It came as no surprise to people in town whenever they heard that misfortune had once again befallen Yuckl Ogle. Rumour had it that he descended from a once-powerful family, but he was a humble man, soft-spoken, weather-beaten, often in his lonesome, who did his best to stay out of trouble in all its forms.
But it had also come to be a known fact that Yuckl’s best was never enough.
For whenever the chatty town was caught in a firestorm of overblown frivolities, whose name was it that usually—someway, somehow—found its way into the middle of it all? Yuckl Ogle’s. If you ever heard that an innocent bystander had been injured in a brawl, go there, you’d discover it was Yuckl Ogle! If word had it that a heist had happened on the relatively peaceful Clearhalo Street, check: you’d find the victim was Yuckl Ogle.
It just had to be YUCKL OGLE!
People said Yuckl’s own life was a curse unto himself and they’d even coined the phrase “As woeful as Yuckl Ogle” in his miserable honour.
But all that seemed to change when Yuckl met and fell head over heels in love with the gentle Sírrí, daughter of one of the most respected doctors in town. For as days went by without any obvious hitch, Yuckl slowly began to change his ways: he interacted more, smiled more, laughed more, worked more. He sought to become a man worthy of his beloved Sírrí—whom he hailed as his “good luck charm.” He even admitted to those closest to him how afraid he was of proposing to her, afraid she’d just say no on a whim. And though they decided against telling him, many in town thought he was already that man, for his newfound radiance was already more than any woman could possibly want.
For who would have guessed that YUCKL OGLE would one day make respectable lady hearts in town flutter in infatuation?
Well, so, too, could none—not even Yuckl himself—have guessed who the town’s new sweetheart Sírrí really was. To all of them, she was just a bright, young woman who had lived under her father’s strong, conservative wing, protected from society for most of her life. In reality, however, she had a wild heart that yearned for nothing more than to bask in whatever societal glory it could get.
So no, she didn’t love Yuckl Ogle, or any of the others who thought she cared.
As far as she was concerned, it was all about the fame.
Which was why she accepted Yuckl’s proposal and which was why she did what she did that fateful night.
Exactly one week after Yuckl had announced their betrothal, well-wishers among the townsfolk threw a huge party for Yuckl and Sírrí. With an all-you-can-eat buffet and the loud, jolly music, the merrymaking event brought people together from far and wide. All who left their homes that night had their minds solely on joining Yuckl to celebrate his long-awaited moment of happiness—troubles, and people who couldn’t forget them until after the party, were to be left back at home!
And Yuckl, the apple of the ladies’ eyes that night, danced with more ladies than he’d ever danced with his entire life, most of whom couldn’t believe they were going to have to lose the catch they’d once ignored to a fledgling like Sírrí.
If only they’d known…
…that, after doing a few men in town the honour of dancing with them, Sírrí, using tiredness as an excuse, had waited just long enough for Yuckl and the others to become engulfed in the festivities, before allowing herself to get whisked away somewhere quiet by a longtime suitor of hers.
“Don’t marry him!” begged the young seaman Clement. “My ship leaves tonight. Run away with me!”
As he went on to profess “unconditional, everlasting” love for her, Sírrí zoned out on him. She looked in the direction of the feasting people, her attention wandering, just wandering.
She suddenly found herself wondering how shocked those happy people would be if they found out that all their merrymaking was for nothing—if they found out that she’d dumped their beloved Yuckl Ogle on such an important night.
The scandal—with her name at its centre—would leave the poor town with logorrhea for years to come!
The whole-body tingle that accompanied that thought urged Sírrí to suddenly grab her seaman suitor in a hug that screamed all kinds of “yes.”
By the time Yuckl noticed her absence and started searching for her, the scandalous lovebirds had already made it back to Sírrí’s family home, where she stopped to drop off a goodbye note for her father; it mocked him for clinging to rigid moral values that couldn’t even help him hold his own marriage together, sweetly reminding the doctor of what he loved to say to those who dared call themselves his peers in the medical profession: “Even the daftest of fools won’t try to use a basket to catch the wind!”
And so just like that, Sírrí had managed to kill two birds with one stone: disgracing her father—whom she’d secretly hated for a long time—and making herself the most talked-about girl in her hometown.
And Yuckl, heartbroken, found himself in a dilemma even he could not handle. He was so devastated, people feared he might actually shatter physically. They tried to help him in whatever way they could, but Yuckl himself had come to the conclusion that there was only one solution to the problem.
So one night, when most of the town was asleep, he went to the cliff that overlooked the Keeling River and stood at the cliff’s very edge. Below him, across the river, was the infamous Punic Forest, the woods no one dared enter, for in rumour—and in fact—all who had entered there in the past had either never returned, or had returned with pieces of themselves missing. People never ventured near the segment of the Keeling River that “rubbed shoulders” with the Punic Forest.
But the forest was the least of Yuckl Ogle’s concerns at that moment. For as he stood there with his eyes closed, taking in deep breaths of the night’s cool air, he felt nothing but a gush of sheer freedom.
The accidents, the broken dreams, Sírrí…
Those were all going to be over that night. His burden of a life was finally going to be over in an instant…
Taking one last, deep breath, Yuckl Ogle stepped over the edge of the cliff.
He thought he heard someone shout something just as the world as he knew it went completely dark.
Chirping birds and the sound of running water woke the man on the riverbank. He didn’t know where he was at first, but slowly, it began to come back to him.
Thinking himself among the dead, Yuckl Ogle shot to his feet, expecting to see his lifeless body lying on the ground when he looked down.
The riverbank’s dirt was all he saw.
Touching his body, he realized he could still feel it. He jumped when someone said, “She won’t let you die, you know.”
Looking across the river, Yuckl noticed the man leaning against one of the trees at the edge of the woods.
“She won’t let you die,” the man said again and turned to leave.
“Who? Who won’t let me die?” Yuckl asked urgently, forced to ignore the way his heart fell at the realization that he was still alive.
“She who taints this forest,” the man replied. “Go home, Yuckl Ogle. You are not in the state of mind for answers today.” Before Yuckl could ask him anything else, the man moved behind a tree, and that was the last Yuckl saw of him that day.
Back in town, no one knew what had happened, and Yuckl didn’t tell anyone. He always made sure no one saw him whenever he returned to the place where he’d met the strange man, hoping to meet him again and get some answers. But in spite of Yuckl’s impatience, it was only after two fortnights that he met the man again.
Like before, Yuckl’s strange acquaintance was leaning against a tree. This time, there was pity on his face as he watched Yuckl.
“Welcome, Yuckl Ogle,” he said.
When Yuckl tried to speak, the man cut him off by raising a hand, saying, “Listen, just listen; I do not have enough time. My name is, or should I say was Kulcy. I was a man of your town once. I died three-quarters of a century before your birth. But my life was just like yours, plagued by misfortunes. And like you, the pain broke me and I became suicidal. After trying in vain to end my own life, I wandered into this forest, hoping that whatever was in it would take my life and spare me the torment of having to live.
“But instead I met a woman in these woods; she seemed to have been there for a while, waiting for me. Her name, she told me, was Hexspic. And though I’d only just met her, she knew everything about me, even why I’d entered the Punic Forest. After mocking my previous efforts to be happy, she told me she was a witch and that she’d cast spells to keep me alive; for though it was the pain of the townsfolk that gave her immortality, it was my pain, caused by my strange-but-natural string of misfortunes, that kept her young and beautiful.
“At the time, I paid little attention to her, too broken to do anything but wander the forest in search for my demise. And wander I did, though that, too, proved futile. When I returned home, I found myself thinking of Hexspic, and convinced myself that she was just a woman from the town, who’d decided to play with me, perhaps for some sadistic kind of pleasure. But, in time, I was forced to admit that I had, indeed, been jinxed.
“So I was forced to live the course of my life. But on my death bed, I cursed Hexspic, that if there were ever anyone after me, like me, and if that person somehow knew her name or her ways from a mouth other than hers, her own spells would turn against her and bind her. I just never thought my own curse would keep me roaming the Punic Forest for so long, waiting for you, Yuckl Ogle.”
“Hexspic…” Yuckl whispered, remembering when he’d jumped off the cliff. “I heard someone…someone shouted that name as I fell.”
“That was me,” Kulcy replied.
Frightened by both the story and the man who claimed to be—and seemed like—a ghost, Yuckl felt like running away. But he remembered his woes and stood firm.
“I barely feel Hexspic’s presence anymore,” Kulcy went on. “Your attempt to die must have triggered her spells and those, in turn, must have triggered my curse. She must be weakened, very much so. You must go to her and ask her how or if you can end the string of misfortunes that plague you. I will guide you to her.”
Remembering the stories he’d heard about the Punic Forest, and simply overwhelmed by the situation in which he found himself, Yuckl told him coldly, “What makes you think I believe you? I don’t even know you! How can I know you can be trusted?”
“You can’t,” Kulcy replied simply. “I am, after all, from the Punic Forest, where things are not always what they seem. Secondly,” he added, “you came back here because there is no natural explanation for why you are still alive and unharmed, after falling from such a great height. And thirdly, if I do not help you today, it will be a long while before I can again muster enough strength to be of any help to you.”
The self-proclaimed ghost held Yuckl’s gaze until Yuckl glanced down at the dirt of the riverbank where he’d hoped to be found dead…
…and realized it would make no difference, should he meet that same fate inside the Punic Forest.
Smiling inside, but feigning reluctance on the outside, Yuckl made his way across the Keeling River to the other side and followed Kulcy into the woods. He remained on high alert while they went through the trees, expecting—hoping—that something was going to happen, but nothing did. Instead, he found himself in a small clearing among the trees. A cottage stood at its centre.
Hexspic’s house? Yuckl thought. Bitter, he chuckled dryly at how expected the setting actually was.
“I can go no further,” Kulcy said, stopping at the edge of the clearing.
Yuckl, on the other hand, didn’t even bother knocking on the cottage door; he just pushed it open.
“Hexspic!” he roared, taking in every detail of the cramped-up home: a “sitting room” with a cauldron at its centre and rocking chairs all around it…books and papers everywhere on the floor…witch brooms seemingly on display in the room behind the sitting room…
The whole place was dusty and cobwebby, with no trace of life—except for the owl perched on one of the witch brooms, staring at Yuckl with an intense curiosity.
“Hexspic!” Yuckl called again. He listened intently, expecting an answer, any sound that would indicate her presence in the house.
He did start, though, when a male voice exclaimed snobbishly, “How brazen!”
Yuckl looked around for who had spoken. He found himself staring at the owl.
“Yes!” the owl acknowledged unapologetically. “I spoke! Am I not allowed to have a voice? Did your mother not teach you how to knock?”
When he’d managed to gather his wits, Yuckl asked, “Where’s Hexspic?” at the same time the owl said, “Apologize.”
That stopped Yuckl for a moment. “What?” he said.
“Apologize!” the owl expounded in imperial tones.
Nothing, Yuckl realized, in the owl’s unblinking stare indicated that it was going to waver from its conversational stance until he did as he was told.
So, hesitantly, Yuckl apologized for his impoliteness. But before he could speak further, the owl said caustically, “Not many who still live know of Hexspic. Who are you?”
“My name is Yuckl Ogle. I am—”
“Hexspic’s elixir!” the owl interjected breathlessly. As if in sudden realization of something, it blinked and said to itself, “Him…”
“Me,” Yuckl prodded, his breath held, his interest pinched. So Kulcy had been telling the truth, after all, he thought.
The owl straightened and levelled its shoulders as if it were human, assuming an aristocratic air. It looked Yuckl straight in the eye. “Yes, you! The impossible has happened: my lady Hexspic, the one whose age even I do not know, the one whose power must not, cannot and should not be ignored, has suddenly vanished. It happened two fortnights ago when one of her spells backfired.”
The owl opened its mouth to continue, visibly decided against it, and then looked down at one of its wings. “That even broke a wing here,” it grumbled morosely. “I really am too old for this!” When it snapped its head back up to glare at Yuckl, all traces of weakness had vanished, its aristocratic composure regained. “What did you do?” it demanded.
Yuckl blinked. “What?”
“What. Did. You. Do?” the owl asked again.
Yuckl huffed, unsure how to handle what common sense was telling him could not be happening. “Nothing,” he said. Feeling a pang of guilt, he added, “Nothing that I meant.”
The owl shook its head. “Hexspic’s spells had never ever backfired until that day. If that happened and you are here now, then it had to be you!” it accused. Pointing its healthy wing at Yuckl, it asked one more time, “WHAT. DID. YOU. DO?”
“NOTHING!” Yuckl roared, his frustration finally getting the better of him. “You know what? I think your mistress is DEAD! You can do, say or think whatever you want, but she won’t come back. She. Is. Not. Coming. Back! Deal with it! Because now, I am forced to deal with it, too!”
The shock on the owl’s face made Yuckl regret his outburst. He started to apologize, but the owl, only then realizing its freedom, belted out a screech of sheer glee and began hopping from foot to foot, dancing on its witch broom perch.
“Today is your lucky day, human!” it sang, seeming unable to stop dancing. “O yes! Now I do know why you’re here. I do! I do! I do! What I do not know is if what I’m going to tell you will be of any help but I’ll tell you ALL I think you should know! Why? Because I can! Because, as you said, I can do, say or think whatever I want now! I can! I can! I can!” It let out another euphoric screech and gestured with its healthy wing for Yuckl to come closer.
Confused, Yuckl dumbly obeyed.
“Knowledge is power,” the owl said. “Hexspic may be gone, YES, gone-gone, but who knows who else can become a threat to me now? Come, let your ear be the only hearer of my words.”
Cautiously, Yuckl moved even closer to the owl with his ear turned.
But the old owl, feeling the need to move even closer to Yuckl’s ear, missed its step in doing so. It fell off its perch, landed on its head and died.
Yuckl only realized he’d been gaping dumbly at the bird’s still body when he heard Kulcy’s voice inside the cottage.
“It is done,” Kulcy said. “The last of Hexspic’s essence is gone. She is now completely bound in death as she was cursed to be. And I,” Kulcy added as Yuckl finally turned to look at him, “am finally free.”
Yuckl tried to blink his way through a haze of bewilderment. “What about me?” he asked. “You—you say you’re free,” he stammered. “What about me?”
“You will live your life, Yuckl Ogle,” Kulcy answered calmly, reassuringly. “You will live your life and get as much happiness as you possibly can. You deserve that much.”
Yuckl noticed that Kulcy had already begun to fade, but the ghost held on long enough to escort him out of the Punic Forest and across the Keeling River—somewhere Kulcy had not been in a long, long time. There, the ghost said, “Thank you, Yuckl Ogle. My afterlife truly begins now. For this freedom I remain forever indebted to you. Thank you,” and vanished.
Standing there, at the same spot where he’d hoped to be found dead, looking at the empty space where Kulcy had been, hearing the Keeling River flow and the insects and animals of the Punic Forest chatter unintelligibly, Yuckl felt like his old self was falling away, vanishing from existence, and he was being born again. He just felt like everything was going to be all right…
…all right once and for all.
He’d thought wrong.
His luck went from bad to worse and from worse to worst. But Yuckl, remembering what Kulcy had told him in the woods, found a way to be happy.
When someone threw a nasty, false accusation at him, and he was forced to deal with people thinking ill of him for being unable to vindicate himself, Yuckl thought of Kulcy, of how kindly the ghost had thought of him, and that was always enough to drive a considerable amount of the pain away. Whenever he got duped, he thought of Sírrí, of what she’d done and found mollification in reminding himself that losing money was much, much better than losing one’s heart to a vicious thief who’d steal, brandish and then jilt with it.
The man had decided to be happy, regardless of whatever came his way.
So much so that one fateful, dreadful night, when the sky frowned on the town and the lightning came down to strike and burn down his home, Yuckl Ogle looked beside his hospital bed, at the miner’s hammer he’d received from his father (the only thing salvaged from the fire), and found a contentment so complete it transcended the pain of his burns. Even as he lay there, listening to his failing heart, he found solace in the thought that, bad as his life may have been, he had managed to squeeze out more happiness than most people realized they could actually get out of the thing called life.
And just before he took his last breath, Yuckl Ogle made a wish with every fibre of his being: that if there ever came anyone after him, like him, that person, upon realizing the uncommon nature of their life, would cling to that life and would find some way to be happy and content, regardless of whatever, whatever it is that comes their way.
Story copyright © 2017 by N. Muma Alain
Artwork copyright © 2017 by Belinda Morris
N. Muma Alain is a fabulist and poet from Southern Cameroons. He wrote his first poem pretty much by accident, and his first story came to life to make up for the (supposed) shortcomings of a video game he used to play. His work, which mostly explores the fifty plus shades of life, has appeared in the Kalahari Review, Easy Street Magazine, Subprimal Poetry Art, and others. Follow him on Twitter @nmamuma.
Belinda Morris is an illustrator living and working in Melbourne, Australia. She specializes in watercolour painting for her fantasy-themed illustrations. In 2014, she completed her first children’s picture book, Dreamy Belle’s Visit to Heaven by Gabrielle Bettels Hoffman. She has also had work published in ImagineFX and Infected by Art Volume 5. Currently Belinda is developing her own IP and seeking work in many fields of illustration including book covers and children’s picture books. Belinda is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and the Association of Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists.