She could never love him, he decided.
Even as he continued to demand things from her, scaly feet impatiently tapping on the bridge over his house, powerful arms crossed to affect a temperamental authority, Yora was staring at the wrinkles around her eyes and marveling at the kindness those eyes carried. The old woman had smooth hands too, as knotted as the knuckles on those hands seemed to be. When those hands cupped together to present Yora with a gift for safe passage across the bridge, Yora took time to notice how those hands felt in his. The palm, though, was something he had never touched. How does that feel? He wondered.
He could not know. He could only know the things she had touched, stacked in piles around his bed of moist grass: combs, scraps of silk, lockets of hair, bags of rice, coins from different regions, pearl jewelry, ornate boxes with unfamiliar words painted onto them, tea cups, pictures of her lost or far away family members. Initially, he had required certain things from her, forcing her to return home. One day, she had said, "I am but a woman, dear troll, and an old woman at that. My legs and back find it difficult to return home. And how do you know that you can trust me to return?"
From then on, she brought whatever she chose to bring. If Yora did not find her gifts acceptable, he threw them into the river. Little did she know the hours he spent fishing for those items when the sunset's shimmering river glow had at last fled behind the tall mountains. Yora relished these things, the silks in particular, smoother to the touch then he had ever thought an object could be, idly pondering if the taut, unwrinkled skin on her palms was the same.
Yora scooped algae blooms out of the river and picked out single strands with his coarse, pincher-shaped fingers. "She loves me?" he asked himself, setting aside one strand at a time across the top of one of those ornate chests with inlaid mother-of-pearl handles and panels. He only knew what these things were because she told him.
"She loves me not," he responded, before asking himself again as if the strands were wrapped around his heart.
One night, his grass bed tangled around his ankles with his twisting attempts at sleep. Even though it was dark, and he couldn't see the things he had collected, he knew he needed something more from her. Something he could touch.
So he walked. Sleeplessly following the trail the old woman walked down as it twisted through tall oak trees. As the oak trees began to be lined with sunny-looking flowers of a variety of colors, he knew that he was close.
Her house was a small cottage with mossy stepping stones leading up to the door. Yora walked carefully on the stones, eager to leave no trace of his giant feet and long toenails. Once he reached the door, he slid around the perimeter, quiet for his weight and size, looking for windows.
When he found one, he stared through. Yora knew he would know what he needed to see when he saw it, which made no sense to him whatsoever. He was a troll--he should never have needed more than the cool shadow of his bridge and the occasional goat for dinner.
Yora's yellow eyes grew large when he looked through, shaking off layers of monstrousness as if they were sheets of ice on tree branches. Everything changed with that one glance.
Accidentally, many months later when snows had silenced the town and its commerce, the old woman looked at Yora's home as well. She had walked down to the river bank to try catching fish out of the partially frozen waters when she hazarded a glance at Yora's habitat. What she witnessed made her drop her late husband's ice fishing gear into the snow.
While half-heartedly scrambling to pick it up, she rubbed her wide eyes at Yora, who had not heard her approach with the heavy quietude of winter. His home, with the exception of lacking a roof, looked exactly like her own living room. The ornate chests that she had given him, which she was certain he had discarded into the river, were arranged to create the illusion of a wall, while the center of the space was adorned with a simple table that she had not given him. The boxes were topped with items, like the thick handled comb that he had asked for the first time they had encountered each other.
The setup of his habitat was serene in a way she had not imagined he could conceive. The table, she guessed, he crafted himself from oak wood. Considering his lack of tools, it could not have been easy. It was imperfect in shape and contour but ideal for Yora's home. The space lacked walls but used the colors of grasses and shadows to create a comforting effect. It was the same as her home, but why?
Before she could begin considering what it all meant, he spotted her and howled a deep, resonant cry. She quickly grabbed her tools and climbed to the trail, returning home, moving as fast as her old legs could carry her.
Yora lived in fear then. She knew. Yora knew that she was a sharp old woman, and everything would be different in their meetings now. Like his boxes or table, she was the imperfect thing that he needed where he had her.
Now it was obvious: she filled his life with her person. Yora shuddered against the possibility that the civility would be gone from her eyes, or the warmth of her hands would vanish. He needed her on that bridge in the early mornings on her way towards town, genially offering some new glimpse of her life.
Fears melted like the snowfall sloughing off rooftops in the morning sun. There she was, working her way towards town with her cart. Yora felt a sting of anxiety when he noticed that she was empty handed. It really is different, now, he thought.
She stopped, as always, at the end of the bridge where he waited. This time, his arms were not crossed, and he was not tapping his foot impatiently, but he was not aware of these things.
She extended both hands towards him and opened them, palms up. In her hands there was nothing.
"What do you need from me now?" she asked, hesitance creeping through her voice. In a way, she felt like a child again.
Slowly, gently, he touched the palms of her hands. The skin was different from his expectations. Not soft like silk. It was more like touching perfection. Different, he thought, but interesting.
And although they each went back to their routines as normal the next day, there was a trace more of geniality in her eyes and more tenderness in his touch. She also savored the regularity of his intrusions into her life. Being a widow, isolated from the rest of town as she was, she started to look at him as a crucial part of the harmony in her life.
Because they knew that they could always count on each other to be at the bridge, they found fulfillment in each other even though they would never be more than strangers mutually drawn to comfortable imperfection.
See the linked work from the marvelous sorchawench by clicking on the link in the title.