She Persisted: A Fairy Tale
“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
Dora asked too many questions, her papa said, far too many questions. He said was only trying to protect her, and one day he would choose a husband to continue protecting her, but Dora couldn't help herself.
She needed to know things, almost as much as she needed to breathe.
Why did so many women disappear? Where did they go? And why had her mother joined them? The villagers whispered that witches had spirited them away, but why, wondered Dora, would they do that?
Dora’s mama had been gone for two years, and she still missed her every day.
“We must think of your future, my Dora. Maybe you’ll marry a baker,” her papa suggested with a jollity that Dora did not share. “You’d never go hungry!”
Neela, Dora’s best friend, was the daughter of their village baker. Dora knew well that Neela’s family ate burnt bread and the stale rolls that didn’t sell. Her mama did the actual baking -- rising before the sun and going to bed after everyone else. Neela’s papa did little more than tally the silver coins her mama earned, which Neela’s mama would likely have done herself if she could do sums and read the ledger her husband kept. Sometimes Neela’s mama had bruises on her arms, and once on her face.
It suddenly occurred to Dora that Neela had an older brother likely to inherit the bakery, and she prayed that papa was only joking.
Dora’s mama had been able to read and sum and do all kinds of things that the women in their village did not generally do. Her mama had come from far away, where, she had told Dora, things were different. She didn’t have bruises like Neela’s mother, but she did have a pinched look to her face, and she was barely able to hide the simmering rage that overtook her from time to time.
Dora’s mama hadn’t been happy, and then she disappeared. Dora wondered if her mama was dead. She tried to ask anyone who would listen, but no one would answer her. She wondered if anyone actually knew.
Dora had found a scrap of paper hidden under her winter blanket a few months after her mama had gone. It looked like it had been torn from her mama’s book -- the same book she had watched her father burn as soon as he realized that her mama was not coming back -- and was covered in the familiar sharp and angular dark lines that characterized her mama’s writing.
She kept it in her pocket during the day, and hid it under her pillow at night. She didn’t dare let her papa see it, lest he toss it into the fire as he did mama’s book. It took her a year and a half to find the courage to see what it said, and during that time the rough paper had become soft and worn.
She went to Lila’s booth on market day. Lila lived in the wilderness outside the village, and had come from far away like Dora’s mama. She sold herbal remedies, but she also wrote letters for those who could not pen their own, and read their replies.
Dora had a single silver coin she’d been given for her last birthday. She hoped it was enough.
Lila read the note silently, without even moving her lips as some of the men in the village did. Her eyes widened a bit at the text, and instead of reading it aloud she said, “Come to me when I am packing up, after the market has ended, and I will read it to you then.”
Dora agreed, and wondered at the need for secrecy.
Returning at dusk, Lila motioned Dora to sit behind her little cart. It looked as though she had had a very good day, as there was little left in the back. Her donkey flicked its ears impatiently as though he could no longer wait to journey home. Lila refused the coin Dora tried to press into her hand, and looked around very carefully to see if anyone still lingered within earshot. She then read in a soft voice that would not carry: “My little Dora, it is easy enough to open the door, but there is only room for one. Please forgive me -- and follow behind as soon as you can. Ask Lila -- she will know.”
“How did she know I would come to you? What if papa had taken the letter? What do you know? Where did she go? What door?” Dora asked.
Lila was silent a moment, as though she did not quite know how to explain. “Did your mama have special stones?”
Dora thought for a moment. “Yes,” she said slowly. “She had six very big, very pretty rocks. I found them in the backyard the day she disappeared. Papa saw me with them and took them away. I don’t know what he did with them.”
Lila frowned. “You need to find them. Come back to me when you do, and I’ll explain everything. Men can’t go through the door. And I can’t leave until my boy is grown, so I keep the knowledge. Come back to me, but be careful.”
Dora said she would, and went home happier than she had been in a long time.
She looked everywhere she could think of in their small cottage, but Dora could not find the stones. She could only believe that her papa had thrown them out, so she decided to ask Lila next market day if there was some other way to find the door.
Five days later, her papa invited several of the men from the village to dinner. Dora cooked the meal, served it, and felt a little panic when she noticed the baker giving her a speculative look. He complimented her when she came back to clear the table, saying, “You have grown into a fine cook, and a hard worker. The rolls were especially good, like little clouds. Even better than my Mina makes, I think! You will make some lucky lad a wonderful bride.”
Dora felt another splinter of fear pierce her gut. Her papa laughed and winked at the baker across the table. It seemed her papa had not been joking about the baker’s son after all.
Her papa dismissed her after she brought out the sweet, but Dora had a hiding place of old, where she used to watch her parents when they entertained, after she was supposed to be in bed. She settled into the nook in the kitchen, and watched through the knothole in the wall.
“They say it is witchcraft,” the silversmith said. “So many women gone! Your Greete, his Naalon, and my neighbor’s wife, too. How do we stop these witches if we cannot even see them? We have been so careful. None of our daughters have learned to read! We burn the books as soon as we find them!”
“And yet,” the farrier said, wagging his finger in the air, “still they go.”
“More even than before, when most of the women could read,” sighed the butcher. “Perhaps we have chosen the wrong tactic?”
“Bah!” the baker interjected. “With or without witchcraft, women have no need of learning!”
“I found Greete’s book,” Dora’s papa said. “And it’s true -- she was a witch.”
The men gasped, but he continued, “I was always a little bit suspicious. Greete knew things she should not, things that made her unhappy. And she never cared that she couldn’t give me a son! But I found her book and read it before I burned it. But witchcraft?” He paused for dramatic effect. “Witchcraft is merely a jest.”
“Prove it!” the men cried in consternation, pounding their pewter mugs on the table.
Dora watched as her papa took a little silver key from the chain around his neck and unlocked the cabinet where he kept his store of silver coins. Dora had never bothered to look there in her search for the stones, but her papa quickly produced her mama’s missing stones from inside, along with a few pages torn from her book.
“I’ll show you,” he said with a confident grin.
The men helped him to push the furniture to the edges of the room, to clear the floor. Consulting the sheets, he placed the stones just so, and then read the words written there in his wife’s dark and restless hand. Dora didn’t understand the language, but he repeated the same sounds three times. At the end of the third recitation, a little wind swirled through the room and the flame of every single candle rose high and burned blue. And then: nothing.
The men laughed together as they put the furniture back in its places.
But Dora had seen something the men had not. Just by her hiding place, very near the little knothole in the wall, there had been a shimmer with something unformed just behind it. It had dissipated as quickly as it had appeared, but it had definitely been there. It must have been the door Lila and her mother had spoken of!
“That,” Dora’s papa said as he chuckled with his friends, “is witchcraft. All of that for a paltry blue flame!”
The stones were locked away once more, and because her father had made his point, the sheets from mama’s book were consigned to the fire.
Dora was not troubled by that. Like many who could not read, her memory was excellent. Her papa had repeated those strange words fully three times, when two repetitions would have been sufficient. She already knew the chant by heart.
And, she thought cheerfully as she climbed into her bed, she also knew how to pick a simple lock.
Dora sought out Neela the next afternoon, and pointedly ignored the warm look her friend’s brother gave her as she pulled her friend out into the yard amongst the flapping laundry she had hung to dry.
“Come to me after the moon rises tonight, after your family is asleep,” Dora whispered. “Meet me in the clearing behind my house. I have to show you something!”
Her friend agreed to do so.
Dora picked the little cabinet’s lock at her leisure, and carefully closed it back up after she removed the stones. Her papa likely wouldn’t notice their absence for quite some time. She bundled up all of her clothes and her treasured possessions, and carefully placed the stones on top.
She cooked her papa one last dinner, and kissed his cheek when she served it. “I do love you, papa,” she said a little wistfully. Loving someone and liking everything they do are often not the same thing, she thought. She sang a little as she washed up the dishes, and then bid her papa good night.
She took her bundle down to the clearing at moonrise and waited for Neela.
She explained everything, and made Neela memorize the chant, saying it with her again and again until it was cemented in her friend’s mind. “After I go through,” Dora instructed, “take the stones and hide them. When it’s safe, send your mother through first. Teach the chant to someone else before you go and make sure they know where to find the stones when you disappear. If all else fails, Lila in the woods can keep the stones safe. But try to pass them on with the chant before you come.”
“Will this really work?” Neela asked, her skepticism evident.
“Just watch,” Dora said, and then echoed her father’s words. “I’ll show you.”
She placed the stones very carefully in the pattern she had seen in her home, and then chanted the words three times. A little shimmer arrived above the stone circle, and then grew into a shimmering door. There were faces visible on the other side -- friendly faces, some familiar faces -- all women, all smiling. They were in a room with bookshelves stuffed full all the way to the ceiling. There were answers in that place, answers to so many of Dora’s endless questions.
“Greete!” shouted one of the women. Dora recognized her as Naalon, the ferrier’s wife. “Oh, Greete! Come quickly!”
Dora’s mama appeared in the group, her face flushed from running. “Come through, my love!” she said with a beaming smile. “Come through -- we’ve been waiting!”
“Remember!” Dora said to her friend just before she stepped into the shimmering portal. “Send your mother through, pass on the knowledge, then follow as soon as you can.”
And then stepped into her mother’s waiting arms.
For International Women's Day 2017, from the prompt discussed here.