By Suzan Palumbo
This time, you were a burgeoning peony at the edge of a small cottage garden, stems ladened with clusters of dark fuchsia petals. Your scent perfumed the afternoon air, enveloping me as I walked my solitary way home. I did not want to wait for you.
I crept back towards the village that night, with the knife I’d plunged into your chest two human lives ago, when I discovered you at the Inn with another woman. The blade was blunt with age and use and it shredded your stem as I tried to take a cutting of you for myself. The worn handle slipped in my palms and its edge sliced into my thumb. Your heady fragrance mingled with the rust smell of the wound made me light-headed, as if I were fighting against the sweep of a thousand chaotic feathers. I managed to fold a piece of you in the blood-speckled hem of my blouse and went home to transplant you in my garden.
You shriveled up and died during the night. Peonies, I learned, could not be propagated by cuttings.
The next week, I walked into town by way of the same cottage garden, hoping to catch a glimpse of you. You’d been dug up. A fresh hole now marked your place. Your absence gaped, threatening to swallow me whole. I focused on my breathing, the weight of my pack, and the dirt road that led to the market square.
Engorged with activity, the village swelled on market days, taking on a pulse and tenor of its own. The air was thick with the aroma of fresh crusty bread and the spicy bite of radishes. Underscoring the throb of this congestion were the stall women, who paused their hawking to whisper to each other about me.
“Witch. Unnatural,” they hissed as I passed. Their slings were not new. I’d borne their scorn for lifetimes. My stagnancy was punishment for my past misdeeds, they’d reckoned. It was my karma, my own doing. Most would not transact business with me out of fear I would foul their fields and marital beds — cause their wombs to wither.
I walked past them all to Madu’s stall.
Madu was tall and solid. Her eyes, sharp. Wary. She was also fair in her bartering. She accepted the medicinal herbs I traded and gave me the cloth and wares I needed in return. Our exchanges were conducted in curt nods and glances which suited me well. She must have been offloading the neat bundles I brought her at a neighbouring town, because no one here would take them.
She broke our silent protocol that morning.
“They saw you mucking about in Rohan’s garden last week, in the dark.” Her voice was gravelly and low, meant for only me. “They think you’ve put a curse on his house.” She pressed her lips into a severe line. Her statement was meant as a warning.
“I took a cutting,” I said, brushing off the urgency in her tone. “I don’t deal in curses.”
“The people here do not know what keeps you tied to the village, Arthi. They fear anyone who isn’t like them.” Her words left no room for comment. I thanked her for her concern and turned to leave, bristling at her assumed knowledge of my circumstances. I’d never feared the idle gossip of the villagers and I would not begin now.
I returned home by a different route nonetheless, to save myself the hassle of further well-meant advice.
I stared up at the net you’d left in my bedroom the last time we were human. You’d arrived at the door, a middle-aged woman, bronzed by the sun and carrying the brine-marinated ropes over your shoulder. You’d forgiven me for the violent end to your previous life.
“I don’t hold grudges,” you said. Lying under the net’s canopy, you mused about our destinies — how we were connected like the knots in the grid: the points of intersection just as vital as the voids in between. I nodded, hurt and unconvinced.
“The sea’s calling,” you said after a week. Like the waves, your time upon the shore was brief. You returned to your ocean vessel leaving me to wrestle myself free from the strangle of your netting. Alone.
Two months after Madu’s warning, there was a knock at my door. I continued the washing up, assuming it was the village brats engaged in yet another game of taunt the hermit. But the knocking continued, morphing into banging, enraged and insistent.
I opened the door and a young woman forced her way inside. She stood in the middle of the room, a tremor belying her bravado.
“Lift the curse,” she said, her voice buoyed by adrenaline, her jaw set in determination.
“The curse you cast on me when you mangled the peony in our yard.”
I crossed my arms. “I liked the blooms and wanted to see if I could grow it for myself. That is all.” I sighed. “I am sorry if I hurt the plant. I’ve never wished you or your house ill.” There wasn’t any use in explaining who or what else the wilted stem had meant to me. I planted my feet and angled my shoulder towards the door: an invitation for her to leave.
My words leeched her of both anger and strength. She melted into the wooden chair at the table and keened, shuddering with each sob. I stepped towards her, holding myself back from touching her shoulder.
“My husband, Rohan,” she said after she’d regained some composure. “He thinks what’s happened to me is your doing. He’s threatened to put me out if I don’t remedy it.” She swallowed audibly. “H- he doesn’t want it spreading to him and there’s no one who’ll help me. They fear the taint will catch.” She kept her eyes downcast on her lap, picking at a hangnail on her index finger.
Something inside me wavered. But it wasn’t guilt over her predicament and its connection to me. No, it was resentment that this Rohan of hers could suddenly obliterate everything his wife held close. That he’d kick her out so blithely, without any concern for her welfare. I took the other chair and sat down across from her. Worry had traced faint lines around her mouth. “Tell me what’s happened to you.”
She considered me a minute as if calculating the risk of divulging personal information to a witch. Then her reserve collapsed and the forlorn look of a woman with nothing to lose clouded her face.
She unbuttoned the front of her dress and bared herself to me. Her chest and breasts were covered in red, inflamed patches that she’d raked raw and bloody. Some of the spots wept, showing signs of infection.
I nodded, knowing at the least I could remedy her body. It was a skin ailment, a reaction to something harsh in her environment — uncomfortable but treatable. “Wait here,” I told her and went out to my potting shed. I returned minutes later with a jar of chickweed and plantain and another of calendula. I handed them to her then explained how to make a salve that would soothe the irritation and reduce the inflammation. Her mouth turned downward, indignant at the non-immediate cure. She buttoned up her dress and rose from the table.
“Here,” she said, thrusting some coins she’d fished from her skirt pockets at me.
“I don’t need payment,” I responded, keeping my voice even.
“Take it. If this works I don’t want to be indebted to a witch.” She put the money down on the table and walked out with the jars. She left the door open behind her.
In midsummer, you were a monarch. You landed on a border of chives, antennae wriggling in the breeze, your feet savouring the light purple flowers. I moved towards you and you fluttered onto my arm. When I cupped my palms together so that I could hold you in my hands, you flitted away on the wind.
“Nothing is permanent,” I chanted aloud as I pulled weeds from my herb garden. But intrusive thoughts are sharp and I could not keep them at bay. Some things were permanent, like your continual leaving or my attachment to this house. Throughout my tumbling from rebirth to death and rebirth again, I was tied to this hearth, this village. The souvenirs of my past lives ever present, within reach. I reasoned, desperately, that it was so you could find me when you realized the error of your wandering and decided to take root.
“All people come into our lives to teach us a lesson.” The words of my first mother, the one who taught me how to grow herbs, reverberated within my chest. What was I supposed to learn from you? I had devoted all of my lives to waiting for you. When would the cycles end?
The market was different as I made my way to Madu’s stall. There’d been a shift I couldn’t place. My steps were quicker, the colours of garments and fabrics sharper. We conducted our trade as we always had. Madu’s face held its shrewd expression but she seemed less exacting than usual. I left without incident, my senses trained on every movement and sound, assessing the change.
It was only at the Village’s edge that I realized what had been missing. The stall women’s whispering had ceased. There’d been no calls of “Harlot” or “Devil” as I’d passed. For the first time, it was an absence I welcomed. I smiled as I continued home.
You were a tiny, grey kitten, curled up in front of my door at the beginning of fall. Your luminous green eyes surveyed my abode — the two wooden chairs at the table, the small pot of stew bubbling on the range. I brought you a saucer of goat’s milk and watched your rough tongue lap it up. When you’d licked the vessel dry, you stretched out in front of the fire. I lay down on the rug next to you. We drifted to sleep, warm and content. When I woke, the ashes in the hearth were the same colour as your fur. I tried to scoop you up in my arms but you hissed and scratched my wrist with your razor claws.
You stayed this time, though our interactions were always on your terms. You’d purr and rub against my ankles, then slip out of reach when I bent over to caress you. You never answered to any name I called you and took to lounging in your old net suspended above my bed. I’d wake up to find you staring down at me through the diamond-shaped spaces, one of your paws draped casually below the level of the latticed cables.
You watched, unattached, as the village women began to knock on my cottage door with greater frequency. “Sita, Rohan’s wife, sent me,” they’d say. All were in search of succour, both physical and personal. I aided them as much as I could.
Then, in April, I opened the front door and you ran out into the drizzle. I did not go in search of you.
Years passed and my kohl-black hair showed signs of grey. I resigned myself to the idea that your transmigration had gone astray, that I would not see you again while in this incarnation. I focused on my garden, on the knowledge of plants my first mother, long returned to the soil, had passed on to me.
As a child I had relished the routine of weeding and watering this plot with her, but was distraught at summer’s end, when the days became short and the stems of the plants I’d nurtured turned brittle.
“You can’t hold on to the world. It would be easier if you learned to let go,” she said, as she wiped my face and dusted crumbled leaves from my palms.
“But it’s my garden. I want it to stay the same forever.” I crunched my fingers together, as if a fist could make time stop.
“I’m not sure there is a forever,” my first mother said, looking towards the horizon.
Now, three human lives later, it appeared that this would be my garden forever and I had learned to accept the coming of autumn.
I grew herbs and dried them to sell at the market stall Madu had helped me set up. In the late spring, I fermented large batches of rhubarb wine for the Inn. The women of the village now dealt with me freely, seeking me out when they needed a tea to dry out a wet cough or a balm to cure an infected finger. Sometimes, I helped the village men, though their glances never captured my interest.
One spring evening, before market day, you walked up the path towards my home and knocked on my door. You smiled your familiar smile when I let you in. Your eyes were piercing, reminiscent of the cat you had been and your hair glinted like polished onyx in the declining sun.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” I said. You took a long draught from the mug of milk I placed in front of you.
“What shall I call you this time?”
I smiled. “Hello, Vidya. I’m Arthi.”
That evening, as the fire turned to embers, Vidya and I sat across from each other at the table. She was twenty-five, twenty years younger than me. The skin on her hands was a smooth, supple contrast to the slackening thinness of my own. I thought of the knife I had used to take the cutting of her so many years ago.
“We could end this incarnation at the same time? Go through the cycles together?” My words tasted charred like flakes of ash in the hearth.
“It wouldn’t work.” She shook her head. “It would be giving in to your impatience, your need for permanence. We’re getting closer. Next time our lives will coincide.”
“You can’t guarantee that.” My voice hitched and I turned from her. “You, always needing a change, never content with just me.”
She came over to my side of the table and sat next to me, brushing her thigh against mine. “I kept coming back to you this time, didn’t I?”
“You did.” I swallowed, tensing, trying to maintain self control. “You’ll stay, then?”
“I’m here now,” she said. She drew me towards her and covered my mouth in an eager, salt-spray kiss that winched me back into our shared pasts and catapulted me forward into endless possible futures.
In every iteration, Vidya had given me her present — the brush of butterfly wings, the warmth of a kitten’s fur — but I’d wanted what lay beyond
Our kiss deepened and the gaps between us closed, uncertainty seeping through the seams.
Can you accept this? The void whispered. Are you enough, Arthi?
The answer undid me. I yielded to the moment and the press of her body against mine. Greedy consent on my lips.
She pulled away and my questions of how long and until when dissipated into ragged breath and want. I followed her into the bedroom that night like I’d done in every one of my previous lives. I went willingly, convinced that this time, yes, this time, things would be different.
I woke early the next morning and watched Vidya asleep under the net. Her breathing was steady, peaceful. She was beautiful and she seemed here to stay. But I felt none of the satisfaction I’d hoped to feel when she returned to me. I’d changed. I was no longer empty, like the hole left by the relocated peony so long ago. I stood there soaking in the truth at the core of all my lifetimes. I knew what I had to do.
I dressed silently, grabbed a sack from the kitchen and went out into the back garden. I shoved some clothes from the line into the sack along with some jars of medicinal herbs from my potting shed. Then I went back inside to collect the money I had saved from the market under a loose board beneath the rug. Vidya woke up and stood outside the bedroom.
“What are you doing?” She rubbed the sleep from her eyes.
“I’m ending this for both of us.”
“What?” She moved closer to me, fully awake now. “How?”
“You’re leaving me?”
“Yes.” I hid the money inside my dress and went into the bedroom. I pulled out a pair of long underwear and a woolen sweater from my winter chest, shoved them into the bulging sack and walked towards the front door.
Vidya blocked my exit, the old knife from the kitchen cupboard shaking in her hand.
“No. You can’t leave. I’ve come back.”
“We can’t keep circling each other for eternity, Vidya.” I took a deep breath. “You can have the house. Everything I have has always been yours.” I held her gaze; my voice was steady and calm.
“I’m done wandering. I’ve learned my lesson.” Vidya shuddered, pointing the tip of the knife at me. It was the first time in all our lives I’d ever seen her mask of unflappability falter. Under the façade I saw fear unabashed — fear of rejection, fear of asphyxiation in an ordinary life with me. A thin sheen of sweat dampened her forehead. I had always been the one crumbling, capitulating, but now I was whole. I was no longer waiting. I took a step closer and pulled her arm towards me, pushing the knife’s blunt point against my chest.
“So have I,” I said. “I’ve learned my lesson.”
I tensed my muscles, closed my eyes and pulled her arm nearer, forcing her to press the knife’s tip harder into my chest. She struggled. When my grip became too strong, a strangled cry escaped her throat and we both let go. The knife clattered on the floor, severing the invisible binding between us.
She stepped aside and sagged against the door frame. I pushed past her and started towards the village.
“Where will you go?” she called to me from the threshold.
“To the sea.”
“Were you going to say goodbye?”
I turned around to face her from the path. “No.”
I stopped at Madu’s stall before my journey to the coast. She’d aged over the years. A stoop had bridled her towering height, though her eyes remained as bright and alert as ever.
“You’re leaving,” she said as I approached her.
“They’ll miss you,” she said, nodding to the women at their stalls.
“Will you?” I asked.
“Perhaps.” She quirked her lips upwards. “I’ve had my share of comings and goings over the years, Arthi. I’ve always expected change, even from you.”
“Thank you, Madu,” I said. She responded with another sharp nod and then I was off to the nearest seaport.
I engaged a room in a large boarding house and helped its landlady with the chores as part of my room and board. I walked along the shore examining the moss that grew on the rocks and the slippery algae that coated the dock posts. Even in this place of rapid comings and goings, life still clung to any foundation with a trace of permanence.
I clung to nothing. Aside from my clothing, my room was bare. I made medicinal broths from kelp, fish heads, and herbs cooked in a borrowed pot from my landlady. I sold my remedies from a stall at the fish market.
Sometimes, I thought of Vidya and the women of the village. Though my reminiscences of them were often swept away, by a sailor wanting a tea to soothe a burning throat, a mother searching for an elixir to give her child vigour. I stood in the present, listening and holding their gazes. Here, surrounded by the smell of fish and the salty sea air, there was no place for lamenting the past or planning the future. No place to root lifelong attachments, deep in the soil. I ebbed and flowed with the tides and the flux of people who loved and left, leaving no mark upon the sand. There was only the boundless sky and its subtle shades flashing across the surface of the sea. I knew now I could thrive anywhere; I vibrated with fullness. After this life, I would be free.
About the Author
Suzan Palumbo lives in Ontario, Canada, where she is an ESL teacher and writer. Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, her life is a fusion of Caribbean, Indian, and Canadian culture. She grows tomatoes in the summer, is a tobogganing enthusiast, and can often be found wandering the forest near her home. She has had work published at Diabolical Plots, PodCastle, and Anathema and is a Shimmer Badger emeritus.
About the Narrator
Nadia Niaz is a writer, editor, and academic who is now mostly from Melbourne and still a little bit from lots of other places. She has a PhD in Creative Writing and Cultural studies and teaches poetry and creative writing to everyone from pre-schoolers to postgraduates. She’s a member of the West Writers Group and the founder of the Australian Multilingual Writing Project.
About the Artist
Geneva Benton is a self-taught illustrator from North Carolina, who loves working with colors, big hair, and drawing whimsy with a touch of realism and happiness. Her work has appeared in magazines, novels, editorial and advertising campaigns.