Ana was a simple girl, a sad girl, a subtle girl. Like all of us she was innocent of thought and wanted the best for everyone. She didn’t think she was owed anything but she knew, like most of us, that there had to be something better in the world than what we lived in now. Her Father died just two years back on her eighth birthday. She cried back then, a lot, without realizing that the sadness never truly goes away, just changes who you are. Mother loved her so, and missed her Father dearly but the two of them made on with their life happily as they would in the tumultuous world around them. Grandfather lived there with them. He too, knew about hardship and pain: his wife had died in childbirth giving Ana her favorite aunty, Sue.
It was a cold day, a rainy day, a special day, when she pulled on her shoes, put on her coat, and walked out into the vibrant green world that lay just outside of her family’s hut. She wore her brother Michael’s hand me down moccasins from when he was her age. He missed him terribly and couldn’t wait for his return where he would smile garishly at her, tossing her into the air and catching her safely before snuggling her tight and telling her all about the world outside the village where she had spent, and likely would spend, her entire life.
She looked up at the rainy sky, the gray sky, the cloudy sky as she trounced out the door. Mother had sent her out to fetch the water for the evening meal. She had complained, as any ten-year-old was want to do, about the chore as being needless since there was water falling from the sky; wasn’t that enough for Mother? It was not, and out she went into the village square to check the well and then off to see if the other children were being allowed to play in the rain as she so wanted to do before heading back to Mother with the water in tow.
It was a deep well, a stony well, a good well where she dropped the bucket down the depths to where the water lay sleeping. The loud KERPLOOSH echoed into Ana’s ears as the bucket struck the water’s surface. She peered down, always imagining that some magical fairy was slowly pouring water into her bucket as a labor of love from the earth to her village and when she looked down she could almost see her imagined fairy twinkle with yellow light as her wings fluttered.
“Can I help you with that?” said Bo who had snuck up beside her.
He was a kind boy, a happy boy, a confident boy, was Bo. He and the other boys were always out playing in the dirt, wrestling with each other and poking, prodding, and asking things that they should not ask. She knew that the boys should not ask those questions because the men of the village were always cross with them whenever the boys hung around too long. The boys would eventually run back to their mothers who would explain in soft, kind words why the men were upset. Ana would sometimes play with Bo and his friends but they were very rough, and though she had asked them to play more gentile the boys had simply laughed and gone on to other activities, leaving her behind. It wasn’t that they were leaving her behind – it was that they didn’t want to play the same way she wanted to.
“I can do it, Bo,” she said sticking up her nose.
“I didn’t say you couldn’t,” he replied apologetically.
The two of them looked down at the rippling water, the calm water, the life-giving water in the amiable silence that children can often have when they daydream. Ana wondered if Bo ever saw the fairy that she imagined lived in the well but thought better of asking him. Boys had a way of looking at you funny if they were confused by your words. So she sat there watching her fairy fill up the bucket so that she could bring it home to Mother.
“What do you think the rest of the world is like?” Bo asked suddenly.
“It must be wonderful,” Ana said without needing to think. “The men go out all there and return with broad smiles and the women cheer them for coming back. It must be so wonderful that some of the men decide not to come back at all.”
Bo had a thoughtful nod, an appreciative nod, a familiar nod that Ana thought would someday make him a very good father. Maybe even a father to her children; unless she chose to be like her favorite Aunt Sue.
“Your Aunt Sue is always upset with the village men,” Bo said. “She berates them when some of the men do not come home. She argues in the town square that the men should not need to leave the village and their children; that it hurts the children.”
Sue was a thoughtful girl, a smart girl, a curious girl, which was why she asked the question that she asked next.
“Why does Aunt Sue believe it hurts the children?”
“She does not want other children to grow up without a Father the way you have to now,” Bo said.
He was a smart boy, a witty boy, a cautious boy, which was why he looked ashamed for bringing up Ana’s father when he did.
“But my Father died,” she said, confused. “The other men choose not to return.”
Bo shook his head viciously, savagely, sadly.
“The men who do not return only do so because they have died.”
Ana had a subtle scoff, a noisy scoff, a harsh scoff that she used when boys got into things that they weren’t supposed to. She pulled at the rope connected to the bucket containing the water that her imagined fairy had filled for her while she was talking with Bo but the pulling was just to give her time to think about a response to Bo’s foolishness.
“You and the boys ask too much and the men of the village get angry with you. They tell you mean things to scare you away from asking those questions. Do you not understand that?”
Bo had a shaggy hair, unkempt hair, dirty hair that Ana stared at as the boy left his head lowered. She had clearly upset him in the way that she often did when explaining to the boys how they played too rough or asked the wrong questions but this time, Bo’s shame was accompanied by tears.
“I am sorry, Ana,” he said as she pulled the bucket of water out from the well and poured it into her Mother’s jug. “They tell me not to speak to you about your Father; that it makes you upset.” He turned and walked away from Ana and the well quickly and Ana thought it was because he did not want her to see his tears – boys, she had been told, were not supposed to cry. She waved him away, pushing him from her mind so that she could finish her chores and continue on with the day’s work and later, be allowed to play in the rain as the other children so often did.
Ana had a bright smile, a happy smile, a beautiful smile when she looked down into the well bucket after dumping the water into her Mother’s jug. Her imagined well fairy, over the course of many months, had been placing pebbles into the well bucket as gifts to her for a job well done. The one in this bucket was special.
It was a yellow pebble, a special pebble, and – as Ana would soon find out – a magic pebble. It gleamed in the soft gray light of the rainy day, bright as a lemon and polished in stone. It was beautiful enough to be made into a piece of jewelry, she knew, but would keep it for herself to add into her collection. She wasn’t sure why the well fairy was so kind to her, giving her the pebbles before – but this one was more precious than the rest and Ana skipped her way home through the mud puddles, off the path, soaking her brother’s moccasins through to the rabbit’s pelt fur underneath.
Sue was a traveled woman, an educated woman, a sad woman, and no matter what she did, Grandfather would not accept the help she so desperately wanted to give. She and mother were different and Ana could see that. Mother continued to lead the house hold, making sure chores were done, meals were prepared and that the children were loved and cared for. Aunt Sue, on the other hand, spent the majority of her time with the village elders, asking questions and coming home crying. Sometimes Ana thought that Aunt Sue was like the boys – asking questions that they shouldn’t and getting into trouble – but Aunt Sue had told her littlest niece about how Grandfather had been different before leaving the village and when he returned there was something missing from him and she desperately wanted to make sure that all the other men kept their thing that Grandfather was missing. Mother said that was just how men were when their wives died.
“Our men our broken,” Sue was shouting at Grandfather again. “They leave whole and only their bodies return.”
“Is that why you never married, my sweet Sue? Because of the change in men or its effect on the children?” Grandfather was saying.
“It has to stop, Father,” Sue was saying. “We cannot give them away to the outside. We cannot let our children grow up without fathers.”
Grandfather had a warm smile, a sad smile, a sorry smile when he spoke with his daughter Sue. The two of them seemed to fight all the time – it seemed to be the only time Ana ever saw her Grandfather smile; all the while Mother made him meals and played tokens with him (a game that Ana was not allowed to play), and kept the house orderly so that he could live the rest of his days in comfort.
“The way that you grew up without a father?” Grandfather asked of his daughter Sue.
Mother had a strong heart, a guarded heart, a loving heart that brought Ana in from the tepid rain of the outside, pealing the wet moccasins and rain coat from her wet body and padding her on the cheek before taking the jug of water from Ana who smiled up at her; forgetting about Bo’s silly assertions that men died on the outside of their little village. Mother’s hand guided her around the still arguing Grandfather and Aunt Sue who took up the majority of the common space downstairs for days at a time with their fighting while mother haunted the kitchen, doing everything she could to keep her family safe and comfortable.
Ana had an excited pulse, a fast pulse, an eager pulse that her heart beat into her chest as she skirted the outside of the argument and rushed upstairs. There, in here hand, lay the beautiful yellow pebble that was as smooth and polished as any glass Ana had ever laid eyes upon. Like a hidden river tumbled beneath their happy little town bringing them water and life while asking nothing in return. Maybe that was where her fairy lived: on the bank of an underground river and she had taken Ana as a friend whose company she could only keep in the moments when her bucket tumbled down the well and was tugged back to the surface.
The old shacks had thin walls, splintered walls, fragile walls that shook suddenly as his Grandfather and Aunt Sue’s fight boiled, as it always did, into stomping and shouting while Mother continued to prepare for meals, and keep them all safe and happy. Ana was grateful that the old walls allowed the soothing pitter-patter of rain into her ears as she knelt down on the floor in the room where she and her Mother and Aunt Sue slept, pulled out her treasures box, and added the yellow pebble to the collection.
It was a small collection, a fancy collection, a loved collection that she saw when she pulled the paper lid off the box that hid her treasures. There were rocks and twigs and even a hard candy that one of her Grandfather’s friends had given her when the two of them walked the village one day, months ago. Grandfather had been too tired to go on their walks in the last few months – Mother said it was because he was sad, Aunt Sue said it was because he was angry. As Ana’s little mind focused on her box of treasures as she placed the new jewel of the collection in a clot mud and grass that had been home to the previous queen of her collection – an ordinary looking river stone with a not-so-ordinary dash of red at the center – and she stared down at it in contentment.
The evening had an anxious tone, a worrisome tone, a relieved tone as the villagers gathered in the town hall to speak about the important issues that faced them together. Aunt Sue was often a speaker at these meetings and Ana loved to watch her. She was full of passion and stood toe to toe with the boys who all nodded and listened but often would turn into arguments like she had with Grandfather. Ana sometimes wondered if the two of them were just pretending in their little shack, practicing for when Aunt Sue came here to talk with the other villagers.
“The war is endless,” Aunt Sue was saying, “and our children suffer for the days that you are gone. Peace can be the end of our fatherless homes.”
The men of the room had deep stares, long stares, empty stares as they heard her words. Some ears were deaf as a chorus of shouts began ringing the halls above the rain that continued to patter on the little town hall. Ana knew, this was where Aunt Sue would shine. She had practiced with Grandfather and the men would soon see that she had good ideas. Some women chimed in to support her, but many remained quiet like Mother looking on at what would be the future for their homes.
Ana saw them dance, saw them jive, saw them shimmy, and saw them shake. She knew that’s all this was: just a different dance that men and women did when they grew too old for the harvest dances. She thought of dancing with Bo someday and hoped that he, unlike the other boys, would never have to leave the village for that place Aunt Sue called war. Grown-ups had a different way of showing that they cared for one another, Mother had explained, but they always seemed to make Ana feel anxious and she longed for her pebble collection safe in their home.
That night was wet, that night was dreary, that night was solemn as Grandfather entered their hut first with Mother’s help. The family began stripping off their wet clothing and finding hooks and lines to hang them from so that the rain germs would not infest them before Mother had a chance to wash them. Ana thought, as she saw Mother’s shoulders droop, that she would help her with them tomorrow, so long as the rain cleared and they could escape the confines of the hut into the brilliant sunlight. Grandfather limped upstairs to get into bed as Mother confined herself to the kitchen. Once Grandfather’s door was closed, Aunt Sue let out a breath in frustration, smiled at Ana and picked her up carrying the both of them into the room that they shared.
Ana had a bright laugh, a relaxed laugh, a happy laugh as she was carried upstairs which was utterly contrary to the mood the townsfolk showed at the village meeting. Aunt Sue tickled her ribs and smiled herself for the first time, it seemed, since their bedtime ritual the night before. Ana’s nightgown was too long with patched holes and torn ruffles; a hand me down from her Mother’s youth. She treasured it, as she treasured her collection from the imagined underground river fairy, for someday she would grow into it and, just maybe, pass it along to her family.
“Why do you tell the men not to go?” Ana asked as Aunt Sue brushed her hair back from her face.
“When they’re gone, we miss them, don’t we?” she replied.
Ana’s nod was fierce, her nod was sure, her nod was cut short as the brush caught a tangle in her hair.
“Ouch,” Ana cried.
“I’m sorry it hurts, sweetness, but with the tangle gone your hair will stay on the straight and narrow,” her Aunt Sue replied.
“Where is War?” Ana asked.
Aunt Sue had a sweet chuckle, a bubbly chuckle, a sad chuckle.
“Sweetness, war isn’t a place, it is an action,” she said brushing through the strands of Ana’s hair.
“Is what Bo says true? That the men who do not come back from war, do not come back because they are dead?” Ana asked.
“That is true,” Aunt Sue said.
The silence in the room was solemn, grieving, sacred, which was why it took Ana so long to continue her questions. Ana knew that Aunt Sue would never lie to her – to intentionally keep the truth from her in a misguided attempt to keep her childlike innocence intact. That was why she was Ana’s favorite; she was unafraid of the things that affected her world. She was brave, and she wanted desperately to be happy.
“Is that where Father die?” Ana asked.
Aunt Sue only nodded.
“I do not want Bo to go to war.”
“That is why I fight with your Grandfather so,” Aunt Sue said. “He says it is the danger that lies outside of the village which they fight so.”
“That sounds dangerous,” Ana said shrinking into her chair.
“It certainly is, which is why some men never return.”
“Do you think Michael will return?” Ana asked.
“I hope he does – but he will not be the Michael that you knew when he left, much like Bo will not be the same when one day he leaves for war.”
“Why do they come home cheering and laughing then, even if other men have died and the lose part of themselves along the way?” Ana asked.
Aunt Sue shed a single tear, a solitary tear, a regretful tear that hung from her high cheekbones before dripping down onto Ana’s shoulder. She had lost someone much like Ana’s Bo when she was her age and the last thing she ever wanted was for her niece, the closest child she would have to her own, was to feel the same pain and regret that she had felt. Aunt Sue had watched her sister, Ana’s Mother, work tirelessly, pray endlessly, cry remorsefully at each of the three occasions that Ana’s Father had left for war before he did not return. She wasn’t sure who was the lucky one: she for never truly having what she wanted or, Ana’s Mother; for having it briefly only to have it taken away.
“Men do not think the way that we do, sweetness,” Aunt Sue said finally. “They see the world in ways that we do not and we see it in ways that they cannot.”
“Like an enchantment upon their eyes?” Ana asked in wonder.
“No Sweetness. It is more like a curse: it keeps us from ever seeing eye to eye. Now snuggle into bed, your Mother and I will be up once the nightly chores are complete.”
Ana skipped lively, lightly, drowsily to bed and tucked her body beneath the small threadbare blanket, closing her eyes until she heard Aunt Sue leave the room. When she was sure not to be discovered, Ana pulled her treasure box out from its hiding place and gazed at the beautiful new treasure the imaginary underwater river fairy had given her. She had heard one of the men who had returned from war once say that there were things called fountains on the outside of the village that would grant wishes if you were to throw in something precious in exchange. With her arms curled tight around the box, Ana wondered her last thought of the night: could their town well grant her wishes in exchange for her treasures.
The next morning Ana had quiet feet, padding feet, silent feet as she snuck out of her room and down the wooden stairs, avoiding the creeks that would disturb her family and keep her from her early morning playdate with the world. Peering out the door she saw that the cloudy skies were gone and, though the sun hadn’t yet crested the horizon, there was a freshness to the breeze that her Mother had always described as good fortune. Today was going to be a good day.
As the crossed through the collection of huts near her families, not yet stirring from their morning slumber, she saw that some of the houses had large burlap bags of supplies; wheat, rice, salt, and barley. Gifts that were traditionally given to the households of families whose boys would be leaving with the other men of the village. She raced to the village square where the older men of the village had already gathered. Elder Phyk was holding his hands out in a gesture of silence to the gathered crowd of men and boys. As the hush fell over them, Ana found herself tucked behind the corner of a hut to listen.
“The time has come for you to leave your safety, your homes, your families,” Elder Phyk said. “The war draws ever closer with other tribes, with nature, with ideas. It is our sacred right to be able to defend this small part of the lands that we have carved out.” He trailed off as the boys who would be leaving for the first time gave mixed cries of excitement and fear. The seasoned men, the veteran men, the calloused men, gave reassuring pats to their new found allies but never took their eyes from Elder Phyk.
“We take war outside the village in hope, and we pray, that it is never brought upon us.”
The men looked on with grunts, nods, and stony faces and disbursed to gather their things for what would be the long journey out of the village and on to war. Ana scanned the faces, her eyes darting fiercely, to see if Bo, the sweet boy whom she wished to marry someday, was among them. The men scattered in all different directions like the rippling waves in a pond when she saw Bo at the center with his father’s arm around his shoulder. The young boy stood ridged, nodding, as Ana imagined his father was giving him words of courage that would travel with them on the road. As the two started walking back towards their hut, which was very near Ana’s own, she hid further behind the wall in hopes that they would not see her as they traveled past.
The boy, Bo and his father walked calmly across the grass. The mud, still fresh from the rains before, cushioned their feet but didn’t coat them. As the crossed back into Ana’s plane of vision from her position, nearly cowering behind the wall, Bo glanced her way but his head remained forward. She hoped he did not see her because she was scared of what he would say, or what she might say to him. She did not want Bo to change, and she certainly did not want him to die; more than that, she did not know how she would tell him these things for her heart was barely in the throngs of adolescence.
Bo tapped his father’s shoulder, whispered in his ear, nodded at his response before turning from his side and trotting back to Ana through the wet grass and mud. He saw her and looked down curiously at her huddled form before kneeling down on his haunches and speaking.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” she replied as girls where want to do when scared of their own fears that lived inside their heads.
“I’m going out with the other men,” he said smiling with pride.
“I know,” was Ana’s sad reply.
Bo gave her a serious look, a concerned look, a knowing look but said nothing more. He gave her his hand and the two of them stood, following in the path that Bo’s father had taken though he was now out of sight.
After several steps, many steps, quiet steps they reached Ana’s well where the imagined underground fairy lived and the two of the leaned over its stone rim and stared down into the water depths. Ana wished she could see the imagined fairy, to give her strength and confidence. She would miss Bo, but more than that the reality that her future was uncertain shook her to her foundation and she was scared in ways that reminded her of the news of her Father’s death.
“War is bad,” she said finally.
“It is,” was Bo’s reply.
“I wish you would not go,” she said but Bo did not reply.
Bo had a long stare, a distant stare, an empty stare into the deep dark waters of the well. Ana was not sure if he had heard her speak which made anger rise in the back of her throat. Did he not know how hard it was for her to say such things?
“Do not go, Bo,” she said, perhaps more fiercely than she had intended. “The men go to war and change. They leave the village alone and we need you here.”
Bo had anxious eyes, sad eyes, excited eyes that he used to look back up at Ana once he had returned from whatever far off mental journey he had been on before she had gotten his attention. She could see a fire within them that was something more than simple boyhood mischief and she knew then that nothing she could say could keep him.
“You may be right,” he said at last. “But the men of the village have said that we must. You are certain that war is bad, but I am uncertain; that is why I must go: to find out for myself.”
Bo’s smile was a sad smile, a loving smile, a comforting smile as he patted Ana’s hand and suddenly her eyes were lost in the gaze down the well. She knew he was there, that he cared and wanted her to be happy, but there was nothing but frustration and stubborn certainty in her mind that he doing the wrong thing on purpose.
“I have to prepare, Ana,” he said again. She realized that he had been speaking to her but she had not heard what had been said. He made to leave when Ana turned from her frustration and hugged him tightly. For a moment, Bo was unsure what to do, but then he returned her affection. They stayed that way for too few precious moments and when he let go, he walked back towards his hut leaving Ana alone by the well.
When she turned back to the well her eyes were full of sad tears, joyful tears, mournful tears; she blinked once and a single drop fell from her cheek, much like the one from her Aunt Sue last night, down into the deep water of the well.
“There you are, my child,” said a kindly woman’s voice that Ana did not recognize.
When she opened her eyes, she was struck to a strange vision, a scary vision, a haunting vision. Before Ana stood a young woman in robes of deep blue of the kind of fabric so lavish she never would have imagined its existence. The woman’s dark brown hair flowed out from around her face and the hood that covered it to float in tendrils around her. In her pale white hands, she held a small box with ornate designs carved into the wood and a large golden latch with a small circular hole in the center of it. Most enchanting though, were her eyes; their yellow and green hazel irises burned into the darkness around them drawing after images that followed where she moved
“Who are you?” Ana asked.
“Why, I am your imagined underground fairy,” she said with a smile. It was a kind smile, a knowing smile, a mischievous smile but Ana’s pulse raced in excitement of the realization that she did indeed have a friendly fairy at the bottom of her well; that it wasn’t just the struggle of her everyday life that caused her to imagine it – she was real. “Did you get my presents?”
“I did!” Ana exclaimed. “I treasure every single one.
The fairy had a toothy smile, a happy smile, a friendly smile in response to Ana’s happiness. Ana watched as the fairy caressed her box over and over, like a cherished pet. She saw that her clothes wafted and swished across her body as if he were floating in water; although her movements were fluid as always. With an upward gaze, she saw a pinprick of light above: the well. She must be very deep indeed and she began to panic as she became aware that she was not breathing.
“Easy, child. You mustn’t worry about breath when you are near me; my magic will keep you safe.”
Ana’s sigh was breathless, exhausted, relieved as she fell into step beside the no longer imagined underground fairy and the two of them began to walk to bottom of the well.
“Why did you send me those beautiful stones?” Ana asked.
“They were the wishes of the children who I met before.” She replied.
“You can grant wishes?” Ana asked in excitement.
The fairy patted the box, brushed the box, held the box out to Ana who looked at it with amazement. It was obviously a magic box to be owned by an underground fairy in the middle of her village’s well. The closer she looked, the ornamented carvings seemed to dance and swirl of their own accord, as though not carvings at all but enchantments all their own. She wondered at the possibilities coming from this box and what great things the children before had wished for.
“You gave me the other children’s wishes?” she asked with surprise.
“Not really child, no. Their wishes came true; the pebbles are what brought them into the world – from my little box her.” Her eyes blazed with excitement.
“Why didn’t they keep their own wish stones?” Ana asked.
“They did, at first,” the fairy replied with a shrug. “But one by one they came back – I thought that someone ought to have these beautiful pebbles,” the fairy said smiling down at Ana.
Ana had a good idea, a wry idea, a bold idea.
“Are you going to let me make a wish?” she asked.
The fairy gave an eager smile, a happy smile, a ferial smile as she turned to face Ana under the water. Her burning eyes were fierce as her smile and the guard on her box but still she proffered the wooden vessel to Ana who placed her right hand at the lid in awe.
“What’s inside?” Ana asked.
“Whatever you can imagine; your greatest wish,” the fairy replied “Leave your hand there, yes, and place the other below the lock. Then wish and wish with all your heart.”
Ana had a kind heart, a sincere heart, a caring heart and she knew that her wish could not just be for herself. She had been gifted an opportunity to help her village. She had a chance to have anything she ever wanted.
“Careful what you wish for,” the fairy said in a sing-song voice.
It was too late, Ana already had her ideal wish, the best wish, her perfect wish and she wished with all her might – both hands on the wooden box which shifted and groaned beneath her hands. She opened her eyes as the box creaked open, ever so slightly, and the magic from within swirled out in dust and smoke to coalesce into the most perfect, beautiful, precious pebble she had ever seen.
It was like a lapis lazuli wrapped in a cloud; the blue made milky by the coatings of magic around it. It spilled into Ana’s hands like a cool drip of water on a hot summers day. She loved it. She knew that it was everything she had ever wanted – her wish had been the right one to make and she could not wait to see how happy her village would be because of it.
“Thank you so much,” Ana said, a tear in her eye. “I don’t even know your name.”
The blazing filament of her yellow-green hazel eyes stretched at the corners as though smiling themselves.
“My name is Pandora,” she said. “And it’s been a pleasure to see you.”
Pandora closed Ana’s palm so the cloud lazuli pebble wouldn’t fall out then dabbed her forehead with wetted pressed lips and she disappeared from the underwater world where Ana found herself, at once, at the stony gray bricks of the well.
She opened her hand and saw the pebble there. It was even more beautiful in the daylight. She skipped the rest of the way home with the weight of the world wrestled from her shoulders and a brand new pebble to add to her collection. When she arrived at home Mother was in the kitchen preparing breakfast.
“Good morning, Mother,” Ana said.
“Good morning, Sweetness,” she replied.
“Where is Aunt Sue?”
“Off to speak with the village men.”
Ana nodded, knowing that Aunt Sue would be pleased with what she found when going to speak with them and she went up to her room to add the cloud lazuli pebble to her collection. She opened the door to the room she shared with her Mother and Aunt Sue, crawled under the bed where she kept her secret treasures and opened the box. She delicately removed the beautiful yellow pebble from the day before, replacing it with her newest star attraction then, making sure that each pebble was perfectly inline and in order she put the top of the box back on and replaced it in its hiding spot.
When she heard the door open downstairs, she rushed to greet her Aunt Sue, hugging her from the side of the hip as Aunt Sue put hung her coat.
“I cannot believe how worthless these men are,” she said to Mother, pointedly ignoring Ana. “If I do not berate them there would be no food for us to put on the table.” She looked down at Ana finally, frowning. “What does she think she’s doing?” she said still addressing Mother.
Mother grabbed her by the wrist, pulling her away from Aunt Sue.
“You know your Aunt Sue doesn’t like it when you touch her, Ana,” Mother said but Ana was confused.
Aunt Sue loved her niece very much, she loved to play with her and brush her hair and tell her stories before bed time but Ana’s ten-year-old mind didn’t have the language to explain the dissonance she was experiencing so she simply watched as Aunt Sue walked up the stairs, ignoring the rest of her family as though they were a world’s worth of inconvenience and walked right into Grandfather’s room. Ana stared from her Mother up to the closed door which Aunt Sue had slammed behind her and back; a silent expression of confused frustration. She realized that her Mother had stopped her prep work and was standing beside her.
“You know, it’s a very stressful job on your Aunt Sue; leading the village the way she does.”
Ana looked up in confusion.
“She seems to think that no matter what she does, the men won’t do their share to make the village run smoothly. She sends them out to gather but they rarely stay out in the wilds enough to bring anything back worthwhile.”
Ana looked up at her Mother then.
“You mean; they do not go to war?” she asked.
Her Mother looked down at her, a look of curiosity wrinkling her brow.
“What sort of game is that?” her Mother asked. “I haven’t heard you talk about it before.”
Ana gasped, pushed away from her Mother and ran out the door. She had to see for herself; had her wish really come true? She ran to the edge of the village where she knew she would find her brother, Michael; past her neighbors and peers until she reached a wall that she had never seen before where her older brother sat in the grass. She called to him as she approached him; her earlier confusion temporarily displaced by the joy of seeing her brother home and safe at last. His mop of straight black hair hung down over his eyes as his toes wiggled and danced in the grass. She bent down and hugged him tightly.
“What’s that for?” he asked her as if it were just any other day.
“I am happy to see you,” she said but her smile wavered when he didn’t react to seeing her. She took a seat beside him and mimicked his toes motions through the grass the way she had often mimicked her older brother; this, however, didn’t seem like the kind of thing that he would usually do.
“You know,” he began after the companionable silence turned awkward. “I’ve often wondered what it would be like out in the wilds.”
“What are the wilds?” she asked, genuinely curious.
He hooked his thumb back behind him, towards the wall.
“The place outside the walls – away from the village.”
Ana smiled and pushed at his shoulder playfully.
“Michael, you have been outside of the village for nearly a month with the rest of the men,” she said.
Michael’s first response was that of puzzlement on his face; when he spoke, it was slow, as though he were speaking to someone who knew nothing about the world.
“No one has ever been outside the walls.”
“Right,” Ana said laughing. “Then how were they built?”
Michael wrinkled his forehead in consideration for quite some time, trying to reconcile her comment. Ana saw that he was struggling to understand what she was talking about. It was true, she had never seen the wall – it must be a result of her wish: that the men would not have to go to war. Maybe the wall protected them so that the men did not need to fight beyond the village.
“If you are curious, you should go look,” she said finally realizing that she had somehow become a stranger in her own world.
Michael shuttered, a gesture that demonstrated genuine fear written across his face; a look Ana had never seen on Michael’s angular features before. Eventually a group of boys Ana recognized as Michael’s friends appeared, sitting around in a makeshift circle; all of them dancing their toes between blades of grass. Between the boys, the silence seemed to be amiable but she was beginning to lose her confidence that any fun would be had here, so she stood up and made her way back towards the hut.
Her Mother was just leaving when she arrived at the door to the hut carrying a small straw picnic basket.
“Hello, Ana. Would you like to go visit your Father?” she asked.
Ana nodded and took her Mother’s hand. It had been quite some time since she had visited her Father’s gravestone and she always liked to take the opportunity visit and talk there. She felt like her Father looked on and supported her in those moments; today she felt like already she wished she could speak with him directly about how confused and disoriented she had become. So when Mother walked past the cemetery and to an outcropping of huts that she didn’t recognize she felt her anxiety redouble again.
“Hello, Ana,” a familiar voice said from behind her.
Ana turned and found herself embraced by her Father; her Father, who’s death had caused such pain and confusion in her young life, was here. No matter what other oddities appeared in this world this had been her secret wish all along, to have her Father back.
“Have her home by morning,” Mother said, placing the basket down by their feet and turning back to head home.
Ana looked at Mother walking away and looked up at her Father.
“Where is Mother going?” she asked.
“Back home so that we can have lunch together,” he said.
“Why can’t we have lunch together? The three of us?” she asked.
He patted her gently as if revisiting an argument that they had regularly.
“You know Mother and I do not get along, Ana. It’s just the way of the world.”
“Did you have a fight?” she asked.
“No, we had fun for a while and went our separate ways.”
She pulled away from him then, tears in her eyes.
“No, you and Mother always loved each other dearly. You always cared for Michael and I and raised us to treat others right. You showed me how a man should treat a woman and made me believe in love. How could you say that you and Mother do not get along?”
Her Father looked down at her, struggling to reply to a world that he had clearly never existed in.
Ana pushed him and ran away back toward the cemetery where her real Father must still be buried. She tripped over the basket in her haste and the contents spilled all over the soft grass. Inside was not the milk, honey, bread, and cheese that she was accustomed to having Mother prepare for her lunch; instead what rolled out was a paltry number of tubers, some nuts and fruit that she barely recognized as edible. The shadow of her Father looked from Ana to the upturned basked, deciding that it was more important to gather the spilled food then to chase after his beloved daughter.
Ana stumbled through the village cemetery which now hung in the shadow of the large wall she had found encompassing her entire world. She walked carefully around rows of grave markers until she found the one that she had learned to guide herself to by feel alone and knelt down at it. Instead of her Father’s name listed however, it was her Grandfather’s. She wept in earnest then, as her Grandfather’s name was hastily scrawled in sloppy chisel work instead of the fine craftsmanship of brass plating that she had become accustomed to seeing. There was no indication of how he lived or why he died; there was no flowers or trinkets indicating he was missed; the headstone was the only indication that he had lived at all. She loved her Grandfather and she saw now that in his absence her Mother and Aunt Sue had grown cold to her.
She spent most of her day at her Grandfather’s grave. Not knowing what exactly she had gained but feeling the absence of all she had lost. The sun was high above, weaning in the western sky and she decided to go home, to avoid the world in all of its changes in hopes that somehow, the world would begin to make sense to her again. The door was unlocked and her Mother sat in the common room rocking idly on the floor. Ana ignored her running up to their room and grabbing her box of treasure from under the bed. She had wished for something so innocent, so pure of heart and intention – the for the men to not go to war – but the results had turned her world upside down. She thought, like her Aunt Sue, that if they never left the men would not change; that they would stay simple and joyful but instead whatever had caused them to say in the village had driven from them their passion, ambition, love, and courage.
It hadn’t just been the men either. Mother and Aunt Sue no longer cared for her the way they had before as though they had lost their empathy and though their personalities remained consistent it all felt very empty to Ana.
She held her collection, beautiful as it was, and knew what she had to do. She took a burlap bag from the room’s closet and stuffed a handful of supplies she would need inside along with her box of treasures and left the house, towing the heavy bag behind her.
She was halfway to the center of town when a voice called to her from behind.
“What’s in the bag?” Bo asked.
Ana turned and saw that the boy looked much the same as he had that morning before she had made her wish to the fairy.
“My things,” she said not wanting to meet the boys eyes for fear of what she might find there. He seemed to nod at her as though he understood but she didn’t think he did.
“What do you boys do for fun?” she asked.
He seemed to consider that for a time before answering.
“We sit, we pretend, we dance…”
“What do you pretend?” she interrupted.
He stopped, probably thinking her very rude for the interruption but answered anyway.
“That we’re giants, that we can see over the walls; some times that we’re insects and can fly across the village.”
“But you never play Tag or see who can run the fastest?
He shook his head.
“I don’t know what Tag is and why would we run? We have nowhere to be.”
“So you never dream of leaving the village then, either?”
He gasped in surprise.
“The wilds aren’t safe. Why would I want to go out there?”
It was all wrong. Their confidence, their competition, their fear had changed the whole village into a stagnant hole. She knew then that there was no turning back. She leaned forward and kissed Bo on a cheek; knowing that he would not, possibly could not, understand the gesture and continued on to the well. He never even offered to help her carry her burden.
Once at the well, her tears were flowing easily and she leaned over the darkened hole and screamed in frustration. Her eyes squeezed shut, wringing the tears from them like water from a dish towel, her howl echoed back to her ears as it struck the surface of the water below. When she opened her eyes finally she found herself back in the floating mysteries of the depths; the burning hazel eyes of Pandora before her.
“Change them back,” She demanded.
Pandora cocked her head to the side but did not respond.
“Change them back!” she said again, more forcefully.
“I didn’t change anyone,” Pandora said finally. “I simply opened my box to the possibilities of your heart’s desire.”
“It didn’t work then,” Ana said.
“Did the men leave for war?” Pandora asked?
“No, but they aren’t the people they used to be anymore.”
Pandora nodded in understanding.
“Your wish was to change the very nature of the people around you. War is destructive and a hardship on any people involved but the traits that drive war: competition, values, resources, love – are the very things that make you human.”
Ana was openly crying now.
“I wished for something good; why did it turn out so bad?”
“Innocence is often mistaken for virtue. You wanted to stop your friends and family from going to war because you saw only the bad things it caused yet were unaware of how it molded and forged your family and community.
“The men have no desire past their living needs and are therefore controlled by fear and impulse rather than creativity and ambition. The women, who now have no equal partner with whom to raise a family, have abandoned the men all together and with them their nurturing nature – replaced by only the necessity to retain some shred of civilization with which to raise their children. The two parts that once were whole fall apart, the entirety of civilization collapses; with nothing to value or protect there is no need for war.”
Ana reached into her bag and pulled out her box of treasures. She grabbed the clouded lazuli and pushed it towards Pandora and her box. Pandora simple looked down at it with curiosity.
“Put it back in,” Ana said finally.
Pandora gave her a long nod in recognition, leaving only a sad smile across her lips.
“To put it back in the box would require me to open it fully – to open it fully would be to unleash the desires of all of the human race upon the planet at once, destroying the world you live in.”
“My world has already been destroyed, what do I care?”
“Because to open the box and place your wish back inside would still leave me with an open box where your wish was free to manifest.”
Ana threw the pebble to the ground then dumped the remainder of her treasures on the river bed and stomped furiously on them in the slow motion of the water’s ever present resistance.
She wiped the tears from her eyes after her fit and dropped the box to the ground along with the pebbles who were now buried in layers of mud under the water.
“If I am responsible for this, then I will be the one to fix it,” Ana said with daggers for eyes. Pandora nodded and smiled. Ana was back by the well suddenly, the burlap bag lighter on her back without her treasures.
She walked with determination to where the gates to the village used to be, ignoring the people who she passed for they were no longer the people she loved and cared for but shells of their former selves. When she arrived at the gate she found, as she knew she would, nothing but more wall. She hurled her burlap bag over then took several steps back. A crowd had gathered around here though they were bearing witness in silence; their fear keeping them from speaking up for a child’s safety. With a running start, she jumped at the wall grasping the top with one hand. He feet slipped beneath her but her grip was strong. She pulled ferociously, lifting her body to the top and then, one leg after another, threw herself over the wall never to be seen by her village again.