enclosed in amber

Short Stories / Sunday, July 1st, 2018

She was radiant and good, a queen among her people if ever there has been one, even though no royal blood ran through her veins. She was attentive in her silence, listening out for small undercurrents of a change of tone, or a change of light in a room. She was self-assured in her character, which for some of her people made her admirable and for others made her vain. She was someone who would sit there on the shabby Persian rug for hours, cross-legged, if it meant getting to hear a story – of grief or of heartbreak didn’t matter, as long as it meant healing someone through listening.


She was a woman of the Zalahadin tribe, one of the most ancient gypsy wayfarers that had been travelling these lands for centuries. They lived by the sun and the moon, they followed the tracks that nature laid out for them; where it was warmest and where the soil was the most fertile was where the men and the women of the tribe were herding their waggons and their sheep to. She was not their eldest, not their wisest. But she was their most beloved because she was their only shaman, the only member of the tribe bestowed with magical gifts. You could have picked any one out of the walking throng of people, sweating in midsummer heat with their belongings strapped to their backs, and they would have halted and told you their personal story about how she helped them in one of her thousand lovely ways, and they would have smiled while doing so.


Her face was a sharp one, with hard cheek bones and many lines drawing their way from her nose to the corners of her mouth. But her eyes were soft and somehow, if her gaze was upon you, there was nothing you feared she would see in you, even if there were edged, hard objects pushing against your mind sometimes. Her eyes were of a strange yellow. When the sun shone directly onto them, they first turned into gold, and then to amber, and if you looked closely, one of the smaller tribe children swore, you could see small specks of eternity enclosed in them. Her gaze was old and young and never-ending, it began at the dawn of time and stretched until the world would be set on fire. She knew everything there was to know because she’d seen it all in the eyes of someone else; a despaired mother, a grieving widower, a crying child, a terrified daughter. She’d taken their pain and turned it into hers by dividing it in half, she absorbed their unhappiness and traded it for advice, a touch of a hand, an encouraging smile. She was a jack of all trades, but most of all she traded in sadness and the people of her tribe never ceased to wonder where she went to with that heaviest of burden, the darkest side of human souls.


But one night, when the butcher’s boy couldn’t sleep and crawled out of his tent to refill his water pouch, he saw a sleek, hooded figure stealing herself out of the camp. He knew that they had been walking all day in the empty desert, so he couldn’t think of a place where anyone would want to go from here. Instinctively, he dropped his pouch and followed the shadow, careful to leave some distance between them. When the figure finally stopped, he just stood there motionless in the dark, watching. She sat down, cross-legged in the middle of the desert with nothing but sand around her bare feet. When she took off her hood, he drew in a sharp breath; her amber eyes illuminated her whole face. And he watched her rock back and forth in the sand and he didn’t understand what it was that she was doing – maybe some magical ritual, some praising of the gods. And then he heard quick, anguished wails coming from her and he realized that she was crying, out there, in the dark desert, all by herself.


And he realized that her powers lay not in the hocus-pocus of shamanic rituals, in quickly spoken words of magic but in looking at someone and knowing his pain, and not only that but sharing it.


That there was no magic coursing through her veins, no more than in all of us and that the strength she took to tend to those who needed healing was not given to her by some otherworldly god, because no magic could ever reside inside a person than that which she produced herself.

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