This is a story from when the world was young. The world before magic became legend and otherworldly beings became otherworldly. In this world, there was a forest.
In a small village by the forest, a girl became orphaned when bandits ransacked her home. She was found hiding in a hole under the hut when the other villagers came looking for survivors. They sent her to the headman’s house as she had nowhere else to go. The parents the bandits had killed were her only family. From then on, she was the ward of a new family, a family that made all her decisions and let it be known to her that she survived on their charity.
The headman’s family did not treat her cruelly, but the only way she differed from the servants was that she had a room of her own, albeit the smallest in the compound and the one with the hardest bed. She was afforded no tenderness and was expected to earn her keep. She learned to sew her own clothes, cook all her own meals, and eventually cook the family’s as well. No one taught her to read or write. She was never allowed out of the padlocked gates.
In time, it became clear what plans the family had in store for her. Five years to the day the girl was brought there, she became grown enough to marry, and that was what happened. The headman’s family arranged her marriage to their only son. It was a practical decision—they would save much in dowry. The girl did not protest because it meant an easier life—she would have fewer menial duties, she would be moved to the larger house with a bigger room, she would have people wait on her rather than wait on them. And, there was no way she didn’t know it: it wasn’t as though she had a real choice. Ever since she was brought here, she was reminded that she had to pay back their kindness someday. Where else could she go?
And so everything unfolded as expected. Aside from sharing a bed with her new husband and being less weary come nightfall, not much changed. Her life was still confined to these four walls. She was still forbidden from leaving the gates. Within a few moons, the girl became pregnant. Her days grew even more restricted. She was discouraged even from doing the tasks she enjoyed, was no longer allowed to stroll around the compound unattended.
Long-seeded resentment sprouted within her. She hated her spurious “family,” with their grasping, restrictive ways. She hated this house with its unimaginative pale walls, hated the forest for how lush and tantalizingly green it was, forever beyond her reach, hated the fauna and fowl that resided within it as they pleased. She hated herself, being saddled with the progeny of this family she hadn’t chosen. She hated her husband perhaps most of all, since although he did not command or constrain her like his kin did, didn’t in fact say much of anything to her, he was perhaps the most pathetic creature she’d come across, as dull and docile as the beasts of burden his father raised. He did everything asked of him with no resistance, though to be fair, why should he feel the need to resist in the absence of any tyranny. His touches were lackluster, and her favorite part of their colorless couplings was how quickly sleep came to her following them.
There was only one thing the girl looked forward to every day. Or rather, every night. Once the family had eaten, everyone would retire to their rooms. The girl would have some time alone as her husband made the evening village rounds with his father. She would kneel on her bed by the window and look into the starry indigo sky, thinking of something her mother told her once. She remembered her mother well. It was she who had hidden her in the hole beneath the hut, just before the bandits tore in through the door. The girl could remember the prayers escaping her mother’s lips as she’d lowered her into the ground, prayers that her girl would remain enwombed in the earth, that her girl would live.
How would her mother feel, the girl wondered, if she knew that this was the life she’d sacrificed herself for? Nevertheless, she recalled her words from a long, long time ago: that in the night, if you wished for something before an open window, if you asked with all your might, your prayers may fall upon ears of beings who had the power to grant them. They may not grant them right away, they may not even hear you at first, but that was why you had to ask over and over, until the wind carried your words to one who spirited your wish into reality.
That “one” being, her mother had said, was a mystical creature that she would tell the girl about properly someday. For the time being, the girl only needed to know that these creatures possessed incredible power and should only be called upon in the direst of situations.
Had the girl known that for a year prior to her parents’ deaths, her mother had also called upon such beings, she may have held off on doing so herself. Had she known that her mother had wished for her daughter to someday marry into wealth, for her to live in more luxury than her parents had been able to give her, she may have realized the terrible price that people must often pay to have their wishes granted.
But as things were, the girl’s five years of discontent coupled with the decades of bleakness stretching out before her gave her cause to believe that this was among those direst of situations her mother talked about. And so, that first night before the open window, the night following her wedding, she folded her hands before her face and spoke these words to the skies—
Please let me leave here, past these gates and never to return again.
She repeated this prayer for dozens of nights in a row following the day she was first married, and then when they went unanswered, she changed it to—
Please let me give rise to something meaningful with this life. Something that makes a difference.
And when numerous recitations of this didn’t change her plight, it finally turned into—
Let me feel happiness at least once.
And as the child in her belly germinated, she chanted these words night after night, desperate to not lose faith that someday, they would be fulfilled.
One night, something rather peculiar happened. The girl was late in finishing up her prayer by the time she heard her husband return from making the rounds. Before he could catch her at the window, she hurriedly lay in bed and covered herself in the blankets. Thankfully, he had not seen. The girl was relieved, but when her husband lay next to her, she was surprised to feel him cradle her against him, albeit somewhat clumsily. She kept her eyes closed. She was unsure what prompted this, as it had never happened before.
She felt his fingertips on her face and heard a whisper. She couldn’t tell exactly what he said, but it sounded like, Sorry.
And following this, he began to sing. The sound filled the girl with wonder. Such mellifluence! It felt like honey flowed into her body as he sang. She could never have imagined that her insipid, unremarkable husband had a singing voice like that. Her astonishment was the only thing preventing her from being lulled into slumber. When he was finished and snoring, she opened her eyes. Yes, that was him, his head laid sideways against his pillow as always, fast asleep. How had she never known?
The next night, she was ready for it. She feigned sleep long before he walked in through the door. He got into bed beside her, and again, she felt him take her in his arms, caress her face, whisper an apology and sing, a different tune this time, but as sweet and soothing as before. Had he been doing this every night?
In the morning, she descended the stairs to fetch some milk. On her way to the pen where the cows were kept, she heard shouts and jangling. She turned to see her husband crouched by the headman’s feet, gathering up coins into a pouch. Standing overhead, his father hurled abuses at him. They were surrounded by other members of the household, all silent. The girl had no inkling of what had transpired, but from what she picked up of her father-in-law’s diatribe, her husband had sold something for less than it was worth. He looked up and saw her standing in the doorway. He seemed ashamed to have her see him this way. Ducking his head, cheeks slightly flushed, he walked past her and into the house, taking care not to jostle her on his way.
Everyone dispersed, but the girl stared after him long past his walking by. All this time, she had assumed that only she was treated as less than in this household. Truthfully, she had never been attentive of how he had grown up, especially since they’d lived on different sides of the compound, crossing paths only briefly. Now, she recalled that as children, he had done things like refuse an extra serving of the dinner she’d cooked, or fetched water from the well himself rather than asking her to do it. At the time she’d assumed he thought her inept; now, she wondered if it was because he knew she’d have had to cook even more the next time, or because he didn’t want to add to her strain. Could he have been hurting all this time as well?
That night, she stayed awake and chose to let him see it. As he fumbled with their clothing and lay over her, she paid attention this time. She paid attention to the silken strokes of his hands at her waist, his delicate sweep of her hair off her shoulders, the way he shifted his weight onto his knees so as not to hurt her. He hadn’t known to do any of this the first time. But many days had passed since then and perhaps he had learned without her noticing. When it was over, the girl didn’t sleep immediately. She lay with her eyes closed again, waiting to see what he would do. Sure enough, he began to sing, and for the first time she wondered if in some form, she had been aware of it all along, and if that was why she’d always had such an easy time drifting off to sleep since being married.
Just as she began to relax, she felt wetness drop onto her face in rapid succession. His body trembled, shaking the mattress. With alarm, she realized that he was crying, silently, perhaps so as not to wake her. She dearly wanted to know why, but at a loss, she could only stay still.
She lay awake long after he slept, pondering whether she hadn’t misjudged him. He’d been a boy when they met, too. Barely any years older than herself. No one had explained to either of them how this should be. Perhaps this newfound empathy was a result of the child growing within her, or perhaps pitying one such as him came easily. It pleased her, knowing she could pity someone outside of herself. She wondered what it would look like, extending the hand of friendship to her husband.
The night after that, she looked nowhere else and kept her eyes fixed on his the whole time. He noticed, of course, and seemed surprised, but did not do anything differently during the deed aside from steal glances at her face now and then. When finished, they lay side by side without touching, but without looking away. In the light of the star-studded sky streaming through their open window, the grey rings of his irises reminded her of the moon she had prayed to many a time. She had neglected to do that for the past few nights. He seemed bashful. Her pity for him was growing into fondness. She wasn’t sure which of their eyes closed first.
The girl walked downstairs with a purpose the following night. It was before bedtime, right after everyone had eaten, and she had gone to her room only to fetch a shawl. Rain was pouring outside, which she had not anticipated, and which may ruin her chances of achieving what she set out to do, but she was undeterred: if she did not act now, it would take her too long to build the courage again.
Stepping into the room where they were all gathered by the fire, she said that she had heard one of the older ladies say that walking often was good for expectant mothers. She would like to go for a walk tonight. As she’d expected, eyebrows raised and perplexed glances were exchanged. At this time? Was said more than once, amid protests of how it was unsafe for a woman in any circumstance, let alone in this weather. Even the headman hadn’t made his rounds.
She did just as she had rehearsed. I don’t have to be alone. Couldn’t he come with me? She pointed a shaking finger at the youngest man in the room. Her husband was knelt frozen before the fireplace as he stared back at her, something wooden he’d been carving with a knife now rigid in his hands. Murmurs and gasps filled the room again, and the girl’s insides squirmed. Perhaps it would be better to give it up. But the fact that he had not glanced over at the headman yet was a good sign, she was certain. He was staring at her with awe rather than anger.
Tremulously, she braved the gazes of all present as she walked to her husband and held out her hand before him. I can ask my husband if he’ll walk with me, can’t I?
Everything was placed into this one act, this one test. The girl would know tonight if her hopes were misguided, and if they were, she knew she would regret her actions like nothing else. Was she wrong to do this? Husbands protected their wives, didn’t they? They supported their wishes. She almost wept when his hand took hers.
Yes, he said, as though only just realizing he knew how to speak. Yes, we’ll go. I’ll take you anywhere you want. Her heart suddenly felt too large for her ribcage. Hand in hand, they exited the house, leaving a mix of bemused faces in their wake.
Outside, though the rain was still tumbling, the girl found warmth not only in the shawl, but in the hand that held hers. She wrapped his arm in the crook of her other elbow, huddling closer to him as he unlocked the gates. For the first time in five years, she walked past them, and her body trembled in excitement. They were moving towards the forest. At long last, her cycle of captivity was broken; she was free to roam as she pleased. Was this what it looked like to have her wishes granted?
Mishal, she said, realizing many things at once, I love you.
I’ve loved you from the day I first saw you in the house, he said.
Yes. I just didn’t have the heart to say so. I know you would never have chosen me. I hated that it was all forced on you. And what I did to you. I didn’t know what to do.
The girl’s eyes misted over. You were right. But, I really do choose you now. I don’t care how it happened. I choose it all, the baby too. Once it’s born, can we go away, just the three of us? Please?
We’ll do anything you wish.
She was brimming over with unshed joy. I used to think it was only me. But now I know. You’ve been as lonely as me. They treated you badly, too. I know how it feels. I won’t be like them. I promise.
Her husband smiled at her with such brazen affection, and she saw in that moment that his silences had nothing to do with the depth of his mind. Sometimes a situation did not call for words. She leaned into his arm, pressing her body closer against him, her cheek nestling into his shoulder. She looked up, hoping he would return her advances.
Taking the girl’s face in both hands, her husband gave her a kiss. It was no more than a peck of her lips. But it was enough to make her giddy. She leaned into him again, both hands placed on his chest. They stood right by the mouth of the forest, letting the rain ensconce them as they stood together. Her belly, not quite protruding yet—that would happen in a few weeks—nudged past her shawl, closing the gap between their bodies. For the first time, she couldn’t wait to be back in their room and making love again. She would engage this time, touch him as he touched her, return his kisses, caresses, and embraces. The rain cascaded over their heads, crowning them King and Queen in their newfound happiness.
The story could end here. One may choose to not read on. Choose to imagine that they trudged back together and took to bed exactly as she envisioned. They stayed until the birth of their child and then set out on their own, renouncing the household that had misused them. They made a home elsewhere in the village, furthest from the headman’s and closest to the forest. They forged their own family, a family woven from the threads of belonging spun between their neighbors and themselves. Perhaps they even welcomed more children, who later lay down roots and bore fruit of their own. Their lineage grew and they were laid to rest together, content with the lives that they had led.
Or one may choose to read on. If so, they will learn the reality.
Their bliss was short-lived. From within the forest, a creature stepped out before them, walking on monstrous, shaggy clawed feet that resembled a beast’s. Its horned head, slick with the wetness from the rain, gleamed under the moonlight. Its face resembled a human’s, except that its large eyes glowed an eerie green, its skin mottled grey, shadows cast on its naked torso by the branches it had emerged from.
It pointed a sharp, clawed finger at the pair huddled before him. The girl leaves with me.
What neither the girl nor her husband knew was that this was a jinn, a being endowed with mysterious abilities humans cannot even conceive of. Most never encounter them, for they reside in the woods, and daylight separates their worlds. Some of them are benevolent and seek to aid. Many are not. Their powers are strongest on rainy nights.
Although the girl was unaware of this, it was the second time that night that she realized many things at once: that this creature was of the beings her mother had told her about, that it had indeed heard the wishes she made in the night, and that her venturing out of the gates, so near to the forest, was all it needed to appear before her. Terror seized the girl in its jaws; oh why had she insisted on walking outside tonight! Why had she never thought to take back her words? Before she could act, her husband flung her behind him, shielding her from the beast. She could feel his hand quivering, yet he did not budge. You won’t touch her.
And just like this, he had passed a second test she hadn’t even given. In that moment, the girl knew that, like her parents before her, the both of them would rather die than let this creature take her away, that everything they had told each other minutes ago was the truth, and that, as she looked into its murderous face, one way or another, he would see her husband dead.
The jinn would not yield so easily. It is difficult for jinn to cross over into the realm of humans, and he was running out of time. Ever since he had seen the girl praying at her window, he had lusted after her beauty. It was she who had desperately asked to be saved, and now she would reject him in favor of a lowly human? No matter, for he could be easily dealt with. Teeth bared, the jinn raised his hand, ghostly white light gathering in his palm as he prepared to strike.
The girl had a promise to keep. In a flash, she had pushed her husband to the side, knocking him to the ground. When he looked up again, he saw her crumpled in a heap at the jinn’s feet, barely stirring.
The headman’s son gave a shout as he lunged towards her. The jinn, horrified by what he’d unwittingly done, vanished before others of his kind could discover this and make him atone for harming one he’d pledged to help. Knelt in the mud, the headman’s son gathered the girl to him. She had taken the brunt of the jinn’s attack; even he could see that she was beyond help. He could feel the warmth dissipating from her body. She gazed up at him feebly.
I didn’t protect you. His hands as they held her trembled. She shook her head and lifted a hand to his face, drenched in raindrops. Her fingers fluttered across his cheek, settling over his lips. She could only mouth the words. Please sing.
Holding down his grief, the girl’s husband sang her to sleep for the last time. She fought to stay awake for every song. When she finally closed her eyes, it was with a smile. For hours afterward, the man clasped his bride in his arms as he wept into her neck. He stayed this way until daybreak, when his concerned relatives discovered them.
At the behest of his repentant family, the village mourned the tragedy. The girl was buried where she breathed her last, at the border of the forest and the village. Within a year, a tree had grown at the site of her burial. It stood taller than many in the adjoining forest that were decades older. Fearing an ill omen, the villagefolk sought permission to cut it down, but the headman’s son, now headman since his father’s passing that same year, forbade it. Rather, he ordered that a small gate be built around the tree to mark and protect it, but with enough of an opening for people to enter and leave freely.
In time, the tree grew larger and stronger than any other. It soon bore heavy round coconuts that did not break even upon falling to the ground when ripe. The headman would visit the tree on each of his nightly rounds until his death as an old man. He sang to it with a hand on its bark, and those who witnessed this swore that its fronds swayed in the breeze just a little more when he did so. He never remarried, and the line of headmen ended with him. After his death, the villagers chose their leaders themselves according to who was the most worthy.
But the tree carried on living for centuries. It stands there to this day. And its fruit are to be marveled at, for more than just their succulence. You see, some of the jinn’s powers had been absorbed by the tree’s creator that night. It would not be right to call the coconuts fully magic. Their powers are not easily discernable. But whosoever eats a coconut and drinks its nectar is said to be imbued with the strength to embark on adrift journeys, to use their life for a noble cause, to pursue their own happiness. They feel rejuvenated, refreshed. For a time, they have the wherewithal to stay resolute in the face of danger and hardship. They embody decisiveness and bravery, even if not quite as much as the girl who once made three wishes felt on the night that they were all granted.