"I'm going to go help Nanny."
"Elphie!" Shell crowed as Elphaba approached them through the bushes. "Elphie, see what I've got!" He held out a small, grubby fist, grinning wildly. His hair, from hours outside in the muggy heat, had grown damp; it stuck to his scalp in dark, wet curls, and his forehead shone with sweat and dirt.
"What is it?" Elphaba asked, tiredly, long past the point where she feigned interest in her brother's discoveries.
Shell slowly opened his pudgy fingers to reveal a tiny toad, trembling, terrified, on his palm. He had held it so tightly that one of its legs was splayed to the side, broken or dislodged, and Elphaba felt a pang of pity for the miserable, frightened creature. "Shell, you hurt it," she said, stiffly, and flicked the animal from the little boy's palm with her long green fingers. It landed in the mud and scrambled away, its fourth leg dragging behind like a crutch.
"Elphie!" Shell shrieked, falling to the ground and flailing his arms in an attempt to recapture his prize. Despite its broken leg, the toad managed to escape, and when it had disappeared from view Shell began to cry, raking his little fingers through the mud and sobbing into his dirty tunic. "Elphie," he moaned, "Elphie, I caught it for you."
"Now look what you've done," croaked Nanny, handing Elphaba her heavy rucksack and hobbling towards the clearing. "You had better fix it, Elphaba, don't leave him crying there like that."
Elphaba watched her brother critically for a moment—knowing she had never cried as a toddler—before swinging Shell up onto her hip. "It was a nice toad," Elphaba offered awkwardly. "Come on, let's get something to eat. Tonight you and Nessa and I will go toad hunting. We'll find a really big one."
Shell stopped his crying and wiped dirt and tears from his eyes. "A really big one?"
Elphaba nodded in mock sincerity and began to pick her way back to the hut, the rucksack slung over one shoulder and Shell clinging excitedly to her other. "A really big one," she echoed, hoping Shell would forget about the toad by nightfall.
When Shell was inside, busy stacking Papa's beads in the mud, Elphaba brought Nessarose into the hut and sat her down on the bed. "Nanny and I will make dinner soon, all right? You aren't too hungry?"
Nessarose shook her head sulkily.
"Elphaba, darling, there's fish and fruit and roots in that bag over there. Why don't you start making them now, while your Nanny sleeps a little." Nanny gestured to the cloth under which Elphaba had set Nanny's sack and farted, loudly and shamelessly. "Nessarose, move over and let your Nanny lie down," she croaked.
Elphaba tied Shell to a post by the door, to keep him from running into the woods, and Nessarose sat on the floor in the corner, watching raptly as her sister worked. Nanny nodded off quickly, snorting and coughing in her sleep.
Elphaba began by sorting the ingredients in Nanny's sack. There were four minnows tied in a piece of dirty oilcloth, a bundle of bitter leaves, dirt-encrusted roots and an assortment of shrunken vegetables—beets, carrots, and potatoes, the biggest of which was the size of Elphaba's closed fist.
Elphaba gnawed on the corner of one of the leaves and spat it out in distaste, her face wrinkled unpleasantly. "What are these?"
"Leaves," Nessarose said placidly. "Nanny hangs them." She nodded towards the ceiling, where assortments of shriveled, dried leaves were swinging from the rafters.
Elphaba shrugged and shoved the bitter greens back into the bag. "I'll mash these and add the fish. That's what Mama used to do."
She squatted in front of the fire pit and stoked the dying embers with a stick before beginning work. She boiled the roots in their biggest pot and mashed them, then divided what had become a sinewy gray pulp into four bowls, each with their own sad little minnow and tiny potato.
"Is that it?" Nessarose asked distastefully when Elphaba brought a bowl to her. "Aren't we going to pray?"
Elphaba shrugged. "You go ahead, Nanny's asleep."
"And Shell too, get Shell," Nessa said, eagerly. "He has to learn before Papa comes home, he can't even say a prayer properly."
Reluctantly, Elphaba untied Shell and brought him to sit before saintly Nessarose, and stuffed a potato in his mouth to keep him from whining. They sat, heads bowed, Shell chewing vigorously, while Nessarose recited a passage from a book of devotions she had memorized. She seemed almost in a trance: her pale eyelids were shut, softly, her lips barely moving, her spine erect.
"Here Nessa, you eat first," Elphaba said when Nessarose finished her prayer. "I'm not hungry, not really." It was a lie—she hadn't eaten except for those few pieces of apple in the afternoon, and her stomach was painfully empty—but Nessarose always ate first.
Nessa looked skeptically at the dish Elphaba held in her hands, her pretty nose
wrinkled. "I don't think I'll like that, Elphie. I like what Nanny makes."
"Can't you just eat it? Nanny's old, Nessa, she can't cook every night."
Nessarose sighed animatedly and opened her thin, pretty lips, allowing Elphaba to feed her. She stuck out her tongue after the first bite and refused to swallow until Elphaba promised her a candy from Papa's trunk if she finished the bowl. This, Elphaba had learned, was the way with Nessarose—she got what she wanted, always, she must always be happy.
"Come on, Nessa, open your mouth. There." Elphaba filled the wooden spoon and pushed it between a pouting Nessarose's lips. "See, not so bad. The second bite's never as bad."
"It's worse," Nessarose complained, but she accepted the next bite with little protest.
When her sister's bowl was empty, Elphaba gave Nessarose a caramel to suck on while she ate her own dinner. There was less in her bowl than there had been in Nessarose's—she and Nanny usually split a portion—but it was enough to satiate her stomach for the time being. Elphaba licked her bowl clean and stacked it next to Nessa's on their low dish table.
"Elphie, Nessa got a candy," Shell whined. His face was smeared with most of the mashed roots, and although the potato had been consumed the minnow remained at the bottom of his bowl.
"Eat the fish," Elphaba snapped.
Shell pouted up at his stern green sister, his eyebrows furrowed. "I don't want it, Elphie, I want a candy. I want a caramel like Nessa got."
Elphaba's face tightened. There was only one caramel left in Papa's box and she had been saving it for herself, for when she could get away from Nessarose and Shell and Nanny and eat it in peace.
"Fine," Elphaba said. She stalked to Papa's trunk, found the candy box, and pressed the last caramel into Shell's grubby fist.
"Nessa's was bigger," Shell said, taking the golden candy sulkily from Elphaba's hand. "Nessa always gets the bigger candies." He kept his open palm in the air, begging her silently for another, his wide brown eyes fixed on Elphaba's.
Elphaba slapped Shell's hand away from her, beady black eyes shining. "And I get nothing, ever. Go away." She turned her pointed nose away from the little boy standing before her and bit her lip, not wanting to look him in the eye.