The Laundromat Battalion

[This is a story I wrote for the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction competition. I had to write a 1,000-word science fiction story that took place at a laundromat and involved a tongue ring. I had a lot of fun with it.]

The photo that, along with interesting facts about the tongue, inspired the story.
The photo that, along with interesting facts about the tongue, inspired the story.

Five days after a Yopra scuttled up to me on the street and whispered, “Go to Laundromat. They take care of hardware in you mouth,” I was walking out of my tenth Laundromat, drowning in desperation and confusion. I had no method other than going into every Laundromat and speaking, revealing the ring, and exposing myself for what I really was. So far, nobody had offered to do anything helpful.

A van drove by with huge letters L, A, U, N, D, but a truck blocked the rest of it. Before I’d registered the impulse, I chased it. In the perpetual rush hour of Deimos, I pulled even with it in a half a block: a blindingly clean white van declaring, LAUNDRY.

I zig-zagged across two lanes of traffic and banged on the passenger door. “Hep me!”

The driver rolled down the window.

“Cang you hep me?”

He must’ve understood, despite how the ring made me talk, because he jerked his head in the universal sign for get in. The road erupted in honks and yells, so I stepped up on the running board, hooked my left arm through the open window, and banged to let him know he could go. We drove like this for three blocks until there was a red light and I could hop in.

“Ank you.”

“What can I do for you?” His voice was so nice. Or, rather, he was being nice, so it sounded like a serenade.

“A Yopra say Aunroma hep.”

He laid on his horn before I was finished. “You’ll have to put these on.”

The sunglasses looked ordinary enough, but when I put them on, they blackened my entire range of vision, even the transmundane aspect. So I was blind as a Lucifungus, headed to an unknown location with an unknown Tut to see an unknown being for an unknown purpose on the advice of a strange Yopra. This was everything they’d warned us girls about back home, but it was my only hope.

We were silent while we drove, so I could hear water sloshing and a motor running in the back. Did they have working washers in the van? Finally we stopped and sliding doors scraped shut behind us. I went to take the sunglasses off, but was told to keep them on and stay here. One of my hearts sped up and the other slowed down: one preparing to fight, the other for flight.

Everyone had warned me not to move to Deimos, but I just couldn’t believe an entire society could hate me because of my tongue.

The door opened; somebeing took my elbow and guided me out of the van. It felt like we were indoors. After fifty-three steps, and three turns, I was maneuvered into a chair.

A door closed, and then opened and closed again. Something else was breathing in the room.

“Open your mouth for me, hon.”

I did, but I could only push my tongue level with my lower lip, and even that hurt like the Dybbuck.

“Ach.” The woman had the voice of someone who’d worked in a diner back when everyone could still smoke MeO in them. “The new bind ring. We’ve been hearing they were going to start using these. I’m going to have to call a few people in.” She opened the door and bellowed some stuff before sitting back down in front of me, our knees touching. “We’ll get you taken care of.”

“Who are you?”

“The Laundromat Battalion.”

That didn’t explain anything, but other beings came into the room and she made me open my mouth again.

“See this?” she said. “There are two piercings on either side of the central vein, and this figure-eight metal bar between them, going across the tip of her tongue twice. I’m just going to lift you up.”

That last bit was said to me before she revealed the underside of my tongue. Even though she was gentle, I whimpered.

“Sorry, hon. Almost done. The bastards clipped her webbing. How long ago did they do this?”

“Oo weeks.” I held up two fingers.

She patted my shoulder. “Close up.” She addressed the others. “Her muscular hydrostat is completely shackled.” There was a noise like metal instruments on a tray. “This’ll be my first time removing one of these, but the closure system looks the same as the previous tongue rings.”

I slapped my hands over my mouth. “Ay cash me.”

“They won’t catch you. Don’t you know what we do?”


“We’ve figured out how to trick the sensors so you can get this off and keep it off without ever alerting the tracking system. I surround your tongue with a warm, sopping wet towel—I hope you don’t gag easily. Then I clamp the tips with a torsion tool of my invention, shimmy you free, and immediately throw the whole thing in a perpetually running washing machine set at 97 Farenheit. Moisture, motion, and temperature sensors remain satisfied. We even drive the machines around the city so they’re not always in the same place.”

“Pay you?”

“Nope. We’re a real mobile laundry company. It’s the perfect front. You ready to get rid of this thing?”

I smiled for the first time in two weeks.

“When I’m done, stretch out once, and then not again until the swelling has gone down. The holes should be closed within two days.”

She used the same bracket to keep my mouth open that the police had; although she was helping me, it still made me tremble. Water from the towel dripped down the back of my throat, but that was nothing compared to the vibrations of her machine. I was howling and punching my leg and panting, then all of a sudden, I was free.

I unfurled my tongue to half its full length, down to my chest, and let each muscle untwist, until all eight were waving like seaweed.

I over-enunciated because I finally could: “Thank you.”

A story I’m telling myself about myself

Although I decided to practice self-compassion when it came to my work on my David and Saul novels, and I have managed to make some progress, it’s time to get working a little more seriously again.

I considered this method.

me next to a statue of a person with a book tied to his or her head

But I’m not certain that tying the manuscript(s) to my head would do anything other than satisfy my latent need to punish myself for not working as much as I could have.

Perhaps merely being in the presence of those building blocks of language — words — would help.

me in front of an airy metal statue of a person that is made up of letters

No, it will require actual effort to get back into the stories, finding both their roots and tracing their repercussions.

bright metal sculpture of a ball with roots growing out of it all around

So no more giving myself an irritated pouty face.

a statue of a girl pouting

No more wallowing.

me imitating a sculpture of a person tired and despairing

Time to reach towards the light, towards the life-giving water, hand upraised, ready to receive.

my hand, reaching through a crack in a rock towards a waterfall


I love going somewhere and finding a story. This story courtesy of a recent trip to Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park. Photos were all taken by me on a superhot sunny day, except #5, which was taken by Hannah Van Houten. Unfortunately, I didn’t do due diligence, and I don’t have the details of one of the works; I apologize.

  1. Bill Woodrow, Listening to History (thank you, Ken Verhulst!)
  2. Jaume Plensa. I, you, she or he…, 2006
  3. Roxy Paine. Neuron, 2010
  4. Tom Otterness. Mad Mom, 2001
  5. Hanneke Beaumont. Number 26 and Number 25
  6. Indoors in what we always called “The Jungle” when the kids were little.

Who will pastor the pastors?

a graphic of a shrugging young man, with the words Who Will Pastor the Pastors?Hello, friends. This is the first time I’m linking to something I wrote for one of my freelance jobs, partially because I’m proud of it — I think it manages to be truthful while maintaining a light but not overly jokey tone. My goal was to make it seem possible to do something about the grief, pain, and fear pastors (and the rest of us) are feeling these days.

But I’m also linking to it because I’ve been pressed down by grief, pain, and fear over what is happening in my adopted country. As a person who’s sought out diverse neighborhoods, churches, and schools, as a person who’s been pastored and taught and loved by African-American pastors and friends, as an immigrant and a daughter of an immigrant, as a person who writes about black and Hispanic churches in Grand Rapids and who sees the deeply good work they do, I am in despair about guns, about policing, about anti-immigrant rhetoric, about the love of power and strength without an accompanying love of wisdom.

So this article comes out of my own despair, as well as what I know about how many pastors in Grand Rapids are feeling. I need to take my own counsel.

Who Will Pastor the Pastors?

Go forth and enjoy

In my part of the world, it is summer. Glorious summer.

Character from TV show Bones gives some mild side-eye

Okay, this summer’s getting some mild side-eye. I worked as many hours as I could during June, since a freelance contract was ending, so it hasn’t been fancy-free so far. But mostly the side-eye is because my family wasn’t able to get together for a beach day until this past Sunday — in July. And Lake Michigan was cold enough that there were hypothermia warnings for boaters. Hypothermia — in July.

A flashing gif that reads, Summer where are you?

I may be exaggerating my frustration with summer, because I did get to go on a road trip to an exotic foreign land.

My son and I have caught a few local pro soccer games, and now that the team is in first place in our league, the remaining games are going to be even more fun than before — We love you boys in blue!

Photo of stadium banners at a GRFC game.

The beach day was marvelous, and there *was* a beach to sit on (which there hadn’t been even two weeks ago).

I went to a Canada Day picnic (to which I had to wear a sweater and was jealous of the woman who had a fleece blanket, ahem, summer).

The kids and I have gone to the park to kick and throw balls and frisbees around. They even made me sit down and do nothing while they cooked dinner (I totally shed a tear).

Lisa Simpson says Wow and wipes away a tear

We’ve even teamed up to do some basic home repairs, which felt amazing and empowering.

Bart Simpson does some plumbing.

And gone out for frozen yoghurt and ice cream numerous times.

The cooler-than-usual weather has meant that I can sit on the porch in the evenings and read or watch movies.

So I have had a fun summer so far, but you know what I don’t have? Photos of the fun. I decided to spend more time IN my summer than documenting it.

Lest this become known at The Lost Summer, I may relent a little. But I’m enjoying being there and not worrying about whipping out my phone. Frankly, I’m also enjoying not having to convince teenagers that a photo wouldn’t kill them.

Whether you are in summer or winter, whether you document your fun or not, whether you jolly people into joining you or fly solo, I wish you many, many enjoyable moments.

(Also, many thanks to for making this lazy post just a little more interesting.)

We’ve only just begun

a sparkler lights up the night

For the last month and a half, my main focus has been on getting the Kickstarter rewards for As Real As It Gets distributed. We’re so close — only 5 true delinquents who we cannot get addresses for. But we’ve tried multiple times, so I’m calling it good.

Which means now the real marketing begins.

The emailing, oh the emailing: schools, school libraries, public libraries, picture book review bloggers, social service agencies, adoption agencies, and anyone else we can think of. If you know someone for us to contact, tell in the comments. If you want Amanda and/or me to come to your school, let me know in the comments. We’ve got a lot of books to sell!

But I’m taking a moment to revel in these delicious things:

It’s a dream come true. A dream 13 years in the making.

Yes, there’s a crazy amount of work ahead (including begging people to go to those sites above and leave a review), but today, I’m just going to smile and daydream about ways to celebrate this accomplishment.

How have you celebrated major accomplishments?
What do you think I should do?


One memory per country

I was browsing through the List app this weekend when I came across one that looked like fun: a list of one memory per country the person had visited. My kids are out of school, and I’ve attended the Zeeland Memorial Day Parade, so summer has officially started, and doing that list for myself just sounds fun. And summer is about fun (even for my son, who will be working 6am-2pm doing janitorial work, but he’ll be doing it with half of his crew, prompting the mother look and the admonishment, “make sure you work“).

Here we go, in alphabetical order (after my birthplace):

Photo of the curved beach and the giant bluff on the water in Bon Echo Provincial Park
Photo by Andrew McLachlan – I loved that curved beach and the giant bluff rising straight out of the water.


Aliens camping. One of my favorite places we camped as a family was Bon Echo Provincial Park. When my dad was just out of law school, he started a company to explore affordable yet attractive housing; he didn’t find the solution to the housing dilemma, but he did wind up with an amazing tent system. There were three tents that zipped together, made of canvas and full of all kinds of interesting angles so his 6’3″ frame could fully stand in two of them. One tent was our living room; it contained seating, as well as the kitchen he built for camping purposes (it was made of wood and folded down). Zipped to that was my parents’ tent, and zipped to that was the kids’ tent (although I think Bon Echo was the first year my brother took a pup tent off on his own). Our camping spot was next to a rock outcrop tall enough that atop it, I could look down on the tent system. I liked to stand there and pretend an alien ship had landed in the wilds of Ontario.


The billows When I was maybe 8 and my brother 6, we went camping during monsoon season. And a storm came. Our spot was on top of a bluff by the ocean; although all the other campers hightailed it out of there, and we could’ve moved anywhere else, we stuck with that totally exposed spot. I remember the sides of the tents puffing out like a billows, and then sucking in, over and over and over — canvas makes a lot of noise when whipped about by monsoon-level wind and rain.

The Sanity Bag

The Dominican Republic

Sanity, sweet sanity We went to a resort during Christmas of my freshman year of college. Nothing can beat the Sanity Bag I found in a dresser drawer. As the mother of teenagers, I might need it now more than ever.


Entirely unromantic I was in Paris for an afternoon, and my boyfriend-at-the-time and I had to get from one train station to another one across town, with only time to grab a sandwich in between. He took me to get a Greek sandwich in a neighborhood known for prostitution, apparently. I did not love this.


My life for a burger I was 9 and my brother 7. My sole memory of Athens: being near the Parthenon and not focusing at all on its majesty, but grumbling because we had to tramp all over a hillside to find a stand that served hamburgers, because that’s all my brother would eat.


Hangry zone We were in Venice, and we arrived during early-mid afternoon, hungry and tired. Of course, everyone in Venice was full and tired and having their afternoon rest, so almost no restaurants were open. I remember being embarrassed as my dad got increasingly annoyed. Also, Venice smelled like sewage.

An oliebollen cart in winter.

The Netherlands

Teenagers think they’re so funny (sometimes they are) There is a delicious donut that is traditionally eaten on New Year’s Day: oliebollen. Translation: fat balls. Batter with currants, formed into a ball, deep fried, and then thickly covered in powdered sugar. In Amsterdam, they’re street cart food. When I was there during college, I watched a group of teenagers buy oliebollen, follow businessmen down the sidewalk, and blow the powdered sugar all over the backs of their black cashmere coats. It made me laugh.


Non-jolly blond giant We were here when I was 9, and I have no memory of this vibrant place other than that of being horribly, gut-twistingly embarrassed as we walked around because I was taller than most of the adults! And at 6’3″, my dad was what seemed like twice the height of everyone else. I wanted to curl up in a ball.


Self-obsessed much? I was in Denia, on the coast of the Mediterranean Ocean, during college, visiting my boyfriend-at-the-time during his off-campus semester. We went on a lovely hike in the very gentle mountains, yet I was in tears, because I had my Dance Guild show in a week or two, and I didn’t want to do anything that would jeopardize my ankles. Silly girl.


My brother’s keeper One of my dad’s brothers worked for the Canadian government and was stationed in Geneva for a year while we were in Australia, so we visited him and hung out with our cousins. When we were sightseeing in the mountains, my brother kept going really close to what looked like the edge of a cliff, and I was crying because I really thought he was going to fall to his death. He didn’t.

United States of America

Romantic reading spot My mother grew up on a farm in a one-stop-sign, two-church town called Overisel. Every year, as soon as school was done, we’d drive down to visit my grandparents in time for strawberry/sour cherry/rhubarb season. I was not as stellar a picker as my mother, so I’d wind up with a glorious amount of free time. For a few years, until puberty hit and my hips grew, I liked to take a book up into one of the sour cherry trees and settle into this one spot that was just barely big enough for me to perch in. This was always more romantic ideal than comfortable reading spot, but I’d tough it out, gazing over the corn fields, thinking about how great it was that I could read in a tree, and get through 10 pages max before climbing down.

Anybody else have travel memories they want to share?
Anyone out there use the List app?

The first time I ate…

image of a steamed artichoke on a plate from Martha Stewart dot com

On my favorite writing site, Writer Unboxed, today, Donald Maass is talking about injecting the pixie dust of enthralling events into our manuscripts. Here’s one of his sets of questions:

What food delights you?  When did you first eat it?  Who and what made that experience so special?  Recreate that—not the food necessarily but the experience—in your current novel.

By these questions, he’s hoping to get at moments of deep delight, at those meals we always remember:

What are you putting into your work in progress that will provide that kind of delight for your readers? Food, drink, friends and comfort are undeniably associated with our most delightful times, but what makes those times meaningful are not the places or what was there, but who was there and what those experiences meant to us; i.e., what we did and what we felt.

So that got me thinking about times that food brought deep delight in my own life. I’ve written about one such time before (One vulnerable risk that led to my favorite Thanksgiving), when a co-worker admitted he had nowhere to go and asked to join my celebration.

Then there was the first time I ate an artichoke. I was 19 and newly home for the summer after my first year in college, and one of my cousins was starring in a summer stock play in an outdoor amphitheatre outside of Toronto. The Hart clan was planning to go together to one performance and have a picnic dinner on the grass, but my parents couldn’t go, so my Uncle Willem and his wife Carroll took me. Given how memorable this event was, I should say that my uncle didn’t just drive and feed me, he took me under his wing. He is a gourmet (and now my book and cover designer, sneak peek at the bottom of this post), and he brought for each of us, a steamed artichoke.

I should say, a perfectly steamed artichoke, with the choke removed.

I had to watch him carefully to see what to do:

  1. Pull off a leaf, the resistance as slight as a tooth that’s more than ready to come out.
  2. Dip it in the sauce.
  3. Scrape the flesh off the leaf with your teeth.
  4. Lay the discarded leaves in an attractive pattern on your plate.

The ritual of it was as intoxicating as the vegetably sweetness of the flavor. And the lusciousness of the heart — a revelation. I felt so sophisticated and grown up. It was deeply delightful.

It also opened up an approach to feeding oneself with style, with pleasure, with precision, with openness to new ingredients that I began to explore once I was cooking for myself every night.

I still love artichokes, although I don’t steam them whole; I slice them in half to make removing the choke easier. In fact, I saw some at the store yesterday, as big as a newborn’s head. Now I know what’s for dinner.

How about you?  Do you have any good “First time I ate…” stories? What meal or food has brought you deep delight?

< >

As promised, here’s the sneak peek of The Giant Slayer’s cover. There are a couple of tweaks needed, but this is it. I love it.

early cover for The Giant Slayer 




an image of a woman facing a glowing sunset

In the last couple of months, I’ve almost lost track of the number of times the word “beloved” has been aimed my way. It started in the communion circle, when the person offering me the elements said, “Natalie, you know this, you are God’s beloved.”

Immediately, I cried. Actually, it still makes me tear up.

On the Thursday before Easter, I went to the Garden Prayer service at The Revolution — an hour and half of prayer that started at 11pm. They removed several rows of chairs and circled the stage with pillows. The lights were low, the music was pulsing, and dry ice was blowing. Prayer time was not quiet. People stood, sat, bowed, curled over the pillow, cried out, spoke in tongues, moved around. The word that came to me often during that time: beloved. I was God’s beloved.

I sobbed. Loudly. Like I hadn’t since my marriage imploded in August.

The word kept leaping out at me from a variety of blog posts and sermons. And then last week, at the Renew and Refine Retreat the day before the Festival of Faith and Writing, the contemplative writer himself, Ed Cyzewski, provided this verse as one option for us to use for centering prayer:

I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me. (Song of Songs 7:10, NRSV)

Yes, it’s from the sexy book of the Bible, but an argument can be made for reading it as an allegory of love between the Lord and His people, so that’s how I took it. For twenty minutes, I lay on my back on the floor of my church and focused on that, singing to myself an old youth group song,

I am His and He is mine, His banner over us is love.
I am His and He is mine, His banner over us is love.
I am His and He is mine, His banner over us is love.
His banner. Over us. Is love.

And then Ed and another organizer of the retreat stood in front of each person and said their name, followed by, “You are God’s beloved, and His desire is for you.” There were over thirty people in front of me, so I got to hear them say it over and over, and anticipate them saying it to me. I cried the whole time.

You see, it stings a little every time because it makes me realize that I am nobody else’s beloved, and that I wasn’t even my husband’s beloved while we were married. So there is grief.

But mostly I want to bask in the knowledge that I am God’s beloved, and that He has chosen me and will not stop choosing me. He treasures me; I am His treasure.

How precious are your thoughts about me, O God. They cannot be numbered! (Psalm 139:17, NLT)

I’m grateful for each person who has looked me in the eye and told me this. And for each person who will do it in the future. Because I’m not done needing to hear it. It still needs to soak further into my spirit, into my brain, into my heart before the need is not so acute. But I’m getting there…

Of course, this is not just true about me and God — it’s true about you and God, too.
You are God’s beloved. Bask in it.

The only way out is through

We have the plague.

a cartoon character shivers on its bed

Okay, not the actual plague, but both of my children have wicked intestinal bugs that are not resolving quickly, like good viruses are supposed to.

Melissa McCarthy's character from Bridesmaids in the food poisoning scene

And there’s nothing I can do. There’s no medicine that will make their illnesses shorter, no way to help them need the bathroom less often. They’re teenagers now, so they can mostly know when the bad stuff is coming, and can take care of it themselves (no more sound of vomit hitting the floor as heard through a baby monitor, a sound that I will never forget and that haunts me to this day).

It reminds me of the post I wrote a couple of weeks ago, that included the phrase, The only way out is through. I said those very words to my grey-faced son a few minutes ago. Indeed, as with so many things, the only way out of this illness is to let it takes its course — as if we have any choice in the matter…

Winnie the Pooh says to Eyeore: "Ever have one of those days when you just can't win?"

Yes, I’m trying to make them as comfortable as possible. I’ve got Saltines and Gatorade and applesauce and many other plain foods available for whenever they’re ready. I’m nagging them about drinking something, anything, both to guard against dehydration and to give them something to throw up (because it hurts less to throw up something than to keep throwing up nothing). I’m running up and down the stairs in response to their texted requests for highly important items like computer and phone chargers. I’m doing all their laundry (one of my standard responses when the plague enters the house). And I’m washing my hands as often as I can and disinfecting the living daylights out of the house.

Spraying an aerosol can over a candle makes a handy flamethrower.

Don’t laugh. We may need to resort to the flame-throwing level of cleaning soon.

I send you thoughts of good health. And if that fails, good humor.



The Linnet Girl

[This is a 2500-word Fairy Tale about a psychic, involving a birthmark, that I wrote for the NYC Midnight Short Story Competition. Enjoy 🙂
ETA: I came in fifth in my heat, which qualified me through to the next round!]

a little brown bird sits on a person's hand

Once upon a time, a peasant couple was expecting their first child, and not a soul was happy for them. Cador was a weasel of a man, sharp-toothed and sneaky. People never saw a mark on his wife, but Tressa had as much substance as a shadow.

Her labor came on at the village well, so the women did their duty, even though they didn’t like her, and sent for the Sisters and bustled her home. When they got there, she pulled away and lowered herself onto a rough straw pallet on the far side of the hut, opposite the fire. They tried to make her some tea, at least, but they found neither wood in the fireplace, nor a tin of tea. Every counter was bare and every cupboard door was locked. No wonder the poor girl’s cheeks were still hollow.

As soon as the midwife, Brenna, arrived, the women fled.

Tressa didn’t let Brenna touch or examine her, but squatted on her pallet, her head bent, silently enduring the harrow of labor—until her husband’s boots scraped at the threshold, and she whimpered. Just once. The midwife almost missed it.

Brenna braced herself for an ugly scene, but he gave them a mere glance before unlocking the cabinets, making a fire, and cooking himself supper. When he was finished, he slopped cold water on the leavings and grunted to indicate it was for the women.

That a woman needed peace during this time was the only reason the midwife didn’t rail against Cador for eating like a king and giving his wife gruel while she went to the brink of death to birth his child.

When the time to push came, Tressa threw off her clothes as if they were keeping the baby in, revealing what she kept hidden.

Bruises. Burns. Some long healed. Some fresh.

The midwife’s spirit turned to flint that was just waiting to be struck so it could burst into flame, but that had to wait: the baby was crowning.

A daughter.

Why? Why would the Powers That Be put a girl in this family? Brenna tried to bury her rage and terror with after-birth work, but when she went to pick up the baby to clean her, Tressa’s trembling hands were in the way. The midwife looked into the new mother’s eyes and saw a forest fire’s worth of rage and terror, overwhelming her candle’s worth.

So when Brenna had the newborn in her lap, and she was wiping the white fuzz off the little face, she whispered ancient words and watched as a red stain bloomed wherever she moved the cloth: from the baby’s forehead, down her left temple, across half her cheek, and in a thin trail down the side of her throat, spreading again at the shoulder. She shook out the cloth, breaking the spell. “Don’t you want to see your little girl?”

Cador came from the warmth of the fire he’d been hogging, took one look at the ruined skin, and leaned over his wife. “You laid with the Devil, you little—”

“No.” Brenna drew herself up to her full height, challenging him to do the same. She smirked as she looked down on him. “The Devil doesn’t go for weak, downtrodden women like your wife, but this is his mark. He will keep an eye on this little one.”

“Macha.” It was barely a whisper, but it was clear: Tressa wanted her defenseless daughter named for a goddess of war.

“Yes, the Evil One will keep his eye on Macha.”

“How do you know him so well?” Cador’s tone was nasty.

“The Sisters make it their business to study evil,” Brenna fixed him with a pointed stare, “of all kinds.” She lifted the baby until it was level with his face. “This stain is a promise that if you lay even one finger on her, he will come for you and you will be his entertainment.”

If the midwife had known how literally he’d take that order, she might not have had the courage to stain Macha, because he took it farther than not hurting her: he didn’t touch her at all. Ever. And didn’t let her touch him. Out of fear of her husband, even Tressa stopped being tender with her as soon as she was weaned.

That’s how it goes with gifts: there is blessing; there is pain.

As soon as she could toddle, Macha escaped to the woods. At first it was big and scary, but the animals were curious and came closer and closer until the heartbroken girl could pet them. Soon enough, they snuggled against her while she napped on the moss. Her favorites were little birds called linnets. Like her, they were plain and unremarkable, except for the blush on their heads. After she found an injured male and nursed him back to health, he became her friend and often sat on her shoulder. When he mated, his children grew up trusting her. And his children’s children. Whenever she needed comfort, she called on her linnets, and they came.

By the time she was six, her father had declared that not only was she cursed, but everything she touched was cursed, so she wasn’t allowed to help her mother and learn the things good daughters did—not even fetching water. She blamed her stain for making her useless as well as unlovable.

Time did not improve her looks. Nobody could say, “She’d be so lovely if only…” No, she was plain. Her skin was walnut brown from all her time outdoors, which lessened the impact of the stain, but not much.

When she was thirteen, she fell so ill she couldn’t move from her pallet. After only two days, while Tressa was at the well, Cador wheeled the handcart into the hut and ordered Macha to get in. It reeked of dung, but she had no choice. Once outside, she whistled, and her linnets came. What a sight they were: the weasel-man pushing a cart with his daughter in it, both girl and cart covered in little brown and blush birds. He didn’t shoo them away out of fear that she’d turn them and their scores of blunt beaks on him. Poor girl, she didn’t even know she could’ve done it.

They trudged half the morning before he steered her up the walk of a manor house and banged on the front door. When one of the Sisters answered, he dumped Macha on the stoop. “You brought her into this world, now you can usher her out.”

It must’ve taken him the entire walk to come up with that poetry.

The Sisters nursed her back to health, not that it took much, just regular food, clean water, rest, a few herb tinctures, and time. None of which she would’ve gotten in the hut only a cruel person would call her home.

After she’d been there a month, and was well enough for daily walks, the Sister who’d brought her into the world joined her. “Do you know you could stay here?”

Macha’s steps faltered. “Stay here? To pay for you healing me?”

“No, no, child.” Brenna put her hands behind her back and stared straight ahead so as not to frighten Macha. “To learn and become one of us.”

“Nobody will want me to attend their birth. Not with this curse.”

It took all Brenna’s training not to shout and stamp her feet. “Your stain is not the result of a curse. You have been told lies and fed silly superstitions. Please tell me you didn’t believe them.”

Macha whistled and a linnet landed on her shoulder. “It’s all I know.”

“What about the testimony of the birds? And your other forest friends?”

“They’re just animals.”

“Wild animals. That don’t need you. But they love you.” Brenna whistled and a crow came and perched on her shoulder. “They do have excellent taste in people.”

That made Macha laugh. It was the first laughter they’d heard from her, and may have been the first time any human had heard joy from her lips.

After walking a while, Macha said, “Curse or not, people don’t want me near them. If I can’t midwife or go around to the villagers, what could I do?”

“You could assist the Sisters who mix our herbs by heading into the woods to collect the raw materials and learning how to mix them.”

Could Macha really tramp around outside as she loved to and be useful? “I already know a lot about plants in the woods.”

“Good. You could teach us some things, too.”

Macha tried to talk herself out of it, but every argument turned into a plus on the Sister’s side. All but one. “They say you’re witches.”

“They’d be right.” Brenna shrugged as if to say, “So?”

What could she say in the face of such bald acceptance? Macha decided to go back to her parents and return when she was ready.

She was ready as soon as she crossed the hut’s threshold and saw her father at the fire eating thick stew while her mother waited on her cold pallet for her thinned scraps. Macha’s conviction gave her the courage to feel.

Cador broke the silence. “You’re alive.”

“Sorry to disappoint you.”

Her parents stared as if she’d grown wings; she’d never talked back before. The experience was both exhilarating and terrifying. She strode over to Tressa, sat, and revealed the relative bounty of bread, cheese, and sausage from the Sisters. “Let’s have a decent meal for once.”

“Ungrateful turd,” Cador spat. “Who’s fed you all these years?”

Masha snorted. “Not you. You’ve begrudged me food. The woods have fed me.”

“If you think you can talk to me that way…”

She tuned out his rant while she ate and waited for him to finish. “Don’t worry. I’m leaving. The Sisters are going to teach me herbs and healing.”

“Thank the Powers,” her mother said. “If you stay, he’ll sell you into a marriage like this.”

“That’s not going to happen,” Macha said.

“Leave now.” Tressa’s voice was urgent. “Don’t even wait until you’ve eaten.”

“But you need to eat for once.”

Cador’s voice was low and dangerous. “What kind of witchcraft is this?”

He came closer; her mother put her hand over her daughter’s and Macha was assaulted by three distinct images of her mother smothering the babies who would have been her siblings.

Macha whispered, “You killed them all?”

“I saved them all.” Tressa’s eyes contained pride—no guilt, no remorse. “I would’ve saved you, too, if the midwife hadn’t been there until he showed up.”

Finally, Macha realized that although she’d heard her mother’s voice, Tressa’s lips had not moved this whole time. Heat rose in prickles from her chest, up her neck, to her face, deepening the color of her stain. She stood and rounded on her father. “You! You did this to her.”

“Careful what you say, girl.”

“No! I will not be careful!” Macha was hit with another vision, this time of her father loading her mother’s dead body onto the handcart. “You’ll get your way soon enough. You will kill her and bury her in the woods, and they will run you out of the village and you will die a filthy beggar.” She was panting and sweating and in danger of losing the little bit of food she’d eaten. Where were these visions coming from? How did she know they were true?

While her parents were frozen from shock, Macha snatched the food and her cloak and bolted out of the hut, pausing only briefly in the woods to gather her treasures. She called her linnets to her while she hiked back to the manor house.

Brenna heard the commotion of Macha and the birds long before they would’ve come into view, so she went out to meet them.

“I can see things.” Macha’s words came out in a rush. “Horrible visions of the past and the future. I can hear my mother when she doesn’t speak. What is happening to me?”

“What was different about seeing your parents this time?”

“I let myself get angry. Before I always tried to feel nothing.”

“Your strong emotions have a revealed a gift we didn’t know about.”

“Gift!” Macha shrieked and the linnets joined her. “Did you give it to me?”

Brenna calmly held Macha’s wild gaze. “I didn’t give you this gift. Can you look into me?”

Macha saw her perfect infant skin marred as Brenna moved her cloth over it. She sank to her knees and touched the left side of her face. “How could you?”

“To protect you from your father.”

“That’s why my mother killed my siblings. How is what you did different from that?”

Brenna sat next to her in the dirt. “Only by degree. It’s a hard call. As we learn to use our gifts, we have to learn our values at the same time. What will we use it for? What will we not use it for?”

The Sisters taught Macha to use her gift of sight so she didn’t need to be in a high emotional state to let the visions come. She learned to recognize the wisdom nature had been teaching her all along. At first, she worked with the herbs, but in time, as her spirit healed and she grew accustomed to the company of the Sisters, she realized it was time to stop hiding. Her work at the manor house was done, and she became a fortuneteller in a traveling circus, where she learned to read human society as she’d learned to read animal society.

She was still no beauty, but with proper feeding, she did develop a magnificent bosom, which she enjoyed displaying to great advantage in her circus costume.

When she was twenty, her fame had grown such that a Prince followed the circus with all his retainers, just to have access to her, because everything she told him was true, and nobody told princes the truth. At first, he offered her marriage, in the hopes a wedding would bring peace to his palace. She laughed, because she couldn’t reconcile the word “peace” with the word “marriage.” But she agreed to be his advisor, so he installed her into her own suite of apartments at his castle. Due to her wise counsel and her ability to tell who was lying and why, and see what they were desperately hiding, the Prince became King, and peace did reign in his land.

Some people hearing this tale might wish that the part with the Prince had been the main story, but that was not the part Macha liked to tell. She was proud that she’d survived her childhood. Proud that she’d learned to manage both the blessings and the pain of her gifts. Proud of facing the world unashamed. That a Prince noticed was rather beside the point.