Man the Crab

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7.

Alan crashed through the floor and landed softly. To his surprise he was not at all hurt. He looked up and saw a hole in a wooden roof, and through it was bright blue sky. He appeared to have crashed through the roof of a feeble old barn and landed in soft hay. There was no sign of the Heavens Store, or the demonic creatures.

He staggered outside and found that he was in a large overgrown field. In the distance he could see hills and hedges marking many more fields. A few metres in front of him was a dirt track leading up a small hill to a long row of hedges. He brushed off the hay from his clothes and made his way up the dry dirt track.

As he approached the top of the hill, another even larger field opened up in front of him, and he saw many more beyond it. He followed the track for hours in the blistering heat, walking through endless amounts of fields and soon growing sick of the sight of them. There were no more barns, not even animals or brooks that you might expect in such a vast amount of land; there were just fields and hedges all around. He was tired and hungry, and very thirsty, so he stopped for a rest.

A short walk from the dirt track to his left he saw a tor at the top of a steep hill. Alan decided to walk to the top of the hill and climb the tor in order to get a better look at his surroundings. “This path must lead somewhere”, he mumbled as he struggled slowly upwards, but when he got to the top he saw that there was nothing, only fields and hedges as far as the eye could see. The track went on and on and over the horizon. Alan walked hopelessly onwards for another hour.

The sun was high in the sky and beating down mercilessly, which made Alan start to worry about being exposed for too long. He looked about for any shaded areas to shelter him. In the distance, by the side of the dirt track, he thought he could see a tree. At first he had thought it part of a hedge row, but on closer inspection he noticed that it was detached from any hedges. It was the best he had, so he trudged wearily onwards.

As he neared the tree, he noticed that it was some kind of fruit tree. It looked like an apple tree, but the fruit on its branches looked nothing like any fruit Alan had ever seen. When he got even closer he noticed a ragged looking figure sitting beneath the tree in the shade. It was an old woman. She was wearing shabby brown clothes that looked a lot like they were made from potato sacks. She was holding a basket filled with fruit from the tree. Alan was filled with thoughts of juicy, succulent fruit, which made him even thirstier.

“Hi there,” he said, squinting in the bright gaze of the sun. The old woman hadn’t noticed him up until that point. She looked up, smiled, and then struggled to her feet. Alan offered the old woman his assistance, but she shrugged him off.

“This is my tree,” she said. “Her name is Theresa.” She gave a toothless wheezy grin, which forced Alan to take a few steps back. Her breath was so bad it was making him nauseous.

“That’s nice,” he said. “They look like lovely fruit on her branches.”

“Yes, of course they do.” The old woman shuffled forward, bringing her breath back into the conversation. “Theresa grows the best fruit in the land, and it keeps for months, too. Look.” She held out the basket of fruit and Alan got a whiff of the contents. He hadn’t eaten in a long time so he had nothing to regurgitate, he just coughed and spluttered.

“It’s a bit smelly, but it tastes so good,” she said. Her rancid breath now made perfect sense. Alan was in no position to be fussy, so he jammed some grass up his nostrils to lessen the smell.

“Can I have some?” he asked. “I haven’t eaten or drank anything in ages.”

The old woman held the fruit basket close to her chest to shield it from Alan’s thieving fingertips. “Theresa doesn’t give her fruit to just anyone,” she said sharply. “You must trade or be on your way.” Alan didn’t have any money, or anything to trade.

“What if I just take it from you?” he said, before his brain could tell his stomach to be quiet. The old woman kicked him in the shins, but it hardly felt like a kick from a frail old woman; it felt more like a kick from a horse. Alan hit the floor immediately, clutching his shins in agony.

“You’re not here to learn all of the wrong lessons, are you Alan?” said the old woman. She seemed familiar in some way, but Alan didn’t want to make any assumptions at this stage.

“I never told you my name,” replied Alan as he struggled to his feet. The old woman chuckled.

“After all that has happened to you, you’re startled by the fact that I know your name?”

“Who are you?” asked Alan, edging closer in search of any sign of familiarity.

“Let’s just say I’m closely related to an old friend of yours,” replied the old woman. “But that is beside the point. If you want some of this fruit you’re going to have to pay for it somehow.” She gave Alan a meaningful look, as though they were acting on the stage and she was prompting him to speak his next line. Alan felt uneasy about asking any more probing questions. His shins pulsated, reminding him that they still hadn’t forgiven him for the last time he decided to air his thoughts.

“But I have nothing to trade,” he said.

“If you have nothing to give, then Theresa and I must ask a favour of you.”

“A favour… right.” Alan knew he had little choice. It was at this point that he decided not to even attempt to look at the bigger picture; he would just follow whatever path was laid before him, much like walking down a straight road with plenty of signs all pointing the same way. With that settled Alan felt much more comfortable with his situation, and he had a feeling that he was being watched over and guided.

“What do you want me to do?” he said.

“Wonderful!” The old woman clunked her hands together in glee. “See that castle?” she said, pointing over his right shoulder. Alan turned and saw a huge castle where a few seconds earlier there had been nothing. It was gloomy, built of dark stone with a thick wooden drawbridge; it was surrounded by a deep moat. Even in the illuminating light of the mid-day sun it seemed dark and eerie.

“In that castle lives an old man,” she said.

“Ex-husband of yours?” mumbled Alan. His shins throbbed angrily.

“An old man…” she continued, “who has many precious things. If you acquire three items for me, then Theresa will let you pick as much fruit from her branches as you want.”

“Anything in particular?” asked Alan.

“No,” snapped the old woman, “now hurry up.” She returned to her shaded seat beneath the tree and began to hum a tune ignorantly. Alan looked up at the castle and sighed. He glanced one more time at the old woman beneath the tree, who now seemed to be ignoring him, and then made his way over to the thick wooden drawbridge.

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