When my book of folktales, Deas and Other Imaginings, was published, a few stories didn’t make it in, either because they seemed different from the rest or were written right after it went to press. They have been sitting in a folder on my computer ever since, and I decided to share them here. If you have kids or grandkids of the right age or simply love children’s stories like I do, enjoy.
by Valerie Tarico
Once there was a girl named Anya who lived with her parents and small brother, Jack, in a narrow row house nestled on a cobbled street in a thriving town called Ghent. Her father managed the accounts of a prosperous merchant. He had joined the business as a young man, near penniless but with a mind for numbers. His careful oversight—this silk loses money, this cotton makes a little—together with the merchant’s keen eye, had grown the enterprise into a flourishing house of trade.
Because the merchant was fair, Anya’s father had become prosperous too, in his own modest way. With care he had saved enough to buy the sturdy brick house that caught his wife’s eye during her second pregnancy. By then they had long outgrown the single room they shared in his mother’s cottage at the edge of town. There wasn’t money to spare for servants, but by living simply they lived well.
The family had one grief in their otherwise quiet lives. When Anya was two, she had stumbled against her grandmother’s hearth and knocked a pot of boiling water onto her left leg. The burn was terrible and deep, and when infection set in, the child fought for life. As she slowly healed, the leg scarred badly, and the foot remained lumpy and misshapen, with rippled skin stretched thinly across her small bones.
Anya walked ever after with effort and an aching limp that often got more pronounced toward the end of the day. In the market or street, people sometimes stared, and because she hated the attention, she grew to hate her leg. When Anya turned five and Jack was old enough to begin wearing little trousers instead of infant gowns, she pled with her mother, “Make me trousers, too!” Mother did, but the trousers drew curious looks of their own, and they couldn’t hide the limp.
So, Anya seldom went out to climb and play with neighboring children, even to join in games that didn’t require walking and running. Instead, she followed her mother, or played in the walled garden behind the house where, in worlds of her own imagining, she had two strong legs, or four, or a pair of wings.
Anya’s father was kind. Sometimes, in the evening, he told stories by the fire while he gently rubbed the ache out of Anya’s leg and foot. But his work kept him busy, so her mother managed the rest of their lives: getting the best price at market, tending the garden so that the vegetables were plump and plentiful, laying up food for winter, stitching shirts and pants for two growing bodies, and keeping the cobwebs out of the corners.
Twice each year, in the spring after the seeds were in the ground and in the fall after the last preserves had been set aside, the people of Ghent joined in a ritual they called cleaning day. Across the town, mothers woke before dawn, kindled fires under the kettles and ovens, and waited for the smell of spiced tea and baking scones to call their families out of sleep. After breakfast, adults emerged from doorways calling to their neighbors with bedding in hand, because today downy pillows and woolen blankets and feather beds would be hung on clotheslines or spread across bushes to air in the last crisp breezes of fall or the first fresh scents of spring. Windows would be flung open, rugs thrown over garden walls and furniture pushed to the middle of each room. The daylight hours would be spent with rags and buckets of soapy water, with the ritual ending for many as it began, in the kitchen, where a tired but satisfied family might huddle around a pot of stew and a basket of bread ends for dipping.
During the first few seasons in the house, when cleaning day arrived, Father had walked the children to his mother’s cottage, where they might build towers of wooden blocks while Grandmother wove at her loom or chase after Grandmother’s goats while she knitted in the sun, sitting on a stump she called her garden chair.
But when Anya turned six and Jack almost four, Mother decided they were old enough to help. She gave them a broom and dustpan and sent them to the attic. Within an hour, they were back downstairs—tired they said. Sweeping was hard work.
Mother was scrubbing the terra cotta tiles of the kitchen floor. She paused and poured two glasses of water. “Why don’t you go fetch Grandmother’s magic broom,” she said. “It practically does the work by itself.” They looked at her wide eyed, asked a dozen questions, and hastily gulped the water. Then Jack caught Anya by the hand, and one child trotting and one limping, they headed for the door. Mother smiled to herself at the thought of them too tired to sweep but not too tired to walk half an hour to Grandmother’s, and she picked up her scrub brush again.
The children arrived at the cottage and found Grandmother bent over in the goat shed, spreading clean straw. They asked to borrow her broom. “Gladly,” she said, “Just as soon as I have finished layering in this bedding.” Anya and Jack and Grandmother scattered armfuls of straw from one corner of the goat shed to the other. Then, with one hand on her back, Grandmother straightened and led them to the kitchen where she handed them a broom from the corner. It had a thin pole of hickory, worn smooth with use.
“Is this really magic?” Anya asked doubtfully. It looked very much like the broom their mother had given them earlier.
“Ah,” said Grandmother. “You want the magic broom. That is in the cellar.” She opened the door to the pantry, a small space off the kitchen that was lined with narrow shelves and rows of jars. She moved a basket of potatoes and one of apples out of the way. In the floor lay a trap door with a rope handle. Raising it up, she carefully led them down a set of steep wooden stairs. Thin light shone from a dusty window at the top of a foundation wall made of grey stone. Anya shivered from the chill, and Jack shivered from excitement. Anya knew Grandmother’s house almost as well as her own, but she had never been in the cellar. Carefully they stepped across the dirt floor among crocks of pickles and baskets of rags, and tools that Anya didn’t recognize. From a dark corner Grandmother drew another broom.
Even in the dim light, the children could see that this one was different. The bristly end of the broom looked normal enough, a fan of straw woven together around the top and stitched across with string. But the handle was shorter and thicker than most, and oddly gnarled. The top bent back on itself like the head and neck of a sleeping swan. Carved spirals emerged from beneath the fold and wrapped the handle, trailing off near the woven straw. Each had a feathery pattern etched into the surface. The children touched them reverently.
Back in the kitchen Grandmother held it out to Anya. “This broom is older than my grandmother’s mother.” she said. “But magic ages well. With care and time, old brooms draw energy from the hands that hold them, and magic grows stronger.” She smiled. “You may find that you want to sweep all day, and in the end, you will have to remind yourself that the job is finished.” Then she wrapped a small goat cheese for their mother and gave them two sweet apples from the basket and set them on their way.
An hour later they were back home with three hopping, chirping cousins they had picked up along the path, all competing to carry the peculiar broom, tired arms and scarred legs forgotten. Anya and Jack’s mother offered bread and cheese, but the children couldn’t be bothered. They carted the broom upstairs immediately, arguing over who got to sweep first. With drapes and rugs and bedding gone, the attic, and then the second floor, and then the main echoed with their voices. First they tried two at a time, but in the end all but Jack, who needed help, settled into taking turns, each impatiently awaiting his or her time at the handle. (Mother made sure that those waiting were supplied with feather dusters and rags.)
Sure enough, in each child’s eager hands, the broom seemed to guide the motions. Back and forth it stroked the floor with the curved tip of the handle swaying around their heads. The sweeping motions reminded Anya of graceful dances she had seen in the town square at the end of each winter, the movements of the April Awakening that the town’s young women performed each spring. She didn’t think about her leg all day. By mid-afternoon, every floor had been swept repeatedly.
Dinner tasted especially good that night, with five tired children squeezed onto a bench meant for two, and the room gleaming around them. After dinner Mother shooed the cousins out the door, and Anya’s family curled up by the fireplace while flames reached for the flue and smoke curled up the fresh-cleaned chimney. This time Anya laid her head rather than her leg in Father’s lap. She looked up at Mother, who sat next to them. “It really is magic,” she whispered in a sleepy voice. Mother leaned over and kissed her forehead. “Yes,” she said, “It really is.”
The next day, while Jack napped, Anya carried the broom back to Grandmother’s house. As she walked, she traced the twining feathery pattern on the surface. She noticed two boys had stopped their game to watch her pass. Her heart lurched. Are they staring at the broom? Will they ask Grandmother if they can use it too? Will they grab it? she wondered, gripping the handle tighter. No, she thought with relief. It is just my foot. She hurried on to the cottage. The cellar hatch was still open, and while Grandmother made a small pot of tea for two, Anya carefully climbed down the narrow stairs alone and tucked the broom back in the corner.
The following spring, when Mother said, “Tomorrow is cleaning day,” Anya asked if she could go fetch Grandmother’s broom. “Of course,” said Mother, and Anya was off. And so it was, each year after, spring and fall. Between hanging bedding and washing curtains and wiping walls Anya spent the day with the broom. Sometimes Jack joined her; sometimes cousins and friends asked for a turn; sometimes Anya and Jack beat rugs together or wiped shelves while they waited for a whole line up of children to feel the magic. Sometimes they had to find other houses to sweep, because Anya’s simply ran out of crumbs and dust. Anya’s favorite part of cleaning day was before the kids all came, when she alone held the magic broom between her hands, feeling its carved surface and swaying with the rhythm of sweeping.
Always, on the following day, she returned the broom gently to its cellar corner while Grandmother made tea for two. “Rituals are important,” Grandmother would say. “Life is about small pleasures, and we define who we are by finding the ones worth repeating. You are one of my small pleasures, child, though getting bigger every year.”
It was true; Anya grew lanky. Even her scarred leg and foot—odd as they looked—grew longer and stronger. Grandmother, though, was getting smaller, and so Anya lingered to help her with the goats or garden or Grandmother’s own corner cobwebs.
“Move in with us,” Mother urged Grandmother when they were together. “Anya and Jack can share.” But Grandmother said, “Not yet. My back and hands have a few more years in them. Who knows—someday Anya or Jack may want the cottage. Then I will go knit by your fire and they can have the goats.” Mother pictured her children in brick homes in town, rather than the stone cottage where her husband had grown up, and out of Grandmother’s hearing, she said so to Anya and Jack. She nudged them to work on their numbers and letters, and when they got old enough, Father sent Jack on errands for his boss. Jack loved the world of trade and spent more and more of his time in the offices or warehouse.
But Anya loved the little cottage. As she lay in bed sometimes she imagined living there—with the goats and the garden—and the broom in the cellar. Most of all, though, she loved the cottage with Grandmother in it. So, between tasks and tutoring, she found her way there to lend a hand; and often as not on her way out the door, Mother tucked into her hands a small loaf of brown bread, or a tin of stew, or a few dried plums.
As Anya grew, the way grew shorter. Half an hour became twenty minutes, then fifteen. She hurried through the cobbled streets, then the wider ones made of packed dirt, stepping around puddles and over stones to get an all-too-short visit with grandmother before hurrying back home. She had less and less time to fret about the looks of strangers.
Seven years passed. In the winter that Anya turned fourteen, Mother said, “It is time for you to join the April Awakening dance this year.”
“I can’t!” said Anya in panic. She knew the steps. She had seen them every year since she was a baby. But to dance—with her scars and limp—in front of the whole town?!
“It is time,” Mother repeated firmly. “We share in the bounty and beauty of our community. Just as it is your responsibility to help in the house and garden, it is your responsibility to help in welcoming the spring.” She had watched her daughter become more surefooted, and she felt confident that this rite of passage was important. Anya cried and pled, but Mother held her ground. She didn’t wipe her own eyes till Anya had fled outside to the garden.
Anya lay awake in bed that night clutching her pillow and picturing last year’s Awakening. In her memory, words of ancient poetry rose from an elderly cantor, echoed by the crowd: light of spring and warmth of sun dissolve the winter cold; within the womb, beneath the ground, the seeds of life unfold . . . A weaving line of girls with crocuses woven in their hair danced barefoot in simple linen dresses that showed their ankles when they kicked.
Anya reached down and touched the rippled skin on her leg and foot. She quietly cried herself to sleep. That night she dreamed that she held the broom in her hand and danced. She danced between the baskets and crocks in Grandmother’s cellar, and across the kitchen, and down the road till she came to her own street. She danced in the kitchen and then right on out the door to the town square where the line of girls waited. The next morning, she went to Grandmother’s. “May I borrow the magic broom till April?” she asked.
Grandmother gave her a knowing look. “Yes,” she answered, and put on the tea.
For the next three months Anya kept the broom by her bed. In the small space between the bed and chest, she held the broom and moved through the dance, stepping, turning, reaching. The night before the Awakening, Anya had another dream. In it, she danced beside her bed, and as she moved the broom became smaller and smaller—just a feather duster in her hand, then a twig in her palm with a spray of silky amber feathers at one end. She twisted her hair and poked it through, but the twig disappeared and her hair fell free, and when she looked in the cracked mirror above the chest, the wispy feathers hung among her own dark tendrils. Then the whole dream faded into sunlight, and she could hear Mother in the kitchen.
Anya slipped into the new linen dress that she and mother had sewn for the occasion and went to the garden to splash her arms and face at the well. When she returned through the kitchen, her brother and parents were sitting at the table. They fell silent, watching her pass, and Anya knew they had been talking about her. They are worried, she thought. But she, herself, wasn’t. As she climbed the stairs, awkward as ever, it struck her how much she would have hated their worry in the past, and how she would have clenched in the face of that silent scrutiny. But right now, she didn’t mind. She knew something they didn’t—that she was taking magic with her to the day’s festivities.
Later, when mother braided the crocuses into her hair, when grandmother arrived at the door, when they set off together to the square, Anya smiled like today was any day, every day. Her whole family relaxed, and as they walked their relief somehow made the cobbled street more beautiful, the budding flowers brighter, and the greetings among neighbors all the warmer.
They arrived at the square, where children raced to and fro between clusters of talking adults. Off to one side, musicians had gathered in a small circle, tuning flutes and stringed instruments. To one side stood a raised platform where the mayor would welcome the crowd, and the elderly cantor would lead them all in the rite of Awakening. In front of the platform, at the center of it all, gathered the young women in their linen dresses. Anya kissed her mother and father on the cheek and Grandmother on the forehead. She took a breath and in her mind’s eye caught a glimpse of the silky feathers shimmering in her hair. She gave Jack a quick hug and set off toward the line. Those who thought of her as a damaged child saw her left leg catch on each step. But when, finally, the dance began, what they noticed was not the catch, but the grace with which she swayed and reached and stepped and turned.
The following day, buoyed by the wonder of it all, Anya set off for Grandmother’s house with the broom. She found Grandmother kneeling in the garden, thinning carrot seedlings. “Help me up,” said Grandmother, and they walked to the kitchen together. Anya set the broom in the corner temporarily, while she filled the kettle and stoked the fire. Grandmother picked up the broom and laid it on the table. Anya sat down, too.
“The older magic gets, the more powerful it becomes,” said Grandmother. She stroked the twining feather pattern that wrapped the handle.
“It isn’t really magic, is it?” Anya asked. She smiled a confessional knowing smile and reached out and touched it as Grandmother had.
“Oh, yes, it is,” said Grandmother. “But the magic you found was all in yourself. Only when you have learned to harness the power in yourself are you ready to harness the power in the world.”
Would you like to learn broom’s power?”
“Yes,” said Anya, more because she loved Grandmother than because she needed any more magic than what she had already.
“After tea,” said Grandmother. “To everything there is a time.”
When the empty cups were rinsed and drying by the sink—Anya’s doing—Grandmother put a hand on the table and stood slowly and, with her own left leg catching a little, carried the broom out through the door to the stump in the garden. With Anya watching, she laid it across the stump, and stepping back, she said a few soft words that Anya could not understand.
Then, as Anya watched, the broom began to change.
The curved neck straightened first, raising an elegant beaked head, and Anya found herself returning the gaze of thick-lashed eyes, ebony dark. Feathered tendrils untwined and became mahogany wings. A soft oak-gold belly swelled and fluffed, and a straw-colored tail fanned out behind. As the bird emerged it grew, so that when the transformation was complete, Anya stood looking at a creature twice as tall as she was and wider by far. The bird stretched its wings and then, as any bird might, settled on the stump.
For minutes in which time stood still, Anya looked in wonder from the bird to Grandmother and back again. “Did Mother know?” she asked when she could finally speak. “When she first sent me to borrow the broom?”
“No,” said Grandmother. “She knew only about the magic in you.”
Facing the bird, she clasped her hands together and bowed her head slightly and then murmured a word of greeting, as she might to a person of power. Then she turned to Anya.
“Where would you like to go?” she asked.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.