Telling Tales 145
Forethought and Afterthought
The man who once went by the name Bulat blinked his astonishment as the door to the kitchen slammed shut with a mighty crash.
“What made you think she would enjoy hearing about a forest?” asked the innkeeper from where he fumed by the fireplace.
“I hoped she would let me finish…”
“There’s more?” asked the husband. He snorted his anger and dropped the load of wood he had carried in. Although he had done his best to brush off the snow that clung to him and the lumber, a trail of melting white followed him in from the front door and gathered by him at the stone hearth. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll keep it to yourself.”
“I hadn’t even got to the part about the larch – ”
“How on earth is that important?”
“It’s why I started in the first place,” the traveler protested. “I thought that the part about the larch might have given her some comfort, perhaps.”
The innkeeper, having finished stacking the firewood, stomped back to the front door for another load. To keep the room warm all night would require much more wood than he currently had laid by. “Then maybe you should’ve started with that part,” he swore. Angry as he was, he did not slam the door on his way out. Their rooms were full of exhausted merchants, many of whom had drunk too much the night before and would not look kindly upon their new day beginning with the drumbeat of wood on wood.
The old man found himself alone in the great room. The fire burned bright and hot. Snow melted on the floor in drops, save for the pool next to where their host had set down the fuel for the day. With no one else to share the space, it seemed even larger than it had when it had only been him and the bartender. Her husband had arrived toward the end of the tale and hovered in silence. The old man had assumed he was interested in hearing how everything turned out, but now he suspected that the man had only stayed to make sure that his wife was okay. It was now looking like he might have been staying to make sure that she didn’t harm the old man for his story.
Every noise seemed louder in the sudden silence. The creaks of the floorboards as one or another merchant stretched, arose, dressed, or lay back down. The crack of water popping in wood and the hiss of its steam in the fireplace.
All things considered, the traveler thought, that could have gone much better. Before long, however, he was lost in thought over what the man had said, Maybe you should’ve started with that part. He had never told the story of Kareliya except the way he had told it this afternoon. Admittedly, his segue from the larch table to the väki‘s belief in the larch tree was a rather thin excuse to tell a story, and the coda that he had planned to add was nearly as weak. It wasn’t often he underestimated his audience as badly as he had this moment. “Could I help you, by chance?” he asked the innkeeper, who had returned with another load.
The man fixed him with a cold stare. “You can stay out of my way, and more to the point, you can stay out of hers.”
He shut the door carefully behind him, leaving the old man in no doubt that he would have slammed it any other time.