You were such a beautiful babe that Ma draped you across her front like a fine fur whenever we went to the village. Strangers would cross streets to pay their respects to your pomegranate cheeks and firefly smile. They’d tease me—the older sister—about green monsters and yellow eyes, but I was never jealous of you because you were mine. It was I who dabbed mash on your tongue. It was I who sang lullabies to soften your sleep. It was I who, still too small to lift you, changed your diapers on the floor.
Because you were mine, I was first to notice when you visited the wishing well. You plodded into the kitchen one afternoon, hands bloody with stolen berries, a lion’s tail protruding from your shorts. I knew I should tell Ma and Pa, but instead, I helped you hide, helped you remember to tuck the fur under your clothes when they came home. I reasoned that you’d be fine; all children visited the well at some point, for who can resist the lure of a magic well? And it was just a tail, velvet that twitched when you smiled. What harm could come?
But perhaps I reasoned selfishly for, as in all things, the well’s gift worked differently for you than most children. Unlike their boring pig noses or the muculent webbing that I’d grown after my one and only visit, your saffron tail brought stories in addition to fur. Stories that sprouted like trees from your mouth. Stories about a young lion that slew his king and led his people to lush rivers. Stories about a lion mother, who ran so fast after prey that she turned into a cloud. Sometimes, you said, the lion mother wept with longing for her cubs, and her pride felt her tears on their faces, tasted salt in the water they drank. I would sit and listen, letting you take over the lull into sleep, letting those stories drown out any lingering doubt I felt about not telling.
Months passed with you detailing the rise and fall of grasslands. Then on a day that seemed like any other, you came home from the well with a second gift, hooves that twirled and jigged to a silent rhythm. They were tiny hooves, more like buttons, and they brought with them stories even more tantalizing than your lion’s tale. They’d belonged to a fawn, a musician, and you would sometimes sing his creations, rhymes rolling like meadows from your tongue. Again, I wondered if I should tell, and again, I thought of Ma when she’d seen my gift from the well. I could still remember her staring at the opalescent webbing, her face white like it’d been scrubbed in lye as Pa whisked me off to the shed for my cutting. So instead of telling, I helped you hide, helped you stuff your shoes and listened to you sing and found myself asking again, what harm could come?
Then the tail tried to strangle you and the hooves wouldn’t stop dancing and Ma and Pa found out.
The first thing I did when they returned you to me after Pa took you to the shed was hold your feet and count your toes, all ten of them wriggling under my attention. No trace of hoof remained. I didn’t know how Pa had freed you from the well’s gifts, could only remember the vaguest flashes of him hacking at my fingers years ago, but I was grateful to have you home, so I didn’t question.
To my surprise, neither Pa nor Ma meted out punishment. Instead, they read us a sermon and tucked us into bed so tightly I felt wrapped in rope. The well wasn’t mentioned again until Pa shook me awake the next morning with a beckon in his eyes. I dressed and followed him into the village, to a side of town we never went, where gravel roads faded to dead grass and the buildings grew chipped and haggard. He stopped in front of a weather-beaten barn, and I could tell from the inhuman screams that poured from it in bleats and howls that the barn contained horrors. I tensed, ready to flee, but Pa placed a firm hand on my shoulder.
Inside, we found beasts shedding humanity, their gifts too advanced to remove. They clawed at scales, pelts, horns, tearing bloody jewelry into their flesh. But worst of all were the ones who were gone, the ones that no longer struggled, like the little mouse-boy who shrieked chitters at us from the back of the barn. He stared at us angrily, his large size and blue eyes the only things separating him from the creatures that scampered across our kitchen floor.
After, Pa explained that this was what happened to people whose families didn’t love them enough.
Your next trip to the well came on a day like any other. On your way out the door, not a hint of deception laced your voice, but you returned from your trip to the neighbor’s with flaming wings on your back and war ballads on your lips. This time, I ran to Pa. He returned you to normal by nightfall.
And for years, it happened that way. Weeks would go by, you cheerfully helping me tend the garden or pouting over arithmetic, then you’d fly through the door with a beak swallowing your mouth or tentacles swarming your sides. At first when Pa fixed you, I’d burrow in the house. But as two times became twenty, I started waiting outside of the shed, leaning against the wall, listening to your screams like I used to listen to your stories.
Eventually, Pa—all too aware that his hair looked less like the ground in summer and more like the ground in winter—taught me how to fix you. He showed me his razors, his clamps, his twine. I helped him cut you out of the well’s gifts for the first time the day after I’d turned sixteen and tucked my hair into a bun. Pa looked at me with such pride as I chipped off the last piece of dragon’s claw from your fingers.
After that, I took care of your indiscretions, and I knew without even the smallest flickering of doubt that I would succeed where Ma and Pa had failed. At first, I tried to be smarter. I went off in search of the well, hammer and shovel in hand, but the well sensed my intentions and hid as it had with all those who’d sought to destroy it before me.
I then sought to be kinder. I saved my pennies and bought devil’s root to lessen the pain of your cuttings. I sprinkled little reminders about the well into our conversations, tossing them out whenever you left the house like I’d once said “stay safe” or “love you.”
But for a long time, you kept going, and dismay rotted in my belly. Each time, I would wait for weeks with baited breath only to have it punched out of me when you walked through the door with a new gift. Then one day, the waiting stretched and stretched and somehow you made it from falling leaves to budding branches without an episode. For two years, I’d thought we’d won and gleefully watched Pa’s tools rust in the shed. And if I sometimes missed the stories you’d once spun as we drifted to sleep, I told myself that if you could live without them, then so could I.
The day that broke me came on a day like any other. I found you on the floor, flesh torn and streaked, your arms a brutal parody of a barber’s pole. Despite your unconsciousness, your fingers still moved, still slashed and convulsed, defiant, and as I stared at them, I realized that they weren’t your fingers at all. Your fingers were stubby and full of scars from skillet burns and climbing trees. These fingers were long and impossibly flawless, like steel blades brought to life.
Stitching you together that sun-drenched afternoon tore away my conviction, my pride. I was not smarter. I was not kinder. You did not love me more, and that night after I’d tucked you in bed, I went down a path I’d not tread in thirteen years, this time without malice in my heart.
The well found me at the end of a pebbled path fringed with fire poppies, its crumbling walls small and shrunken in the moonlight. I grasped its edges and stared down into the thing that held you so tightly, trying not to remember how smooth its water had felt sliding down my throat so long ago.
I steeled myself. I lowered the bucket. I made a wish.
I asked only for help, for something that would keep you from the mouse-boy’s fate. I didn’t really expect the well to respond to such a vague request, but the well, the master of wishes, the queen of lies, did not balk at my ambiguity. Instead, the well was generous. In its bucket, I pulled up appendage after appendage: your lion’s tale, your hooves, your wings, until every gift, every fable the well had ever given you lay spread out on the grass beside me. I greeted them like long-lost friends, wrapping them in my arms and carrying them home.
I worked through the night, stringing your gifts up one-by-one and by the time you awoke, a new gift greeted you in the living room. All of the stories we’d hacked from you over the years hung from the rafters just like Pa’s wooden mobile once hung over your crib. Your long-lost pelts and horns and fins spun and gleamed in the sunlight, all of them just as fresh as when we’d ripped them from you, some still oozing red where we’d sawed them off. You stared up at them, reaching out hesitantly, perhaps thinking of when they’d been a part of you, their flesh and bone knit with yours.
And I said, “I did this so you’d still have your stories.”
And I said, “I did this so you’d stop hurting yourself.”
And I said, “I did this so you’d stop forgetting it hurts you.”
And you were so grateful, you couldn’t find words.
After that, you stayed inside, feeling no need to leave now that your stories had returned. Excitement filled your belly, and your hands barely touched food other than to give morsels to the mice that chittered happily at your feet. Mostly, you just stared up at your past cascading down from the rafters, mouthing memory after memory, story after story, sound no longer accompanying the movement of your lips. And sometimes if you looked a little sadder than I thought you should, if your eyes darted towards the door, I would place a firm hand on your shoulder like Pa had done for me at the barn so many years ago and remind you that all of this, I did out of love.