• Those Seven Years

I stood in front of the mirror in my bedroom dressed only in a pair of coarse brown leggings. The boy who stared back at me was tall and thin, with loose black hair that hung like a shaggy shade in front of bright green eyes. His skin was pulled tightly around his chest and ribcage, and his arms were stick-like with no muscles to speak of. The boy shook his black mane out and brushed his bangs back with long fingers.

I had never met a twelve-year-old boy, and was unsure about how I compared to the majority of children my age. For two years, I had had three playmates, a nine-year-old named Manek, a ten-year-old named Irji, and a girl named Nor, who was eight. Manek had died after he'd been struck by an icicle, and when I turned eight myself Irji and Nor, their mother and their six aunts, had been carted away by police for the Wizardry.

To say I was lonely would be an underestimation. I had no friends of my own age or otherwise and had to settle with a gaggle of mangy, untamed animals to supply me with amusement. There were snow monkeys and a brood of wolfish dogs that sometimes tagged after me, but even they would disappear into the Tower Room for weeks at a time and leave me even more alone than I already had been.

Inside the Tower Room lived a woman. She had lived in the mauntery for the first six years of my life, and when she left, I left too. For the first year at Kiamo Ko, I had called her Auntie Witch, just like Manek and Irji and Nor had done, but when they vanished the novelty of the name had worn off and I'd begun to call her by her real name, Elphaba. Besides, "Auntie" was used in fondness, and I had long ago convinced myself I'd lost all affection and admiration I'd had for the green woman.

Once, two years ago, I had asked Elphaba if she was related to me. I had just finished bringing her dinner—chicken with stewed plum sauce that Nanny had made—and was standing in the doorway of the Tower Room. "Are you my mother?" I had said softly. It had taken her a few seconds to register my question, but when she had, Elphaba stood from her table and grabbed her broom.

She had seemed so tall and frightening, with a billow of pitch-black skirts swishing around her, her thick-handled broom clutched in long, lithe hands. Elphaba's green face was sharp-featured, her nose like a cleaver and her chin the same way, and her black hair was pulled up tightly beneath a wide-brimmed, cone-shaped hat. "Don't speak unless you're spoken to, you insolent boy," she had said, and chased me out of the room with her broom prodding at the backs of my legs.

I had never asked again.

Kiamo Ko was a massive place, most of which was long uninhabited. Elphaba lived in her peak-roofed Tower Room and the two chambers adjoining it below, and Nanny and I had rooms in a long cement hallway that led to the guest-hall. We visited only the big stone kitchens and the dining-room in our everyday life—otherwise, besides the meat locker, the bath rooms, and the laundry-rooms, the fortress was completely unused.

Today, snow had fallen until it reached past my knees, and the entire Winkie fortress and its grounds were coated in white. The trees had not yet shaken the ice and snow from their limbs, and the world outside looked like a majestic, untouched fairy-world. Elphaba, unlike me, hated snow and had spent the whole afternoon locked in the Tower Room, unable to go outside because of her intense fear of anything wet.

I looked away from the mirror and went to get my shirt, which was hanging on the wooden knob of my bed. It was a coarse cotton tunic Nanny had bought in Red Windmill, uncomfortable but clean. I had long since grown out of Manek and Irji's princely garb and Elphaba often griped about how much money she was forced to spend on clothing because of my growth spurts.

I heard a knock on my door and quickly pulled the tunic over my head. "Liir, you're late for dinner. Five minutes and you'll have none." It was Elphaba's voice outside the room—cold and harsh. I was surprised she had even bothered knocking: Elphaba usually found it her right to barge rudely into any room she pleased as she was, she made it clear, the provider of the "family" unit the three of us made.

"I'm coming," I said, and shook out my bangs again. I was in bad need of a haircut but Nanny's hands had grown shaky and arthritic in her old age and she could barely hold a pair of scissors. I could hardly do it myself, and Elphaba had either not noticed or didn't give a whit; probably the latter.

I waited until the sound of Elphaba's footsteps had faded and slipped into the hall. I usually avoided any unnecessary contact with the green woman, as she was easily provoked and often got angry at me for no reason.

In the dining hall, Nanny had set out a roasted trout, cheese platter, and salad of wild greens and fruit. Elphaba sat at the head of the large table, and Nanny in a padded chair on the left.

"How nice of you to join us," Elphaba said icily when I sat down.

"Yeah, well." I took a ceramic plate from the stack in the center of the table and used my eating-dagger to slice part of the fish belly off. This was an unusually extravagant meal for Nanny: there was even a loaf of fresh-baked bread on a tray near Elphaba.

I helped myself to greens and cheese and reached down the table for the bread. Elphaba, however, slapped my hand away from the loaf and served herself. "You're too fat already. Eat what you have and be grateful," she said tartly. As though she could suddenly regulate my eating habits. At six, when we'd first come to the Vinkus, I had been fat. Now I was thinner than was healthy for a boy my age (probably as a result of my uncanny growth spurts and the time I spend with the soldiers in Red Windmill) but Elphaba didn't care.

I rubbed at my reddened wrist and glared at Elphaba. "That hurt." I looked miserably down at my bare plate—suddenly the greens looked wilted and the fish slippery and undercooked.

"It was supposed to." Elphaba tore a huge bite from her slice of bread and chewed it slowly.

"How come you can have all that food and I get nothing? I'm not fat." But Elphaba ignored me and took another bite of bread, leering at me from beneath the wide brim of her black hat.

We ate in silence for a moment—well, Elphaba ate and I glowered at her—and then Nanny took it into her hands to perk up the conversation.

"Elphie, sweets, what did you do today?" Nanny asked, loudly and raspily. Spit flew from her mouth and speckled the dark wood table with gleaming drops.

I leaned forward before Elphaba could answer. "She killed a monkey," I said. "She cut open its muscle tendons and pulled out bloody flesh and fat and tried to enchant it but only managed to get her floor covered with body fluid."

Elphaba shot me a glance that could have melted ice and opened her mouth to say something, but I cut her off. "She threw the carcass in the moat," I sneered.

Elphaba stood up and slammed her fist on the table. "You horrible boy, you've been spying on me!" She had turned a shade of green that imitated the color of the spruce trees outside Kiamo Ko. I looked away.

"What else is there to do in this ugly, boring rat hole?" I shot back.

Elphaba advanced on me, chin jutting out and sharp as a cleaver. "I will not be spoken to like that in my own house! You stupid, ungrateful—"

Nanny stood up too, flustered, and shrieked, "Elphaba, watch your meat! You oughtn't let the dog eat it!" Killyjoy had pounced on Elphaba's plate as soon as she stood and was trying to get at the fish with his big, slobbery jaws.

Elphaba glared at me, warningly, and then sat back down, slapping Killyjoy away from her fish. When she saw the jaw marks in the meat her dog had made, Elphaba sighed in exasperation and threw the trout on the ground for Killyjoy to finish.

I silently thanked Nanny for interrupting Elphaba's advance, sure that if she had been left on her own I would have come out of the encounter with more than a few bruises. Elphaba took the rest of the fish from the platter in front of me.

"Liir, I want you to do the washing up," the green woman said. Her eyes flashed warningly, and I thought for a moment of doing as she bade me but decided against it. Obeying Elphaba was dull and never got me the attention I craved.

"I'm not finished eating," I snapped in response to Elphaba's command. "You do it. Wear some gloves if you're afraid the water will kill you."

Elphaba gritted her teeth. "Liir, you had better do as I tell you. Gather the plates and clean them unless you'd like me to come over there and beat a little sense into you." She was fighting not to stand up and kill me right there, I could tell that. Her knuckles had turned almost white—a pale green—from where she gripped the table. Watching her, I wondered why she was showing such restraint tonight.

"I want to finish," I said stoically, and, with a deft motion, grabbed a piece of bread from beneath Elphaba's nose.

Nanny cut in, saving me again. "Elphie, we're almost out of pork. You ought to go to Red Windmill and get some meat and more flour."

Elphaba picked at her food with her eating-dagger like a small child. "Have the boy do it," she said, and turned to me. "You hear that?" she asked, making it clear that going to get meat might salvage me from a painful fate after dinner.

I nodded sullenly. At least the chore was a chance to get out of Kiamo Ko.

"And Fabala, have you been in the gardens lately? I know there's snow, but it's the strangest thing, there's been flies out there for a week, by the barns. I can't for the life of me see why," Nanny clucked.

"You can't for the life of you see anything," I muttered, just above a whisper.

Elphaba's expression tightened, and she glared at me. "Probably some animal died or such. Liir, make sure you see to that as well," Elphaba said. She knew perfectly well that it was the result of her failed experiment—sewing wings on snow monkeys—that was attracting the flies, and I was furious.

"I'm not cleaning up the carcass of some poor monkey you murdered. You're a barbarian, slaughtering monkeys like that in the name of science." I felt superior to Elphaba, watching the look of pain and anger flash across her face. "I'm not cleaning up after your horrible, torturous experiments, you old hag," I added, feeling powerful.

"You—I ought to—" Elphaba had no words to express her fury. "How dare you speak like that to me! I clothe you, I give you shelter." She stood and grabbed her broom, which had been resting threateningly on the wall behind me. Chistery screeched unpleasantly, having been interrupted from a nap on Elphaba's lap.

"Angry argue Auntie," Chistery said excitedly, reading his mistress's expression.

I stood up, pushed my chair over, and sprinted towards the door, heart pounding, wishing I had shut up. But the doors were wide open and my chamber just a little further down the hall. If I could lock myself in there, Elphaba would have time to calm down…

But before I could slip through the exit, Elphaba shouted a spell word. I stopped short and both double-doors swung dutifully shut, locking themselves with a groan and cutting off my only exit—besides the kitchen.

It was too late to marvel at Elphaba's magic. Close enough to strike, the green woman held onto the twiggy part of her broom and swung wildly out with the handle, clipping me on the back of my thigh. I ducked her second swing and clambered at the handle of the door again while Elphaba lashed out at me twice, three times, once on the nape of my neck and twice on my lower back. The fifth whack caught me behind my knees and I fell to the ground, moaning. I curled myself in a ball and covered my head with my hands, flinching in anticipation.

But the next strike never came. For a moment I thought I was just too numb to feel it, but when I let my hands fall away from my face I saw Elphaba was no longer standing over me. She had fallen to the ground, skirts swimming around her. She knelt, bent over like a crippled woman, her body racked with sobs, her face clutched in her hands.

I backed away, startled and frightened. Elphaba's face twisted and contorted with pain, tears sliding down her cheeks. Her back arched and fell, her body convulsing uncontrollably. I sat, frozen, staring in utter astonishment and fear, and then I fled. I told myself it was to save myself from another beating, but that wasn't it. I was terrified of what Elphaba had been reduced to, terrified of the powerlessness and the pain I had seen in her eyes when she cried.

I ran recklessly across the room, towards the great wooden door of the kitchen, and stopped only to look back for an instant, breathless in the doorway. Elphaba was crumpled on the floor, head bent, like a wounded green animal. Killyjoy nosed his mistress curiously, unsure of what to make of Elphaba's sobbing, and Chistery squatted in her lap, murmuring, "Well, we'll wail while we'll woe," and stroking her face with leathery monkey fingers.

Then I slipped into the kitchen, firmly shutting the door to block out the sound of sobs.

I limped to one of the huge cabinets on the wall and found a wet rag to put on my neck, which was striped with Elphaba's broom handle and beginning to swell purple. And then I fell to the floor, exhausted. Images of Elphaba on the floor; Elphaba crippled by sobs and pain, flashed in my head. I told myself I should be happy that she had been too weak to finish the job. I told myself I should find humor in the fact that she had been the one crying, not me, but I couldn't possibly. It was though I had seen Elphaba naked: she had exposed herself to me, broken free of her carapace of self-confidence and meanness.

After what seemed like hours pacing the kitchen, trying to banish images of Elphaba crying from my head, I went to the door and lifted the heavy iron bar from its socket. The second lock I clicked open, and then jiggled at the handle, but the door wouldn't budge. I heaved my weight against the grainy wood and the old kitchen door, which usually swung open easily, only creaked and muttered and stayed put. It was as though somebody had glued the rim of the door onto its frame, and my yanking at the handle was fruitless.

Grimly, I realized that Elphaba must have said a spell-word to lock the door from the outside, as some un-called for continuation of my punishment. What a curse, to have a witch doling out the discipline in Kiamo Ko—a witch who hated my guts on top of it.

And then, in the back of my head, I thought: what if Elphaba couldn't bear to see me? What if she didn't want to punish me—what if she couldn't face me, if she was still outside in the great hall, sobbing, tortured by some unknowable memory? What if that's why she locked the door: to keep me out and away from her vulnerability, not to lock me in?

I closed my eyes for a moment and tried to be angry at Elphaba. I had done it enough before, locked in the kitchen or my bedroom, hiding from one of the green woman's rages. But all I could feel was something else—it was unnamable. It wasn't pity, or sadness. It was like the overwhelming need I had felt, seeing Elphaba sobbing there, to touch her; to comfort her; to hug her, the way Irji and Nor had hugged Sarima.

That night, on the hard floor of Kiamo Ko, I had a dream. I dreamed that I lived in an attic with Elphaba and a man who had blue diamond tattoos on his skin, and I could never leave because Elphaba had magicked the trap door down from the attic with a spell-word. But I didn't want to leave. The blue-diamond man and Elphaba were in love, and it made me happy to see them kiss and talk softly together. It made Elphaba happy too, and she paid attention to me. Her broom, along with distracting nuisances like Killyjoy and Chistery, were nonexistent, and she never beat me. She sat down and talked to me, and once we baked a pie for the blue-diamond man. Elphaba rolled out the crust and I chopped the vegetables, and she put her long green hands on top of mine and helped me mold the dough around the pan, talking softly.

I slept on a pallet underneath the golden bed that Elphaba and the blue-diamond man shared, and at night, Elphaba pushed the pallet into the spacious area beneath her own four-poster, hiding me away. Before she did, she kissed my forehead and put her green hands on either cheek. I would lie awake and listen to them dragon-snaking above me. Elphaba called her lover Yero, my hero, and the blue diamond man called Elphaba Fae.

In the dream-morning, I woke up to find that I had turned green because of Elphaba's kiss, and the only part of me that was not the color of new grass was my cock. I gazed in Elphaba's queer looking glass and saw a more masculine, more youthful version of the green woman. Our skin tones matched perfectly. The blue-diamond man announced to the empty attic that he was proud of me as if it were a great speech. Elphaba laughed at this and said that now if only the blue-diamond man would turn green, we could be a family of frogs. I relished her laughter, but most of all the word family, and the way she said it. Nothing big, but yet so special. While Elphaba and the blue-diamond man kissed I lay on their golden bed and replayed the scene in my head again and again. Her sharp, thin, almost-gray lips touched his round, full, pink ones, and her long green fingers ran through his black hair. Lying there on the soft, downy blankets, I flexed my weird green fingers in front of me. I felt like I belonged