Alima Rodriguez had been wandering in the woods for days.
She carried a rucksack on a stick, in typical running-away style. She thought it would be romantic and cool, like in the movies, but it ended up sort of stupid. She couldn't pack anything useful in the damn thing.
Her hair was full of twigs and leaves. There was mud smeared over her shoes, burying the pink and torn string of her favorite Converse. She felt like she hadn't seen the sun for days, she was hungry, and she was pretty sure she'd collapse soon if she didn't sleep.
It was the happiest she'd felt for weeks.
Look at me! Look how miserable I am!
The path she was on took a sudden, sharp turn and suddenly, there, ahead, in front of her, was light, filtering through the trees, turning everything to green again. Light, glorious light.
Alima burst out of the trees and into the sunshine, into green fields stretching for miles under a perfectly blue sky. She could see a small village buried in the hills. Her heart swelled at the smell of butterflies (did butterflies have a smell? Maybe.) scenting the sunny air.
She could come here and make a life for herself. She’d go down to that village and they would take her in like a second skin. She’d learn their ways and know the names of everyone there. Someday, maybe, she’d get married and her children and her children’s children would pass on the story of their mother, who ran through hell to get to heaven (of course she might exaggerate) and who never looked back.
Take that, Mom. she thought. Take that, Dad, and Yahiya, and all you idiots who said I wouldn’t really do it. Well, I did, I left, and here I am.
Here I am.
She closed her eyes and breathed.
“Blimey, you’re a hot mess.”
She whipped her head around to the farmer sitting there, a few paces away. He was settled comfortably on a large stump and appeared to have been watching her the whole time.
“No offense, of course,” he added.
“Who are you?” she asked, then thought that sounded rude. This was no way to treat her future friend. He probably lived in the village over there and since that’s where she was going, she’d end up getting to know him. “I mean, who are you?” she asked, putting a cheerful lilt to her voice and a smile to her cheeks. It hurt.
He yawned, unimpressed by her cheeriness. “You don’t care.”
“That’s kind of a rude assumption. I do care or I wouldn't have asked.”
“Look,” he picked at his teeth with a long nail and spat something into the grass. “I’m sure you’re a real sweet little honey, but go back home. We don’t have a place for you here.”
She thought this conversation was taking an odd turn. Here she was, looking very much like she needed to be rescued, and here he was, not rescuing her. She set her bag down with an exaggerated grunt. “Excuse me, but I don’t have anywhere else to go. That’s why I came all the way out here.”
The man rolled his eyes. “All the way. You think you’re the first New Yorker I’ve seen a week from home?”
Alima crossed her arms, truly annoyed now by his attitude during her crisis. She looked him over, kind of hoping he was ugly. Ugly people were easier to talk to when they were annoying.
He had short, graying brown hair, and sea-green eyes crinkled by smiling. His skin was weatherbeaten and so brown he looked like an acorn (she’d seen a lot of those lately.) Unfortunately, the worst she could say was that his clothes were dirty and that he was acting very gross and rude.
The farmer watched her look him over with something close to amusement. “Are you done?” he asked.
Alima flushed slightly, then felt annoyed again.“Alright,” she snapped. “I’m sorry, but I did not come all this way to be insulted while I stand here gross and covered in mud like-- like a hoodlum, whatever that is. I realize I’m asking for your kindness, but I would really appreciate a warm bath and a decent meal and a night’s sleep where I’m not afraid of being stepped on by an owl or something. I’ve really-- I’ve really been through a lot.” She sniffled at the thought of her trauma and clapped a hand to her face to muffle the sound.
“Owl.” muttered the man. He scowled at her for a few moments.
Alima clasped her hands together, dropping her romantic little rucksack as she did. She didn’t beg, but her feet ached and desperate times called for desperate measures. “Please?” she whimpered.
The man sighed. “Look, I’m sure you’re very nice, but you don’t want to come to my village.”
“Oh, but I do.”
“You don’t. You really don’t. Tell me your name?”
“Alima.” She tossed her head back. “Alima Rodriguez.”
The man took his hat off his head and moved it between his fingers. “Alima, what’s your favorite food?”
“I don’t have one.”
“Okay, well…” The man considered a moment. “How about your favorite outfit or social media page or something?”
Ooh, a much better question. “I love Instagram. Love love love it. But Tiktok can be really fun too. And sometimes I go on Facebook so I can see what my college boyfriend is up to. Overall…” She tapped her chin. “Hmm. Instagram.”
“Anyway, Alima, what if you were on Instagram all the time? What if you couldn’t go on Tick-tock or Faceblock or whatever else you named? Instagram. Constantly. That was all you could do.”
“Hrm. Well, I guess I’d miss Tiktok but people are always posting their videos on Instagram anyway. And I could break up with my boyfriend…”
“Bad example.” The man shook his head. “How about this: Do you like chocolate cake?”
“Sure!” Alima perked up, remembering her birthday parties. There were always two: family and friends so she got twice the presents. And she always had a big, moist chocolate cake for both of them, made specially by a bakery near her house and decorated as nicely as a wedding cake. “It’s my favorite food!”
“Then why-- nevermind. What if you had to eat chocolate cake, every day, for the rest of your life? Never anything else, ever.”
“I’d get fat.”
“And sick of chocolate cake, right?”
Alima considered that. She was beginning to feel apprehensive. “I guess.”
“That’s right. You can get sick of anything if you eat it too much. I should know; I eat too many carrots. Every day, one after another, I eat carrots. I chop them, or boil them, or fry them, or bake them, or mash them. I’m so sick of the d*mn things I cry myself to sleep every night.”
“Why don’t you stop eating carrots?”
The man narrowed his green eyes at her. “I can’t. Nobody down there can. Though, of course, everyone’s situation is a little bit different.”
Alima’s mouth had gone dry and she swallowed. “How so?”
“Well for starters, Benny at the bookstore got potatoes, the lucky bastard. You can do plenty of stuff with potatoes-- fry, mash, bake-- and he can even have sweet potatoes without cheating. He got off easy compared to Mrs. Heckles. She has bread. She weighs four times as much as I do, and had to have custom doors fitted to her house. Pale as a sheet because of all the gluten she eats.
Jenny Parker has salmon and she hates fish. With every fiber of her being, she hates them. She makes a face every time she has to eat, so she doesn’t eat. She’s half the size of Mrs. Heckles’ arm. Her husband Jeremy got mushrooms, and I don’t think I need to say anything about that.”
“Wait,” said Alima. “So you’re all stuck eating one food? How is that even possible?”
He shrugged. “Legend goes that a witch was turned away one night during a storm, so she cast a spell on this place. Some people don’t believe in that, but seeing as none of us can age or die, I’d say the idea has roots.”
“Yep.” He sighed. “And we can’t leave. I mark the days until the end of eternity by scratching a knife into my knuckles.” He held out his hands, patterned with white scars. Alima shuddered.
She was silent for a moment. “So what if I went with you to your village? Would I be cursed, too?”
“Yes, very much so. But at least with newcomers, you can pick what you’re stuck with. The moment you eat anything in our village, you’re in the same boat as we are. Never aging, never dying, never cleansing your palate…”
“Can’t you just not eat?” Alima sat down on a nearby patch of earth. The desire not to dirty her clothes wasn’t as potent as it had been earlier.
“Nope. Witches’ curse ensures we’re in horrible pain unless we do eat.”
“That’s so awful,” Alima murmured.
“Well.” The man shrugged. “Always let witches in your house.”
She gazed at him in sympathy. This poor creature. Forever stuck, forever haunting the doorway of the woods that led to a better life. She wondered how many people he’d sent away, how many hadn’t listened and were stuck down there with him.
“You’re not lying to me, are you?”
The man shook his head. “I can’t tell a lie. I’m a completely honest person. It physically hurts me, when I’m not honest with somebody. I can promise I am not lying to you, now or ever.”
“Okay,” Alima whispered. She stood. She wasn’t staying here, that’s for sure. Back to the woods then. Back to…
I hated it there. But…
She looked at the man in front of her, with his sea-green eyes and sad, crinkled skin. Not crinkled by smiling, she knew that now. But my life’s not this.
“I’m very sorry,” she said. “I wish I could help.”
“There’s nothing you can do except go home.”
Alima picked up her stuff and walked over, back to the mouth of the trees. She stopped and looked over at him. “One last thing. If that witch, if there was one, turned up at your doors again, would you let her in?”
He didn’t hesitate. “Absolutely. I’d make her five courses, rub her feet, draw her a bath, and give her my bed to sleep in, if she needed to spend the night. I’m so sick of carrots, I’d chop off my arm if I could eat it instead.”
Alima nodded and disappeared into the woods on her way back home. Outside, the man sighed and shifted to face the trees, once again taking up the lonely position of sentry, guarding boys and girls against the misery of an eternity full of carrots. His stomach grumbled bitterly.
But inside the woods, Alima was skipping, smiling her way to her cottage, eager to rip off her disguise and see if Wendolin was as good as his word. She remembered those green eyes from her first visit to his village and frankly, she wouldn’t mind sleeping in his bed.
Vaguely she considered the girl asleep in her room, the real Alima Rodriguez, but didn’t bother to wake her up.
She had a curse to undo, and then that silly girl could spend the rest of her life stuffing herself with carrots for all she cared.
Notes found in Wendelin Parker’s research journal three weeks after a curse was lifted from his village and two hours after his body was fished from a nearby river:
The name “Alima” means learned and wise but it’s also made up from the same letters as the word “Lamia.” “Lamia,” in Greek mythology, was a woman with the scaly second-half of a snake who ate children (ew) but also used to be a beautiful queen beloved by the gods. She was notably the mother of two young, healthy monsters.
Her name also has another meaning. “Witch” in Latin.
God damn it, that sneaky little bitch.
Make of that what you will.