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An old story

Deborah Fielding

Deborah Fielding rewrites an ancient tale.

There is not always a good guy. Nor is there always a bad one. Most people are somewhere inbetween... Kingdoms get the princes they deserve, farmers' daughters die for no reason, and sometimes witches merit saving. Quite often, actually. You'd be surprised.
A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness

 

A man appears in a town. And he meets a woman [this isn't a romantic story]. The town is small and there is a drought. The woman is short on food - she's got nothing but some flour and oil. And she's hungry. She's got a son - he is young and therefore unable to help her. The woman is trying to provide for them both, but she cannot. She doesn't work - women can't do much work, except prostitution and she doesn't do that. This woman is a widow. A poor widow with a son.

The man isn't a salesman, but he is a traveller. He isn't a gypsy, but he is mysterious.

mysterious /məˈsti(ə)rēəs/ a. Full of, or wrapped in mystery; (of person) delighting in mystery.

He approaches the woman and asks her for a drink of water and some bread. She is surprised, and explains that she hasn't got any food to offer him - she has nothing. He isn't deterred, so she takes him home with her [this isn't a romantic story and she isn't a prostitute]. They walk into her house and the man looks around. He looks at the small room, the empty table and the young son.

The widow has nothing to eat except some flour and some oil - enough for one loaf of bread. But the man is a kind of magician.

ma·gi·cian /məˈjiSHən/ n One skilled in magic, wizard, conjurer

He takes up the jug of oil and the bag of flour and looks at them very closely. Nothing shoots out of his eyes. No fairy dust comes from his hands, but he silently magics the oil and the flour so that they don't run out. He doesn't magic any other food, no meats, no cheeses, no fish. The woman watches him as he works with her arms crossed - she doesn't take her eyes off him. The boy sits under the table scratching patterns in the dust with a stick.

'Make some bread,' says the man to the woman. He is very still and very stern [he doesn't wear a black hat].

'With that oil and that flour?' says the woman. 'Is it safe? Is it safe to eat enchanted bread?'

enchanted /ɪnˈtʃɑːntɪd/ adj. 1. under a spell; bewitched; magical 2. utterly delighted or captivated; fascinated; charmed

The man doesn't answer, so she shrugs and makes bread for herself, the man and the son. They eat until they are full.

The man invites himself to stay, then. And the woman is a bit frightened of him, so she allows him to sleep upstairs. She's not afraid for her safety, but she's moved by his authority. She sleeps downstairs with her son beside her. He breathes heavily and peacefully, but she wriggles around all night. The man sleeps without waking or making a sound.

In the morning he sleeps late. He doesn't come down until midday, by which time the woman is making more bread from the enchanted ingredients. He stands in the doorway and she looks at him. He raises an eyebrow. And he waits.

'I won't be long,' says the woman. 'With the bread.'

The man nods and folds his arms over his chest. He blinks his eyes. 'I'm going out for a walk around,' he says. 'But I'll be back later.'

The woman looks up. 'Do you need to magic the oil and flour every day? Or is once enough?'

The man looks up to the ceiling and shrugs his shoulders before turning and walking out of the door.

The woman shakes her head and kneads the dough. The boy comes running in waving his stick in the air. He hops past her on one leg and lands neatly on his bottom at her feet. 'Where's that man?' he says.

He kneels up and jumps on his knees. 'He's quiet.'

'Yes,' says the woman. 'He's gone for a walk.'

'Did he really magic the bread?' The boy runs to the door and looks out.

'Yes, I swear there was only a bit left yesterday.' She holds up the oil jar and looks inside. 'It's full,' she says.

The boy scratches his head and rubs his eyes. 'Did he magic any fruits?'

'No.'

'Oh.' The boy kneels down and makes patterns on the floor with his stick.

'Go and collect some more sticks,' says the woman. She wipes her hands on a cloth.

'Go on!'

'But is he staying with us forever?' The boy shrinks away from the hand she's raising to swat him with.

'No. I don't know.' She looks up at the ceiling. 'He's very strange. But we need bread.'

strange /streɪndʒ/ adj. 1. odd, unusual, or extraordinary in appearance, effect, manner, etc; peculiar 2. not known, seen, or experienced before; unfamiliar -> a strange land 3. not easily explained -> a strange phenomenon 4. usually foll by to inexperienced (in) or unaccustomed (to) -> strange to a task 5. not of one's own kind, locality, etc; alien; foreign 6. shy; distant; reserved

The man stays upstairs for some weeks and the flour and oil do not run out.

He is stern - and he doesn't speak much. He eats with the family and then spends a lot of time in the upstairs room alone and in silence.

'Do you think he's doing magic up there?' says the boy to his mother after a few weeks. He looks up at the ceiling. 'I can't hear him.'

'I don't know,' says the widow. 'Perhaps he sleeps a lot.'

'He can't sleep that much. He doesn't do anything to make him tired.'

'Look at you, are you tired?' she appraises him.

'No.' The boy frowns at her.

'You look pale.' She goes to him and puts her hand on his forehead. 'You're very warm.'

'I've been running,' the boy points to the door.

A few nights later the woman can't sleep - her son is sweating and murmuring. She tries to wake him to give him some water, but he won't wake. She holds her hand to his head, she dabs at his face with a wet cloth and she prays that he will open his eyes. He looks small in the bed, damp hair around his face.

prayer /prɛə/ n 1. a personal communication or petition addressed to a deity, esp in the form of supplication, adoration, praise, contrition, or thanksgiving 2. any other form of spiritual communion with a deity 3. a similar personal communication that does not involve adoration, addressed to beings venerated as being closely associated with a deity, such as angels or saints 4. the practice of praying -> prayer is our solution to human problems 5. often plural a form of devotion, either public or private, spent mainly or wholly praying -> morning prayers 6. capital when part of a recognized name a form of words used in praying -> the Lord's Prayer 7. an object or benefit prayed for 8. an earnest request, petition, or entreaty 9. (law) a request contained in a petition to a court for the relief sought by the petitioner 10. (slang) a chance or hope -> she doesn't have a prayer of getting married

The woman lies with her body curled around the boy all night until the man comes downstairs.

'He won't wake,' says the woman, sitting up. 'He's so hot and drawn and he won't wake up.'

The man comes over to where they are. He bends down and puts his hand to the boy's forehead, just as the woman had done.

The woman presses her son's hand between both of hers. 'He's struggling to breathe,' she says.

The man doesn't speak.

The boy's chest is almost still and his face is pale.

'He can't breathe,' she shakes the man's shoulder with her hands. She pulls him down to where she is sitting. 'He can't breathe,' she looks the man in the eye.

The man looks at her.

'Is this your doing?' She takes her hand from the man's shoulder. 'Is it that hocus-pocus of yours?'

The woman pushes him away.

hocus-pocus /ˈhəʊkəsˈpəʊkəs/ n. 1. trickery or chicanery 2. mystifying jargon 3. an incantation used by conjurors or magicians when performing tricks 4. conjuring skill or practice

The man gets up from where he's squatting on the floor. 'Give him to me,' he says.

'Why? So you can enchant him?' She is crying now. 'So you can take him from me?'

'So I can pray for him.' The man lifts the boy from where he lies and takes him to the upstairs room. The woman follows. In the light of the open window, the boy looks paler than ever. He looks dead.

The man lowers his face close to the boy's. He looks up. 'He isn't breathing.'

The woman falls to her knees and covers her face.

The man lifts his face to the ceiling - he puts his hands on the boy's chest and he shouts as if with real pain. He lifts his voice in prayer [supplication]. He asks that the boy might live.

Just like that, the boy lives. He sits up in bed and looks around - the sun shines on his face. He looks around and he shrinks from the man. 'Who are you?' he says.

The man has tears on his cheeks and pain in his eyes. 'I need to move on, he says. You've been very kind.' He looks at the woman who is now hungrily hugging the boy to her.

She looks at him. 'I'm frightened of you,' she says.

The man looks at the floor. 'I prayed and it did nothing, you prayed and he was revived.' She holds out her hand to his, but he flinches away [this is not a romantic story].

re·vive/riˈvīv/ v.i. & t. Come or bring back to consciousness, life, existence, vigour, notice, use, activity, validity or vogue (vivere live).

The man leaves, but the widow and her son do not go hungry, because the drought in the land is over, and food again is plentiful. The man disappears from this town and goes on to do more magic elsewhere. He does some very strange miracles - some to save, some to kill, some to tell stories.

mir·a·cle/ˈmirikəl/ n. 1 Marvellous event due to some supposed supernatural agency; remarkable occurrence; remarkable specimen (of ingenuity, impudence, etc.); to a ~ (arch) surprisingly well.

In the end the man doesn't die, but disappears into the sky. The woman never sees him again, but she keeps the jar in which the oil was enchanted.