Oswald

There are days where the weather seems rife with magic. Days where the air sinks into your bones with something heavier than rain and cold, or where the sun turns a rain shower into sheets of gold. My grandmother, a child of an earlier time, called this fairy weather. The air is full of change, she told me, and change is what draws spirits in.

So it should be no surprise that it was in such weather that I met Oswald.

It was after my wedding, and the misty, dark weather suited my gloomy mood. The marriage was for convenience, not love, and though I did not hate my husband, I resented him for bringing me to this place. Instead of London’s smoke, which burned my lungs but reminded me of the people surrounding me, our home was surrounded by fog from the grey sea not far away. There seemed to be no people near us; the dark, twisted shadows of trees were the closest we had to neighbours.

Oswald found me in the midst of my loneliness, on a day where the air, heavy with change, clung to my skin. I had wandered away from the house, ignoring the chiding and warnings of ague from the old housemaid, to search for some form of life beyond the trees. I was rewarded with Oswald.

He was a curious thing, made from what seemed to be the same mist that surrounded us, and his face formed by wisps of smoke, never quite formed, constantly undulating. However, his expression never changed, not even as he greeted me, and yet I found comfort in it. I knew he was a friend to be had, and I was right.

He became the contact I craved; he was not human, I knew, but he spoke to me in the lightest whispers, comforting me and making me laugh. He knew what it was like to be in a strange place far from home. His face never moved, and his voice never changed from the gentlest whisper. Yet I understood him just the same as he understood me. Indeed, I drew more warmth from the static smoke of his features than I ever did from my husband’s smiles.

We spent the grey spring and faded yellow summer together. As my husband turned to work, I turned to exploration. Oswald guided me through the fields and forests around us, told me secrets of his world—the world beyond, as he called it.

“Where I am from is very different than here,” he whispered as we walked along the moor. The sun was out today, and his misty body had taken a golden hue. “For instance, we do not know charity. Everything has a price.”

“I do not understand.”

Oswald was silent for a long moment. “I do not give something for nothing. Even now, I would need payment for giving you my time.”

I frowned. “You’re saying I owe you for your friendship?”

Oswald turned his face to look at me, and he did not speak for a long time. Finally, I could almost imagine his still line of a mouth curving up.

“Do not worry. Your presence is payment enough for this.” He looked away. “Come, this way. I will show you where the nettles grow.”

One day, as we dallied by a river deep in the nearby forest, I asked how a being like him came to be called Oswald; it was a friendly name, one that I trusted, and yet I could not imagine it belonging to someone from another world. He found this funny; his laughter scratched in my ears. Oswald, he explained patiently, was not his true name, but one he used for my convenience. His true name was not easily understood by those like me.

I mulled this over, looking at his still, ethereal form as my toes dipped into the cool water.

“Are you an angel?” I finally asked. “Or a fairy?”

He contemplated this for a long time. “Both are close,” he finally said, voice soft as the leaves rustling above us. “But not quite.”

Even without knowing precisely what he was, I never wanted to leave him. Like a child, I routinely had to endure boiling-hot baths and scoldings about muddy shoes from the housemaid for staying out so long. She didn’t understand that Oswald couldn’t come inside.

For months I lived in this dream, talking, leaning, finding the charms of this cold, grey landscape with Oswald. But this all changed when I was with child.

I was not allowed to spend time outside, for both my health and the child’s. I felt I was going mad, cooped up in this stuffy house without my Oswald to talk to, to sympathize with me as I endured the sickness of pregnancy. When I could escape the housekeeper and my husband’s watch, I would steal off to the fields and forests and search for my friend, calling his name until my throat was raw. He never came.

More lonesome months passed; eventually I was too weighted down from the child to move much at all, and my confinement was increased to where I was completely bound to my bed. The child, a little girl, finally did come, but only after hours of agony. After causing me so much pain, I did not want to even look at her, but as a dutiful wife, I had no choice but to take her to my breast, caring for her as mothers are expected to.

My daughter was a sickly thing. I suspect this is in part because of my resentment toward her, which did not lessen. Regardless of the reason, she did not grow much in the weeks after her birth. The doctor was called in, and he insisted on caring for her outside when possible. The country air, he told my husband, was made for strengthening the weak. With a few months of sunlight and grass, she would be just as hearty as the children in town. So I sat with her in the sweet spring air, still playing the charade and whispering lies of how Mother loved her.

One day, the air was heavy despite the golden sunlight breaking through the clouds. I felt it with each breath, sinking in my lungs like a weight. This was when Oswald returned.

He came to me as I rocked the child to sleep, just as silently as he had met me. I began to weep when I noticed his gold-tinged mist. He looked just the same, face as static as ever. I was certain he was glad for the reunion as well, but he would not let me greet him.

“Your child is sickly,” he said to me, voice as soft as a light rain. He floated closer, his barely formed hand drifting toward the cradle, and yet he did not touch the porch. “She will not last the year.” His face tilted up to look at me, and then he drifted away.

“Oswald!” I leapt from the porch, hurrying after him. My feet sank in the soft earth, still slick from earlier rain. He stopped as I reached him, and I whispered, “Why did you not come to me? I looked for you! I was so alone.

He did not turn around. “I told you how my world works. I do not give something for nothing; you could not give me your full attention, so I could not give you mine.”

Again I found tears stinging my eyes. “Because of the child? I don’t want her!”

Oswald was silent, but he turned to look at me. For the first time, I saw his features flicker with the most subtle change, but only for a moment. Finally, he floated back to me.

“Please, Oswald,” I whispered, breathless as my fear and hatred of the child bubbled in my chest. “Please, help me. I will do anything.

The silence that passed was all-consuming; all I could hear was blood ringing in my ears. Finally, his head tilted forward. “Do you trust me?” he finally asked.

“Of course, I do.”

He was silent again for a long stretch, then his arms, nearly invisible against the fog that rose from the grass, reached out to me.

“I will help. For you,” he whispered, “I will do something for nothing.”

I do not recall what happened next, only that I awoke as I heard my husband call my name. My hands felt like ice; the wetness of the mud had seeped through my silk dress. I realized I was by the stream where Oswald explained his name; it was gorged and swift with water from the winter’s rain. My daughter was in my arms—cold, wet, still. Her wan face was tinged blue.

Oswald was not here.

I had not moved by the time my husband found me, with the housemaid and two officers following. The maid wailed over the baby, tearing her from my arms. The officers grabbed me roughly, hoisted me to my feet with mutters of “infanticide” and “hysteria”. I broke from my trance, began to scream and twist myself in the officers’ grip. Oswald could explain, Oswald would tell them that I hadn’t done this, even if I did hate the child. I screamed for him, calling his name over and over and hearing it echo through the trees.

There was no answer.

I was dragged away; there was no way for me to get out of the two men’s hold. As we crossed the field in front of the house, I saw a ghostly shape nearby, almost invisible as rain began to fall.

“Oswald!” I screamed, twisting again. “Oswald, help me!”

The shape turned to look at me. His whisper carried across the field.

“I have already done something for nothing. My end of the deal is complete.”

I went limp in the policemen’s arms, and for the first time, his smoke-like features shifted into a new expression. As I was pulled past him, all I could see was the grin split across his face, too big and full of pointed teeth.

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