This story is by Shaina Gabayeron and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
There was once a beautiful shy girl who lived with her kind parents in a secluded village. She was shy to a fault but her quiet beauty garnered attention, even from distant cities. One faithful day, while tending to her garden, she was called in by her mother.
Ria’s ears picked up her mother’s sweet melodic voice from the outskirts of her beloved garden. She stood up from the bed of freshly planted sampaguita, wiping the dirt on her hands to the skirts of her dress. The plant wafted the comforting smell of the fresh flowers, and she smiled to herself. Her father will surely love it.
“Ria,” Ria’s mother called again. Ria enters the house, following the clangs of movement inside the kitchen. She turned the corner and the back of her mother’s thin figure easily came into view, “I need you here, my dear. We have a visitor.”
Ria immediately stopped under the doorway of the kitchen, now noticing the other figure that sat on their dining table. The other figure turned his head towards her.
“Ah, the famous daughter of the beautiful Iska,” the unknown man said, staring at Ria like a wolf staring at its dinner. His eyes held a gleam that unnerved her and she took a step back. “It’s lovely to finally meet you.”
“There you are,” her mother said, turning around with a plate full of dessert. She noticed the dirt on her daughter’s clothes and the disarray of her long black hair. With a purse of her lips, she turned back to the man and presented him the plate, “This is Fenle. He’s your father’s oldest friend, back when your father lived in the city.”
Ria looked at Fenle, a small mischievous smile playing on his lips as his gaze wandered the entirety of her body. She shrunk further away from him, and turned her eyes to her mother for help who was fussing over another plate for her daughter. That earned her a laugh from Fenle.
“Iska, surely this convinces you to have your daughter study in the city,” he said, gesturing at Ria hiding before spooning a large piece of biko in his mouth.
“Oh I don’t know,” her mother said, “Ria isn’t a sociable girl.”
With a mouth full of the sweet rice dessert, Fenle said, “She can easily get over it. Compared to this backwater village, being in the city will provide a brighter future for her. There’s bandits everywhere, Iska, and filthy peasants. It’s appalling.”
She laughs uncomfortably, “You should really talk to Don about that.”
Fenle looked as if he was about to say something, but Ria’s mother moved her attention towards her daughter.
“Here, love,” she said, handing her the plate, “Enjoy this in your room.”
Ria was about to ask why she’s being told to go to her room, but her mother lightly shook her head. Not right now. Without another word, Ria headed to her room and locked the door.
The sun was about to set when Ria heard her father come home from the market. From her room overlooking the garden, parts of the adults’ conversation drifted to her open window. She couldn’t quite hear the words, but she knew the meeting began with a joyous exclamation from her father. It wasn’t until night fell that Ria heard some yelling from the kitchen. Then almost immediately, the slam of the front door. Gingerly, Ria opened her room’s door and closely listened to her parents’ voices.
“Why would he suggest such a thing?” Ria’s father asked angrily, “He’s older than me!”
“It’s not unheard of,” Ria’s mother said, trying to soothe him, “And it would give Ria a much different future compared to what we could provide.”
“Absolutely not,” her father said.
“Ria would have luxuries and—”
“No,” he boomed, “And that’s final.”
Ria expected her father to interrupt her mother’s words once more, but instead she hears shrill screams and loud yells in the distance.
“Bandits!” A man out in the village yells, and through Ria’s open windows, she could see parts of the village brightly lit, blazing in flames. Another scream rang in the wind.
The slightly ajar door of Ria’s room burst open and both her parents rushed in. Ria’s father locked the door behind him and dragged Ria’s armoire in front of it.
“Ria,” her mother said, grabbing both of her shoulders, “You need to hide.”
Outside, Ria heard their front door kicked open.
“The girl! Find the girl!” A familiar voice yelled. A voice she heard just this morning.
“What?” An unknown second voice said, “You promised us that these villagers were actually rich. We ain’t running a charity, ya know.”
“Get the girl and you can keep this whole rundown village for yourself,” Fenle said, exasperated, “I’ll even fund your crime ring. Whatever. Just get me the girl!”
“You heard him,” the second voice said, “Spread out and find her.”
The house was suddenly filled with crashes and shatters of things being tossed and broken. The sound of her home being wrecked, led by someone she was recently introduced to, shook Ria to her core. Why does he want her so badly? What does she have that’s worth burning the entire village down?
“No time to hide,” her father whispered, his back pressed against the furniture. “She needs to run away.”
“No,” Ria whispered back in protest, “I’m not leaving either of you behind.”
Ria’s father sternly looks at her, “You’re the one he wants.”
“I can go in the garden. There’s lots of places to hide,” Ria said, pointing out at the tall bushes and trellis that lined their expansive garden. Plus, Ria knew she could keep an eye on her parents through the window. “Where will you hide?”
“We—” her mother started to say, but a sudden slam against the door shook the furniture that her father supported. Another slam, harder than before.
“Boss! I think we found them,” the second voice from earlier said, followed by another slam that splintered a part of the door.
“Go,” Ria’s father ordered, adjusting himself to push the armoire against the door with all his strength. Ria’s mother moved to help her father.
“No matter what, don’t come out,” her mother said, her eyes welling with tears. Another slam, and the armoire is pushed an inch forward. “Go!”
Quickly, Ria jumped out of the open window and ran into the garden. A yell rang out, followed by a crash from the window. Ria felt a sudden pain at her side but still weaved easily through the beds of produce, running towards the back of the garden where large bushes, trellis, and a sea of thick trees stood. They’ll be able to hide her.
Finally, she reaches the back of the garden. She crawls under a large bush, ignoring the scratches that marred her face and the insects that lived in its darkness. She pressed her forehead against the soft dirt and silently wept. She felt so cold and alone. And the pain on her side was getting stronger.
“What are you doing?” An old woman’s voice said near her ear. Ria turned to the side and almost yelped at the sight of a small old woman the size of her palm.
“I-uh,” Ria shrunk away, but the tiny woman nodded her head in understanding.
“Mmhm, so there’s bandits and a strange man after you so your parents told you to hide,” she said and Ria dumbfoundedly nodded.
“Well, dearie, you’re too big to hide here. You should be my size, or something else to hide effectively,” she said, gesturing around. Then the old lady smiled softly, “How about we help you?”
Ria regarded the teeny old lady that came out of nowhere. What would she want in return if Ria accepted her help?
“Stop that,” the old lady said, coming closer to Ria’s face and swatting the tip of her nose, “I didn’t come out of nowhere. In fact, it was you who invaded my home. And I don’t want anything, dearie. The plants in this garden are grateful to you. They said you toiled endlessly for them, and this is the least they could give you.”
“Yup, so do you accept our help?”
“Will my parents be safe?” Ria softly asked, and the old woman nodded. Ria, feeling colder than ever before, accepted her offer with a smile.
The following day, after the bandits and Fenle were apprehended, Ria’s parents went to look for their daughter in the garden. But instead of finding her, they found a dagger with dried blood and a new plant crawling out from underneath a bush, inside the dirt-stricken dress of their daughter. This plant was full of thin thorns, soft flower buds, and had an interesting set of leaves. One touch and the leaves folded into itself, shrinking away. One caress and Ria’s mother knew with certainty, Ria will be safe in the garden forevermore.