to do. You will want what you want, and there it will be.”
So he gave up making any sense of her, but he could tell she was making fun of him and making him feel lewd. He had been planning to leave her there to encounter some helpful woodland animal or else starve, but instead he took his hunting knife and stabbed her, once, in the stomach, and all the blood and air came rushing out of her until she was one empty black rag sack tied to the tree like something—well—a little like many things but still like nothing he could put a finger on.
He went into town. He went to a bar and challenged a man to darts, and he won beer after beer playing darts. There was a girl there he recognized from high school who did not recognize him back. They went to her place. She’d grown much older than he had. He tried to see the girl she might have become within the girl she was, but all he could see was her. They ate cheese and crackers from her cabinets and she was happy to do just about any sexual thing you can think of with him, which they did for several hours, although her skin was bad and she was drunk and so emotionally confusing he stopped paying attention. In the morning, light slid in enough to show all the dirt. Her place smelled like the inside of a body. “Aren’t you going to take me to breakfast, even?” she asked. First he said: “Sure. I’ll take you anywhere you want. I’ll take you places you’ve never been,” but then he reached into his pockets, just to lay his fingers on his cash, and there was nothing in there but a handful of ash, and same in his boots, and same in his hat. So he went into the hallway, his heart frantic, and stared at the purse, willing it to speak, but it said nothing. So he ripped at the mouth of the purse until it opened. He put his mouth to its mouth, though it disgusted him more than anything: more than the girl with her pustuled skin, or the witch before her, or any moment in any war he knew or heard of, or anything his mother could ever have done or said, no matter what she ever really did or said, or any thought he’d ever had that he’d ever tried not to think. There has never been a thing so awful as being mouth to mouth and there’s nothing there. Oh god, and what about the dogs, what about the dogs, saying nothing, so blue and enormous, with their eyes, with everything in the world, fierce and dopey and incomprehensible. Never coming to our rescue even when we don’t deserve it.