Muzi’s Boon by Drema Deòraich

I was an old woman when our elders killed Bajhan.

Even so, I remembered my first Flowering. My ama and I rose before the sun and walked the long road to Bajhan. Ama sang the story of the festival and of Liyan, a gaiad who rose from the Earth to bestow abundance on our people. She showed me the dance steps there, on the path wet from night rains. She sang of the magic of the Flowering, of the work that would ensue, of the villagers who traveled from all around our region to see Liyan. She explained the lottery to select those lucky few who, once and only once in their lives, could petition Liyan for favors.

Bajhan still lay in torchlit darkness when we arrived. In my six seasons, I had never seen so many people. Ama lifted me to her shoulder so I could see better. Other children sat atop their amas, too. We waved in the flickering light. Scents of wet earth, penned animals, and morning hearth smoke filled the expectant square. Excitement prickled the back of my neck.

The moment the sun’s first rays touched the square, Liyan appeared as if brought by the light. A great cry went up and the people pressed forward. I gawked from afar at her strange beauty. Tree-green skin curved in ripe promise around full breasts, belly, and hips. The rich, loamy smell of her wafted through the crowd while she surveyed us all with amber eyes that seemed lit from within. Tangled tresses as brown as my arms sprouted flowers that bobbed with every nod of her head. Tiny spotted beetles, honeybees, and butterflies flew and crawled through the thickness of that rooty mane. Her smile gleamed like sunlight on water.

We stayed in the square all day. Drummers pounded rhythms while we sang and danced with our people. When the shadows grew long, Ama pointed.

“Look, Muzi,” she said, and I did. Every roof bore vines now bursting with flowers where none had bloomed that morning. It was Liyan’s special blessing, Ama said. I knew that flowers meant fruit, and fruit meant food for our bellies, but it was many seasons before I understood that the others didn’t come just for the blossoms. They came for Liyan’s boons.

I attended every Flowering after that, along with all the villagers that lived in scattered groups as far out as the edges of our territory. Children I’d waved to that first festival grew as I did. Together we learned to contribute to Bajhan’s well-being by tending the herds and fields that fed us, or the waterways from which humans and animals alike drank. Our elders taught us of the wider community of villages, how we were connected by more than roads.

Through it all Ama wove Liyan’s message: that every living thing was part of a larger whole, that we must work together, live in balance with our people and with the land if we are to thrive. Sometimes we talked at our own hearth, far from central Bajhan, and she showed me how to leave offerings of food for the wildlings or libations of clean water at the beginning of every meal. Sometimes we sang while we worked with others in the square to prepare shared stores for the whole region. Simple lessons—how to make flour, bake bread, pound raw fibers for rope and, as my skill improved, for thread—evolved into the understanding that we worked not just for ourselves but to help those in need due to illness, injury, old age.

As Ama aged, it fell to me to barter with traveling merchants. I learned to trade for seed or salt, strange leathers and textiles from far lands, pouches made by someone else’s hand, even—once—a rare glass bead forged in Sahai, the southern desert. I still wear that trinket around my neck. As green as Liyan’s skin, it was a birthing gift to my only child, a daughter whose life winked out before she was even named. I could not bring myself to burn the bead along with her body. Its shine reminds me of her sweet face.

I never had another babe. Liyan could have provided, but I did not ask. The sight of villagers crowding her at every Flowering to beg selfish boons turned my stomach. She already fed our people, plumped our animals, swelled our numbers. She brought the Flowering and the festival where we celebrated the rains and their riches. Her very presence spread joy and fortune.

Some people, I thought then, were never satisfied.

But hindsight brings clarity. How easy it is to see weakness in others and ignore it in ourselves. None of us are immune, though sometimes realization comes late. I know. The last time I saw Liyan, age hung from my shoulders like a tunic of stone that bent my back and knobbed my knees.

The Flowering was seven suns gone when I heard the first buzz of rumor—bored lips will spew fancy—at a roadside barter near my home where I searched the trader’s wares for a new net to string across the channel. My fingers, gnarled and swollen, could no longer make my own.

“Is it true?” one of the others asked. “Liyan did not leave after the festival?”

Their words snagged my attention.

“Yes,” another bragged, “our elders convinced her to stay and gave her a house.”

“I heard she barters boons every day, even to those she’s already favored, if they bring seeds, or beans, or cured meat.”

Liyan could make her own beans, I thought. Seeds, too. And I had never seen her eat anything. Why would she want cured meat?

“I’ll request a bigger yield in my home garden,” said one, “so I may trade for silk.”

“I’ll petition for a pretty man,” said another, to the titters of her friends.

The third, a woman on the greying side of youth, pressed a hand to her back. “I want fewer stones in the community fields on plowing day.”

My own limbs twinged at the memory of those aches, and I thought perhaps that, at least, was an understandable request. The rest…

I shook my head and turned back to my task.

I did not have time to dwell on the matter. The sun dallied longer after the Flowering. Chores kept me busy. I adjusted my nets, cleared away clogging pollen, petals, or feathers from the channel. In my small garden, even weeds flourished with Liyan’s abundance. I pulled away those that wouldn’t feed me or soothe my ills so they could not steal water and nourishment from the rest.

I enjoyed my comfortable routine and took pride in the fact that none of my budding harvest surrendered to rot or worms, as they had in seasons past. Every perfect blossom brought forth perfect melons or ears of grain or choya. I spent their bounty in my mind, dreamed of what pleasant benefit they would buy, before ever plucking them.

But it wasn’t only my garden that flourished. The pain in my back and knees disappeared along with the knobs on my knuckles. My fingers once more twisted thread. Skin on my face and neck smoothed. Grey faded from my hair and I let it grow past my ears. My breasts and hips swelled to fullness and I stood straighter than I had in many seasons. My dry womb bled once more as if it, too, were in full flower. I wondered at this mystery until passing merchants looked twice at me squatting in my garden, my tunic pulled high on my legs. The yearning in their faces aroused long-forgotten fires that smoldered deep in my belly until I took one of the smooth-talking men to my bed in a raging heat.

Life sweetened, ripened on its vine. The sun turned toward waning, yet night rains continued to wet the garden. I should have noticed. Instead, I embraced the marvel as I embraced the merchants who passed through like honey wine. Perhaps the villagers were right. I should ask Liyan for the second child I’d always wanted. It wouldn’t be greedy of me, I thought. After all, I had never asked a single boon. Perhaps it was my turn to do so. I stoked the embers of my desire while I sang the old songs and danced through my usual tasks, until an oddity in my channel net seized my eye and yanked me to a full stop.

There were no leaves in its catch.

After the abundance of the Flowering comes the Fading. Rains cease. Water levels drop in ponds and channels. Dust coats everything. The whole region smells dry, acrid. Wildlings migrate. Insects burrow into sleep until the rains return. Trees and shrubs along the waterway shift from green to brown to bare. Every Fading begins with leaves that clog our waterways.

Yet there, before me, my net held only feathers, pollen, petals.

I sat back on my heels, shielded my eyes to look at the sky. The sun had moved north, away from Bajhan. The Fading should be here by now, and still the channel was full. Banks of the channel smelled wet, juicy. Rainbow-winged faery flies darted along the water’s surface, snatching meals that should have moved on a full moon cycle ago. Maybe two. Wadi birds sat their nests, tended their broods instead of following the sun. How many clutches had the hens raised already? I’d lost count.

I looked away, denied what my eyes beheld. I told myself it was nothing. That I should be happy for this abundance so late in my life. Even so, a pall—a wrongness—dulled the shine of flitting wings and sparkling water. That night I slept alone and tossed through uneasy dreams.

The sun crossed the sky seven times more. I watched. Kept track. Turned away the men with sweet songs. Nothing changed in my garden or in the channel. Flowers budded. Fruits formed. Wadis crowded the banks with their nests. In the darkness before the eighth sun’s rising, I strapped a basket of beans to my back and set off for the village square.

I arrived in Bajhan by early light, my feet fine even after so many steps and so fast a pace. The square was full to bursting, villagers clamoring to trade with merchants who winked my way. A line of petitioners wound through, among them an elder I’d seen on his deathbed just before the Flowering. He looked many seasons younger.

As did I.

My beans bought a place among those waiting to see Liyan. Around me, people gossiped and chattered. I squinted at the many unfamiliar faces. Strangers? Here? Hard enough for those in Bajhan to accept a new merchant who brought trade. How had so many outsiders landed in our square with no complaints from the Bajhanese?

The sun passed its peak and we petitioners crept forward like a rhin cat stalking prey. Men whose pates had reflected the sunlight before the Flowering now flaunted curls and braids that hung past their ears. Women passed by with bellies round as shiro melons, their babes only a moon or two away from a birthing. So many! How would we feed them all? But homes skirting the square supported vines as thick and productive as mine. New flowers bloomed even now. What must the village fields look like? Abundant enough for this leap in our numbers?

Perhaps I quaked at shadows. If Liyan truly intended to stay, she could provide.

By the time I reached the beginning of the line, torches lit the square. Village spokesmen came, turned away the person behind me, and those behind him. Come back tomorrow, they said. The petitioners left, grumbling. I waited, shifting on now-tired feet.

At last, the woman before me emerged from her audience, and the guardian beckoned to me. I approached, unsure what to expect. In all my seasons beneath the sun, I had never seen Liyan at arm’s length. I ducked beneath the door’s drape and stepped inside.

Two stools, a table and a dingy cot sat in the house. The table held guttering candles and untouched food and water. One stool awaited me. The other held Liyan. Her head rested in her hands, elbows braced against her knees. Hanks of her hair hung grey against yellowed skin. Butterfly and beetle corpses littered the floor around her feet. Nearby, the candle’s light shone on a ring forged of metal that protruded from the floorboards, its circle clamped through links in a chain like the merchants sometimes bartered for the herds. A rank, sweet-sour stench of rot twisted my stomach.

Liyan raised her head, shifted on her seat. Bands of metal around her ankles clanged link against link in the chains. But it was her face that trapped my breath in my throat.

Cheeks I remembered as ripe now sunk into the hollows between her bones. In the square, her eyes had gleamed like honey in the sun. Here, they peered from dark circles that spread like fungus across her skin. Blue-black veins webbed her sallow neck and she sagged, reed-thin, in the gloom. Separated from the earth that enlivened her, Liyan had withered just the same as any uprooted plant.

“Oh,” I sighed, and sank onto my stool. “How could you let this happen?”

She smiled with a trace of her former radiance. “How could I not? My purpose is to fulfill.”

“Yes, but…” No words felt adequate. I gestured at her sorry state. “They’re killing you.”

She closed her eyes, her smile that much sweeter. “They don’t see,” she murmured, then looked into my face. I stared back as if observing a strange insect, and she laughed, a sound like the tinkle of water on stones.

“They’ve spoiled the balance,” she said, “soured the gift. Someone—gifter or gifted—must bear the price.”

As she did now. Her words buzzed in my ears like the bees that once lived in her hair, while her desiccated form whispered an answer to the mystery in my net. Her vibrance bought the boons she’d granted while tied here like an animal in a pen. As long as she stayed, the Flowering could not end.

She sighed. “What is your desire?”

I frowned. How could I ask anything now? I shook my head, opened my mouth to decline, but—

I’d never wanted to be like the others, so selfish and near-sighted, yet faced with the fulfillment of any whim I could conceive, I hesitated. Liyan sat motionless, bereft. Her death hovered in the rafters, its claim written in a thousand separate details. I did not need a Seer to know this would be my only chance.

Words crowded my throat. A longer life filled with ripe gardens and hungry men in my bed. Another daughter, a healthy one who would bear daughters of her own and outlive me by many seasons. Ceaseless Flowerings and a village full of children to carry on the work Bajhan had always done. I teetered atop my stool, swaying between one desire and another.

The doorkeeper muttered outside the curtain. My time was almost up. Wishes grappled behind my lips, each struggling to emerge first.

I stretched out my hand.

She seized my fingers with her own and murmured, “Tell me.”

Words leaped from my mouth before I could stop them and it was done.

Attendants passed me on my way out, bringing fresh food and water for Liyan. Too drained to trek home, I curled up on a bench at the far side of the square and wept until sleep took me.

The moon had gone, but darkness still rode the dry square when the commotion awoke me and set my heart racing. I sat up. Shouting guards charged out of Liyan’s hut. Elders came running, crowded inside. A moment later, they reappeared, eyes wide.

My bench sat too far away to hear their babbling, but word passed down the line of petitioners already forming across the open space.

“Liyan is gone!”

“Disappeared in the night!”

“Spirited away by a rival village!”

Their words prickled the skin of my arms at the thought of conflict with our neighbors, though I knew our men would never take up weapons against other men. I’d also known our elders were wise leaders who would never ask more of Liyan than she could give. Knowledge is not always a certainty.

The petitioners railed among themselves, then turned on the elders. Give us back our beans, they said. We want our cured meats, they demanded.

I left the square behind. By the time I got home, heat drew sweat in tickling dribbles down my neck. I wiped at them with aching fingers and stopped in the door to press a hand to that old familiar ache in my hip. I ignored my needy garden and rested in the cool shade of my house.

Six full moons have passed since then. Another Flowering came and went, but the rains did not reappear. Neither did Liyan. Layers of dust settled on my table and rose in clouds wherever I stepped. Fruits shriveled on every vine. Blight passed like wildfire from one garden to another until even the communal fields shriveled. Sickness took some of the Bajhanese, and most of those new babes did not survive their first sun. The pond and all our canals dried up, taking with them our fish and frogs. Sands from Sahai have begun to creep into our region. Every sun, more villagers pass my house on their way to somewhere else. What choice have they? Bajhan is dead. There is nothing for them here.

I watch, but do not join the exodus. My aches have returned, as has the grey in my hair and the slump in my shoulders. This sun’s rising finds me too tired even to stir from my bed. I lie in the quiet, seeing Liyan’s expression when I said, “I want you to go free.” I remember how her eyes closed, hear the sob that escaped her lips. I see again the tears that rained from behind her lids when she whispered, “It shall be so.”

I’ve doubted my decision more than once, cursed myself for sacrificing the village that raised me, along with my last chance for a boon. But my heart knows the truth. I did not kill Bajhan. Our elders doomed it the moment they set shackles around Liyan’s feet. I wonder, sometimes, whether Sahai once held a village. Whether its people demanded more of their gaiad than she could give until she, then they, died.

Liyan escaped that fate. I like to think she is blessing a new village where the inhabitants are content with her periodic visits. One where the people will not take until there is nothing left.

As for me, my garden is wasted, my vines languished, my suns all but gone. No more merchants fill my bed, and I am content with that. There is nothing left but to sleep.

I hope to dream of Liyan.

Drema Deòraich primarily focuses on speculative fiction, though she does make the occasional jaunt into literary fiction and essays about Life, the Universe, and Everything. Her work has appeared in online publications for Silver Blade, Entropy, and Across the Margin, and will soon appear in Mithila Review and Asymmetry. Drema is a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of Hampton Roads, and attends semi-regular classes at the Muse Writers Center. She loves chocolate and Brussels sprouts in equal measure, and lives in Norfolk, Virginia, with her husband, two orange floofballs, and all her other characters. Her blog and book reviews can be found at her website.