Nin Harris

Issue Three of Demeter’s Spicebox

 Demeter's Spicebox, Fresh Apples, Issue Three (July 2013)  Comments Off on Issue Three of Demeter’s Spicebox
Jul 292013

DS Volume 1, Issue 3, 2013 The Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) folktale type 2031C, The Mouse who was to Marry the Sun, is a deceptively simple story, with a message of understanding where you belong in the world. That sense of belonging may be considered intrinsic to our experiences, but it may not always come easy, not when you’re in-between the boundaries of here and there, not when fostering and adoption comes into play. This folktale type perhaps speaks more to those who have families that are not biological, or who have been set adrift from their own homes. But that sense of being set adrift might still exist if one is within one’s culture, and within one’s own family. The sense of belonging is made complicated when our individual identities, desires and wants are considered. Sometimes, we may need to look a little closer to home. Or sometimes, we have to challenge not just the notions of others about what is good for us, but our own preconceptions. Looking for those stories that were right for this issue was an almost eerie mirroring of the message of this folktale. It was a bit like being an overly proud parent, looking for the right suitors for this issue, and, like that parent, I looked high and low, with various mishaps. Like that parent, I had to listen to the right advice, and to keep a discerning look-out for the right “suitors”.

I chose the setting of an island because islands can very often be a metaphor of exile. Surrounded on all sides by water, there is a sense of being cut off from everything except for perhaps the elements, and yet, as can be seen in the cover graphic, the idea of islands being cut-off from the world is just that, an idea. Nature always tells us a different story, about how interconnected we all are. I was interested in the manner in which the island as a metaphor would inform the retelling of ATU type 2031C by the authors, and as always, a dialogue between the tales, and between the authors was desired. This journey has been even more challenging than the past, but it has also been a process of learning, evolving, shifting. Even if we are still young, a dialogue and a sense of community has evolved with this publication. I hope this continues to grow in the future. For all cross-cultural experiments should include growth, discussion, boundary-challenging, and learning.

Alicia Cole’s Flower of Flowers, Bird of Birds is our first offering, and is a story set in the Comoros Island off the coast of Africa. It is a lovely, poignant tale of a bird who turns into a boy. Alicia’s narrative speaks to us about a different kind of sense of belonging, one that is gendered, and made complex. Suffused with poetic language, Alicia’s story ends on a very satisfying note, with a choice that has been effectively foreshadowed from the beginning. Bogi Takács’ Mouse Choirs of the Old Mátra on the other hand, challenges our idea of islands, by setting it in a flatlands island in Hungary. Bogi’s wise and warm tale brings to life both the spicebox and Suha’s Jar of Tears in Joshua Gage’s compelling Salt. It is a lyrical narrative which refers back to the the Hungarian folktale “Who’s Best of the Best?”, and which bristles with a quiet intensity and humour. While it does not quite fit within the geographical zones suggested in our Submissions Guidelines, I decided that, like the guardian looking for the right suitor for his ward, perhaps I needed to see what it was the issue really wanted.

This issue is a bumper issue and contains three stories instead of the usual two (we won’t be repeating this unless there’s an exceptional case), another deviation from the script! Issue Three’s fictive offerings close with Mari Ness’s Stronger Than The Wind, a lyrical tale of exiles and isolation, of a girl who is not quite from the land, not quite from the sea. The most contemporary of all three tales, Mari’s powerful story is a fitting epilogue for this Issue, a story about stories, and what endures through time and circumstance. It creates a lovely segue into our print issue and for Volume Two, in which my prompts will take us closer to this day and age, albeit with some historical digressions!

We’ve also decided to highlight the interstitial nature of this project by inviting artists to submit works that are inspired by the stories, or paintings of theirs which they believe correspond to the stories. This was our publisher Erzebet Yellowboy’s excellent suggestion, and finding those works of art was not as challenging as you might think. There have been days in which we received an equal amount of arts submissions and fiction submissions. To honor those artists who have been communicating with us, we offer Something Old, Something New: A DS Artistic Experiment with art by Laila Borrie, Kirsty Greenwood, Stace Dumoski and Pictsy, all of whom are interstitial artists. My behind-the-scenes dialogues with all artists as well as the process of this artistic experiment has been invigorating and I hope we shall have more experiments of this nature in the future. With art, with music, with comics, and short movies.

Once again, I offer my warmest thanks to Erzebet Yellowboy, Demeter’s Spicebox’s publisher. Her patience, good sense and wisdom has been invaluable to the development of this issue, she has been my sounding board throughout, and with grace and tact has steered me through some rather dangerous waters. I would also like to thank all of the people who helped boost the signal for the calls for submissions for Demeter’s Spicebox. There were many who helped to spread the word (too many to list, and I thank everyone for their efforts), but especial thanks go to Julia Rios, Lisa Stock, Juanita Poareo, Steve Toase, Alex Dally MacFarlane, and Tori Truslow for helping to promote Demeter’s Spicebox.

I hope you will enjoy our offerings in this third issue, and I look forward to reading more offerings by those of you who would like to share in this narrative, and in this world that we’re building!

Warm Wishes,
Nin Harris
Editor, Demeter’s Spicebox
Issue Three, Volume One, July 2013

Volume One, Issue Three, July 2013

 Demeter's Spicebox, Issue Three (July 2013)  Comments Off on Volume One, Issue Three, July 2013
Jul 292013


Demeter's Spicebox, Volume One, Issue Three, July 2013

Table of Contents

Islands: Editorial
Flower of Flowers, Bird of Birds by Alicia Cole
Mouse Choirs of the Old Mátra by Bogi Takács
Stronger Than The Wind, Stronger Than The Sea by Mari Ness
Something Old, Something New: A DS Artistic Experiment

The cover is remixed from and based on a photograph from the National Land Image Information (Color Aerial Photographs) from Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, Japan. It is an aerial photograph of the Kagoshima prefecture Kusagaki Islands in the South China Sea. Remix and cover design by Nin Harris 2013.

Demeter’s Spicebox
Issue Three, Volume One, July 2013

Jul 292013

Flower of Flowers, Bird of Birds
by Alicia Cole
Comoros_beach island Where the ylang-ylang trees twist scented like slumber, in the village of my grandmothers, strange birds nest. With long grey necks sinuous as river serpents, they rattle their beaks at women washing in the estuary. To steal such a bird’s eggs, it is said, will curry the favor of Mulangu. This lure, and the sweetness of the fowl when roasted, has led to a gradual decline of the race. Though once proud, surrounded by sharp-beaked sentinels, the king bird has grown sorrowful and lazy with his people’s deterioration and no longer snatches at thieves’ eyes. In my grandmother’s day, only a strong ghali-ghuchi woman would harvest the eggs without fear. After many seasons of loss, even my mother could succeed at such a task.

I love my mother as the perfume of our islands loves the sweet sea breeze, but she herself has told me – her gifts are weak tea poured from a cracked teapot. The teapot, perhaps, which her mother’s mother acquired abroad on a desert night, enamored of the stars and a traveler’s curling beard. She traveled broadly, trading her charms along with minor enchantments, healing herbs. The salt merchant’s son asked only for a kiss and a curling pod of vanilla bean to match his beard. Or so I have been told. I hold the teapot in my hands each morning to pour our tea, trace the leaf my ancestress swore on for fertility, and cradle the brown clay. All things, the women of my line say, can be made from mud. Even children.

A simple spell, really, the spell of making. Take a lump of clay from the estuary, mix in a pinch of sand from a tidal pool. Make use of a cardamom pod and some ylang-ylang flower. Say the proper words. Do not say them inland, however. There are few in the Comoros who keep to the old traditions. My family is one of those remaining. Everything her mother taught her, my mother taught to me. That is the way of our family, as steady as the passing of the seasons. Mother to daughter the knowledge is passed. Mother to daughter.

And so to the story of how my mother made me.

My mother, childless, could never learn the spell of making. Though my grandmother cupped her hands steady over the clay, coaxed the certain words from her lips, the spark of magic was dim. When her luck was right and the breeze true, my mother could make a mangrove leaf dance in the wind. She could make the shape of a cormorant with her hands. But a ghali-ghuchi woman she was not.

“When the tide is low and the moon is at the horizon,” my grandmother told her steadily, “That is the time. The king bird, so sad, will cover his head with his wing. He will ignore you traipsing in his kingdom, the moon rising like a giant egg over his shaded head.” My mother, listening, fingered the crack in the old teapot. “In the nest at the base of the ylang-ylang tree, you will find three eggs. Avoid the egg that is golden and the egg that is pure white. The small grey egg, the egg that looks sour and wants you to ignore it, that is the egg for growing.”

Grandmother stood amidst the drying herbs, a white scarf cinched neatly around her head. “Bring that egg to me, daughter, and we will see what we will see.”

As my mother tells it, tiny silver fish were singing in the estuary on that night of nights. The rack of salt was thick among the mangroves, the tide a slow shush as it hushed in and out of the pools. No clouds marred the bright moon, rising heavy as an egg about to crack. On a mound of sand, to the right of the ylang-ylang tree, in the middle of the tide-dried plain, the king bird sat and wept.

My mother said his feathers were the bright of the tiny singing minnows. His dark cap of mourning lay tight against his head. His great wings rustled as he wept, in long piteous tones.

As her mother had commanded, my mother ignored the king bird. She walked, bare feet squelching in the tidal mud, to the roots of the ylang-ylang tree. As splendid as the salt that racked the air, the ylang-ylang cast its sweet, arborous perfume into the night. The little yellow flowers tickled my mother’s nose, tossed pollen in her hair. Amid the tangled roots, at the nest of thatch, my mother knelt and gasped.

“Oh, Ayo,” she later told me, “I have never seen such beauty as that gold egg. Never a sunrise so on fire, never a new bud so sharply lit. I wanted it more than my mother’s cooking, more than a new skirt.”

But my mother, though lacking in charms, was no fool. When her hand hovered over the gold egg’s apex, she felt worms writhe in her stomach and knew better. When her hand moved to the white egg, spotless and more splendid than the moon, her feet began to ache as though cracked. When her hand paused over the grey egg, piteous as it was, the wind hissed sweetly, tossed ylang-ylang blossoms on her cheek.

“Then,” she would say, laying her hand to my smooth hair, “my ears stung with joy and I knew my mother was right.”

On the day of my birth, my grandmother opened a box. Wondrously carved with all manner of flower and fruit, with children and animals traipsing through strange cities, this box contained my grandmother’s most precious herbs. Opening the lid, she produced a vanilla bean curled like a desert merchant’s beard, grown from the plant her own mother had harvested. She brewed sweet syrup from this bean, and singing songs to stir the moon, she poured three drops on my egg.

With a delicate shiver, it cracked and out I tumbled, a small grey bird.

Cupping me in her hands gently, my grandmother prayed. The shells hanging in the doorway tingled and chimed. The guinea hens in the yard scratched and pecked. The hinges of the wooden box creaked shut.

When her prayer was finished, my grandmother wrapped me in a mangrove leaf and made tea. At the first pour, an infant’s wail erupted through the house. My grandmother smiled knowingly. My mother wept and rushed to grab me.

My hair the grey of a water fowl’s feathers. My eyes the black of night water. My beauty like the rush of ylang-ylang at the shore. And every part of me male.

In protest, my grandmother did not eat for a week. On the seventh day, as my mother tickled my smooth cheek, grandmother petulantly ate rice.

“I have named him Ayo,” my mother announced decidedly as she played with my toes.

“There would be more joy in me if he were a she,” grandmother declared, spitting out an uncooked grain.

“Mulungu gave me a son! Who am I to question?”

Raising herself with a sigh, grandmother answered, “If Mulungu – blessed be his name – had given you anything, it would have been a girl. This boy is a joke played on an untrained woman. I should have gone myself.”

At her words, my mother’s breath caught. Little toes wriggling between her fingers, even joy could not contain her tears.

Laying a hand to her head, my grandmother sighed again. “No matter. He will be a ghali-ghuchi. I will see to that.”

My mother tells another story of her grandmother, years after she traded vanilla and a kiss for our teapot. In this story, my great-grandmother stands weeping at the ocean, her back bent with age, her long grey hair still scented with vanilla.

“Why was she weeping?” I always asked.

“She was old,” was my mother’s answer, with a shrug. “Her daughter no longer needed her teaching. And the birds were dying.”

“My grandmother always said we would eat this island up with our greed.” My mother pounded cassava as she spoke.
“Only when all the beauty was gone would we understand what we had done. Then, even all the work of every ghali-ghuchi, all the prayers of every imam will do nothing. We will stand on sun-kissed sands drenched with the tang of plow animal and salt, the mangrove gone, the eye seeing clear through to the mountains.”

“My grandmother, facing the ocean, declared, ‘They will wail for the lack of perfume. I will wail for the lack of life. But, I will be dead, so no matter. Bury me under the ylang-ylang tree so that I may help something new grow.’”

My mother finished pounding, wiped her brow with a rag. She looked at me, still only a child the first time she told me this story, and smiled, “And that, Ayo, is exactly what we did.”

Mulungu, I have learned, has little to do with the training of a ghali-ghuchi woman. Or man. From my youngest days, the moon was my second mother, the wax and wane of the tides the rhythm of my breath. The crabs that scuttled through the sands scrawled messages with their claws. The great grey estuary birds did not rattle their beaks at me. They silently watched me, left feathers for my eager hands.

“Bind your hair just so,” mother told me, pulling my grey hair back, my grandmother always watching. “Put the feather in the plait and your eyes will see far. Tie it to your breeches, and your legs will not sink in the mud.”

My grey hair grew long and straight. As my family’s custom dictated, I never cut a strand. At market, the fishermen’s wives watched me closely, their daughters mouths delighted shapes of pleasure at the intricate buns I sported like the caps of birds.

No boy could match me at swimming or at running. No girl could make a sweeter whistle from a bamboo reed. Though I was much loved, or at least much coveted for my grace, I grew alone, without sibling or equal.

The strange grey birds flew low over the house each evening, and I watched them, silent as their long beaks sang songs to the night.

At thirteen, when I became a man, my grandmother gave me a present.

The package was small and wrapped in a mangrove leaf.

“This present is for you and not for you,” my grandmother advised, sitting down to peel avocado.

“When I was a child, my mother took me to the city to trade dried fish and spices for our needs. She was a very good trader, with a keen eye and tongue.”

This was not new information about my great-grandmother. I turned the package over in my hands, examining the leaf for any tears, trying to see inside.

My grandmother cleared her throat and I grew still. “On this day of days, my mother did something very odd indeed. She had only bartered for a fraction of our needs when a very dark, very bent old man approached us. He wore no beard or mustache, only a cap on his shaved head.

“’Assalamu Alaykum,’ the man spoke, his voice as sweet and bewitching as the ylang-ylang blossoms, despite his age.

‘Mother, I have something that might interest you.’

“My mother smiled politely, but gripped my hand tightly. My mother was always careful with religious men.

“From within his simple robe, the man produced a garment the likes of which I’d never seen. It was red and gold, so thin I could see the dark of his hand behind the silk. It sparked like flaming tongues, like flowers speaking in the night.

“My mother eyed the old man, licked her lips. ‘That is a fine garment, sir,’ she said, ‘surely beyond my reach. I have only pepper left, and this vanilla bean.’ At this, my mother produced from our baskets a delicately curled vanilla bean, lovely as the back of a young girl’s neck.

“The old man breathed a rumbling sigh, answered in his musical voice, ‘It is a fair trade indeed. I have heard of such vanilla…’ And here he paused and said nothing further. The trade was conducted in silence. We immediately left the market and walked home.”

My palms sweated around the mangrove leaf.

My grandmother took down a jug of rice, measured what was needed for our supper. “I was never allowed to wear this garment. My mother said it was charmed. She made me swear to one day pass it down to a true ghali-ghuchi woman. Since I have none to pass to, at least none that I would call woman,” and here she smiled, a smile that cracked my heart with joy, “I give this beauty to you. One day you will give it to your wife.”

My hands trembled as I unwrapped the leaf and let it fall. The silk within reminded me of fire licking at rice pots, of sunlight flashing on the ocean, of the tender insides of ylang-ylang blossoms.

Later, as my grandmother and mother slept, I wrapped the cloth around my bare chest, and bit my check to keep from crying out with joy.

My mother, one eye opened to the cool night, watched.

I sometimes dreamed of my great-grandmother sitting on the roots of the ylang-ylang tree, her lap overflowing with vanilla bean. In my dreams, I would walk to the ylang-ylang tree, bare feet squelching in the mud, and lay my head in her lap. My great-grandmother would smile at me and break open a pod, revealing a small, grey seed. In my dreams, an estuary bird would raise his great wings and I would awaken, my heart rustling like ylang-ylang blooms tossed by the wind.

On my seventeenth birthday, knowing my loneliness, my grandmother told me, “It would please me, Ayo, to see you happy. Of any woman in this world, is there one you could call your wife?”

I watched my grandmother carefully and shrugged.

My mother drew one hand across the wooden box’s lid and did not speak.

My grandmother narrowed her eyes at each of us in turn and frowned. “Fine! I will take care of it.”

That night, my grandmother spoke to the moon. “My grandson is the finest youth alive. See his speed and cunning! Even though a man, he is the finest ghali-ghuchi since my grandmother.” Her grandmother, it is said, was so strong that the birds of the air bowed to her, the beasts of the earth crawled trembling into her hands, the fish of the sea leapt gracefully on her plate, praying to be eaten.

The moon peered from behind a wisp of cloud and asked, “But does your Ayo desire me?”

When my grandmother woke me from my slumber, I frowned. “Though beautiful, she is all together too cold and full of holes. Is there no other mate for me?”

My grandmother told the moon, “My grandson must have the finest wife in creation. Who is stronger than you?”

With a cool sigh, the moon answered, “This cloud that covers my nakedness also hides my light. She is stronger than I.”

Awakened again, I sighed. “But the cloud is all together too moist. Who else?”

So my grandmother asked the cloud, “Who is stronger than you?”

And the cloud replied, “The ocean breeze who hurries me along is a heady mistress. Perhaps she will suit your grandson.”

I covered my face with my hands, certain I would not sleep that night, and retorted, “Too dry by far! Is there no other?”

Then my grandmother, growing weary, asked the wind, “Is there any woman you bow to, as potent as you are?”

“The ylang-ylang tree,” the wind replied. “For though I rage and rage, she bends and shakes her flowers to the earth, and in the morning stands tall again.”

I uncovered one eye at my grandmother’s words, peered up from my mat at her shadowed frame. “A most worthy bride this perfumed tree, but her fragrance makes me sneeze. There will be no mate for me.” And covering me eyes, I fell asleep again despite my loneliness.

My grandmother sat down in our door frame with a huff. When it was certain she would ask no longer, my mother stood and walked, barefoot and squelching in the estuary mud, to the ylang-ylang tree.

“I am sorry he will not take you,” my mother told the ylang-ylang tree as its blossoms stroked her cheek. “Is there any woman more worthy than you?”

The throaty rush of ylang-ylang stained the night as the tree replied. “The birds which nest at my roots make their home despite my protests. They steal my flowers for their beds. They roost among my branches. They far outmatch me.”

At these words, a great grey head snaked from behind the ylang-ylang tree. On long, marvelous legs, the king bird emerged and bowed to my mother. Despite her shock, her heart beating in her chest like a darting fish, my mother returned his bow. She forgot to tell him he was no woman.

I awoke to the sounds of my mother and grandmother arguing.

“Ayo must marry and bear us a daughter,” my grandmother raged, each word a hard grain of rice in her mouth.

A strange rattle replied, as if two long shells clacked together. Something rustled in the house, more feather than flesh, and I opened my eyes and rose from my sleeping mat, uncertain.

My mother stood apart from my grandmother, her arms crossed at her chest. Her eyes flashed with a fire I had never seen, the fire of strange, magnificent flowers. “Ayo will have his choice, no other,” came her sharp reply.

The king bird rustled his wings again, his great capped head held still, his night water eyes watching me.

“But there will be no more daughters,” my grandmother moaned, her strong shoulders sinking.

My mother moved towards my grandmother, laid a hand on her head and replied, “Perhaps the time of daughters is done.”

Then, the king bird spoke, his voice as sweet as the ylang-ylang blossoms, saying, “No.” He bent his head and hunched his shoulders in a shuffling bow, looking suddenly very old. When he stood, beauty flared back to him and he said, “Perhaps the time of daughters is not yet done, little sister. I have need of a great ghali-ghuchi woman if my people are to survive. Or a man.” And his beak clattered with scented laughter. “What say you, Ayo?”

My limbs hungered for cool, broad air. My legs ached to walk without sinking across the estuary plain. My mouth watered for sweet fish. I though of our island, empty, and my heart ached like a broken shell. I though of our island, full, and my heart swelled like a cresting wave. I walked to the king bird, touched his great grey neck reverently, his feathers as soft as the rarest silk. “Mother,” I whispered, “he pleases me.”

As was her duty, my mother replied, her eyes lit like the sun, “Then he is yours.”

“You will teach my people the ways of the ghali-ghuchi,” the king bird replied as my grey hair lengthened, the roots turning into calamus. “You will nest with me in the roots of the ylang-ylang tree,” he spoke as my barbs strengthened, legs thinning to stalks and arms flaring wide. “We will row through the stars at night, say hello to the moon and the cloud and the wind who you have spurned in my favor, and by day smell the ylang-ylang’s blossoms. I hope they do not make you sneeze.” The king bird laughed again and I echoed him, my beak clattering with joy. Our feathers the color of water fowl. Our eyes the black of night water. Our beauty like the rush of ylang-ylang at the shore. And every part of us male.

As my mother and grandmother watched, the king bird and I walked through the estuary mud, our toes barely sinking. When we took flight, on that morning of mornings, our wings beat together.

I saw my mother often after that day, though we rarely spoke. She swept the yard, singing, or stood in the doorway wearing a fine silk skirt. As I trained the great grey birds’ chicks, showing them how to make ylang-ylang blossoms dance on the wind, my mother flashed like fire. My grandmother, sucking rice through her teeth, was pleased.



Alicia Cole‘s poems and short fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Agniezska’s Dowry, Blithe House Quarterly, Lodestar Quarterly, American Tanka, Abramelin Journal, The Last Man Anthology, This Great Society, Phantom Kangaroo, Gothic Poetry and Flash Fiction, and Star*Line. An educator with an M.S. in Urban Education, Students with Disabilities 5-9, Alicia works with exceptional middle grade students at all ability levels. Currently, she is pursuing a three summers Sixth Year Diploma through the Neag Center for Gifted Education at the University of Connecticut. Alicia lives with her husband Roger, their cat Hatshepsut and many fish in Lawrenceville, GA.

The featured photograph of the Cormoros Island is by Jonathan Gill, and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Demeter’s Spicebox
Issue Three, Volume One, July 2013

Jul 292013

Mouse Choirs of the Old Mátra
by Bogi Takács

Kisbalatoncivertanlegi2remixedSevenscore seven lands away and across the seas on the edge of the world, beyond the feet of the glass mountains where pigs frolic in the dirt, on the island plains where three borders meet, there lived a wise and wizened old man who loved to walk the meadows every evening.

On one warm afternoon late into spring, he got into his boat and rowed across the stream by his cottage. He strolled around the small and wet meadow, not minding the mosquitoes that preyed on every warm-blooded creature – except for him. He knew the secrets that kept the mosquitoes at bay, and they were all in awe of his knowledge.

All the animals of the island plains treated him with careful respect, keeping their distance unless summoned by his words that could flow like nectar or smart like red pepper. Only one little mouse dared to approach him – one little mouse from a faraway land.

The man pushed his felt hat back on his head and rubbed his eyes. “Who are you, little mouse?”

The mouse’s tiny button-round eyes beheld him with a steady gaze. He crouched down and held out a hand to the tiny creature.

The mouse hopped into his palm, and it was only then that he noticed it had minuscule blue-and-white slippers on its feet. He knew this for a sign, and he gently placed the mouse on his shoulder and headed back to his boat.

He put down the mouse on the table in the cottage, next to his miraculous spicebox whose carvings told stories, his wood and canvas bread-holder and his table-knife. The mouse sniffed the bread-holder and squeaked. The man sliced two loaves of bread, smeared them with butter, then sprinkled red pepper on them from the spicebox. He bit into his loaf and placed the other loaf in front of the mouse.

As the mouse chewed its first tiny morsel, it shook, rolled forward over its right shoulder and turned into a young human girl.

“Uncle,” she said and bent her head slightly, “it seems like it is my fate to live among people. I lived in many lands, but you were the first to invite me into your home and offer me bread to eat.”

“So be it, then,” the man said. His own children had left the wet and treacherous island plains for far-off lands many seasons ago, and his wife already watched him from the heavens above. His heart rejoiced that he found companionship in his old age.

Years passed, and the girl grew into a young woman. Her grayish-brown hair that had covered the top of her head like a mouse’s coat grew into beautiful curly locks falling to her shoulders. She always accompanied her uncle on his boat rides, weaving in and out between the small islands of the plains, and he taught her all his secret knowledge about the animals and the plants, the truths of longevity and sudden demise, the constellations in the night sky. She learned everything eagerly, but she would only carry herself with measured little steps like a mouse, and she refused to remove her slippers even when she trod in the swamps. The man only shook his head, but never reprimanded her.

On one cheerful and sparkly summer day, the girl stood in front of her uncle, stared at him with eyes dark like coat-buttons, and said, “Father, it is time that I marry.”

“So be it, then,” said the old man, “and who shall you marry?”

“I have traveled many lands and I have seen much. I shall only marry the best of the best.”

The man pushed his felt hat back on his head and said nothing. The next morning he rowed to the large town in one corner of the plains and bought food for threescore three weeks, then rowed back home and filled up the larder.

“I will find a suitable husband for you, be not afraid,” he told his beautiful button-eyed and mousy-haired daughter. “I’ve filled up the larder for you, I’ve instructed the mosquitoes and flies to stay away. Just be patient. You can use everything in the cottage, but do not touch the jar on the top shelf.”

The girl made a promise, then the two parted to a rainfall of tears.

The man rowed to one of the small islands, well-hid by gnarly trees. He tied the boat to a thick root and got out. Then he blew the whistle around his neck.

His magical horse appeared. “What do you need, my sweet little master?”

The old man coughed, pulled himself to his full height and said, “It has been a long time since I was your sweet little master, my loyal horse.”

“Indeed,” said the horse, not in the least startled to see his master now well into age. “You haven’t summoned me in many seasons.”

“What use would I have for a horse on the island plains? But now I need your services – I need to ascend to the heavens.”

“Hop on, sweet little master,” said the horse. “For old time’s sake.”

They galloped along the road of the sky armies and rose to the heavens. The wise and wizened old man could see his wife from afar, but he could not reach her beyond the gates of death. He shook his head. “This is not why we are here. You need to ascend even higher.”

They ascended to the glowing house of the Sun and the Moon. They knocked and the Moon let them in.

“We need to talk to the Sun,” the old man said. He would settle for no less.

“He is out making his circuit,” the Moon responded. He led them inside and gave golden oats to the horse and golden bread to the horse’s master. Fireflies floated around the room, their lights reflected in the tall mirrors on each wall, but the horse was courteous and did not flick its tail to chase them away and risk breaking the mirrors by accident.

As soon as they finished their meal, the Sun arrived. The wise and wizened old man told him about the request of his daughter.

The Sun flared up and it was only thanks to the old man’s secret knowledge that they did not burn to death.

“I am flattered, but I’m not the best of the best,” the Sun said. “The Cloud is stronger than me, for it can obscure my light.”

The man nodded and led the horse out. They descended halfway along the road of the sky armies to visit the house of the Cloud.

The Cloud led them in and offered them silver oats and silver bread. They ate to their heart’s content while they gazed at the beautiful silver plates covering the walls, each telling a story. The old man recognized the images from the spicebox, but he pushed his felt hat back on his head and said nothing.

It was the custom of people of the island plains not to speak while eating, so the man waited until they finished their meal before making his request. The entire room darkened, and it was only thanks to the old man’s secret knowledge that they did not die of fright. “I am flattered, but I’m not the best of the best,” said the Cloud. “The Wind is stronger than me, because he can chase me to and fro as he pleases.”

The wise and wizened old man said goodbye to the Cloud and led out his horse. They descended even further on the road of the sky armies, but they could not find the wind, for it was busy running to and fro. They went inside the Wind’s airy cottage, sat down and waited.

Eventually the Wind tired out and dragged himself home, throwing himself into his hammock. It was only after he rested a while that he could get up and offer his guests shining copper oats and copper bread. After they ate, the old man made his request for the third time that day.

The cottage turned so cold, the air so sharp, that it was only thanks to the old man’s secret knowledge that they did not freeze to death. “I am flattered,” said the Wind, though it didn’t look flattered in truth, “but I’m not the best of the best. That mountain down there, just below my cottage, it is much stronger than me, for I have tried to blow it away all day and I could not manage to make it budge as much as a hair’s breadth.”

The man excused himself and led out his horse. They stared down and saw the old Mátra below the Wind’s airy cottage, at the feet of the road of the sky armies. They galloped down the sparkling road and found themselves in front of the old Mátra, back on solid ground, but far, very far from the island plains.

The wise and wizened old man greeted the mountain with courtesy. Alas, the mountain did not offer them
anything to eat beyond the grapes growing on its southern slopes. The old man ate to his fill, but his horse only neighed in displeasure.

“Don’t worry, we shall be home soon,” said the old man to his horse, then he turned to the mountain and presented his daughter’s request.

The Mátra shook and for a moment the old man feared it would erupt, but nothing happened that would’ve endangered their lives. “Me? Bah! I’m not the best of the best! I can’t even crush these little mice that tickle my feet!”

The wise and wizened old man nodded and started to lead his horse in a circle around the slopes. They passed grape orchards and forests, then they finally saw the entrance into the kingdom of the mice, its burrows tunneling into the feet of the mountain.

The old man and the horse rolled over their shoulders and became small like mice. They entered the kingdom, offering morsels of heavenly bread and pieces of heavenly oats from the folds of their clothing to the heavily armed guards at the gates.

They allowed themselves to be led to the king’s throne room, decorated with all manner of seeds and dried fruit in intricate patterns. A choir sang and plucked their instruments made out of mouse whiskers tied across halves of walnut shells.

The old man curtsied, and even the horse made an attempt at reproducing the human gesture. The king smiled at them, his coat-button eyes glistening in the light of the tiny lanterns. The wise and wizened old man offered his daughter’s request and the king licked a paw in consternation.

“I am the king of mice, burrowers and tunnelers who can bring down the tallest mountains. Despite that, you’re the first one to call me the best of the best. I can visit her, but how will a human girl marry me?”

“Do not worry, Your Highness,” the old man said. “I know the hidden ways of the world.”

The king smoothed down the fur on his chest, his paw twitching just a little. “Let us prepare! I will ride on my choicest carriage, accompanied by my bravest warriors.”

The old man shook his head. “If I may, Your Highness – the island plains are far, very far from the old Mátra. By the time you get there on your carriage, my daughter will turn into an elderly matron.” He was courteous and didn’t remind the king of the life span of mice.

“Well then, what do you propose?” asked the king.

“Just hop into my pocket and my trusty steed will take us there.”

They went outside, the old man and the horse rolled over their shoulders and grew to their full size. The old man crouched and the king hopped into his pocket, alongside two of his guards.

They flew back to the island plains and landed in front of the cottage. The girl came running and she gasped when she saw the majestic horse. How much larger was her surprise when her uncle set down the three well-dressed mice on the kitchen table!

“You haven’t opened the jar on the top shelf, have you?” he asked.

The girl shook her head.

“Then please fetch it for me.”

“What’s in it, uncle?”

Salt from the tears of a long gone princess, a curative that cures all manner of ailments and soothes the soul.”

She found this answer strange, but she stepped to the shelves and fetched the jar regardless.

The wise and wizened old man sprinkled the king with salt from the jar. Everyone held back their breath.
Nothing happened.

“Odd,” the old man said. “I was sure this would work.”

“Are you trying to turn him into a human?” the button-eyed girl asked.

The mouse-king gasped. “How would I rule my kingdom as a human?”

His guards stepped in front of him and drew their minuscule swords fashioned from tiny twigs and discarded doornails. “Stand down. I need to think this over,” the king said and cast a surprisingly shy glance at the girl.

The girl smiled at him, then quietly reached into the jar of salt and licked her fingers. She turned into a mouse on the spot.

“So be it, then,” the wise and wizened old man said. “Jump into my pocket.”

The girl said, “Uncle, do you see my slippers? With them I can move faster than the wind, faster than the speed of thought, if I just run instead of walking. Allow me to show you…”

She pushed the guards aside and grabbed hold of the stunned mouse-king. The two of them vanished in a poof of dust.
The old man pushed his felt hat back on his head, put the confused bodyguards in his pocket, jumped on his horse and flew off in the direction of the Mátra. By the time he arrived, his daughter and the mouse-king had already professed their love to each other. He was happy she had finally found a good match. Even though he understood the mouse-king wasn’t exactly the mightiest being on the earth and in the heavens, probably not even in his own eyes, still the old man was certain the king was the best of the best for her.

Seven days, seven nights, sevenscore days, sevenscore nights the mice celebrated, while the old Mátra grumbled about the jubilations and the people were puzzled by the high-pitched songs coming from burrows in the ground.

Perhaps you yourself have heard the mice sing?



Bogi Takács is a Hungarian Jewish author, a psycholinguist and a popular-science journalist. E writes both speculative fiction and poetry, and eir works have been published or are forthcoming in a variety of venues like Strange Horizons, Stone Telling, Apex and Jabberwocky, among others.

This remixed picture of Kis-Balaton in Hungary, is by Civertan, and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Demeter’s Spicebox
Issue Three, Volume One, July 2013

Jul 292013

Stronger Than The Wind, Stronger Than The Sea
by Mari Ness
La RestingaOnce upon a time, there lived a little girl on a little island not very far from everywhere else, but far enough away to seem very far away, who decided to marry the sun. She did not quite know what marriage was, but in her father’s tales, it seemed to involve dressing in white and then going to bed. So she dressed herself in a white T-shirt and shorts and ran to the beach and fell down into the sand, as far from shade as she could be, ready to marry the sun, stronger than anything else she knew.

The scientist is arguing with my father about me again.

I am supposed to be asleep, but at the sound of their angry voices, I get up, creeping from my little bedroom, through the great room, and then down the rickety stairs, and behind the waverunner and the charcoal grill my father keeps stored beneath the house. This is as close as I am going to get: they are standing in the clearing, far from the mangroves and palm trees, and will see me if I get any closer. I strain to hear the voices, sometimes catching only fragments:

“…can’t keep her here forever….

“…you know.”

“…bone structure…normal….wouldn’t even be….surgery…”

Surgery is a word I know. Sometimes it fixes people. Sometimes it kills them. Blue and green lights flash before my eyes, and I sway a little and miss the next few sentences. When I can hear again, their voices are louder.

“It’s not forever. Just until she’s ready.”

“She’s ready now.”

“She can barely even look at a boat.”

“Because you –”

“No. I’ve asked. Look, I don’t know what happened or how much she remembers. All I know is she wants to stay here.”

“That’s because you’ve somehow filled her head with the idea that –”

“No,” my father says heavily. “Why do you think I keep telling her tales or other places?”

Another sound I can’t identify. “You can’t leave this up to her.”

“I have to.”

“Does she even realize?”

“She’s seen pictures.”

When her father found her, hours later, she was red and blistered all over, and could barely speak. She had been saved from worse only by a passing cloud, stronger than the sun.

My father is right: I have seen pictures. In our little house, high up on stilts, we have postcards and books filled with pictures of other places, other worlds, funny stories of cats who come into houses and make messes of everything, and stories of princesses and girls who live in impossibly tall buildings or travel to cities where everything is built from bright emerald, a color like but not quite like the mangrove leaves. I’m not sure if these are the pictures the scientist means. I am sure I would like a cat, but that is the one thing my father will not allow. A cat on this island would kill all the little lizards and the birds. I can have a cat only if I go another island, or the mainland.

I draw a picture of a cat instead. It is clumsy, and not very good, because I am not very good at holding a pencil, but I put it up on my wall anyway.

When the little girl was told that the passing cloud had shielded her from the sun, and kept her from burning all, all, up, she determined to marry a cloud, stronger than the sun.

My father tells me that the scientist is leaving. She had something called a grant, which had run out, the way I often run out the door, or run down the three paths that crisscross the island. I can go to her hut now if I want, and play there while he goes diving, or I can stay here, or play on the beach.

So she climbed to the roof of her house, which was balanced on high stilts to keep it safe from the sea, ready to marry the wind.

I should of course be going to school. Instead, I have my father’s stories, and what he brings me from his trips to those other islands. Cookies. A pie. Fresh fruit, carried to that island by something called trucks. New clothing. A tiny glass necklace that sparkles in the sun. Books filled with tales of talking cats and bears and princesses and girls that travel to cities made of emerald, which is a color brighter even than the mangrove leaves in full sun. And sometimes, in the air, reminders of other people: airplanes, which my father claims are even bigger than a mangrove tree when on the ground, and tiny bright moving lights that he calls satellites. He would know: he has traveled on many planes, or so his stories say.

On our rickety shelves he displays his treasures, gathered from around the world. First, a small wooden box that smells of things I cannot identify, with pictures of a two women bending over a fish on its lid. On the sides of the box, the women leap into the water and follow the fish, down into the sea, encountering a head of a creature my father calls a dragon. The box never tells us what happens after the dragon, but I like to think that they gave the fish to the dragon, and rode it through the ocean, to some small island safe from the sea.

The box was used, my father said, to store spices and other things years and years ago. He found it in an island much larger than this one, one with high speed trains and tall buildings and temples and gardens and hot springs and snow. I cannot imagine most of this, even when he shows me pictures, even when my hands curl around the box and its carved pictures push into my palms.

Next to this, a brown teapot with the image of a leaf from the same island, but one which has traveled greatly since: my father found it, he tells me, stained with crystals of salt, thousands of miles away from where it was first made. The person who sold it to him lived in a shop on a twisted little street in a city so old I cannot even imagine it. Older than anything on our island except for the limestone beneath us. Probably older than most of the reef around the island, which keeps growing and dying, growing and dying. When I hold it in my hands I can almost imagine the people who have held it before me: boys and girls, men and women, each pouring a small cup of sweet or bitter tea for a friend or an enemy.

And more: A jar of black glass, that when lifted into sunlight changes, into colors so deep and so beautiful that I cannot imagine anything more glorious in the world. My father names the colors one by one: turquoise, amethyst, emeralds, the colors, he tells me, of deep gems that I may see some day, on other islands or on the mainland, or if I agree to dive with him down into the reef. I shake whenever he says this, hoping he doesn’t notice, turning my attention to the stopper instead, which is carved with some sort of flying beast. It was once filled, he said, with a salt that could cure anything, and remove all tears.


“Anything,” my father agrees, looking over the sea.

He found the jar a tiny town high up in a mountain – a mountain, I repeat, letting the word roll over my tongue. I have never seen one of those, either, although he has shown me pictures, and told me his stories of climbing them. Next to it, a fine piece of cloth, so delicate and slender that it can be pulled through a tiny ring. It was worn by a girl whose sister tamed a fire elemental, my father told me, which is why in the sun, it blazes like fire, and even at night, it holds its heat. She wore it to marry a prince, and her daughter married a prince, and her daughter, and so on down a long line of daughters and princes.

“If I wear it, will I marry a prince?”

He gives me a quick hug. “Princes these days aren’t worth it. All they do is waste money or get their wives killed by idiot photographers –” My eyes widened at that one, sensing a story, but he went on before finishing it. “You can do much better than a prince.”

“I can marry the sun,” I said.

“The sun is much better than a prince,” my father agrees.

Beside those, a pair of white and blue sandals – no, chappals, my father called them; I run the lovely word over my tongue – faded with age. They had belonged to a pair of princesses long ago who had rescued a princess and a prince. Back then, the chappals would allow anyone who wore them to run faster than the wind, like the seven leagued boots in my big picture book of fairy tales, only in that land, my father explains, their fairies gave out sandals, because of the heat.

“Can I use them now?”

My father shakes his head. “They lost their magic long ago, after the princesses had turned to dust.” I imagine dresses falling into a dust pile on the ground. “Besides which, it hardly takes you that long to run from one side of the island to the other.”

Until she saw the way that every cloud was blown away by wind, stronger than the clouds, stronger than the sun.

I ask him about my mother.

“I don’t know, darlin’. I wish I knew.”

For my father not to tell a story is sheer terror. I do not dare ask again.

And so the little girl determined to marry the wind, which was stronger than the clouds, stronger than the sun. She did not try to catch the wind, but waited for the wind to come to her island.

My father is right about the time it takes me to run around the island, although in part that is because I do not have very much island to run around. It is a small place – about three miles long, and a half mile wide, and most of it is lined with thick mangroves, far too dense to walk through, much less run. The mangroves keep the sea from the island, though, and provide shade and, my father tells me, places for baby fish to grow. We also have a tiny beach with a narrow boat dock, and pathways snaking through the island to the two huts on either end, lifted up on stilts to be out of the reach of insects and the sea.

I know, because my father has told me, that the islands nearby are like this one, flat and low against the water. The islands he tells stories of, the ones with tall mountains and deep valleys and rushing waterfalls, like the ones in the book, are further away. Much further away. Some are so far away that they see the sun when we see the stars. Sometimes I dream of those far islands, and then dream of diving from a mountain deep into an ocean, and turning into fish. Other times I think I can just see the islands close to us, dark and grey against the ocean. But when I look too long, all I can see is clouds, and our small island, against the sea.

The smallness of the island is not very comforting when the wind starts to blow.

And the wind came, and blew, and blew.

I am standing on the edge of the boat dock – the part over the sand, not the part heading out into the sea, where I will not walk – when I see them: tight, fast moving, circle clouds. Shortly after that, I am hit by a rain like nothing I have ever felt, except for the needles my father sometimes uses when he is conducting tests on me and other things. I run back to our house and up its stairs, even as the wind nearly knocks me over.

My father looks worried, more so than I have ever seen him. He has cranked up the radio, and the sound of voices interspersed with hissing fills the room as he bends over a map and puts dots on it. He does not smile when he sees me.

“The –” I start.

He doesn’t let me finish. “Looks like a pretty bad storm out there, sweetheart.” He takes a deep breath. “They usually recurve before they get here, but this one doesn’t seem to be doing that quite yet. Wanna help me tie some things down?”

I almost never get to help. I nod eagerly.

The next few hours are exhausting, moving things, tying things, looking with some concern at the boat. We will spend the storm in the hut, which may shake in the wind, but will keep us high above the incoming sea.

I pause when he says that. “The sea?”

“Storm like this can blow the ocean right across the island.” Something must be showing in my face. “No worries,” he tells me, poking at the webbing between my fingers, just before he goes to drag the mattress from his bed. “We’ll be fine.”

So strong was that wind that it blew the very waves into her island, and over it, and swept everything into the air so that it pounded against the little house on the stilts, breaking its roof and windows, sending coconuts and twigs flying over her head and slamming into her arms and legs. So strong was that wind that she found herself huddling against a rock, a thin mattress thrown over her body, clinging to the earth even as the rain pounded into her. And it blew and it blew and blew until she could not stop crying, not stop shaking, her tears mingled with the rain, and she knew that nothing could ever be more powerful than the wind.

When the salt water reaches my hands, I scream.

For nothing had stopped the wind, nothing at all. When it finally left, in a mess of clouds and rains, half the island was gone, washed into the sea, and most of the mangroves, and the palm trees on what was left had been bent or flattened. And the house on stilts was gone, with all of her father’s treasures that had been her toys: the blue and white chappals, the old tea pot, the delicate sarong, the black glass jar that had held all the colors of fire and sky, the spicebox with its tale of women and a dragon. She was too big to cry, and she was alive, and safe, and the wind was gone and the sea had retreated, and still she cried and cried.

I am still shaking and dazed when I find my father, trapped beneath some of the rubble. I pull and tug and tug and pull, salt and water staining my face, until he is freed enough that he can help me drag him out. His face is a sickly grey I have never seen before, and I find myself crying again. This is all my fault, all my fault, and I can’t even help him.

“Hey,” my father whispers, touching my hands. “It’s gonna be ok.”


“I don’t know,” he says. “But I do know we can both think of things more powerful than the wind.” He struggles to sit up, ends up flopping back down. More salt is on my face. “Now,” he adds. “People do know we’re out here, and they will be sending somebody to check on us. Do you think you can put up some sort of flag or signal out on the beach – maybe write S.O.S. in the sand – so they come a little quicker?”

“I can think of things more powerful than the wind,” her father had said.

But she could not, until one day, when she had returned to the beach (much smaller now, with its sand stolen by wind and sea) to see her father’s treasures on the sand: the blue and white chappals, more faded than ever; the old tea pot, now encrusted with salt; the delicate sarong, which now had gained the brightness of the orange sponges that clung to the mangroves; the black glass jar, now filled with the color of the sea. And the spicebox,now encrusted with salt, with its image of a dragon almost gone. She held them all in her hands, and wept again. The wind had taken her treasures, but the ocean – the ocean had given them back.

In my father’s tales, he sometimes speaks of finding me in a city, a place that was once a sleepy place beneath the sun, of how that very sun made it grow and become encrusted with concrete and steel, so that even in the wind and rain, green things struggle to rise from the earth. I hear an anger in his voice as he says this, before he continues on to tell me of the mansions further up the mainland, standing proud against the ocean and the wind. The mansions where he used to work, before he came here on this island. With me.

But more often he tells me of how he dove deep down into the reef, to marvel at the creatures hidden within, and how a flash of purple and yellow caught his eyes. How he held as still as he could, beneath the water, as the tiny fish approached. A fairy basslet, he called it, rare in the reefs near our island. Of how, as it neared, he could see the great streaks down the side of the fish, wounds from some creature he could not identify, though in each telling he named a different creature. Of how, knowing it was impossible – for what fish could breathe, outside of the sea? – he cupped the tiny fish in his hands, and slowly rose to the surface, where he swam to the island. Our island.

And sometimes he tells me of diving deep into the reef, to steal one of the worms that look like dancing flowers, to bring it back to our island, and of how, once he climbed up to the sands, the worm was no longer a worm, but a small child. Or how within one of the great barrel like sponges he saw a shrimp dancing in the swirling water, and how he thought it might make a fine pet.

In all of his stories, once he stepped upon the – our – island, he found a small girl with blue green hands clinging to his neck.

And so she determined to marry the ocean, which was stronger than the wind, stronger than the clouds, stronger than the sun.

I have to make several trips, but in the end, I save all of my father’s treasures, placing them carefully in a large yellow plastic box that somehow escaped all the destruction. I tell my father, and he almost manages a smile. I dig a can of soda out from under the rubble and bring that to him. I do not tell him that we are almost out of food, since nearly all of our supplies were destroyed by either the ocean or the wind.

Then, for the first time that I can remember, I step into the ocean.

It was very easy, to marry the sea. She only had to walk to the beach, the sarong tied about her neck, and step into the sea, and let the current take her where it would. She knew, for her father had told her, that the current around the island was very strong indeed, that he could, when diving for grouper or snorkeling in the mangroves, merely let the current take him past the roots. And so she let the current take her, thinking it would be simple, thinking of the smile on her father’s face when he saw her married to the ocean.

But she did not know how to swim, and as the current pulled her, she began to panic. The ocean dragged at her, pulling her down, stronger than the wind, stronger than the clouds, stronger than the sun. Until she remembered her father’s tales of swimming and snorkeling near these mangroves, of how one time he had been stung by coral of a fiery hue, that had left deep stinging marks up and down his leg, how the shock had made him almost unable to think, and certainly unable to move, but how he had allowed himself to drift into the mangrove roots, how he had clung to them and somehow dragged himself up a little, and how, eventually, a boat had drifted by to rescue him.

And remembering, she let the current drag her into what mangrove roots remained, right into a raised root, and grabbed – grabbed – it hurt, it hurt a lot, but she had it in her strong webbed hands. She was holding on to the tree, and she was safe. She was going to be safe. Her father’s story had been stronger than the ocean, stronger than the wind, stronger than the clouds, stronger than the sun.

Three days later, the scientist arrives in a speedboat loaded with food and spare clothes and above all, water. She apologizes for taking so long, but we would not believe the roads and the mess at all of the ports, and along the Intracoastal. (She is right. I don’t believe the roads, since I am still not certain I believe in roads.) She helps get my father’s arm in a sling and does something to his leg before telling me that she needs to take him to something called a hospital, but once there, he will be all well.

I carefully put our treasures into a bright yellow plastic box, and then help her get him into her boat. I clamber in after him. She hardly seems to notice, but my father does.

“Not scared anymore?” my father says.

I snuggle against him. “There are things more powerful than the ocean,” I say. “Tell me a story?”

And as the speedboat hurries off to other islands, he does.

And when the little girl returned to the island and held the spicebox in her hands again, she began to laugh and laugh. The figures on the spicebox moved against her hands, telling her story, stronger than the ocean, stronger than the wind, stronger than the clouds, stronger even than the sun.


BIO: Mari Ness lives in central Florida, with a still scraggly rose garden that she’s hoping to bring magic to. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous publications, including Fantasy, Cabinet des Fées, and Ideomancer. She keeps a disorganized blog at, or you can follow her on Twitter at mari_ness.

The featured remixed photograph of the mangroves of Laguna de la Restinga on Margarita Island, off the coast of Venezuela is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Declaration by Wilfredor.

Demeter’s Spicebox
Issue Three, Volume One, July 2013

Something Old, Something New: A DS Artistic Experiment

 Cabinet des Fées, Demeter's Spicebox, Issue Three (July 2013)  Comments Off on Something Old, Something New: A DS Artistic Experiment
Jul 292013

Demeter’s Spicebox was always meant to be an interstitial project, a marriage between digital media and storytelling. We’ve had daydreams from the onset about comics, pictures and even short movies related to these stories. We’ve also received more than one email from artists asking if they could contribute art. So finally, we decided that it would be interesting to invite and challenge selected artists to share with us artwork that they thought represented stories with which they had connected the most. I chose artists whose art had depth, which corresponded to emotions or metaphors found in these stories. Each artist took a different approach to this challenge, which is about that connection between words and art. While it is lovely to have art that is made exclusively for a story, I was interested in what happens when a pre-existing story met a pre-existing work of art. Could there be an intersection between meaning in this context? Some artists felt that there could not be a convergence, primarily because both works should stand on their own — they made works of art for these stories from materials that they felt corresponded to the stories. Others found a resonance with their pre-existing works of art, albeit with modification. In short, the diversity of their artistic response speaks to the kind of heterogeneity we are trying to bring about with these stories and the intersecting artwork.

Demeter’s Spicebox’s first Volume has taken us from India, to the Far East, to the nations of the Silk Road, and though these lands may seem far-off and mysterious to many in the first world, to those of us who reside elsewhere, some of these cultures may feel comforting and familiar. But in fairy tales, even the everyday becomes a little strange, a little uncanny. You could step into a dream at any second, or into a painting. Something that already exists could be transformed into something new. We hope to have further artistic journeys such as this with future issues, but for now, I believe these works of art and the words of their artists speak for themselves!

Laila Borrie

shakti-siva “I instantly fell in love with Shveta Thakrar’s Lavanya and Deepika because not only is it a fantastic fairy tale in every sense of the word but it also has an Indian theme and setting.The familiarity which comes from that is very comforting. Another aspect that I really appreciated is the fact that the princess gets the princess at the end! My painting titled ‘Shakti’ is about the balance of power between male and female. Shakti is considered to be power, creation and loving while her male counterpart is said to be a personification of silence, creativity and love. The interplay between these cosmic forces is what gives birth to the manifest universe. Yet we often see the feminine forms of life rejected and considered weaker in place of more masculine forms and energies.

Lavanya and Deepika captures the essence of this beautifully and so I feel combines well with the energies and thought processes behind my painting.”

Laila Borrie was born and raised in Southern India. She moved to the Netherlands at the age of 26, supposedly for a ‘short period’. Eight years later, Laila is still calling Rotterdam home. Laila is passionate about mythology, folk-tales, the theater, philosophy, current affairs, gender based issues and art. She has recently begun a little company selling her art and assorted things of a whimsical nature. She is totally obsessed with colour and the range of emotions they inspire.

Kirsty Greenwood

sister and bones illustration kirsty greenwood 2013 small

“I adored Sister and Bones by Mari Ness, and immediately had an image in mind. Using several drawings I’d done with ink and paint I combined the illustrative parts, and then further drew over to pick out the elements of detail in the story that struck a chord with me: bark, gnarled skin, cherry blossom beauty, symbiotic magic and bargaining.

The central character of my illustration can be viewed as both the pregnant mother and the dutiful sister amongst the predator spirits of the forest. I had in mind a feeling of the Orient and used a simple graphic style to represent the cherry tree of life under which the girl stands, whilst the demons expectantly creep in the background…”

With the advantage of an illustrative mind-set, Kirsty Greenwood is motivated by ephemeral visual misunderstanding, transient half-light, ocular strangeness, nightmares, dreams and fleeting glimpses of unreality. Inspired by faerie tales, myths and legends, ailuroanthropy, science, Alice-syndrome and transformation, childhood memories, ghost stories, naiveté, music, antique cultures, the minds of other artists, Quixotism and true romanticism; her idiosyncratic work often has its roots in dreamlike non-realities to create art contained by the renovating of influences and ideas into images which often convey feelings of otherworldly states and a desire to know more of the subject. Favouring pencil and ink, mixing with photography and print,Greenwood likes to work intricately to produce detailed phantasmagorias and unusual scenarios or beings representing the worlds of both traditional and modern stories of all genres.

Kirsty lives in her native North Yorkshire and is heavily influenced by the rural Dales landscape she grew up in, literature, music and Art of all varieties. For further examples or to commission work please visit


Stace Dumoski

salty stace small

“Salt. Even those of us who know the value of salt in the food we eat probably take for granted how easy it is to get to our kitchens and tables in this day and age. Just head to any grocery store or – if you favor more exotic varieties – place an order on the Internet to have the essential mineral delivered right to your door, in whatever quantities you might desire. But in ages past, salt wasn’t always so easy to come by (thus the superstition about spilling salt leading to bad luck) and I wanted to pay notice to that in this artwork.

The spilled salt on the left of the image could be a sample of the salt merchant’s wares, as he tries to persuade his customer to buy, in Joshua Gage’s story, Salt. And the wide salt flats on the right show the desert to which Kassa is exiled in The Salt of Aksum by Mae Epsum, surely a barren place to be the source of all her kingdom’s wealth! Or perhaps it is the inner landscape of wandering Suha’s broken heart.”

Stace Dumoski is a Content Marketer by day, aspiring Fantasy Writer by night. Her work has been published in Cabinet des Fees and A Fly in Amber, and at You can view more of her artwork on her blog at



Salt2 “Before reading the two short stories I was expecting a particular character or scene to stand out and spark inspiration for me to follow. I had no idea what either story was about. I was surprised on finishing Joshua Gage’s Salt that it would be something so simple as a tear that would provide the most poignant mental imagery for me. I really wanted to convey the theme of salt as well so I conceived of having a crying face covered in salt grains. When I read Mae Empson’s The Salt of Aksum, I was resolved to follow this idea further — it was clear that tears were one of the major common themes between the two. I was even more delighted that the second story justified my salt covered face idea with an almost identical description as what I had in mind. This concept excited me as it would give me an opportunity to express emotion through facial features and provide a challenge of making it appear as though the face is covered or made of salt. It was indeed a challenge to figure out how to get the texture looking grainy enough. In the end it was a very simple idea that provided the best solution – as is often the case in art.”

Pictsy is a UK-based visual artist and musician. She works in both the digital and traditional mediums, and is also interested in both photography and philosophical inquiry.

Demeter’s Spicebox
Issue Three, Volume One, July 2013

Call for Submissions: Issue Three of Demeter’s Spicebox

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Feb 122013

tigercropDemeter’s Spicebox has been on quite a journey since it first opened, but we are still going strong! In the interest of finding the right/best story for Issue Three of Demeter’s Spicebox, I am re-opening the call for submissions for Issue Three. We have already accepted Alicia Cole’s beautiful Flower of Flowers, Bird of Birds for Issue Three and are now looking for a complementing story. The folktale type for Issue Three is the Aarne-Thompson type 2031C, The Mouse Who Was To Marry The Sun, please do read the Submissions Guidelines for additional prompts/guidelines/information. We have ascertained that for this storytelling experiment, the solicitation model is not really the right one, so we’re moving back to full submissions.

Send us your stories, and join the fine company of authors who have penned a story in this hypertext experiment. Although it is taking a little longer than we anticipated, we have many more good things in store for you, inclusive of a print chapbook containing all of the connected stories, brought out by Papaveria Press.

Looking forward to hearing from prospective writers.


Issue Two of Demeter’s Spicebox

 Demeter's Spicebox, Featured, Issue Two (February 2012)  Comments Off on Issue Two of Demeter’s Spicebox
Feb 132012

Demeter's Spicebox Issue Two

It’s official, salt is sexy!

In more than one tradition around the world, salt is used to purify enclosures, or home dwellings. Along with herbs, or turmeric, sea salt is said to remove negative charges from the atmosphere. Salt is an agent of purification, a very housewifely thing to keep on hand. But like love, it possesses different qualities. It has been used for covenants, treaties, as well as a rebellion that changed the course of history. As such, it is not surprising that salt is the feature of not just one tale type, but two intersecting types, the Aarne-Thompson Types 510 and 923. The most familiar retelling of this folktale type exists in King Lear, in which a King asks his three daughters to prove their love for him, by words. But in the fairytale variants, this gesture of love is accompanied by a feast, a poignant juxtaposition between abundance and scarcity. We asked for retold tales to be set along the Silk Road, which has been the subject of historical accounts of trade, exploration, treaties and conquest. When the submissions guidelines went out, I knew that a tale type as powerful as “Love Like Salt” needed stories that were equally strong, poignant even. However, our inventive writers have also given us accounts that simply luxuriate in the wonders of salt, causing this thrilled editor to consider the basic seasoning that is in all of our blood with renewed wonder.

Submissions started coming in when I was packing to move back to Malaysia from Australia, and the rest came in while I was slowly settling into life back in my country of birth. I can safely tell you that both of the stories that leapt at me from the inbox were selected in Malaysia, during my first month back, when I was near despairing of finding the perfect tale. First in was Joshua Gage’s Salt, a tale that made my mouth water with the descriptions of dishes from Merv, Turkmenistan, while his searing prose tugged at the heartstrings. And then, Mae Empson’s The Salt of Aksum, set in that long-ago kingdom in Ethiopia, imbued with both love and a sense of humour, appeared in the DS inbox. The Salt of Aksum demonstrates that salt is more than just an important, indistinguishable ingredient in most foods. Salt is also synonymous with love because it is as essential to human existence. Not content with that, Mae gives us a scene of near-erotic terror, featuring salt. Both writers have succeeded in underscoring the quiet mystique of a seemingly humble ingredient. No longer just a supporting act, Salt is truly a rock star in this issue.

My publisher and co-editor, Erzebet Yellowboy-Carr is now settling into her new home in France as of the writing of this editorial, making her the second member of the team to be moving while work on this Issue is underway. This makes it a very special – albeit challenging – issue for both of us. It speaks, as it must, of journeys over sea, land and air in-between continents. It speaks of connections, and of sacrifice. While Erzebet maintains that she is only on Demeter’s Spicebox in an advisory capacity, I maintain that, like that salt that is so essential in many dishes, like love is essential in everything we do, this dish that is Demeter’s Spicebox would neither exist nor be what it is without Erzebet’s guidance, presence and behind-the-scenes work. Much love goes to her as she begins life in a new home, may it be filled with love, artistic abundance and many, many jars of salt, be they sexy or prosaic.

Salt by Joshua Gage

 Issue Two (February 2012)  Comments Off on Salt by Joshua Gage
Feb 132012

by Joshua Gage

Merv buildingsMy friend, do not be tempted by the billowing fragrances of cumin, the crimson piles of pepper, the syrupy perfume of fenugreek that my neighbors offer. Come here, stranger, and look at this. Were a woman powdered in crushed cloves and cinnamon, were her temper blazened with the finest fruits of capsicum and softened by, she would not be half the treasure that I hold. Look, here, in my hand, traveler–salt.

See here, these crystals, so pink they could be a bride’s cheeks on her wedding night. This comes from the southeast¸ from the seas of Debal. And look here, these thick, black flakes come from the far south, an island in the middle of the sea known only for its bronze mines and these gems, which they say is blackened in volcanic fires by men whose soles are so thick with calluses and scars that they cannot feel the burn of the flames beneath them. No? Then smell this, good sir, and inhale the secrets of the southwest. Can you feel it? The cool winds of the sea surrounding you. This comes from a sea that they say is so rich in salt that a man cannot drown in it. They say the queens of Fustat boil this salt in oil to add to their bath waters nightly, letting the salt itself permeate their skin. Some even rub the oil directly on their bodies, allowing the crystals to cleanse them of any dust and grime which the winds may have brought through the day. Oh, sing me a song, minstrels, to praise these miraculous gems, worth more than all rubies or sapphires or diamonds in the treasury of the caliphate, may his reign endure forever and all eternity.

Oh ho, so you dismiss me, do you? Do not walk away, good sir, but stay a while longer and let me explain myself to you. Come in. Come in. You are so fresh from the desert the dust still clings to your cloak, and the sun is hovering overhead like an eager vulture over a slow caravan, waiting for some poor beast to collapse. Let us not appease its belly, my friend. Enter, please. Pull the hood from your head, unleash the dust from your scarf, and let the shade cool your face. No? Then please, my guest, at least be seated. Here, this cushion I bought years ago off a trader from the south. See the fine zardozi work, the delicate strands of silver against the blue silk? Garbage, I tell you, refuse against my salts. Look at this teapot. I bought this from a merchant who travelled all the way from Chang’an itself. He swore it was found by a fisherman, who pulled it up in his net instead of his perch or sturgeon. See, you can tell it is from the distant east by this leaf etched on the side, thin and delicate, against the sturdy pottery and its heavy brown glaze. You may be in Merv, Mother of Cities and Soul of Kings, Baghdad of the East, but no tree here grows leaves like that. No, this is a rarity among rarities in this city of wonders. Look at how the salt water of the ocean has given the crevices a fine crust, enough to catch the light and glisten like a rainbow. Even this crack along the side, this thin seam that would otherwise make this pot damaged, has been beautified by the crystals of salt. Still, I would smash this pot instantly, I would cast it back into the sea from whence it came, for a jar of the salt that I sell.

No no no, my friend. Wait. You are guest beneath my tent, humble though it may be. Do not drink this first cup, for it will taste like water. Allow me to return it to the pot. And this second cup, my friend, this would taste like tea, plain and ordinary that you could get at any cafe. This is not a beverage for guests such as yourself. No, this, too, goes back into the pot. Now, my friend, this cup will taste as rich as butter, and will fill your veins with a warming fire like the richest of wines, but without dulling your senses. Do you see? Good. Now, my friend, settle in and listen, for the sun will last long enough, and we should not be so bold as to challenge it with our presence. It is a time for rest, and a time for stories.

There was, or there was not, in the oldest of days and ages, in a time cast now into shadow and memory, a sultan by the name of Umar El-Amin, who had two daughters. This sultan was as honest as his name suggests, and his lands and people flourished under his reign. However, as his wife had died, he treasured above all else his two daughters, and pampered them with presents, glittering baubles and beads set in gold to adorn their necks in the same way the sun adorns the horizon at dawn, Ersari and Salyr rugs in every room of his palace so their bare feet would never be forced to touch the ground, even emerald peacocks to ornament their gardens and nightingales in golden cages to lullaby them to sleep at night. I tell you, his daughters wanted for nothing, my friend, and had every treasure you and I could imagine if we put our heads together and thought of nothing but gold and rare stones for a year and a day. But this sultan was plagued by doubt, and wanted to ensure that his daughters, in turn, treasured him.

To test their love and devotion for him, he summoned both his daughters and told them to each ask for a gift, any gift they could imagine. They were then to each cook a meal for him, a meal from their heart that would represent their love and devotion for him. For his part, he would bestow upon them their chosen gift equal to his pleasure in their presented meal.

His older daughter, Zulekha, was a young lady that could be described as beautiful, but only if that word itself should prostrate itself before the Almighty that it ever be worthy enough to be applied to her. Poets of the time, men who had never seen her face or been in her presence, were so taken with her beauty that they penned odes to her, filling whole libraries with ghazals and rubiyats of longing. Gardeners in the palace competed against each other, spending their whole careers cultivating rare breeds of orchid or lotus in the hopes that their offerings would be allowed to grow in her private gardens. Perfumers would ponder the works of al-Kindī and Ibn Sīnā, hoping to compose a new fragrance that they could name for this princess. It is said that any man who heard her name would immediately soften and pine for her, that any man who actually was honored enough to see her would weep for days, knowing nothing that their gaze could fall upon would be as beautiful. Being older than her sister, it was Zulekha’s privilege to ask for a gift and prepare a meal for her father first.

“Father,” she said in all sincerity, “all I wish for is a garment of silk and gold.” The sultan nodded in understanding, and watched as Zulekha left to prepare his meal.

And, my friend, such a meal neither you nor I have seen, I promise you. Plates and trays overflowed with such a delicious feast that the sultan could hardly taste everything. Fresh loaves of naan steamed, still warm from the oven. Plump manty were stuffed with onions and tender lamb, the yoghurt delicately seasoned with dill, the red sauce balancing the fire of peppers against the coolness of crushed mint leaves. Gutap were piled high, their garlic and scallion fillings pungent with parsley and ajowan. And her plov! Oh, my friend, the plov was succulent, with tender chunks of lamb and rice gold with saffron, the carrots sweet and juicy, and everything tinged with the soft taste of the oil. “Father,” said Zulekha, “I want this meal to fill you as my love for you fills me.” And filled the Sultan was, to the point that his crimson caftan was so swollen that he could have been a ripe melon waiting to be sliced.

“Thank you, my daughter. You will have your new clothes by this week’s end.”

My friend, to call his gift clothing, even a royal costume, would be like calling the great Kyz Kala a humble trader’s shack. The chemise was a pale gold. Some say it was Muga far away from the south, some say it was even more rare, enchanted so that when Zulekha walked past, it would whisper the darkest secrets and most hidden desires of those around her, giving her ultimate control over their hearts. There were three coats, and I tell you, each one could have bought an entire corner of this market and have had enough thread left over to tie all the bundles together. The first was a deep emerald songket from islands in the far east, shimmering with silver flowers. The next layer was a heavy crimson lampas swirled with vines and song birds. The top layer was a pale blue damask with a simple spiral design, but its modesty only served to heighten the magnificence of the cloud collar. It is said, my friend, that Umar El-Amin paid every embroiderer in the city to work on the collar, demanding that each stitch be perfect.

Can you imagine, hundreds and thousands of mothers and grandmothers hunched over, each one pulling the most expensive and rarest of threads, fibers that their fingers would never feel again, simply for the collar of one garment? On the princess’s left shoulder, a warrior in green, surrounded by gold and sapphire angels, hefted a mighty spear. Down her back tumbled a dense forest with tangled trunks of burgundy with viridian leaves, their branches swelling with peacocks and leopards. On her right shoulder snarled a great dragon, its scales spotted and tail coiled into the very edge of the forest. Each step that Zulekha took was adorned with the vibrant sigh from the garden known only to dreamers and fools. Such was the sultan’s pleasure in Zulekha’s dinner, his trust in her love for him.

Now, Umar El-Amin’s younger daughter, Suha, was as wise as her sister was beautiful. She was simple, certainly not horrific to look at, mind you, but not the beauty that was Zulekha. But when her tongue spoke, it was as though it conjured spells that djinns would wrestle with. Great judges in court held her as a physical manifestation not only of fairness but justice. It is rumored that even Al-Buruni, Alhazen and Ibn Rushd consulted her before writing their great tomes. Truly, Suha was a remarkable woman, and so it surprised her father when he came to demand a gift from her that she spoke as simply and plainly as she did.

“I want nothing,” she said, bowing as would a servant, “but your love.”

“Daughter,” spoke the sultan, honestly, “you have that and in treasuries full. Look at me, daughter. I am round and fat, like a fowl waiting for the feast. I tell you that this is because my heart swells every hour with love for you and your sister, and my body needs to grow to accommodate. Please, tell me, what can I give you to prove my love for you.”

“Father, if you insist on a physical idol of your love, I ask for a glass jar with a tight lid. If my meal, and my reason for it, pleases you, give me that and nothing more.”

Though slightly confused and taken aback by his daughter’s plain speech and simple request, Umar El-Amin was bound by his word, and agreed that his daughter would receive what she wished. That night, he and Zulekha waited while Suha cooked.

Let me pause, my friend, for a sip of tea and to tell you that my wife cannot cook. She is the love of my life, the mother of my children, and I should roll out my prayer rug a sixth time every day in thanks that I have been blessed with such a beauty and patience in my life. Still, I swear to you when the woman enters the country of stove, she becomes foreigner with neither currency nor language. I am lucky if the meals that I eat are hot and filling, let alone if they taste like anything worth putting across one’s tongue.

Compared to Suha’s shurpa, my wife is a cook worthy enough to head any caliph or sultan’s kitchen. The stock was weak, as though it was water and salt only. The turnips and chickpeas were there, yes, but hardly and not enough to be filling. The lamb was obviously dried, not fresh, and soaked up so much of the broth of the soup that it was almost too salty to eat.

“What,” snarled the sultan, slamming his spoon on the table, “is this mockery?”

“Father,” whispered Suha, “I love you. My love for you is as the love this meat has for the salt. Do you see how consumed it is, father? So am I consumed with love for you.”

The swell of rage that flushed over the sultan’s cheeks, I tell you my friend, was as crimson as the breath of Falak. “Such insolence,” he sputtered and bellowed, “such contempt. Never, never speak to me again. You will pack your things, immediately, one bag that you can bear on your back, and one suit of clothes that you will wear. That is all that you may take from my palace. After that, this building is forbidden to you, this city is off limits to you, and this kingdom is off limits to you. You will join the first caravan that will accept you, and leave my lands immediately.”

Well, Suha was on the verge of hysteria, ready to rip her hair from her head and scream herself hoarse, but she held her composure as tightly as a mother holds a newborn baby, packed her sole bag through tears, donned one meager traveling outfit, and left the palace, but not before her father’s courier handed her a small item wrapped in silk. “The sultan, may he reign forever and a day, may his borders end only where the land itself becomes water, will neither speak to you nor see you leave. However, he bade me give you this, as fulfillment of his promise.”

Inside the silk was a jar that, I tell you, were you to go to the glassblowers’ quarter of the souq in any city, from Namadan to Kashgar, Mathura to Sarai and every occupied place in between, you would never find its equal. Honest as his name, Umar El-Amin had upheld his end of the bargain, and given his daughter the second thing she had asked for in place of the first. It is said that the glass was black, pure and opaque, until it was held up into the light of the noon sun, when it would shine iridescent deep emerald and amethyst hues, as though the gems themselves had been blown into the glass. The stopper was shaped in the emblem of Umar El-Amin, a simurgh with its wings spread, one taloned foot clenching a map, the other suckling an infant at its breast, the tail radiating like a peacock in full display.

And so it was that Suha left the city. No one knows exactly what became of her, and while all tellers of her tale agree upon the beginning of the story, no one is quite sure of how it ends. There are those morbid souls who insist that her caravan was overtaken by bandits, that she was slaughtered and all her worldly possessions, including her jar, were stolen and are now lost to the sands and winds that even you keep your face covered against. Still, such fools entertain young men eager for a bit of blood with their legends, and are not to be trusted.

Then there are those who say she wandered to a neighboring kingdom, where in an attempt to disguise herself and her true nature, she donned rags and took on a menial job. Some say she became a goatherd or shepherdess, others the washer of clothes. In one way or another, Suha hides herself in these tales, refusing to let the world see her for who she really is. There are those story tellers who insist that she refuses to talk at this time, or only speaks in riddles so as to appear half-mad. Somehow, she finds herself in the presence of a prince, they say, be he lost in the woods or needing a quiet place to sleep for the night during a long and arduous hunt. The princess, still in her rags mind you, prepares a meal for the prince. Some gem–a ring, some argue, or a stone from a locket, finds itself in the prince’s meal. He bites it and, lo and behold, discovers that the source of his succor is not a simple beggar woman but in fact a princess in disguise.

And as in such tales, they immediately fall in love and are married, usually to his parents’ chagrin, for what royal family would want their son to marry a peasant, even if she is secretly a princess. Some end their tale there, happily ever after, assuming that the couple grow old together, raising lovely children who have many adventures of their own. Still others end with the wedding itself, to which all sorts of nobles have been invited, including Umar El-Amin. The bride instructs the cook to not put any salt in Umar El-Amin’s food, and to serve him nothing but sweet treats and tangy delicacies all night. This the cook does, and when asked by the bride how he enjoys his meal, Umar El-Amin compliments it, as any guest would, but suggests that it could have used a bit of salt. Suha immediately reveals herself, and Umar El-Amin, having learned his lesson, embraces his daughter.

What do I think? It’s a touching tale, and one that I tell my daughter some nights when I want her to sleep, but it’s too neat, too tidy to be true. What intrigues me is the jar, that black sphere of glass. Every storyteller agrees on one thing, the beginning of the tale. However, every salt merchant I have met from every caravan I have bartered and bargained with outside these city walls, agrees on another fact. Our tales end with the jar, the sultan’s final gift to his grieving daughter. They all insist that, her heart being so broken in her exile from her father, Suha weeps each night, collecting her tears in the jar. By morning, of course, the tears themselves have evaporated, leaving the faintest film of salt.

Day after day, month after month, Suha sobs, filling the jar, until it is full of the most precious and rarest salt in the world, salt that isn’t mined from the earth or boiled from the sea, but salt that is pulled from a broken heart and is flavored with its ache and misery; her heart is so broken by her father’s mistrust that she cannot even let go of life and die. We purveyors of salt know that Suha is still out there, wandering, joining caravan after caravan, peddling the remnants of her tears. Some say they make any meal taste so rich and delicious, the flavors of the food sprinkled with but a pinch of her salt so intense, that anyone who eats it weeps with the joy of each taste, but once the meal is complete, they cry a second time, sobbing that their tongues will never again taste anything as perfect. Some even say that Suha has a second jar in which she collects these grieving tears, a lesser version of her own salt, purified by its desolation. Then there are those who say that Suha’s salt is not for meals, but for cleansing. They say that, mixed with the right oils, the skin of even the filthiest begger with a body which has not been touched with even water for years, whose hair is so rough and matted that it makes the tangled strands of wool on the back of kharoof seem like silk, will come clean and be so soft and smooth it will be as though he were pampered by a sultan’s harem thrice daily.

Then there are those, and this is what I wish to be true with all my heart, who say that Suha is not a merchant of food or bath products, but a healer. Her salt, wrought in a mine of torment, calcified under the pressure of endless sorrow, and harvested in daily grief, is so powerful, so potent, that a single pinch will treat the most egregious of wounds, lacerations that even the most learned of physicians confess beyond their powers of healing. Some even say that, with enough of this salt, Suha has even raised the newly dead from their bier.

But what do I know? I am an old man, a seller of salt amongst stalls of spices. Come, good sir, the sun is well past us now. Do not allow me to hold you any longer. I have salt to sell, and it is yours for the buying if you’re interested. At discount, even, as I thank you for the time spent listening to me ramble. Oh, but why do you remove your hood now that you…

Oh, I beg a thousand pardons, madam. Please forgive me. Had I but known, I would have not spoken in such a way and beleaguered you with my tale. Please, here, a pouch of my finest bathing salt, all the way from Tyre, saturated with fragrant oils of citrus peel and lemongrass to not only cleanse but perfume your skin. Please, madam, take it with my apologies as a gift for my impudence and boldness.

No, madam, no…I expect no gift in return. Such a lady as yourself needs not pay for…

Oh my.

Oh, by the bread and salt, by my life and the life of my mother and father, it does exist. Oh, praise the Almighty, it is as beautiful as they claimed and more, as though the sun itself were an angel teaching a new language across a delicate tongue of glass.

Your majesty, I bow before you. Forgive me, yet again, for I have not only taken up your precious time, but probably slandered you with my tale. I humble myself before you. Please, clearly the sun has not passed as far as I thought. If you are willing, allow me to make another pot of tea, for you have truths and tales to tell, and I, your servant, have ears to listen.


BIO: Joshua Gage is an ornery curmudgeon from Cleveland, His first full-​​length collection, breaths, is available from VanZeno Press. Intrinsic Night, a collaborative project he wrote with J. E. Stanley, was recently published by Sam’s Dot Publishing. He is a graduate of the Low Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Naropa University. He has a penchant for Pendleton shirts, rye whiskey and any poem strong enough to yank the breath out of his lungs. He stomps around Cleveland in a purple bathrobe where he hosts the monthly Deep Cleveland Poetry hour and enjoys the beer at Brew Kettle.

The featured and remixed photo from Merv is by Башлык, and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Feb 132012

The Salt of Aksum
By Mae Empson

AksumFrom Aksum, city on the hill, the Negus of Neguses ruled over all of Abyssinia, from northeastern Africa to the coast of southern Arabia. His ports sang with the mingled voices of merchants from all across the known world bartering for his elephant ivory, his rhinoceros horns and hides, his tortoise shell and obsidian and emeralds, his frankincense and myrrh, his salt and wheat, and his slaves and live animals.

He controlled everything that he could see, buy, or sell.

Everything, except for his three daughters.

His stargazers read from the skies and their dreams–information that daily secured his empire. They faithfully predicted the slightest alterations in the weather, the harvest, the fate of battles, and the flow of trade goods. Yet, his stargazers had failed to foresee his wife’s death on the day of the triplet birth, and from that day forward they found his children hopelessly starblinding, no more subject to the rule of the heavens than to his own.

Like the progenitor of their royal line, Makeda, the Queen of Sheba, the Negus’ daughters were as beautiful as they were clever. He had no doubt that they loved each other for they were constantly together with their heads bent in chatter and laughter. His fear instead was whether they loved him, and their kingdom, enough to heed him.

One of his daughter’s sons would be the next Negus. It was past time to marry them each to worthy sons of foreign kings. Suitors of this kind, younger sons eager to assure their kingdom’s access to the riches of the Aksumite Empire and the trade goods that flowed through the Red Sea, arrived daily at the port of Adulis to compete to become prince-consorts.

And thus far, his daughters had ignored and spurned the suitors at every turn.

The Negus decided it was time to force the issue, and summoned his daughters to attend him in his chamber.

His daughters arrived together. Ayana, the eldest by several heartbeats and tallest by two handspans, led the other two into the room. She stopped before her father, and executed an exquisite bow. No one danced with more grace than Ayana who leapt like a gazelle to the sound of drums and sistra.

The next oldest, lark-voiced Desta, offered the formal chant of greeting to the Negus of Neguses. At temple, the people debated if her voice or her faith made her sung words sweetest.

The youngest, Kassa, repeated the chant of greeting in a toneless and more halting voice, but translated into Sabaean. Quickest of mind, she challenged herself to learn every language spoken in the markets of Aksum–a skill that her father shared, and had often complimented in her.

The Negus’ heart swelled with pride. They were fine girls, talented and lovely, and, for at least the few heart beats that it had taken them to enter the room, properly deferential. They would do as he asked, if he made the need plain enough.

“I know you want to put off marriage, reluctant to leave your youth and innocence and each other. But, our line must pass through you. The blood of Queen Makeda and King Solomon cannot die with me. I must arrange a match for each of you. Your willfulness daily requires more generous dowries and trade concessions, and threatens the negotiations altogether.”

His daughters exchanged worried glances, but said nothing.

“If you love me as your father, and honor me as your Negus, you will accept that this must happen. No one is leaving this room until this matter is resolved. Tell me how much you love and honor me, and then show me, by accepting what must be.”

His daughters clutched hands with each other, and still said nothing.

“Ayana, you will speak now, or so help me I will have my guards cut off your feet.” He knew this was a cruel and empty threat, but he had entirely run out of patience.

Ayana paled, and let go of her sister’s hands.

“Father, I love and honor you more than the most precious and rare and beautiful things that you have given me. I love you more than my fine clothes and jewels.” Her hands clutched at her red and gold silk sarong. The fabric was so thin and diaphanous that the merchant from the Malabar Coast had shown them that the entire dress could be slipped through her smallest gold ring. The strange and vivid pattern suggested either flowers or flames, depending on the light. She unwrapped the matching brilliantly colorful shawl from her hair and fingered the pearls and diamonds braided into its fringed mantle.

“As your daughter, I will do as you ask.”

The Negus smiled. “Good girl. You see the value in obedience, and in the gifts of the east. There is a young prince, son of the Maharaja of the Kalabhras who rule all of Tamil lands. You caught his eye, wearing that very sarong and shawl, and bewitched him utterly. He is very handsome. I have seen you looking at him as well, though you have tried to hide it. An alliance with him will assure that Aksum always has access to the riches of his kingdom.” The Negus knew that it would also match his eldest daughter, whose son was most likely to inherit, with a man whose kingdom was not looking to expand into Aksumite territory. “He has agreed to make a home with you here, and convert to our faith. You will not be so far from your sisters. You will be married within the week, and it will be a day of great joy with feasts and dancing.”

He turned to his younger daughters. “Desta. It is your turn. What will you say?”

“Negus of Neguses, I was afraid of this duty, sure that it would mean being yoked to a man who does not share our faith, but I begin to see that there is hope. I love you and honor you as I love our faith and history.” She walked over to his desk and lifted a beautifully engraved bronze cup. “You are worth more to me than even the cup carried by Abba Salama–Bishop Frumentius–who brought Christianity to our kingdom, and was slave and cup bearer to Negus Ezana before he became our Bishop.” Desta filled the cup with an exceedingly costly wine that her father had imported from Laodicea, and offered it to her father in the manner of a servant or priest. “Our faith and history teaches us how a servant may be put by God in the place where he can do the most good. I will serve you in this, as a servant of Aksum. Marry me even to a man who is not of our faith if that is what the kingdom needs.”

The Negus smiled. “Wise girl. You see the value in service, and in the gifts of the west from Greece and Rome. Our faith. Bronze. The most precious wines of Italy. There is a young man from Rome here, from the bloodline of that same Emperor Theodosius who converted his whole empire to our Lord this past spring. His father is the Praefectus Augustalis who governs Egypt. This young prince of Rome will make a Christian home with you here, and assure that Rome trades favorably with us. We will plan your wedding the week after your sister’s, and Bishop Frumentius himself will consecrate the marriage.”

He turned finally to his youngest. “And Kassa? You have seen the pattern. What say you?”

Kassa hesitated. “Salt.”


“Salt. I love you as you love salt. That is what you deserve, and what I offer. Our merchants trade it for gold to mint our coins and buy things that are rare here, and common elsewhere. Do you love only things which must be bought from far away? Can you see no value in what is close to hand, for itself alone, before selling it to another? Can you love salt?”

The Negus frowned. Salt was plentiful and bitter. The poorest people in his kingdom used salt for barter, instead of coin. Kassa was clearly determined to defy him. No suitor-prince arrived in Adulis with a ship hold full of salt. The kingdom’s salt came from the Danakil desert, harvested by salt miners and salt cutters in the most godforsaken inhospitable northeastern corner of his kingdom. The Negus had never traveled there himself, but he’d heard about the boiling lakes of lava in the volcanoes where fire elementals lived, and the sulfurous desert geysers, and the bizarre salt mounds in colors brighter than Ayana’s sarong and shawl.

“Salt is nothing to me. Every man in Aksum has salt. Do you love me so little?”

Kassa said nothing.

“Let him have his way,” begged Ayana. “Tell father that you love him like Damascus steel or Himyarite resin.”

“You must marry eventually,” Desta reasoned. “What if something happened to both of us and our children? Then, the heir would need to come from you.”

The Negus paced in anger and turned on Kassa, red-faced. “Change your answer, or I will marry you to salt, and then you’ll learn what it is worth.”

Kassa said nothing.

Her father shouted for his guards. “Take my ungrateful youngest daughter to the center of the Danakil desert, and leave her there. She is banished from Aksum. I never want to see her again.”

By the time Kassa had removed the blindfold that her father’s guards had secured before abandoning her in the middle of the Danakil desert, she could see no landmark in any direction, except a large volcano on one horizon. A hot desert wind blew the sand into the air around her, obscuring the camel tracks that she might otherwise have tried to follow.

The guards had left her a tent and a camel with jugs of water tied to its side. She wondered if her father had ordered that, or if the guards themselves had arranged it.

Unsure which direction led back towards Aksum and her sisters, who she was certain would hide her until they could together decide what to do next, she rode for the volcano to see if she could see any other landmarks from higher up its peak. If not, she’d make camp there. Come nightfall, she’d decipher the direction from the star-inked papyrus of the night sky.

The wind elemental watched Kassa depart, and then let the sands fall back into place, confident that it had played its part in herding the girl in the direction that its master wished.

The day of Ayana’s wedding arrived, and while she had enjoyed each meeting with her suitor, Prince Chitra, and thought they would be quite happy, she could not forget her missing sister who should have been part of the festivities.

She and Desta had persuaded their suitors to send their men into the desert to find Kassa while they focused on how best to change their father’s mind, and assure that he would welcome her back when she was found

“If only Kassa were here,” Ayana said for the twentieth time that morning. “She always devised our best schemes.”

Desta sighed. “Father doesn’t seem to miss her at all. He’s all smiles, looking forward to the feasts and dancing today.” The first feast would be in the Aksumite style, and then Chitra’s cook from the Tamil lands was going to prepare a second feast in the Malabar style. “The whole court is wild to see what your betrothed’s cook will make. They can’t wait to taste the pepper and malabathrum leaf.”

“Wait. That’s it!” Ayana said. “We must convince Chitra’s cook to withhold all seasoning from father’s plate. That will have him begging for at least a pinch of salt.”

Prince Chitra readily agreed to their plan, and instructed his cook.

That night, at the feast, the Negus chewed and chewed his unseasoned food, unwilling to swallow. He watched, perplexed, as his guests raved at the exquisite flavors.

“Something is wrong with my food. I can take no pleasure in it. I can hardly swallow it. A man would die with nothing but this to eat. Prince Chitra, your cook should be whipped.”

Ayana sighed. “Father, it is not the cook who has made a mistake. It is you. You said salt is nothing to you. Do you not miss it, a little?”

“Salt?” The Negus’ eyes narrowed. “It is not the salt I am missing. It is the fabled pepper and malabathrum leaf. I wanted to taste the riches of the Malabar Coast.”

Prince Chitra signaled and a servant brought the Negus a small wooden plate, heaped with salt. “Here, Negus of Neguses. Help yourself, and I will help you. I have something that I think might help you find your daughter Kassa.”

The Negus took the plate and dumped the salt on the ground.

“Now I am wise to your tricks and treachery. I do not miss Kas-… I mean salt. I do not miss salt. I do not want salt.”

He forced himself to eat the heaping platter of unseasoned food, grinding his teeth at each tasteless bite.

As Desta’s wedding day arrived a week later, the two couples met in secret. The suitors’ men had still not found any sign of Kassa, though they continued to search the desert.

Prince Chitra explained that he had planned to offer the Negus a pair of potentially magical sandals, or chappals, that he had acquired from a strange man in the port city of Tyndis before setting sail for Aksum.

“Supposedly, the person who wears these chappals can travel as swift as the wind.”

“Have you tried it?” Desta looked skeptical.

“No, there was something odd about the man who gave them to me. He asked me where I was sailing before he would sell them to me. Then after negotiating a steep price, he changed his mind and gave the sandals to me for free. And then he said that he’d forgotten to mention that the chappals would only work for the man who walks through fire, so they were of no use to me. I thought he was chiding me for not celebrating Timiti.”

“Timiti?” Ayana asked her new husband, curious about the kingdom he had left behind.

“It’s a Hindu festival, back in the fall. I’d been preparing for the trip here with the northeastern monsoon in the winter, learning your language. Knowing I was coming here to bid to be your prince-consort, it didn’t seem important to attend Hindu ceremonies, while planning to convert to your faith. At the festival, men firewalk to celebrate the good wife Draupadi who proved her purity by walking through a bed of fire.”

“So that’s what makes a good wife in your land?” Ayana stretched her leg and flexed her ankle. “I bet you have to step very lightly.”

Chitra grinned at her. “If anyone could do it, you could, my nimble dancer.”

“So, you think the sandals will only work for someone that participated in your festival?” Desta’s suitor Valerius interrupted.

“I did. I thought he was saying they were useless to me because I had not been faithful enough. But now I’m not so sure. I thought about throwing the sandals away, but I began to think he was some kind of yaksha, a nature spirit, and that I would only bring worse trouble on myself if I angered him.”

“A nature spirit? Like a fire elemental?” Ayana asked.

“Something like that. He wore a red and black turban, and I thought his eyes burned as he spoke to me, a bit like braziers.”

“Desta, didn’t you say there were fire elementals out in the Danakil desert where your father sent Kassa?” Valerius looked at his betrothed with concern.

“Yes, and boiling lakes of lava. And the worst heat of the desert. I’m so worried about Kassa.”

“If you father doesn’t accept the chappals tonight, I will take them and race through this boiling lava to find your sister,” Valerius offered. “Let me prove by this act that I will make a good husband for you, Desta.”

“Or I could go,” Ayana volunteered. “Kassa will not recognize you.”

“I would not let you take the risk, my wife. I will go,” Chitra countered. “I could take a letter from you, so she would know who I am.”

“Best if father went.” Desta reminded them. “She will not believe us that he wants her back. If we go, we could help her get to a better place than the desert, but she will not want to stay here. Let’s try another feast, and if that doesn’t work, one of us will go tonight.”

None of them said that it had been two weeks, and Kassa might well be dead, but they all thought it, and that fear cast a long shadow over the wedding day.

That night, at the feast in the Roman style, the Negus chewed and chewed his first plate of unseasoned meat, and glared at his rebellious children and their suitors.

“Again? Am I never to enjoy a feast again?”

“Just admit that you miss her, and we can find her, and figure this out,” Desta pleaded. “Please. It’s my wedding day. I can’t bear that she isn’t here.”

The Negus stared back down at his plate, and took another unpleasant bite.

“Negus of Neguses,” Valerius added. “I am sure you know that in the Roman style, we will eat many courses. We will eat until we are full, and then vomit until we have room for more, and eat again.”

The Negus paused with his fork in mid-air.

Ayana nudged a small sealed bottle of garum, a sauce made from salted fish and popular in Rome, towards where her father was sitting. “It really is delicious with the sauce.”

The Negus sighed. Of course he missed Kassa. He regretted his harsh words, but a Negus had to think of the good of the kingdom. If she defied him so openly, how could that be accepted? If only she hadn’t forced the issue. Why had she said “salt”?

He tried to remember her exact words. They both were very quick with languages, and that derived from an excellent memory for the spoken and written word.

I love you as you love salt.

“Negus…,” Prince Chitra began cautiously. “I’m sure you understand this, but in many ports your salt is worth as much as my pepper.”

He knew it. People always had to pay more for what they did not have on hand. This was the basis of trade, and the foundation of his power, holding the ports along the Red Sea. It was the same for salt and pepper and daughters. When Kassa was his, he had focused on how to sell her to a suitor. Now that she was gone, he would pay almost anything to have her back.

Can you see no value in what is close to hand, for itself alone, before selling it to another?

She had wanted him to tell her that he loved her. That he loved her for herself, and not her value on the market of suitors.

“I do understand,” the Negus admitted, spitting out the meat and instead swallowing his pride. “Salt is very precious when you do not have it. And I do miss her now that she is gone. I don’t understand why she resisted marriage so much. Do you girls know? These matches I have made for you are not so terrible, are they?”

“I don’t know,” Ayana admitted. “Personally, I was afraid you would match me to a suitor who was very old or very ugly or unkind. It was terrifying. But Prince Chitra is wonderful.” She smiled at Chitra, and he smiled back at her.

“She did not want to marry at all. I know that much.” Desta added. “She was very firm about it, and encouraged us in our rebellion. I am not sure why. If you go after her, you can ask her yourself. Go. Prince Chitra has something that may help.”

The Negus grabbed the small bottle of garum and drenched the flavorless meat with it. He took one extremely satisfying bite before standing.

“I will tell her that I love salt very much indeed, and don’t want to go another day without it.”

The Negus put the blue and white chappals on his feet, and raced towards the Danakil desert, carried by the winds themselves, or perhaps by invisible air elementals.

As he traveled towards the desert, he touched his ring of office. His father had told him that it was the Seal of Solomon. They said Solomon could control elementals. Perhaps the fire elementals, if he encountered them, would have some fear of the ring, though the Negus was no magician himself.

Thinking of Solomon reminded him of the story of how Solomon tricked Makeda into their courtship. He had made advances to her and she refused. He agreed that she could depart his palace without accepting his embraces if she stole nothing from him during the night. And then, the trickster king had served her a very salty meal for dinner. He placed an urn of water in her bedchamber, and she could not resist drinking it during the night. The first Negus, Menelik, would never have been conceived but for that salty feast.

He would remind Kassa of that that when he found her. She would like that he had thought of something special about salt to celebrate, beyond its flavor, that wasn’t related to its value at market.

He tried to run towards an oasis that his stargazers had told him would be a good place to find caravans or salt-cutters, to ask if anyone had seen his daughter, but the shoes would not let him turn. He thought about trying to command the shoes to stop, but realized that he wanted to find his daughter more than he wanted to be in control of how he found her.

The chappals ran across the burning sands, carrying him with them. He saw a volcano rising out of the sands in the distance.

The shoes ran him up the slope of the volcano and carried him over the edge, plunging him into the boiling lake of lava.

Beneath the lava, which did not seem to burn him at all, the Negus found a red crystallized salt palace growing up out of the floor of the volcano. He swam down to the door, and found it unlocked.

Inside the salt palace, the lava only ran in shallow channels along the sides of the floor of the hallways and interior chambers. The Negus inhaled a deep breath of the slightly sulfurous air, and began to explore, looking for any sign of Kassa.

Each empty room gleamed with strange crystal deposits in reds and oranges and greens too vivid for his court artists to replicate in ceramic, and beyond the palette even of the Egyptian glass workers.

He finally came to a large chamber with a central pedestal draped in a heavy red cloth. From the shape, he thought it might be a tomb with some carved figure on top.

The Negus reached for the cloth and pulled it aside.


His daughter lay on a mound of vibrant purple salt, which seemed to be growing up over her body, shoulders, and the sides of her face. Her shut eyes warned him that she might be dead. His throat burned like it had filled with lava, and he gasped for breath. No. His girl. His little girl.

“Kassa!” He touched her cheek and it felt cold and wet. He shook her. She did not respond.

“Negus of Neguses.” A voice behind him. He turned.

A man stood in the doorway of the room, flanked by four elemental guards whose skin blazed in red flame. His red and black crown grew out of his hair, a crystalline sculpture of salt.

“You took my daughter.”

“You gave her to me. To take her would have broken the ancient pact between our kingdoms, and I have no wish to be at war with you.” He gave a slight, almost imperceptible bow. “I am the King of Salt and Fire.”

“Is she … sleeping? What have you done to her?”

“She dreams and she cries, and I harvest her tears. Do you like the color? It takes royal blood to get this purple, and I quite like it.”

“Let her go.” The Negus touched the ring with his thumb, and tried to channel his will through it.

“Why? You don’t want her. It is you who made her cry. Not me.”

“Please. Let her go.” He tried again, but he was no magician.

“You cannot compel me. She is useless to you now. She will never be entirely human again. The field of her flesh is salted. She will always be barren.”

“She is more to me than the mother of a future heir! She is my child.”

“She is salt.”

“Only God can make a pillar of salt of a woman. You do not have the power. She is Kassa. I love her.”

“What I do here is no different than your other daughters. You need my salt more than you need their suitors’ luxuries. I am a King, and the others are mere princes. I will keep her, and you will have the resources you need, and avoid war with my kind.”

“No. This is no life for her, like I have helped build for Ayana and Desta. This is death. What would you take instead?”

“Will you bargain with me, trader king?”

“Yes. Name your price.”

“Solomon’s ring. It is your heritage and your symbol of office and authority, but its magic does not work for you. It does not belong in the world. Let me take it.”

“Release her. Let me see that she lives. And then we will continue our negotiation.”

The King of Salt and Fire waved his hand at Kassa, and her eyes opened.

Kassa pulled her limbs from the mound of salt which parted like grains of sand, and ran to her father’s arms. She’d heard everything he’d said while she’d been trapped in the salt sculpture.

Her father removed his ring, but closed his fist around it. “This ring does not make me a king. My blood makes me a king. I will give it to you, but before we go further, I must also have your word that you will return us safely to the southern edge of the desert.”

“If you give me the ring, I will have what I want. But you are wise to bargain for passage back through the lava lake for both of you. Since you used the ring to buy your life, and that is the only thing I want from you, I will ask for two things from Kassa, to buy safe passage for you both.”

“What would you have of me?”

“First, don’t give the chappals back to your sister’s husband. Leave them behind somewhere as you are shopping in the port of Adulis. They will find their way to where they are needed next.”


“Second, come back here two weeks each year, and give me your tears again. I promise that I will return you to your home, and you will lose nothing but your time.”

“Will I always have cause for tears?”

“I returned you to your father with all that makes you human. You will always have cause for laughter, and cause for tears. Should you ever tire of such things, come back and be a queen of the elementals.”

The Negus and his daughter walked side by side on the long journey back to the palace, eager to share the good news of her return and their reconciliation with her sisters.

“I am sorry, Kassa. I should never have sent you away. But, tell me, honestly, why did you not want to marry?” They had not talked about the elemental king’s threat that she could never have children. He was not certain if it was truth or bluff, but wondered if it was troubling her.

“I have no particular desire to be a wife or mother. I would rather study with the stargazers and master the most secret languages of the stars. I could serve Aksum by advising my sisters and their children. Surely between the two of them they will produce many strong heirs.”

The Negus frowned. No woman had ever served as a stargazer before, and he had no talent in magic himself to pass to her. “Kassa, I’m not sure.”

“You are the Negus of Neguses. If you say it can be, than it can be.”

“God willing, the talent will manifest in you if you study it. Perhaps the touch of the elemental will make you stronger in this than any of us.”

“I can see the stars, even if they can’t see me.”

They continued to walk, and he could see how the last tension had drained out of her shoulders, telling him at last what she wanted.

“One day,” she continued, “I will go back to the desert and get our ring back, and I will show those elementals what it means to have a Queen of Queens. Then, they will serve us, and my sisters’ children, and their children.”

“So ambitious. You were always the most like me of the three of you.”

“I know.”

“Don’t tell Ayana and Desta that I said that. I love you all equally, you know.”

“And just how much is that?”

“As much as I love Aksum, and God, and wealth and power, and fine cloth and wine, and, yes, salt, my saltiest daughter. As much as any man has ever loved his daughters.”

“I will tell Ayana and Desta you said that.”

“I’ll tell them myself.”

The feast that night, when Kassa and her father re-united with her sisters and their husbands, lasted long into the night, perfectly seasoned with love and laughter.


BIO: Mae Empson has a Master’s degree in English literature from Indiana University at Bloomington, and graduated with honors in English and in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Mae began selling short stories and poetry to speculative fiction magazines and anthologies in July 2010, and can be found on twitter at @maeempson, and on the web at Recent and upcoming publications appear in Enchanted Conversation: A Fairy Tale Magazine, Cabinet des Fees, and, in anthologies from Innsmouth Free Press and Dagan Books.

The featured and remixed photo from Aksum is by Zheim, and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Apr 252011

Lavanya and Deepika
by Shveta Thakrar

Once upon a time, in a land radiant with stars and redolent of sandalwood, where peacocks breakfasted on dreams salty with the residue of slumber, a rani mourned. On the surface, the rani had everything: a kingdom to care for, fine jewels to wear in her long black hair, silken saris threaded through with silver and gold, and a garden of roses and jasmine to rival that of Lord Indra in his celestial realm. When she rode atop her warrior elephant, her subjects bowed before her in awe and love. But one thing remained out of reach–an heir. She longed for a small, smiling face to call her own.

Gulabi Rani consulted midwives, healers schooled in the art of Ayurveda, and magicians. Knowing better than to refuse a monarch, they plied her with charms and salves, medications and horoscopes. She ate the roots and leaves of the shatavari plant as they recommended, and drank creamy buttermilk while fastidiously avoiding the color black. Yet her belly stayed flat. At last the healers admitted that, without a husband, there was no hope.

But the rani did not want a husband. Nor did she suffer from a lack of hope. After dismissing the healers and her servants both, she readied a place in the garden. If no one else could help her, she would find the answer herself. Surrounded by her beloved roses, garnet and pink and ivory, Gulabi meditated for weeks on end.

One morning, before even the rooster had crowed, Gulabi opened her eyes and arose. She stretched, allowing the blood to flood back through her stiff body, and strolled down, down, down to the banks of the Sarasvati, whose holy waters flowed clear and bright like liquid diamond.

As she had known he would be, a figure waited there, a yaksha from a neighboring forest. He wore a dhoti around his midsection, and a black-and-red turban wound about his head. “Namaste, rani,” he said. “I have heard your calls of distress.”

Gulabi placed her palms together in greeting. “Namashkaar. I am honored by your presence.”

The nature spirit uncapped an amethyst bottle in the shape of a lotus and beckoned her to come closer. Bending over the bottle, Gulabi inhaled deeply. The fragrance was wonderful, as though all the gardens of the world had been crushed into the crystal blossom. She sighed and reached for it.

“If you wish for a child, you must rub this oil over your womb,” the yaksha said, holding the lotus glass aloft. “Use only so much as is necessary to coat the surface and not a drop more.”

Willing as the rani might have been, she was also wise. “Ah, but nothing comes without a price. What is yours?”

A grin peered from beneath the yaksha’s mustache. “What is it you offer?”

The rani brought forth from the folds of her sari a container of turmeric, an anklet of ruby-encrusted gold, and a single fire-orange rose from her garden. The yaksha studied each of them in turn.

“Would you give me all your roses?” he asked. “Would you give me your garden?”

Gulabi trembled at the thought. The garden where she strolled when seeking solace? The garden filled with the roses for which she was named?

Yet what good were her roses when she had no one to share them with? She bowed her head. “Yes.”

“Patience,” said the yaksha, amused. “You are too eager in your dealings. But I see your heart is pure and your desire true.”

Gulabi thought many things, but shrewdly held her tongue.

“I will accept your gifts,” continued the yaksha, “and give you one of my own.” A pair of blue-and-white chappals appeared in Gulabi’s hand. They were just large enough for a baby’s fragile feet. “You must save these shoes for your child. I ask nothing else.”

“Why?” The question leaped from the rani’s lips. How she yearned to say yes, to accept the yaksha’s bargain, but she had to know her child would not live to rue her choice.

“Enough. I grow weary.” The yaksha sealed the bottle. “Yes or no?”

“Yes,” Gulabi said, extending her empty hand. “Give me the oil.”

Resting on a mirrored cushion in the company of her ladies-in-waiting, the rani lovingly kneaded the oil into her belly. She sang songs to the child to come as she did, ballads of trouble and triumph. Each circle of her fingers tingled with pleasure, each note rang of delight, as if the oil were seeping into her veins and filling her with its flowery essence. The air in her sun-soaked chamber smelled like a butterfly’s paradise.

When she was finished, half the bottle remained. Gulabi was a practical woman with no use for waste. She considered the yaksha’s words from this angle and that, but concluded a second massage could only magnify her joy. So she performed one.

Soon after sunset, amidst the throes of birthing, Gulabi screamed. In response, the baby emerged.

A gasp escaped the midwife as she received the infant. A moment later, Gulabi, too, gaped at the washed and swaddled baby laid in her arms. It was a girl, which did not surprise her, but the girl was red! Not the red of a newborn taking her first breath, not the scarlet of spilled blood, but a rich, dark crimson, as though she had leached the hue from Gulabi’s favorite roses. Under the flickering lamplight, the baby’s face gleamed, fresh and dewy like petals, and her hair shone greener than grass.

Gulabi ran a tentative finger along the girl’s tender arm. Something pricked her, and she jerked back in pain. “My child has thorns! My child is crimson!” Her heart ached, but she could not deny the truth. “My child. . . my child is a rose.”

She did not know what to think but that the yaksha had tricked her.

Her ladies-in-waiting, although curious, kept to the corners while Gulabi gazed down at the tiny girl. The baby did not cry; she simply returned her mother’s stare with inquisitive eyes. Deep brown eyes, Gulabi was pleased to see, like her own. Her pulse quieted as her heart opened. Perhaps there had been no trick, after all.

“Bring the chappals,” she commanded, and her personal attendant ran to do so. Once the sandals were at hand, Gulabi reached into the blanket and placed the right chappal on the baby’s right foot. The toes were miniscule, miraculous, with nails like seashells.

When she moved to put the left chappal on, the baby shrieked, her face screwing up and her eyes squeezing out tears. “Sister,” she insisted. “Sister, sister!”

The rani paused, confused. Whatever could her daughter mean?

As if to answer, the contractions commenced once more, and another girl joined the first, this one with fine skin the brown of tilled earth, thickly lashed cinnamon eyes, and a cap of fluffy black hair. The midwife sighed with relief as she handed the charming child to Gulabi.

The brown baby caught sight of the rose baby and smiled. “Sister,” she said.

Beaming, the rose girl pointed to the brown girl’s right foot, and beaming in turn, Gulabi placed the second chappal there. She would have to commission matches for each girl, but for now, this would do.

The time came for Gulabi Rani to name her precious daughters. “Lavanya for grace and Deepika for light,” she proclaimed, her voice fierce yet fond. “Let no one say otherwise.” She cuddled her daughters, rose and brown, grace and light, close. Together, they began to explore the ways of the world.

The sisters grew up, always together, always playing, as twins are wont to do. Few in the palace were fond of Lavanya, with her garnet-tinted skin and hair like spring leaves, fearing her to be a demon or some other foul spawn. Those who dared lay a hand on her bare flesh risked the cruel prick of thorns hungry for blood. A much beloved perfume drifted from the girl, captivating those who smelled it, but also enchanting bees and beetles, aphids and earwigs, and many other things the courtiers found less than desirable. Though the kingdom treasured its rani, it could not love her crimson daughter.

The ladies-in-waiting and nurses did their best to avoid the odd girl, going so far as to lock her away in her rooms on the rare occasions they found her alone. Out of sight was out of mind, they said, and a good thing, too. For Deepika, however, they had endless treats and trinkets, offers to brush and braid her hair, and pleas for her to sing, as hers was the sweet voice of the nightingale.

But the sisters refused to be separated for even a moment. The strange story of their birth, the chappals that kept pace with their growing feet, their interest in nature and stories–these things bound them to each other more securely than any rope.

Lavanya did not mind the isolation so much. Indeed, she quite liked her peculiar skin, for butterflies spoke to her as they would to no other, in the soft, luscious language of nectar, and she could pluck her thorns as she needed them. Why should she be lonely, when she had Deepika for a companion?

Deepika adored her rose sister in the way the moon adores the sun, finding favors and festivities to mean little when they went unshared. Everything she received, she divided in two; it was the way of things. What use were playmates who did not understand this?

And so they lived for years, learning their lessons, watching their mother the rani rule, and advancing their arts. Lavanya wandered the grounds, gossiping with the roses and evading the petulant gardeners. Yet, when she played the bansuri, a flute carved of bamboo, both the plants and their caretakers paused to listen. Deepika took up archery and embroidery. Her arm was strong and her aim true; her nimble fingers animated the fine needlework images until the fabric thrummed with their tales.

One evening, over a banquet of roasted fowl and spiced vegetables, Gulabi entertained a rani and a raja from another kingdom. They sat in the marble dining chamber discussing matters of politics and economy as Deepika ate her fill of the birds she had hunted, and Lavanya sipped at water from a golden cup. She also ran her fingers through a small dish of rich black soil, a delicious dessert to her earlier meal of sunlight.

But Lavanya could not enjoy it. She did not like the visitors, the knowing way they smiled at Deepika, the boisterousness with which they talked and laughed. It rankled her, though she could not say why.

She looked at Deepika, who scooped thick saffron curd with the spoon of her hand. Her lips parted, then pursed as the raja spoke.

“So you see, Gulabi Rani,” he said, his teeth tearing into a fleshy leg of pheasant, “clearly it is in the best interests of all to join our children in marriage.”

The words, uttered so casually, so naturally, brought the entire court to silence. Lavanya reached for Deepika’s hand just as it found hers. A scratchy sensation stole over her body, the familiar feel of eyes that assessed and quickly dismissed her in favor of her sister.

Of course it would be Deepika. The visitors wanted her for their son as though she were a bauble to be bought and sold. Lavanya glared at them, and the thorns in her arms bristled. How dare they?

“Yes, Deepika would be a fine match for our Vibhas,” the visiting rani agreed, ignoring, or perhaps enjoying, the hush that blanketed the hall.

“Such a beautiful girl. She would, of course, have to give up the hunting.”

Deepika’s fingernails dug into Lavanya’s palm. Lavanya wished she could do the same to the raja and rani. They were not the first to ask after her sister’s hand in marriage, but they were certainly the most presumptuous.

“Your proposal brings honor to our family, but I am afraid I must decline,” Gulabi said firmly, having recovered her wits.

“My daughters are far too young for such considerations. A few years from now, possibly.”

She smiled.

“However, I have heard you are fond of roses.”

She began to talk of her gardens, offering her guests a tour, but though they nodded, raw greed still glittered in their eyes. Lavanya knew this would not be the end of their attempt to buy Deepika and the land she represented. The worry on Deepika’s and Gulabi’s faces told her they knew it, too.

Why, oh, why had her mother forbidden her to use her thorns on troublemakers like these?

The tiger’s roar came in the night, echoing through the empty halls, horrible, hateful, hungry. It stained the sky scarlet with the promise of running blood. Terrified cries and shouts rang out in its wake.

Lavanya, torn from the sweet touch of sleep, raced into the corridor. Deepika met her there, bow and quiver on her back and embroidery thread in her waistband. The sisters followed the sound of their mother’s voice to the entrance of the throne room.

“I will never give you my daughter!” Gulabi said, her voice quiet, still, dangerous like a crow’s appraisal of its next meal as she confronted the visiting raja and rani. She gripped her sword with both hands.

“The offer of marriage was an act of charity,” the raja said in the tone of one who believes himself far cleverer than his audience. “After all, who else would take a fatherless child with a monster for a sister? But if you insist on defying us, we shall just take what we came for and go on our way.” He swept his arm across the expanse of the throne room.

“Where are they?”

Deepika scowled, and Lavanya bared her teeth. If only he could see them!

“Be reasonable,” the rani said to Gulabi. Beneath its veil of compassion, her look was sly. “Do you really wish for the tiger to kill all your people? That is surely not the just ruler of whom they sing songs, is it?”

When Gulabi did not respond, the visiting rani took the raja’s arm. “Let us give her a last chance to consider our offer. There is still time to call off the beast before many suffer.”

“We will await your decision in our rooms,” pronounced the raja, and they left.

Lavanya yanked Deepika behind a statue of the goddess Lakshmi as the visitors approached. Once it was safe, the sisters hurried to their mother.

Tears trickled down Gulabi’s face, one on each cheek, and thickened into sparkling gems. “Take the chappals and flee,” she said, every word hard and heavy as a boulder. “A tiger is on the loose, and behind him an army. I must convince them to stay their hands.”

“But why?” Lavanya demanded. “Surely they do not think our land worth killing for.”

“We are all that stands between them and their empire. They have already conquered our neighbors and allies,” Gulabi said, her eyebrows knitted in anger. “But even that is not enough. They have come, more than anything, for your chappals.”

Lavanya regarded her feet. When properly paired, the yaksha’s gift lent the wearer the swiftness of a divine chariot. If the raja and rani were to obtain the chappals, nothing but their own avarice would be able to catch them. Wicked mirth bubbled in the rose girl’s throat. “Such a shame, then, that they must go away disappointed!”

“I will distract them,” Gulabi said, “so you can escape. Go deep into the forest, and hide there. But beware the tiger!”

Deepika said nothing, yet swords danced in her stare. One hand toyed with the bow on her shoulder, and Lavanya caught the crafty movement of her mouth. Her sister had a plan.

Gulabi seized the jewels from her cheeks and bound them about the girls’ necks, the teardrop pendants glistening with her grief. She clasped her daughters briefly, far too briefly, to her breast. “Because I cannot be with you, these stones will remind you of me.”

Then, her steps reluctant and silent, she took them through a secret passage marked with sigils and out of the palace. Pressing kisses to their foreheads and a torch into Lavanya’s hand, she motioned them away. “Always stay together. Now go!”

“I will stop him,” Deepika told her sister, confident. She nocked an imaginary arrow. “I will shoot him down. No one threatens our mother, and no one calls you a monster.”

Lavanya swung the bansuri that hung at her side. “And I will help,” she pledged.

Hand in hand, the sisters ventured into the forest. Deepika held up one hand. “Listen,” she said, “it is far too still. No hooting of owls, no chirping of crickets, no buzzing of mosquitoes.” She sniffed the air. “The tiger is close. Come, we must follow.”

It was not long before Deepika halted beneath a pine tree and gestured toward Lavanya’s bansuri. Lavanya put the instrument to her lips and began to play, a melody both of challenge and of wonders untold. She could see neither tooth nor tail of the tiger, but if he were nearby, he would not be able to resist her song.

A massive shape bloomed in the light of the torch, all arrogant yellow eyes, ebony-striped silver fur, and claws sharp as scimitars. The tiger padded in circles around the sisters, slowly, purposefully, once, twice, then three times. “Who dares to summon me so?”

Lavanya smiled. “I do.” At her side, Deepika pulled back the bowstring.

The tiger opened his jaw wide and roared, the sound of hunger itself. “A mere rose? I will crack your neck and drink your blood like rosewater!” He swiped a paw in Deepika’s direction, knocking her into a bed of muddy leaves.

Lavanya concealed her rage and the thorn she had plucked from her arm. After all, one must tread carefully with tigers.

“Tiger,” she lamented, “what sorrow is this, that such a brave beast as you should be reduced to such a state?”

The tiger glowered. “What do you mean, foolish flower? Reduced to what state?”

“How they mourn!” Lavanya cried, sliding the thorn behind her back. “It is on the lips of every person, every serpent, every beast. They say you have fallen, that you carry out the bidding of a mere human! Worse, of two humans. O king of the jungle, how can this be?”

“I undertake no one’s bidding but my own!” The tiger tossed his majestic head, but the gesture lacked its customary pride.

“Yet they told us, the rani and the raja, that they sent you to attack our realm,” Deepika said, brushing the residue of the forest floor from her sari. She slung the bow over her shoulder and strung an arrow. “They claim they have found your price.”

“Tiger,” gasped Lavanya, clutching her chest, “could it be true? Are you. . .a tame tiger?”

With a growl, the tiger pounced. “Insolent child! I go where I wish!”

Deepika leaped in front of Lavanya and let fly her arrow. The missile rushed toward the tiger, who narrowly dodged it, and thudded into the trunk of a tree. Furious, the tiger charged, batting Deepika to the earth once more before turning to Lavanya.

Lavanya darted behind him, dashing through the trees to hold his attention. When he spun around, jumping through the air, she brandished the thorn she had stretched into a deadly spear. Just before the head pierced his throat, the tiger froze.

“Sister, lend me your thread,” Lavanya said. Deepika threw the spool of embroidery thread over the tiger’s head, where it expanded into a blue-and-green-and-purple bridle. Snarling, he tried to shake it loose, but his distress only drew it tighter.

The girls climbed onto his back, and Deepika took hold of the reins. “Tiger,” said Lavanya, “take us to the land beyond the mountains, where the raja and rani live.”

The tiger sneered, yet it was a powerless sound. With a magical bit in his mouth and a spear at his throat, what choice did he have but to obey?

Their star-colored mount bore Lavanya and Deepika much further than they had ever been, past winding rivers, over snow-capped mountains, around bamboo-strewn forests, through villages large and small, and finally, many moons later, into the arid desert realm of their enemy. “I have brought you where you wished to go. Now free me!”

“Soon, tiger,” Lavanya said. Her thirst had grown potent, causing her hair to wilt and her skin to slough off like crimson petals, but she willed herself to wait. They neared the dawn fortress, a magnificent pink-and-orange structure with towers and turrets, carvings and cupolas, pillars and pavilions. In the center of the gate, an open doorway tall enough for even a daitya arched to a point far above them. It was clear a proud people dwelled within.

The tiger halted before the opening. “I can go no farther,” he announced. “Release me.” The sisters’ feet had barely touched the ground before the tiger’s own scampered away. In the shadow cast by his absence, the rose girl felt smaller than a snail without a shell. How would they ever find their way in this place that extended almost to both ends of the horizon?

Lavanya and Deepika entered the fortress. Rather than the guards they expected, they were greeted by a lively blend of perspiration, incense, spices, produce, and perfumes. Before them pulsed a bazaar teeming with supplicants, nobles, and sages, people selling wares, people buying wares, people hurrying from one place to another. Voices rose and fell in a chaotic chorus of agreement, debate, and all things between, and the speakers’ clothes glowed like a galaxy, ranging from grey to the green of raw mangoes.

The massive market square dwarfed Gulabi’s entire palace, making a plaything of it in Lavanya’s memories. She ran her fingertips over the wall inlaid with many-hued marble flowers and gold, her breath catching at the beauty.

“Look,” Deepika whispered, indicating the scene before them. Exhaustion had engraved itself like a script on the faces of the people, in the slump of their shoulders, exhaustion and misery that could not be masked by their fine clothing. Lavanya did not know what to make of it, but her thorns bristled. These were the people who had attacked her land, others’ lands. Why were they not gloating over their conquest?

A secluded fountain shaped like a lily stole those and all other thoughts from her mind. Her eyes saw only the inviting spray, her ears heard only the water’s splash on the marble as she leaned forward. Cool liquid trickled past her parched lips until her belly brimmed and her skin sang. Oh, how satisfying the crisp, clear flavor of clay on her tongue; how splendid the soft wetness on her toes!

Eventually she withdrew, sated, and stumbled over a small boy with a tattered blue cap and bright brown eyes. Grinning, he flaunted a filthy string knotted with glass bangles. “Red, green, yellow, pink,” he called, “whatever you like, I have it!”

Lavanya opened her mouth to refuse, but the words shriveled before the boy’s grime-splattered rags. Untying the end of her sari, she removed two golden coins. “Here,” she said. “Take these.”

The boy grabbed the coins and tucked them out of sight. His mouth turned up in a curve of pleasure, which he promptly smothered into a sober line. “That will buy you half a bangle.”

“Do not lie to me,” Lavanya scolded. “For the price I paid, you should give me ten, no, twenty, times the bangles you have.” But she contented herself with two, one yellow for Deepika and one red for herself.

The bargain completed, the boy scurried away, and Lavanya offered the yellow bangle to her sister. Deepika did not take it. Indeed, Deepika was no longer there.

Lavanya whirled around in alarm. The hem of Deepika’s sari winked violet before vanishing around a corner, as though tempting Lavanya to give chase. She did.

Rounding the bend, she spied the ragtag band of boys and girls that had captured Deepika and was now conveying her down a pillared hallway, through a vast courtyard, and into an open-air royal audience. Deepika punched and kicked, whipping her head from side to side, all to no avail.

“Here,” the eldest girl said, striding toward the throne. “We have brought you your sister. Now give us our reward!”

Lavanya crept closer. What game was this?

“That is not my sister,” the man on the throne replied, his mustache well groomed and his turban dearer than all their garments combined. No beggar was this, but a prince. “My sister is lost to me.”

“She hunts, she is strong, she is good enough,” the girl countered, unconcerned. “Pay us! You may sulk in the shadows, but we need to eat.”

“Bring our parents home,” a familiar voice added. “While your parents wage their war, we are left alone.” It was the boy with the bangles, the boy who had duped Lavanya. The thorn spear shuddered in her grasp.

“Enough!” said the prince, producing a small purse. “I will compensate you for your trouble, but more I cannot do.”

“They took our parents!” The children ambushed him, a murderous, desperate mob of arms and legs and teeth.

Lavanya flung her spear into the bedlam. The blood-covered children fled, leaving the spear to clang off a cage of bone. At its heart sat Deepika, within reach but also far beyond it. Though Lavanya beat her fists against the bars of bone, she could not free her sister. “Release her!”

The prince stood, bruised and battered, and stopped her onslaught. “Brave one,” he said, his face forlorn, “this cage was meant for me. If I take her out, they will put me in. I am sorry, but you must go.”

“She is my sister,” said Lavanya staunchly. “Until she is liberated, I will never leave.”

Deepika thrust her chappal through the bars of the cage. “No! Take this and run. I will not see you harmed.”

“Never,” Lavanya said, giving back the sandal. “When they return, I will be here.”

She played her bansuri to while away the time, the sound swirling into the cage like light, and Deepika accompanied her, singing of stories yet to be. Were it not for the bars of bone and the presence of the prince, they might have been home.

From his throne, the prince observed the rose woman and her warrior sister. Doubt darkened his brow. “Such loyalty, such devotion. Truly it is no less than Falguni and I shared.” He arose and approached the cage, a bone key in his hand.

Drawn to the song, a crowd had gathered in the courtyard. “My mother was taken!” one person shouted. “My husband!” said another. “My grandfather.” “My aunt.” “My cousin.” “My brother.” Despair dripped from their words, despair hardened by wrath. “All conscripted for your parents’ abomination of an army, while you, princeling, did nothing.”

“If you will not help us,” cried an old woman all in white, “we will kill you.”

Before the prince could speak, the swarm raised its arsenal, axes and maces, swords and slingshots. Lavanya set down her bansuri. “Peace! We are here to help.”

“We are the children of Gulabi Rani,” Deepika called from the cage. “We are on your side.”

“Go on,” said the old woman.

“Hear me!” the prince decreed, lifting his chin and unlocking the cage of bone. “We will bring your families home. It is Vibhas who swears this.”

Distrustful mouths grumbled and groused. “Why should we believe you?” demanded the old woman. “You would not listen before.”

“I was wrong to lose myself in my loss and neglect my people,” Vibhas said. He blinked to clear the lingering clouds of gloom from his vision before guiding Deepika from the cage. “Falguni would be anything but pleased.”

“Life must continue, prince,” agreed the old woman. “We have all lost someone, we all grieve, yet we endure.”

Bowing, Vibhas removed his arm ring and offered it to her in tribute.

In turn, Deepika removed her necklace, and Lavanya unfastened her own. Together, they held them forth. “Accept these as a symbol of our promise. We shall free your families as we free our own.”

The throng lowered its weapons, while the boy with the bangles cupped his hands for the pendants. “Go, then,” he said. “We will be waiting.”

Lavanya and Deepika departed the dawn fortress, Vibhas in tow. As they passed beyond the sandstone walls, a roar mighty as the monsoon rain reverberated around them. Seconds later, the tiger lunged.

Lavanya pushed Vibhas from the tiger’s path, though a claw still scratched him, while Deepika fired an arrow at the tiger’s heart. Farther, farther, farther went the tip in search of its target, burying itself to the fletching. But would it be far enough?

The tiger bellowed, raking at the arrow, at himself, yet there was no blood, no rending of skin. He lowered his teeth into Deepika’s leg, then abruptly released her. She bit her lip but did not scream even as blood spurted from the wound.

Lavanya ran to Deepika, pulling her to safety and cradling her bloody limb. Having torn his shirt into strips, Vibhas bandaged Deepika’s leg, then his own arm. As they watched, wary, the madness melted from the tiger’s eyes, and the whiskers from his cheeks. His silvery body dissolved into a regal figure, tall, sturdy, and two-legged. A princess.

Lavanya stared. A princess! How could that be?

The princess tugged the shaft from her chest, snapped it in two, and dropped the pieces to the ground. She paid no mind to the tear in her emerald choli, instead studying Deepika as intently as an astronomer observing the stars. Lavanya held her breath as Deepika raised her head and mirrored the probing gaze. Minutes passed before white teeth flashed bright in the light of the lanterns, the half-moon of one mouth framing the challenge, the other accepting it.

Still deep in their private dialogue, they advanced, nearer, ever nearer. Then the princess noticed Vibhas. “Brother!” She bounded away from Deepika and into his open arms, embracing him tightly.

“Falguni,” sobbed the staring prince, “is it really you?”

“Yes, me and no other.” The princess broke free, laughter shining in her eyes and ringing from her lips.

Vibhas offered an arm to Deepika. “You broke the curse,” he said amidst a cascade of tears. “If not for you, Falguni would have spent the rest of her days as a tiger and lost to me. In thanks, I would marry you.”

Lavanya stood aside, a prisoner of war: Sweet delight for her sister battled in her heart with the knowledge bitter as karela that again, she was not wanted.

Deepika glanced from the princess to the prince, from the prince to the princess. She knew the prince’s gratitude for the obligation it was, just as she noted the sword in the princess’s hand and saw the strength it revealed. She nodded, certain.

“I choose the princess,” Deepika said, weaving her arm through Falguni’s equally muscular one. Falguni smiled the secretive smile of a tigress about to spring and led Deepika to one side.

Vibhas joined Lavanya under the archway. “I am glad she did not choose me,” he confided, “for she is not the one I desire.”

Lavanya frowned, fearing to believe.

“Nor do I believe my sister will be so easily claimed. She, too, enjoys the hunt,” Vibhas continued. “When my parents began amassing the lands of their neighbors, their most trusted advisor tried to dissuade them. But they cared only for their empire, forcing the most robust of their subjects into their army while the rest starved. And so the advisor, also a magician, cursed my sister in the hope that they would reconsider.”

“But they did not,” Lavanya said, completing the tale.

“No,” said the prince, his eyes dim with dismay. “Indeed, they were glad for another weapon in their armory.”

His pain reminded Lavanya of her mother and the long months they had been separated. Her melancholy increased with the memory of the gardens. On a whim, she asked, “Do I not hold the most splendid rose?”

“You do,” the prince agreed, the enchantment turning his gaze to glass. And it was true; she now clasped a blossom the color of her own strange skin.

Lavanya caressed the slim stem. “Do I not need to return to my own mother?”

“You do,” the prince said, dreamily repeating her thoughts. “Daughters belong with their mothers.” The chappals at Lavanya’s crimson feet blazed blue then, a brilliant, restless blue.

“Do you find me ugly?” the rose woman wondered sadly, stroking Vibhas’s cheek with the petals. “All think my sister is beautiful, thus the one to love.”

“She is beautiful, that is true,” Vibhas said, wrapping his hand around hers, the hand that held the bloom. The thorns of her arm did not prick him as he drew close, or if they did, he did not seem to mind. Perhaps they had shattered the spell, for his eyes were clear, his words his own. “But you see, she is not a rose.”

Lavanya donned the chappals and linked hands with the others. Leading their chain, she sprinted toward the horizon, fleet of foot, faster even than the wind itself. They visited villages and cities and settlements to herald the end of the war and scatter the seeds of harmony. Then, weary of heart and of body, they hastened home to rest among the roses of Gulabi’s garden.

The rani had dispatched the unwelcome visitors, who had proven no match for her swordplay, and deposited them in the palace dungeon. Vibhas touched Gulabi’s feet in apology for the crimes of his parents. Tears rolling down her face, she touched his forehead in forgiveness.

At Falguni’s command, the ragged remnants of the army dispersed, impatient to return to the lands they called home. At Vibhas’s command, each soldier carried a rose from Gulabi as a sign of goodwill.

Deepika introduced Falguni as schooled in the sword, both curved and straight. “It was I who freed her.”

“It was I who allowed myself to be freed,” Falguni stated, not one to relinquish her tigress’s proud bearing for even a moment. She addressed Gulabi. “The people of the dawn fortress will need a ruler, now that my parents are no longer fit to do so. With your blessing, I would return there in the company of your daughter.”

Lavanya imagined Deepika a rani amid the pink-and-orange walls, hunting beside Falguni and crooning victory songs to the stars above. “With your blessing, Vibhas and I will remain here with you,” she said, moving closer to her mother.

Gulabi clapped her hands together in approval and in joy. As one, they kicked off their shoes and danced in celebration of the weddings to come, of the freedom they had won, of the rose-loving rani’s reunion with her daring daughters.

Seeing this, the courtiers and servants, all the inhabitants of the kingdom, for that matter, forgot their cares, forgot their fears of Lavanya, forgot everything but the chance for merrymaking. The royal musicians struck up a fine tune, and the royal chefs served up a fine feast. As it often does, food led to drink, drink led to song, and song led to laughter that sounded in the air until even the roses swayed blithely on their thorny stems.

Some say a yaksha with a red-and-black turban wound about his head slipped out from behind a banyan tree that day, stealthy as a snake in the grass, to snatch up the chappals, and never were they seen again in that place.


BIO: If people let her, Shveta Thakrar would eat books for dinner. Since they won’t, she settles for writing Indian-flavored fantasy. Drawing on her heritage, her experience growing up with two cultures, and her M.A. in German Literature, she likes to explore the magic that is just out of sight as well as that which stands right in front of our faces. Other things that interest her include feminism, cultural and racial notions of beauty, and how language influences how we think. Shveta is currently working on a YA novel featuring Indian fey, bleeding thumbs, and family secrets, all in Philadelphia. Find out more at

Demeter’s Spicebox
Issue One, April 2011

The featured illustration is from the mystical Sufi text Madhumalati and depicts a pair of lovers shooting at a tiger. The illustration is in the public domain.

Apr 252011

Sister and Bones
by Mari Ness

They say that before we were born, our mother gathered four cups and pounded plum blossoms and cherry bark and leaves from nine trees caught before they reached the ground into her powdered green tea, fresh as a spring after the departure of the winter snows. The tea hissed and bubbled and steamed, and she let it burn her mouth before tossing each cup into the sea, though each cup had been held by her grandmother and her grandmother’s grandmother before that. They say between sips, she muttered – and the whole village heard her, although none stood beside her – Cherry blossoms, free of wind, like a sleeping child. Cherry blossoms, free of wind, like a sleeping child.

She never told us what she meant by this, but nine months later, two daughters were born: one fair as cherry blossoms in the first spring, the second gnarled as cherry bark, with mismatched legs and eyes and mottled skin.

I am the ugly one.

My sister does not mind this, though I do. I hear the whispers, see the glances, the pitying looks at the stick I lean on. It will get easier in time, my sister assures me, but it never does.

She herself is the object of many stares as we walk; no matter how often people have seen her, they cannot stop looking at her beauty. So beautiful is she that the villagers even whisper that she might wed the daimyo himself, or one of his sons, should he ever stop by the village. No more than a hopeless tale woven by the wind, that. Whatever her beauty, whatever my face, we do not have the money to encourage a lord.

We play with the sons of the fishermen by the shore. One of them smiles at me and tells me to sing. I have the voice of a bird, he tells me, before laughing and plunging into the sea.

I hear the laughter of demons in the trees.

They say before any of us were born, this was a home of demons, sea-demons who had escaped their chains to scamper on the rocks, and then rebelled against returning to the darkness of the sea. The harsh rains we sometimes felt, the terrible waves that sometimes came when the sea rose, stealing all in its path, all of these were attempts by the sea to take back its demons. But too late, too late: the demons had found safety in the trees. As long as they had trees, they were safe from the sea.

The villagers might have cut down the trees, knowing this, knowing that they needed the sea for food. And knowing that, the demons would sometimes offer bargains: a way to catch more fish. A way to keep off the winter chills.

A way to give a woman children.

Even if the fish rotted faster than fish caught without demon aid. Even if warmer winters led to sicker summers.

Even if those children look like me.

We grow up. More and more speak of my sister’s beauty, urge my mother to take her to the city. My sister takes my hand in reassurance when this is said; she will not leave me. I do not think she can promise this, but I am funny, she says, and she will not live without laughter.

The men of the nearby villages begin to make offers, suggestions, for themselves and their sons.

The laughter from the woods takes a different tone. If I did not know better, I would almost describe it as greedy.

They say I have always been a storyteller, a liar. I cannot say if this is true, though I remember telling stories to my sister, who listened with wide eyes, always laughing and rolling over and over on the ground at any joke, heedless of her dark hair. I remember her ordering me to tell my tales to the village children, refusing to play with me until she and they had heard the tales, again and again, until they, too, were rolling on the ground.

“You will go to the city one day and tell your tales,” she said confidently.

I looked at my stick. The son of a fisherman, the one who said my voice was like a bird, had carved it for me with intricate pictures of the great tuna from the sea.

“I do not think they would welcome me,” I said quietly.

“Well,” she said carelessly. “Everyone says they would welcome me. And if they welcome me, they will welcome you.”

I could not quite believe that. But I could not bear to argue with her. Not over this.

“Why do we not use this teapot?” my sister asks.

My mother draws near and frowns. The teapot my sister holds is heavy, sturdy, brown, with a single leaf etched on the side. I do not like it much, but my sister loves trees.

“Because,” says my mother.

That is not an answer that will satisfy either of us, and we turn and frown at her in unison.

She sighs. “See, it is cracked.” She points to a large line alone the side.

“Then why do we keep it?” asks my ever practical sister.

My mother gives us the tightest of smiles. “It was the teapot I used before you were born.” Which is not an answer.

“What cracked it?” I ask.

My mother has turned from us both. “You might say the wind.”

They say my father was a skilled fisherman, who brought much wealth to his family through the sea, before he was taken by a sea demon in a storm some months before our birth.

Many months before our birth.

The villagers could count. And they had seen my mother standing on the edge of the sea, a teapot in hand, seen her climb into the trees, muttering words they could not hear.

And they say – some of them say – that the shape of my father entered our house, days after the sea demon had stolen him.

They did not say this until long afterwards. She had not wanted to be without children.

As we grow, the voices in the trees grow sharper, more distinct.

They say to place tatami mats just so, to place tables here, and tables there, to keep mattresses tightly rolled during the day, to keep a color here and a color there. For harmony, they say, and to ward off demons.

They do not say what happens to those who do not have the funds or the space for such careful placement.

When I speak of voices in the trees, my sister begins to doubt me.

She cannot hear them.

“Perhaps you are being taken by a fox,” she says, and I suddenly feel cold.

“My father says you’ll end up back in the woods someday,” the fisherman’s boy, the one who has carved the tuna on my stick, tells me.

“My sister says I’ll go to the city, to tell my tales.”

The boy shakes his head. “My father says you’ll go back to the woods.” His eyes are serious. I realize, suddenly, that this is not one of his plays. “You’ll be rejoining your own people, once your sister marries.”

I look at the ocean, tears pricking my eyes. “I want to stay by the sea.”

The boy does not answer.

They say that, having fled the sea, the demons could not even bear to look upon it. Some others said that the demons had shifted into foxes – although this was loudly decried by others, who said that the fox women were their own people, quite untrustworthy and tricky on their own, but with no connection to the sea, and quite fond of bathing.

But sometimes, when I looked into the trees, and heard the laughter in the leaves, I thought I could see their branches bending away from the sea.

“A marriage has been arranged,” my mother tells us.

She does not look at me; it is obvious who the marriage is for. My sister catches her breath. “No,” she says.

“Yes,” my mother replies. “He will take your sister as well.”

“No,” my sister repeats, reaching out for my hand and squeezing it.

The singing in the trees is loud that night. I say nothing of it to my sister.

They say a monk once held a teapot, and watched demons dance from it, only he thought they were badgers. He tried to use the teapot to make money in the streets, but the demons took the gold, and he could bring nothing to his temple but wisdom.

My sister will not speak of her marriage, will only laugh and shake her head. I want to talk about it– nothing else looms larger in our lives, nothing else has meaning. But she will not.

At night, when we roll out our mattresses, she turns her face to the wall, not looking at me. But I can still hear her sobbing.

They say when we were old enough, my mother sent my sister to purchase fish. So lovely was her skin and hair that the fishermen stumbled over their words and forgot the price of their fish.

They say she then sent me, and the fishermen, upon seeing me, dropped their fish into the sand and mud.

My sister leaves us between one breath and another.

It comes to me as nothing more than a shivering, a sense, a dream, but it is enough to have me cease my bargaining and hurry home as swiftly as I might, ignoring the pain that comes from this rush. I nearly forget to remove my shoes in my eagerness, my hope to be proven wrong.

I am not.

“She has gone to the woods,” I say to my mother dully, not knowing how I know, but knowing I know.

“She is the sort of plaything they would want,” my mother whispers.

The light in the house flickers.

My sister’s favorite story was of the teapot that produced marvelous things – sake, ink, poems, and clever little talking animals. She asked me to make the sounds of each animal as it left the pot, and I obliged, to watch her roll over and over on the ground, the dirt soiling her so beautiful hair.

I take the teapot they say my mother made her green tea in, the tea that made children of cherry blossom and bark, from its place in the corner. My mother is staring into her own tea cup, filled from the pot and water that has never felt the touch of demons.

I do not tell her that I will be back. I do not know if I will be back.

The teapot cracks in my hands as I walk towards the trees.

They say that a demon may be caught with mirrors, tricked with flowers, tempted with tea.

They also say this never works.

It takes longer than I would wish to climb to the trees, and the wind is already chilled before I reach them. I look into their leaves, remembering the tale of the good man and his wife, who made their cherry blossoms bloom in winter.

But these are not cherry trees, and I have nothing to make them bloom.

I sit. This is where I have heard the laughter, and we are far enough from the sea that if the demons are here, they may come. My sister may have gone further, but I cannot. But perhaps the demons might take me there.

They say my sister might not really be my sister, that my mother did not merely mutter over a cup of tea, but dallied with the little men of the woods, or perhaps taken a fox to bed.

These are not tales I choose to retell.

The first demon arrives in the early morning, as I am nearly asleep. He is even uglier than I expected, and begins by taunting me and jumping. I sit quietly. If my tales are right, this is not the demon I need.

Another demon comes, and then another, until I am surrounded by them, ugly little demons, misshapen just like me. It occurs to me that I have never felt more at home. It occurs to me that I have never felt so afraid.

“My sister,” I say each night, each morning. “My sister.” Again, and again, chanting it. And in so saying, make it true.

For she is, indeed, my sister. Who could not believe this, with our squabbling?

“We shall throw bones for her,” I say. “My sister.”

I know nothing of the games, but in my tales, demons have always thrown bones, and so I believe it true.

“And why should we throw these bones with you?”

I place the teapot between us. “Because I am one of you. Because I came from this pot.”

They move closer, twisted faces eager. One or two reach out to touch it, their hands recoiling at its feel. They look at it and look at me, and chatter in a language I do not know, a language I do not want to know.

“And you may take it back, for her life. If you win.”

“Done,” says a voice, and I find I have to sit down.

They say many things of balance, of chance. Too many to listen to, or know.

A demon with red eyes and green hair hands me a cup of bones. I stare at the cup. If this game can be won by some strategy, some trick, I do not know it. The chief demon sees my confusion. His eyes crinkle, and he laughs.

“Tell her of the game,” he says, and they do.

The words might as well go unspoken. This is no game of humans, but of demons, and I have been too long in the human world to grasp it. I will have to throw the bones and trust to the judgement of demons. And my sister.

“For my sister,” I say, and throw the bones.

The demons lean over the bones, gesturing excitedly. They have assured me – though I have no reason to believe them – that this will be a game fought fairly, that my own blood will keep them from cheating. I sit quietly. The demon throws his bones. More chatter. The cup is handed to me.

“Again,” they say, and I toss.

Again, and again. The sun rises in the sky and burns upon me, and slowly sets, and the wind rises again, and still I throw bones with the demons. Three of them are keeping score, arguing one with another. I cannot tell if I am winning or losing. My sister, my sister. I have come for my sister. Saying that makes it true. I say it over each bone, each toss.

The bones I toss begin to glimmer in the night.

The demons, seeing this, begin to toss their bones ever faster. I chant my words over each toss, each bone. Their bones begin to gleam red. The sun rises. I am shaking, shaking, and still throwing bones.

They say a man once tried to play a game with a fox. In the winter his wife found only his bones, dry with age.

A woman once tried to play a game with another fox, and found a cherry tree in blossom behind her house.

Three days. The demons do not tire, but I do; I can barely see, barely hear. My world has sunk to no more than this, the tossing of the bones and the muttering of words, until hairy hands come down on mine and the bone tossing stops.

“A tie,” says one demon in decided fashion.

I struggle to free my hands. “Then let us play more.”

“No,” says another demon. “This game grows tedious. And it will have no winner.”

Sister, I think. Sister, sister.

“But you have played well enough for a trade.”

I am so tired that the world at first make no sense. “A trade?”

A dark blue furred demon leans forward, pushing his face into mine. “A trade. Your sister, for the teapot.”

If I were not so tired, if I did not know how much it would hurt, I would leap for joy.

“Done,” I say.

The demons caper and sing in glee as they leave, scampering into the trees, and suddenly I wonder if I have done the right thing after all.

They say the village children once laughed at me as I stumbled about with my stick, trying to keep up with their games.

Until my sister threw rocks at them.

Only one demon remains. My eyes are too tired to see him clearly. “Do you know what happens, if we keep this pot?”

I do not know. I shake my head.

“You will have no demon children in your midst,” he says. “No more crooked, lame, ugly children –” I am about to cry out, but something in his eyes stops me. “And no more children so lovely as to stop men in their tracks. Just ordinary children, the same as you can find in any village anywhere. Ordinary children who cannot hear the laughter in the trees.”

My fists clench. “Give it back,” I say.

More laughter. “And why should we do that?”

I sigh. “I will play you again for it.”

My sister’s voice, cool and clear. “No. This time I will.”

They say now that they will not play games with us, me and my sister. Especially when the wind is blowing in the trees.

My sister decides not to wed at all. She says this laughing, but her eyes are clear, and my mother does not press the point. She has danced enough with demons, and will now bend in the rice fields, listening to the wind.

And I, I marry the young fisherman, the young man who liked the sound of my voice, because he is solid, solid, unlike the demons I tossed bones with, and his mouth tastes gentle as cherry blossoms. We place the teapot in a corner of the room, as my mother did, and if the demons laugh at us, I, at least, can no longer hear.

BIO: Mari Ness lives in central Florida, with a still scraggly rose garden that she’s hoping to bring magic to. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous publications, including Fantasy, Cabinet des Fées, and Ideomancer. She keeps a disorganized blog at, or you can follow her on Twitter at mari_ness.

Mari Ness is donating her proceeds from this story towards Papaveria Press’ Help Japan fund.

Demeter’s Spicebox
Issue One, April 2011

The featured artwork is from a Heian period illustration of the Tale of Genji and is in the public domain.

Issue One of Demeter’s Spicebox

 Demeter's Spicebox, Featured  Comments Off on Issue One of Demeter’s Spicebox
Apr 252011

For the inaugural issue of Demeter’s Spicebox, we wanted to revisit a tale that stands poised in between the active or passive heroine. Tatterhood, or the Aarne-Thompson folktale type 711, is a tale about both motherhood and what it means to be either the beautiful or ugly twin. The original folktale, as collected by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, was a favourite of mine as a teenager. How could it not be? It was a tale that was refreshing in that the active and not attractive heroine prevails, but it also captures that insecurity that lies at the heart of every person who has felt marginalised, Othered or has been considered unattractive.

While Hans Christian Anderson’s Ugly Duckling and some other stories which speak of that transformation between ugliness and beauty espouse waiting, self-discovery, and to a certain extent, passivity, the heroine of Tatterhood seems to know a secret, and is active in furthering not just her destiny, but that of her loved ones. This is not just an empowering message in a folktale; it is a delectably subversive one, as well. So, would writers be able to subvert this even further? It appears as if they could, and would.

Both Shveta Thakrar and Mari Ness have given us beautiful versions of Aarne-Thompson type 711, presented with a twist. These are tales that will stir your imagination and evoke emotional reactions. Mari Ness’s lyrical and moving Sister and Bones takes us to the Far East in a story of sisterhood, loss and triumph. Shveta Thakrar’s Lavanya and Deepika brings us back in time to Ancient India, in a story which is lush and lyrical, with imagery that transports. Both tales share a harmony in thematic concerns, and both writers have woven in different fairytales within the Aarne-Thompson type 711 tale they reworked. They have defied our expectations of both activity and passivity by writing stories which are a powerful testimony not just to wonder and magic, but to the strength of human relationships and filial ties. Both writers are therefore exactly what the inaugural issue of Demeter’s Spicebox needed and we are delighted to feature them.

A map was chosen for the cover of Demeter’s Spicebox because it is an old map, one which shows the world in the nineteenth century. It was drawn up, created and carved out by colonial forces. In postcolonial studies, there are debates about whether embracing hybridity is equivalent to accepting the power dialectic imposed upon us by the forces of colonisation. It is not the aim of Demeter’s Spicebox to academically address these questions, but to instead show you the power of the story to both transgress and transcend borders – for stories are hybrid beings too, and may end up far-flung from their point of origin. The act of placing each story, and author’s name on the map, is therefore an act of defying those hegemonic structures with the power of each fairytale. For each issue, we will consider not just the map, but the power of stories to reshape and refashion what we know of the world.

While it may seem audacious and a bit dangerous to encourage retelling a tale-type that comes from one part of the world in a different culture or climate, we feel this is the best way to express that sense of exploration, the transgression of state-lines and borders created to keep the outside where it “belongs”. In a world that is today more and more self-conscious of difference, where checkpoints have become points of contention, the issue of borders and the sense of belonging becomes even more fraught, especially for those of us who are the hybrid children of multiple diasporas and cultures. Growing up, not knowing which state or culture I could consider myself belonging to was an incredibly alienating feeling. An only child and an introvert who spent most of her life in South East Asia reading, I realised one singular truth. I belonged to the stories. The fairytales and folktales I gorged myself on came from more than one culture, more than one destination on the map, but each revealed to me a hidden truth, a lesson or some strange, undefineable magic that brought me further down the road. The stories charted for me a different kind of terrain, one that was wholly internal, and hybrid to a chaotic degree. The things I love best come from that strange world between traditional conceptions of boundaries, where an act of love might be an act of transgression, and vice versa. While this may seem a wholly personal way of approaching an inaugural editorial, I also know I am not the only one with these personal stories. We all have them: readers, writers, lovers of the fairytale and folktale. It cannot be anything but personal, because fairytales are personal. They speak to us with the resonance of life-journeys.

My co-editor, the wonderfully talented wordsmith and magician of books, Erzebet YellowBoy reminds us again, and again, “Fairy tales, must be told.” It is a truth that has guided every edition of a Cabinet des Fées publication. As the second Cabinet des Fées online publication, Demeter’s Spicebox also seeks to embody this fundamental ethos behind the impulse to make stories. Demeter’s Spicebox, as noted in our introduction, is not merely about revising lesser-known folktale types. We encourage interconnectivity and hypertextuality; our challenge to each writer was to create either footwear or an old teapot that would have to be included in the next issue. Both Mari Ness and Shveta Thakrar have created objects which excite the imagination and which are ripe for inclusion in future stories. Watching these objects appear in future tales will be thrilling and an adventure. We hope you have your compasses and flashlights ready, and have packed enough victuals in your knapsacks for this journey!