The Wish of a Child of Wishes
Neyda was a child of wishes and didn't have to be afraid of anything.
Her mother and father had told her the tale of how she came to be born many times; it had been her favorite bedtime story when she was little. The part she liked best was that she was the only child of wishes in the village. "We traveled for a year and two days to reach the lake where the wishing sand lives," her parents said. No one else in the village had ever done that. Some might have started out, but all had turned back sooner or later, for the trip was not only long, but also full of challenges. Neyda liked to hear about her parents' adventures on the journey. "Tell me about the chirping lizards again," she would say. Or, "No, not the man who braided water tonight. I want to hear about the squirrels who eat smoke."
Whatever part of the tale they told, her parents always began, "We wanted a child so very much. We wished and wished, and in the end we set out to find the wishing sand, so that our wishes would come true," and ended with, "We took only three grains of wishing sand, for that was enough. And you know what we wished?" Her father would smile; her mother's face would glow like the full moon. "We wished for a child who would be healthy and happy and need never fear anything in the world. Not thunder or lightning, wolves or bears, fire or water, heights or caves, curses or nightmares, for none of those things would ever be able to hurt her. And guess what?"
"What?" Neyda always responded promptly.
"We got exactly what we wished for!" And then they would kiss her and bid her sweet dreams.
Neyda grew, as all children grow, and sooner than her parents might have desired, she no longer asked for bedtime stories. But she always remembered who she was: a child of wishes who need fear nothing when she ran through the village streets, when she played with other children, when she went to school, and when she grew old enough to ponder seriously to what purpose she would dedicate the life her parents had given her. She was never afraid of spiders or barking dogs, of stern teachers or surprise quizzes, of boys or men, or even of ghosts. She was not afraid of blood, or pain, or slinky cats with purple eyes. She never had a nightmare that she didn't wake from laughing. The other young people of the village were a little wary of her, for sometimes her lack of fear made her seem reckless to them, but she was not afraid of loneliness, either. She had her parents, and even once she was old enough to leave home (she thought that perhaps in a few years she would move to the city, where there were universities and trolley cars and all different kinds of people), she knew her parents would still be there for her for a very, very long time, and that even after they died, she would carry them in her memory forever.
She was thinking about this one day, about how wonderful memories were, as she ran across the village square -- for Neyda never walked when she could run -- and accidently bumped into the old witch who had set up camp there some time ago. The witch was a tall, heavy old woman with masses of ash-gray hair, and no one, not even the village elders, dared to ask her to move on, for who knew what evils a person like that was capable of if she were angered. So the witch hunkered down in a little shelter she'd made of old mats and broken chairs, and lived off the coins people tossed at her to fend off any mal-workings she might mutter under her breath. When Neyda bumped into her, the witch was making her way with the aid of a stick across the cobblestones toward either the greengrocer's or the tavern; she was walking hunched over, and the hand not clutching tight to her stick was clenched even tighter, as if concealing something. Neyda saw her, but she thought the old woman would keep walking; when the witch stopped abruptly, Neyda had no time to change course. She ran right into the old woman, knocking the stick out of her left hand and some coins out of her right, and nearly sending the witch tumbling to the cobblestones. The old woman gasped, then groaned, then let loose with a mighty swear-word.
"I didn't do it on purpose," Neyda said. "And you can curse me all you want. I'm not afraid of curses or witches."
The old woman bared her teeth at her. "Stupid, thoughtless girl. Pick up my stick."
"Pick it up yourself."
"Hah. And rude as well. Is that what comes from being a child of wishes?"
Neyda was startled. "You know me?"
"Everybody in the province knows you. Your parents have been boasting about you -- and about themselves -- for fifteen years. Now pick up my stick. Can't you see I'm not well?"
What Neyda saw, which startled her even more and which almost, almost, made her afraid, was that the old woman's tattered, grimy skirt was drenched in bright red blood. What terrible dark magics had she been up to in her shelter of trash? And what villager had given her those shiny copper coins in payment for an evil working?
"Stop gaping like a dead fish, girl. It is only my monthlies come on unexpected."
"But you're too old for that," Neyda blurted.
The old witch looked at her. "Am I really? Child of wishes, people are not always what they appear. I'd say they're not even usually what they appear. Me, I've always looked older than my years. And you, though you look like a spoiled little fool, perhaps all that's amiss with you is a great heaping of ignorance. Plus a deficiency of manners. Ah, but that is down to your parents, isn't it? Bravely they traveled a year and two days to find the lake where the wishing sand lives, but never bothered to take five minutes to teach you to say 'Excuse me' or 'Sorry.'"
"Don't talk about my parents," Neyda said. "And it's not my fault I ran into you. You stopped all of a sudden."
The witch continued to eye her sideways.
It occurred to Neyda that while she herself might not need to be afraid of anything in the world, the same did not hold true for her mother and father. They had wished that for her, not for themselves. The old witch could take it into her head to curse them. That thought gave Neyda pause. That thought gave Neyda a chill. She bent down and picked up the old witch's stick and gave it to her, then squatted to gather the coins that had scattered over the cobblestones. It turned out there were five of them altogether. Silently, Neyda handed the coins to the witch, who took them with a curt nod.
Neyda stood up. "I'm sorry I bumped into you," she said.
"Well, that's a start."
"Don't do anything to my mother and father."
"Do?" The old witch sounded amused. "Whatever do you imagine I could do?"
Neyda threw back her head. "Whatever it is that witches do. I'm sure I don't know. But you just leave my parents alone."
"I'm not a witch," the old woman said, softly.
That was such a blatant lie that Neyda had to laugh.
"Bold, aren't you, child of wishes, to laugh in my face if you truly believe I am a witch."
"Of course you're a witch. Everybody knows --"
"And what everybody knows must be true." She shook her head. "What was it that I said to you not two moments ago? When I came to this village, all of you took me for a witch. Why?"
"Because..." Neyda bit her lip.
"Yes. Because. And at night, when their neighbors are asleep, your people creep to my little shack over there and whisper the mal-working they want done. Husbands ill-wishing wives, sisters cursing brothers. . . the jealous, the angry, the vindictive, all come to me. And because they believe me to be a witch, I eat." She shook her head again. "Now you tell me, child of wishes. Is that funny, or is that sad?"
"They come to you for curses and mal-workings? The people of the village?"
"Hah. That surprises you, that the people here are as bad as the people everywhere else?"
"What about you? You're the evil one. You work the curses."
"I don't do anything," the old woman said. "I don't know how to do anything. They merely think I do."
Neyda looked at the blood on the old woman's skirt.
"Ah, go on home, or wherever you were going before you nearly broke my bones. Believe whatever you want to believe. Why not? Everybody else does." She took firm hold of her stick. "I was only passing through. I had no plans to stay in your nice little village with its nice, friendly people who won't look me in the eye in the daytime yet sneak into the square on moonless nights and leave me little gifts of food or drink or cast-off clothing and fill my ears with their hatred of each other." She looked at Neyda and grinned. It was not a cheerful grin. "My little shelter is nearly a shrine. I could almost be a god, one of those tricky, fickle ones that must be kept in good temper lest they take the notion to sicken some sheep or smother a child in its sleep to show their displeasure at being neglected. And all out of fear, child, all out of fear. Doesn't that make you laugh?"
"No," Neyda said.
"Ah, that's right. What would a child of wishes know of fear?" She cocked her head. "You're not even afraid to be seen talking to me in the brightness of the sun. What will people say, eh? They might start whispering about you."
"About me? I don't care."
"Naturally you don't." She narrowed her eyes. "Child of wishes, it can happen so easily. A suspicion here, a word there, glances in the street, and then. . .silence. Silence or polite excuses. Lies, in other words. From your friends. Your family. Even your mother and father might tell you that of course they don't believe the rumors; they will swear to you that they love you just as much as they always did, but perhaps it would be better -- for you, of course, they are only thinking of you -- if you took a trip, perhaps. Went to see the world. That would be educational in itself. And among new people, you might find new friends. Oh, they'll tell you, it needn't be forever. Just for a little while. Just long enough for the folks in your hometown to forget their suspicions and their fears, or to find someone else to pin them on. You can always come back, they'll tell you. This will always be your home, they'll say." The old woman fell silent. Then she sighed. "They'll tell you a lot of things. And for a long time you'll believe them, because you want to. Because you need to. You might be able to keep the lie going in your own mind for years. But in the end?"
"No," Neyda said.
"No. Of course not. Nothing like that could ever happen to you." The old woman began to walk toward the greengrocer's, or the tavern.
"I am weary, child. Go about your own business." As she passed Neyda, she muttered, without looking at her, "Have you not noticed how many people have been watching us?"
Neyda had not. But when she turned around, she saw that the square was full of villagers who were careful to avert their eyes when her gaze touched them.
That night at dinner, Neyda was so quiet that her father asked her if she were ill. Her mother gave her an inquiring look, but Neyda shook her head. "It's not my monthlies," she said, though she knew that her mother preferred not to speak of women's things in front of men.
Her father smiled at the expression on her mother's face. "I do know about such things, dear," he said. "We're not living in our grandparents' time."
"Still," her mother said, frowning.
"I have a question about monthlies, though," Neyda said, which made her mother's frown deepen and her father's smile widen. "Can you still have them if you're really old?"
"Not at the table, Neyda."
"Oh, let the girl speak," her father said. He leaned forward. "It's different for different women. See, dear, I know that. And I know that sometimes women think they're past the age of having them, and then are surprised." He flashed a grin. "Sometimes they're surprised by their monthlies, and sometimes they're surprised by a baby."
"Oh, you're impossible," her mother said. "How would you like it if I started talking about men's things?"
"Try me and see."
"What if you're as old as the old woman in the square?" Neyda asked, and her father stopped smiling and her mother stopped pretending to be annoyed; they both jerked, as if yanked by one string, and stared at her.
"What happened?" her father asked.
"Nothing. It's just?"
Her mother placed her hand over his. "It's all right. Remember. She doesn't need to be afraid of witches."
"She's says she's not a witch," Neyda said.
"You talked to her?" her father exclaimed.
"It was an accident. I bumped into her and she had blood on her skirt?"
Now her mother let out a soft cry.
Neyda said, "The old woman," and she realized then that she didn't know the woman's name, that perhaps nobody in the village did, "told me that people decided she was a witch just because of the way she looked."
"Don't believe anything that evil-worker said," her father said.
"Did anybody see you talking to her?" her mother asked.
Neyda looked at both of them. "The old woman," she said, "also told me that the people of the village go to her secretly. At night. They--"
"Hush!" her mother said sternly. "Forget what that old witch said. And never go near her again, do you hear me?"
"When was this?" her father asked. "This was today?"
"Yes, this afternoon. And she told me that her parents --"
"How long were you standing in the square talking to that evil creature?"
"I don't know." Neyda had never seen her parents act this way before. Nervous. Worried. Furtive, not answering her questions, telling her to be quiet. Angry, but trying to hide it. That was new. Whenever she'd done something wrong, her parents' anger had always been open, measured, and brief. Her mother was clutching her father's hand now, not just holding it. Their nervousness made her nervous; their furtiveness made her...she didn't quite know what she felt. "A few minutes."
"And people saw?" her mother asked.
"Don't ever do that again," her father said.
"Promise us," her mother said.
"But I am a child of wishes," Neyda said. Confusion made her emotions swirl and mingle. Anger. Mistrust. Fear. Fear, which she had been told ever since she could remember that she did not need to feel. But her parents were afraid. Not for themselves -- for her. "The witch can't hurt me. And besides, I don't think she really is a witch at all. I think what she told me was true. She's just an old woman that everybody has decided is a witch."
"Even children of wishes must be careful," her father said.
"Careful of what?"
"Promise me you won't talk to her again," her mother said.
"You mean, where people can see?" Neyda asked. She looked at her plate. The few bites she had eaten lay heavy in her stomach. "And if I do? What are you afraid will happen? That people will think I'm a witch, too? Or just that I'm doing business with a witch, to curse them and ill-fortune them?"
"You're too young to understand," her father said.
"I don't think I am," Neyda replied softly. What had the old woman said? And one day, maybe your parents will come to you and tell you that they love you very much, but perhaps it would be better if you went away for a while... Neyda pushed her chair back.
"Promise," her mother said. "Neyda, promise us you won't speak to her again."
"I don't think I can promise that. Not unless you speak to me truthfully."
"Neyda!" Her father slammed his fist on the table, making the plates jump, knocking over a half-full glass. Her mother ignored the spill, which was even more terrible. "You will obey us."
"Will I?" she said, and walked out of the kitchen and went to her room. She expected her mother or her father or both of them to follow her, to knock on the door and ask to come in, to actually talk to her the way they always had in the past.
Neyda did not go to the village square that night, nor the night after. She did not go for several nights, for she expected that her parents would speak to her honestly about why they were so afraid. Tomorrow they would, surely. Or if not, the next day.
They didn't. They pretended the clash at the dinner table had never happened. They acted as if there was nothing at all to talk about.
When she went out, Neyda found herself checking to see if the people she'd known all her life would meet her gaze if she looked at them. Most did, but not all.
Neyda found her anger dwindling to sadness and her disappointment hardening into a resolve.
She did not wait for a moonless night, but she did wait until after dark. She told herself that that was not cowardly, but simply practical.
She left the house by the front door. If her parents heard, they did not stir from their bedroom. They did not follow her.
She waited outside the door for a full minute, to give them a chance. Then, blinking away tears, she whispered, "All right, then."
The village at night was quiet, except for the sound of nocturnal insects and the occasional shout. As she got closer to the square, where the tavern was, the shouts grew more frequent. Neyda made her way to the shelter of worn-out mats and broken furniture the old woman lived in. She sat down on the cobblestones just in front of the opening.
"Are you awake?" she called.
After a moment, a weary voice replied, "When am I not? Tell me what you want."
Neyda had thought about that for almost a week.
"Oh, a shy one," the old woman groaned. "Listen. You came here for a reason. But if you've changed your mind, you wouldn't be the first. So either speak or clear off."
"I haven't changed my mind," Neyda said.
"Very well. So what do you want?"
"I haven't come about what I want. I've come to ask you what you want."
"What?" The old woman's voice was sharp. "Who is that? Do I know you?"
"Yes," Neyda said. "I'm the rude girl who almost knocked you over."
There was a short silence. "The child of wishes."
"Why are you here?"
Neyda leaned toward the dark opening of the hut. "What do you wish? Old woman who is not old, witch who is no witch, what is it you want most?"
After another silence, the old woman said, "Go away."
"I think you want to go home."
"I have no home."
"You did once."
"Long ago, and long gone, child."
"Are you sure that it's gone?" Neyda asked.
A pause. "It has to be. It's been too many years."
"You can't know that."
"Neither can you."
"We can go see."
"Child, what are you saying?"
"That if you wish to go home, then I will come with you to protect you, because I am a child of wishes and need fear nothing in the world." Neyda felt a pang, for she no longer completely believed that. There was one thing it seemed she must fear, and that was other people's fear. But if she feared that, then what good did it do to be a child of wishes? What were lightning bolts or wolves, nightmares or even witches, compared to the fear of other people's fear?
"Home is not just a place," the old woman said.
"I know that. But surely this place isn't your home. This life is not your life."
"I doubt there is any other life for me."
"You won't know unless you try." Neyda paused. "Are you afraid?"
"Of course I am. And so should you be, child of wishes. The world is full of malice that wishes will not shield you from. You will learn that in time."
"I've learned it already," Neyda said.
"Have you? You are bold because you are young. You do not know what you can lose."
"I know exactly what I could lose."
The old woman let out a short laugh. "And what is that?"
"Myself," Neyda said.
"Hmm. I didn't expect that answer. Perhaps you are not as ignorant as you seem."
"Didn't you tell me that most people are not what they seem?"
"Oh, probably. I talk a lot of nonsense. But listen to me now, child. This village is your home. Do you think that by leaving it you will find yourself?"
"I think if I stay I will lose myself." Neyda drew a breath. "I will come back, though. I don't mean to wander the world. But I can do this for you, I can accompany you to your home and make sure you get there safely. My parents trekked for a year and two days to find the lake where the wishing sand lives. I doubt it would take that long to reach the place you come from."
"It would not take more than a month. But I will not be welcomed. And neither will you, I suspect."
"Why don't we find out?"
The old woman sighed. "Child. It is a cruel thing to offer a hopeless person hope."
"My name is Neyda. And if you had no hope, you would not still be talking to me."
"Perhaps I am merely curious about why you are talking to me."
"I am here because I am a child of wishes, and I want that to mean something."
Silence. Then the old woman said, "My name is Merre," and nothing more.
After a moment, Neyda asked, "When shall we go, Merre?"
"In twelve days, when the next moonless night comes."
"Tomorrow," Neyda said. "In the brightness of the sun."
"Is that what you wish, child of wishes?"
"Then who am I to stand against the wish of a child of wishes? Tomorrow. In the bright sunlight, under the gaze of all the friendly people." Her tone was mocking.
"I'm doing this for me more than you."
"I know. That's human nature. What surprises me is that you realize it."
"What is it now?"
"Is there room in your shelter for two?"
"There is, though it'll be a squeeze. Do you not want to go home tonight?"
"It might be the last time you see it."
"I'm coming back."
"Of course you are. All right. You'll have to crawl. Come inside then, if you're coming."
On her hands and knees, Neyda crept into Merre's shack of broken chairs and worn-out mats. Merre moved to make room for her, but still their bodies touched. Neyda curled up on a heap of rags. She had left everything behind. She hadn't even brought a change of clothes with her. Yet she felt at peace. The journey ahead of her would have no chirping lizards or men who braided water in it, but she thought that perhaps it might turn out to make a tale she could tell her own children one day, if she had children, and if they wanted to hear bedtime stories. Merre laid her hand on the top of Neyda's head, and after a few minutes, the child of wishes fell asleep.