The Curse of the Lioness

It was a day full of peculiarities. Rose’s rusted teakettle was crying bucketfuls of tears with great heaves in the corner of the kitchen. Above her head, leather-bound books flapped from shelf to shelf with more volition than usual, causing Rose to duck and cover while scrubbing the floor and doing the dishes. Outside of their cottage, their beloved donkey traded his hee-haws for riddles spoken in human tongue. Rose was unsure of his riddle’s meanings, but they brought a cloud of ominous foreboding.

Despite all of this, Rose remained disinterested. She knew what it meant. Something was running amok in their village. Last month it was a traveling fairy granting wishes for a dozen years of life. The month before it was a pegasus offering flights for food. Both events turned out as Rose expected: awful. The fairy had killed two children who snuck off to meet them at night, and the pegasus ended up eating a full season’s worth of crops.

Rose wanted to avoid her ill-tempered mother and prattling sister, Fanny. They were off at the market. Fanny would inevitably tell her the news front, back, and center when they returned. If she finished her chores in the next ten minutes, she could be off into the woods behind their house before being pulled into all that nonsense. 

Rose finished scrubbing the floor, ducked a flying book, and tossed the dirty mop water out the window. At the sound of splashing water, their donkey paused its eating and lifted its head. Staring straight into Rose’s eyes, the donkey said, “If a value has two meanings, which meaning has the greatest cost if you compromise the other?” Rose groaned, not bothering to acknowledge its foreboding. She turned back to the kitchen and set the empty bucket underneath the still-crying teakettle. She threw some rags around the bucket, hoping to sop up the teakettle’s tears without having to wash the floor again later. She stuffed her feet in her boots, not bothering to fully tie them, and grabbed her bag full of both sustenance and materials. 

She was off.

The woods behind their house had been Rose’s greatest companion for as long as she could remember. As a toddler, she made mud pies and imaginary witch’s brews. As a young girl, she helped her father gather information from the woods. The trees told them of news from beyond their village and the plants and animals foretold the outcomes of crops and weather cycles. After his death, she continued his work. The woods became more of her home than the cottage: she walked and ate in the woods, and she had friends in the woods. When her mother began to beat her at the age of sixteen, for having her dead father’s face on her living body, she slept in the woods, too.

Pine needles littered the footpath, cushioning her feet and filling her entire being with the scent of evergreens. Rose released a sigh that had been building for the whole day. Usually, when enveloped in the woods, she felt neither stress nor fear. But in the past season, animals started disappearing. First frogs, then the beavers. Ponds turned murky and foul; plants wilted and dropped. 

Worrying of all,in the past week, the trees stopped talking.

Rose could not solve this mystery. The more she tried, the more she felt the sickness of the land entering her as sore throats and clogged ears, droopy eyes and slow reflexes. She feared that if she did not do something soon, both she and the woods would perish. 

When the path forked, she headed right, to the pond. It wove dangerously close to the side of her family’s cottage, but she knew how to walk unseen in these woods. She plodded onward. In her mind, she spun the old yarns that she would tell her children and grandchildren: with just a few samples and the power of her mind, she saved not only the woods, but herself and her village. 

A yell cut through her gallant thoughts. “Rose?” It was her mother’s voice, for once not marked by the threat of a beating. Instead, her name was called with love, like how the neighbors called their beloved family dog.

She stepped behind a tree and stilled herself. You could see through the woods to the cottage and vice-versa, but only if you knew what you were looking for. The most direct path to her spot was through the underbrush and trees, but Rose had imparted the necessity of always taking the path. It was better for both them and the woods, as Fanny discovered at the age of twelve when she came down with a serious rash covering her entire torso.

“Oh, Rose?” The voice seemed slightly closer, but Rose refused to test her hypothesis.

“Rose.” The voice was definitely a bit closer, and the threat of the beating had certainly tinged its earlier cheerfulness.

With a sigh, Rose stepped out from her hiding spot, only to see her mother poking her way through the sparse underbrush closer to their cottage. “Mother, please,” she yelled back, keeping her tone light, “I hear you now. I will be home shortly; I will take the path.”

Her mother nodded, an exaggerated gesture. “As you should. Hurry back right away. We have news.”

Rose turned and headed back the way she came. She eyed the fungi and moss clinging to the woods, wishing she could collect her samples and be unbothered. But her mother’s moods were more volatile than the weather, and she could not risk the rest of her day with the consequences of not listening. 

When she arrived home, the teakettle was no longer crying and the books rested on the shelves. Her sister Fanny, as redheaded and tanned as their mother, sat at the kitchen table. Hands folded, legs crossed. For once, her lips were clenched tight. Their mother sat to Fanny’s right. She grinned, her eyes were wide and shiny,almost feral.

“While out doing the shopping we discovered quite the sight in the town’s square.” Their mother’s hair was poofed out. Rose could imagine her yanking and tugging at her own hair, plagued by one of her dark thoughts. “And what did we discover, dear Rose?” She paused for dramatic effect and raised her eyebrows. Her forehead was without the lines earned by others her age. “A lioness.”

It was Rose’s turn to raise her eyebrows. Lions were not a native species of their land; sure, they could be found in enclosures and sometimes as pets, but their native land was a vast journey from there. 

Their mother leaned forward, forearms on the table. “She was guarding the well.”

Interesting, indeed. A great well filled the square of their village, bringing people from miles away. Men lounged there on the weekends, smoking their cigars and enjoying the coolness emanating from its depths. Rose flicked her eyes to Fanny, who shook her head. Although a vapid gossip, Rose and Fanny could still communicate as only sisters could: with their eyes. And Fanny’s eyes said: run, now.

But Rose couldn’t. Fanny knew that. So she waited for whatever their mother would bestow. 

“And when I saw that lioness, I said to Fanny, well she must be thirsty. The men had prodded at her with fire pokers. She only growled and didn’t speak, so it’s not like she was going to curse us.” Laughter burst from her, fast-paced and frantic. “So, Fanny drew water from the well and after the lioness drank deeply,she spoke.”

Their mother looked to Fanny now for the first time during this story, her story. “And what did she say to you dear?”

Fanny shook her head.

“Oh, none of that. Don’t be shy, show your sister.”

Rose’s stomach turned, the same feeling she got after eating a bad berry from the woods. Fanny’s eyes shined, her lips turned down. She lifted a hand underneath her chin, perhaps to catch her tears. And yet, she still spoke. “She said, ‘I grant you the gift of precious words.’” 

Rose froze. With every word from her sister’s mouth, a precious green emerald fell from her lips. She caught them in the hand underneath her chin, as glittering as a field of grass blessed with morning dew.

“Oh, Fanny.” Rose’s voice was solemn. That was the curse of witchery: even blessings made terrible, wicked webs of people’s lives. How could she find a true husband or a true friend from this moment onward? Every person would be a potential conspirator.

“Don’t ‘oh, Fanny,’ her!” Their mother pounded her hand on their table. “This is fabulous news. We’re rich! We’re set for life! And now–” their mother stood, her presence suddenly taking up the entire cottage– “it’s your turn.” 

Rose saw her own future, and it was bleak. Her mother raised a fist. “If you do not return with a gift like your sisters, you will wish that the lioness had eaten you. Her teeth tearing flesh from your living bones would be a blessing compared to your fate if you come home empty-handed to me.”

Rose looked at the floor during this monologue. There was no use in arguing; she had learned that through belts and wooden planks years ago. Wordlessly, she hugged her sister and hurried to the door, head down all the while.

She all but ran to the well. The village’s cottages were bursting with people. Doors open, music playing. They were both celebrating and hiding from the lioness’s presence, and undoubtedly retelling Fanny’s story. Rose feared for her like a mouse caught in a trap. People would do anything for money, and now Fanny was money incarnate. 

The music tapered and the doors were closed tight as she got closer to the village square. The sound of her boots echoed on the dirt street, bouncing off walls and windows in the emptiness. As she entered the square, the lioness rested on the edge’s well. Rose quieted her prey instinct to run, run, run from this natural predator. Her heart raced ferociously, but she continued forward. The lioness’s head rested on her front paws, but her eyes stalked Rose’s movements just the same.

Rose squared her shoulders and lifted her head. If she were to die, she would at least do it with dignity. 

Stopping before the steps, Rose curtsied while her heart raced. “Dear lioness, may I offer you a drink from the well?”

The lioness’ laugh was a snarl. “You wish the life of your sister, dear one?”

The lioness’s knowledge did not surprise Rose.“I wish not the curse she has, but a gift for the land instead.” She regretted it immediately, afraid of the retribution of her word choice.

But the lioness nodded. “As you wish.”

Rose took the stairs one at a time, fearing the swipe of a paw or a piercing of canines, but neither events came to pass. Walking past the lioness calmed her. She could only navigate the life that fate granted her. She picked up an abandoned bucket and set it in the well’s contraption, wheeling it down, down, down into the deep dark. After minutes of only the lioness’s heady panting, the bucket arose full of water. She lifted it, grateful for strong arms and a stronger backbone, then offered it to the lioness.

The lioness drank deep and long. When the bucket was empty, she spoke. “What do you value more: yourself or your safety?”

Rose considered this, remembering her donkey’s riddle from this morning. The answer bloomed in her heart and parted from her lips. “Myself.”

The lioness inclined her head. “Then go, and bless the earth with my gifts.”

Rose left as she came, her footsteps once again echoing. She felt no different than before. She wondered at the gift the lioness gave her but kept her mouth clenched until she entered her family’s cottage.

Her mother leapt to her feet as she entered. “Dear Rose, how did it go?”

Rose smiled with no teeth. What did she value more: herself, or her safety?

She allowed her lips to spread, her teeth to show. “It went wonderfully.” 

She watched with delight at her mother’s horror as a small frog sprung from her lips with each word. 

Her mother screamed, Fanny giggled.

“This is no blessing!” roared their mother. She lifted her fist, and for the first time in her life, Rose lifted her own in countenance. 

“It is a blessing,” she said, frogs flopping to the floor and hopping away, “for the land, for us, for the village. And your fists will not stop it.” 

Rose stepped forward, her mother stepped back. Her mother raised her arm, as if to protect herself. “You can’t disobey me.”

“I can do whatever I want.” Rose walked past her mother, who cowered at her uplifted fist, and opened their back door. The door that led to the woods. The frogs hopped out of it. Frogs to heal, frogs to mend.

Rose looked up to see Fanny stepping beside her, for once not hiding. “It’s time you go, Mother. You’re not welcome here anymore.” With an outstretched hand, Fanny caught the emeralds and held them to their mother. “This is our parting gift to you. Do not bother us, do not return.”

In shock, Rose watched their mother gather a small bag of her things, For once, she did not throw a fit or a fist. She left, a shadow of herself, making haste toward the woods.

From that day, their back door stayed open. Their cottage became one with the woods, open to animals and plants alike. As the woods healed, so did the wounds of the sisters. They grew old together, never condemning themselves to a life of marriage, but instead, one of sisterly bliss.

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