Wish Missed

Fariha soared through the sky, her glossy feathers drenched in gold light and violet shadow. The sun would soon drop below the horizon. It was her favourite time of day, not because of the sunset — she had seen many sunsets, and she had grown rather bored of them — but because it was a time of change.

Change was interesting.

Two eagles glided on the thermals ahead of her, working together to hunt. Fariha could feel their prey below, a rock rabbit, ears twitching as it sensed danger. The eagles separated, the female hugging the cliff edge while the male soared in the light of the dying sun. The tiny creature stared at it, transfixed. It was not blinded by the light, but it was distracted as the female eagle circled behind and prepared to dive. Fariha watched, fascinated, and then hissed a word. The rock rabbit suddenly turned and let out a high-pitched, shrieking, chucking sound, many times louder than its tiny lungs ought to have been able to produce. The female eagle, spooked, missed her target and rolled into a ball of feathers and screeching frustration.

The rock rabbit, shocked by the sound it had just heard itself make, froze in place and was bitten by an opportunistic puff adder.

Fariha cawed with delight and soared higher.

She continued to drift on the thermals, skimming over the boundary of a small town. Houses lay below her, whitewashed U-shaped buildings that curved around small gardens. At this time of day, most people were beginning to retreat indoors, but something below snagged her senses. Longing. Clear and sweet as the note of a bell.

Humans who wanted things were so much fun.

She tucked her wings and began to descend. She found the girl quickly enough, sitting in a small garden, fingers working a lump of clay. She wore a dress of muted greens and browns, her dark hair tightly braided. Her face was smudged with dirt.

Fariha landed, clawed feet scratching the hard earth. The girl looked up and then scrambled to her feet, eyes widening at the creature before her with gold earrings and human-like eyes and a nose-bridge that stretched and curved into a brutally sharp beak.

Fariha folded her dark wings around her body and said nothing. She wasn’t tall, but neither was the girl, and they gazed at each other eye-to-eye.

‘Who are you?’ asked the girl, after a moment.

‘Fariha, goddess of the winds, mistress of machination, sovereign of schemes, arch of artifice, at your service,’ said Fariha, sweeping one wing in front of her and dipping her head.

The girl stared. ‘My father told me stories,’ she whispered.

‘Did he indeed? And what did he tell you, child?’

‘That the bird goddess Fariha is… clever.’

‘Hah. And appreciated flattery, no doubt? An astute man. There are some. What is your name?’

‘Elissa, and I am pleased to meet you,’ said the girl, nodding her head. ‘But if I may ask, why are you here?’

Fariha looked around. The house to which the small garden was attached shared walls with both of its neighbours. The doorway was dark, and spoke of damp coolness. The air in the garden was heavy with the scents of late-blooming flowers, long shadows stretched over the gum trees and red yucca plants. A small, wooden stool lay overturned at Elissa’s feet. She had not dropped her clay.

‘You have a pretty garden,’ said the bird goddess.

‘Thank you. I have worked hard to make it so,’ said Elissa.

‘But your house is very small. Perhaps you dream of something richer. More opulent. With servants to bring delicacies and cool drinks?’

‘Not really,’ said the girl.

Fariha clucked. ‘No? Then…’ she twisted her head to the south, where there was the beat of distant music and lights were beginning to mark the darkening sky. ‘Perhaps the party? You yearn for the music, and dancing and song? The hand of a handsome prince?’

Elissa giggled, then clapped a hand over her mouth. ‘No!’

Fariha’s brow creased. ‘All young girls want to go to the party, surely?’ She looked Elissa up and down. ‘The dress is easily remedied. And the hair. And I’m sure there’s something around here that would do for a coach…’ Her eyes stopped on a lizard skittering up one of the whitewashed walls. ‘Certainly, attendants would not be a problem. And shoes, yes, I could make the most beautiful shoes,’ which, she mused silently, would pinch and stab and fall off at the most inopportune moment. She had heard the prince had a thing for shoes.

‘No, please,’ interrupted Elissa. ‘I don’t want to go to the party. My sisters went. They will tell me about it when they return. I would rather stay here.’

Fariha buried her fists into the feathers at her waist. ‘Well, then, child. I felt your longing, and it was strong. Tell me, what is it that you want?’

‘Honestly, there’s nothing,’ said Elissa. She paused. ‘You must be tired. Would you like some tea?’

‘Tea?’ Fariha found herself disconcerted. Usually, when she found a human who wanted something, she offered it to them, and they took it. And more. Their avarice tangled them like fish caught in nets, and she took great joy in watching them flap and flip and try to squirm out of the predicaments they created for themselves. They never offered her anything. At least, not until it was far too late.

‘I’ll make some,’ said Elissa, darting through the dark entrance of her house. She returned a few minutes later with a pot and cups. The scent of cardamom drifted across the garden.

Fariha sniffed cautiously. A beak was not the most conducive thing for drinking from a cup, but if she allowed the liquid to cool a little she could pour it into the bottom part of her bill and swallow it from there. It smelled deliciously sweet.

‘I think,’ said Elissa after they had both taken cups, ‘that you came to my father, once.’

‘Perhaps. I have seen a lot of men, in my time.’

‘He was a good man, my father. My mother was pregnant. Her time was near and he had only one thought on his mind. He wished for a healthy child that would live a long life.’

‘And you’re here, I see.’

‘Yes. But he never wished anything for my mother. She died a week after I was born.’ Elissa looked up from her teacup and met Fariha’s gaze. Her eyes were challenging.

Fariha shrugged. ‘That was not my doing. Human childbirth is a difficult business.’

‘You could have saved her.’

‘I could have. I wasn’t asked to.’

‘He blamed himself. ‘

‘Again, that is not my doing.’

Elissa looked down. ‘No. I suppose not. He loved me, of course. He was happy that I was healthy. But I know that in his heart, he always wondered what would have happened if he hadn’t taken that wish. If he had refused it.’

‘If you’re asking me for the answer to that, I don’t know it. I can move a thread in the tapestry, but I cannot tell you how the pattern would have looked if I had not done so.’ Fariha paused, fixing the girl with a beady stare. ‘Unless, perhaps, that’s your wish?’ Yes… she thought, and the knowledge will burn inside like you a parasitic grub, eating its way through your flesh until it utterly consumes…

‘No,’ said the girl thoughtfully, ‘I think it is better not to know.’

Fariha huffed. ‘Well, then. What is your desire? I felt something. Tell me.’

Elissa laughed, and looked at her ball of misshapen clay. ‘Probably that I wanted my sculpture to actually resemble something.’

‘Is that all? That’s simple. I can make you the best sculptor in the world. People will weep to see your work.’ And the King will find you, and insist you make endless models for him, until your nails crack and your fingers bleed and they are so calloused that you can no longer feel anything, and…

‘No, no!’ said Elissa. ‘No. If I am to become good at modelling clay, I shall learn the skill for myself. With practice. If I acquire it by magic, it will be as though it’s someone else’s work, and what would be the point of that?’

Fariha looked at the sky with irritation. The sun was gone, leaving nothing more than a bloody glow across the darkened horizon. Soon, it would be night, and her power would be gone for another day. ‘You waste my time,’ she hissed.

‘I’m sorry. It was not my intention. There is nothing that I want. Take your leave, if it pleases you, of course.’

Fariha screeched. ‘You bore me, child! I hate being bored.’ The bird goddess spread her wings wide, so that the tips almost touched the walls of the tiny garden, filling it with black shadow. The teacup fell to the ground with a crash as she flexed her talons, long, wicked things that dug deep into the ground, and stared at Elissa. ‘Such lovely, soft skin. I promised your father you would live a long life. I never promised you would live it painlessly. Unscarred.’

Elissa took a deep breath. ‘You need me to ask for something?’

The two stared at each other for a long moment.

‘Do not think of tricking me, child. You cannot wish me harm.’

‘No,’ said Elissa, breaking Fariha’s gaze and looking up at the sky, now a deep indigo marked with a single pinpoint of white, light. ‘But perhaps there is another way.’

Fariha’s black eyes glittered. Time seemed to stretch and stop, and snap.

‘I wish… you were not bored. And would never be so again.’

There was a sound, just on the edge of hearing. Clear and sweet as the note of a bell.

Fariha began to laugh. She flapped her great wings and leapt upwards, still laughing, and the sound turned into cawing as she soared into the endless sky.

Somewhere far below, a girl picked up a lump of clay and began to work on it, so that it resembled something a little like a woman.

Or perhaps a bird.

Or perhaps, a reminder.


Author’s notes
This story was written for another Mythmaking event. The idea behind these events is that a group of storytellers write and perform stories inspired by museum artefacts that have no stories of their own. In this case, we know these small, female-form, ceramic figures are about 4000 years old and were widely traded, but that’s all — no one knows who, or what, they represented, or why they were significant. The event took place at the Ashmolean Museum, was organised by Brian Mackenwells and Charvy Narain, and was totally brilliant — look out for more in the future!


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© Kat Day 2019

By the Edge of the River

Athanasia sat heavily in her chair, her joints creaking along with the cords of the seat. She took a few deep breaths, and the room settled back to silence.

The labour had been a long one, and there had been rather more blood than she would have liked, but the child was strong and its mother would, if Athanasia was any judge, recover well. She had assisted in many births over the years. Even the ones that went smoothly – and they often didn’t – were a little frightening. Standing at the boundary to life itself, doing everything she could to make sure that the child would be welcomed to the world whole. And that the mother would stay on the right side.

Athanasia tucked some loose strands of grey hair back into her braids. She was relieved, if tired. Her arms and back ached, but that was surely to be expected after a long night with little sleep. She felt a little short of breath, too, but she probably only needed rest. She closed her eyes.

***

When she opened them again, she was dead.

She knew it, because she found herself on the bank of a great river. The water was green yet remarkably clear, putting her in mind of the pale green bowl filled with peaches and pomegranates in her quarters. A bowl that, she realised, she would neither see, nor touch, again.

The air was still, and filled with a faintly sweet smell. Silver things flashed below the surface of the river, moving too fast to see. She stood on smooth, pale stone and looked across the water. The river stretched as far as she could see in either direction. In the distance, Athanasia thought she could see a small boat, although there was little against which to judge its size. It might, she supposed, become a larger boat as it drew nearer.

She put her hand into the pocket of her tunic and found a single coin. The metal was cool on her fingers. She let it fall back into the folds of the material and sat down to wait.

Athanasia had no family left of her own, and her thoughts drifted to the new mother and child she had left behind. Had the child been feeding well? Had the mother regained her strength? And there had been another woman with a baby due, she had thought, around the next new moon. She sighed. There was nothing to be done about that, now.

A sound made her turn. She had been entirely alone a moment ago, but now there was a young girl, bare-footed, dark hair falling in messy twists around her face. She looked up at Athanasia with bright, wide eyes. Tears streaked her cheeks.

‘Oh,’ said Athanasia, instinctively crouching down and reaching out. The child put her arms out, in that way that children do, and Athanasia lifted her and held her against her chest, noting that she felt too light. The child rested her head on Athanasia’s shoulder and continued to cry.

‘Shh,’ said Athanasia, rubbing the child’s back.

The girl pulled back. ‘I want to go home. I don’t like it here.’

Athanasia tried to make her voice soothing. ‘I’m not sure you can,’ she said.

The child wriggled then, pushing her legs and arms against Athanasia so that she was forced to put her down. ‘I want to go home!’ she repeated.

‘I know, but, I think you have to go on the boat,’ said Athanasia, pointing across the river. The boat was nearer now, and it did indeed seem larger.

The child stared at her defiantly. ‘I like boats,’ she said, eventually.

‘I’m sure it’ll be fun!’ said Athanasia, pulling her face into a smile and hoping that it would be.

The child nodded, and ran to the edge of the river to watch. Athanasia bit back the urge to tell her to be careful because, after all, what was there to be careful of, now?

She rubbed her cheek, and then realised that others had arrived. A young woman, her belly distended but empty, a man with a dark hole under his left shoulder and a stump where his right leg should have been, a woman with elaborately-styled white hair, her body and face unmarked.

Athanasia had spent her life helping others, and she found she could not stop now. She greeted the arrivals, offered words of comfort, and helped them to the edge of the river. Some were confused, and some were angry. A few wept. She did what she could, and took small joy in being useful.

In time, the boat arrived. It was the long, narrow kind, designed to be propelled by a boatman wielding a pole, and indeed there was such a man. He was tall and broad-shouldered, and he wore robes the colour of glowing embers. They matched his eyes.

He stepped lightly ashore. The child Athanasia had first met looked curiously up at him, and then scampered into the boat, darting back and forth until she had decided where she wanted to sit. Athanasia smiled, and helped the one-legged man to also step aboard.

The ferryman’s face was dark beneath his hood. His voice, when he spoke, reminded Athanasia of thunder and freshly-turned earth. ‘Thank you,’ he said, looking at the orderly chain of people. ‘It is usually more… difficult.’

Athanasia nodded. The last of the other passengers climbed aboard and sat, waiting.

The ferryman looked at her, and then at the boat. She didn’t move.

‘What is on the other side of the river?’ she asked, quietly.

The ferryman shrugged. ‘It is not for me to say.’

‘Will those that I’ve lost be there?’ she asked, looking across the expanse of green water. She could see only shadows on the other side.

‘Perhaps.’

‘Perhaps?’

‘Death is a big place. I only take souls from this edge to that. I cannot say what is beyond the point where I leave them.’

Athanasia paused. ‘Why do you do this?’

His eyes glowed in the depth of his hood. ‘Someone must.’

‘What would happen… if you didn’t?’

He shrugged again. There was a moment of silence between them. Then he said, ‘will you come aboard?’

Athanasia crossed her arms. ‘I don’t think I will.’

‘Then you must stay here, by the river. There is no way back.’

‘I understand. But you cannot tell me what is on the other side. And perhaps if I stay here, I will see some of the people I’ve left, in time.’

‘I cannot say that is so,’ he warned. ‘Not all souls pass this way.’

‘Nevertheless,’ said Anthanasia, ‘I think I can be useful here, and I would like that. It is always best to make the most of what you have.’

The ferryman’s eyes glowed again. ‘Very well,’ he said, after a moment.

Athanasia watched the boat as he pushed it away from the bank and she waved at the little girl, who was holding the hand of the young woman with the empty belly. Athanasia smiled and turned around. Already there were others to greet.

***

And there she remains, on this side of the river, comforting those whose time has come, and helping them to be in the right place at the right time.

It is said that there are some who arrive at the wrong time, their presence too faint as they hover between this world and the next. Some even find their way back, and have told a story of a woman who waits by the river to greet those who must cross, and when the ferryman asks if she will cross, as he always does, she always refuses, her arms folded across her chest.


Author’s notes
I wrote – and read! – this story for an event called ‘Mythmaking: A night of new stories for old objects’, organised by Science Communicator Brian Mackenwells. The idea of the night was to take objects about which we know very little, and which currently have no mythology, and give them new stories. There were seven of us, and we were each allocated one of three objects. Mine was a ‘Cycladic female figurine‘. These are very old – over 5000 years old – and were often buried with the dead, although some have also been found showing signs of repair, suggesting they were also used in every-day life. In this story I tried to tie those ideas together by creating a character that might go on to be represented by these figures. I hope I succeeded!

The other acts were:
Robert Holtom
Calum Mitchell
Holly Bathie
Jack Brougham
Charvy Narain
Laura Theis

And they were all amazing! I really hope there are more events like this in the future.

I also want to say a quick thank you to the talented Matt Dovey, who helped me out when I had a beginning and a end but was struggling with the middle!


Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com
If you like my work, you can support my writing by buying me a coffee at ko-fi.com.
© Kat Day 2018