In Exchange | Chelsea Utecht

It was already late in the evening on the day I set out. I had been oscillating between a disgusted disbelief and determined hope for some time as the rumors of the crone were whispered on the periphery of my life. It was a sharp intake of breath, my mother then too tired and weak to cry out, that pushed me past hope and into desperation. That evening, I kissed her on her feverish forehead and left her—briefly, I promised. Back before she would need me, I said. She’d smiled wanly, knowing before I did that it was a lie.

I carried rations in my pack, too few I would learn, and in my hands I held the only thing of value I had left to my name, wrapped carefully in a cloth napkin I’d taken from the otherwise empty hutch dresser. It shone bright, carefree and optimistic in the morning sun, even through the fabric of the napkin.

I walked and walked. I walked until my tendons felt taut and brittle. The passersby from whom I asked directions usually pointed the way I had come. “Go home,” they would say with pitying shakes of their heads. Occasionally, however, one would give a knowing nod. Someone they’d heard of had gone. They would extend an index finger in a vague direction.

The certainty of failure had begun to nestle into my gut when I saw the start—or rather the end—of a line that stretched out until it was cut abruptly by the horizon.

I joined the line, bolstered by its existence rather than deterred by its length. The waiting was longer, longer than the journey to reach it, and each step felt less like progress and more like a shuffle from one foot to the other. Mercifully, though it hadn’t felt like I had moved at all, a tent, far too plain to be the answer to my prayers, came into focus.

My time came all at once. I felt ill-prepared as I was pressed through the flap of the tent into its dimly lit innards.

It was small, large enough only for a cot in the corner and a round table cluttered with angular bones of various sizes, jars of viscous fluids, and incense burning thick and sweet. The table had only two chairs; one was occupied by a hunched figure and the other sat empty, waiting.

The figure, an old woman, looked at me expectantly through the smoke and cataracts.

I gingerly peeled away the top layer of cloth in which I had wrapped my prized possession. I held it out, cradled in both hands and still nestled within the off-white cloth. Suddenly I was ashamed of what I had come to barter with.

The crone leaned forward for a better look and squinted her eyes. “Hmm…” she said thoughtfully but with an air of disinterest. “What are you seeking?”

I folded the cloth back over and brought the bundle to my chest. It seemed somehow obscene to try to negotiate with it held out in the air like that. “My mother is sick.”

She cackled. “Many mothers are sick, child. I’ve heard this story countless times.”

“She’s very sick.”

“I’ve heard that too. What makes this one special?”

“This one is mine.”

She nodded and leaned back in her chair, the wood of it, or perhaps her bones, creaking as she did so. Only then did she motion to the chair across from her, which did not creak as I sat. “Show me again.”

More reluctantly than before, I brought the bundle out of the safety of my breast and placed it on the table amongst the assorted items.

She pushed aside a set of rectangular bones as she unwrapped the bundle herself. She let out another “hmm.” She must have had the same thought as me; it was like something homemade. It had no defined expiration date, but was nonetheless inching towards one every moment, would pass it without the owner realizing until much later.

“It doesn’t look like much—”

“It doesn’t,” she confirmed.

“—but it’s hardly been used. It’s got years left on it.”


She raised her milky eyes to study me for a long time. “Your mother doesn’t know you’re here.”

I pursed my lips. It wasn’t a question, so I didn’t answer.

She chuckled at my apparent guilt.

I pushed on. “It’s a very small thing I’m asking for. Comparatively.”

“Your mother’s life?”

“No!” I corrected my volume and tone to one of deference. “No. Not her life. Only a cure.”

“A cure that will save her life. What’s the difference?”

“The difficulty for you?” My voice was uncertain.

“And the difference for you?”

This caught me off guard and for several moments I couldn’t think of one. I had almost conceded when I felt a spark of defiance. “The difference is the price I must pay, I suppose.”

“Do you suppose so?”

I began to squirm in my chair but nodded.

She plucked the thing off the table and held it up to the flickering candlelight, sending prisms across the creased landscape of her face. “What do you really want?”

I watched her scrutinize my offer without knowing what more to say. Somewhere inside me I felt a guilt, though I didn’t know what I was guilty for. “This is what I want. I’m not looking to negotiate or trade for anything less.”

The crone brought it very close to her face, squinting against the reflected light.

When she continued to examine in silence, I felt the need to fill the void. “She’s in terrible pain and has been for years. Every day it gets worse. She can’t eat. She can’t sleep. She can’t hardly speak. I don’t know what else to do.” I paused but the woman seemed to be elsewhere. “Are you listening?”

Finally she placed my offer back on the cloth. “I am indeed, but I am not hearing anything.”

“I’ve answered your question.” I narrowed my eyes and felt any deference left in my voice slide away.

“A noble endeavor then, child, seeking to end the prolonged pain of your mother at your own dear, dear cost. Unless it isn’t for her.”

“Of course it is.”

She smiled to reveal craggy remnants of teeth.

“I don’t know what you’re suggesting.”

“Do you feel angry?”

“Yes. If I’m honest, I feel insulted that—”

She shook her head, and this tiny movement cut me off. “Not with me. With her. Are you angry? Tired? Wrought with guilt at your inability to help her?”

There was a hollow feeling in my gut. “This isn’t about me.”

“Isn’t it?”


Her shrug fell somewhere between disinterest and disbelief.

I came to my feet suddenly, pushing the chair backwards with the noisy scraping of coarse wood on coarse wood. “I didn’t come here to be insulted.” But when I reached for the bundle with every intention of storming out, her hand was already atop it, the joints of her arthritic fingers jutting up protectively like the quills of a porcupine.

“Have a seat.”

I sat again warily.

“I’ll give you what you want.” She gave the bundle three light, almost reassuring, pats. “But you should understand what you are trading.”

“I know.”

“I did not say ‘know’ but ‘understand’.”

I remained steadfast in my tone. “For my purposes they are the same.”

She gave her craggy smile. “Very well.” She took the bundle into her hand and suddenly it felt distant, like it was already gone. “Your youth for an end to your mother’s sickness.”

I swallowed down the lump in my throat without feeling relief. I nodded.

“The deal is done.”

I stood, more heavy and weary than I had been before. I didn’t shake her hand nor so much as give her a nod before leaving the tent.

I passed the line of hopeful and optimistic people on my way out, following their ranks back though I needn’t have and could have gone any number of directions. But I found myself looking with longing at the naivety in their determined waiting.

The landmarks I’d seen on the way seemed different in reverse. I saw them through new eyes. I saw more reason and less wonder. Exhaustion was threatening to take me by the time I walked through the door. Waiting for me, prone and weak just as I had left her, was my mother. She managed a smile tinged with warmth and loving.

“I’m tired,” I said through my own insufficient smile. I managed no warmth. I’d later wish I could go back and try.

Sometime as I slept that night, she breathed her last breath alone in her room, taking whatever had ailed her along with her and leaving the pain and the memory of her tired smile behind.

Chelsea Utecht is a Pacific Northwesterner currently living abroad in Tbilisi, Georgia with her husband, two sons, and former-street-dog-current-princess. She is an international school teacher of literature and writing. A recent participant in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, her work has been published in Shooter Literary Magazine and Fifty-Word Stories. More about her and her writing can be found at