When I saw Hafeti smash every pot in her courtyard, I knew there was still fight left in the girl. That was the moment I decided I’d help her. It was like inviting her to become my second chance, an apology to my younger self for all I had left undone.
Some will call Hafeti’s actions trickery or theft of the Race’s prize. Some will label me the wicked accomplice. But I’ll just cackle with the glee of an old woman with few amusements left in life and tell them all to go to hell. Their words can’t touch me. Today I’ll outfit my balcony with my softest cushion and a large pot of mint tea and pray for news of Hafeti’s success—that she has used invincibility for a nobler purpose than all those men before her.
In my youth, I partook in the Race preparations. I knew no better. My fingers have spooned pastries full of honey and fig jam; my throat has cheered for my brothers as they joined the throng of Racers; my arms have carried lentil soup to my betrothed after competitors crushed his knee; my heart has broken as my son joined the Race despite my warnings; my eyes have witnessed brutality for the sake of ambition; and my heart, bitter like over-steeped tea, has asked whether this prize, this immunity to harm, might be used for something better.
Hafeti’s eyes still burn, but not from the moldy onions or the hour she’s just spent chopping and sorting slimy vegetable chunks. She has thrown and crushed every piece of pottery behind her house. These urns were destined to hold the olive oil that would be pressed and stored in the next weeks. Now the shards are destined only for junk. She sucks on her bleeding finger, refusing to ponder the consequences, relishing the metallic taste of her rage. She hates her brother for what he has become, for what he could have been, but isn’t.
A wooden cane taps on the road beyond her courtyard’s wall. A stooped old woman peers at Hafeti through the grape trellis, muttering. Hafeti swipes aside the tears on her cheeks and stands.
“Have you had enough, Hafeti?” the old woman shouts.
Hafeti hesitates, then walks forward. It’s the near-deaf widow, Ikma, who lives in the house across the street. As always, she wears a tattered wedding shawl, emerald green with a thick sprinkling of tiny red roses, a cherished remnant of her days with her beloved husband.
“I saw you fight with you brother about the onions,” the widow says.
Hafeti nods. She’d lost that fight. Surrendered almost before she’d begun it. Too sore and frightened to disagree with her brother again so soon. Hafeti whispers, “They were moldy. Not worth saving. But he didn’t want to buy a new sack. It was better for me to spend an hour slicing and gagging to save some slivers. It seems my time is free to squander while his money is not.”
The widow grinds her teeth and swallows, as if eating Hafeti’s bitter words.
Hafeti shivers. She doesn’t say that this brother’s betrayal hurts more than anyone else’s could have. Just a year ago, he’d smuggled her library books on architecture and engineering, but stopped when he grew afraid, then joined their father in believing these were subjects unfit for her female mind. She squeezes the knife, still in her hand, and tries to ignore the stabbing fear in her own chest. She wishes she could cut it out of herself.
The widow grins a wide, toothy grin. “A strong fire burns in you, Hafeti. I’ve known you since you were a girl. I’d like to help you; to make you an offer. The choice will be yours alone. Your father and brothers will have no say.”
Hafeti’s raises an eyebrow, exhausted with the final traces of rage. “I’m listening.”
After selling an easy lie to the girl’s idiot mother about my need for sewing assistance, I spirited my young neighbor away to my home where we could speak more candidly. I sat Hafeti at my table with her sewing basket. Watching her, she seemed a column of unshaped stone, ready to burst free into her true form; I felt suddenly doddering and old in her presence. I had no right to speak, I told myself. I had lacked the courage to do what I was about to propose to her. I tightened my shawl and pretended to be busy with the water and teacups. I dropped half the things I touched.
At last, the girl blurted, “What did you want to tell me?”
“Oh! Ha! Let us not forget our pretenses!” I took my scissors and hacked a rough triangle from the tablecloth before her. “Please, begin sewing!”
Hafeti frowned at my wanton destruction. “You could have just invited me to tea.”
“This way I’m less suspicious.” My nerves calmed as I filled the kettle. “My dear, I believe you are under attack, but not with swords or fists.” She flinched and I paused, catching the accidental truth.
Damn them for trying to beat the spirit out of her.
“Or perhaps,” I added gently, “you’re better at hiding the bruises from the latter. Either way, the weapons used on you have struck deeper than bruises. You endure shame, disapproval, and lack of opportunity.”
Hafeti stared at me.
I told her, “Years ago, you once drew me a house with three stories. You informed me not that you would live in it one day, but that one day you would build it. My heart broke for you, even then, while the hope still shone clear in your eyes.”
Hafeti drew her fists toward her stomach, as if stopping a wound from opening there.
I said, “I was once a girl much like you. I, too, was enraged when someone viewed my work as merely free labor and wasted my time.”
“I’d never say—”
“Not to your brother, no. You’d be slapped in the face.”
Hafeti touched her cheek, eyes wide and distant, then said, “I wish my life had a value, right down to the minutes and hours and work that I do, as it seems to have for every man I’ve known. I wish to build things that further safety, beauty, and community.” Her eyes were wet. “I have watched you pass my family’s courtyard all my life, the old widow with the sharp tongue. But I didn’t…Thank you. For seeing me.”
I nodded. As I’d hoped, Hafeti had some idea of what she wanted. But she’d kept it buried. And she was stifled by the walls they had put around her.
I said, “How would you like to be invincible?”
Hafeti wrinkled her nose. “Like a warrior?” She shook her head. “I get sick when I see blood.”
“That’s a common understanding of invincibility, but no. I mean something else. I can teach you how to listen to yourself, but in order to grow truly strong, you must go to a place where the world’s words cannot touch you.”
She didn’t seem to hear me. “Is it true…?” she whispered, “What my father says? That sorrow sickens me because I won’t willingly accept my duty?”
I wanted to grab those poison-fanged words and tear them loose, but I could not do it for her.
I said, “I offered to help you because I saw those smashed pots and knew you were still angry. You’ll need this anger. It’s your heart speaking to you. I can’t silence the miscreants who claim your misery is your fault for not falling into the cage they’ve set for you, but I can help you learn to hear your own voice before you forget how. And then, if we can get you first to the Silver Fig, we can protect that precious voice and give you a chance to grow strong enough to no longer need it.”
“I don’t understand.”
I grinned. “I intend to make you the winner of the Silver Fig.”
She shook her head. “The Race isn’t open to girls.”
I rolled my eyes. “I suppose we’ll start first with a reading lesson.”
Hafeti glared, but made no retort.
“Tell me,” I said, “what exactly does it say on the stone beneath the Silver Fig Tree?”
“That the first man to eat a ripe fig from it will become invincible.”
“Wrong. But not unexpected. I visited the great tree myself, once. The barrier was up, of course, but I could still get near enough to read the stone. This is what it says.”
I showed Hafeti the page from my old journal and watched her read it.
A year of invincible strength is granted to the eater of the fruit.
I said, “The Race officials don’t recite this word-for-word because they’ve decided what they want to hear. And if you’re going to begin listening to yourself, you’ll have to first stop listening to everyone else.”
Hafeti’s cotton nightgown brushes her skin and she’s tingling all over as she kneels in the evening cool on the roof of her family’s house. Below her, the household sleeps; above her stretches a darkening sky. Hafeti smells the ripening grapes, the olive oil smoke from the kitchen, the valley’s sweet grasses.
Ikma has told her the plan. If she agrees to it, Hafeti will take part in the Race, but not astride a horse. She will slip out quietly—without the traditional hustle, boasts, or thundering hooves—and see whether the great Tree surrenders its prize to her without violence.
If Hafeti agrees, there will be no time to change her mind. The full moon will rise tomorrow night. And yet, Hafeti knows that if she leaves her home in this clandestine manner, she’ll be painted as the disobedient daughter who snatched the prize to which she had no right, the woman who did not know her place; the rebel who forsook loyalty to family for the sake of selfish independence. She can already feel the sting of the rumors.
Hafeti swallows hard.
Ikma had said the choice was hers. Hafeti recalls their earlier conversation.
“Won’t I just be cheating?” Hafeti had said.
Ikma snorted. “The real cheaters are those who changed the rules to stop half the population from entering this Race. You’re restoring fairness.”
“If it’s possible for me to slip out and steal the fig, then why hasn’t anyone else tried this? Man or woman?
“If you ask me, the women do not dare, and the men cannot imagine a victory that doesn’t involve boasting, bleeding, and bludgeoning to prove their worth. Or perhaps some have tried, and died of a thousand bee stings because they did not come with a worthy purpose.”
“Wonderful,” Hafeti said drily. She’d recalled the Race winners’ stories of the Tree, guarded by black clouds of bees, and a trunk so tall, it was nearly impossible to climb. But worse than these in her mind were the disgust and rage surely waited for her, if she succeeded.
Hafeti said, “Then the tree might stop me, too.”
Ikma shrugged, eyes sparkling with mischief. “There’s only one way to know.” Then she’d added, “This listening that you must learn is not a thing done in haste and panic. It can’t look anything like that Race.”
Hafeti returns to the silence on the roof under the stars and listens carefully to her thoughts.
I might never be able to come back. But if I don’t go, I’ll have to live every day knowing that I didn’t leave when I had the chance. Which regret is the one I cannot bear?
When Hafeti came to me the next morning, I knew by the anger in her eyes that she would accept. We spent the day taking short walks, drinking tea, and sharing dreams and fears. She sketched me the three-story house that she still dreams of. It’s grown richly detailed: rooms with colored-glass windows, a curved staircase, a reflection pool, and a shaded arcade. I wished to live long enough to see it built. As she sketched and talked, we could hear the distant laughter from the taverns as the men bragged to prepare for the Race and the whispers of women who kneaded their worries for safe returns into the feast’s bread dough.
As Hafeti and I were walking down to the river bridge to use the hollow log, discarded months ago by a carpenter and which I had made sure was still there, she finally asked me the question I’d been dreading.
“If you thought it possible, why didn’t you try this when you were younger, Ikma?”
I met her eyes and sighed. “Fear, I think. Didn’t know any better. I fell in love with a man who was kinder than my father and I married him as a sort of escape.” I shrugged. “By the time I knew I needed to search for something more, I was already a mother.”
Hafeti nodded, her eyes watching the river race away from us toward the boundless sea.
I said, “Of all the wrongs I’ve done, I couldn’t add abandoning a child to them. So I gave up my chance. When I had a son and no more children came, I promised myself I’d find a girl like you, with the pieces of her broken heart still sharp-edged and her life ahead of her.”
Hafeti nodded, as though taking a solemn vow.
I wrapped her in my wedding shawl. She knew its worth to me and tried to refuse, but I cursed her until she accepted the blessing, perhaps just to make me shut up. Around her neck I hung a pouch of coins. It was not enough for her to live on for a year, but I had to believe I would not be the only soul to help her. I could do my part and no more.
It was like pushing a funeral boat, shoving that hollowed log into the river; Hafeti floated free, with me as her sole witness.
Hafeti drifts as dark water sloshes below her. Strange, giddy laughter rises in her, like air bubbles racing to the sky. River water soaks her clothes as it slops in from the open ends of the hollow log, but a feverish certainty burns her skin and her teeth don’t chatter.
Her log jams in a mud bank and she wades out to wrest it free. The current seizes the log before Hafeti can climb back inside its shelter and she’s forced to scramble atop or else lose her transportation. She clings to its exterior, exposed and wind-whipped.
An old man shouts at her from the shoreline, his hair white in the light of his lantern. He commands her to come to land and cease her foolishness before it costs her life. Hafeti almost obeys, but stops the reflex just in time. The river carries her past, leaving his condemnation behind, though his words scurry inside her skull, like bugs trying to eat her determination.
The night darkens. The orange lights of hearth-fire through windows dwindle, then vanish. With a gasp, Hafeti realizes she’s passed beyond civilization. Though she has longed for silence her whole life, this loneliness disquiets her.
Time seems to turn faster on this river, measuring months and years, rather than a handful of wet hours. Hafeti worries she’ll drift beyond the Tree, only to be found in some far-off town with her missed chance to haunt her. Then she sees the huge outline of the Great Tree lit by a full-bellied moon and smiles.
Hafeti plunges into the twisting current and her log shoots away without her. She clutches Ikma’s shawl tight against the tearing waters. She flounders, stumbles, and sputters her way to the banks where she falls and lies, flat and freezing, but still burning from within. In the light of the climbing moon, she sees the faint golden globe of the shield that still guards the tree. It will not fall until the moon is high. Before then, no mortal may cross it.
Wind stirs the fig leaves. Hafeti wraps her head in Ikma’s tattered shawl and sniffs its old dyes mingled with wet river clay. She half-dreams of wide, cool corridors; balconies that overlook the sea; and a garden courtyard. The moon’s white face rises above the valley ridge. The gold curtain shimmers and falls. Like embers, the silver figs begin to glow. Hafeti stands and approaches.
She hears a distant roar, a massive city bursting with sound. The Race has begun.
A nearby hum rises in her ears. A clustered mass of dots spread above her, then wends down like a flying carpet through the air toward her.
Bees. Hundreds of them. Singing in warning. If she’d come here among the Race crowd, she might have taken a few poisoned stings and divided the rest with her competitors. But if all these bees attack her, a lone woman… Hafeti draws a deep breath and knots a prayer into the shawl as she tightens it around her shoulders. She waits.
The swarm circles her, the hum raises to a whine, and then the bees descend in a rain of gold-and-black beads, each one bobs to the heart of an embroidered rose and then away, as if sated with real nectar. The cloud dissipates and Hafeti advances.
She removes her sandals and places muddy hands against the tree trunk. Above her, the leaves flutter translucent green, veins dark in the light of the radiant figs. The bark scrapes her skin and the handholds are few. She climbs and rests and climbs again, a crescendo of fear pounding inside her head. The ground trembles, battered by hundreds of hooves, mounts bearing Racers who speed toward her.
When her muscles cramp and burn, she checks her distance left to go. The tree’s lowest limb has drawn no closer. A sob blooms in her throat, but Hafeti swallows it. Perhaps, if she’d had the shoulders and bodies of others to climb atop, she might force her way up the tree. But not like this. She slides to the earth, hands bloody and cracked. Trying not to weep, she folds her legs and draws a shuddering breath. After a moment, she rises and circles round the back of the tree. It is more gnarled here, with better handholds.
Her arms tremble and sweat drips from her forehead, but now the tree’s lowest limb swims steadily into reach. She grips it like a lifeline and heaves herself onto the sturdy branch.
A silver fig dangles above, in easy reach. Her heart hammers and fear urges her to rip it down, to tear the fruit flesh with her teeth and seal the conquest, but Ikma’s words return to her.
Not a thing done in haste and panic.
Hafeti gazes up through the leaves. She knows from the winners’ stories that the first fig is always snatched and eaten with wild haste. Has any winner ever paused for gratitude before taking a fig?
She nods in silent thanks, trembling so much she worries she’ll tumble from her branch. Then, as she reaches for the fruit, every ripe fig bursts into light, not like embers or stars, but dazzling as suns, each one a burning eye. The figs seem to watch her, wide and delighted, the way her mother would gaze at babies before she told them they were beautiful.
The soft silver flesh squishes beneath Hafeti’s fingers. As she bites the fruit, the tree shivers and she looks down to see the Race horde below her. The horses are flecked with sweat- froth and bloody mouths, their riders streaked with more wounds. The Racers draw up under the Tree, teeth bared and eyes wide with fury as they shout at her.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
“You’re not allowed!”
“Get down from there! Have you touched the figs?”
But the gift is already given. Hafeti hears them, yet a silver shield surrounds her. The arrows of shame slip away, blunted. She descends the tree without a word and one man, seeing the half-eaten fig in her hand, raises his fist to hit her. He rebounds, as though struck by a giant eagle’s wing. Hafeti walks silently away, and though the curses that follow her grow in vulgarity and desperation, they cannot touch her.
She turns once and wishes that the tree could give them something too, something to help them, to change the brutal pattern of what the Race has become. And the tree, as though it hears her, turns all remaining figs on its branches to a shade of deep red.
I smiled when the news rose to my balcony.
The young men have returned from the Race. There was no victor among them. None from the other cities, either. The fastest riders stood in the square, stammering and shouting, and reported that all the tree’s figs were colored a deep wine-red when they arrived, and though they knew this color was not as it should be, neither had the fruit blackened with rot as it had every other year after the victor had plucked the first fruit. So they ate them, anyway.
The flesh was sweet, but then it turned their stomachs sour with painful retching.
Those young men declined to partake in the feast, claiming fatigue. They hid themselves in their families’ homes. Through thin walls, I heard the mention of Hafeti name, though they could not publicly credit her with victory. Not yet. But their wives and daughters would hear the name, and they would wonder.
I do not know how to explain these red figs, but I suspect they gave a taste of remorse—for the violent contest built around the Silver Fig and the further perpetuation of war horrors, wrought by each invincible winner, to scar the world and secure his own fame.
I know the flavor of remorse, though I’ve not eaten the wine-red fruit. It first taught me how to listen. I also know that Hafeti took the silver fig and made her mind a fortress against voices of condemnation. It’s the greatest treasure I could help her achieve. She will have a year to listen to her heart, to learn her thoughts, to find her next steps toward making these dwellings of wood and stone that she was born to build. For a time, her mind will be invincible, and when that gift passes from her, perhaps she won’t even notice.
Hafeti walks in a world that does not know her as she learns to know herself. She buys a silver leather journal that reminds her of the fig’s skin and fills its pages with her thoughts and building sketches. She washes Ikma’s shawl by hand with olive soap and wears it as her warmth, her shade, her friend in a strange land.
She rents a small room with Ikma’s coins and lives alone, finding joy in the silence. She saves the pit from the fig’s first fruit and plants it in a small jar that she places in her window. She joins a community of widows and offers her help where she sees a need. She draws building plans and finds people who will listen to her ideas. She begins to believe she is worthy of love.
Hafeti smiles more than she used to. Her anger toward her family ebbs slowly, like a tide, leaving behind a cave of sorrow for those she’s left behind. A glimmering hope brightens within her, no longer drowned by helpless rage, and Hafeti promises herself that one day she will go back and show them, show the women, the person that she’s become.
Early in the summer of Hafeti’s invincible year, the pit in the jar sends up its first leaf.
Fig tree, Quest, Invincibility: New Short Story! – Elise Stephens
[…] /2021/12/13/first-leaf-by-elise-stephens/ […]
2021 Awards Eligibility – Elise Stephens
[…] “First Leaf” (FIYAH, December 2021) – A feminist fairy tale involving a magical fig tree and its gift of invincibility that brings together two women on a quest that requires bravery and defiance of societal expectations. […]
Robert E Jackson
Wow Elise – Great story. You bring Hafeti and Ikma to life in your story. Great Job. Bob
Excellent story! Perfectly captures the timeless feel of a fairy tale. Felt like it would fit perfectly in a staunchly pro women version of Arabian nights!
March short story reading post | Kathleen Jennings
[…] “First Leaf” — Elise Stephens (Fiyah, 2021 — an old woman schemes with a young girl to circumvent the requirements of a race that grants a year’s invulnerability) […]