Such an inhospitable country. A few inches of soil over granite was barely enough to support the growth of straggly grass and the wild horned sheep that grazed there. One of them watched him now, from the top of a pile of damp grey rocks. Those yellow slitted eyes seemed too intelligent for a sheep. More intelligent than some of his officers, truth be told.
Lucius turned and shouted down the hill. “Aurelius!”
“I fancy mutton for dinner. See to it.”
Aurelius saluted, then his eyes drifted towards the sheep, silhouetted against the haze of a mid-morning sky, and he frowned. There were stories told around the campfire, grim tales of what would happen to those who killed the local sheep, and now here was one of those sudden local mists creeping across the ground towards them.
Hear my prayer, Lady, and remember me, the child you named Kalpana, though in my heart I always remained Girl. In the Postulant House I learned of your first aspects, but I didn’t truly understand until the township and the pilgrim hospitium …
Girl stands by the prayer flags, several yards from the hospitium door, and not only to ready herself for the stench of illness and death. She’s accompanied priestesses of Compassion and Benevolence on many occasions to comfort the dying, but always alongside other postulants. This time she’s the only one.
Girl has learned a great deal in her six years in the Postulant House, not least that it’s more than a place of teaching, it’s a place of assessment, and not every applicant is accepted into the Order. She’s determined to become a priestess, but first she must progress to the Novitiate House, and she’s sure the hospitium is where she’ll be tested and the decision made.
One deep breath and she takes a step forward. Then stops dead. Inside the hospitium a woman’s voice has risen in a screech.
Hear my prayer, Lady, and remember me, the unhappy girl in the Postulant House. It was there I ran away from you for the first time. It all began with my name …
“What’s your name?” the tall girl asks, and the floodgates open.
“How old are you?”
“Where are you from?”
“What’s your caste?”
“Is it true you can’t talk?”
Girl is dazed, flustered. Nearly a month she’s been at the monastery, but until now her only company has been Shanti, a slow, sweet dumpling of a serving girl who was surely a water buffalo in her last life. Shanti looked after Girl, sleeping alongside her, bathing, eating and praying alongside her, and never once asked any questions or made any demands. Gradually, under her placid care, Girl learned to trust and to speak again.
But Shanti has other duties now and Girl must live with the young girls in the Postulant House, and they’re crowding about her with their shrill voices and insistent questions, and her head is spinning.
“I’m called Girl,” she finally stammers.
This is the story of an elf named Rob. He used to be a happy elf, enjoying his important duties as an elf patiently sitting on a shelf and overseeing the children so the naughty ones could be either weeded out or reformed. He used to feel like he was making a difference. Not anymore. Each day he became more frustrated and bitter about his role in Elfdom.
In short, he wanted out. He put in for a transfer but quickly found that transfers out of that position were rarely granted. He was stuck in a permanent dead-end job.
What kind of life was moving from one shelf to the next? What indeed was the shelf life of an elf? Alas, there was no expiration date.
Reluctantly accepting his fate, he searched for ways to make his dreary life more tolerable. He became more complacent, and the children forgot about him most of the time.
One day, as Rob watched the children playing – and clearly ignoring him – it occurred to him that he possessed an extraordinary magical power. An elf who sat on a shelf actually bends space and time when he leaps from one place to another. He decided he needed to do more of these surprise visits to entertain himself if not the children.
Hear my prayer, Lady, and remember me. Your priestess brought me to the monastery. There I saw your statue for the first time. There I turned away from you for the first time. But before you, there was another …
“Here, little one. Sit here.”
Sukhbir, the older of the priestess’s guards, points to a broken wall well away from the crowd. Girl sits. She likes Sukhbir. He’s kind and gentle and makes her laugh. He’s her friend, and she’s never had a friend before.
The young guard, Lal, is nice enough, but smells of rice wine and raksi, reminding her of Aprakash. The priestess is beautiful, but far away somehow, as if always thinking important thoughts.
And Sukhbir is the one who bought clothes for Girl – new clothes, not ragged cast-offs – which keep her warm as they climb higher and higher into the mountains. He’s the one who holds her when she’s sick, which is often, as she isn’t used to having such rich food and so much to eat. And he’s the one she rides with, sitting before him on his great horse, while he tells her about the monastery and the priestesses, who she mustn’t call “lady” but “honoured one”, because the Lady is the goddess, the Lady of Six Aspects, though Girl doesn’t know what an aspect is. But whatever Sukhbir says to do, she does. So when he says “Sit here.” she sits.
Hear my prayer, Lady, and remember me, your little mouse. You sent your priestess to free me from my cage …
“I shall come for you.”
Girl whispers the words to herself as she rides a water buffalo home from the steep terraces of the rice fields. Many, many days have passed since the goddess made the promise, but Girl knows she will keep her word.
But how will she come? In a chariot, drawn by white buffaloes? Riding a great golden yak? Or a tiger? Yes, a tiger. And the goddess will let it eat Naala.
Girl has more weals on her back and legs nowadays, as Naala finds any excuse to lash out with her bamboo cane. For Aprakash has gone, and not to his auntie’s. Gone without the golden horn-caps, but Girl is sure he’s taken other things, for Naala has spent hours searching her coffers, sometimes weeping that he’s left her, more often cursing his name.
The village gossips think he’s gone for good. Girl hopes so. The goddess said not to fear his threats, but Girl does fear, and she repeats the goddess’s promise over and over to herself like a holy mantra.
* Winner of the 2020 Story of the Year Award *
It was easier than I thought to teach Albert to run up the grandfather clock on command but much harder to get him to come down again at a decent speed.
“Don’t overthink it,” I coaxed, as the mouse scurried along the split pediment at the top and peered over the edge to the almost straight drop to the floor. “Just run. There will be cheese for you at the end of this.”
The mouse stood up on his haunches and wrinkled his nose, whiskers twitching with dismay. “I don’t care for cheese,” he said. “If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times.”
“And I don’t care for this attitude. When I send you out the window with my message for help, I need to know you’ll be able to get down before any alarms go off. If you’re captured and poisoned, I’ll be trapped, and you’ll be just another dead rodent. I’ve spent months on your training …”
Albert’s cheek pouches bulged with anger. “Is that what I am? Just another pest to kick away once I’ve served my purpose?”
Hear my prayer, Lady, and remember me. I was six years old, no one, nothing, but you found me. Girl was my name …
Girl doesn’t respond, only crawls further into the gap beneath the house, deeper into the shadows. She’s done nothing wrong, but Naala screaming for her like that means a beating.
“This is how I’m repaid for my compassion and benevolence,” cries Naala as villagers gather. “But it certainly shows I lacked wisdom, taking in the orphaned babe, caring for her for five long years. In truth, she’s as wicked as her feckless parents. But I’ll have judgement-giving and justice before the god. As Temple Elder, I demand it.”
Girl doesn’t understand all the words, but some make her tingle inside. Then Aprakash stumbles from the house, half-drunk on rice wine and raksi.
“Why all the shrieking, Mother?” he demands. “What’s the brat done now?”
“Theft! Theft from my own house!”
Beth grinned as her sister Katie spun around their bedroom singing along to Connie Francis. Katie loved singing – she even sounded a little like the icon and had similar looks – and what with her red-and-white halter-neck dress, she was sure to bag a Teddy boy at the dance.
Beth turned back to the mirror and blotted her red lipstick on some tissue paper. Father didn’t like her or Katie wearing lipstick but he was away with work and what he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him.
“Aren’t you ready yet?” Katie asked, lifting the needle from the record and closing the lid. “We’re going to be late.”
“I’m ready.” She got up, took her sister’s arm, and the pair of them hurried from the room yelling good-bye to their mother as the front door closed.
It was a warm evening and children still played out in the street; two boys ran towards them, kicking a football. The girls parted to let the boys pass, then linked arms again as they made their way to the dance hall. As they drew nearer, partygoers milled outside the building and music floated from the open door– an Elvis Presley track.
“Old story, new story…”
Softly, mournfully, Akiowa sang the Storyteller’s call to herself, but the rest died on her lips as she reached the brow of the ridge and gazed down over the land. A sparkling river ran alongside a birch forest, overlooked by a white rock shaped like a wolf howling at the sky. A rock she’d first seen as a babe, when her father had brought her to be blessed by the village totem. A rock which had watched, impassive, as the tribeless men carried her away.
Home. After the long years of slavery and wandering, she was home. She fell to her knees, one trembling hand at her mouth holding back her cry of joy, tears pricking her eyes.
Then joy turned to sorrow; the tears fell. For this was no longer home, since she was no longer Akiowa, young daughter of the tribe’s noblest man, his dwelling hers as long as she lived. She was the Storyteller, an old woman with no family, who would stay only a night or two before leaving.