January 27, 2018

Story: How to Save a Village by Kiyomi Appleton Gaines

"She will give you what you ask for," 
they warn each other, 
"exactly what you ask for."
"If you’re a very good girl," Mother said, "they won’t get you."

Yet she taught me things day to day. How to grow living things, plants and insects, and how to harvest them. The ways to read a person’s face, and flesh, to intuit the right word, and to guide otherwise, too.

Sleep with this bundle of herbs beneath your pillow.
Slaughter a hen by moonlight and make a brew of the bones.
Bathe in the stream where the water pools in the forest. Be sure to see no one on your return.

The pieces all come together slowly, like the threads of a tapestry. She taught me about balancing things, about finding harmony in those parts that could run alongside one another. Healing and ill-ing, to keep everything sustained.

They like the healing. Expect it even. It’s the other bit that no one understands. Yet it comes of necessity.

Eat this mushroom at the new moon.
Dig up the root of this plant, boil it, drink its tea.
Cut your arm and let the blood pool.You must make no sound.

They try to find ways around it; to be very specific in what they ask, to be very clever, to outsmart the balance. "She will give you what you ask for," they warn each other, "exactly what you ask for."

Make me healthy, give me beauty, make me rich, admired, give me power, strength, love, long life. But say these sacred words, just exactly as they are written, have a care.

Because they have all heard stories of others who have returned weeping, “this isn't what I asked for,” and then in further despair, amending themselves, “this isn't what I meant!”

Sometimes it's so, that they get exactly what is requested. Other times not. Other times they get what will restore rightness. They always get what is necessary.

Why do they expect that when a child who is ill is allowed to live, another does not take its place? Why do they expect that when vast fortune is amassed by one, many, many others will not lose their share? Everything in life has a give and a take. She taught me to be sure that one does not outweigh the other.

"Look what you've done," they cry. "Witch! Monster!"

Yet it is they who come to my door, who seek me out, who ask for their lots to change, who bring me something precious in order to make it so.

"Are you good or bad?" he asked me once.

Yet every new beginning is also a death.

"If you're very good," Mother said, "they won't get you."
And what if I'm not?
"Then you will burn."
And if I'm not bad either?
She touched my cheek.

"Are you good or bad?"
"You should go," I told him. "Go to your heart's desire."
He smiled. "But that's you." From his pocket he drew the little pouch I had given him. The herbs, the mushroom.

"Steep it in broth overnight," I had said.
"Must it be broth?" he asked.
I shrugged, "I suppose wine would do as well."

The pouch, open, empty now. His smile. I knew. "But that's you. Well,” he gestured to me, “this."
The room felt warm, stuffy. My throat felt like something had lodged in it. "You haven't learned..." My voice was weak, fading in my own ears, nearly drowned by the sound of my own heart. "You won't save them..."My vision narrowed. He touched my cheek. "I think I have."

"If you're very good," Mother said, "they won't get you."
"What if I'm not good?"
"Then they'll burn you."
"But what if I'm not bad either?"
Mother touched my cheek. "You have to be a little bad," she said. "That is nature, too."

Contributing editor, Kiyomi Appleton Gaines, writes stories and articles inspired by folklore and fairy tales. 
Find more of her writing at A Work of Heart
and follow her on Twitter @ThatKiyomi

Cover by Amanda Bergloff 


Guy S. Ricketts said...

Beautiful, Kiyomi. Even before I began reading this, I had a sense of dread from the excerpt shared with the link to this story. I remembered from djinn stories before that careful wording of a wish or desire is essential. This was a suspenseful tale beautifully told.

AMOffenwanger said...

Powerful. I love it.