A Salamander’s Wisdom
by Rebecca Birch
It didn’t hurt much, dying. A sharp, bitter taste when my teeth broke the red berry’s skin. Tingling on my tongue and the insides of my cheeks. A sudden tightness in my chest.
No, dying didn’t hurt—not near as much as living while my daughter wasted away and I could do nothing to save her. I couldn’t face it again. Not after losing her father.
A rush of warm wind kissed my skin and I opened my eyes. I was no longer lying on the frond mat with sleeping Kaili’s small hand clenched in my own. Instead, I stood barefoot on a field of smooth, black stone, hummocked from the heat that formed it and still pooled just below the surface.
“Old woman sent you?” said a voice near my feet.
A salamander waited there. Its molten skin flowed in shades from amber to blood, save its legs, which were as black and motionless as the stone on which it stood.
“She said I’d find a cure for my daughter.”
The salamander tilted its head. “Those her exact words?”
“She said I’d find what I needed most.” And, if I were quick enough, I might return before death took me forever. “Do you know where to look?” Stone and sky stretched as far as I could see.
“Haven’t been able to move from this spot since my legs cooled.”
The wind gusted, blowing away little, invisible parts of me, like ash on the breeze. How much more time did I have?
I chose a direction at random and loped over the blackened ground, watching for something—anything—out of place. A flower. Some lichen. Even simple dirt. Anything that might save my Kaili.
“Won’t find anything that way,” the salamander called.
I veered to my left, picking up speed.
“Not there either.”
I glared back at the molten creature. “You said you didn’t know where to look.”
“Didn’t ask where not to.”
My hands clenched, nails digging little half-moons into my palms. “All right. Where should I not look?”
“Left. Right. Up. Down.”
“That makes no sense.”
Another rush of wind, no longer warm. I wrapped my arms around myself, but couldn’t hold all of me together. My skin sank beneath my grasping fingers as if I were hollow.
I dropped to my knees. “She’s dying. Please. Help me.”
“Mine was dying, too, and now she’s gone.” Stone crackled and hardened, stretching to cover the salamander’s abdomen. It regarded the newly formed crust with a weary gaze. “I looked in all the wrong places. Don’t make the same mistake.”
All right. Not left, right, up, or down. Where else did that leave? It was so hard to think through the hollowness within me.
The hope that had driven me this far guttered with the wind. Within me. It was the only other place to search, and I already knew the landscape in my heart was even more barren than where I stood now.
“There’s no cure here, is there?”
“No,” said the salamander. “There’s no cure.”
Kaili was going to die. Alone. Afraid. No one to hold her close. To tell her she was loved. To soothe her into her last sleep, as I’d done for her father, before I understood the staggering loneliness he left behind when he was gone.
“I have to go back. How do I go back?”
“You find what she sent you here for. Quick, before more of you blows away and you’re as trapped as me.”
What she’d sent me for. What I needed most.
I’d taken the old woman’s poison berry—that last, desperate hope—because it was easier to risk my own death than face watching Kaili breathe her last. Because I was afraid of my own pain. But that wasn’t what she needed. She needed her mother to be strong.
“Courage,” I said. “I need courage.”
Deep within me a new ember kindled, licking through my limbs, filling my emptiness with newfound strength. Warm wind swirled around me. The edges of my vision swam.
The salamander brightened briefly, melting back the edges of its blackened skin. “Well done.”
My own world tugged at me like a fisherman’s line. “Wait,” I cried. “Is there any way I can help you?”
“Send your daughter my love,” said the salamander, its voice growing dim. “All that I could not give my own. I will be content.”
I woke with a gasp, the bitter taste of the old woman’s berries still lingering on my tongue. Kaili stirred beside me. “Ma?” Her breathing rasped.
I propped myself on my elbow and smoothed her black hair. “I’m here, Kaili.”
Kaili rubbed her eyes and curled up against me hovering on the edge of slumber.
“I love you and I’m with you.” I kissed her damp brow, the flame of my love a shield against the darkness and the fear, and blinked away tears. “Always.”
Her lips curved into a smile I felt against my chest. “Always.”
It might not be for long, but these were the moments I would remember and treasure. And maybe, just maybe, Kaili would find her father waiting for her on the other side.