Taleb stood at the far end of the Town Hall lodge, peering at the parchment that had been tacked to the wall.
RULES FOR WISHING DAY
- You must be at least 16 years old to participate.
- One wish per person.
- Wishes cannot be given away.
- Wishes cannot be used to do harm.
- Death is permanent. You cannot wish for someone to return from beyond.
- Your wish will only last four hours—be prepared for it to end.
- Report to Wish Square at six o’clock. Entry will not be granted without a ticket.
Outside, the sun spilled across the afternoon sky, pushing the clouds to the edges of the horizon. The air, though bright, snapped with the crisp taste of autumn, but inside the lodge it was warm, as if autumn didn’t dare to enter, waiting instead at the doorway to peer at the gathering within.
Taleb had been one of the last to arrive, long after the cluster of old-timers had claimed the center of the room and the four-piece fiddle band had converged in the front corner. Later than his schoolmates, or the farmers who had put the animals to pasture and made their way to town.
The lodge hummed with anticipation, and the mayor bustled through the crowd, cheeks the color of flames, while his wife followed behind, trays of spiced peach pies balanced on her wide arms.
Taleb stood quiet, apart from the others, his hands tucked into his pockets. A flurry of unease had gathered in his stomach, weighing him down. The gathering was too loud, too happy, too overwhelming. He knew he shouldn’t have come.
Ila caught Taleb’s eye and waved him over to where a group of schoolmates had gathered.
Taleb shook his head and turned away. How could he stand next to Ila and pretend he wanted to be there? Debate wishes that he didn’t want to cast? His schoolmates would be laughing about their mothers, who’d spent the morning clucking over their sons and daughters, scrubbing their faces and dressing them in their best Wishing Day clothes, and their fathers, who’d gravely spilled out wisdom on the best way to cast a wish.
Of course, that was the real problem, wasn’t it? It wasn’t the volume of the room, or the pitch of the fiddles, or even the bluster of his mates. It was the fact that no one had clucked over Taleb today. No one had given him advice, or laid out his best clothes. There was only Mawmaw, and she was lying in bed at home, too troubled for clucking or wishes.
Taleb traced over rule number five. Death is permanent. No matter how badly he wanted it, he couldn’t have his parents back.
He scooted through the crowd to the rear of the room, the opposite direction of his mates. The back door was held closed by a thick wooden beam. All Taleb had to do was slip it out of its clasp and he’d be free of this day. He could go back home, sit in the far corner of the yard, and pretend he couldn’t hear the fireworks. Ignore the cheers and hooting that would fill the town square. No one would notice he wasn’t there.
Taleb turned, his knuckles grazing the door.
Mika, the blacksmith, stood near the stairs leading to the stage. Coarse red hair crowded over his ears; the ginger strands were shot with threads of grey. “Where do you think you’re sneaking off to?”
Taleb tucked his head. “Home,” he mumbled.
“Ridiculous. The fun hasn’t even started.”
“Yes, Taleb, you must stay.” Forita, the baker, spun in front of Mika, her braids swirling around her head. “You’re meant to be here. Besides, I’ve learned new steps to the music.” Forita smiled at the burly smithy. “Dance with me, Mika,” she called as she twirled. “Let’s show Taleb how it’s done.”
Mika plucked at the thick nest of beard on his chin. “I haven’t danced in years, you silly woman. I’m not going to start now.”
Forita’s laughter wove through the air. “Just you wait. I’m going to wish to be the most beautiful woman in town. Then you’ll have to join me.”
Mika winked. “I’ll be looking for you then, my dear. And you can join me in the twenty-course feast I’m wishing for.”
Forita wobbled to a stop in front of Taleb. “Do you see what I put up with, Taleb? Mika doesn’t know what he’s missing.”
Mika’s deep chuckle rumbled in his chest. “So what are you going to wish for, lad? Fine clothes, buckets of candy, a delightful young lady with which to pass the time?”
Would the townspeople hate him for what he was about to do?
Forita shook her head. “Those are trifles, you red-bearded fool.” She caught Taleb’s hands and clasped them in her own. Her palms were warm and she smelled like lavender, a dark, mysterious scent. “Think deeper. You could ask for a rare musical talent or to swim like a fish. You could be handsome. Not that you aren’t already quite the fine young man.” She wiggled his chin in her hand. “I swear. Look at you, lad, all grown up. Your first wishing day. Your parents would have…” She stopped and a furrow creased her brow.
Your parents would have been happy. Taleb heard the words in her silence.
Forita studied him. She bent down, eye-to-eye. “Take advantage of the day, Taleb. You deserve one afternoon of happiness.” She put her hands on Taleb’s shoulders and pointed at the door. “Go. Walk in the woods, clear your head. Get away from this noise and you’ll realize that it’s what they would have wanted.”
Taleb left the lodge and kicked his way through the tall, amber grass that lined the hillside. At the top of the hill he stopped, one hand raised to shade his brow.
To the north rose the Dornay Mountains, their dusted caps an early sign of the changing seasons. Mawmaw’s house was near the outskirts of town, in the shadow of the Dornay Mountains. It had once been a cozy haven, but the house was dingy now, and her garden had disappeared into a tangle of weeds, brown except for an empty plot at the corner of the property.
Directly below him was Wish Square, the center of town, with lanes of cedar-roofed cottages spiraling outward. Signs of Wishing Day were everywhere. Every street was strung with ribbons, and banners lined the shops. Wish Square had been cordoned off, and the altar, where people would write down their wishes, had been built. A rainbow of flowers had been brought in and set around the square. Everything was ready. Everyone was ready. Except for him.
Taleb bent the stalks that tickled his legs and crouched on the ground, his arms clutched around his legs.
Forita had told him he should make a wish, but what could he ask for? The only wish he wanted, he wasn’t allowed to have. His parents were gone. If he could wish for them back, even for half a day, he’d hold onto every minute so it would last him a lifetime.
Taleb squeezed himself into a ball. In just a short time, Forita would be beautiful. Mika would have a bellyful of food. His schoolmates would have wings or a mountain of treasure. They’d have their deepest desires and then four hours later it would vanish, like it had never existed at all. They’d be left with their lives, so ordinary in comparison, and they’d spend the rest of the year taking everything they’d already had for granted.
Above Taleb, the sun crawled its way across the sky towards the deep horizon. Taleb watched it go. Evening gathered itself and spread across the town.
When the town’s bell rang, Taleb rose and made his way to Wish Square. Inside he felt small and hollow and terribly uncertain.
The gatekeepers took his ticket with blessings for a pleasant wish night and ushered him in to the square.
The townspeople had gathered in an untidy line before the altar. Their voices were muted, spilling through the square in low whispers. Taleb took his place at the end of the row, his hands curled into tight balls.
A rock-lined fire pit smoldered at the far right of the square, eager to be stoked into bloom. When the time came, and the wishes had been cast, it would light the way for the townspeople’s wishes, igniting them into existence.
Taleb kept his head tucked, meeting no one’s eyes, as he waited his turn. Ahead of him, the line inched forward and each person, when reaching the podium, scribbled a wish onto a wafer-thin scrip, dropped it into the basket, and then moved off to the side, waiting for the Wishing Time to begin.
When Taleb reached the podium, he hesitated. Smiles, laughter, dances. Anticipation, joy. Would the townspeople hate him for what he was about to do?
Taleb thought of his parents, of his mother’s fresh smile and his father’s broad hands; the way they’d bent to work in Mawmaw’s garden every spring, tilling rows for vegetables and stocking barrels of flower seeds. He remembered the warm beat of life they’d brought to the now-empty rooms in Mawmaw’s house.
He put the tip of the pencil’s lead to the paper and scribbled his wish, fast, before he could change his mind, then folded the scrip, dropped it into the basket, and slipped to the edge of the crowd.
The town’s leaders, led by the mayor, carried the container over to the fire. A sturdy platform had been built above the flames and it was here they placed the basket.
The leaders used sticks to tumble the coals. Heat jittered underneath the basket, pushing the scrips into a frenzy. They surged to the top of the basket, the papers’ wisped cotton strands transforming into delicate wings.
Around Taleb, the crowd’s breath paused as they watched the heat burst higher. The scrips flew into the air, carrying the hopes and expectations of the townspeople skyward. A sigh whispered through the crowd. Time seemed to stop. Then…
“Where are my spring-bottomed feet?”
“Why can’t I fly?”
“I don’t see any food.”
“What’s going on?”
Across Wish Square, voices called out, quietly at first, then gaining volume.
“It didn’t work…our wishes…what’s the matter…is this a trick?”
Taleb felt the air around him swirl as hope turned to confusion.
The town leaders called the crowd to order and the mass grew silent as they waited for an explanation. But the mayor didn’t have an answer. He stood before them, his ruddy face a jumble of confusion as he looked from the empty basket to the sky.
The moment stretched out before Taleb. It wasn’t too late; he could still walk away. He could go home to Mawmaw and pretend he didn’t know what had happened. No one would ever have to know the truth.
Except the truth was worth knowing.
Taleb worked his way through the silent crowd and stepped forward into the clearing by the fire. “It was me,” he said.
The townspeople turned to stare at him, their eyebrows raised. No one said a word.
Forita stepped towards him. “What do you mean?”
Taleb spoke low, but his voice rang clear. “I wished that nobody’s wishes would come true.”
“What?…How could you?…Why would anyone…” The townspeople’s mutters felt sharp against his ears.
He had to make them understand.
Don’t you see? You already have what you desire. You don’t need wishes.
Taleb stared at the faces around him. “Forita,” he said, looking into her anguished eyes. “You’re already beautiful. That you would spend an entire year not seeing that, wishing to be more than who you are.” He turned to face the blacksmith, who stood with his scowl disappearing into his beard. “Mika, tell Forita she’s pretty just as she is and she’ll happily cook you that twenty course meal. I guarantee it’ll taste sweeter than anything you could have wished for.”
Taleb searched across the square, his eyes lighting on the faces of the people before him. “Ila, my friend, what do you need with riches that will vanish? Or you, Trude, you can already out-throw everyone in our class. Why would you want to be stronger than you already are?”
The crowd seemed frozen.
“Don’t you see? You already have what you desire. You don’t need wishes. You need to appreciate what’s right in front of you.” Taleb spun, seeking out any glimmer of understanding. “What you have won’t last, not forever, and if you look past it, it’ll be gone. You’ll have missed it.”
“We missed it, alright,” a voice called out. “No wishes, not for a whole year. It’s not fair.”
“No,” Taleb cried. “Don’t waste time feeling sorry for what you don’t have. Don’t you see? My wish was to give you a year to appreciate what you already have.”
His words were swallowed by angry voices that rose into a swell around him. Taleb’s schoolmates jeered at him. The butcher, his white coat gathered around him, shook his fist.
The mayor stepped forward, his hands held high. “The boy’s in mourning. It’s not his fault. He doesn’t know what he’s done.”
Around him, the anger faded, subsiding into pity. “He’s grief-stricken…he never should have been allowed…he should have stayed at home…his grandmother should have known better.”
Taleb blinked against the tears that welled in his eyes. They thought he was misguided; they didn’t understand. Forita took a step forward, her hand out. Taleb shook his head, darted past the mayor, and slipped under the rope that surrounded the square.
He ran up the hillside where he’d spent his afternoon, swiping his hands against the hot tears on his cheeks. Below him, a buzz of voices rose from Wish Square.
When he reached the top of the hill, he curled on his side and cradled his knees to his chest. He felt more alone than he ever had and not entirely certain he’d done the right thing. What he wouldn’t give for the soft comfort of his mother’s touch right now.
Taleb closed his eyes against the emptiness inside him. He imagined he was like the darkest of nights, without stars or a moon to light the way. Nothing. Nowhere. Alone.
After a time, the world faded away.
When he woke, the evening had grown late. Below him, the townspeople still gathered, but the mood had changed. The voices that, before, had been filled with displeasure, now rang loud and clear, joined by pockets of laughter. Lights ringed the square and the sound of fiddles filtered through the trees. The smell of roasting pork was rich in the air.
Taleb rolled over. A figure sat beside him, her feet tucked underneath her legs and her face tilted up to the sky. Forita.
“It’s the year without wishes,” she said.
Taleb’s body sagged. “I’m sorry.”
“But I ruined your night.”
Forita shook her head and turned to him. She was smiling, a small thing that lifted the edges of her lips. “You told me I’m beautiful, just the way I am. What woman wouldn’t want to hear that?”
Taleb stared into her eyes. She met his look and held it.
“Nobody hates you, if that’s what you’re wondering,” Forita said. “They just needed some time to make sense of what you did.”
“But they were so angry.”
She paused. “Yes, they were. But that doesn’t mean you weren’t right.” Forita pointed to Wish Square. “Look at them down there. What do you see?”
Taleb followed her gaze, taking in the twirling dancers, the heavy tables of food, the children playing skipping stones, the couples arm in arm.
“Any other year the square would be empty by now. People would have gone off, alone, most likely, to celebrate their wishes.”
“But not tonight.”
“No, not tonight. You told us that what we had in front of us was better than anything we could wish for,” she said. “You told us not to take that for granted.” Forita touched his sleeve, her fingers whispering against his arm. “It was a brave thing you did.”
“Then you don’t mind my wish?” A lump clogged Taleb’s throat, choking off any other words. He kept very still and waited for her answer.
Forita’s hand reached over to take Taleb’s. Her fingers curled against his palm. From one end of the square a rowdy burst of song rose over the fiddles. “It’s the best wish ever made,” she said.
Taleb squeezed his arms tight over his chest, holding Forita’s words against him. Across town, the cottages were dark against the shelter of the Dornay Mountains.
“Do you want to join me and Mika in the square?” Forita asked. “He’s promised me a dance.”
Taleb shook his head. He knew where he needed to go. Home, to Mawmaw, who was tucked in her bed, her eyes heavy and her heart linked to the bare patch of earth in the corner of her garden. He’d wake her gently, and make her some tea; he’d sing to her, brush her hair, and light candles in the windows. Tomorrow, they’d go to the garden. He’d give her his arm, so her steps would be steady. He’d till the soil for vegetables, and plant seeds in the barrels. And he’d clear away the weeds so that both of them could see the possibilities of what lay ahead.