Long ago and far away there lived a most unusual little girl whose name was Efirami. At the age of eleven, this child was smaller than her younger sister, Lukia, who was not quite nine years old. Scrawny, they called her, and scrawny she was. And just a little funny looking. Her dark curls refused to be contained, all twisty and tangly and sticking out every which way from her small head. She weighed no more than a child half her age, but her eyes were alive and bright, and almost as black as her hair. Her four older sisters said she looked like a street urchin and teased her, calling her ‘Froglegs’ because her legs were so skinny, and saying she would never grow to be strong and healthy and so would have no hope of making a good marriage.
Efirami’s five sisters, Anastasia, Thiana, Vasilia, Aristaea, and even little Lukia were considered the beauties. It was a puzzlement to say which was the loveliest as each seemed perfect in her own way. They were bright, healthy and good natured. Merriment and exuberance caressed them like the breeze before a spring rain. No one worried about what the future held for Efirami’s sisters, for a happy life was surely their destiny. And then there was Efirami. Not that she was ugly exactly, but a beauty she was not. When her sisters taunted her, her mother would say to pay no mind to them, and sometimes would comfort her with the story of how Efirami had become ill when she was a baby; of how she lay limp in her mother’s arms, struggling for breath as she grew weaker. The healer said there was no more to be done, and so her mother had taken her baby to the holy place and laid her on the altar, praying to the gods that they not take her baby away. No one in the village believed that a child so ill could recover, but as the days passed, Efirami had grown stronger until everyone could see that her mother’s prayers had been answered. Whatever else she was, this child was plucky. You could always say that about Efirami and have no fear of being called a liar.
But after the illness, Efirami tended to get sick more often than the other children and needed more attention from her mother, who believed that the gods must have a special purpose for her little girl. Her father, however, did not believe that a child who could not do a full day’s work nor make a good marriage was of much use to the family. Though they seldom went hungry, there was never much of anything left over, and her father worked hard to take care of them all. He often told Efirami that some children are not meant to live, that she would never be as strong as her sisters and therefore would always be his burden. She heard her parents arguing over the extra time and attention she required when she was sick, time her mother could have spent helping her father at the small forge he ran in the village. Sometimes Efirami would see bruises on her mother’s face or arms and it was then that she felt it might have been better if her mother had just let her die when she was a baby.
And what her father believed seemed true. As she got older, Efirami lacked the rosy cheeks, strong limbs and the robust good health of her sisters. Still, being small sometimes had its advantages. No one else could fit under the lowest shelf in the pantry, all the way in the back of the corner. Efirami filled the space quite perfectly, and sometimes wished she would never grow bigger—that she would always be able to find tiny hidden spaces where only she could go. She came to the pantry to be alone, to think whatever thoughts she had, to dream whatever dreams she dared. Smelling sweetly of basil, oregano, garlic, and cinnamon, the pantry was busy only at mealtimes, so if she timed it just right, she could retreat into its nooks without fear of discovery.
If the sun was shining, she would go outdoors, where she had also found hidden places that she felt belonged only to her. Efirami was insatiably, inexhaustibly curious about the world outside and was never happier than when she was scampering here and there, climbing a tree to see what was hidden by its branches, or prying under every rock, nosing into every crevice to discover what kind of creature might be hiding there. Many times when she was younger she had startled an inexperienced fairy or two, and sometimes they would play with her, even making a crown of flowers in her hair. Fairies love nothing more than mortal children, and it is an elfin secret that children’s laughter makes fairy magic stronger.
Because Efirami practically lived outdoors in order to get away from her father, she was almost always dirty and slightly disheveled, which displeased him. Still, it was only when she was dangling her tiny feet in a cool stream, sloshing through the spring mud at the edge of the meadow or playing hide and seek with the fairy folk that she felt at ease in her surroundings. She was not afraid of the bugs and small animals she encountered on her explorations, for she felt a kinship with them and believed they would never hurt her. She often brought something tiny and wiggly home with her for the sake of a little company, and over the years learned much about the world of small things, the only part of her world in which she felt at home.
On good-weather days she would stay away from home until her mother called, but today was rainy and so she had retreated to the pantry, where she was least likely to be noticed. But now she heard that most dreaded of sounds, the sound that made her stomach jump like one of her little tree frogs–her father’s boots on the creaky floor of the kitchen. She prayed he was not looking for her.
‘Rami,’ she heard her father call, and he sounded impatient. She knew she’d best answer. ‘Here I am Father,’ and her skinny little arms and legs propelled her from the snug space like a chick struggling its way out of an egg. She quickly crawled out from under the shelf and tried to brush the dirt off her dress. Too late. The door flew open in response to her father’s kick, banging against the already cracked wall behind it. ‘What are you doing here?’ he bellowed. ‘You had best not be stealing food or you’ll go without supper.’
Efirami looked up at him, and then lowered her gaze. She did not want to avert her eyes but was fearful that her father would see the terror and the anger in her face and become more irritated with her. She sometimes wished she was as big as her father, who was very big indeed, so she could yell back at him, but today she felt very little. She offered no reason for being in the pantry. Father sometimes became even angrier in response to her explanations, so she had learned to keep silent and take her chances. Today it seemed he had things other than her misbehavior on his mind.
‘Come with me Rami. There is something you must do. And for heaven’s sake, clean your dress. Must you always look like the rag heap in the cellar?’ Again Efirami was silent, but as she followed her father she smoothed her skirt with her small spidery hand.
‘I have been asked to provide one of my daughters to tend the child of a wealthy and powerful woman in the next village. We must be there by tonight, and it is half a day’s walk, so gather your things and be ready when I come for you.’ With that her father gave her a shove toward the room where she slept with her sisters and strode off toward the kitchen.
Now Efirami was really scared. She had never taken care of a baby all by herself before. She had only one sister younger than she and not much younger at that. There had been no little ones for her to tend. Still, perhaps this was a way to finally win her father’s approval. If she did well and pleased him….
‘Rami! It is time.’ Efirami grabbed her much-patched cloak and an old scarf her mother had given her and darted in the direction of her father’s voice. She wondered where her mother might be. Then she saw her waiting by the end of the path that led to the house, and Efirami ran and buried her face in her mother’s apron. She felt her mother’s strong hands on her for just a moment. Then her mother pushed her gently away and leaning down, kissed her on the cheek, whispering in her ear, ‘Do well, little one. Do not displease your father.’ Efirami only nodded in silent understanding of what would happen if she failed at the task that was set before her. Anyone who angered her father, including her mother, was likely to feel the rod on her back, and Efirami seemed always on the brink of a beating or just recovered from one.