I didn’t earn what happened to me. The curse that fell on me was meant for another. That’s what happens when petty warlocks are reckless with their magic.
The curse was meant for a passing princess. She must have stuck her tongue out at the warlock. Or insulted his choice of footwear. But I don’t know that particular princess. It may be that I am being unfair. It may be that she was too clever for his liking. Many people don’t like it when princesses are clever.
But that’s got nothing to do with me save that I caught the curse that he meant to lay on her.
And now, every day at the break of dawn, I become a different a person.
I was still my first self the day that I narrowly dodged a carriage whose passenger was being screamed at by another passing carriage. I thought only of ducking out of the way. I wanted nothing to do with the grievances of people riding inside carriages. I felt nothing but a tiny splash of mud on the toes of my boots. And then I was safely nestled in an alleyway, checking on the eggs that I had picked up at market. They’d been slightly jostled, but they were all still whole. And I breathed a sigh of relief and went home.
“All is well and I am whole!” I declared as I entered my home and patted my arms and chest to show my mother that I had managed not to injure myself on my trip to the market.
I kissed my mother, handing her the bag of goods that were as undamaged as I was.
I kicked off my shoes and reached up to my hair, but my mother stopped me. She wouldn’t let me release the braids she’d put in my hair that morning. She’d tied them too tight and they were hurting my skull. But she said that company was coming for supper, so I had to keep them on until our guests left.
She let me wear trousers, but she made my elder sister wear a dress. Mina slouched and grumbled and told me that she envied me. But she did smile when I told her that her dress was pretty and that it suited her. She undid my braids and retied them, not as neat as our mother had tied them. But our mother never noticed. She was too busy doting on our guests that evening. She called them “neighbors,” but I recognized the family as living a few streets away. They had a son who just Mina’s age. He kept his arms crossed all evening and refused to look anyone in the eye, except for Muddy Puddle. He only uncrossed his arms once, to give Puddle a scratch behind his ears.
Puddle seemed to like the boy. But then Puddle liked almost everyone.
After the guests left, our mother spoke to Mina so late into the night that I fell asleep. When I woke, feeling strangely light, I saw that Mina was sleeping in her bed.
The room was bright with sunlight already, but I noticed right away that my hands and arms looked different. My complexion seemed darker. My wrists were strangely thin. I rubbed my eyes. I remembered my mother warning me that my skin would darken and burn if I didn’t apply sun salve. But my skin was not tender. Just darker. I frowned when I found that my hair was tied in a single loose braid behind my back. I had released my braids the night before. There had been two of them, and they had only reached to the tip of my shoulder. But this braid reached to my waist. I tugged at the braid.
My first thought was that my sister must be playing some prank on me. Mina had long hair. She would only cut it when she was ready to leave her childhood home for a new home, whether she married or joined a guild. Maybe she had cut off her hair the previous night. Maybe that is what she and our mother were doing the previous night. And maybe as a joke, Mina had braided her hair into mine. So I cast a lazy glare at my sleeping sister as I undid the whole braid, growing more and more nervous as the braid loosened and I found that it was all my own hair. Still black, but much, much longer.
It couldn’t be.
My hair grew fast, but no one could grow two feet of hair in a night. Not without the aid of enchantment.
Then I began to wonder if I had misunderstood the meaning of our guests the previous night. I had thought the intent was for Mina to meet a prospective spouse. But maybe it was not the boy she was meant to meet, but one of his parents. Maybe one of them was a minor enchanter. And they were looking to take Mina on as an apprentice. I would have liked to know that, but there was no talk of anyone’s trade during dinner. And I was sent to play with Puddle when the grown-up folk took their coffee and cake after dinner.
I was compelled to go into my sister’s dresser and find her small looking glass.
When I looked at myself in the mirror, I saw a different face from the one I expected. I did not gaze in looking glasses often. But I had stared into many a rain puddle, pool, and lake. The curve of my nose, the tilt of my eyes, the presence of a dimple on one cheek. It was all different.
As I poked my unfamiliar cheek with an unfamiliar finger, the mirror surface began to ripple. Yet another face revealed itself. I recognized the face, for it had been hanging from the window of a carriage that I passed the day before. A man with a cropped white beard and tiny hoops piercing the outer edges of his thin white brows. He announced himself.
He was a warlock.
He addressed me with the title of “Princess.” He gleefully and disdainfully told me that for the insult I had perpetrated against him, he would give me the gift I had asked for, to look different every day of my life, never a dress worn twice, never a shade of rouge the same, and never the same jewel in my hair. But the warlock twisted the actual wish and made it so that I would wake up looking different each day.
“Enjoy your gift, Princess,” the warlock said with sneer.
His image vanished, leaving the looking glass reflecting the same face that I had been staring at since morning.
I understood at once what had happened. I remembered at once the two carriages whose paths I’d crossed. I understood that a warlock had cast a curse at a princess. And I understood that I had crossed before that curse as well, and had been struck by it.
I shook my sister awake, calling her name, and hearing a voice from my throat that sounded deeper than my own. Mina woke and was confused to find a strange girl in her room, as she should have been. I tried to tell her what I had just seen in her looking glass. She took it from me and glanced at my bed.
“What’s happened to my sister?” she asked. “Are you one of her friends?”
“I’m here,” I said. “I am Zita.”
Mina frowned. She told me that she’d had a late night, and asked me to let her sister know that she would be resting, and she would play with us later if we wanted. She took the looking glass from me and set it on her dresser, warning me against taking what belonged to others without asking.
She laid back down and rolled away from me. I tried to rouse her again, to explain that I was her sister. I was Zita.
I would not relent. So Mina rose, deciding that I would not stop bothering her until she found Zita. I followed her around the house as she searched…for me. In the kitchen, our mother had begun cooking breakfast, and our father was preparing lunch for her, and for Mina, and me.
My mother and father too believed that the girl they saw before them was not their daughter but one of their daughter’s friends. They did not recognize me, so they asked me where their daughter was, and they asked me if my parents had known that I had slept the night at Zita’s house.
I hesitated just a moment, seeing the peace and comfort in all their eyes. If I could not convince them that I was Zita, if they did not believe me, than they would soon be cast into the terror of finding that their youngest child was missing.
But if they did believe me, they would at least know that I was safe with them. They would help me. I needed help. I did not yet feel afraid. Because they were there, my mother, and my father, and my elder sister. And they would help me.
I entreated them to listen closely. And I told them that I was Zita. I explained what happened the day before, and how I had just seen the warlock in the looking glass explaining his curse.
My mother and father listened, but then they turned to my elder sister.
Mina claimed she had searched everywhere in the house. Yet no one was panicked. They all believed that I was their daughter’s friend—a new and mischievous friend—and that we were playing a prank on them.
Puddle trotted into the kitchen then and walked straight toward me, wagging his tail. Even as I claimed him as proof that I was Zita, I knew they were unconvinced. For Mina pointed out that Puddle liked everyone.
My parents instructed me, gently at first and then more insistently as they completed their morning tasks, that I give up the prank and get ready for the schoolhouse. They asked me to tell them where Zita was else they would punish her more harshly if they had to hunt for her themselves.
I couldn’t think of what to say. If I kept insisting that I was their daughter, it would only make them angrier. They went to go search for me themselves.
I stayed in the kitchen, nuzzling with Puddle. When I gazed into his eyes, I thought I discerned recognition, not just friendliness. He knew that I was me. He sniffed me and then trotted away sit down by the fireside.
I heard Mina tell my mother and father that she would check with our neighbors. My father said he would check the nearby parks where we children often played.
My mother told me to get dressed. She recognized that I was wearing her daughter’s night clothes. She wanted to return me to my parents so that they would have peace of mind at least.
I went to my room. With each step up the stairs, a heavy fear descended upon me.
My family did not believe me.
If they did not believe me, they could not—would not—help me.
If they did not believe me and help me, then I had to find someone who would.
I had to find someone on my own.
At the desk that my sister and I shared, I pulled out pen, ink, and paper. I wrote my family a note, explaining that all I had told them was true and that I was going to find the warlock—or a scholar or someone—so that I could entreat them to lift the curse that lay upon me. I would return home once my natural-born face was restored to me.
I took the entire pouch of coins that I kept in a hidden corner of my dresser. I had been gathering them since the day of my birth, and had only spent them sparingly. It seemed extravagant to take them all. But I imagined that it would be very costly to lift a curse. And I imagined that I might need to travel out of town, for the warlock’s carriage bore the colors of a different town.
I emptied my school bag of books and packed a few clothes just in case I needed them. Downstairs, while my mother spoke to a neighbor beside the fence that separated our homes, I took some leftover rolls from dinner, and a few pears that were sitting on the counter, and I snuck off from the back door, glancing around for Mina, who knew my tricks far better than my mother and father did.
So it was that I unwillingly ran away from home. I went first to the guild-house of the scholars, hoping that if the scholars could detect my curse, then they could tell my family right away. My parents would only suffer a few hours of fearing that I was missing, instead of a few days. Then the scholars could track down the warlock so that he would lift the curse, or they could find some remedy themselves.
Realizing the wisdom of my decision with every step I took, I felt the heavy burden of fear lift. I was walking alone to the guild-house. But I would not be walking alone back to my mother’s house.
After arriving at the guild-house and making known my predicament to the front room secretary, I was made to wait in the front room.
I waited so long that I dozed off. When I woke, I suffered a moment of panic, and looked at my hands and my hair again. I looked the same as I did when I woke that morning, though not the same as I had always looked.
After waking, I waited longer. I grew hungry. I ate. And I waited. I knew I must be patient with scholars. So even as I watched the clock strike another hour, knowing that my family must be sick with worry for me, I remained patient.
But when the day began show its age in the mellowing of sunlight, I asked the secretary at last how much longer it would take to see a scholar. I was told it might be days. The scholars must deal with the most urgent matters first. As the curse I described was neither harmful nor dangerous, I must wait.
I explained that the curse was dangerous, because my family believed I was missing, because they didn’t believe me about the curse. I asked if I could have the secretary send my family a letter explaining that I had come to the scholars, and was waiting for them to help me.
To this the secretary replied, “We are not a messenger service.”
I was already tired, from waiting, and from holding onto my irritation and worry all the while that I had been pretending to myself that I was being patient. But the time I had waited had not all been spent in vain. I had thought of what I might do if the scholars failed me as they just had.
I went next to the news service to find out about royal visitors. As he gloated in the looking glass, the warlock had not named the princess that he meant to curse. But if I could find her name, then I could find out who the princess associated with, including the names of any nobles, town officials…and warlocks.
The news service was helpful at once. The town was often frequented by royalty, and there were no less than three princesses currently visiting, and two others who left the day prior. I told the news writer who was helping me about my attempt to seek help from the scholars and about the curse. The news writer scoffed at my mention of the scholars. There was no love lost between them, for the guild of scholars did not recognize the craft of news reporting to be a scholarly pursuit.
Typically, I would have been keenly interested in the quarrel between the scholars and the news writers. But I was keener at present to rid myself of the curse. The news writer was able to do more than find the name of the princess. One of his colleagues had written about the words the warlock had with the princess the day before as their carriages passed. Many had borne witness, and most had merely gossiped about it. The story was not such an important one, though it might have been if the news writer had known that the warlock had actually tried to curse the princess.
The news writer was able to tell me the name and the next destination of the warlock. The warlock had left our town. He was traveling home, but he would be stopping at a neighboring town. I would not have to travel far to catch up with him. The news writer assured me that he would take me to the warlock, and he would bring along his colleague, so she could add to her story of the quarrel between the warlock and the princess. He needed only to inform the head of their news-house.
But when he returned, I could already see from his dire expression that he would be able to help me no further. The head of his news-house had forbidden him or any of the other news-writers to rub their noses any further into the comings and goings and doings of a warlock—especially one suspected of cursing a princess.
I felt fear again, not heavy but sudden, clutching my chest, as I left the news-house. As I trudged along in the early evening, I tried to convince myself that the warlock would take pity on me after I explained what had happened. But fear kept interrupting that falsely comforting voice, the fear that he might be angry with me for interfering with his magic—even unintentionally.
That night, I gave a few of my coins to a modest porridge house. I slept upon a lump-filled mattress and woke the next morning nervous to find that I had fair hair and a pale complexion. I was stared at when I left the porridge house, for the same reason I was stared at in the street—at least by some. Fair-haired people were a rarity in our region of the world. I had never seen a fair-haired person in our town. I covered my hair with a scarf, but I could not cover my eyes. I saw in a window reflection that my eyes were glass-blue.
I didn’t have the coin to hire a horse and certainly not a carriage. I asked a few traveling merchants if I might hitch a ride in their wagons for a few coins. But the merchants and wagoneers were as nervous at the sight of me as I had been that morning. They directed me to the town constable. I feared that I would have to wait at least another day before beginning my pursuit. But the warlock would travel farther and farther away in that time.
Some impulse overtook me, born of impatience, sparked by spite. I stole a cloak from one of the merchant wagons. I had never stolen anything before. I was seen and chased. I had never stolen before, but I had been chased before—if only as a game. I darted into an alley, and began climbing up to the roof. I was slower than I typically was. My body was smaller, and my limbs were thinner and lacking in muscle. But I still managed to escape.
I didn’t dare try a porridge house that night. I slept on the flat roof of a friend’s house where we often slept during the summer. Fall was approaching, so I knew my friend would not be allowed to come out in the chill. The cloak I had stolen out of anger was a wise theft. It kept me warm enough.
The next morning I woke to find myself changed again. I had dark skin again, but much darker than before. I was a bit taller. I was still slimmer than before, but fitter now. I noted scabs on my elbows and knees.
Though I looked completely different, I was still nervous as I approached the clothing merchant, prepared to return the cloak and beg that I not be charged for its use.
My stomach churned. I gulped.
But as I approached, the merchant saw the cloak and beamed at me. He welcomed me and asked how I liked the cloak. I realized that he assumed I had purchased the cloak. He even told me that one of his cloaks was thieved the night before, one that was the same style and coloring as the one I was wearing. It was not among their finest cloaks, but it was a good cloak nonetheless.
In a moment of reckless boldness—and desperate guilt—I declared to him that I was the cloak thief in a clever disguise. I was not surprised when the merchant laughed. He gave me a spot on his wagon for no coin—a courtesy to a customer.
I swallowed my guilt, thanked him for his kindness, and accepted the offer of transport.
In the days to come, I would have more and more guilt to swallow, for I took more and more things.
I only took out of necessity. I even wrote up a code for myself.
I was allowed to steal coin to rent a room at an inn, and it need not be the worst inn, but a modest one and a decently safe one. I could not take enough to hire a carriage. But I could take enough to ride atop a wagon. I stole a fairly fine watch that a man had carelessly set aside while he answered an arm wrestling challenge. And I stole a loaf of sour bread and a couple of apples just to sate my hunger.
I stole at night, believing it was the best time to thieve. But I was almost caught once when I lied about thieving. My lie was too elaborate. I decided I should not lie. I was not skilled at it. But I did become bolder and better at thievery. It was easy to be calm when those who were wronged searched and sought help for their stolen goods. Because I knew I could escape punishment, even if I were caught, by changing into a different person.
Each morning I was no longer a thief.
I traveled from town to town, following the trail of the warlock, but never quite catching up to him. Even when I had the coin to hire a horse, I did not, for I did not know how to ride.
I would make new friends for the day, often the children of innkeepers. I allowed myself to play games with them, and even to do their school work with them. It slowed me. And yet it was an indulgence I needed to keep me from growing disheartened every time I discovered that the warlock was still out of my reach. Some of my friends asked to see me the next day and the next. But I always told them that I must leave town by morning, for I was hunting a warlock. Most of my day-long friends did not believe me. They likely believed that I was the daughter of a traveling merchant.
The next morning, I would pass by my new friend without a glance. I felt no guilt about this. I had not tricked them. And I had no control over my curse.
In one town, however, I made friends with a girl who truly believed my story. She offered to help me by asking her father if he might lend me their carriage, so I could catch up with the warlock at last. She would even come with me if her father allowed it.
The thought of riding in a carriage sitting on a soft cushion was a lovely one. Even more lovely was the thought of not being alone on my journey. But I didn’t truly think her father would allow it. She asked if she might stay awake and watch my transformation. I had tried to do so, of course, and had always failed. I had never in my life succeeded in staying awake the whole night, though I had tried to do so many times with my sister on holidays.
The next morning, I was someone else, and my friend was fast asleep beside me. I moved to wake her, but then a notion struck me. My friend believed me. But I wondered if she would know me, even after a day. I left quietly. Later that morning, my friend came down, asking after me. She described me when the barkeep asked her to. I was the only other girl in the inn at the moment. As my friend passed by, I glanced at her and smiled. She returned my smile but passed by me. She looked sad.
She had not truly believed my story. She had described me to the barkeep as I had been the day before. She would not have done so if she believed that I would look different in the morning. I should have been angry, yet I wasn’t. Not at her. And not at myself for leaving her room in the morning before she could see that I had changed.
I made myself leave, promising myself that once the curse was broken and my face no longer changed, I could return, perhaps even with proof, and rekindle our friendship. I could do that with other day-friends I had made too.
So I continued my search, through rainfall and bitter cold. I even picked up a few minor enchantments.
At long last, I found the warlock at the end of his journey, in the town where he lived near the base of a high mountain range.
Spring had turned to fall. And fall was turning to winter.
On my quest, I had asked many for advice on how to approach a warlock. And as I came closer to his home, I had asked some about how to approach this particular warlock.
In the end, I decided to just tell him the truth. I brought a gift of appeasement to apologize for interfering with his spell.
Near everyone I spoke to had warned me against the truth.
But as I had learned, I was not skilled at lying.
The warlock welcomed me into his workshop when I showed my gift, a packet of rare weed that I had stolen from an apothecary.
The warlock could easily acquire the weed. But my thievery was what made the weed rare.
I was reluctant to tell him my story after seeing his delight at my gift. But I forged ahead, emboldened in part by the warlock’s neighborly welcome, and in part by the presence of his five apprentices working in his workshop.
The warlock remembered the princess and the curse. And he remembered the girl who crossed the space between himself and the princess as he cast that curse. The “dawn transformation” he called it. The auroramorphosis.
When I described how I changed each morning, the warlock informed me that I had only caught the edge of his curse. He seemed impressed with himself that his curse would fall upon someone in such a collateral manner.
The princess, he said with satisfaction, was suffering from the full effects of the curse, waking up not as a different girl every morning, but as a different creature altogether. Sometimes she did wake up a girl. Sometimes she woke up as a worm. Sometimes she woke rooted to the spot as a tree.
I entreated the warlock for his help to lift the curse—or the edge of the curse—from me.
The warlock, having no reason not to help me, helped me. He asked me to wait. And as I was accustomed by that time to waiting, I expected that he would be many hours. I began to unpack my lunch, but he returned in moments, having brought out a potion from one of the cabinets in his workshop. Seeing that I had unpacked my lunch, he asked if I may hand him a pear. He tipped over the vial of potion until three drops fell upon the pear. They did not trickle down but were absorbed. The warlock told me to eat the pear.
I ate the pear, even the core, which softened into a pear-flavored jam as I munched on it. The warlock asked me to wait in the workshop, so he could confirm that the potion had performed as he expected. He allowed me to watch his apprentices work, so long as I did not touch any books, scrolls, powders, or potions without permission.
No one seemed to be devising any sinister spells. Though there was a slightly foul odor in the air.
After a while, the warlock examined me through a monocle with green-tinted glass and declared that he had successfully unlocked the curse.
“The curse is still upon you,” he said. “I cannot remove it, but you can. Now that it is unlocked, you may lay it aside any time you wish by simply declaring it so.”
After all those days, days that felt like months, and months that felt like years, I had done it. I had found the warlock. And I could break the curse.
“Thank you!” I said, beaming at the warlock.
The warlock raised a be-hooped brow. “I have only undone the harm that I did to you—however unwittingly. But you are welcome all the same.”
All is well, I thought, my heart soaring as I left the warlock’s workshop.
The curse is upon me still.
I have not laid it aside.
As I traveled back home after the warlock unlocked the curse, I kept it as a lark. I had become accustomed to changing every morning. Some days my limbs were long. Some days they were stout. Some days the clothes I wore the night before fell loose. Some days they were too tight. Some days my hair was long and straight. Some days it was short and springy. Some days my voice was low. Some days it was high. But every day my hands were quick, even quicker than my mind. And every day, though I was changed, I was still myself.
I was still Zita.
And I knew when I reached home that I could set aside the curse, and whether or not I had proof of the curse, my family would be relieved and happy to have me back.
I had forgotten to ask the warlock how I might prove to my family that I was cursed, and not that I had just run away without reason.
But I decided that I would wait until I got home and then lay aside the curse, so my family could see me transform. That would be the proof. And thereafter, the truth would be known by all. And I could tell them of my journey—my quest—to find the warlock. And perhaps I would tell Mina of the thieving, but my mother and father would hear only of kindly strangers who looked after me.
I began to feel ashamed of my thieving, even though I had kept to my code. And so I stopped stealing. I found ways to earn my coin. It would take me longer to arrive home, I realized. But at least I would know I had earned my way.
Time passed. And I knew it was passing. I thought to write letters to my family. But each morning, I found that my writing appeared different because my hands were different. My family would not believe the letters were coming from me any more than they had believed me on the morning of my first transformation. So I did not write them.
Somehow, by the time spring came again, I had not yet reached home.
I asked myself if I should just lay aside the curse. If I did, I might find it easier to earn coin. I might find it easier to befriend someone of means who might do me the favor of lending me a carriage or letting me ride along, as one of my day-friends had once promised.
But if I did that, I would lose my proof, and now that it had been so long, I needed all the more for my family to see me transform, and to know that I had not abandoned them by choice.
But more and more time passed. Though I sent my family no news of myself, I found ways to hear news of them.
And so I learned that my sister was soon to wed.
Four springs had passed since a curse fell upon me that I had not chosen to take, but had chosen to keep.
I returned to the town of my birth at last.
I wondered if it was time at last to set aside my curse. I wondered if I would turn back into the person I was, a person who belonged to a family and a town. Or if the curse had suffused me so much that I would remain in the form I was when I set it aside, my last self. I wondered if my family would accept me back if I no longer looked like my first self.
I had waited too long. If I had done it when the warlock unlocked the curse, right then and there in his workshop, then I might have written to my family in my own hand, and asked them to fetch me.
I could have lied, and told them that my curse had only recently been broken. But I was not skilled at lying. And even if I were, I did not want to return to my family with a lie.
And there was the thieving.
I had returned to thieving. I did not know how to care for myself without thieving. And I needed the curse to do my thieving, the curse that allowed me to hide from my crimes—minor though they may be—in a different skin.
The day of my sister’s wedding, I had dark red curls that I tied back at the crown of my head. I wore a dress that I had taken from the last town I had passed. As a gift, I left a glass carving of a carnation. I took that from a merchant stall a few towns away. Carnations were Mina’s favorite flower. They were present in abundance at her wedding. There were also daisies. Mina was not particularly fond of daisies.
But I was.
I didn’t earn what happened to me. The curse that fell on me was meant for another. But by the time it was unlocked, it was already a part of me that I could not set aside. I could not understand why. And so I could not explain why.
I watched from afar, my mother, my father, and my sister, smiling at their happiness. We were all happy as we were. And yet we would always ache somewhere within. Both could be true.
I left a note with my sister’s gift. A note that may bring comfort or sorrow. Likely both.
All is well and I am whole.
Copyright © 2020 Nila L. Patel