The girls and women at the well were already gossiping about him like a legend. "He was so handsome," they would say, going on about his perfectly kept beard; his long, flowing black hair; how one of his eyes was green and the other brown; and the way his voice was soft and yet commanding enough to be heard over the shouts of the onlookers in the square.
They were talking, of course, about the Healer.
He was a tall, bearded man from across the desert and he had come to the village a few days before. Since he had arrived, the town had gone into such a frenzy that every morning, when he went out to the village square, row upon row of people would crowd around him, shouting their pains and ailments, begging to be healed. People from all over — some, if rumors were to be believed, from farther away than even the Healer himself — came to throw themselves at the man's feet. The inns in my village were full of the disabled, sick, old, and dying.
I had not taken much interest in the Healer. I was fond of books and spent my time after chores reading descriptions of faraway places, biographies of amazing historical figures, and anything else I could get my hands on. I had read all about street magicians, hoaxers, and con artists who were to be found in the large cities of the world and I took this 'Healer' to be one of them. Probably, he had been kicked out of them all. Forced to turn his eyes to small villages, he now took the money he could from uneducated yokels and moved on before they caught on to his tricks. It was clever, but I had no interest in seeing it firsthand. The 'Healer' would no doubt make some money and be on his way soon enough; down the road and just a story the men would talk about in the pubs.
My disinterest in the man was quickly noted by the women at the well, however, and they often questioned why I had not gone to see him. "What do you think about him, Quinlan?" one of the women asked.
"I've got no need of a healer," I said, wary of why they were so interested. The other girls and women always kept their distance from me and teased me at any opportunity, which was a predicament I was not dissatisfied with. Nevertheless, they merely urged me to go and see him, only one of them making a rude aside about how there was obviously something wrong with me that the Healer might fix. I glanced at Yunice, who had once, long ago, been my friend. She stayed quiet, doing her best to avoid looking at me, as she always did.
The sun was approaching the horizon and I was on my way back from the Gentleman Trader, a general store which my parents were fond of visiting. My father had done a better-than-average job when selling some of our vegetables at the farmer's market that morning and had sent me out to buy some molasses — a rare treat — so that we could make a pie and celebrate with the extra money.
The store had been nearly empty, and the owner's son, who had taken an interest in me a few years earlier and who usually slowed me down as I shopped, was not there. I was as uninterested in the reason he was gone as I was in his strange advances and was glad to make my purchase and be on my way, hoping to finish the book I was reading before dinner.
As I walked the narrow alleys — I never really liked the busier main streets, preferring the back ways, watching as I walked for cats and other interesting things — I couldn't help but find my mind wandering to what the women at the well had been saying the day before. Perhaps, I should go and see what the fuss was about. I had the time. I probably even had the Healer to thank for the extra time, since he had all the townsfolk enthralled and spending money in the square instead of at the Gentleman Trader.
I found myself imagining the handsome man in the middle of the crowd, looking at me and motioning me to him. I giggled to myself at the thought. I was as unattractive as anyone in the village and, aside from the store owners' boy, no one had ever taken an interest in me.
"Fine," I said to myself. "I'll let the wind decide." I closed my eyes the same way I had done hundreds of times, concentrating on the whispers of the breeze as it rustled the vines which clung to the walls of buildings; the few leaves which remained on the trees this late in the autumn; the clothes which hung across a line from two neighbors' second story windows above the alley; a faded pamphlet which blew across the cobblestone.
"See the Healer," the wind faintly spoke to me. Until this point, I had always done what the wind told me to. Sometimes I had thought what the wind told me to do to be foolish, but later, with the privilege of hindsight I could see that it had, in fact, steered me well. Often, I had wondered if it were my imagination; some part of my subconscious making itself known through the world around me. There were books about such things, magic and faeries and the like, but I had always been able to distinguish between the fictional and the factual.
"All right," I replied to the wind, awkwardly conscious of how it must seem I was talking to myself to anyone who might have been watching -- perhaps this was why other people usually kept their distance? "I'll see the 'Healer', I'll be unimpressed, and all this silliness will be done with."
I walked toward the town square where I knew I would find the crowds of people and the Healer. Only, when I got closer, I didn't hear the shouts of anxious onlookers. There was nothing. Only the breeze, my constant companion, made any sound and, without concentrating, I could not make out what it was saying.
As I approached the end of the alleyway, where it emptied out into town square, I noticed a boy with no more than 10 name days behind him crouching behind a large box and peeking around it into the square. He was the younger brother of the fletcher. Or was it the blacksmith? He heard me approaching and turned around, startled. "Oh, it's you," he said, seeming relieved but annoyed. People usually found my presence annoying. And the feeling was always mutual. It still hurt though, each time like an echo of Yunice's declaration that I was a freak.
I swallowed my pride, something I was used to, and said, "What are you doing?"
The boy turned back to look into the square motioning for me to come over and see what he was looking at, apparently his urge to share whatever was happening was stronger than his distaste for my company. "You know the Healer right?" The boy didn't pause for me to answer, everyone in town knew the Healer by now. "He just did something... weird."
I peered around the box to see the square, completely empty, all except for the robed man with the long, flowing hair and the perfectly trimmed beard. He was just as the women at the well had described him. He was beautiful.
"What happened?" I whispered.
"He just sent everyone away." The boy motioned excitedly with his hands as he talked, obviously remembering a powerful scene. "The people refused. Some of them cried out to him that they were dying, that they wouldn't last until tomorrow. The Healer got angry. Angry!" The exasperation in his voice told me that this was unheard of. "He started throwing things, peoples' crutches, food that they had brought to eat. He was furious. The people all left... as fast as they could."
Then the boy fell silent, pointing out into the square. I followed his gaze and saw the Healer walking toward us. While recounting the event, the boy had raised his voice enthusiastically from a whisper into a near shout.
"Run!" the boy shouted, turning and frantically darting down the alley away from town square, assuming, as I did, that the Healer was coming to tell us to leave, perhaps even more forcefully than he had the crowd before. I watched the boy go, but despite the anger the Healer exhibited in his story, my feet remained still.
I was rooted in place and the wind whispered loudly enough for me to hear it without concentrating, "Stay."
I turned to face the Healer as he reached the entrance to the alley. "I will see you, tomorrow, for the healing. I wanted us to meet face-to-face first; to dispel any fears you might have and to show you that you can trust me. We have a mutual friend, you and I." He looked up to the leaves in a nearby tree, shaking in the wind. "I think you know what I mean." He smiled an unnerving smile and then he was gone.
He didn't walk away. He didn't duck around the corner. He was just gone. Vanished. And with his disappearance, the wind picked up. On it came the scent of rain.
I looked up and saw dark clouds blowing in over the town. It had been a clear day and we rarely got storms this late in the autumn. There was something unnatural about the storm which seemed to be brewing and something extremely unnatural about the Healer.
I started walking home, the jar of molasses still wrapped in my kerchief, and it began to rain. I won't be going to meet the Healer tomorrow, I thought to myself. But the patter of rain on the cobblestones took up a chorus of laughter, "Freak," it tapped out menacingly.
By the time I made it home, I was drenched. My ma made me strip to my small-clothes in the doorway so as not to track in the mud and wet, even though I was much too old to be seen by my pa that way. He chuckled at my embarrassed shouts at him to turn around and finally complied, letting me trudge face down to my room, hair dripping on the smooth, wooden floor.
It was shortly after my fourth naming day. I was playing by the river under the cliffs, with my best friend, Yunice.
She looked up from the rollybeetle we had been watching and said, "Why are you so strange, Quin?"
I sat cross-legged, opposite my friend whose bright red skirts looked even brighter splayed out across the dark, wet earth behind her. We had built a small, circular wall out of the mud between us and placed the beetle inside of it, watching it climb partway up, lose its footing, and slide back down, rolling into a ball before coming to rest in the center of the circle. The river was quiet here, but not far downstream the right bank squeezed in toward the left, forcing the water to flow more rapidly and loudly.
"I'm not strange," I replied, defensively, still staring down at the beetle, which was uncurling itself and preparing to make another escape attempt.
Sometimes Yunice got like this. She didn't hear the whispering like I did. The susurrus floating on the wind, as if carried a great distance, speaking a hundred different languages; sometimes nearly inaudible, other times I plugged my ears. But that didn't help. Nor did the shaman of the desert tribe's attempts to drown them out with wax or by plunging my head under water until I thought I would drown.
"Yes, you are! You're downright queer." Yunice said in her matter-of-fact way, brushing a red-gold strand of stray hairs from her face, "Maybe it has to do with what's in your pants. Aunwyn says I'm strange because of what's in my pants." Aunwyn was Yunice's older brother. He was several years older than and often played cruel tricks on the two of us.
I felt anger flush into my cheeks and I had to remind myself that my parents had practically begged me to be friends with her. "Yunice is a nice girl and she's only a year older than you. Neither of you have a friend yet. It's time for you made a friend, Quinlan."
I took a deep breath, trying to keep the frustration out of my voice. "There's nothing queer in my pants," I said, finally looking up from the rollybeetle as it struggled once again to reach the top of the barrier we had made. I could see on Yunice's face that she didn't believe me.
My parents had warned me to never show anyone what was under my skirts. Mother had said, "It's not ladylike." Still, she would never have to know. It would be okay, I thought. I had once overheard my parents arguing, late at night. Father had said it's what's between your legs which determines whether you are boy or girl. And Yunice is a girl, too, so what's between her legs must be what's between mine.
"Nothing to fear," I heard the water in the distance whisper.
Okay, I silently replied. I closed my eyes and lifted my skirts, pulling down my small-clothes to show Yunice, then realized that with my eyes closed I couldn't see her reaction. After a few long seconds of silence, I peeked out, opening my left eye slowly, afraid that perhaps my friend was right, maybe there was something queer under there.
"It's like my brother's but it's also like mine..." Yunice trailed off, a look of shock on her face.
"What do you mean?" I said, confused by her reaction. Had I misunderstood what father had said during the argument? Or, worse yet, was I not a girl after all?
"You've got both!" Yunice screeched, the pitch of her voice raising to the unnaturally high note that only the very young dare to hit. "You're... you're a freak!" She shouted, her face turning suddenly red, her expression changing from shock to anger.
I dropped the hems of my skirts as I felt the tears building behind my eyes. Yunice looked like she was about to hit me, then. Instead, she kicked the damp soil in front of her, spraying mud all over my dress and face. Then she turned and ran, away from the river and back toward the village. I stood there, crying silently, watching as my first — and last — childhood friend ran away from me like I was a monster.
I remained there, unmoving, for what seemed like hours. "Freak!" Yunice's cracking voice echoed in my mind.
And each time the wind replied, calmly and without feeling, Freak...
Eventually, I looked down at my dress, at the mud splattered there. The bits of mud looked like they had dripped up instead of down. It made me feel like I was somehow hanging upside down in the rain. It made me dizzy. I looked at the ground to keep my balance.
The tiny rollybeetle lay smashed by Yunice's foot in our ruined mud ring.
"Quin! Wake up!" My father's voice came to me as if across a great expanse.
The dream fell away from me like a veil. Had it been a dream or a memory? It was too clear to be just a dream. And Yunice's dress had been red. I never dreamt in colors unless they were memories. It was one of my memories this time. I did know Yunice as a child. She had called me a freak by the river. That was so long ago, though, almost 10 years. What had brought that scene to mind all of a sudden?
I couldn't complain, though. It was nice to have a dream from my own perspective for once. It seemed like such a rare occurrence. Lately, I had been dreaming almost entirely from the perspective of others. Having a dream where I was myself, made me feel grounded; anchored in my own skin. Usually when I woke up, I had to take a few minutes to remember who I even was.
My pa must have been expecting this. He stood patiently in the doorway of my bedroom, leaning against the frame. I could tell he was trying to hide a smile.
"What are you so happy about?" I said, groggily, rubbing my eyes and stretching.
I must have taken him by surprise because it took him a moment to reply. "It's a very important day." I looked at him quizzically. "Don't you remember? It's the day that we go see the Healer." With that, he left me to get ready.
As I slipped off my night shift and started getting dressed, I was reminded of the previous night's events. The near-nakedness in front of my father had called to mind the day at the river with Yunice. That explained why I'd had the dream, but how had my pa known that I was going to see the Healer today? I pondered the thought as I finished dressing and made my way to the kitchen. My pa and ma were already there and breakfast had already been cooked. My parents both stared at me with smiles on their faces.
“What?” I asked them as I took a biscuit off the stove and plopped it on a plate, blowing on my fingers. “Ouch! Hot!”
My ma giggled, “We’re just looking at you, sweetie.”
“I know, ma, but why?” I sat down at the table and reached for the honey, breaking open the bread and pouring some on before closing it back up and taking a bite.
My pa was the one who answered. “Because, we’re so happy for you. You’re going to see the Healer later. You’re finally going to be whole. A whole girl. A whole woman! We might even have grandchildren someday!”
I gave my pa an angry look from over my biscuit. “I’m not going to see any ‘healer’. I’m going to do my chores and read like I always do. That guy is just some creep from the capital come to prey on stupid bumpkins who can’t tell a street magician from a real sorcerer.” Even as I said it, I knew it wasn’t true. He obviously heard the wind and water as I did. And the way that storm had come out of nowhere the night before was something else altogether. The real reason I wouldn’t see him was because he was a real sorcerer, or something like it.
“You needn’t worry about the chores,” my ma said, picking up a dirty pan and scrubbing at it, “Your father’s already done them.” At this my jaw actually dropped. Since I was old enough to carry a basket full of vegetables, pa had never helped me with my chores; what I was responsible for was always mine to get done, even if it took me from sunup to sundown.
“What? Did you get up before the sun? How could you have done them all?” I stared at my biscuit, not wanting to meet my parents’ eyes. “And even if you did, I still don’t have any need to see the Healer. I’m perfectly fine the way I am.”
Ma set down the pan she was washing and took the seat next to me at the table. She put her hand on my shoulder and looked at me, her big brown eyes drawing me in. “Quinlan, you know you’ve always been — well — different. The other kids can see it and now that you’ve started the changes, it’s becoming more obvious…” I gave my mother a look that said to stop right there, but she kept going anyway. “You’ve not had your blood and your body is still as shapeless as a girl half your age.”
I stood up so fast that I knocked the chair down behind me with a crash. My cheeks were burning with anger and embarrassment. My mother started to say something else, but my father cut her off. “Quin, you’ve got to face the facts. There’s something wrong. This Healer fellow — maybe he can help. Just give him a chance, you’ve got nothing to lose.”
I felt the tears starting, sliding down my cheeks and dripping onto the floor like the rain from last night. “You don’t understand! He’s a bad man! How do you even know that he wanted me to meet him today? Did he tell you?” I started backing toward the door. I wouldn’t go see him. I couldn’t. The thought made me feel sick to my stomach. There was something wrong about him and I didn’t want anything to do with it.
My pa stood up and walked toward me, his hands out, palms facing down — the way he held them when he calmed the cattle during a lightning storm. “The Wilcox boy, from the farm down the road told us. He said that you were both spying on the Healer and then he came up to you. He said the Healer told you to meet him today.”
How could the boy have known that? Unless he had circled back to listen in after he ran away. But he seemed so terrified of the Healer. It didn’t make sense. “This doesn’t make sense!” I shouted.
I felt like my parents were ganging up on me, trying to force me into something I didn’t want. My father was still coming toward me, just a few steps away. I turned toward the door and ran. I felt my pa’s hand on my clothes, tugging momentarily, pulling until I feared the hems on my dress would rip and the whole thing would pull away, leaving me naked and ashamed once more. But then he let go.
My feet took me out, into the field where my family and I grew crops. I headed for the corn as it was still tall, even this late in the year. I could hide there. I could lose them and get my thoughts together. But my feet had no intention of stopping. I slipped from one furrow to the next, randomly jumping through corn stalks until even I couldn’t tell which one I had started in. I didn’t know if anyone was following me, but if they were I made sure that they would have a hard time of it.
The wind began to blow harder and harder as I ran, and after a time I realized it was whispering. “Go back,” it said and for the first time I ignored its advice.
My breathing, in and out, became a wind of its own, one that whispered what I wanted it to. It said, “I am my own person. I don’t need you anymore. Leave me alone.”
I kept running for a long time; away from my parents’ farm and through several neighboring ones. I didn’t know where I was going or how far; I only knew I had to get away. I knew that, if I continued to run, I would soon reach the river where Yunice and I had played together as little girls. I was amazed at my stamina. I must have been running for 15 minutes or more and yet my feet were not tired. My legs did not ache.
Still, I didn’t understand why I was running; I had had worse disagreements with my parents and never run away. I was a good talker and could talk my way out of almost anything. I could go back. But my mind let go again. All there was was the ground and my feet moving across it.
When I reached the river, I stopped for a moment to take a drink. The water was gurgling and I heard it saying, “You’re a fool, a freak. You will never be loved. Turn back. Turn back. Turn back.” So, I kept running, along the river, past the point where the river shrank in on itself, becoming a tiny rapid before retreating completely underground. I followed the trees and shrubs, which traced the water’s course far below until even those became scarce and I found myself in the desert. I stood on the edge of the last piece of grass, hard and rocky ground spread out ahead of me. I decided it would be safe to look back. I thought I saw the Healer, standing far back at the edge of where the tall trees grew and then he was gone and I was alone in the desert.
I ran until my legs did ache, my feet became sore. Then I walked. Still the wind attacked me with words and now with sand as well. I pushed on. I don’t know how long I walked, the hard ground had turned to sand as the day had turned to night. Likewise, the unbearable heat had become a bitter cold and yet, on I struggled. Thirst and the blowing sand made my throat feel like it was on fire and finally I collapsed, as much from exhaustion as dehydration.
“There, you see,” hissed the wind over the sand by my ear, “You are lost. You should have turned back while you could.”
I knew, without a doubt, that what the wind said was true as I closed my eyes for what I thought would be the very last time.
When my eyes opened once more, it was day and there was water again, but the water was silent. It was being forced into my mouth and it was me who was doing the sputtering. I coughed and the person holding the flask pulled it away from my mouth for a moment. As soon as I had finished coughing, I grabbed their hands and shoved the spout back into my mouth, gulping as if I had not had a drink in a week. And for all I knew, I had not.
After I had had my fill, possibly a bit more according to my stomach, I looked around. I was sitting up on the floor of a small tent. It was not furnished except with a bed roll. The only other occupant was the one holding the flask. He was young, about my age, with long flowing black hair. He was handsome, bordering on beautiful.
“Where am I?” My throat still felt like I had been eating sand and my voice cracked.
“You’re safe. You are among, I believe your people call us, the desert tribe?” His voice was beautiful as well.
“Oh.” I tried to stand up and my companion put out a hand to steady me. “I’m Quinlan. I thought I was done for.”
“You were lucky that I found you in time. I’m called Abiyah.” He motioned me toward the exit of the tent.
I took his hand and we walked out together. The sun was low to the horizon and there was a slight breeze. I was thankful that the breeze was quiet, only rustling the flaps of the nearby tents. I was also thankful to be alive. Very thankful.
I opened my mouth to say as much to Abiyah, but he lifted a finger to my lips. “I know you have just arrived, but there is something I think you should see. It’s not often one of your village makes it so far into the desert. And without any supplies. You must have been running from something pretty terrible.”
I nodded, though I wasn't sure terrible was the right word. He led me across the camp, pulling me quickly at times behind huts, avoiding the others in his tribe. We made our way slowly and quietly out of the camp and to the base of a large rock, jutting out of the sandy ground at an angle. I had never seen anything like it. Without a word, we both began to climb. As we reached the top of the ridge overlooking the camp and the vast desert which sprawled out before us, the sun was going down. As the sun came closer to the horizon, the wind picked up more and more. Still, I didn't hear the whisper.
I shivered as a chill ran through me. Abiyah offered his arms and I stepped back into them. “The men of my tribe come up here to contemplate life’s meaning.” I could feel his warm breath on my neck which gave me goosebumps for an entirely different reason than the cold.
The sunset was breathtaking. I could see why someone would contemplate the meaning of life standing on that ridge. It would make anyone feel small, standing on such a large rock under such an immense and colorful sky.
“Do you come up here often?” I asked, taking in the oranges and pinks as the sun sunk lower and lower.
“No, I’m not allowed,” Abiyah said.
“Are you too young?” Every moment the sunset became more spectacular.
“I am a girl,” was the reply. I turned around and looked at Abiyah again. I blushed and so did he — she? — as I looked up and down the person before me. Abiyah did not look like a girl. “At least, that’s what they say.”
“They?” I raised one of my eyebrows quizzically.
“My parents, the leaders of my tribe, everyone. It doesn’t matter though, I know I’m a man, and I will live as I like.” At that moment I realized why I had come here; why I had run away from my parents over something that I could have probably talked my way out of. I wasn’t running away from them, or even from the Healer. I was running toward Abiyah.
I took his hand in mine and pulled him toward the edge of the cliff. “We should tell them. We should tell them that we will live as we like. No one should stand in between us and who we are.”
Abiyah smiled at me and nodded turning to face the setting sun. We stood as close to the boundary between earth and sky as we dared, with fire in the sky above us, on the cusp between a scorching day and a freezing night, and we shouted down at the tents, at my village across the sand, at the wind blowing in our faces, “We will live as we like!”
So be it, I thought the wind faintly said, as it faded and the sun vanished beneath the horizon.