The grizzled, grey man hobbled along the village street, his head bent, back bowed. Samra watched him with a wary eye and huddled closer to Mama as they sat on the stoop shelling peas together. Mama’s hands worked endlessly, and she barely needed to follow her actions with her eyes. Samra was not so dexterous. Her hands slowed as her eyes followed the old man as he shuffled along. His gait was slow and rolling, as if one leg was shorter than the other.
“Samra, stop staring. Concentrate on your task, child,” Mama chided.
“I’m sorry, Mama.” Samra turned her attention back to her bowl of peas, throwing the shells into the scrap bucket. But she couldn’t resist the lure of the stranger as he shuffled along. He was a mystery, and Samra had never encountered a mystery so great before. The mystery of the missing eggs, the puzzle of the purloined pies. They were the daily mysteries in the village. Strangers wandering in from the outside, well, that had never occurred before, not in Samra’s memory.
The man seemed to know exactly where he was going too, as he unerringly hobbled to Grantik’s Tavern. Grantik made the best stewed pheasant and from aromas wafting from the tavern, he was in the process of preparing tonight’s meal. Samra’s stomach growled in futile anticipation. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t be dining at Grantik’s Tavern anytime soon. Mama kept her hands tightly fisted around her coins, and she refused to part with them for no good reason. Thus, Samra was shelling peas for tonight’s dinner. Peas and potatoes and carrots. At least she didn’t have to dig them up from the garden too. That had been her brother Jasper’s chore this morning.
Mama gathered all the peas into her bowl and Samra swept the shells into a pail for the chickens and trudged toward the small coup at the back of the house. The chickens loved the scraps and clucked excitedly as she approached.
“Hello, Henny,” Samra clicked her tongue as the speckled brown hen bustled towards her clucking and warbling with excitement. “Have you any eggs today?” Once there were eight hens, but now there was just Henny and two white hens that Samra could never tell apart. When the hens stop laying, Mama made chicken stew. Samra threw the scraps, and the three hens scurried about madly while she laughed at their scrambling antics.
“Your hens are well fed and content,” a raspy voice interrupted her glee. She turned to see the grey man, his deep-set eyes shadowed by his hood, watching her intently.
Startled, Samra gasped and stepped back. “Who? Where?” She wasn’t sure what she wanted to ask, and her lips seemed to stumble as they tried to form words.
“Grantik sent me over here. Said the best bread for the noon meal was found here.”
Samra pinched her lips together. Something was very odd, very wrong. Grantik would never send anyone away without feeding him and collecting coins from him first. And never would he say that Mama’s bread was better than his own.
“Samra!” Mama called from the back door, and the grey man whipped his head around to look. Samra didn’t like the way he stared at Mama, as if she were a meal and he had been starving his whole life. Mama was pretty. Her hair was long, bound in a twist at the back of her neck, but tendrils always found their way out. She looked like a fairy or a sprite until you got closer and saw the lines that worry had carved into her face. Over the last few years, men had looked at Mama this way, like she was more than a mama, and Samra had not liked it. Mama didn’t like it either, and she gave them all a short shrift, told them to look away and not come back.
“Samra, do not idle away. Come inside this instant, there are chores to be done,” Mama scolded, but she didn’t look at Samra as she spoke. Her wary eyes never left the stranger. “Sir, please walk on. Grantik has lodging and food. You’ll find naught of that sort here.”
“Grantik has sent me here,” the stranger said in his raspy voice. “He said you might have bread for a weary traveler.”
“Grantik is mistaken. I’ve nothing to share.”
“Mistress Pen.” He spoke Mama’s name in such a way, low and sure, like an earthly rumble, that Samra’s breath caught in her throat.
“Lyssis?” Mama spoke the unfamiliar name with a voice robbed of sound, all air and surprise. “Samra, run along to Grantik and ask him for a loaf of bread,”
“But we have bread,” Samra argued.
“Be a good girl, now, and follow your Mama’s instructions,” the grey man said, his own eyes fixed intently upon Mama. Samra didn’t like it, didn’t like to be told what to do by a stranger, but Mama shooed her away.
As she trudged through the back path that wound is way past the cottages to Grantik’s tavern, she muttered and cursed to herself. If Mama had heard her, she would have washed Samra’s mouth with soap. She had learned these words from Jasper, and she kept them close inside her head, ready for use, if the need arose. This was a need. She should have never left Mama alone with the stranger, and curse words would help the situation, or at least that’s what Jasper had said when she questioned him about them.
“Sometimes the only thing that helps are these words, Sammy,” he’d said. “Sometimes, if you don’t let ‘em out, then the problems get too big. But you shouldn’t use them yet. Your problems are not big enough.” Samra figured that having a stranger in her house was the biggest problem she had ever had, and so perhaps now was the best time for the curse words.
“Wash your mouth, sister!”
Samra jumped in surprise. Jasper was sitting on Old Widow Jenkins back fence, mending what appeared to be a rabbit trap. He’d been so quiet, or she was so distracted by her curse words, that she hadn’t noticed him sitting there.
“Oh, Jas. The problem is big enough for curse words, I promise.”
“Well, if you promise, it must be so.” Jasper smiled at her. He was big, nearly a man, and to her small eyes, he was perfect. He would have the solutions to all her problems, so she told him about the grey man and Mama.
“The vagrant is with Mama now?” he asked.
Samra wasn’t sure what a vagrant was, but she nodded vigorously, figuring the vagrant and the grey man were one and the same.
“Come, I will move him on.”
Samra followed her brother back through the village paths to the front of their cottage garden. As they approached, they could hear Mama sobbing. Jasper, nearly a man and quite ferocious, grasped the garden fork and pounded along the front path to burst through the door yelling some kind of battle cry, or perhaps they were new curse words that Samra hadn’t heard before. Either way, he was an impressive sight as she followed close behind.
The grey man spun about to face Jasper’s attack, his eyes wide as he threw his hand up to protect his face from the flying fork.
“Jasper, no!” Mama cried. There was chaos, as two bodies collided and the grey man fell, tumbling and flailing into the back wall, with Jasper’s big, burly body pinning him in place.
“Jasper?” the stranger croaked, eyes wide.
Silence. As if at that moment the world suddenly stopped, all the sounds outside the room ceased to exist. The pounding of her heart was louder than anything else, and Samra was too afraid to even breathe.
The garden fork clattered to the ground, breaking the silence, as Jasper scrambled back from the stranger.
“But you’re dead!” His voice barely made a sound, almost inaudible over the pounding of Samra’s heart.
“No, not dead. Although sometimes I have wished it.” The stranger’s husky voice carried worlds of sadness.
“Where have you been, then? Why did you leave?”
“That is a story for another time. I have returned. Is that not enough for now?”
“Mama?” Samra felt the edge of her world begin to fall away. It was not a good feeling, as if she didn’t quite fit anymore. She preferred her world straight and neat, and this man didn’t seem to belong, yet neither Mama nor Jasper were fixing it. They had both said they wanted the man to go, to move on and leave them alone, but it was like he had bespelled them both.
“Samra, this is your Papa,” Mama said, her voice quiet, with only a hint of a tremble.
“My Papa?” Samra barely remembered Papa, but this man was not him. Papa was large and golden. His voice boomed, his arms strong, and he laughed with his eyes and mouth. This man was smaller and grey, with an empty voice that rasped through his words. “No, he’s not my Papa.”
“Samra, my sweet, you have grown so, since I left.”
“You are old!”
The man wheezed, a huff of air that may have been a laugh in another life. “It happens.” There was a sadness in his eyes. “I wasn’t fortunate in my travels. I met an old witch who promised me riches and fame and fortune, but she gave me this instead.” He held his aged hands out. They were gnarled, like tree branches shaking in a frigid wind.
“We never wanted riches,” Mama told him. It was not true. Mama complained daily about not making ends meet, which, to Samra’s limited understanding, meant that there were never enough riches for the things they wanted. “We only wanted you to be here.” Another lie, Samra thought in confusion. She had never once heard Mama mention Papa after he had left.
Mama wiped the tears from her face and straightened to her full height. She wasn’t a tall woman, but at that moment, she seemed to grow larger than anyone. “You always wanted more, Lyssis. We were never enough as we were.” There was pain in her face, like the time when Jasper had lain in a fever and the medicine she had begged from the apothecary in exchange for her wedding band, seemed as though it would not bring about a miracle. Her face had that same worn, worried crease. “Now you are back, and I have another mouth to feed!”
“Pen, I only wanted to give you more, you and the children.”
“Gone five years. I have made do for five years, waiting for you!” Mama’s worry would often escape as anger. Jasper had gently explained this to Samra, after Mama had yelled at her when she had come home broken and bruised after falling from Farmer Perry’s barn loft. She had been petting the new kittens, upset that Mama had refused her permission to take one home as a pet. Now Mama hurled her anger at a new target and Samra and her brother scuttled backward, removing themselves from her range. They knew better than to stand firm before her. The old man, Papa, did not know this. He drew himself to his full height as he straightened his bent body, and the cloak of age fell from him.
“I am returned to you, Pen. It should be enough, but you see only what is now, you do not dream of possibilities. And for that, you are cursed to remain as you were.” Samra gasped the grey dripped from Papa, and he became golden and great, just as she remembered him. “I am cursed to be more.”
Magic was not unheard of. Samra had seen Old Nevill perform tricks by the fire, pulling coins from the air and making scarves dance and disappear. But the rippling glow that fell from her Papa’s shoulders was much more spectacular and she gasped silently.
“I am here to take you away with me, to the palace by the sea that awaits you, yet you harp on about your trivial troubles.”
“You have changed, Lyssis. What is more important to you? Your castle by the sea, or your family?”
“I want both.”
“And in the end, you will have none. What did you trade for this castle? What price did you pay?”
The magic sparkle melted away, and Papa stooped again, withered and grey. “My youth, I traded my youth so that my family may have more.”
“But all your family ever wanted was you.”
As the sun rose the next morning, a single traveler hobbled his way from the village. Samra stood by her window, wrapped up in her faded nightdress and threadbare blanket for warmth and watched him leave. Castles by the sea were all very well, and they would probably let her have kittens there, she thought sadly. But here was home, here was Mama. Sometimes the unknown was best left to itself, she thought. It was a curse to want more.