“Selam alejkum.” Humaira can’t see him beyond the array of shelves; various ointments, salves, powders and liquids, but she knows well who it is. Ayiq, the boy who preferred pansies to people. In addition to his pale skin and violet eyes, he also wore glasses—more rumors on the villagers’ part, that his vision was stolen—along with the color of his skin. But those murmurs paused when they began beseeching him for cures and remedies. People were only so talkative when they were desperate.
“Alejkum as-selam,” she returns. To their left is a glass room sharing a space with the greenhouse of the flower shop. It is a lush library of plants, everything from medicinal aloe to lovely zinnia. And that’s that. How refreshing.
Feeling herself red again, she turns her attention to a nearby violet plant, having not forgotten her father’s instructions. “Do you have dandelions?” It’s the first flower that comes to mind, only because she had seen them growing along the path.
“Yes, we do, alhamdulillah. For headaches?”
“…yes,” she decides with a slight smile. She gestures towards Rinor’s part of the store.
Ayiq shakes his head, pretending not to find the joke funny. “They make a very effective tea.”
“You must have to drink it often.” Again, he says nothing, and tries to look away to hide his expression. The irony—Humaira feels sadder rather than happier from making that statement. Was there really no rivalry between the two of them? “Besides, I think that they smell lovely.”
“You are one of the few,” he remarks. Here, he allows himself to show his joy. There’s some clinking, and Ayiq strolls over, carrying dried ones in a jar. He wrinkles his nose. “Many people are used to simply calling them weeds and extracting them wherever they are. SubhanAllah…” His tone is mournful at the last word.
“Oh, but that’s because they infest the gardens,” she says.
“Not at all. You see, there is no scientific difference between weeds and flowers. It simply depends on who you ask.”
“So, like food. Wolfberries can be a delicacy to some and a poison to others.”
A chuckle escapes from him, and he very nearly presses a gloved hand to his face to contain it. “I suppose so!” He clears his throat in an attempt to regain his composure. “I thought of the example of bamboo, which is elegant to some and overpowering to others, but… yes, wolfberries will do for a comparison.”
“What’s this?” she asks of one plant in particular. She’d never seen it before. It’s isolated from the others, with a warning sign: Do not touch. “Another weed? It must be, if people want nothing to do with it.”
“Ah—sister, be careful.” Ayiq drifts closer now, like a small bird in observation, only to float away once Humaira turns to see him. His eyes catch hers for only a moment—they are just as purple as the plant before them—and he looks away immediately after. “Wolfsbane.”
“Wolfsbane? That’s the name?” As if the day could have a theme! “And why would wolves hate purple so much? Because it doesn’t grow on the moon?”
A grin tugs at his face and hangs there. “Colors mean different things to all of us. My brother would tell you about roses, for example. Yellow for friendship, white for purity. Red for… well, you know.” His face falls, and he gestures towards the plant again. “As for aconite-wolfsbane’s original name-it is the amethyst of plants.”
His anxious hands turn toward another plant. It looks well-cared for, with misted leaves and lively buds.
“Masha’Allah, Ayiq, you can speak about rocks and plants. I can only speak about one. And even then, it’s only limited to one type. Starts with a ‘t’ and ends in ‘ree.’”
Another shy sort of smile; this time, she receives only a profile view of it. He refuses to look at her long. “In the past, they would press the flowers and extract its juices so that they would dip their arrows in it. Then they would shoot the wolves with them and they would die within moments. Hence, wolfsbane. Then, aconite, it means ‘without struggle.’”
He pauses, glancing only at her once. She nods, to show that she’s following.
“It is thought that as soon as the neurotoxins within the aconite reached the blood, the wolves would die immediately. Some in the village have even asked if they could hang the plant as it is over their doorsteps. Perhaps, even the smell would drive them away.”
She rolls her eyes and scoffs. “So that’s where all the demand for our logs are going. Poisonous plants, instead.” Her nose dares a sniff. “It doesn’t even smell strong, like you said!”
Ayiq nods. He removes his gloves, then begins scratching at the collar of his neck. “It is unfortunate, yes, and senseless. I do not think that their theory has any basis to it… so I refuse to sell them in order that they be used for that purpose.”
Rinor wouldn’t, is Humaira’s immediate thought.
“We make enough money, alhamdulillah,” Ayiq continues. “We try not to charge so heftily for the medicines here. Rinor argues that we should, but… it’s a trust. I do not feel comfortable charging people with their health”
This was the most she had heard him speak. To see him go on and on like this was new. Maybe she was wrong about him, and that he did like to talk, if someone would only let him.
“So… Is that what you’re doing? Juicing plants? The bees would resent you for that, and we have enough animals after us.”
A laugh laces his response this time. “No, no.”
“But the wolves are taking people into the woods! Wouldn’t it make a great weapon? If Rinor could put it on his ax—”
“Perhaps. But wolfsbane is incredibly toxic, and must be handled with extreme care. I think that, instead, it would make a better cure.”
“Or a curse.”
Rinor interrupts now from the doorway. He must have slipped in through the shared room as they were talking. “He’s been working on that for days now. Apparently it can be—”
“—an antidote, rather than—”
“—a poison.” Rinor finishes his brother’s objection flatly. “Which I don’t understand. Weapons are weapons, and poisons are poisons. Axes kill people. How could they save them?”
Humaira crosses her arms. “They can chop lumber. Which helps keep people warm, and helps them cook and feed their families! And allows them to light their paths when it’s dark—”
Rinor holds up his hands defensively. That same sharp grin again. Somehow more cutting than any words he could say. “Oooh, of course. I should’ve thought about saying that to a woodcutter’s daughter.” He shrugs. “Arrows, then.”
“… A similar example. Humaira—” Ayiq starts, pausing to look at her once before responding to his brother again, “… She gave me the idea. I had been thinking of a similar response to you when she spoke.”
She turns to look at him. Ayiq lifts one hand up, gesturing behind his brother.
“Bees. They have stingers, which carry venom. To some, it hurts, and to others, it can even mean their deaths. And yet, their bellies carry honey, sweet as all things. For eating as well as for sore throats. Surely the same can be said of wolfsbane. I believe a cure can be made from the curse.”
“Wolves,” Rinor challenges.
Humaira and Ayiq say nothing. The word hangs in the air, daring at both of them to speak. When Humaira chances a glance at Ayiq for support, he looks more uncomfortable than ever. His lips purse, and she can feel the hands around her elbows tightening into fists.
“Ahh, wait!” Rinor bursts. “I can think of one thing. When they’re slain, their fur makes great coats for us. And their heads, mounted, are perfect wall pieces. Honestly, Humaira, I was thinking of getting you one.”
Her eyes narrow. “And why would I want one?”
“Oh, you know, just in case. Since I’m escorting you through the woods. Your father’s request.”
Humaira’s face falls. Protests form themselves in her mind, but they all wither like flowers in the summer sun. The room starts getting warmer and warmer, until she realizes that she’s turning red again. From anger this time, instead of embarrassment.
“He would’ve asked you, Ayiq, but we know you don’t know how to use a sword. And even if you did, could you manage?”
Ayiq says nothing. She gives a desperate look to Ayiq, who, like his brother, is beginning to turn away in some way.
“We’d better get going,” Rinor says cooly, “if we want to get there before dark. Shop closes soon, if you want to have your flowers. Again, your father’s request.”
He leaves the room, and Humaira juts both arms down. What was she supposed to do? Fuming, she shoves her bag towards her front, preemptively making room for a bouquet that she didn’t want to buy.
“Humaira?” Ayiq’s voice calls her suddenly, like a bee that darts around you once, its buzz gone as quickly as it came. Only now did she realize the contrast between their two voices; Rinor, like sharp ice, and Ayiq’s, like soft snow. She faces him expectantly.
“Safe travels to you. Please take this.”
A vial rests in his palm, tilted towards her. It reads only one thing on the label: Wolfsbane.
The silence in the woods is more uncomfortable than the most fraught of storms. Humaira keeps her bow at her side, along with a throng of arrows in case of wolves. It had taken all of her effort to pray behind him for Asr, even now to trail behind him. Had she not spent as much time with Ayiq, he accused, they could have left sooner. And had he remained quiet…
She allows her horse’s hooves to respond. Clop clop clop. If only one letter would change, she thinks, that would match her feelings about him: clod clod clod.
She flicks the reigns back, a little too hastily. He’s ready for her, though, directing his horse straight in front of hers. There is a brief altercation, neighing, and glares on both sides.
“You need to be at my side.” His order tempts an “I already am!” to charge out of her mouth, and her feet dig deeper in her horse’s side to hold it back. More and more, she begins to feel as though the horse is like her own soul, wanting to lash forth without him.
“Your ax is swinging too much on your horse’s side! It’s unsettling us!” she yells.
Rinor draws the reigns of his horses back, scowling all the while. “Not sure why it would, garden girl. It’s not mine. It’s your father’s.” He and horse ease now, as though poised for battle. This only makes her tighten in return. “I use it when I come with him to the woods.”
Another surprise. Though knowing Rinor, it’s been carefully calculated, just like the interjection from earlier. “And why are you coming with him to the woods?”
“Because I want to, Humaira.”
Had there been some unspoken bargain between them, an exchange of money? That may have been why they’d had yogurt that morning; Rinor might have convinced her father to sell his lumber to him, since he likely would have been the only one capable of selling it. Or maybe Rinor had been trying to impress her aging father all along, crescendoing into the offer that her father might suggest him as a guide for her. Why else would he have mentioned marriage that morning? And Rinor, later?
A wolf in sheep’s clothing. Even within the confines of her mind, her thoughts are sharp and cutting. “And why do you want to?”
Meanwhile, the animal below him seems calmer than he does. “Now you’re asking?! You’re only delaying us! The wolves could come out any minute. And it’s a full moon!”
She stares at him incredulously. “Don’t they come out at all hours of the night, every night?”
“Oh, yes. And all hours of the day, too,” he snarls.
“That can’t be.” All of the shops, the people, awakened in the morning to work and live. It was only when shadows fell that they feared to go outside.
“Ask Ayiq when we return, Humaira. He was bitten by them, after all.”
She gasps. Ayiq? The young man who made flowers into medicines? The statements above them hang like floating daggers, threatening to piece her with every word.
But she remembers, suddenly—a flash of memory where he handled the wolfsbane with gloves, careful not to even let them touch his face. Saying that even the smells were too strong, faint of a smell as they were, wrinkling his nose all the while.
“Why do you think he’s trying to find the antidote?” he continues, circling her with his horse. “For the village? Ha. It’s for himself.”
She understands now. A full moon. Those who had been lost had become wolves, not been taken by them. Werewolves. Endangering everyone else in the process.
Rinor’s words strike again, as though he can read her mind. “And you think I’m the selfish one.”
Humaira shuts her mouth, pursing her lips into a line thin as a snowflake. Her eyes begin stinging again. Stubborn tears. She wants to crawl away to the edge of the forest, hide where no one can find her.
“Now, can we get going already?” It’s a question in its essence, but his tone reflects it as his usual: an order. She nods solemnly, left with no other option. The sun, just like her, seems to sink.
Their delay has set them back at a crucialback crucial time. With winter leering all around them, there is only a short while before Maghrib sets in. After he’s sure that Humaira is following behind him, he picks up his pace, and soon, he’s huffing and puffing. Her stomach growls, but she knows she has bigger problems.
The forest cloaks itself in darkness, and the night veils itself over them. Rinor calls something out to her, but she can’t hear over their hasty steps. A wolf’s cry rings throughout the woods.
Her eyes dart towards the sky. The moon has risen. The wolves all chime in, finally joining one tangent chorus, until Humaira is sure that an entire pack has made it to them. She keeps her eyes focused in front of her, leaning forward. Her “Yah!” is the only thing she can hear as she beckons her horse to go on, faster and faster.
The only thing that turns her around is when she heals a crash to the ground, a neigh, and more stumbling. She attempts a call out to Rinor, but when her mouth opens to do so, her jaw drops.
Rinor’s body has fallen to the ground. It convulses, shaking as though he were possessed. Humaira can barely make out his face before his mouth begins to rip across it. White hair begins to grow on every inch of his body. And his eyes glow red.