Shaping Lakes and Honeycakes

In  by April 14, 2023

Melia stood upon the shores of the receding lake, shaping her tale for the meagre audience of children and elders. Storyshaping always came easier when there were more listeners, but this was her third attempt this moon cycle at reshaping the lake’s story, with little to show for her efforts; she couldn’t blame the others for not taking time out of their workdays to listen in anymore.

“... and the haze melted away like a fog,” Melia said in a hush, spreading her arms wide. “The waters swelled, crisp and clear. The fish returned, and the children rushed to the shallows to cool themselves in its freshness.”

Some of the elders closed their eyes and smiled in remembrance, but the children nearest the water just stared at the grimy pool with wrinkled noses, watching half-heartedly for the storyshaping to take effect.

The waters rippled, catching a glimmer of sunlight, and Melia’s heart leapt in unguarded hope—Would it work this time? Would the lake be restored?—but the movement was only due to a fishing boat approaching from around the cape, leaving an oily slick of residue in its wake.

Melia’s shoulders fell.

Sensing that the story was over, some of the children leapt to their feet, chasing one another around and skipping rocks and discarded bottle caps across the lake’s surface.

Melia gathered the pages of her story, crumpling them in her fists.

Aunt Nelly reached out to stop her. “It’s a good story, love.”

“But it didn’t work. It was supposed to change things.” Melia had worked so hard on selecting just the right words and descriptions. Lately she’d been practicing more, perfecting her tone and cadences by shaping stories about sky-blue frogs and lizards that hummed and sunflowers that produced giant heads of rock candy until her garden was teeming with the fantastical creatures and sugary sweets. These trivial things she could storyshift so easily—and she made a decent living doing so—but the lake was somehow just too much. Too big, too important, or perhaps too badly ruined.

Offshore, the fishermen pulled in their net. It slipped aboard too easily, without a single fish to weigh it down. How much longer would their village sustain them without any fish? And what then? Where would they go? What would they do?

“Have you asked your mother about it?” Aunt Nelly asked, smoothing out a wrinkled page. “She did always have a way with words.”

Melia scowled. Her mother had once been known as one of the region’s most skilled storyshapers, but she’d abandoned it all—stories, the village, and her only daughter—years ago in favour of a solitary cabin high in the mountains. Melia had been preoccupied with her own training at the time, but the longer the two went without discussing the reasons for her departure, the harder it was to broach the topic.

Still, when Melia had written to her weeks ago and mentioned in passing the trouble with the lake, Mother’s response had—as always—passed over any topic having to do with storyshaping.

Maybe Aunt Nelly was onto something, though. Maybe it was time to visit Mother, face-to-face.

• • •

It was quicker to travel by story, so the next morning, Melia pressed her nicest travelling dress, sat in her garden, and shaped a thrilling tale of traversing forests and rivers and climbing the soaring mountains to bring Mother a basket of her favourite honeycakes. When Melia opened her eyes, she stood upon the cabin’s threshold, the basket of sweets in her hand.

Her mother frowned, her arms crossed, before her. “You might as well come in.”

Mother’s cabin was small but cozy and filled with all sorts of peculiar odds and ends: abandoned bird nests, river-smoothed stones, stout walking sticks. But no books.

Melia held out the honeycakes as a peace offering.

“You made these yourself?” Mother asked.

“I shaped them.”

Mother frowned. “Even you should know that storyshaped food lacks sustenance.”

Melia lowered her eyes. If she’d stopped to think of Mother’s predilections, she’d have realized it’d have been better to bake them by hand. Already, she was regretting this visit.

“They lack sustenance,” Mother continued, “just as your feet lack blisters and your muscles lack the satisfying ache of knowing that they have conquered this mountain.”

“Is that why you don’t tell stories anymore?” Melia blurted out. “You prefer the toil?”

“No, I realized that there are times when it is better to speak hard truths than to fill the world with more comforting lies.”

“You grew cynical.”

“I grew wise.”

“I came to ask you for your help,” Melia said, her temper rising, “not to have my work disparaged. The lake—it’s dying. Don’t you even care?”

“Perhaps it’s not the lake that needs reshaping,” Mother said, “but you.”

Melia rose, ready to storm off, but Mother opened a jar and held out a honeycake of her own. It smelled fresh. Homemade. More appealing than Melia’s storyshaped ones.

“Go ahead,” Mother said. “Take one for your journey home.”

It’d been ages since Melia had tasted one of Mother’s honeycakes, and the mere aroma stirred up memories of sticky summer afternoons in a simpler time, when all Melia had had to worry about was getting home by dinnertime and planning the next day’s adventures. Reluctantly, Melia reached into the jar. She took a bite, and it flaked apart on her tongue. The buttery treat melted away in her mouth, leaving behind soft vestiges of sweetness, which she sought out with her tongue between all the crevices of her teeth.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t help you,” Mother said, placing the lid on the jar.

Melia’s mouth watered, aching for another honeycake, but she had other things on her mind now. She glanced out the window to where the rocky path wound down the mountain. It did look like a treacherous path—the exact sort that her younger self would have been eager to conquer.

“Thank you,” she muttered. “You might have helped me after all.”

If she left now, she could be home by dark.

• • •

It took great effort to convince the villagers to meet her at the lake, but eventually, they set aside their work and came.

Melia stood before them with trembling knees. If only they’d hear her out …

“Today’s story isn’t about the lake,” she said, willing her voice to carry across the crowd.

“Then why are we here?” someone shouted.

“I thought you were going to fix this!”

“The story I’m telling today is about us.” Melia took a deep breath. “You see, people can’t be shaped as easily as rocks and trees and frogs and honeycakes. People need to accept the shaping and allow it to happen. So please, just listen, and ask yourself: who do I want to be?”

And she wove a tale, heartfelt and aching, unlike any they’d heard before. Not about the lake or the village around them as they wanted them to be, but about people she saw each day and what they might become. People who were unafraid to gather only what they needed and leave the rest for others, for another day. People who were unhurried and patient and kind, even when it meant more work. People who savoured the joys of discovery and satisfaction of a job well done. People who valued humanity over property, and the gathering of wisdom over the gathering of wealth.

The village listened to her story of people. People that they could become.

When she was finished, Melia turned around, unable to keep the tears from her eyes and terrified that, in their stubbornness, the village might resent her storyshaping. Would it work this time? Would they listen?

Out on the lake, the waters rippled, catching a glimmer of sunlight, and this time, that sparkle of hope didn’t fade.

Copyright © 2023 Wendy Nikel

Feature image credit:

Depositphotos

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Wendy Nikel

Wendy Nikel is a speculative fiction author with a degree in elementary education, a fondness for road trips, and a terrible habit of forgetting where she's left her cup of tea. Her short fiction has been published by Analog, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Nature, and elsewhere. Her time travel novella series, beginning with The Continuum, is available from World Weaver Press. For more info, visit wendynikel.com.

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