Once there was a girl named Tiger who lived in an unenchanted forest, protected from the magic that rampaged through the land.
Her parents had been village dwellers but, after Tiger was born, they moved to a small cabin surrounded by trees and fertile land. There, they raised chickens and gardened. Her father was brawny, her mother strong, and though there was magic in the village, the village was far away.
Their next-door neighbor was a fairy, kind and cruel as fairies are. She occasionally stopped by for conversation and gossip. And so, one day during Tiger’s seventh year, the fairy and the family sat in front of the woodstove, sipping bone broth, one of her mother’s specialties.
The village was a city now, the fairy told them, with glittering towers and bridges. The people were beautiful, and they all lived forever. Yes, trolls had crawled out from under their bridges, and roving bands of goblins wreaked occasional havoc, but nobody had to work anymore, and all the animals talked.
And now, the fairy said, magic was creeping out of the city and across the countryside.
Tiger’s father looked troubled. “We moved here to get out of the fray. We don’t want magic.”
“Then I will declare it,” the fairy said. “You three are destined to live an ordinary life. Boom!”
The family heard rustles and the crackling of branches all around their little cabin, and the fairy disappeared.
“She’s cursed us!” Tiger cried.
“No, Tiger, this is our Happily Ever After!” her father said, and danced her around the room.
The next morning, when they went out to feed the chickens, they found their entire land — forest, hill, and gardens — encircled by an impenetrable thorny hedge.
So Tiger grew up, in this ordinary place, while outside magic continued to surge across the land.
It was a good, ordinary life. Their garden grew. Their forest hosted owls and squirrels. They fed the chickens, and in exchange, the chickens fed them and fertilized the fields. In winter the sky filled with murmurations of swallows. Nothing was magical except for one creek that flowed slightly uphill, but that might have been a magnetic or gravitational thing.
But something terrible was slowly happening to Tiger’s parents. Year by year they were fading. Their dark hair leached to gray and then to white. Their skin withered like raisins, like rich purple plums turning to prunes. Her mother’s hands became crablike and her knees hurt walking up from the garden. Every evening, her father dozed on the couch in front of the woodstove, which Tiger stoked with wood from their forest, and barely dragged himself to bed.
There are many kinds of exhaustion: The exhaustion of quicksand that fights your attempts to get free. The weariness of thick summer air. The fatigue of fear. This was different: a deepening torpor, a lassitude. It was slow and pervasive. Tiger feared that her parents would wither and blow away.
“I read that in the city they have an elixir,” she told her parents. “It can return you to your vibrant selves.”
“Nothing can be done,” her mother said. “Besides, the hedge is impenetrable. And, a magic elixir probably won’t work here; I don’t see how it could.”
Tiger turned eighteen. She was a woman, and it was time to break through the hedge and travel to the city. It was her Once Upon a Time; she would quest for the elixir to save her parents.
“Oh my darling, I know you must go,” her mother said. “It’s the way of the world. Remember these things, they are all I have to give you.” She ticked them off on gnarled fingers: “Use your wits. Beauty is only skin deep. There’s healing in bone broth; I’ll pack you some. You’ll need an ally. Oh, and you’ll probably encounter three strangers.”
She poured Tiger a jug of broth, boiled a dozen eggs from their hens, and packed it all in a wicker basket. Tiger’s father muttered good-luck wishes from his drowse. Tiger loaded the woodbin one more time, and left him snoring on the couch.
It wasn’t easy, but Tiger breached the hedge bit by bit, breaking the thorny branches by hand. Finally, though scratched and poked, she’d made a big enough hole. She pushed her basket through, then wriggled out into the magical world. She twisted vines over the hole in the hedge, and, carrying her basket, walked down the road.
The road led down the mountain and through the valley to the city. It was a beautiful morning. A black horse darted close, head held high, breath misting in the air. It wheeled and turned away, flashing shimmery wings. Wild turkeys scattered across the road, burbling, “Come on come on come on come on.”
The road curved.
Soon, she came upon a tall, handsome boy leaning against a truck. Her first stranger! Every quest needs an ally, and plus, he had a truck.
“Can you take me to the city?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said.
Tiger told the boy about her quest for the elixir as they drove. In the fields, shallow pools reflected cumulus clouds and sky.
“I know a pharmacy where they got that stuff,” the boy told her. “I’ll take you. It’s expensive, though. You got money?”
She didn’t. All she had was her broth and eggs.
“You sure are pretty,” he said, and took her hand. He was so handsome, and she wanted to kiss him.
They were down in the valley now. In the distance, the golden skyline of the city rested upon a cloud. The closer they got, the stronger the magic became. Little imps rose out of the mist and sparkled and popped. The air darkened. The ground on each side of the road began to bubble. Now the golden city was right in front of them.
“We’re almost to the pharmacy,” the boy said. “I’m sure you can trade something for that elixir.”
His eyes glittered. She noticed something odd about his face; his smooth chin looked suddenly dark and rough, but she blinked and it was smooth again.
As they cruised the streets, Tiger noted that the city was just a village with rickety façades of gold leaf and glittering rhinestones. The streets were filled with people, all beautiful and young, but their lips were puffy, their foreheads blank, and many had scars along their jaw lines. Their eyes were dull.
She heard her mother’s voice in her head: “Beauty is only skin deep.”
The boy stopped at a blue traffic light. From the corner of her eye, Tiger saw a grinning troll face, but when she turned and looked, it was just the boy. Her heart beat faster but she didn’t say anything. She needed to find that elixir. The light changed to pink, and the truck lurched ahead.
Tiger had expected the pharmacy to be a small shop, but the boy stopped in front of a slender tower covered in peeling gold paint. “I’ll wait,” he said. He ran one finger down the side of her face, leaving a slimy snail trail. She shuddered, grabbed her basket, and walked into the lobby where an escalator climbed higher than she could see. She took it all the way to the top.
When she got off, she was in a long line of hungry-looking people. “What’s this line for?” she asked the woman in front of her. Tiger guessed this was her second stranger.
“What do you want?” the woman asked. She tucked her garish red hair behind her ears and patted her lipstick with a tissue. “They got it all: Botox, fillers, Vitamin B shots, instant lipo, tummy tucks, breast implants, uppers, downers, pot, coke, meth, ‘ludes, molly, bennies, poppers, peyote, LSD, hair dye, Rogaine, blah blah blah.”
“I’m just here for the cure for my parents’ exhaustion. They’re fading away!” Tiger’s chin trembled.
The woman smirked. “Oh. You want the Elixir. Most expensive thing on the menu, honey. Say, what’s in the cute basket? You got anything good in there?”
“Just a few hard-boiled eggs from my hens.”
“Organic? Free range?” The woman’s eyes glittered the way the boy’s had.
“Omegas! Selenium!” the woman exclaimed. “Hmm. Maybe I got something.” She pulled a small vial of silver liquid from her bosom. “Voila, The Elixir. Barely used. Trade ya?”
Tiger couldn’t believe her luck. She held out three eggs, and the woman snatched them.
“One drop per decade you wanna shed. Five drops to live forever,” the woman said.
Tiger tucked the vial in her basket and descended the escalator, victorious.
The truck engine was still running. “Did you get the stuff?” the boy leered.
His chin had sprouted a thick scruff, and Tiger hadn’t noticed how small his hands were, how dirty his nails. She got in. He reached for her basket. Tiger pulled it away and tucked it on the other side of her. He was the only person she knew, and she had no money. They drove through the city, deeper into the dark twisting streets.
“Aren’t we going home?” Tiger asked.
But the troll just grinned.
Again, Tiger heard her mother’s voice in her head: “Use your wits.” So, she leaned over, seized the steering wheel, and twisted. The truck bounced off the street and slammed into a building. The troll’s head smashed hard against the window, and popped off, bloodless, with a sound like a snapping carrot. It bounced into her lap still grinning.
When Tiger stopped screaming, she shoved the head off her lap, grabbed her basket, jumped out of the truck, and ran.
Eventually she slowed. She was on the outskirts of the city now. She sat on a boulder and tried to calm down. She opened her broth, took a sip, and felt its warmth fill her body. She peeled an egg and took a bite.
Then, she saw a big brown dog with prominent ribs peering at her with soulful eyes. Her third stranger. She was still reeling from the horrible troll, but the dog gave a timid wag.
“Come here,” Tiger said gently. “Come on.”
He came closer.
“Would you like some broth?” she asked.
He thumped his tail.
“I have an egg, too. Would you like an egg?”
“Yes, please,” the dog said.
Tiger held out the jug and helped the dog take a sip, and then she peeled him an egg and they sat chewing thoughtfully.
“What’s your name?”
“Dog,” he said. “Can I come home with you?”
“Let’s go, Dog,” she said, her heart already full of love for him.
They walked home for three days. They ate the remaining eggs and sipped broth. Then they found fruit from trees. Tiger ate that. Dog went off in the woods and found bones. Dog was a dog of few words, but his eyes were bright and loving. They slept curled in ditches and under trees, Dog, her ally, there to protect her from trolls.
Approaching the tall hedge, Tiger saw that the small hole she’d made was now much bigger, its edges blackened and burnt. Tiger and Dog walked easily through. They were home.
But magic had crept in through the breach while Tiger was gone, and things were changing. It was all four seasons at once now: snow bent the heads of small trees; a fairy ring of mushrooms had popped up on the lawn; the summer corn was ready for harvest, yellow leaves fell from the oaks. They passed the chicken yard and Tiger noticed that the hens’ combs had turned blue. Dog sniffed at everything in delight.
“Let’s get my parents the elixir,” Tiger said. “You’re going to love them.”
Inside, the house was quiet and the woodstove had gone out. It took her a while to find them, curled like commas in bed, under a pile of quilts, husks of themselves, withered and dried. At first she thought they were dead. Then they rolled over, wrinkled cheeks smiling weakly, and slowly sat up.
“I’m home! And here’s Dog, who’s come to live with us.” Her dad extended his hand and Dog sniffed. “But most important, I got the elixir! Now you can live forever and never age!“
Her mother croaked, “No, dear, it’s too late.”
Her father wheezed, “Not just too late, I don’t want it.”
“Please?” she pleaded. “Father, you’ll be able to ride across the fields again; Mother, I’ll brush your long black locks, and you won’t be so exhausted all the time.”
Dog, at the foot of the bed, hung his hound-dog head.
Finally her mother agreed, “If you really want us to, dear.”
Triumphant, Tiger opened the magic vial. She put one drop, two drops, five shining drops of silver on her mother’s outstretched tongue.
They waited. But nothing happened. Tiger covered her face with her hands. Her parents’ hair was white as the snow on the cedars, and now they would die.
Her mother said, “It’s okay, dear. Those magic people might be beautiful on the outside, but underneath they’re just monsters.”
Tiger closed her eyes and wept. She had failed.
Dog licked her cheek. “Broth,” he said.
Tiger opened her eyes. Dog was right; her parents looked hungry. They looked thirsty.
She had just a little bone broth left in the jug; she helped each of them swallow a few sips. They all held hands as the color rose again in her parents’ cheeks.
Both of them were so old, but so beautiful.
It was good to be home.
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