Angels

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The air smells like antiseptic in the hospital tents. Men lie in rows along the canvas walls and listen to the war waging outside, barely a mile away. So close. So very close that sometimes the gunfire and thunder of the bombs shake the walls. I don’t have enough bandages for them all. Their shirts and trousers, their hair and boots, all of it is stained in blood, and we are running out of bandages.

The air smells of antiseptic and pain. Blood, smoke, gunpowder. I can smell them all. And I want to run away.

A man grabs my hand as I walk past him. His face is stained with blood and the soot of the battlefields, and his eyes are wild with fever. I’m so afraid of them, all of them. The soldiers. Their uniforms are never the same color, never the same style. Men from different armies, different lives, different countries. We try not to see the flags they wear on their shoulders or their breasts and treat who they bring us. It doesn’t matter anyway. This close to death, there are no countries, no different nations. There are only people. Hurting, terrified people.

“I saw angels in here last night,” he tells me. His voice is slurred with pain.

I take his hand off my arm, press his fingers. Comfort him. There are no angels here. Only us. The nurses, the doctors. Outside a war wages and demons run. But here they see angels.

Garden Faeries

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I leave a handful of seeds outside my garden gate when I plant in the spring.

The faeries don’t like it if I forget them. They like to plant their own little gardens, sometimes beneath my flowerpots, sometimes under the porch in the front yard where the light is dim and the mice leave their little droppings. The faeries don’t like it when I forget. If I do, they’ll take their own seeds when my plants are grown. They climb the stalks of the tall sunflowers and pry seeds out of the bobbing heads, they burrow into my pumpkins and squash and leave holes after they’ve dragged their prizes out. I’ve caught them a few times at such games, but I don’t have the heart to scold them for long. They look so funny with pumpkin goop in their fiery hair and smeared on their little faces. They try to hide the seeds when I catch them, but pumpkins seeds are so large, almost bigger than they themselves are. They never manage it.

But I am never cross.

I like them in my gardens. They dig the potatoes for me, because I tell them that we are digging for treasure that the moles have buried. They tickle my geraniums, tease my peas, pick my beans. They like my bird bath best of all. They chase the sparrows and chickadees away when they want to have a wash, usually in the early morning or late evening when I am working in the beds.

I scold them, but I don’t mind. Not really. I like them in my gardens.

Spices

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We open the stall before dawn turns the eastern sky pink. Grandfather pushes the metal door up until it disappears, and I sweep the floor and tidy the booths. The spices have spilled in the night, only a little, a dusting of red here, yellow there. I sweep them into the street and watch the colors mingle with the dust.

He tells me stories about the spices while we work. About how the gods used the turmeric to paint the sunsets yellow, how they stole a little chili pepper for the tiger lilies to make them darker. I love his stories. I’ve heard them a hundred times, a thousand, even, but I love to hear them.

Someday, he tells me, he’ll be gone, and I’ll tell the stories.

The customers come once the sun is high overhead. Grandfather rolls out the awning, sets out his chair, and fans himself. Heat rises in shimmers from the cobbled roadway, and the women come with their baskets, the men with their coins.

And the children, with their wide eyes.

The adults come to buy our spices, to hear the news from the city, but the children come for my grandfather’s stories. He tells them while he selling the cumin, the turmeric, the garlic, and the pepper. Stories of where they came from, the people he haggled with, the sights he saw. The stories are all made up, every one of them, but no one minds. They come for his stories as much as the spices, and I listen hard. Someday, I will sell the spices. Someday, the stories will be mine.

Smuggler’s Camp

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The trucks come rumbling into our camp, dust rising in their wake. The beds are full of boxes and men with guns on their backs, and I run to meet them, praying to whatever god might listen that Fetch is with them. I’m always worried he won’t come back. He almost didn’t once. They dragged him in with blood on his face and his side all bandaged and bloody. It took him three weeks to get back on his feet.

I worry every time he leaves now.

But he’s with the trucks, and he smiles when he sees me. He jumps down from the truck and ruffles my hair, shoving my hat down over my eyes. “There you are, little brother. I told you I’d be back.”

He’s not really my brother. They found me on the desert after my father threw me out, almost dead with thirst and barely strong enough to stand on my own two feet. Fetch tells me I tried to put up a fight, even then, but I don’t remember. All I remember is waking up on his camp bed, and him giving me what was left of his dinner. I’ve been his little brother ever since.

I run over to the trucks and clamber up on the tire, climbing until I can see what they brought back. Boxes and bundles are stacked two or three high in the bed. It must have been a good run, though when I ask how it went Fetch only says it was all right, and it isn’t any of my business. He always says that. I’m going to join them in the trucks when I’m old enough, but he won’t tell me anything now. He says I have to be sixteen first.

It seems like a long time to wait.

Gypsy

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The fires bring them. Light blossoms into the sky, brighter than the stars, red as the flowers that grow along the roadside, and the people gather towards its flames as if we’d spent our throats and our lungs calling for them.

We’re dancing already when arrive. My skirts billow around my bare legs, and I lift my hands to the skies, the song the men beat on the drums thrumming in my blood like a second heartbeat. Tonight, we dance for the stars.

The villagers come from every direction to watch us. We’re not allowed inside the city, within the walls were the soldiers walk, but out here we may pitch our tents and light our fires as we please. They gather from the city, from the village, from outlying hamlets and solitary huts, and our light warms their cold hearts.

The children love it best. Their little faces are lit up with joy, and they shove through the crowds to watch the dances, to watch the jugglers and the firebreathers, to see the bears and the jackals we bring with us. I watch them as they come, searching for the ones with bruises on their faces and their thin arms, the ones that flinch when an adult touches them. Those are the ones we’ll take, spiriting away into the night as if they’d never been. They’ll learn to juggle, to tame the animals, to do tricks and make people laugh, and for once they’ll be free of the abuse that fills their world.

Winter Nights

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The wind is howling. I can hear it outside the hut, whistling among the rocks. Blowing snow. It’s the first real storm of the winter, and night has come to the lands surrounding us. The sun won’t rise again for six months.

We’ll be waiting, when it does.

The firelight throws shadows onto the hide walls around us. Embers pop, spewing sparks across the floor. One of the dogs is in my lap, his thick fur warming my thighs. The women are sewing, the men, repairing their nets, sharpening the bone spears they take out hunting. The storm is outside, but peace reigns among our family. We are used to the cold, to wind, to the winter months, and the darkness. We are ready for it.

The only thing missing is the stories.

Grandmother used to tell them. The children would gather around her, all her many grandchildren, and she would fill the hut with her stories. Gesturing, throwing shadows up on the walls, her eyes wide. They always listened. The stories wiled away the dark hours, took us places that were not frozen and black as the sky outside. I loved her stories.

But she left us when summer was high, and her grave marks the western cliffs. No one tells stories now. The mothers are too busy, the fathers too preoccupied.

Only I miss them. Her oldest granddaughter, the one who never married. Who loved her stories best.

I take a deep breath, my hands trembling a little, and say, “Do you know that when the wind howls like this, it is thinking of the one it loves best?”

The children look at me. Already intrigued. I smile at them. “It’s lover lives among the stars, and it must shout to be heard.”

Ivy

pexels-photo-38136Don’t step on the leaves.

I repeat it to myself over and over again. Don’t step on the leaves. Don’t step on the leaves.

The forest floor is bare, as bare as if fire has swept through in the last few days. The ground is dark, black as coal, and ivy clings to the trees. Draping from the branches, winding around the dead trunks, the bare twigs. Clinging to the bark. They’re all dead, all of them. Every tree in this forest. The only green is from the ivy.

Only the ivy is still alive.

It sensed me as soon as I stepped beneath the first trees. Long tendrils reached out, brushing against my hair, winding around my ankles, my wrists, then letting me loose again. It was knew I was coming. The gift I brought it is in my hands; its vines move out of my way as I walk.

Don’t step on the leaves.

I stop beside an old oak. It’s hollow now, the life sucked out of it by the clinging ivy. I kneel down beside the dead trunk and dig a hole in the sooty ground, planting the sapling I brought. It shivers as its roots touch the ground, and when I’ve planted it and covered the roots with dirt again the ivy attacks. Winding around its slender trunk, engulfing the thin branches. The sapling shudders, already dying. I step back, say aloud, “I brought it! Let him go now.”

A whole second passes. Then two. I count my own heartbeats. Then a tangled knot of vines and leaves beside the trunk unravels, and Luther scrambles out. He has a cut on his cheek, and his eyes are wide. But he’s alive. I take his hand, and we run.

Don’t step on the leaves.