The Baku’s Bride by Jon David Stroud

Each night, her husband returns with a bellyful of other people’s nightmares. She, who seldom rests now, waits for his return. This time she fills in filling, herself, so that she may fill him. Her husband is not large, though he seems large, ever so large to her. Her husband is not large, but there is marvelous room in him, spacious volumes to contain a host of furies. They never trouble his digestion.

The first night they were wed, she dreamed of an early day in spring. Her grandmother calling her in from the garden, the garden where a little apple tree grew, that had just begun to bear tart, small apples. Her husband’s breath had stirred the leaves, the apples had ceased to be, she no longer dreamed of apples. The next morning, which in her new household was sundown, he had been cross and sullen.

The second night she shared his home, her mother-in-law brought her a good, hot tea. This tea had bled her of her troubles, she had felt some joy and much weariness. When she slept she dreamed of her sister’s wedding. It had been a beautiful night, a summer night. No one had slept, but they had eaten, and of all the things they had eaten, she remembered, dreaming, eating her own grandmother’s cakes. Her sister had fed them to her right from her hand, plump, soft, fluffy cakes with sweet delicious bean paste inside. In the dream her mouth watered for the delicacy. Somewhere small frogs chirped, fairy lights were strung from tree to tree. Her husband’s teeth she could hear gnashing, but the little cake remained untouched. The pattern, the beautiful golden fish and sun-moon pattern her mother had sewn to her sister’s wedding dress, this disappeared instead, stitch by stitch, until she awoke. And again he was quiet and cross.

For weeks, a nightmare rode her father, the fisherman. He would tell no one the nature of this nightmare, but anyone could see its shape, they had only to look for the impression of its sharp corners, its unfeeling weight. His eyes became lusterless, shadows pooled and caught in places of his face that should not have been there for them. His three daughters worried for him.

She was his oldest, the comforter. “Father, please tell this dream, to me, to the tallest god, to the best god, to your mother who will know its meaning and be able to send it away from you!” But implore him as much as she could, he would not yield. This dream, he said, could not be sent away. This dream, he said, was sent by God, and so God could not lift it, not when he was tallest, not when he was best, for he had sent it when he was most grim and knowing, most un-changeable, and would never take it away. It was a death dream, he said, and so he would dream it until it came to pass, and he died. His youngest beautiful daughter wept for him, out of duty and love. Love, because he was a kind father, duty because she knew it was seemly for a daughter to mourn her father’s peace of mind. His clever middle daughter wept for him, out of fear and out of love. Love, because he was a patient father, fear, because she knew what could become of her mother and her sisters without him to care for them. His oldest daughter, comforter, wept for him, out of only love. Only love, because nothing besides love could induce her to weep.

She told him stories to make the night a friendlier place, but each time the sun came up, he was less and less a man. At last when all seemed lost, her husband, the dream eater, came to them. “I have been listening to your sad prayers, I have been listening on your rooftop, and I have come to save you this horror,” said he. He was a thing like she had never seen before, all sleek, grey fur like a cat’s fur, or like smoke. His ears were big as dinner plates, so it was no wonder he had heard their prayers. His feet were like a tiger’s, his eyes were like an owl’s and they made a light of their own. He had no mouth or nose, but instead he had a sucking hole at the end of his long tapering face. With this he spoke, and snuffled at the pillow, and ate, though they never saw him eat.

But he was handsome to her at that moment, for hideousness can be. “All I ask in exchange, is that the daughter who tells the wonderful stories become my bride, and come to live with me at the top of the mountain. She I will care for, if she will care for me.” And she had said yes, and had climbed onto his back, and seen her family disappear, and come to his house at the top of the mountain. The goblins that lived on the mountaintop, faceless or long-necked or hairy-handed, had given her a wide berth. And there she had lived ever since, sweeping and entertaining and discharging all her wifely duties to satisfaction, all save one.

She could not make him happy, and she knew why. She asked her mother-in-law, “Mother, how can I dream a dream that will please my husband?” But her mother-in-law said she understood only how to make the good-dream tea, and if that was not enough to satisfy her son, then the end of her knowingness had indeed been reached.

She went out to sweep in front of the house, which was indeed a neat and warm house, even if it was a cave on top of the mountain. She was wondering what was lacking in herself, when she saw what looked like an old man down the road, trying to make his way up the winding path through the trees. She went to help him and was shocked when he looked up at her to reveal an upside down face, with eyes that stared uncannily from above his chin, a mouth that held a pipe on his forehead, and a nose fit only to sniff at the sky. He was altogether horrible to see, and he leered and rolled his improbably featured head around on his neck, but nonetheless she asked if he needed assistance.

The old man was somewhat taken aback. “Aren’t you frightened, little woman? Aren’t I a fright? A spook? Why don’t you scream and run, or faint?” He looked honestly curious, if she was reading the right expression on his odd face.

“No doubt you are very frightening, but I am somewhat accustomed to such sights. You are no more terrible in aspect than any of my neighbors, and they seem not bad folk, if a little uncouth in their ways.” She smiled at him, and wondered if she had offended him. Evidently not, as he allowed her to take his arm and help him to his house, a damp plot of earth with bones on top of it underneath an ancient pine tree. On the way, she told him of her difficulty.

“Ah, the Baku’s wife. That explains a few things,” he said, “perhaps I can help you after all. Listen to what I have to say, and heed it well, and we will see if you are not the better for it later.”

Once there was a warrior with four grandmothers, who all knew the secret of making bread from gold. This was a secret no one coveted, and the warrior went walking to find his fox. He found it at last behind a tree, churning butter. “This butter is from the milk of all the cicadas in the wood, and is for the bird and river king. You must take it to him,” it said, and so the warrior took the little cup of butter. Before he found the bird and river king, a witch who was washing her hair saw him and stood behind him half of the way there, and at last made him faint with weariness. She took the butter and was going to swallow it down, when the man was suddenly awakened by the fox’s yelping. Without a word to her he cut her left foot, and she fell down as a heap of bracken, which she always was, and he made off into the night.

She bowed and thanked him, and left him to return to her home. She did not know what to make of his strange story, but that night, when at last she’d worn herself out with trying to tease some message from it, she had a very peculiar dream. She dreamed of four old women, who asked her the secret to making bread from gold. She told them she did not know, and they laughed and said that they would show her. A fox brought them a cup full of butter, and an old man with an upside down face let her kiss his nose while they dumped whole palaces of gold into a hole in the earth. This hole they filled up, and waited for her to have two children, which she did, and then they removed the earth and took the bread out, and a witch came and seasoned it with longing, and her hands were made of wood, and a warrior sliced it in half, and suddenly there was her husband’s peculiar inhalation, and then there was no more bread.

The next sunset, when her husband came to sit before her, he was well pleased, and he laughed loud, and his laugh, she was surprised to hear, was like the singing of a bird. He told her of the wonderful meal he had had, of her dream that had been all the flakiness and warmth of gold, all the fullness of a quest, all the sweetness of a quest unfulfilled. She blushed with pleasure.

The next night she went out to look for the little old man, but she could not find him anywhere. Sighing, she resigned herself to another unpleasant morning. As she climbed back up toward her home, she heard someone weeping. A woman about her age, perhaps a year or two younger, was sobbing by the roadside. She didn’t know this woman, but approached her tenderly, hoping to console her. Just when she was about to lay her hand on the woman’s shoulder, she whirled around and let out a frightful screech. The woman’s eyes were so bloodshot they were almost entirely red, her face sagged awfully, her teeth were long and pointed, like sharp stones that had been set carelessly one beside the other. The woman-thing soared up and she saw that its feet were claws. When it landed again, it landed on its hands, and she saw that its hands were feet.

Although she was startled by all this, she wondered if the creature had behaved so because she had caught it off guard. “Were you crying? Are you alright?” she asked it, taking a step nearer. The woman-thing balked and made as if to flee, or perhaps scramble up a tree. At last it seemed to realize its mistake and let out a laugh that was like the low hooting of an owl. “You are the Baku’s wife, are you not? I have heard of you! I am sorry if I upset you at all. We are neighbors. Come, let me take you to my home, and we will have tea.”

The woman-thing’s home was a ruined shrine deep in the woods, where no starlight penetrated. Its tea was delicious and earthy. In the course of their conversation, she told it all about her troubles with her husband. “I can see your problem. Well, perhaps I can help you as well,” it said, and with that it began this tale.

Once there were two winds, that bet each other which could make a nicer garden. The first sought out the Buddha, and the Buddha told it what to do. The second blew all over the world gathering the seeds of every flowering thing. When the time of judging came, the gardens were as different as they could be. The second wind’s garden was a riot of colors and fragrances, botanical chaos. The first wind’s garden was merely a single beautiful and unique bloom, the likes of which had never before been seen on earth. The first wind explained that it had blown up to the moon, and taken some seed from the flowers there, and brought them and tended them exquisitely. The Buddha pronounced it the winner. A passing wolf said it disagreed, and that it would rather have all the world’s abundance than just one thing only precious because of its frailness and novelty. So the Buddha agreed that the wolf was a better judge, and the wolf chased a rabbit through the two gardens, and the rabbit devoured the moonflower, and the wolf trampled the Garden of the World.

She wished her new friend goodbye, and thought about the story it had told her. Perhaps there was a moral to it, perhaps there was not, she could not quite tell. That night, she dreamed of a river on which floated all the blooms of the world. In the river swam many rabbits, thousands of rabbits, a whole sea of snow white fur. The rabbits ate the moons, all the moons which were the reflections of the moon in the sky. And then she heard her husband’s tongue, licking, slurping as if to dredge the last bit of goodness from the bottom of a bowl, and then she woke up.

That sunset her husband was boisterous, jovial. He embraced her, and his fur was soft, softer than anything she had felt before, as soft as sleep, twice as plush as any down. His embrace was tender, and when his long snout tickled her ear, she found it gentle. His snout was also covered in fur, but finer than the fur of his pelt, dustier, velvety. This fur she delighted in stroking most of all.

The next day, when her chores were completed, the woman went out walking as was now her custom. Before long, as she expected she would, she spied a boy a little ways off the path. The boy was turned from her, and was reaching his arms up. Just out of his reach a little paper bird had become caught in a low branch. She went over to him and plucked the toy from its perch, and when she turned to hand it to him was not surprised at all to find that his one eye was inches from her face, his head having projected itself out from his body on a long snaking neck. “Is this your toy?” she asked him. He blinked at her, catfish mouth gaping.

The boy’s house was a deserted eagle’s nest high in the craggy mountain fastnesses. She told him of her adventures, and of the events of her day. She made no mention of her troubles to him, for they seemed now remote to her. He for his part was an excellent joker, loved to jeer and jest and laugh like thunder. He told her he was not, had never really been a child, and that the only one on this mountain older than himself was the mountain. She for her part told him a story she had been thinking of, and he told her one in exchange, and this is how it went.

The gods spilt some light on the earth once, a green and violet light that covered everything. There was no more night or day, and everything was a strangeness. The cherries tasted nothing like they had before. At last when she could stand it no longer the grasshopper’s daughter took pieces of her favorite shawl and bound them together into a perfect fan. With this fan she covered her face and went out walking. Before long a dragon that was curled up in the lap of a water lily saw the heavenly vision, and in his longing for her he became immense. He followed her all over the sky, and she led him down a path that twisted all over the world. Everywhere they went his scales and feathers brushed the light from the sky until all its sheen was swept into him. They are married now, and she lives in a house far to the north, so small that there is only room for the dragon’s head along with herself and all her possessions. But the dragon does not mind, and if you go there, the long body can still be seen trailing through the sky.

That night she dreamed of an incomparable radiance. In her dream, the beautiful light was being stirred by her mother, and she was brush, brush, brushing her mother’s hair. Her mother told her to please bring a pearl from the back of the dragon’s throat. So she sang to the dragon, a song she had heard only twice from her grandfather’s mouth when she was a girl. And the dragon opened his jaws and she plucked one of the pearls from the back of his throat. And as she dropped it into the pot she felt the kiss of her husband on her neck, and heard him mewl with delight.

The next morning her husband at first said nothing, but came to her and laid his head in her lap. “The meal you fed me last night was perfect. I can gorge myself on nightmares for the rest of time and be content with the deliciousness of that flowing black hair, that pearly luster, that weird light. You are released from your bondage. No mortal girl should be forced to live amongst unclean spirits and bugbears merely to fulfill the caprice of an aging gourmand with nothing to offer but the purging of a small nightmare. Go with my blessing, and take with you any precious thing from my cave.” He spoke all these things with a pitiable resignation, but when he was done she laughed. “You are my husband. I am a fisherman’s eldest daughter who you loved before you ever saw her, because you loved her stories. My neighbors are generous, hospitable folk. My house is neat and beautiful. I am content and will remain so for as long as I am permitted to stay.”

She lives there still, with her husband. She reads all night long, filling herself to fill him, with ghost stories and fairy stories and stories of women and men who had marvelous lives. She reads also news of the goings on in the furthest parts of the world. She has learned something about cooking, and that is that much of a dish’s savor is in finding superior ingredients. You can borrow them from your neighbors if you must. He comes home with a bellyful of other people’s nightmares every night. But her dreams are always of the sweet kind.

Jon David Stroud is a writer just embarking on his literary career. He is currently attending school in the Midwest pursuing a degree in the narrative arts. He is an avid believer in fairytales. His work can also be found in the literary magazine Gingerbread House.

He eats three or four red apples a day, green if they cannot be had, and is always hungry for more. His other craving is for ghost stories, even though they give him nightmares.

Back to Issue 4: Hungry Things

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