IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume I: Welcome to The Charadoc!
GRANNY SHTARA AND THE MAGIC JAR
Tuesday, March 24, 2708, continued
Sunset. The last, coral light spills down between the boughs like some weird, hallucinatory illumination. Nothing seems real to me anymore. For awhile I even wonder about Rashid's mushrooms to explain this dizziness, this detachment from the insufficient flesh. But no, they gave us nothing but material to chew on, a few trace nutrients, not nearly enough to stave off this quiet madness. If mushrooms had so bewildered me I could simply wait for the effects to wear off. But this comes from hunger, and it can only get worse as the days and miles lengthen.
We rest. Again. We nestle our backs into the crevices of twisted, crawling trees that fight to live up here, beautiful in their own hardscrabble way, in their defiance of the drought and thin air. Alysha seems like the cruelest taskmaster to push us at all, but even she can only lash us on so far. This time, though, I think we'll probably just wind up making camp--already it seems too late to move on.
Alysha announces, "Starting tomorrow, if anybody feels anything like a hangover coming on, tell me immediately--that's mountain-sickness and we gotta tend to it right away." Then she plops down as tired as the rest of us. And what kind of children already know how a hangover feels, I wonder.
Damien leans against the same tree that Kiril and I do, and he says, "Oh, what I wouldn't give to have Granny Shtara's magic jar!"
"Magic jar?" I ask. "Granny Shtara?"
"One of the stories that the people of my village--Koboros--used to tell, before the government wiped us out--all but me. We used to love stories and old songs, more than any other people." He laughs with frowning brows and tosses away a twig he'd been chewing. "Stories make you think too much, make you dangerous. Government couldn't have a whole village of storytellers and leave them alone."
"Tell me about Shtara," I urge him.
Damien takes a breath, and says, "Old Granny Shtara, she had a jar--well, they called it a jar, a big clay pot, you'd say--and she'd cook up stew in it. I heard tell she'd dance when she'd cook. Quite a sight, they told me--funny, a real scream. Or terrifying. Or beautiful. Or maybe all at once. No one I ever knew saw her, personally, of course; they just repeated what they heard. She belonged to the people of long, long ago. I mean, when my own granny was a little girl she heard about Granny Shtara as somebody who’d died before her elders got born."
He sighed and said, "Those were the good old days, back then, when people lived closer to God and to God's creation, so that marvelous things happened every day. Well, not always good-marvelous. Strange blessings can bring strange misfortunes. Maybe that's why people gave up on marvels and made the world ordinary." The rosy light turns closer and closer to violet by the minute.
"So, Granny Shtara's cooking--it wasn't ordinary?"
Branko says, "I bet it was delicious--the most delectable stew in the world." He licks his lips and smiles to fill himself with fantasy. "Thick with juicy bits of meat and broth-flavored roots, thick enough to build a wall with, thick enough to build yourself up."
"Oh, all that and more," Damien tells us. "That stew would never go bad. And in times of need the jar wouldn't empty, not until we could find some other source of food. Then she'd just clean it out for the next time people needed it. Granny Shtara always gave the people whatever they needed."
"Oh, to live in the time of marvels!" I exclaim. The light has all gone to blue now, a mysterious blue-violet mist of a light, darkening moment by moment over us.
From the next tree over Rashid says, "I wonder if you can bring times like that back, by being closer to God? Bring back magic into the world?"
"Maybe," Damien says. Idly he picks at the bark of a fallen bough. "But you can't second guess them, Rashid. You don't know what you might've done in their place, when they made the magic go away." He finds grubs under the bark, so for a minute we forget all about talking and pick fervently at the bough, popping little bits of fat and protein into our mouths--succulent little morsels, tasting like health.
When we run out of grubs and fall back against the trunks I ask, "So whatever happened to Granny Shtara and her jar?"
"Long gone," he says. Like the sunlight, already spent in the swift twilight between the mountains. "Both her and her jar, long gone."
"Why?" Rashid wants to know. "If a jar could preserve food, it could preserve--anything. You could, say, put your hand into it and..." Then he stops. "What a horrible thing--if a hand or a finger or something lived on while the rest died!" The darkness all around us shudders in the chill of a breeze.
"You see what I mean?" Damien says. "Magic can cut both ways." He picks up a branch to peel the bark away, but this one contains no grubs. "Yet she did do her part to preserve people, after her fashion. She would mix up special meals for sick people. Often they would get well from it. Now and then they'd just die anyway. But that was good enough for most folks, a fair chance at getting better from Granny Shtara's cooking. And for the few who wanted it all, well, they couldn't do better elsewhere, so they had no cause to complain. No, that's not what did ol' Granny in."
"What did?" I ask, hearing a hint of murder in his voice.
He lays the branch down and says, "Well, one day she heard that Old Man Mekil had taken a turn for the worse. Now he'd been sick a long, long time, hardly able to breathe, in fact, each inhalation a bubbling gasp of pain. But he wanted to see his kids grow up, then he wanted to see them marry, and then he wanted to see grandchildren and then watch them grow up, so he kept holding on, and as long as he was willing Granny would mix up something every so often to rev him up a bit, till eventually she helped him become the oldest man who ever lived in Koboros."
"But wouldn't that make Shtara even older?" I ask.
"Oldest man, I said. Everybody knows that wherever there's an oldest man there's at least one woman even older."
Rashid says, "Don't interrupt, Deirdre. Remember your place." Oh yeah--the story had so intrigued me that I had forgotten the chain.
"So Mekil kept wanting to live and live. So it had gone for years. But this time she went in, and she knew what she'd see--the rheumy old eyes dulled at last, no more of that sparkle that kept wanting one more monsoon flowering and fruiting, as if the pain could run off him like rain. This time, she saw, the pain had soaked through to the very bones of his soul and he wanted none of it anymore. So quietly, reverently, she sat the jar down beside his bed and went to talk to his eldest daughter in the kitchen.
"And while she did so, the scent wafted up from that jar, savory with herbs and comforting with meat and grain." I can smell it just listening to him, almost feeling fed. "And Mekil's youngest granddaughter just had to have a taste of it, just a dip of the finger into the broth and then into her mouth. By the time Shtara came back in Mekil had died, as she’d expected, yet the sound of loud, rasping breaths went on--the sound of the granddaughter dying!"
We gasp, though we should've guessed--that's the way with good stories; you know and yet you don't.
"'What have you done!' Shtara cried. And the girl whispered, with a fading wheeze, 'I only tasted a little, just a drop.' The crone said, 'You poor fool! I brought your grandfather what he needed, as I always do--the jar contained his death.'"
"Did she poison him?" Kiril asks.
"Nothing that simple," Damien said. "It turned out that Shtara decided who would live and who would die, that she governed the coming and going of all the village with her magic jar. When the villagers realized this they did a terrible thing. They tried to beat her to death with whatever came to hand, but of course that didn't work, so they threw her and her jar over the cliff by the edge of town. When the jar broke so did she, not like a person but like a jar herself, into many pieces just like that, and so she died, and the jar perished with her. They thought that without her they could all live forever."
Thoughtfully, Rashid nibbled on a blade of grass and said, "But it didn't happen that way."
"No. It didn't. After that death became a random thing. Sometimes babies died. Sometimes old folks lingered on in pain, not even knowing their loved ones anymore. Good people might die with their work unfinished, while wicked folk lived on to ripe old ages, wreaking mischief all the way. It didn't matter anymore, who you were, what you did, how you felt, or who loved you. None of it mattered ever again."
He takes a shuddering breath of night and tells us, "I know that the story is true. I've seen the shards of Shtara and her jar, down at the bottom of Shtara's Cliff. Everyone in Koboros knew about Shtara and her jar."
A logical part of my brain persists in saying evocative rock formations--nothing more than that to spark a myth. But when you're this hungry you don't listen to the logical part of you--it doesn't quite connect, no more than the flesh does.
"Everyone in my village knew about the jar," he repeats. "Our parents would take us to see and say, 'Don't blame God if life seems unfair--God sent us an angel to manage our coming and our going in a seemly way, but we chose random over fair."
Around us the others hang up hammocks from bough to bough, webs glimmering in the dark. Damien stands up and dusts himself off. "I guess maybe every village in the world had their Shtara, and sooner or later they all made the same mistake, because death hits at random wherever I go. That's just human nature, I suppose."
background illustration draws, in part, from a photograph by
Yair-Haklai, licensed by Creative Commons, which in no way implies that
Yair-Haklai endorses or even knows about the existence of these