This story is by J.E. Gillespie and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The mud squished between her toes. The dewy smell of the garden in the morning after a rain filled her with peace. There is a quietness before the dawn, her only time of peace from her sister who hated the garden. The sunlight shone through the branches of the tree of life, making it glow and streak rays of light across the grass. Mai walked up to the tree and put her hand on its trunk. She could feel the beating of its heart.
“What are you doing?”
It was the dreaded sister, Celeste. Her day of torment was starting early today.
Mai turned around. With her head bowed down low, she said, “Nothing, sister. I’m just taking a stroll in the garden.”
Celeste snorted. “Look at you. You’re covered in mud. Our studies will begin soon, and you’re a disgrace. Although, I don’t know why they even bother with you. How do I put it? Oh yeah, you are so remarkably unremarkable.”
“Yes, sister. I will clean up immediately.” Mai attempted to run off, but Celeste grabbed her arm.
“Mother wants to see you. She’s in her study.” She looked down at Mai’s feet. “Oh, and you should at least clean off your feet first. You look like a common farm girl.”
Mai found her mother waiting in her study behind her desk, looking over some papers.
She put her hand on the chair to pull it out to sit down. “There’s no need to sit down. This won’t take long,” her mother said. Her mother continued to read.
Mai stood there awkwardly for what felt like a lifetime. She fidgeted with her toe with a loose thread in the rug. This loose thread, how did it escape Mother’s keen eye? “You look like a ruffian. Tidy up. You look like a fallen cake. Sit up straight.” The constant scrutiny that said all too clearly, that she wasn’t good enough.
Her mother let out a sigh and finally put the paper down. “Mai, this shouldn’t come as a surprise, but you are not living up to the family’s standards.” There was no sympathy in her voice. Only the agitation of having to deal with something that she felt was beneath her. “I don’t know how a daughter of mine,” her voice rose in anger. “Could be completely untalented.” She smoothed the papers on her desk, trying to calm down.
Mai felt her cheeks heat up. “But Mother, I am doing my best.”
She rose to her feet. “Your best is not good enough.”
Mai could see the fire in her mother’s eyes, and smoke curled around her lips. The dragon was coming to the surface. Mai needed to tread lightly, or her mother would burn her where she stood, loose thread and all. Mai bowed her head. “You are right, Mother. What can I do?”
“You can die!” She pounded her fist down and threw a glass across the room. “But your father.” She stopped for a moment and took a deep breath. “Your father has a soft spot for you. Instead of doing the noble thing, you will live in the country with your cousin and his wife. Help on the farm or whatever country people do.” She waved her hand around like she was shooing a fly away. “Now, get out of my sight. Before I overrule your father.”
Mai ran out of the room and didn’t look back. She just ran, not knowing where to go. There was a door up ahead to a room Mai never noticed before. She opened the door a cold, musty breeze brushed against her face. What was that song from her childhood? Children knew not to go into secret rooms, but she was ignoring all the warnings. Beware of a trickster who enchants children into selling their souls. It was always the naughty children who had lost their way. Well, she wasn’t a child anymore, and it was just a story. Mai tiptoed down the stairs. The stairs groaned with her every step as if warning her to turn back, but she didn’t heed its warning. She kept going waving her hands in front of her to ward off monsters or spiders.
Mai. She heard her name whispered.
“Who’s there?” She wasn’t a little girl, but her voice became small like a little girl.
Up ahead, there was a squat figure standing in the middle of the room. “Why are you crying, girl?” He said.
“I bring shame to my family.” Mai sniffed back the tears.
“Please come closer. And have a seat.” She didn’t notice the chair before, but she went over and sat down.
He sat down across from her and looked so intently in Mai’s eyes that Mai felt like he saw into her soul. “Now, isn’t that better? Would you like some tea and biscuits?” Mai looked over and saw two delicate teacups next to a pot of steaming tea and a plate of biscuits. They were her favorites.
“What’s your name?” She asked and wiped her tears away with the back of her hand.
“Where are my manners?” He reached into his breast pocket, pulled out a handkerchief, and handed it to her.
She forgot he hadn’t answered her question and wiped her face.
“Please, child, tell me why you think you have brought shame to your family.”
“Do you know my family?” That was a silly question, she thought. How could he not know who her family was? “I am ungifted. I cannot reach the dragon inside me.” She bowed her head down in shame.
“Is that it?” He laughed.
She looked up at him sharply. “It is enough. I am to be banished.”
“Calm down. You just need to be taught.” He stood up and went to a bookcase filled with books. He ran his finger down a few books until he was satisfied. “Here,” he said, thumping the book. He blew it off, and dust flew everywhere. “I guess it’s a bit dusty,” he said and laughed. He held it out, and she looked at it for a while. He placed it on her lap. “I’ll leave it to you,” he said and left through a door beside the bookshelf.
She picked up the book and took a bite from the cookie. The book was worn, and its threading was coming undone, but there was no mistake; it had a red cover with a golden dragon on its cover, her family’s crest. The words made little sense to her. It can’t be that easy. She slipped the book into her pocket and ran up the stairs.
Mai ran to the tree. Her tears had dried, but she still felt the trace of them on her cheeks. “I can’t take it anymore.” She screamed. The book said to eat the fruit, and then she will wake the dragon in her, and she would no longer be unremarkable. Mai would be stronger than everyone, even her sister. She grabbed one of the glowing fruits and held it in her hands. What was she doing? She can’t eat the fruit. This tree is life and stripped of its fruit. All will end.
“What are you doing? Put the fruit down.” Celeste demanded.
Celeste always demanded. Not anymore, Mai thought. Mai plucked the fruit from the tree and ate it. She felt a tightness in her chest like someone was squeezing her heart, and she fell to her knees. But then it passed, and there was a new feeling, a feeling of strength and something new, something had awoken inside of her. A fire. Her fire. Her dragon. She stood up, squared her shoulders, and faced her sister; she held her head high and finished the fruit.
Celeste stood there with her mouth open. “You can’t do that. You must stop. I command you to stop.”
“You command me. You no longer command me. You will listen to me now.”
“Sister, don’t you understand? You have damned yourself by eating that fruit.”
“I understand plenty. I was already damned. Now I will damn you all. I will eat all the fruit.”
“No, stop!” Celeste reached out to stop her, and Mai just waved her hand, and Celeste vanished in a puff of smoke and ash.
Mai grabbed another fruit and ate it. Then, she plucked several and sat down, piling them up on her dress like she was having a picnic. Her hunger was insatiable; the more she ate, the hungrier she became. There was a stillness in the garden. There were no sounds. The crickets were suddenly quiet, and the tree hung its limbs down low like it was weeping. She always liked the peacefulness of the garden. Her sister hated the garden, and Mai took a bite of the last fruit whose light had gone dim.