“Elsewhere”

“How long will you be with us, Mama?” Delai, her middle child, passed Yana the mead cup.

Yana flinched. She just wanted to enjoy fresh bread, a warm place to sleep, and meet her grandchildren. Why did her daughter have to ask questions Yana couldn’t answer?

“Don’t leave, Mama.” Yorin, her son, took Yana’s hand and squeezed her arthritic fingers. “You can stop it. We know you can.”

Yana raised her eyes to her three children. So much older since she’d last stumbled upon their little village. All with children and grandchildren of their own.

Those little ones eyed Yana warily. She smiled. She enjoyed that she was nothing like the other village grandmothers.

“You’ll die if you keep this up.” Kayta, her oldest, hair graying at the roots, turned away. “We’ve wondered for months if you weren’t already…” Her voice grew thick with tears.

“I’ve told you,” Yana whispered. “I can’t control it. I never could, though you never believed me.” She gave each a hard look, though she carried no anger for them. “I don’t blame you for leaving me. Don’t blame me for the same.” They finished their meal in silence.

Yana sat by the fire, listening to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren playing games, while her children conferred with their lovers.

She closed her eyes, and soothed herself with the soft sounds of village life. The sounds she escaped from so long ago. The sounds she could never stop escaping from, no matter how much she longed to stay.  As she drifted to sleep, a single tear slid down her cheek.

****

The next morning, she packed up her things. Delai and Yorin said nothing, but Kayta tried to stop her. “Why, Mama?”

“I don’t want to scare the little ones when I disappear.”

Kayta shook her head. “Maybe if you just stay, it won’t come after you again. Maybe …”

Yana shifted away from her daughter’s grasping hands, though she longed to cling to them. Her back and legs ached. Her soul ached. She wanted so badly to rest.

Instead, she waved goodbye, planted her walking stick in the dirt and left.

A half mile out, the air rippled around her, as if someone had shaken a blanket.

Yana took a deep breath, and kept her eyes open and ready. The world shifted, tilted like a rolling plate, and Elsewhere took her. When it finally settled, she stared up toward the peak of Great Mount. She sighed, rubbing her eyes, and walked on.

The rocky mountainside stretched on without end, sloping up, forever into the sky, beyond the clouds. Many said all of Everwood rotated on the spire of Great Mount like a child’s top, the misty ocean frothing at its edges.

Yana missed the ocean. Soft sand beneath her feet, the spray of the sea. It had been a long time since Elsewhere had taken her there.

Hours later, she set up camp near the base of the mountain. She stretched her oiled tarp between two high boulders, weighing down the edges with a few smaller rocks. Underneath, she spread her blanket and bedroll. Then she retrieved the bread and dried meat her children had given her. While she ate her simple meal, she surveyed her trinkets.

Dozens of things, collected from all over the world. Spirit shakers, little gourds filled with rice and pebbles, from the Calliopes in the north. Reed dolls from the Fangor marshes. Gold and silver coins from each of the great cities throughout Everwood. Dancing scarves, glittering with beads. She had danced so beautifully, and men and women alike had paid to see her. Some had tried to keep her.

Kayta had been conceived by one of those rich men, who had thought he could buy Yana like a prized pet. She smiled. Elsewhere alone owned her.

Her smiled faded as lightning flashed and thunder rumbled in the distance. Storms around Great Mount were always violent. She gathered up her things and huddled under her blanket.

She looked up into gray storm clouds above. Her voice croaked with so many years she had not realized had passed her by. “I always told myself I would never regret what I did, the life I chose. And parts of it I don’t. I’ve seen more of the world than anyone else, lived enough for ten women.” Tears streamed down her cheeks. “But I missed my children. I want to rest. I want to lay my head down knowing that the next night I’ll be beside the same fire, and the night after that, and all the nights to come. I don’t want this anymore. I’m too old, too tired. I don’t know what to do.”

As if in the answer, lightening arced through the clouds, then a rumble of thunder. While she hid in her meager shelter, the storm raged. She slept little, and felt sickness seep into her bones. She dreamed of her children as they’d been, carefree and loving. No one a stranger to them. Then bitter and angry, as they’d grown up. Then worried. They reached for her. Elsewhere yanked her away.

Yana sobbed and fought for their hands. Why hadn’t she stayed in their village? Maybe Kayta was right, and she only had to stay in one place to end the spell.

I’ve tried and it never works. Elsewhere always takes me.

She fell asleep near the end of the storm, soaked and shivering.

****

Yana had fought so long to escape the village life she so dreaded, she could not believe she now fought to find it again.

Illness had claimed her. Wet and bedraggled from the storm, she still had to quickly pack her things. Once upon a time, Elsewhere had often given her a whole month at a particular place, before sweeping her away. Now she was lucky to have two days.

“I will die like this.” She did not know who she whispered to. No gods cared to listen to her. A self-important little hedge-witch, who dabbled in magics far beyond her station. She’d been lucky the gods smiled on her enough that her spell had worked as she’d wanted. Given her the chance to always escape. To Elsewhere.

They would laugh when she begged them to take it back.

Yana cast the bundle of dry herbs onto the fire, and a hacking cough doubled her over. She drew in a rattling breath. Hands shaking, she raised them to the sky. She felt Elsewhere coming, bound to snatch her away.

The air folded.

“Please,” Yana cried. “I want to rest. Send me back to my children. I have little time left, and I would spend it with them.”

Ashes swirled around her arms and face. They twisted in the shifting air. Yana felt Elsewhere wrap around her, and closed her eyes like a fool.

Ungrateful little hedge-witch, after all we’ve given you.

The dry, soft voice startled Yana. She floated in darkness, suddenly free of pain and exhaustion. “Not ungrateful. I loved my life, it was what I wanted for so long, and I treasured it. But I’m old. I would like to spend my last days with my children.”

The voice chuckled, a sound like autumn leaves rustling. What will you give us? Your trinkets?

“You may take them all.” Yana had her memories.

We have no use for trinkets. What have you of value?

Yana’s heart sank. “I have nothing.”

Untrue. As you just thought, you have your memories. Those of your journey across Everwood since you were given to Elsewhere.”

Yana’s pulse quickened, and she shook her head. “That is all I have. I would not remember my children, my life. I would be no one.” Somehow, she thought she felt tears on her cheeks, though in the strange limbo, she doubted tears were possible. She closed her eyes, and let out a slow breath. “Leave me the memory of my children. I would like to remember them at least.”

Silence followed.

As you wish.

****

Hard packed earth pressed against Yana’s hands and knees. She had the sense of a long journey. Familiar voices shouted around her.

“Mama!”

“You’re back.”

“Quick, bring her inside. She’s not well.”

Yana coughed painfully. Hands lifted her, tucked her into a pallet by the fire.  Someone pressed a cup to her lips.  She drank the thick, bitter syrup.  She stared up at three pale faces, and recognized them. Kayta, Delai and Yorin. Her children.

Other memories lay just out of reach. Memories of a good, long life. Of distant places. She smiled as she closed her eyes. Perhaps when she woke, and was better, she would think on those faded memories a bit more.