Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Necessary Beggar

Susan Palwick

Tor Books




The first thing I read by Susan Palwick was “Ever After,” her compelling retelling of Cinderella from the point of view of a monstrous godmother. I distinctly remember reading it in one of Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best Science Fiction volumes and thinking that this was an author to watch, or maybe watch out for. Then I read her first novel, Flying in Place, which hit me really hard. And then I read her short story “Gestella,” which is a powerful story in which the werewolf isn’t the monster. All three of these pieces were brilliant, amazing, wonderful, but a little like plunging into the icy ocean. I read her blog, sadly moribund, in which she was at the time posting phenomenal sonnets about her work as a volunteer chaplain in the emergency room of one of Reno’s hospitals.

So when our mutual editor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, handed me The Necessary Beggar, I put it on my pile of books to read and waited until I felt up to it. I needn’t have. It’s just as powerful and compelling as all her work, but much warmer. It’s about love and family and connections. Our three points of view are a grandfather, a granddaughter, and a ghost. And they’re all refugees from another world.

There’s a very destructive way in which some readers of science fiction and fantasy and some readers of literary fiction tend to despise each other—genre readers despise literary fiction for being boring, tame, mundane, while literary readers despise genre fiction for being childish, addicted to adventure, escapist. Both of these wrongheaded views prevent people from reading things they’d enjoy because they’re marketed in the wrong categories—essentially because they have the wrong covers. There is a huge middle ground of stories that are anything but boring but are also not whizz-bang adventure stories. All fiction is about what it means to be human. Genre fiction gives you extra tools and angles to examine that question. Genre stories ask “what if.” In my introduction to Susan Palwick’s short story collection All Worlds are Real I said that she was a writer who asked “what if” questions about the truths of the human heart.

There’s a thing that only fantasy can do, taking something real and by transforming it get to the real essence of the thing. By having something fantastical, made up, imaginary, unquestionably unreal, it can use that very unreality to get closer than is otherwise possible to a real underlying truth. It lets you creep up on something known from an unexpected direction, so that you see it fresh, as if for the first time. It takes something quietly unexamined and shines a sudden light on it.

The Necessary Beggar is a book about a family of immigrants who are exiled from a fantasy world to the very real Reno, Nevada, in the near future of 2011. They have to leave, so they walk away from the only world they have ever known, carrying as many of their possessions as they can manage, and find themselves in a refugee camp in the desert. They are farther from home than anyone can possibly imagine, surrounded by strangers, without papers, having to work with a new language, new expectations, and a world that literally works differently in fundamental ways from the world they are used to. They come through a shining magical gate speaking a language nobody here can speak, with customs nobody has ever heard of, memories of food nobody has tasted and festivals nobody has celebrated. Their names sound strange to American tongues, and they are encouraged to change them, to learn English, to eat new food and leave behind the blessings they used to say over it. Their children start to question their traditional culture when they’re surrounded by a new one.

This isn’t a metaphor, this is all literally true for the characters of this book. So the way it is metaphorically true for all refugees is highlighted, drawn out of negative space and made central, without ever needing to be said at all.

If this were the only thing The Necessary Beggar does, it would be literary fiction, or magic realism. The amazing thing about this book is not the literalization of the metaphor, it’s that the fantasy world, and the story and culture of the fantasy world, is as real and complex as the story of being refugees in this world, the story of assimilation and forged papers and coping with new expectations. The worlds are linked by the three generations of family who walk between them. They are linked thematically by the things that are real and true in both worlds: love, charity, alcoholism, marriage, family, homelessness. The contrasts between them are highlighted especially by the way those things are different, especially marriage, especially homelessness. In America, being a beggar is not an honor, not a spiritual state. Homeless people smell bad, and emergency rooms will give them only the most urgent medical care. Some things are the same, and some are different, most importantly death. Death itself is different and works differently in the different worlds. This is the kind of thing only fantasy can do, and this novel is something only Palwick would think to write.



All of us were dumbfounded when Zamatryna-Harani insisted on the old customs for her wedding. The only thing that surprised us more was the marriage itself. Zamatryna had always been stubborn, but she had been stubborn about fitting in, about claiming this new place as her own. Or so we thought; she had been pondering the old ways for years, as you will learn, but she told no one. She kept silent out of love, and the family suspected nothing.

How could we have suspected? She was only six years old when we were exiled from Lémabantunk, the Glorious City, and sent to this strange dry place. She was still at the stage when little girls keep pet beetles and delight in memorizing epic poems, hobbies they put aside soon enough. If we had been allowed to stay in our home—home, I still call it that; this is not home yet after all these years, and I think it never shall be—Zamatryna-Harani would soon have moved on to geometry and horticulture, disciplines which are of course intimately linked, and the beetles, replaced in her affections by birds or toads or badgers, would have been freed to feast on the flowers she had planted.

But we were not allowed to stay there. My youngest son, Darroti-Frella Timbor, was exiled for killing a Mendicant—a woman, no less—which was a terrible thing, an unheard-of thing. To kill anyone is horrible, but to kill a Mendicant is inconceivable. For Mendicants by definition have nothing, and they are helpless, and they are honoring the Elements. None of us understood how he could have done it, or why. He couldn’t answer when we asked him. He told us he didn’t know. He told us he had been drunk. And indeed, my poor Darroti was often drunk, but he had never been violent.

The dead woman was Gallicina-Malinafa Odarettari, the daughter of the third cousin of the second wife of the Prime Minister. She was twenty years old, only one month into her year of service as a Mendicant. It was a terrible death. The most grievous acts may be forgiven if the transgressor repents, and if the victim forgives: but the dead cannot forgive. The souls of the dead live on, as trees or birds or flowers, but they can no longer speak to people to say I forgive or I burn in vengeance. They live in a dimension parallel to the one where people live, but unbridgable by speech.

And so we were sent into a dimension like that too, into exile, knowing that we would never be able to return. There is of course an infinity of dimensions, and the Judges who sent us here did not know what this one would be. They knew only that it was a place where we could live, but where we would find no one who spoke our own language, for that is how the dead must exist also. They knew only that it was a place from which we could not return, as the dead cannot return. It was a hard punishment, but fitting.

They did not know that we would land in a refugee camp, in the middle of a desert, in a state called Nevada, in a country called the United States. I have thought about this often, after everything else that has happened. In Lémabantunk one would never think to question the Judges, or to ask how they know what they know. But now I ask questions I will never be able to answer. If no one has ever spoken to the Judges from these other dimensions, how can they know that none are utterly uninhabitable? For certainly I thought at first that we would never survive in this parched place, and sometimes it seems a miracle that we have. And yet everyone must feel that way, who is torn from a known, loved land and sent into darkness.

I do not know what pained Darroti most: his own guilt, or the fact that he had exiled his family. For of course we do not abandon each other, even or especially in disgrace. That is a Law: a Law of Hearts, not simply one of Judges. It is one of the many ways in which our own world differs from this one. And so when Darroti went into exile, we did too: I—his father Timbor—and his brothers with their families. My oldest son, Macsofo, brought his wife Aliniana and their three children, the boy-twins Rikko and Jamfret and the girl Poliniana. My middle son, Erolorit, brought his wife Harani and their daughter Zamatryna. I was glad then that my wife Frella had died of fever six years before, for as much as I missed her, I do not think she could have borne our fate. She was never a strong woman, either in body or mind. I loved her despite her weakness, and my love for her helped me understand Macsofo’s love for Aliniana, whose unending wailing grief was a trial to all of us; but I was relieved that Frella was at peace, as we adults were not. What became of Darroti, on whose behalf we had come here, you will soon hear. It pains me to speak too much of it, even now.

The children fared better, of course, and Zamatryna, the oldest, seemed to do the best of all. If she remembered the bejeweled streets and glittering waterfalls of Lémabantunk, the festivals and flowers, she never gave any sign. Instead, once we had emerged from the bleakness of the camp, she became a little American girl. She insisted that we call her Zama because her real name was too long; she kept pet plastic dolls and memorized insipid television jingles about underarm deodorant and automobiles; she acquired a distressing interest in watching young men in cumbersome body armor symbolically slaughter each other on fields which could have been used for more important things, like growing beets.

She also received the highest grades in her mathematics classes, and loved poetry, and delighted to help her mother and auntie in the garden. One cannot completely deny one’s heritage. I suppose there are American girls who do these things too, but we all get our talents from somewhere. Zamatryna got hers from Lémabantunk, from her parents and foreparents who grew in that soil.

And yet, since we were in exile and always would be, I had to hope that she would thrive here. I could not wish upon her the homesickness that I, and my children and their wives, felt daily, hourly, like the throbbing of a cut whose edges will not close. And so I delighted for Zamatryna-Harani when she fit in, when she went to her high-school prom looking like an underwear advertisement, accompanied by a young man who—to the horror of the older relatives—had made a great show of giving her mutilated foliage. I still do not know how she could work in the garden in the morning and accept a gift of dead blossoms in the afternoon, but it showed that she had become an American, and so I knew that I should be happy. I dutifully rejoiced for her when, in college, she was adopted by a group of other young women who wore upon their clothing the letters of a language no one here ever speaks, and who devoted tremendous energy to acquiring similar insignia worn by young men. I was pleased for her when she began to date Jerry-the-football-player, an earnestly polite young man who, even when he wasn’t wearing his body armor, looked like a collection of tree trunks lashed together. He was a very important football player; the insignia he gave her were the envy of all her friends. I didn’t think that she would go out with him for very long. None of us thought so. We saw no poetry in Jerry, and he trampled plants where he walked—although he tried not to, for Zamatryna’s sake—and his acquaintance with mathematics was purely functional, a matter of the ledger books he studied. Aliniana, of all people, became very fond of Jerry, and left off her sniffling long enough to predict sadly that Zamatryna would break his heart. I think Jerry expected this himself. There was no doubt that he worshiped Zamatryna, but he always seemed to be holding his breath around her, as one does around a wild, rare creature one does not want to startle.

Imagine our surprise, then, when she announced that they were getting married. And imagine further our surprise when she told us that her wedding must include the Blessing of the Necessary Beggar: a ritual she had never witnessed from a land which she would never see again, and whose streets and scents she surely could barely remember.

This is the custom in Lémabantunk, and among all the people of Gandiffri, the Land of Gifts whose capital Lémabantunk is. A week or so before you are to be married, you go into the streets of your city, or into the countryside if you do not live in a city, and you find a Mendicant. Of course this rarely takes long, because all men when they reach eighteen must spend a year as a Mendicant if they are to be admitted to the Temple as adults. Women have begun to demand to do it, too: they say it is not fair that men should receive special religious privileges, and I think that is true, but it is also true that the streets are more dangerous for women, although not nearly as dangerous as where we live now, in these United States. Gallicina-Malinafa Odarettari was one of the first female Mendicants. We learned after her death that she had been seeking her family’s approval for years. Since our exile, I have often wished that she had not received it, although I was pleased, back home, whenever I saw a woman begging.

The tradition of the Necessary Beggar dictates that you choose the first Mendicant you see, for this person is a blessing, an embodiment of the Elements, who has been put in your path for this purpose. Some people cheat: they go in search of Mendicants they already know, or they put out word about the wedding to ensure that their favorites will be waiting on their path. But you are not allowed to choose any relative closer than a fifth cousin; this is very bad form, and bad luck for the marriage.

Once you have found a Mendicant, you bow very low to that person, and you say, “Please grace my wedding, to remind me of the ground of my fortune.”

The Mendicant bows back and says, “I will grace your wedding, to remind you always of the gifts you have received.”

And then you take the Mendicant home with you. You feast the person, dress him—well, they are nearly always male—in fine attire, put him in the airiest room with the softest sleeping mat. You do this for a week before the wedding. On the day of the wedding itself, the Necessary Beggar is at the head of the joyous procession; he sits on a litter decorated with live flowers in pots, and the groom and his friends (and the bride and her friends, if they are strong) carry it into the Temple, and everyone sings, and anyone who is not carrying the litter claps and rings bells, and the Necessary Beggar waves and smiles, the way presidents and football players do in parades here. And once the procession is inside the Temple, the Necessary Beggar climbs down from his litter and moves among the wedding party and the guests, and everyone gives him a very fine gift, and the bride and groom give him the costliest gift of all. People have been known to delay their weddings to save for the Beggar’s Gift, although I think this foolish, too much like the United States. The point of the ritual is to show hospitality to a stranger; it is a reminder of civic duty and also a fertility rite, since parents must show hospitality to their children, who arrive as squalling strangers. Welcoming the Necessary Beggar is a symbol of welcoming the rest of the world. And most strangers, of course, appear at your doorstep when you have not had weeks and months to prepare for them, although babies are the exception. If we immediately love our children more than we love other visitors, it is because we have had more notice of their arrival, more time to train ourselves to love them.

But weddings are symbolic, and they are parties, and so they have grown into a display which does not bear much relation to the everyday discipline of inviting weary, dusty travelers to share a cup of tea. The Necessary Beggars are given wild, outlandish gifts: not just warm cloaks and sleeping mats and homely kettles, but wondrous articulated statues, pet peacocks and snakes and antelope, costly carpets woven with gold thread and beads of lapis lazuli.

Once, we are told but cannot prove, the most prized presents were not things, but gifts of self. There is a beloved story, very old, about a couple who gave the bride’s sister—with her permission—to the Necessary Beggar; for a year after his service as a Mendicant, the deed said, she would bring him sweet cakes every evening, and fan him with fragrant boughs, and dance for him. It is thought that she knew him, or had seen him, and was already in love; at any rate, that year ended predictably with another wedding. And the bride and groom strained and fretted over what gift they might give that would be finer than the one that had comprised their courtship, and at last they decided that they themselves, both of them, would spend the first year of their marriage waiting upon the needs of their Necessary Beggar. But at the end of that year, their Necessary Beggar had fallen in love with the new wife’s sister, who several times had helped them cook for him, and so there was yet another wedding, and the new couple and the old decided that all four of them would wait upon the latest Necessary Beggar. And so it went, year after year, always ending with another wedding and a larger circle of graciousness, until at last the entire village was waiting upon a Mendicant they had had to journey far into the countryside to find. And because there was no one left in the village for this latest Necessary Beggar to marry, all of them—scores of people by then, if not hundreds—packed up their belongings and moved to the next town over, that he might find a wife and continue the tradition. And at last, after years and years of this, everyone alive was part of the web, and they named themselves a country: Gandiffri, the Land of Gifts.

It is a story we tell our children. I do not know if it is true. I always wanted it to be, and hoped that by telling it, we might help make it true. But too many of our people are grown satisfied and inward, and certainly it is easier to give carpets than to give oneself.

So. The Necessary Beggar receives these gifts, whatever they are, and then he performs the wedding ceremony. The bride and groom stand before him, in the presence of everyone they love—except the dead, who are lost to them—and he recites a blessing: “For what you have given me, your errors and those of all your kin are forgiven. For charity heals shortcoming, and kindness heals carelessness, and hearts heal hurt.”

It is a very ancient blessing, very holy. It has the power to assuage many crimes, for after it is spoken, anyone in the crowd who bears a grudge against anyone else is obliged to seek out that person and say, “I forgive you in the name of the Necessary Beggar.”

These customs have great power among the living. They cannot reach the dead, who attend their family weddings—if they do so at all—only as finches or caterpillars or leaves, who cannot speak in human tongues. There is another story, older even than the one of how Gandiffri earned its name, about how once the dead could speak to us, and why they can no longer: the Great Breaking, we call it, the rift between the worlds of the present and the past. It is a very sad tale, and it reminds me of my poor Darroti. I did not like to tell or hear it even before our exile, and now the very thought of it hurts me. You will excuse me, then, if I do not tell it now. You will learn it soon enough, for it is part of the larger tale told here. And if that tale ends happily at last, I still have learned that all the mending in the world cannot heal some broken things. Could the dead gossip with us over breakfast every morning, still we would miss them, for life is more than speech.

The Great Breaking is why we always bless and thank our food before we eat it: for anything, fruit or flesh, may contain the spirit of some beloved person. We must believe that the dead delight to feed us, lest we starve, but we must also pay due reverence. And so coming to America was hard for us adults, for every television commercial of someone gobbling unblessed potato chips, unhallowed ice cream, made us blanch. The first time we saw a television set, at our friend Lisa’s house, it was playing an ad for Smuckers jelly in which children smeared the stuff on pieces of bread and stuffed themselves, while animated fruit danced across the screen. We stared, aghast, although little Zamatryna immediately began humming the tune the cartoon fruit were singing.

Lisa had gone shopping for food to feed us, and was not there to explain this atrocity. “They didn’t bless the bread or the fruit stuff,” Macsofo said, somewhat wildly, and Erolorit, frowning, suggested that perhaps the first piece of bread and jelly had been blessed to include all the others. “But they didn’t bless the first one either!” Macsofo said, to which Erolorit countered that maybe they had, and we just hadn’t seen it. Macsofo shook his head. “Brother, what good is a blessing no one sees?”

Harani was in the bathroom, vomiting. Aliniana cried for a week. The children were puzzled but willing to adapt, and soon developed an inordinate fondness for Smuckers jelly.

At first we blessed all our food, as we had at home. But soon enough we stopped. It is easier to bless food you have grown and made yourself, and we still bless the yield from our own garden; but supermarket food rarely seems sacred here. Aliniana and Macsofo buy the parve Jewish food whenever they can find it, and Erolorit says prayers over entire bags of groceries, and Harani over the stove. But the children became good American consumers who could not eat just one Pringle, and who rarely remembered even to bless the first one. I remember Zamatryna-Harani, when she was eleven, pulling a bag of popcorn out of the microwave and telling her uncle Macsofo, “You want me to bless each piece? Are you crazy?

“You would bless each ear of corn,” Macsofo said, “but all the kernels may not be from the same ear. You can bless the bag, but say something about the different ears of corn. That will be good enough.”

Zamatryna was already eating. “Too much work,” she said, around a mouthful of hot popcorn. “Uncle Max, if the popcorn were haunted, I’d know.”

“How? How would you know? How can you be sure?”

“I’d know,” she said, rolling her eyes. “It would be, like, scary popcorn. This isn’t scary popcorn.”

Macsofo looked pained. “The dead are not frightening, Zamatryna. The dead love us. You have been watching too many horror movies.”

Zamatryna stuck her arms out straight in front of her and began lurching around the kitchen. “Night of the Living Popcorn,” she said, in her best horror-movie voice. “Woo-woo-wooooo! Would you just chill?”

“You are not listening to me, Zamatryna. I am saying that the popcorn does not have to be scary to contain the spirits of the dead. The popcorn loves you. You should thank it.”

Whereupon Zamatryna laughed so hard she choked. Then she gave Macsofo a hug and said, “If the popcorn loved me, I’d know that, too. Really I would. It’s just, like, popcorn. If it’s dead people, I’m helping them be alive again by digesting them, okay?”

Macsofo nodded. “Exactly! But you should thank them for feeding you!”

Zama shrugged. “Or they should thank me for giving them a body again. I’m going to go do my English homework now. I have to write a poem.”

Zamatryna-Harani loved popcorn at least as much as she loved poetry. She loved movies and shopping malls as much as she loved math; she loved the Gabbing Girls, the latest teen lip-synching sensation, as much as she loved gardening. She was a good American child.

And so we were all of us stunned, when she told us that her wedding must be performed by the Necessary Beggar. Even Aliniana was stunned, and it was from her reminiscences of Lémabantunk that Zamatryna had grasped the importance of the custom in the first place. Certainly I had never told her of it, for I knew better than to impose old ways upon her in a new place. Her parents had told her about their own wedding, of course, for little girls always ask for such stories, but they had never thought for a moment that it would occur to her to follow the tradition. Our headstrong, assimilated Zama, with her letter sweaters and her laptop computer and her cellular telephone, instructing Jerry not to buy her a diamond ring, but instead to give the money he had saved to a Necessary Beggar? What kind of American child was this?

Jerry was the only person who didn’t seem a bit surprised. “It’s just like her,” he told me, much later. “That’s why I love her.”

The problem was how to achieve what Zamatryna had commanded. For, of course, the United States does not honor its beggars. They are not empowered to perform marriages. They are considered curses, not blessings. And there was the further difficulty that Nevada, where we lived, had just passed the Public Nuisance Act of 2022 commanding that no one was to live on the streets, and the Reno police had plucked all the homeless people they could find up into county transports and had taken them away.

That is why the entire family, plus Jerry and Lisa, wound up climbing into Lisa’s SUV and driving to the first place in America we had ever seen, eleven years before: the place, I suppose, where the story of Zamatryna’s wedding truly begins.

Copyright © 2005 by Susan Palwick

Introduction copyright © 2020 by Jo Walton