Once upon a time, there was a girl who always said Yes. All the villagers loved her because she was so helpful. When the butcher asked her to shoo the village dogs away from his wares, she cheerfully said, “Yes!” and shooed them away. When the baker asked her to help sell his fresh loaves at market, she cheerfully said, “Yes!” and helped him sell. When the town crier asked her to hold his bell while he did an errand, she cheerfully said, “Yes!” and held his bell for an hour until he came back from the tavern. Even when the village witch asked her to stir her cauldron three times clockwise every hour for twelve hours while the witch herself took a nap, the girl cheerfully said, “Yes!” and stirred the witch’s cauldron, yawning and nodding off as the moon rose and the steam from the cauldron made the girl sweat and break into angry red hives.
The girl didn’t mind. It was good to be so helpful to everyone. And in any case, once her tasks in the village were complete – guarding the butcher’s meat, selling the baker’s bread, tolling the crier’s bell, stirring the witch’s brew, and then thatching the thatcher’s roof, birthing the midwife’s babe, washing the nobleman’s dishes and nannying his wife’s child – when all this was done, then she would go off to the great city in the South and apprentice under the greatest Master Weaver in the land. At night, worn out by her growing litany of tasks, she lay a-bed and dreamed of weaving rich tapestries.
But five years passed, and still the girl who always said Yes remained in the village. She continued to say Yes when asked, and she continued to wear a cheerful smile. But sometimes, before retiring for the night, she would stand in her hut’s doorway and gaze in a southerly direction, straining her eyes until tears ran. And sometimes became often, and often became every night, and every night brought with it a blooming heaviness inside her, like a stone that grew inside her every time the sun rose and her dreams refused to rise with it. Now when she said Yes she sometimes sighed, sometimes huffed, sometimes glared. The villagers began to complain behind her back about her bad temper. The stone in her belly grew and grew, weighing her down and slowing her motions. At last she realised that every time she said Yes, the stone grew another granite layer. But what else could she say? There was no other way to answer a question except with Yes.
One morning she awoke, feeling strange, body stiff. She looked down and was overcome with horror. She had turned into a giant walnut, her little hands and arms sticking out of her wrinkled brown shell, her head poking up like a funny little stem. She rolled out of bed and across her hut’s packed earth floor. As she rolled, she rattled, the nut inside her joggling around. What to do? Rocking on her back like an upturned turtle, she considered. Could she call the butcher for help? No, she could not. The butcher would be busy sharpening his knives. The baker? Baking his bread, elbow deep in white flour. The town crier? He would be asleep in his favourite corner of the tavern, waiting for her to wake him up. No, there was no one to come to her aid.
The sun ascended, descended. At sunset, she heard her door open with a creak. “Ah,” said the witch. “I thought I smelled magic.”
“I woke up like this,” the girl said. She tried to cheerfully smile. “I’m sure it’s nothing. Unless …?” She could not say the words.
Thoughtfully, the witch tapped her chin with a pointed forefinger. “No,” she said finally. “I can’t help you. You will have to manage this yourself.”
The girl’s heartbeat thumped in panic. “But madame –”
The witch squatted beside the little nut girl and rapped her knuckles on her shell. The nut inside vibrated and clattered. The witch smiled. She pointed at the shell. “There you go,” she said. She left without explanation.
The girl was so puzzled and upset that she wondered if the witch had been a dream. She lay on her back and tried very hard to think of the positives of her situation. But very quickly she realised there were no positives. The whole village, who she had spent her whole life helping, had not come to help her. They were probably angry with her for not turning up to her daily tasks. Or perhaps they did not even notice her absence. After all, she was a stepladder to stand on, or a tool to use, but not a person to cherish. Tears seeped from the corners of her eyes. Why was no one helping her? Didn’t they wonder where she was? Had she been so good at pretending great cheer that no one had realised something was wrong? Not merely her absence today, but her everlasting tiredness, her lack of appetite, her slowed speech? How could they not have seen that she was unwell?
No tapestries graced her dreams. They hadn’t for a long time.
When she woke, she thought for a moment that her troubles were gone. But nothing had changed. She was still a walnut, round and wrinkled. She knocked sharply on her shell. The nut inside her still rattled, unreachable. With her fist she pounded on her shell, once, then again, harder, then harder and harder still, trying to crack herself open. Nothing helped. Her nut body remained hard like a brittle shield. She wept and could not stop. Even hurting herself did not help.
When she was all wrung out, she did the last thing, the final thing, she could think of to do. Licking her flaky lips, voice trembling with sudden fear, the girl said to the universe: “I’m not alright. I need some help.” And a sweet breeze blew across her face, a cock crowed outside in the morning light, and the girl’s hand, resting on her shell, became as evanescent as mist and passed, like mist, through her shell to grasp the nut inside. She pulled out her hand and uncurled her fingers to look at what she had pulled out.
It wasn’t a nut at all. It was a pearl. She turned the pearl over and caught a glimpse of engraved writing whorled around its surface. She recognised the words. “… manage”. Then the pearl melted. Its nacreous sheen flowed like velvet over her hands, up her arms to the crown of her head and down her spine to the soles of her feet. She glistened in the sunlight. Then she realised her shell was gone, and she was herself again, but this time all aglow.
She found herself walking towards the village green. The town crier, his nose red, ran to her. “Oh, my dear, can you hold this while I –”
“No,” she recited. “I can’t help you. You will have to manage this yourself.”
The town crier did not shout or grow angry as she had feared. He instead said, “Of course. Of course. My dear, are you well?”
She felt a terrible nakedness for a moment, as if the meat of her had been scraped out. Then she said, “No, sir. I’ve been depressed.”
“Ah,” he said. His face relaxed into a pearlescent relief. “So have I.” He offered her his arm. “Tell me all about it.”
They walked together, arm in arm, their heads bent towards each other as they at last admitted the slow grinding aches of their tired hearts. And as they walked, though they did not know it, together they headed slowly towards the glowing South.
Feby Idrus is a musician, writer, and arts administrator based in Dunedin. She has most recently been published in A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa New Zealand (AUP) and the anthology Aftermath: Stories of Survival in Aotearoa New Zealand.