Isolde, Shea, and the Donkey Brea
By Ursula Pflug, illustration by Timothy Lantz
4 December 2006
The rivers were no longer polluted with blood. Once again it was possible to grow more than oats and spelt. The invading army had left, leaving behind only the so-called peace keepers. There had been little resistance. We were an easily subjugated population, too afraid for our daughters to be anything else. My friend Shea and I had lost almost everyone and everything; we had huddled in our village for years. More than anything, we wanted to see something other than our own fields, our own woods, the faces of our own townsfolk again. We set out: myself, Shea, and the donkey Brea, to look for the secret library.
On the winter trail I dressed as a man and learned to lower my voice. I had been wearing men's clothes for years anyhow; they were comfortable and convenient. Even way back when my daughter was a small girl she told me the neighbourhood children teased her, saying I walked like a man. Shea wore skirts; she said she was so old and ugly no soldier would bother her. For our small meals we would try and find a copse of trees in the lee of a hill, out of the wind. Here I would study Shea's profile as we ate. She had aged well, I thought, and was still extremely beautiful, no matter what she said. I touched her shoulder beneath its felt cape.
"Have you finished your dinner?"
Shea nodded and looked at the sky but she didn't answer.
I patted her knee. I liked touching Shea. She was fifty-five and not forty-five as I was. We had been looking for the library for almost a year. I knew the winter trail was wearing her down; she had recently talked of turning back. The library was a mirage, or we'd have found it by now.
"Just let me sit a little longer," she said at last.
I allowed myself to agree. "The wind beyond that rise is fierce. I can hear it howling. In a little while it'll die down and then we'll go on. At sunset the wind falls, almost always."
She offered me half her oatcake.
"I'm not hungry," I lied. "Give some to Brea. Look how cold she is. If she eats a little she'll be stronger." The little donkey was indeed shivering, and seemed sad.
Shea didn't know all my secrets, in spite of being the only person I had left from my life before the invasion. A patrol had killed my husband, early on. He'd been fool enough to argue with them over the life of a neighbour's son. Alone now, I was afraid even Shea would leave me if I told her the truth, and then I'd have only Brea. Spring was late. Our rations were running low; the stores at the inns were as well. If I went on without Shea, the donkey and I would have more to eat. But I didn't think I could. If I told Shea what I'd done maybe she wouldn't judge me. Maybe she'd stay instead.
At last Shea and the donkey rose. Twilight painted the sky and I thought how it was the one thing that in all the years of the occupation had remained reliably beautiful. An army, no matter what else it destroys, cannot also touch the sky. Unlike our daughters, it would always remain out of reach.
After dark the wind did indeed fall, and a plume of wood smoke became visible. We walked, and as we breached the rise we saw the source: in the hollow beyond, a small inn sat nestled amongst the rowans.
The innkeeper gave us a room with one large bed instead of two small ones and I knew my impersonation was complete; they took me for Shea's younger husband. I asked for a ground floor room so the donkey Brea could sleep with us. If they said no I'd tell Shea to stay in the room, and I would sleep on the stable floor with Brea. I'd miss Shea, but I couldn't leave Brea alone.
We sat in our room. There was a fire so we were warm enough. There was wine but no water. We didn't want to go to the common room; three peacekeepers were staying at the inn as well. After a time there was a knock at the door. The donkey brayed.
Shea got up, let in a young woman carrying a tureen of lentil soup and a loaf of spelt bread. There was even a little butter for the bread, a ham bone in the soup, and a few dried greens from summer. She introduced herself as the innkeeper's daughter. Tears welled in my eyes to see a beautiful young woman. She looked at Shea and me and smiled.
"I think you are right not to come to the dining room. Your disguise is almost perfect yet I noticed. I can switch you to a room with two beds instead of one if you prefer."
"We do not prefer," Shea said. Calmly, I thought, given how peculiar we must seem.
The young woman continued to look at us. "There's something about you," she said
"Something about you, too. Best soup I've had since before we left," I quipped. "Why is it no one knows how to cook anymore?"
"Because they have nothing to cook with, mostly," the girl said, which of course I'd already known to be true.
Shea raised her eyebrows. "Something other than two women travelling together, one pretending she is a man?"
The girl hesitated, and then said, "They poisoned our well at the beginning of the occupation."
I shook my head. I'd turned my back on all that. But Shea nodded. "We're willing to see what we can do. We can't promise but we can try."
"I'll come at midnight. I'll take you around the stable. It's too cold for the soldiers to venture into the yard, even drunk as they'll be by then." She petted the donkey. "Sweet little thing. Are you sure she wouldn't rather sleep in the barn?
"No. Brea stays here with us."
Wherever we went, people found it strange how inordinately attached I was to Brea. I didn't like letting her out of my sight for more than a moment. People were still poor; the orchards had not yet grown back but it was once again fairly safe to travel; the most dangerous thing on the road was not, as we were often told, small bands of thieves but the peace keepers, and I knew even a donkey might be stolen. In the lean winters after the occupation began and there was not enough to eat for any of us my neighbours complained of me sharing my meagre store of oats with Brea but I did, winter upon winter. It has been five. I have had Brea for five years now; my husband has been dead for six. I do not worry about disguising Brea. Even the invaders, callous vermin that they are, mostly wouldn't stoop to rape a little donkey.
"Very well," the innkeeper's daughter said. "I'll bring you straw for the floor so she can have a bed."
"Thank-you for coming. We haven't seen any wise women for years. My father and I have been hoping someone might come who could clear the well."
She seemed safe. "We're on our way to the library," I dared. "We heard we're not far."
Rumours of the library lingered on throughout the war years. Some said it was a legend only. Others said it did indeed exist, but that once people got home and unpacked the spells they'd painstakingly copied they found instead a pouch of dust or a handful of old apple cores.
The girl nodded. "I haven't been there, and neither has anyone else I've ever met, but the stories do persist, and many do say it's in this area."
The tale was told thusly: our best spells had been placed in the secret library for safekeeping lest the invaders find our scrolls and turn them to ill means for ill gain. The library was housed in a small hidden fortress on an island past the mountains, its location well protected, so that none of ill intent might find it. The most powerful magicians had all written their invocations down, even and especially those they knew only by memory, so that should they and their apprentices be killed, these magics would still exist somewhere. In this way, when the time came the invaders departed for new lands to pillage, or were by some miracle defeated, we could go to the library and relearn what had been forgotten. The turning of sweet water into wine, or if the wine is of poor quality, the other way around. Teleportation of both people and objects. Shape-shifting, either of oneself or another.
"Or they do now," Shea said. "Perhaps it's been moved."
At the outset we'd always heard conflicting reports. And had, because of it, wandered in ever widening circles for a year. First we'd been pointed east from our village, and then south, and then west, and finally north. For some months everyone we'd asked had said north, and I, at least, was heartened.
The girl said, "It would be good if it was found." She turned and left.
And came back in. Stared at Brea.
"What is it?" Shea asked. "Did you change your mind about us?" Perhaps the thought of two middle-aged women sharing one of her father's beds disturbed the girl after all.
"It isn't that," she hesitated.
"Then what is it?" I asked.
Still she stared, not at us but at Brea. Finally she spoke. "I think the donkey isn't really a donkey, just as you are not really a man."
It was my turn to look at her, considering. I too looked a long time before opening my mouth. Perhaps the innkeeper's daughter knew exactly where the library was kept, and was hiding her secrets just as I was hiding mine.
Perhaps we could make a trade. "You're right," I said at last. "The donkey is actually my fifteen-year-old daughter Bree. A sorcerer turned my pretty girl into a beast. That is why we're looking for the library. We need to find the spell that can change her back."
Both Shea and the girl looked astounded, although for different reasons. "I thought they made those stories up," the girl said.
"So did I," I said, "until I saw it with my own eyes."
Satisfied, the girl nodded, and left again.
Shea glared at me. I hung my head. She had a right to be angry. "I thought we'd come to know everything there is to know about one another," she said.
"We have, dear Shea," I said, reaching for her knee again. She withdrew, still miffed. "All except that."
"How come she could see it and I couldn't?" Shea asked.
"Some people were just good at telling about shape-shifting, even before," I said. Which, at least, was true.
At midnight the girl came back for us. It was hard to wait up till then; we, and especially Shea, were so very tired. I'd have let Shea sleep but the work is more powerful with two. The girl led us through a back passage to a side door and out into the yard. We passed the door to the common room; the soldiers were still awake, singing about the empire. Stupid empire. How I'd come to regret the word, a place I'd never see but that had nonetheless taken almost everything I'd ever had. We snuck into the yard. Flakes of snow drifted through the sky.
"Can I watch?" The girl asked, looking around to make sure we were alone. Her father, she'd explained, would stay inside entertaining the guests. Which really meant, he'd try and prevent them from breaking every glass in the house. They'd never had many to start with.
"I need water from the well," I said.
The girl obediently lowered a tin bucket. Shea scooped out a handful of water and grimaced.
We held hands and prayed.
Shea twitched and broke the circle, said, "We need a third. The poison was too strong."
"I have no power," the girl said, "it won't help."
I took one of her hands, Shea another. We closed the circle again.
Everyone has power, girl. Most have just forgotten, or hidden it away.
She prayed with us, standing out in the snowy yard. I worried about Brea. Had we locked the door to the room? It broke my focus and we had to begin the prayer anew.
When we were finished Shea and I in turn placed our hands in the bucket of spoiled water.
"You too," Shea ordered, and the girl did as she was told.
At last Shea lowered the bucket back down into the well.
Again we joined in a circle and prayed. A crash came from indoors. I raised my eyebrows.
"They always turn over the furniture," the girl said. "Sometimes they even break it. Then they complain we barely have any. My mother hated it. I wish," she added sadly, "she could see me now."
I didn't ask the question. For some it's their mother, for others their daughter. For me it was both. Either way, the line is broken, the result the same. The heart is broken, power abandoned.
Power doesn't want to be abandoned.
"Let the bucket up again," Shea said.
The girl brought the bucket up. Shea cupped her hands a second time, offered the girl water. "Drink," she said.
"You will not," Shea said. "The water is pure again. I can feel it. Believe me."
"If, in the morning," I said, "you wake as a spirit, then you'll know we lied."
Still the girl hesitated. I felt better when she laughed a little, acknowledging my attempt at a joke. It was my nerves, what with my daughter alone in our room, so close to the soldiers. I wanted the thing finished, now.
I stepped forward and drank from Shea's beautiful hands. Seeing this, at last the girl drank too, and then finally it was Shea's turn.
We went back.
The donkey Brea snuffled happily in her sleep, sensing our return. I wanted to fling my arms around her, cover her with wet kisses. I always felt that way, even when we'd been separated for only a few short moments.
"Don't," Shea said. "If she wakes up and brays, it'll attract attention."
I knew she was right. We went to bed in our clothes, so we could save time on dressing in the morning. I threw an arm around Shea, although I knew we were both too exhausted to do anything more than sleep. Well clearing is tiring work, my mother had always complained. Still, it was a comfort to have Shea there beside me, and my daughter wheezing gently on the straw at our feet.
"At least I know why you do that now," Shea said tenderly, forgiving me at last. I'd heard well clearing will have that effect; one feels affection afterwards for those with whom the work was made. Perhaps it is the gratitude of the little water spirits, infecting even human relationships, bringing us small joy even in wartime.
That thought made me pause. Perhaps we ought to do more of the work, Shea and me. It would help keep us cheerful enough to go on, would help the farmers and innkeepers we met along our way. We'd never tried it before, hadn't known whether or not we'd succeed. I felt proud, and kissed Shea's silver hair. But I still didn't know what she'd meant.
"Do what?" I asked.
"Treat that donkey like a person, Isolde. Better than me almost," she grumped, kneeing me sharply, which I liked.
In the morning the girl woke us before dawn. "If your work at the well is discovered you're sure to be killed or at least imprisoned."
I nodded. It was true we were in danger. I didn't mind so much that I'd risked my life, but I felt very bad about having risked my daughter's and Shea's.
The girl packed our bag with food, including, proudly, a corked flagon of sweet water. We watered Brea. She had eaten only snow for so long.
The girl didn't charge us for our room. At the door she gave us each a kiss, first on our cheeks, and then, mischievously, on the lips. Shea laughed and stroked her glossy black hair, and the girl let her.
"One question?" she begged, unlocking the back door. Dawn swirled along the horizon, or perhaps it was just more snow. She pointed out where the trampled trail exited her yard. It was visible even in the dark, between the lingering moon and the bright bright snow.
The donkey huffed little clouds.
"Sweet child," the girl said, ruffling her ears. "May you find all you seek, and all you deserve."
"Of course," I said. I wanted to please the innkeeper's daughter. We were leaving after all, and I guessed we were better company than drunken soldiers, who, even if they did nothing more, probably asked her to sit on their knee while they drank and sang. Poor thing.
"Why," she asked, "did you not use your magic against them when they first came?"
"It was our magic they came to destroy," I said. " They had none themselves, hence they hated it in us."
We hadn't enough magic to turn all their spears into flowers, although we tried. We hadn't enough magic to turn all their stone hearts to sweet water, although we tried. Sometimes we were successful. Just not enough. There were so many of them, and so few of us.
How quickly even magic vanishes. Already many said we never had been able to do those things, which was what the invaders told us. To make us weak, they mocked our now lost or hidden skills.
When the sun rose we sat down to breakfast, first spreading out a blanket to keep our clothes dry. The girl had even wrapped a jar of hot tea in a cloth to keep it so. It was almost heaven, or at least, the best morning we'd had since long before we'd left. A good dinner, a successful well clearing, hope. Tea with breakfast. Unless you've gone without as long as we had, you can have no idea what a difference hot tea makes.
Shea. I always arranged myself so I could gaze at her astonishing profile while we rested. And then my beautiful Shea had to spoil it all by saying, "Perhaps it was never true."
"Then I'd be a fool for having shared my best oats for the last five winters when we had nothing to eat, the three of us, except for mouldy spelt flour and wormy carrots," I replied, trying to make a joke of her disbelief, which wounded me.
"We could be having dried apples right now if they hadn't burned the orchards," Shea said.
"They wanted us to starve."
"Why?" she asked. "What use are we to them, starved?"
"That is the use," I said. "Our suffering is like food to them, more delicious than rabbit stewed in apples and honey."
"Please don't talk about food that good."
"I wouldn't except the girl's soup was so tasty I feel I can begin to imagine again. We best be going, Shea."
Again Shea said, "It's so beautiful just now. Look, the sky is pink."
It was, and so were Shea's cheeks, and then the insides of my daughter's furry ears. Such a colour, pink.
"The snow will begin to melt if it keeps warming up," Shea went on. "Just let me sit a moment more. My knees are stiff." Even Brea began to paw the snow aside, as if she smelled the grass seedlings just below the surface, waiting to break out anew. Shea watched my donkey intently, and I began to feel my companion wasn't procrastinating at all, but drawing energy right out of the earth, storing it away, just as leaves store the energy of the sun.
It was a beautiful moment, but the occupation had taught me to be careful of too much joy. I was afraid if I relaxed too much I'd let my guard down. One must remain practical. "They're sure to come after us when they find out," I reminded Shea. "It's best we're well on our way before they wake."
"They all drank themselves stupid, didn't you hear? They'll sleep till noon. We're safe, Isolde." Shea offered me another oatcake.
I took it, but I gave it to my daughter.
Shea was right; it was turning into a sunny and not another snowy morning. Soon spring would really come, and the donkey Brea would be able to graze again. Our rations would go further. Shea would stop asking to turn back. I was glad. I wanted Shea to stay with me for company but also so that Brea, when she changed back, might have someone other than me she recognised. Shea had been our small family's closest friend.
"Perhaps this donkey has always been a donkey," Shea said with unexpected bitterness, perhaps because once again, I'd prodded her out of her beloved rest. "In spite of what both you and the innkeeper's daughter say. Perhaps in your grief you saw what you wanted to see, rather than what really happened."
I stared at her, shocked. "What do you mean, Shea?"
"Perhaps they took her, and you just pretended she'd been changed into a donkey. A lesser evil."
Shea was telling me I'd gone mad with grief. And I couldn't judge her for it. "An evil sorcerer turned her into a donkey, Shea. I saw it," I insisted, which wasn't exactly true, and perhaps this was what Shea sensed when she questioned me. I gathered up our cups and remaining bread and packed them away.
Walked away down the trail, my daughter trotting faithfully beside me. Hoped upon hope Shea would follow, but I was too hurt to turn and look.
I knew a woman who had killed both her daughters when the invaders were still in the next town. She had not even seen what could happen, unlike me, who had. But to her the stories were so dreadful that she thought perhaps death was a kinder fate for her girls than what would happen to them at the hands of the soldiers. I couldn't judge my neighbour, not really. In wartime one learns not to judge, never sure what one might oneself do one day. Yet I'd thought I had a better idea, a thing that like our well clearing I'd never done at the time but was willing to try.
Spring came two weeks later, and then in a year it came again. That entire year we kept travelling north, passing after a time through towns we'd never even heard the names of. We continued clearing wells and streams wherever we went. There were more fish, hence less starvation. People had sometimes heard of us now, even before we arrived. We were well fed, slowly putting back the weight we'd lost in the first years of the occupation. Even my poor daughter's ribs filled in; her coat reclaimed its glossy shine. Even a hardy little donkey wants apples and carrots sometimes, can live on mouldy hay and hardened oatcakes only so long before she begins to wither.
"Remember the girl at the inn?" Shea asked me one day while we walked, "How she believed in us, Isolde?"
"She didn't believe in us at all," I reminded Shea. "She thought we were old and crazy and that we were poisoning her, but that it was worth a try. What had she to lose?"
"Only her life," Shea said.
"I drank first," I reminded her.
"Still, even that bit of belief she gave us helped to change not just her, and her water, but us. I hadn't known it would work, even though almost everyone knows those spells. Bring me flowers, Isolde, and your donkey."
She held the donkey's face. Brea, sensing something, held still as a stone in Shea's long fingered hands. Shea closed her eyes and prayed. I sensed her life draining dangerously but I also knew I wouldn't ask her to stop.
She gave Brea the donkey all she'd ever had, including all the energy she'd drawn out of the earth while meditating, her eyes closed, all those mornings and evenings I'd resented her for slowing us down.
Now I wondered why I'd been in such a hurry. We'd still never found the library.
Before my eyes the donkey Brea began to change. It was a slippery thing to watch, and made me feel, I must admit, a little ill. The energies swirling about the beast were so powerful they upset not just my mind but my stomach. It was like being in a storm at sea. I longed for land, and even more I longed for the turbulence to last, so that the work could complete. In spite of her stiff knees Shea crouched on the ground beneath the rowan, her eyes closed, her hand on my donkey's neck. Pea green and ice blue swirled. I vomited, again and again. Blessedly, Shea ignored me, and my donkey didn't move from beneath her magic touch.
"Should I help?" I asked when I could, remembering all the wells, but Shea, eyes still closed in concentration, shook her head almost imperceptibly. I felt bad for interrupting yet again, draining her focus. Perhaps this was a work that could only be done alone. Or else I was too ill to help.
I feared for Shea. We'd had good years, in spite of everything. She'd worked hard to help me forget the grief of losing my beloved husband. But I couldn't ask her to stop, not now that little feet had appeared beneath the same green dress I'd last seen six years before.
And then my Bree stood suddenly before me, shaking her head, shaking the mist out of her eyes. I was surprised to see she was in her early twenties, and no longer fifteen, although seemingly, the dress still fit. Had she worn nothing else these past six years? It seemed in good repair. Where had my daughter passed her time, I wondered, examining her face for clues.
Even when she was little, my Bree had been able to see and hear things invisible and inaudible to others. Gazing at her, my first impression was that these abilities had, if anything, intensified. She looked wiser even than before, but more importantly, quite happy. I was grateful. Sometimes the wise are burdened by sadness at all they see which others do not. I was also relieved. Who, after all, has any idea where people's souls go when they turn into cats or donkeys? My mother might've known, and a few others like her, but most of those so wise had been killed at the start, and those few who survived had taken their knowledge to the secret library and never returned. I hoped that in my mother's case it was the second, for one day she'd simply disappeared and no one could tell me where she'd gone.
Still, my Bree might've returned as a madwoman, or evil, or both. It was something I knew a little about, how quickly one can change, become in one act a person unrecognizable even to oneself.
Bree hugged me and I thought I might die from happiness. She laughed again, turned to my spent companion. I felt badly; drinking Bree in like a woman who's been dying of thirst, I'd overlooked to check how poor Shea was faring.
"Greetings, Shea," Bree said. She sat down on the warm earth at Shea's side and arranged the flowers I'd picked into her silver mane, and it was only then I noticed Bree's left hand was still a hoof. "Still as beautiful as ever," she told Shea.
"I'm old and ugly, you mean. It's you who's beautiful, Bree," Shea said. "And more importantly, safe. Don't blame your mother for what she did."
I sighed in new relief. Shea didn't judge me after all. But what did she mean? Don't blame me for turning Bree into a donkey without knowing how to turn her back, or don't blame me for letting Shea waste herself in this work?
I watched the hoof. It stayed a hoof.
"Where have you been?" I asked Bree, politely ignoring the hoof as best I could.
"Well, part of me was a donkey, grumbling because you didn't give me enough to eat. I liked it when you scratched my ears, wished you'd done that more. It was nice sleeping in stables, all three of us, surrounded by the comforting smells of the other animals. I liked that better than when you and Shea slept in the beds and I was given the floor. Even when I had straw, the fire always went out before dawn. That's when it's coldest and I'd shiver."
"I'm sorry, Bree," I said. I stared and stared at her. Still I couldn't get enough, thought my heart might burst.
"But another part of me went to the most beautiful place," Bree continued. "I hadn't a body there, for my body was a donkey, but I still had my mind and my soul. The people there could sense me. Some could even see me, a little. They were welcoming."
At last Shea and I looked at one another. Shea had always looked young for her age, but she had suddenly turned into an old woman. A happy old woman though, immensely proud of herself.
"What a witch you turned out to be," I said.
"No regrets, Isolde," she said, and I feared again. "Promise me you'll have no regrets." She patted the ground beside Bree and I too sat beside her and buried my face in her silver hair and smelled it so I'd never forget my Shea.
"What kind of place, dearest child?" Shea asked.
Bree took one of Shea's hands and held it. I took the other. Three women making a circle. "There was an island," my daughter said, "and a castle, and in the castle the most beautiful scrolls."
"Why did you go there," I asked. "How did you find it?
"I could feel how much you wanted it," Bree said, "and how good it would be for everyone if I went. Following this thought is how I came upon it. And also, my grandmother felt me searching, and met me halfway."
"We could have searched these mountains our whole lives and never found it," I sighed. "But that doesn't mean it doesn't exist."
"It does exist," said Bree, "for I've been studying there. But," and she waved her hand as if parting a curtain, "I think it exists there, and not here."
"It was fearsomely clever of them to do that," Shea said, "hide it there, and not here."
"I think so, beautiful Shea," Bree agreed. "I read the scrolls there one after another, for years and years, committing them all to memory."
"You good and beautiful girl," Shea said, and then she died.
Bree and I sat with Shea a long time, still holding those astonishing long fingered hands. A breeze sprang up, and rowan blossoms fell into her upturned face. It was my daughter who closed her eyes for her, for I could not; my own were too filled with tears, of both gratitude and sorrow. Shea had told me not to feel regret, but still I did, I did. For all of it.