In the Town of Tonica

Veronica, Monica, and Annika had just returned to the cottage after a long day of stomping in the sun. Or at least the two youngest sisters had. Veronica had spent most of the day lying the patchy shade at the foot of the largest En tree while ordering them about and complaining. Since she wasn’t overly tired, she didn’t see why her sisters should be either, and didn’t hesitate to demand that they bring her dinner, such as a it was (stale bread with enberry jelly) and a large drink of enberry juice.

Monica had just put her large, fruit-stained feet on the table to rest, and Annika had dropped into a chair beside her, when there came a thud-thud-thud at the door. Monica and Annika groaned at the thought of getting up, but to their surprise, Veronica sprang from her seat and rushed to answer it, probably expecting more news of the ball.

She was greatly disappointed.

The figure in their doorway had undoubtedly once been a woman, but the years had left her more shriveled and shrunken than an enberry left unprotected in the sun.

“What do you want?” Veronica demanded, none too politely. Only the faint hope that this could be an ancient servant of the prince made her say anything at all.

“I… I need your help,” she wheezed. “I have traveled far and taxed my strength. Only an en tonic will save me.”

Veronica would have slammed the door in the old woman’s furrowed face, but her sisters, filled with pity, slowly rose and began mixing the necessary ingredients. Monica offered the old woman her chair while Annika stirred the simmering potion, and Veronica, having no objection to kindness as long as she didn’t have to do anything for it, resumed peering at her reflection in their shiniest washtub.

The smell of the tonic, bursting with enberries, drifted through the room and in spite of their hard day, the sisters smiled at the aroma. Even the old woman’s wrinkles seemed to relax. At last, Annika brought the tonic to the table, and Monica began to pour it into a shallow drinking bowl.

“Ah,” the old crone sighed. “Usually I would offer the one who brought me my tonic incomparable beauty, but I see you already possess it.”

The two sisters wondered at this, since Monica had always been considered somewhat plain and stocky, while Annika had potential, but was too work-worn, tired, and thin to be noticeable.

“Since your beauty has nothing to improve on…”

Crash!

Veronica knocked the ladle from the cauldron in her rush to wrest the tonic from her sister’s hands so that she could be the one to offer it.

“Can you make my feet smaller?”

The woman regarded the eldest sister quizzically. “Yes…”

Veronica handed her the tonic.

***

“I should have known better than to accept beauty improvements from a woman who looked like that!” Veronica pouted the next morning. She had measured her feet against a wooden spoon and they did not yet appear a leaf’s thickness smaller.

Monica and Annika sighed as they trudged forward.

It was harvest time in the town of Tonica, and all the farms were full of bustle as the region’s major crop, the enberry, would be at its peak for a few days. Everywhere they looked, nimble-bodied children were busy climbing the thick, rough-barked trees and twisted branches, plucking handful after handful of the luscious fruit and stuffing it into their sacks. (With occasional handfuls taking a detour to their mouths, as evidenced by all the bright-red lips and many a juice-stained cheek.) Men climbed ladders, or shook the smaller trees directly, collecting the berries in great tubs. For days after the harvest, the women would process the vats of enberry juice, boiling it into potions and preserving it in jellies, and baking sweetbreads and cakes stuffed with whole delicious berries. At the end of the week, the entire town would hold a festival to celebrate the harvest and its many bounties.

But in the meantime, there was stomping.

Since they no longer had a farm of their own, the three sisters were resigned to whatever work they could find, and the only work available to young women. Until all the berries were processed, that usually involved the least desirable chore, stomping the berries into juice.

Before their parents had died, Monica and Annika had not minded harvest time so much.

Annika had loved to climb the En trees, and as she watched the children wistfully, she remembered many happy days of making her way to the top of the tallest trees she could find and dropping the berries to her father, who stood laughing down below.

Monica had preferred to spend her time in the kitchen helping mother, and even now, no one could match her skills for making the sweetest, flakiest enberry bread.

Veronica had always prided herself on doing as little as possible, especially tasks that might get her feet or nails dirty (she limited herself mainly to taste-testing), so for her, life had not changed as much. The only difference was she now had no father and mother to scold her for being lazy and force her to do her chores.

So she put her feet up (in order to watch them closely in case they shrank) as Annika and Monica tied up their skirts and stepped into the vat, instantly sinking knee-deep into the acidic red slime.

***

Their work was suddenly interrupted in mid-afternoon when Trucsha, the man whose farm they were working on, called everyone to a halt.

“My daughter has lost a medallion,” he announced. “It was stolen from her windowsill by a mischievous enberry bird. It was borrowed and must be returned to its original owner. You will all search for it. No one will go back to work, or be paid for the day, until it is found.”

Monica and Annika looked at each other, and slowly pulled themselves from the vat.

“Mischievous indeed,” a voice startled them as they emerged, and they were surprised to see the same old woman from last night lurking nearby. “I never would have let her borrow it if I knew she would be so careless as to leave on the windowsill with the pies. You’ll return it to me if you see it?”

Annika and Monica nodded, and like everyone else, they searched high and low, through all the fields and under every shrub. The sun was growing hotter, and they had to get back to work soon if they wanted to finish stomping before dark, when the bugs would start attacking their sweet, sticky legs.

“Wait! Look at this!” Veronica shrieked.

Her sisters came running.

“My feet are nearly a pinky’s width smaller!”

Monica and Annika looked daggers at her, but she was too busy wiggling her toes to notice.

Although Veronica had always been careful with her appearance, this new obsession with her feet was all related to the enberry festival. Prince Hans, the second son of their region’s ruler, had recently come of age and was rumored to be starting the search for a bride.

Whoever wanted to dance with the prince at the harvest ball would be asked to don a pair of petite glass slippers, to show that she was a lady of quality and not a common, berry-stomping peasant. The girl with the smallest and cleanest feet was rumored to be given special status, and with the way local rumors traveled, this soon became a guarantee of the hand of the prince himself.

(For this reason, the ball quickly became known among the locals as the Hans and Feet festival.)

Only Veronica was silly enough (of the three of them) to want to marry Prince Hans. Ever since his older brother, Crown Prince Vasilio, had married a frivolous and acquisitive Moravian countess who had nearly bankrupted the monarchy, anyone with sense could see that being a princess in the town of Tonica was a luxury in title only. The crown prince was known to be completely daft, and his father not much better, with neither of them able to make wise decisions or maintain financial solvency. Monica and Annika hadn’t glimpsed Prince Hans in the village church since had he gone abroad to study (a first for his family) and knew little of him, but at any rate he was outside their circle of concerns.

With heavy hearts, they turned back toward the vat to search again, when Annika glimpsed something shiny among the en leaves. It had been a long time since she had climbed an En tree, especially one so high.
She took a deep breath and began making her way up the trunk, which scratched at her legs and snagged the worn hem of her skirt. As she climbed higher, the twigs began clawing at her, but she didn’t mind as she recalled the thrill of looking down at the earth from high among the branches. She scooted out as far as she dared toward the dangling medallion, and with effort, finally snagged it.

Plunk! With the help of the fickle wind, it slipped from Annika’s grasp and fell right into a vat of partially-stomped enberries. Monica was obliged to dunk her arm in to the shoulder, soaking her dress and getting her hair all sticky. At last, she pulled up the medallion and held it between her fingers.

“Here you go,” Veronica took the object from her sister’s hand and gave it to the woman.

“Can you make my feet even smaller?”

The woman frowned at her. “Yes…”

***

At last, the week of stomping was over, and Monica and Annika could spend their days comparatively restfully, drying berries in the sun, making jelly, and spending every coin they could scrape up to buy flour to make breads to sell at the festival.

“Where are they, where are they, where are they?” Monica raced around the cottage, looking in every nook and under every bowl and pan.

“Where are what?” Veronica looked away from the washtub long enough to ask.

“Where are the rolls I baked for the festival?” Monica cried frantically.

“Oh those,” Veronica said with sudden understanding. “I traded them to Paboul for a ride in his cart.” She appeared quite pleased with her cleverness, and couldn’t understand the shocked looks on her sisters’ faces.

“Veronica! Those breads were supposed to earn us enough money to eat this winter!”

“You didn’t expect me to walk to the festival, did you? Not with these perfect feet.” She looked down at them happily.

Monica and Annika sighed desperately.

“Well, at least you can give us a ride. Maybe we can find something to barter…” They looked woefully around the bare-bones cottage.

“Sorry,” she replied airily. “He’s taking his six sisters, two brothers, their spouses, and eight nieces and nephews, so he only has room for me. You’ll have to walk.” She glanced down one last time at their grimy and fruit-stained feet before heading out the door. “If you want to bother going.”

“What are we going to do for food?”

Veronica shrugged indifferently. “Oh, don’t worry. When I marry the prince, we’ll send you some bread or something. If I remember to think of it.” And with that, she was gone.

Monica and Annika sank into their chairs at the table, overwhelmed by a sense of defeat.

“Maybe if we pull her off the cart by her hair, Paboul will give us a refund,” Monica growled.

Annika sighed. She knew her sister would never really do such a thing, but she wasn’t far from joining her in thinking about it. “It wouldn’t work anyway. Knowing Paboul’s clan, they’ve probably eaten all the bread already.”

Their grim mood was interrupted by a timid but persistent thumping at the door.

Annika, who wasn’t quite as heartbroken by the loss as the still brooding Monica (who had done most of the work), discovered a small child on the other side.

“Please… I’m lost,” she managed to stammer before bursting into tears. Annika had compassion on the forlorn little figure and brought her in out of the evening air.

“My aunts and uncles went to the fair, but my mamma had to stay home with the baby. I wanted to go with them, so I followed the cart, but I…” her words now came in gasps between sobs “got… lost… and I can’t find them… and I can’t find my way home!”

Annika, distraught by this display of emotion, offered her their last drink of en juice, which the little girl managed to drink rapidly between hiccups.

“Cart…” Monica suddenly joined the conversation. “Is one of your uncles named Paboul?”

Hic. “Yes…”

“Come on,” Monica stood up with determination in her eyes. “Finish your juice and we’ll take you home right away.”

Five small, grateful fingers seized each of the sister’s hands as they led the way to the cluster of small houses of their not-too-distant neighbor.

Monica entered, eyes burning brightly, searching the room for any sign of her lost rolls. What she saw softened her gaze, as the lost girl ran to a young woman in the corner who held a tightly-wrapped bundle that shook with dry, gasping coughs.

“Berytl,” the young woman scolded softly. “Where have you been? Need I worry about you as well?”

“I was lost, mamma.”

“Thank you for finding her.” She would have paid more attention to her child’s rescuers, but her gaze quickly returned to the sick baby, whose rasping was getting worse.

“He needs tonic,” Annika said quietly.

“We have none, nor anyone who knows how to make it.”

“I can make it,” Annika answered. “But we have nothing in our house but a few chairs and dishes. Do you have the ingredients?”

The woman shook her head. “Nothing but a few rolls my brother brought.” Monica’s eyes quickly followed her pointing hand. “If you’ll take them and trade them for tonic…” her eyes filled with tears as the baby spluttered.

“Come on,” Annika said to her sister. Monica picked up the bag of three small rolls and sighed deeply.

The streets were deserted. The Tonic Shop was closed.

“Everyone’s at the festival. We may have to go there to find someone to trade with.”

“Can’t we just break in?” Monica asked. She received only a shocked look in reply. “Well, this is an emergency,” she defended herself sheepishly.

“What seems to be the trouble, my dears?”

Both sisters jumped, and whirled to find the old woman standing beside them.

“We need tonic.”

“Oh, well, take this and make some,” the old woman offered them a tiny vial, no bigger than a thumb, and a single enberry.

“That’s very kind of you,” Annika answered as she peered at the strange, swirling red liquid in the vial. “But I’m afraid that’s not enough, even for a baby.”

“It will be enough,” she advised. “And you,” she turned to Monica. “Those are very pretty sweetbreads. But you have no sack to put them in? Here…” she handed her a rough brown bag that looked as if it could be made from En bark. Monica, to oblige the old woman, accepted it and put the rolls inside.

“In fact,” the woman continued. “Would you mind if I have one? I am rather famished.”

Unable to object, Monica offered her the bag, and the old woman took a roll. To Monica’s surprise, three rolls still remained inside.

“I must have miscounted,” she muttered to herself.

The old woman, apparently more keen of hearing than she appeared, laughed aloud. “You may be miscounting a lot this evening. Now. Why aren’t you two beautiful ladies at the festival?”

“We have to bring tonic for our neighbor’s baby,” Annika held up the vial.

“Of course,” the woman nodded wisely. “After that, meet me at the tallest En tree at the edge of town. Better still, I’ll go with you. Maybe I can help you. I have a way with tonics myself.”

With a subtle shrug to each other, the two sisters walked with the old woman back to Berytl’s mother. Under the old woman’s guidance, Annika squeezed the single berry’s juice into a small cauldron and added a drop of liquid from the vial. Instantly, the mix began to sizzle and steam, bubbling and foaming until it filled the cauldron. As she stirred, the smell of pure enberry tonic filled the room, and the baby’s coughing quieted. When given a first small sip of the tonic, the coughing stopped altogether, and by the fourth sip, the baby gurgled happily and fell peacefully asleep. His mother cried tears of relief.

As they left, Annika offered the vial back to the old woman, but she refused.

“Keep it,” she gestured. “You may need to make many tonics in your day.” She did take the shriveled shell of the empty enberry back, however, and set it on the ground before them.

To the sister’s surprise, it suddenly swelled as if it were being pumped full again, not with juice, but with air. The expansion didn’t stop until the top of the enormous berry was higher than their heads.

“I’m too old to walk to the festival,” the woman said. “The En trees know me, for I have lived among them for many years. Since I aided them in their hour of need, now they come to me in mine.”

Monica and Annika, completely baffled by this explanation, watched open-mouthed as she grasped a dent in the berry as if it were a door handle and swung it aside.

“Help me in and come along.”

Trembling, the two sisters assisted the old woman inside and stepped into the berry after her. The old woman swung the door shut, and the berry began moving. It was a pleasant, rolling motion, yet somehow they managed to stay upright, as if the outside of the berry were rolling separately from the inside compartment. Their mysterious companion smiled brightly, as if she had not traveled this way for some time and was enjoying it immensely. Soon, Monica and Annika also got over their initial shock and began to relax. The air around them was rich with the scent of enberries, stronger than they had ever known it before, so strong they could almost feel it as well as smell it. With every breath, they felt stronger themselves…

***

The berry stopped. The three occupants disembarked, and instantly the enberry shriveled again. The old woman picked it up and tucked it in her pocket.

“Well, here we are, my dears.”

Sure enough, they found themselves standing in a field just across from the grove of En trees where the festival was in full swing.

Each sister supported an arm of the old woman, and as they walked, they saw a line of weary travelers waiting at the booth of a man who was extolling the virtues of tonic in a loud voice, and selling draughts of a very watery looking en juice to desperate customers for a gold endar apiece.

The old woman clicked her tongue disapprovingly. “You should give them some real tonic, Annika.”

Annika would have done so gladly, “But I have no cauldron and no fire,” she protested.

“There is one you can use,” she pointed to vacant stall nearby with an empty cauldron hanging listlessly above a cold, dark fire pit. Monica and Annika tried in vain to coax the wood into kindling, but it wasn’t until the old woman tossed a stick into it that it began blazing merrily.

“Excuse me, miss? Would you mind if we warmed ourselves by your fire for a moment?”

The women nodded their assent, and a father brought his little ones close. Their grandfather hobbled along behind and gingerly eased himself down, resting his lame leg as close to the fire as he dared.

“Why don’t you make a tonic poultice for him,” the old woman suggested gently.

“I don’t know how.”

“I will show you,” she answered, and she did. Under her watchful eye, Annika carefully applied the enberry wrap to the man’s leg.

With a startled cry that made Annika fear she had done something wrong, he leapt to his feet in a way that had eluded him for many years. With joy, his grandchildren leapt up around him and started cheering and dancing in a circle.

As soon as the smell of enberries filled the air, a steady stream of customers were drawn to its scent. They came asking Annika for tonic to heal sick sore throats and coughs, burned hands, lame feet, and aching bones. Infants, children, the elderly, women, and men came and were healed, filling tin cups and whatever they had with them from the seemingly endless supply of tonic in Annika’s cauldron.

Before long, the boastful man found himself bereft of customers, while it was all Annika could do to keep up.

“Here Henily,” one mother thrust a few coins into her oldest son’s hands. “While I wait here for your brother to be healed, go buy us some bread.”

“Don’t you have some rolls to sell, Monica?” the old woman prompted her.

Monica, startled into remembering the small brown sack and what was inside it, began distributing the rolls for an enkin each, much to the delight of the customers, who without exception declared they were the finest at the festival. More and more customers kept coming, both for Monica’s rolls and for Annika’s tonic.

Despite Annika’s refusals of payment, people insisted on leaving tokens of their thankfulness, and the baskets of berries, small coins, and bits of new cloth began piling up. Between that and Monica’s earnings, they would have enough to eat and stay warm all winter… maybe even until the next En harvest.

Their busy times and happy thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a most unwelcome shriek.

Veronica, with the assistance of several of Paboul’s brothers, came stumbling toward them, then collapsed, unable to walk any further.

“My feet!” she cried.

Out of habit, Monica and Annika put their wares down and rushed through the crowd toward her. Sure enough, she lay sprawled on the ground, the precious glass slippers lying beside her. Beneath the hem of her best dress were two stumps that, on closer inspection, were indeed fully formed feet, no bigger than a baby’s.

“I was getting ready to dance with the prince, and it was all going so well until…” she choked back the tears.

“Let’s get her up,” Monica said grimly.

“Wait… the slippers!” Veronica snatched them as her sisters lifted her from the ground.

“I can’t help you and carry the slippers!” Monica protested. “Here!” She thrust them at Annika. “Put them on.”

For lack of a better idea, Annika quickly slid her small (but not uselessly small) feet into the slippers and helped her sisters over to the fire.

***

Prince Hans strode away from the dance floor, heading toward the fringe of the festival, with several things on his mind. He had received requests from both of his parents–one from his father, who wanted him to investigate a complaint from the loud en juice merchant that there was a tonic swindler in town, and one from his mother, who wanted him to investigate a report that the most beautiful lady ever seen was waiting there, healing all who came to her. Besides which, the glass slippers had mysteriously disappeared, leaving him no one to dance with. To be sure, he had no objection to leaving his swarm of sycophantic suitors behind and taking a brisk walk to breathe in the fresh evening air and the magnificent scent of enberries.

Enberries… the smell was even stronger in this direction. In fact, he had never smelled anything so inviting.

At first, he found himself unable to see through the crowd, but as they noticed him, they parted and allowed him to approach. There by the fire was a young woman in glass slippers, her feet stained with the juice of the land that he loved.

She looked up at him as she gave out another cupful of tonic.

“I’m sorry sir, I can’t dance with you. I have to hand out tonic. And in any case, I’m only wearing the slippers because my sister brought them when her feet shrunk. As you can see, I am only a peasant. It’s all been a terrible mistake. I’ll take them off now and you can return to your dance floor,” Annika stammered. Or at least she meant to. In reality, she found herself unable to say anything at all.

“That is all,” the old woman said.

Annika looked down again, and found the cauldron empty, and everyone around them (except Veronica, for whom the tonic would do nothing) healed and contented.

“You see what you can do?” the old woman whispered.

“But I did nothing,” Annika objected. “It was your power that healed them.”

“Ah, but you were willing to receive the gift from me, and use it for the sake of others.”

Annika blushed as the prince asked her to join him for the last dance to close the En harvest festival. She found him far more wise and generous than his family’s reputation would have indicated, and he found her far more lovely than any princess.

The old woman, Tannika, smiled as she saw them, and slipped quietly away into the trees.

***

Annika, of course, did marry Prince Hans, whose status as a second-son of a two-bit town in a puny and poor principality was greatly aided by his wife’s reputation as a tonic-maker and healer. Her story soon spread the fame of enberries far beyond the borders and helped bring prosperity to their realm. When Crown Prince Vasilio was forced to abdicate in order to stay with his wife (who had returned to her father’s palace in Moravia in search of another fortune to spend), Prince Hans, with his wife’s gentle guidance, showed every sign of becoming a brilliant ruler.

Monica soon found herself equally happy. She married the village baker, whose business increased ten-fold as soon as she took charge of the enberry sweetbreads. He loved her dearly and treated her as the queen of their home, and made sure she never had to spend another day stomping berries in the hot sun. They had fresh cream and enberries for breakfast every morning, a full and happy family table at every meal, and always had an extra loaf to share with any shriveled old women or lost children who mysteriously appeared at their back door.

Veronica, rather than falling face-first into an en vat as she deserved, married a wealthy merchant named Lafitte (who was enchanted with any kind of novelty, including her toes). To her family’s great glee, he took her away to live in his castle in the south of France. Her handicap was of no particular burden to her there, since she had servants to carry her wherever she needed to go, and was content to lounge about her mirror-lined rooms while her husband traveled about, buying her delicacies and dresses, while she never lifted a finger.

Somehow both her sisters found it in their hearts to forgive her, as the gladness of not having to put up with her anymore overwhelmed any feelings of resentment they might have had. They soon found it better to dwell on their own happiness than to begrudge their sister any of hers or waste their lives on bitterness.

And so, life in the town of Tonica, home of the marvelous En trees, continued–sweeter than it had ever been before.

{The End}