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The Sistren is a collection of stories about seventy-two singular sisters. Every week a new sister’s story is told, accompanied by an original illustration. 

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ASHA

ASHA

She was the daughter of the king. The last few years had been hard, what with the parade of suitors and her father’s insistence that yes, marry one now, yes, that one will do, yes, now. She spent her days at her cove studying dragonflies and untangling the silence, keeping careful documentation of every shade of green she encountered. The pines around the cove were paternal, kept her safe and undisturbed. Some guessed she spoke to the swallows.

There were weekly functions – if it were entirely up to her father they would have been nightly, at least until she was betrothed. These were almost identical in their misery – the same awkwardly forward gestures by a rotating cast of clones that differed only in the severity of their ability to nauseate. Obligated to dance once with each, she perfected the art of the well-timed nod while her mind drifted back to the morning: did she have a name for that serpent winding its way through the reeds, and did the frog song sound a bit early given the season? Each dance ended with a curtsy and a mental beheading, which produced a wicked laugh in her as they left, still hungry.

One night a suitor arrived unannounced. He was a terrible dancer and his clothes reeked of pixies. He tried to speak like the others, but the words got stuck in his mouth and tripped as often as he did. Too uncomfortable to drift into her thoughts, she instead spoke them – of the geese at dawn and the timid elk that still hadn’t made his way to the water. This was a language he spoke, and well, and soon they were enrapt in conversation about the classification of a pine’s leaves an hour before sunset, and whether they matched the hue of moss at midday. She danced with no other suitors that night, and after an hour of shuffling around the ballroom, they snuck away to the cove to compare findings.

Something about the position of the stars terrified him, a few hours into their conversation on the pier, feet dangling into the dark water. He apologized and fled in a desperate scramble, leaving his shoes. They had been at a critical point in their exchange, and she was frustrated that she didn’t get the last word in. Taking his shoes, she marched back to the ball in time to see the final suitors making their dejected exit.

She spent the next month traveling her kingdom with the pair of shoes, seeking the right feet and the man they belonged to. She was able to focus on a few very specific districts, judging by his accent and the type of pixies that fabricated his fine linens for the night. Most households reacted the same to her challenge, fighting to get the shoes on, insisting that they were a perfect fit, slicing off toes while ogling her, pummeling their brothers to death. If she did not find the owner of these shoes, she would forswear men forever, she decided. 

She found him in chains in the stable of a small cottage with two oafish brothers and a kind, tired mother. They both mangled their feet attempting to try on the now blood-soaked slippers, and while they strangled each other something drew her to the stable where he lay peacefully on some hay, both his hands and feet chained to the wall. He awakened to his shame, covering his eyes, unable to meet hers. She laughed it away, then demanded that they unlock his cuffs. The mother did so nervously, wary that she would even think to consider this man the owner of the shoes. He did not even need to try them on. Instead they walked out of the stable together and shared a horse back to her father’s estate. There they continued their conversation, which took the better part of a month. At the end of it, she decided that the only sensical way to keep her companion would be marriage – any other alternative ruffled too many feathers and was anyway too complex and headache-inducing. She explained her idea carefully to him and he agreed, simply excited that someone else spoke his language and that they could continue speaking it together for a long time.

Somewhere in the midst of their preparations, after a few days in which he wrestled some heavy shame, she admitted that she was aware of his nightly transformations. Why else the chains and the commotion in the countryside right before dawn and the bloody tongue at breakfast? She not only forgave it, she insisted that it was part of what gave them the same lexicon. She found no reason to chain him up – it was clear that his appetite wasn’t for family, and tales of a beast surrounding the estate would only keep suitors and dignitaries away, and give her more time away from people. He was relieved and elated and agreed that he had never heard tales of missing babies or slaughtered peasants when villagers spoke of the beast. Furthermore, his mother insisted that the beast only ate livestock.

There was, however, one favor he needed to ask – and this was clearly the heart of his shame, and explained the fear in his brow when she’d first proposed marriage. He needed her to absolve him of his sinful appetite before he transformed back into himself. This is something his mother did nightly when he lived at home. He showed her the shears, thick and sharp and crusted in blood, and explained the method. She was to stab them right under his belly button, and the incision was to reach his sternum. A second incision into his stomach, which she would clearly see, would allow whatever he swallowed whole to escape. It was awful work – besides the blood and entrails, the faces of those swallowed, resigned to death, were not easy to endure. There was no need to worry about him, though – the transformation healed him completely and he had no memory of the surgery afterwards. She agreed quickly and without any hesitation, to his surprise. 

Finding the beast once asleep, after his feasting, was the most difficult part. Once she learned his habits, where he fed and where he slept, it became easier. But the things he ate! Clearly his mother had lied to him – he ate far more than goats and sheep. Children, fairies, small goblins and the occasional dryad, among other creatures – nightly she escorted them out of his stomach, greeting them at the other end of death, reinviting them to the world. Not knowing her situation, they were forever indebted to her, vowed to always follow her, worship her, be forever in her service. She laughed off their oaths and sent them on their way.

It wasn’t clear for a long time that the beast kept them from aging. There was something in his having digested them that held their bodies in an eternal stasis. The king’s daughter, having dealt with his organs intimately, was affected as well. It became apparent in the children who never came of age, who grew only in experience or wisdom. But soon the elderly found themselves outliving their sons and daughters, and eventually grandchildren. The woodcutters and wolves, the witches and goblins who spun straw in exchange for children, all of their friends and families, these all withered and died. And after some time, the victims of the beast began searching each other out, banding together, trading stories of the old times. The king’s daughter, now a long-reigning queen and a god to them, gathered the victims and sheltered them in her castle. They lived there for a very long time, watching idly as their world evolved past recognition, and as the land around the castle sunk into the sea.

Eventually they were found by men that feared them, and these men mounted an attack. Their island was impregnable, and they were not yet worried. But the king knew it would not last. He and the queen spent many long nights crafting a plan. They held a grand banquet the likes of which had never been staged, the castle’s inhabitants celebrating their long lives together. Then as the castle folk slept, the beast devoured every one of them, growing to an enormous size.

The queen and the beast wander the world. They know their family lies dormant inside him. They travel unencumbered, save for a pair of thick shears the queen carries with her. They are searching for a specific place and they will know it when they find it. They have found their way into the tales of many others, but have never been caught. They continue on, still discussing the different greens, still anchored to their cove.

 

Illustration by Michelle Antonisse

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