Today, we are excited to welcome another story from Dustin M. Hoffman to The Masters Review’s family. Hoffman’s story “Almost Touching, Almost Free” was selected by AM Homes for The Masters Review Anthology in 2013. Settle in now for the magical, weird “A Sick Child,” a story of trial and perseverance.
Though she had no talent in the mystical arts, she was believed. Everyone trusts a sickly woman’s mysticism. Her most popular product was foretelling a villager’s demise. She invented beautiful deaths for each one.
Naomi was a sick child, she was told. From birth, her mother and father bid her safe travels to the afterlife every time they lowered her shriveled infant body into the cradle. She’d surely die of the plague, like most the village did. She’d die fast as any, they told her, for her sick stretched down to the bones. Probably deeper—a crippling, blackened snarl shooting straight from her soul. So, she learned to walk counting to last steps, learned to talk in rasps and coughs. She leaned into a limp, and by thirteen she hobbled to the swamp and mingled with the toads. She’d lie on the soft loam and let them croak atop her bare feet and arms and face, and when warts sprouted by the dozens, she wasn’t unpleased. The villagers were sure the plague had finally taken hold, bursting through her skin.
By fourteen, she spent days at the swamp practicing lying still as death, so still the magpies swooped then circled then landed upon her and built nests in the crooks of her limbs. She tested her death mimicry, letting elbows and armpits and finger webbings brim with their thatched bramble nests. Their claws hooked her skin and drew blood, and she waited for them to mince her body into carrion. Yet still, sickly Naomi didn’t die. Instead, eggs hatched in her arms. This was the first promise of life she’d ever known, and she wanted more than anything to satisfy the hatchlings’ chirping hunger. She walked the village streets adorned in nests, the parliament of magpies escorting her in a dark cloud, a sure signal to the villagers that the plague had arrived.