“Evil Days and Countless Wonders” by Patricia Russo
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That spring was indeed an evil time for the village. The enemy had whispered a great curse on us, causing blisters full of burning pus to strike the people. The curse was powerful, and it afflicted us mightily. If one blister appeared in the morning, by evening ten or more had grown. Soon many in the village were covered with the terrible blisters.
The enemy had been very clever. They concealed their magic so skillfully that we could not discover if they had chanted the curse on us, or danced it, or made it with fire (though we suspected fire, as the pus seared the skin worse than red flames when a blister broke), or with blood. In fact, the enemy was so clever that we never even determined for sure which enemy it was who had cursed us.
To make things worse, we had no magic workers in the village to battle the curse. We hadn’t had a true one for years, ever since Aruye had died without training a successor. We kept trying to acquire one from a friendly village through a marriage contract, but no matter what we offered, it was never enough. Some villages had two or three magic workers, but wouldn’t part with one. So you can see that even long ago, people were greedy.
Since we had no magic worker, sometimes a strong man or a stubborn woman of our village would try to rub the skin of the world, but only for small matters. When the enemy threw the burning blisters on us, our strong men and stubborn women gathered together (those who had not been already struck down, that is) to chew dried bitter-bark and think and talk. But all the chewing and thinking and talking led to nothing. Not even the strongest of the strong men or the most stubborn of the stubborn women could bend the shape of the wicked curse the slightest bit.
It is terrible when a village lacks a magic-worker.
And yet, even in evil times, when men scream in agony and women bury their infants, in famine times and flood times, in war times, in all bad times, still the world contains more wonders than any of us know.
The blister-curse spread and spread, until there were very few who were not suffering. And this was when an orphan girl remembered the tale of the wishing sand.
The orphan girl was being taken care of by an old couple who had no living children.
In the old days, orphans were not treated well. That is what happens when people are ignorant. Fortunately, we are less ignorant today. We do not make orphans sleep outside the house, and we feed them the same food we eat ourselves. But at that time, when the curse of the burning blisters came, the people of the village were more backwards.
This orphan girl, though, was lucky. The old couple who took care of her let her sleep inside, and they fed her the best they could. The old man was a good hunter despite his age, and the old woman used to be a stubborn woman when she was younger. The old woman had been a friend of the orphan girl’s grandmother when the grandmother had been alive, and after the funeral she strode straight up to the girl, right in front of everyone, put her hand on the girl’s head, and told her she could come live with her and her husband.
The orphan girl’s name was Na.
Na, who had remembered the story of the wishing sand, went to the house of the most stubborn of the stubborn women whose skin was still clean. The Very Stubborn Woman gave her a bad greeting; she threw a bone the dogs had already gnawed to her, and ordered her to go away.
“I did not come to beg,” Na said. “I came to remind you of the wishing sand.”
“Wishing sand?” the Very Stubborn Woman said, with scorn. “There is no more wishing sand. All of it was stolen ages ago.”
“I know. My grandmother told me the story.”
“Which one was your grandmother, then?” For the Very Stubborn Woman, even though she disdained orphans, was not so utterly impolite as not to ask which family Na had belonged to.
“The one with a place near the river, close to where the whistle-reeds grow. She died two years ago.”
“Ah. The musician.”
“She knew some songs.” Na looked the Very Stubborn Woman in the eyes. The Very Stubborn Woman made a sound of distaste, but Na did not flinch. “She knew many things. She knew where the people used to go to dig for the wishing sand. And she knew what happened after it was stolen.”
“Nothing happened after it was stolen.” But the Very Stubborn Woman was getting a little curious despite herself. “Why, what did your grandmother say happened?”
“I will tell you,” Na said, “but you must gather the strong men and the stubborn women together again.”
“May the north wind blast your bones, and may the south wind suck your marrow dry,” the Very Stubborn Woman said. “You stinking little orphan girl, how dare you say must to me?”
Na held her tongue. She just looked at the Very Stubborn Woman, then turned and walked away.
She went back to the old couple’s place. The old man was out hunting. The old woman was crying, because the curse had come to her – between the time Na had left and the time she returned, a blister had appeared on the old woman’s arm.
When the old man came back and saw that the curse had bitten his wife, he also began to cry. Of course, when her husband started to cry, the old woman stopped her own crying. That is the way stubborn women are, and even though the old woman did not do the things stubborn women do any longer, she was still one in her heart.
“Don’t cry,” she scolded the old man. “What good will crying do? Look at our orphan girl. She’s not crying. She has more sense than you.”
“Can I do anything?” the old man asked. “Let me make up the bed for you. The orphan girl can prepare some soup.”
“I am not going to go to bed, and I don’t want any soup.”
“You are indeed a stubborn woman,” the old man said, but he had stopped crying.
Na said, “Do you remember the wishing sand?”
The old man shook his head to shush her, but the old woman said, “I heard a tale or two about it. Your grandmother knew several such stories. You remember, old man.”
“Of course you do. Tell us one now.”
“Yes, you. I want to hear a story about the wishing sand.”
“I was never very good at this,” the old man said, but he sat down, took a deep breath, and began. “Once, it is said, there was a lake, very far away from the village. The lake was so far away that to go there and come back required a journey of many, many days.”
“The lake is still there,” Na said.
The old man glanced at her. He frowned, then went on. “The lake had many fish, and the people who lived there, many, many days from here, would go there often to catch food – not only fish, but also birds, and eggs of course, and frogs – ”
“Trust a man to put hunting into every tale,” the old woman said.
Now the old man frowned at her, but then he lowered his eyes, and cleared his throat.
“The people of our village who traveled to the lake had to be careful. That was the point I was getting to. The people over there, many, many days journey from here, didn’t know that on the shore of the lake, in one special spot, a hidden spot – I forgot what side it was on –”
“The western side,” Na said.
“On the western side,” the old man went on, “there was a secret. Only the people of our village knew it. If you dug in a certain special spot, under the dirt and the clay, you would find sand. This sand was not ordinary sand. It was wishing sand. Very powerful. Two or three grains of it would be enough to work a mighty magic.”
“Or to break a mighty curse,” Na said.
“Yes,” the old woman said. “That is why the men and women of our village vowed never to take more than a little bit of the sand each time they journeyed to the lake. They thought they were being wise. They would need to make more trips, but they would avoid the temptation of having a great deal of powerful magic in their possession, the scratching and nibbling at people’s soul-peace that that brings. And then, of course….”
“I thought you wanted me to tell this story,” the old man said.
The old woman looked at her arms. She had more than ten blisters on each one by then. “This will be a terrible way to die,” she said.
“There is more to the story,” Na said.
“Yes,” said the old woman. “And then one day the people of our village went to the lake, as they had done many times before, and they went to the secret spot, and they dug there. And when they dug, they discovered that under the dirt and the clay there was no wishing sand. Someone had stolen it, every single grain.”
“It was probably the people who lived there, near the lake,” the old man said. “Or it might have been a magic worker from one of the nomad people. They have always been greedy, those wanderers.”
“It wasn’t,” Na said. “It was a very small woman, so small that it looked like she had stopped growing when she was eight years old.”
“Did your grandmother tell you that?” the old woman said.
“Ah. I never heard that story.”
“My grandmother said that the small woman always dressed in black, and after she stole the wishing sand, she went to all the places where people live, from the top of the world to the bottom of the world, sowing grains of it on the shores of lakes, in the banks of rivers, on the edge of the great sea, even in forests, in the shade of dry-root trees. She was not greedy, you see. She thought we were the greedy ones, keeping the knowledge of the wishing sand to ourselves.”
“So there is wishing sand all over the world, then?” the old man said, with excitement.
“No,” Na said. “The very small woman spent the rest of her life traveling and sowing, but the sand she planted mixed with the soil, the clay, the loam, the other sand, and lost its magic. In the end, the only wishing sand left was the few grains the very small woman still had with her when she was very, very old.”
“I have never heard this before,” the old woman said.
“She’s making it up,” the old man said, but then he regretted his words when he saw the hurt look on Na’s face. He was not a bad man. He was worried about his wife, and spoke hastily out of fear.
“Let her speak,” the old woman said. “That is not the end of the story, is it?”
“My grandmother said that some stories belong to one family. Those stories are not for everybody.”
“Your grandmother spoke the truth,” the old woman said.
“I can’t tell it the way she could,” Na said, looking at her feet. “She could make the tale go on for days.”
“Those are good tales, especially for winter,” the old woman said.
“What happened to the last few grains of wishing sand this small woman had?” the old man asked.
Na raised her head a little. “I – this is why the story belongs to my family. My grandmother said that her grandmother was one of three people who went in search of the very small woman. The quest was long. But in the end, they found her. The very small woman was at the point of death. She had a friend with her, and this friend wanted her to use the last of the wishing sand to give herself more life. But when the three searchers came, the very small woman gave them the last few grains. The three searchers argued about what to do with it. There was very little of it, but they split what there was into three parts. Two of them wanted to use the last of the sand to gain boons for themselves or their families. My grandmother’s grandmother wanted to do that, too, but after thinking it over, she didn’t. She brought the sand to the lake where it had come from. She found the hidden place on the western side. She planted the grains that were her share there.”
“So she made the same mistake as the small woman?” the old man said.
“No,” Na said. “It wasn’t a mistake.”
“Have you told anybody else this?” the old woman asked.
“Today I went to the Very Stubborn Woman, and said she should gather the strong men and the stubborn women together a second time.”
“Which Very Stubborn Woman? The one with the scar on her chin?”
The old woman looked at her husband. “Go there. Tell her to do what the orphan girl says.”
“I don’t understand,” the old man said.
“My grandmother’s grandmother planted the wishing sand back in its home. My grandmother’s mother went in secret to check on it. She dug in the hidden place, and found a palmful of grains where three had been sown. She did not take any. She thought it best to give the wishing sand more time to grow.”
“Go,” the old woman said to her husband. “What are you waiting for?”
“The sand was growing back?” he asked.
“My grandmother’s mother said so.”
“Do you understand now?” the old woman asked. She held out her arms, both of which had twice ten blisters on them. “The enemy was clever, striking at us this way. But the wishing sand can break the curse.”
“But nobody knows where the hidden place is,” her husband said.
“I do,” Na whispered.
And so the old man hurried to the house of the Very Stubborn Woman, who had been doing some thinking of her own. When he arrived, she did not throw a bone at him. She listened to his words, holding her tongue as much as she could – then as now, stubborn women found it difficult to keep silent when others were talking.
When he had finished, she said, “It would be a journey of many days. And this is a tale from an orphan girl. If we send someone to the lake, we cannot be certain the wishing sand is there. And if the wishing sand is there, we cannot be certain that the one we send will return in time to save those already so covered in blisters that they dare not move, even to open their lips to take a sip of water.”
“I will go,” the old man said. “I will take the orphan girl and go, if no one else will.”
“You are too old, and you were never a strong man.”
“Still, I will go. My wife was struck by the blisters today.”
“You will not. You will go back to your home and tend your wife.” The Very Stubborn Woman stood up. “Send the orphan girl to me. We will leave at dawn.”
“Don’t thank me yet. I doubt this tale. We will undertake a long, dangerous journey, and find nothing at the lake.”
Well, what else would you expect a stubborn woman, much less a Very Stubborn Woman, to say?
The old man asked, “Do you believe the world is full of wonders?”
And the Very Stubborn Woman laughed. “Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t.”
“Won’t you take a strong man with you?”
“No. I will do this myself.”
So Na was sent to her, and this time the Very Stubborn Woman gave her something to eat, but still she made Na sleep outside. As soon as the sky began to lighten, the two of them set off. The Very Stubborn Woman even left her dogs behind, for they had to travel stealthily.
When they reached the lake, after many, many days of travel, they concealed themselves and waited for the people there to return to their own village with the fish they had caught. And then Na took the Very Stubborn Woman to the secret place on the western shore, and she dug while the Very Stubborn Woman watched.
And the wishing sand was there, at least two handfuls worth.
“We will take half,” the Very Stubborn Woman said.
“No, we will not,” Na said. “We will take a tenth part. That will be enough to heal all those in the village, with perhaps some grains left over. The rest we leave here, and allow it to keep growing.”
And Na, the orphan girl, faced down the Very Stubborn Woman. Until that very moment, Na had not known that she was a stubborn woman herself.
They took a tenth part of the sand, and covered the rest again, carefully, so that no one might notice the ground had been disturbed. They journeyed back to our village. The Very Stubborn Woman insisted on carrying the wishing sand. Na allowed this. She was young, but she had sense. Some battles are not worth fighting. There are many today who still do not understand that.
When they returned to the village, the Very Stubborn Woman went from house to house, distributing three grains of sand to each person cursed by the blisters. Now, some had died in the meantime, but of those who were still living when the Very Stubborn Woman and Na returned, all survived, including the old woman who took care of Na.
The wishing sand grew back. That was a wonder.
The orphan girl became a stubborn woman, and the people called her by her name when she grew up. That is another wonder.
And though she was still an orphan girl, she found a man to take for her husband, and had three children who lived. The stories of the wishing sand still belong to her family. I can tell them, because Na was my father’s grandmother.
These days, the people of our village go to the lake many, many days journey from here only when in great need. They take just as much wishing sand as they require, and only a very few grains more. We are careful. We are not greedy.
The sand continues to grow. Because of this, we have shared small amounts of it with people in friendly villages. Some of the people in our village did not want to do this, but my father’s mother, who in time became a Very, Very Stubborn Woman, persuaded the rest that this was the proper thing to do.
Evil days will come again. That is certain. But we do fear this, for truly the world is great, and wonders abound everywhere we look, if we have the strength and the stubbornness to see them.
My father’s grandfather was Na the orphan girl, whose grandmother knew songs, and whose grandmother’s grandmother made it possible for the wishing sand to grow again. And from the time the wishing sand was first stolen to this very day, the tale has been remembered.
Now, of all these wonders, which one is the greatest?
I have asked my own children this, and the oldest boy says the greatest wonder is that Na lived, for in the old times it was common for orphan children to die within a single season. My oldest girl says it is the fact that we share the wishing sand with other villages now, which is something that no one in old, old days ever thought of doing.
But my youngest says that the most amazing thing is that there are so many, many different wonders, and I believe that that answer is the wisest of all.
|Patricia Russo‘s fiction has appeared recently in Escape Pod and The Dark, among others.|