Choice of Ending
By Tanya Huff
Originally published in Maiden, Matron, Crone
DAW Books Inc. May 2005
and used with permission of the author
Tanya Huff is one of the most prominent Canadian authors in the category of contemporary fantasy. CHUM Television and Kaleidoscope Entertainment began filming September 2006 in Vancouver for Blood Ties, based on Huff's Victory Nelson novels. We are very pleased to reprint this short story of Descent set in Toronto that tells the tale of Mrs. Ruth, avatar of the Crone.
[Image: "Old Woman With Toad" by Judy Somerville and used with permission]
When the phone began to ring, several people within the morning rush heading for the Spadina subway station literally jumped. The incessant 27/7 warble of cell phones from pockets and purses hadn't prepared them for the strident and insistent ring of old technology. A couple of the older commuters actually moved to pick up — their responses set in a childhood before Call Answer when such a ring demanded immediate attention. One after another, they changed their minds upon actually reaching the booth. Perhaps it was the prevalent scent of urine, or a perfectly valid fear of catching something virulent from the grimy receiver, or the sudden certain knowledge that the call couldn't possibly be for them.
And the phone rang on.
"All right, all right, I'm coming. Don't get your damned panties in a twist!" An elderly woman dressed in several layers of grimy clothing pushed a heavily loaded shopping cart along the crowded sidewalk, scattering pedestrians like pigeons. Although collisions seemed unavoidable, no collisions occurred. A heavily perfumed young woman did snap one heel off a pair of expensive shoes after making an observation about street people and personal hygiene and asylums, but that was probably a coincidence.
Possibly a coincidence.
Actually, not likely to be coincidence at all.
The shopping cart finally parked by the booth. A gnarled hand, gnawed fingernails surprisingly clean, picked up the receiver.
The ringing stopped.
The sudden silence turned heads.
And the city dweller's innate ability to ignore the poor, the crazy, and most rules of common courtesy turned heads away again.
The voice on the other end of the phone was pleasantly modulated, genderless, and just a little smug. "Mrs. Ruth, this is your third and final warning. The power is about to pass. Please see that your affairs are in order."
Mrs. Ruth, the eldest avatar of the triple Goddess, She who was age and wisdom and kept council during the dark of the moon, slammed the receiver back down onto the phone, coughed for a while, spat a large gob of greenish-yellow phlegm onto the stained concrete and snarled, "Bite me."
She'd known her time was ending for months now. It was, after all, what she did. What she was. She knew things. She knew the name of every pigeon who'd lost its home when the university tore down Varsity Stadium. She knew the hidden places and the small lives that lived in them. She knew the pattern of the larger lives that filled the city with joy and laughter and fear and pain. She knew that something was going to happen only she could prevent, and she bloody well wasn't going anywhere until it did and she had.
"They can come and get me if they want me to go that badly!" she told a passing driver as she crossed Bloor Street against the lights, deftly moving her cart through the places the cars weren't. The driver may have questioned how he could hear her, given that his windows were up, his air conditioning was turned on, and he was singing along with a Justin Timberlake CD his daughter had left in the car, but she didn't stop to find out if he had. Another day she would have; questions were her stock in trade. Today, she didn't have time.
The trouble with knowing things was that not everything known was pleasant. There had always been dark places in the pattern. She acknowledged them, kept an eye on them, and if asked for her help, assisted in removing them.
Asked for her help. That was the sticking point.
"I can't just go fixing things willy nilly," she pointed out to a young man jogging past.
Without really knowing why, he slowed and asked, "Why not?"
"Well, what will you learn from that?" Mrs. Ruth responded. "That I can fix things?" She blew a moist raspberry. "You have to learn to fix things yourself. I'm just a tool in the great toolbox of life."
"But what if you can't fix that... thing on your own? What if you've tried and it stays unfixed?"
"Ah, then you have to learn just who to ask for help. Your parents have been married for what, twenty-nine years?"
"You think that maybe they know a thing or two about staying together?"
"My parents have always said they won't interfere in my life."
"So I should ask them..."
"Ask them what they had to do to make their relationship work." Which was, quite possibly, the most direct answer she'd given in thirty years.
Not that it seemed to matter. "Just ask them, bubba."
He frowned at her then and reached into his belt pouch. "Power bar?"
And off he jogged, feeling good about himself because of a little effortless charity. He'd already forgotten the conversation, but that didn't matter. The things he'd needed to know he already knew were lying along the surface of his thoughts where they'd do him some good.
Mrs. Ruth snorted as she watched him jog away. Time was she could have spun her answers out for blocks, switching between allegory and insult at will. No one appreciated words of wisdom that seemed to arrive too easily. Trouble with common sense was that folks had stopped appreciating anything considered common. Granted, they'd stopped some time between coming out of the trees and walking erect, but it still pissed her off.
Time wasn't. That was the problem.
The wheel of life turned. Sometimes, it ran over a few hearts on the way. As a rule, her job was to remind folk that there wasn't a damned thing they could do about it.
"Why did this happen to me?"
"It's not fair!"
"No, it isn't."
"How can I stop this!"
But she could. It was within her power to change the pattern — if she could just hang onto that power long enough. She was not having her end and this particular bit of darkness coincide.
"I'm not denying that it's time," she muttered at her reflection, keeping pace in the windows of parked cars. "There are days I feel more tired than wise."
Her reflection snorted. "Then let go."
"No. I can't let it happen again."
"You can't stop it from happening again, you old fool."
Mrs. Ruth sighed and raised a hand to rub at watering eyes. That was true enough where it referred to the general rather than the specific. But she could stop this particular it from happening, and she was going to.
With only one hand guiding it, the shopping cart twisted sideways and slammed into the side of a royal blue sedan. The car alarm screamed out a protest.
The alarm emitted one final, somewhat sulky bleep then fell silent.
Shaking her head, Mrs. Ruth dug into the deeps of the cart, shoving aside old newspapers, her entire wardrobe except for the blue socks which she'd left hanging on the bushes by the church, and eighteen faded grocery bags filled with empty Girl Guide cookie boxes and Tabasco sauce. Down near the top half of the 1989 Yellow Pages, she found a coupon for complimentary body work at Del's Garage on Davenport Rd at Ossington. Del had played highschool football with the owner of the car and was about to be in desperate need of a good lawyer. The owner of the car had married a very good lawyer.
"There." She shoved it under the windshield wipers. "Two for one. Don't say I never did nothing for you. And stop staring at me!"
Her reflection suddenly became very interested in getting a bit of secret sauce off the sleeve of her shapeless black sweater.
Frowning slightly, Mrs. Ruth laid her palm against the warm curve of glass and wondered when her joints had grown so prominent, her fingers so thin. She remembered her hands fat and dimpled. "You look old," she said softly.
Under the crown of her messy grey braid, the lines on her reflection's face rearranged themselves into a sad smile. "So do you."
"You look older!"
"Excuse me, are you all right?"
Mr. Ruth turned toward the young woman standing more than a careful arm's length away — compassion's distance in the city. "When he asks you how you did it, tell him it's a secret. Trust me; things'll go a lot better if he never knows."
Or had that already happened? Past and future threads had become twisted together.
And why was she speaking Korean when the girl was clearly Vietnamese?
"No! Not now!" Her hands closed around the bar of her shopping cart, and she closed her eyes to better see the fraying threads of her power and draw them back to her. Through force of will she rewove the connections. Breathing heavily — a moment later or ten, she had no idea — she opened her eyes to see the young woman still standing there but clearly ready to run. "I'm fine," she told her through clenched teeth. "Really, I'm fine."
With no choice but to believe, the girl nodded and walked quickly away.
On the corner of College and Spadina, a phone began to ring.
"I will repeat this only one more time," Mrs. Ruth growled in its general direction. "Bite. Me. Mange. Moi."
People moved out of her way as she hobbled toward the Eaton's Center. Most of her scowl came from the pain of a cracked tooth caused by all the clenching. Most.
* * *
In nice weather, he ate lunch on a bench outside the north end of the Center where he watched small children roll past in strollers or dangling from the hands of hurrying adults. These children were too young but he enjoyed speculating on how they would grow. This one would suddenly be all legs, awkward and graceful simultaneously, like a colt. That one would be husky well into his teens when suddenly his height would catch up with his weight. Her hair would darken. His dimples would be lost. After his sandwich, his apple, and his diet cola, he'd go back into the store. Later, when school was out, he'd help the parents of older children buy expensive clothing, clothing the child would grow out of or grow tired of long before they'd gotten their money's worth from the piece. The store had a customer appreciation program — every five hundred dollars spent entered the child's name in a drawing for the latest high-tech wonder. Names and ages and addresses were collected in a secure data base. Where secure meant accessible only by store staff.
She knew all this when she lowered herself down beside him on the bench and arranged the layers of her stained black skirts over her aching legs. "I won't let it happen, bubba."
Knowing what he knew, hiding what he hid, he should have asked, "Let what happen?" and that question would have given her a part of him. Every question she drew out after that would have given her a little more. It was how conversations worked and conversations could be directed. Direct the conversation, direct the person having it.
But he said only, "All right."
White noise. Nothing given.
"Everyone has limits. I've reached mine."
He said, "Okay." Then he folded his sandwich bag and slid it into his pocket.
Her presence used to be enough to make them open up. Today, holding on to her power by will alone, not even leading statements were enough. Should she release enough power to draw him to her, she'd lose it all before she had time to deal with what he was.
He stepped on his empty diet cola can, compressing it neatly. Then he scooped it up and stood.
Mrs. Ruth stood as well.
His smile said, as clearly as if he'd spoken aloud, "You can't stop me."
A sub-conscious statement that he had no idea he was making.
"Oh right! You're a big man facing down an old lady! I ought to run over your toes until you can't walk!" He looked startled by her volume, admittedly impressive for a woman her age. More startled still when she grabbed his sleeve. "How'd you like a little Tabasco sauce where the sun don't shine!"
"Okay, that's enough." The police constable's large hand closed around her wrist and gently moved her hand back to her side. Fine. Let the law handle it. Except she couldn't just tell him what she knew; he had to ask.
She glared up at him. "Never eat anything with mayo out of a dumpster — all kinds of evil things hiding in that bland whiteness."
She was hoping for: "What the hell are you talking about?"
Or even: "Say what?"
But all she got was: "Words to live by, I'm sure. Now move along and stop bothering people."
Over her years on the street she'd met most of Toronto's finest — a great many of them even were — but this big young man with the bright blue eyes, she didn't know. "Move along? Move along? Listen bubba, I owned these streets while you were still hanging off your mother's tit!"
"Hey!" A big finger waved good naturedly at her. "Leave my mother out of this."
"Your mother..." No, better not go there. "I can't leave yet. I have something to do."
When the bright blue eyes narrowed, Mrs. Ruth realized she'd been speaking Hungarian. She hadn't spoken Hungarian since she was nine. The power was unraveling again. By the time she wove things back into a semblance of normalcy, the cop was gone, he was gone, she was sitting alone on the bench, and the sun was low in the sky.
She had no time to find a Hero, and the other Aspects were too far away even if they'd agree to help. Which they wouldn't. The Goddess was a part of what kept this world balanced between the light and the dark. She was the fulcrum on which the balance depended. Should the balance shift in either direction, her aspects would come together to right it, but this... evil was nothing unusual. Not dark enough to tip the scales and with light enough in the world to balance it.
"Business as per bloody usual."
And all very well if only the big picture got considered. One thing the years had taught her — her, not the Goddess — was that the big picture didn't mean bupkas to those caught by the particulars.
Getting a good grip on her shopping cart, Mrs. Ruth heaved herself up onto her feet. She could still see to the point where the dark pattern intersected with her life, although she no longer had strength enough to see further. Fine. If she followed the weft to that place, she'd have one more chance.
"The Gods help those who help themselves."
Laughing made her cough, but hell— without a sense of humor she might as well already be dead so, laughing and coughing, she slowly pushed her cart north on Yonge Street. She couldn't move quickly but neither could she be stopped.
"After all," she told two young women swaying past on too-high heels, "I am inevitable."
The elder of the two paled. The younger merely sniffed and tossed pale curls.
That made her laugh harder.
Phones rang as she passed, handing off booth to booth, south to north like an electronic relay.
At Yonge and Irwin, a middle-aged woman held her chirping cell phone up under frosted curls, frowned, and swept a puzzled gaze over the others also waiting for traffic to clear. When Mrs. Ruth pushed between an elderly Asian man and a girl with a silver teardrop tattooed on one cheek, her eyes cleared. She took a step forward as the cart bounced off the curb — boxes rattling, newspapers rustling — and held out her phone.
"It's for you."
Mrs. Ruth snorted. "Take a message."
"They say it's important."
"Do they? What makes their important more important than mine?" When the woman began to frown again, she rolled her eyes. "Hand it over."
The phone lay ludicrously small on her palm. She folded her fingers carefully around it and lifted what she hoped was the right end to her mouth. "She has to pay for this call, you inconsiderate bastards." Then she handed the bit of metal and plastic back and said, "Hang up."
She used as little power as she could but it was enough diverted that she lost another thread or two or three... Breathing heavily, she tightened her grasp on those remaining.
At Bloor Street she crossed to the north side and turned west, moving more slowly now, her feet and legs beginning to swell, the taste of old pennies in the back of her throat.
"Could be worse," she found the breath to mutter as she approached Bay. "Could be out in the suburbs."
"Could be raining," rasped a voice from under a sewer grate.
She nodded down at bright eyes. "Could be."
From behind the glass that held them in the museum, the stone temple guardians watched her pass. Fortunately the traffic passing between them was still heavy enough, in spite of the deepening night, that she could ignore their concern.
By the time she reached Spadina, more and more of her weight was on the cart. When the phone at the station began to ring, she shot a look toward it so redolent with threat that it hiccupped once and fell silent.
"Right back where... I started from." Panting she wrestled the cart off the curb, sneered at a street car, and defied gravity to climb the curb on the other side. "Should've just spent the day... sitting in the... sun."
By the time she turned north on Brunswick, the streets were nearly empty, the rush of people when restaurants and bars closed down already dissipated. How had it taken her so long to walk three short blocks? Had she stopped? She couldn't remember stopping.
"Oh no, you don't!" Snarling, she yanked the power back. "When. I. Choose."
Overhead, small black shapes that weren't squirrels ran along the wires and in and out of the dappled darkness thrown by the canopies of ancient trees.
"Elderly trees," she snorted. "Nothing ancient in this part of the world but me."
"You're upsetting the balance."
She stared down at the little man in the red cap perched on the edge of her cart, twisting the cap off one of the bottles of Tabasco sauce. "Not so much it can't be set right the moment I'm gone. Trust me..." Her brief bark of laughter held no mirth. "...I know things."
"You're supposed to be gone now," he pointed out, and took a long drink.
That clearly wasn't the answer he'd been expecting. "So... you're not."
"And they say Hobs aren't the smartest littles in the deck."
"You know." She thought she could risk taking one hand off the cart handle long enough to gesture. She was wrong. The cart moved one way. She moved the other.
"You're bleeding." The Hob squatted beside her and wrinkled his nose.
"No shit." Left knee. Right palm. Concrete was much tougher than old skin stretched translucent thin over bone. She wouldn't have made it back to her feet without the Hob's help. Like most of the littles, he was a lot stronger than he appeared, and he propped her up until she could get both sets of fingers locked around the shopping cart handle once again. "Thanks."
He shrugged. "It seems important to you."
She didn't see him leave, but it was often that way with the grey folk who moved between the dark and light. She missed his company, however brief it had been, and found herself standing at the corner of Brunswick and Wells wondering why she was there.
The night swam in and out of focus.
Halfway down the block, a door closed quietly.
Mrs. Ruth staggered forward, clutching the pattern so tightly she began to lose her grip on the power. She could feel her will spread out over the day, stretched taut behind her from the first phone call to this moment.
This moment. The moment her part of the pattern crossed his.
A shadow reached the sidewalk in the middle of the block, a still form draped over one shoulder. The shadow, the still form, and her. No one else on the street. No one peering down out of a darkened window. A light on in the next block — too far.
This was the reason she'd stayed.
The world roared in her ears as she reached him. Roared, and as she clutched desperately at the fraying edges, departed.
He turned. Looked at her over the flannel covered curve of the child he carried.
It took a certain kind of man to break silently into a house, to walk silently through darkened halls to the room of a sleeping child, and to carry that child away, drugged to sleep more deeply still. The kind of man who knew how to weigh risk.
She was falling. Moments passing between one heart beat and the next. Her power had passed. She was no risk to him.
His smile said, as clearly as if he'd spoken aloud, "You can't stop me."
It was funny how she could see his smile when she could see so little else.
Then he turned to carry the child to his car.
As the sidewalk rose up to slap against her, curiously yielding, Mrs. Ruth threw out an arm and with all she had left, with the last strength of one dying old woman who was no more and no less than that, she shoved the cart into his heel.
Few things hurt worse than a heavily laden shopping cart suddenly slamming into unprotected bone. He stumbled, tripped, fell forward. His head slammed into the car he'd parked behind, bone impacting with impact resistant door.
The car alarm shrieked.
Up and down the street, cars joined in the chorus.
"Thief! Thief! Thief!"
Their vocabulary was a little limited, she thought muzzily, but their hearts were in the right place.
Lights came on.
Go into the light.
"In a minute." Mrs. Ruth brushed off the front of her black sweater, pleased to feel familiar substantial curves under her hand, and watched with broad satisfaction as doors opened and, one after another, the child's neighbors emerged to check on their cars.
Cars had alarms; children didn't. She frowned. Should have done something about that when she still had the time.
He stood. A little dazed, he shoved the shopping cart out of his way. Designed to barely remain upright at the best of times, the cart toppled sideways and crashed to the concrete, spilling black cloth, empty boxes, and bottles of Tabasco sauce. One bottle bounced and broke as it hit the pavement a second time directly in front of the child's face. The fumes cut through the drug and she cried.
He started to run then, but he didn't get far. The city was on edge; it said so in the papers. These particular representatives of the city were more than happy to take out their fear on so obvious a target.
The Crone is wisdom. Knowledge. She advises. She teaches. She is not permitted to interfere.
"She didn't. I did. The power passed before I acted. I merely used the power to get to the right place at the right time. No rules against that."
You knew that would happen.
Not exactly a question. Mrs. Ruth answered it anyway. "Nope, I'd had it. Reached my limit. I had every intention of blasting the son of a bitch right out of his Italian loafers. Fortunately for the balance of power, I died."
The silence that followed filled with the sound of approaching sirens.
But the cart...
"Carts are tricksy things, bubba. Fall over if you so much as look at them wrong."
And the Tabasco sauce?
"What? There's rules against condiments now?"
You are a very irritating person.
"Thank you." She frowned as her body was lifted onto a stretcher. "I really let myself go there at the end."
Does it matter?
"I suppose not. I was never a vain woman."
You were cranky, surly, irritable, self-righteous, annoying, and generally bad tempered.
"But not vain."
The child remained wrapped in her mother's arms as the paramedic examined her. The drugs had kept her from being frightened and now she looked sleepy, and confused. Her mother looked terrified enough for both of them.
"They'll hold her especially tightly now, cherish each moment. When she gets older, she'll find their concern suffocating, but she'll come through her teenage rebellions okay because the one thing she'll never doubt will be her family's love. She'll have a good life, if not a great one, and the threads of that life will weave in and about a thousand other lives that never would have known her if not for tonight."
The power has passed. You can't know all that.
Mrs. Ruth snorted. "You really are an idiot, aren't you?" She pulled a pair of sunglasses from the pocket of her voluminous skirt and put them on. "All right, I'm ready. Life goes on."
But you knew it would.
"Not the point, bubba." She turned at the edge of the light for one last look. It wasn't, if she said so herself, a bad ending.
Maiden, Matron, Crone
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