Short Story Friday: Give and Take

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Maala wiped the warm perspiration from her brow as she carefully scooped the cooking rice away from the hole in the bottom of the old iron pot, desperate not to waste a single grain while the water bubbled out and transformed the dried grit into soft, spoonable gruel.  She had burned it yesterday, just a little, while trying to change the baby’s soiled clothes at the same time, and Yawo had scolded her.  She would not make the same mistake again.

At the bottom of the salt cellar was nothing more than a fine, powdery coating, but she pressed her finger into the dust and imagined she was tracing a picture on a frosted window, cool and crackling with miniature spears of sharp elven ice, before rubbing the remnants of the seasoning into the bowl.  It wasn’t enough, but if she didn’t stir it in all the way, perhaps the echoing tang of the expensive spice would still shine through.

Yawo wasn’t pleased.  He had gotten accustomed to finer things during his time away from home, and no longer savored his sister’s cooking as much as he had before getting sick.  The infirmary had been as elegant as a palace, and cost nearly as much to live in, but Maala hadn’t had a choice.  She had hoped the physician would keep him there, and put the child to work when he was cured, to take him off her hands no matter how much she loved him, but the physician hadn’t been able to. 

He hadn’t done much, in fact, except shake his head a lot and take the coins she had earned through a labor she didn’t wish her younger brother to know about.  The little boy was still sick, and rice gruel with a dusting of salt wasn’t going to make him better. 

Nothing would, the physician had told her, and she had spent long nights, wide open, gauging the truth in his words.  He told her it would only be weeks before the tightness in her heart burst its banks and spilled into aching grief to flood an unmarked hole in the earth.  He had said the same thing about her parents, when the dark bile cough came to the village, and he had been wrong.  It had been less than a day. 

More than a year had passed since she had begged him to save them.  He had tried, after she had finally given him much more than begging, but her resistance had rendered it too late.  More than a year, she sighed, brushing her fingers over the sleeping baby’s feathery hair as she brought Yawo’s bowl to his bedside.  He ate it all, which pleased her, and rendered his quiet complaints less bitter as she ladled the boiled rice into his open mouth.

There was none left for her, but that didn’t matter.  She was not hungry for bland and watery gruel.  She would sup on something far brighter that night unless the physician listened to her, she thought grimly as she tucked the sharp boning knife into her skirt.  There was no truth in his words.  There couldn’t be.  She had given him too much.

Yawo was lost in slumber by the time she slipped from the hut.  She had been practicing for days, and she knew she would return before her brother or her baby woke.  There was medicine.  She had seen it on the shelf behind the glass.  There were no more coins to use for salt, maybe, but the physician would be the one to pay dearly if he did not help her.  She would give him nothing.  She would not make the same mistake again.

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