“You’re an optimist, Sis,” I told her. Mama and her parents abandoned the old place in the fifties, just walked away after the wreck. Even though it happened fifteen years before Ainsley was born (seventeen years before me), that wreck dominated the landscape of our childhood.
Granddaddy drove an Edsel in the days before they invented good taste. Mama said he loved that ugly old thing, but she and her brother thought the vertical grille looked like a sour faced aunt puckering up to kiss them the worst hello ever. Granddaddy had his kids out there washing the car with him every Saturday. He waxed it to a shine and drove his family through the countryside every Sunday.
On one of those drives, a logging truck lost its load coming around a corner. The Edsel rounded the same corner going the other way, and Granddady swerved straight down a steep embankment. Nobody wore seatbelts in those days. They didn’t even put them in vehicles. So the whole family tumbled and rolled with the car. Granddaddy’s leg stuck in the steering wheel and snapped. Grandmommy slammed into the windshield. Uncle Pete nearly suffocated when Grandmommy landed on him. Everybody was hurt in some way. Everybody but Mama. She flew out her open window and landed in a soft patch of clover. Knocked the breath out of her, but she didn’t even have a bruise to show for it. The trucker radioed for help or the whole rest of the family might have died there.
The Edsel was totaled. Granddaddy lost his leg below the knee. Grandmommy forgot who everybody was for three weeks, and Mama and Uncle Pete had to stay with their Aunt Suzy. When Grandmommy’s amnesia lifted, she stayed at Aunt Suzy’s, too. And when Granddaddy finally, finally got out of the hospital, he couldn’t drive a car anymore. He never worked again.
They moved into the city. Grandmommy went to night school and became a nurse. Granddaddy tried to be her housewife, but it never worked out quite right. Mama had to cook, and UnclePete had to do the yard work. Mostly Granddaddy sat out in his workshop and built nothing much at all. Oh how Mama idolized that house they left behind, where Granddaddy worked hard and Grandmommy baked pies every Friday night.
“It wasn’t much to look at,” she told us. “Kind of like the Edsel. But it was our house. Your Granddaddy built it with his own two hands just so he and Grandmommy would have a place of their own back when he had two sound legs and the world hadn’t fallen apart.”
Mama became a nurse like Grandmommy and met our Dad when he was a young soldier recovering in the VA hospital where Mama was working. They scandalized their families by marrying within a week of that first meeting, right there in the hospital. Dad got sent back to Vietnam almost as soon as he was released, but Mama was already pregnant with Ainsley.
Dad never really survived Vietnam. He came home. That was better than a lot of kids’ fathers. But he never made it above sergeant, either. He got his honorable discharge in 1973 when I was six years old. By then, we lived in Ohio, and that was where we stayed.
Ainsley and I grew up in the seven hills of Cincinnati, with the Ohio River our constant uneasy neighbor. Dad went to work in a machine factory, went to drink in the bar at the end of our street, and when I was sixteen, he went to die in the basement, with a revolver he bought for that express purpose.
We three girls, Ainsley, Mama, and I, did our best. Mama raised herself two more good nurses, and she met three grandchildren before the cancer took her away last May. And when she lay dying, the morphine confusing her while the cancer poisoned her, Mama came back to this old house in her mind. She talked to her parents and to our Dad, who had never even seen the old place. She believed my daughters were Ainsley and I as children, and she spoke to Ainsley’s son as if he was a young Uncle Pete. She didn’t see the real Uncle Pete at all, sitting quietly in a corner of the room murmuring his sorrow.
Pete gave us the directions the day after her memorial service, and said, “When you’re ready, I think we all know where she wants her ashes to go.”
It had been over a year, and we were as ready now as we would ever be. Pete himself couldn’t come. But he helped us match up old maps to new ones and find solid directions on the internet. We had a good idea of what we were looking for in spite of not ever having seen so much as a photograph of the old place. The satellite pictures showed nothing but pasture. I doubted we would find more than a foundation. But Ainsley said, “Those images are always off, even In the suburbs. If you look up my address, you get a picture of my across the street neighbor. It’s a brick house. Somebody lives there. It’s been sold and sold down the years. And now we’ll come to the door and find some family not much different from ours, and we’ll say, ‘Our mama grew up in this house, and we’d like very much to scatter her ashes.’ I’m just worried they won’t let us.”
I couldn’t argue with hope that strong. We both knew there wasn’t a listed phone number for the address, that the address hadn’t been updated when the old rural route became a state highway. If Ainsley needed to fantasize a family into a home we’d never seen, then I wouldn’t stop her dreaming.
Her first dose of truth came with a large real estate sign and a grass lane. I pulled onto the grass, and Ainsley wrote down the agent’s number, in case we needed keys to get access to the house. For my part, I read the sign. 200 acres. Will subdivide. No buildings listed.
We inched the car through the thick grass, which differed only slightly in color from the surrounding landscape. It was a grass road, demarcated by rows of pines on either side. But it wouldn’t be for much longer. Finally, we came out of the trees and saw the old house squatting in the distance. Still standing, then. But, like the grass road, not for much longer.
“Oh!” Ainsley wailed. As we drew closer, she buried her eyes in her fingers and began to sob. I stopped the car to pat her back and console her. Kudzu grew in vast trails from the trees, across what passed for a lawn, and all up the sides of the building. Hardly an inch of the place remained visible under the riot of green, though I could see the remains of the brick walkway granddaddy laid himself. I couldn’t bring myself to tell Ainsley that I thought this was still an improvement on what the house would have looked like before. It squatted in the middle of its clearing, the windows looking like squinting, angry eyes. I guessed Granddaddy meant to build it up more, because a second story jutted out over half the building, lending the roofline a lopsided, unfinished look.
“Come on,” I told my sister. “Maybe it’s better inside.”
“Oh yes,” she said.
We collected Mama’s ashes and picked through the Kudzu to the front door. Years of humidity had swelled it shut, and for several minutes, we struggled to force it open. For all that the wood was pockmarked with age and weather, it wouldn’t give.
But the windows weren’t nearly so solid. The glass had been long since broken out, and it was a small work of vandalism with a loose brick to destroy one frame enough to gain entry. I boosted Ainsley up, but she slid right back down my shoulders. “Well aren’t we a pair of geese!” she said. “The back door’s fallen off its hinges.”
So we walked around back and came in that way. Of course, the inside was no better than the out. Stale air choked me at the threshold, and I couldn’t follow my sister in. So I stood on the back steps and stared, instead. The faded and stained wallpaper was peeling and drooping grossly towards the floor in long pieces. Like a snake shedding its skin. “Oh! If these walls could speak! The tales I’m sure they would tell,” said Ainsley.
“They’d say ‘your sister has a mildew allergy, and she’ll be waiting out back,” I told her.
“No, I’ll come,” my sister said. “It’s really not much to look at, I don’t see a single piece of furniture, and I don’t trust the floor to let me explore upstairs.” She came out back with me. “I don’t guess it really matters where we do this,” she went on. “But I think close to the house is best. That’s what she really missed.”
So right where we stood, we opened the urn and sprinkled its contents, gray ash, lumpy bone, sharp silver fillings, and a few whole teeth that somehow avoided pulverizing. We put her where we guessed her flowerbeds had been, on either side of the back door, extending out to the edges of the building. “Fare thee well, Esther,” I told her, though the sentiment seemed inadequate.
We walked in silence back to the car, and as I climbed back into the driver’s seat, I stared hard one last time at the house where Mama most wanted us to leave her soul. And as I watched, the layers of kudzu fell away, ungrowing like a movie running backwards. The grass under my feet became shorter, the lane more clearly defined. And right in front of the house, a gleaming green monstrosity erupted from the earth, its wheels tarry black with carefully whitewashed rims. It was the ugliest car I’d ever seen in my life. It faced the house, so I couldn’t see the grille. But I didn’t need to see that to know it was an Edsel. By the way Ainsley grabbed my hand from the passenger seat, I knew she saw it too.
A man not much older than the two of us stepped out that stubborn front door, opening it easily and closing it behind him. He stood tall, with two healthy legs, and he carried a silver wash bucket. He called something we couldn’t hear, and a girl of maybe eight years, surely no older than my youngest daughter, skittered around the corner. We couldn’t hear her, either, but her bright eyes and wide open mouth spoke laughter as she ran around to her father. The father spoke again, and the girl answered, and now we could hear her. “Pete will be home soon, Daddy,” she said. “In a year or two at the most.”
“Well that’s alright Esther,” he said. “There’s no rush.” Then he turned directly to Ainsley and I. “Come on in, girls,” he invited. “Your Grandmommy baked one of her pies last night, and I’m just getting ready to wash the car. Esther can show you around the place before you have to go back where you belong.”
Although I had been terrified when the kudzu ran backwards, the sight of that ugly old car steadied me, so that when Granddaddy spoke, I tugged my hand free of Ainsley’s and got out of the car again. She got out, too, and we joined hands once more as we walked towards the house, towards our mother’s outstretched eight year old arms.
For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Caitlin Durkin challenged me with “The faded and stained wallpaper was peeling and drooping grossly towards the floor in long pieces. Like a snake shedding its skin. Oh! If these walls could speak! The tales I’m sure they would tell. ” and I challenged Jay Andrew Allen with “The ocean spray was cold. I wanted warm. But I’d take what I could get on a beach in December.”
Given that last week was a disaster, and I wrote-and-wrote-and-wrote and STILL only got my IndieInk done three minutes before the Thursday deadline, I was quite surprised when this story came to me all in a piece today.
Three days after Mrs. Carmody brought us the silver bullets, a man missing his right hand came to the door. Daddy looked out for a long time, like he didn’t see the person right in front of his eyes. The man leaned in against the jamb and shook, though the weather was fair. Everything about him was mud brown except that arm. It was swollen and purple from the wrist to almost the elbow. He held it out to Daddy and said, “Please?”
Daddy didn’t move. “That your hand Annie Carmody found in her wolf trap?”
The man nodded, though it was at first hard to tell that apart from his quaking. “It’s bad infected,” he said. But his voice sounded far away.
Daddy looked over my head to Ona, and she looked back at him steadily. Finally Daddy nodded and moved out of the way to let the man in. And that was how I knew Ona told the man to come here. It was how I knew she told Daddy what really happened with Ruby. It scared me, because Ona’s the closest thing I’ve got to a Mam, since the fever took my own mother, and her Ruby is the only sister I’ll ever have.
Nobody trusts the wolves. My Mam used to say “Shoot a wolf in the back before it bites you in the front.” It was a big risk for Ona to tell Daddy that she was one of them, even if they had been married since I was a mite and Ruby newborn. Telling him that she turned into her other self so she could swim the flooded river when Ruby fell in could have gone all wrong. And until this moment, I thought she never would tell. I saw it happen, or maybe I wouldn’t know either. They tried not to tell me things that they thought I didn’t need to know.
I suddenly wondered if Ruby was a wolf, too, if her first Daddy was a wolf before the fever took him like it took my Mam. But there was no way to ask in this room with a dying man coming in the door.
“Birdie, Ruby, go fill my big cauldron and drag it up from the well,” Daddy said. He was the village wizard. People did what he said. Even his own daughters. He and Ona were going to have a conversation, though, and I wanted to know what they would say. Ruby and I walked out together, but instead of taking her to the well with me, I pushed her back towards the house. She grinned and trotted up under the window. I can fill the cauldron alone, and I only need help dragging it when I head up the hill towards the house.
Ruby joined me exactly at the spot where I needed more hands. She whispered, “They have to cut off his arm.”
Together, we heaved the cauldron up over the threshold and indoors. Ona had already tied the man’s arm off just above the elbow using rags. He lay in the floor, a piece of stout wood clutched between his teeth and tied around his head. I would have thought he looked funny if I hadn’t known it was to keep him from biting his tongue.
Daddy said to Ruby and I, “Now go for Mrs. Carmody. Both of you.”
Ruby darted out the door at once, but my feet wouldn’t carry me back outside. I turned around to stare first at Ona, then Daddy. The man was lying on his stomach now, with Ona straddling his back. Like the chock in his mouth, I would have thought it funny if I hadn’t known the purpose. Ona looked away. She wouldn’t meet my eyes. But Daddy held my gaze. “She’ll come, Birdie,” he told me. “She can’t abide suffering any more than I can. For all she knows, I’ve only taken pity on the man who lost his paw in her trap. She won’t know any more than that if you don’t tell her. Now go on. And hurry.” But I felt the worry in his voice. Healing this man, getting help from Mrs. Carmody, it was dangerous.
I looked back to the house as I ran to catch up with Ruby and saw Daddy going to his shed. That would be for the meat saw, the one he used to break through bones in the venison he brought in. I ran a little faster then, and when I passed her, Ruby also sped up to follow. Even so, we heard the terrible screaming begin when we were halfway to Mrs. Carmody’s. I wouldn’t have imagined a sound could carry so far. I wondered how much Ruby remembered about the day she fell in the river. I wondered again if she was a wolf.
The noise stopped when we were halfway back with Mrs. Carmody, and I thought maybe he was dead. But he was still in the big middle room jerking and groaning when we walked in.
It felt like we had been gone a very long time, but it had really only been a little while. The cutting was over, but blood covered the floor. I realized only after we walked through the door how bad the wound smelled, and I wanted to throw up. Daddy was pushing our stone table back where it belonged, and I saw bloody rags hanging down from the legs. They tied him down then, though Ona sat on his back again now.
Behind me, I heard a gurgling noise, and I turned around just in time to catch Ruby’s vomit in my skirt. It startled me so much I pushed by and ran straight out the door, her right behind me. “I’m sorry, Birdie!” she said. I ran for the well and a cold drink, but only made it halfway before I spewed my own breakfast.
None of the grown folks followed us, and as grateful as I was for that, I wanted to know what they were saying. So I took off my dress and Ruby’s, too, and we both scooted back up to the house. I said loudly, “No, you wait here, and I’ll get us fresh things and climb out the window to you.” Then I ran straight through the middle room. The grown people froze when I came inside in just my drawers, and their voices stopped completely, all but the groaning man.
In the bedroom, I made a great noise like I was having trouble getting down my other dress or Ruby’s. And instead of going out the window, I pulled Ruby in it. Then, we were both very quiet, as if I’d gone out the window like I said. They started talking again, and we crept on our hands and knees to hear their voices.
“We’ve all known him for years,” said Mrs. Carmody. “Why didn’t Birdie tell me?”
“I doubt she recognized him,” said Ona, low. “You have to admit he doesn’t look much like the herb man.” And that’s how I knew his muddy hair was really yellow. Because the herb man who came and traded Mrs. Carmody and Ona’s cuttings and roots for more exotic ones had shaggy yellow hair.
“I knew he was late,” Mrs. Carmody went on. “But I thought it was the water. I never imagined the wolves had got him.” I heard a hitch in her voice that meant she was crying. “I never saw someone that’s been bit before.”
“He wasn’t bit,” said Ona. Her voice was ragged, like holding down the man had maybe been noisy work for her, as well.
Daddy said, “Hush!”
But Ona went on, “I’ve known him all my life, and he’s always been a wolf.” Mrs. Carmody expelled a long whistle. “The wolves are everywhere, Annie,” Ona continued. Such a risk for our family! Ona said more than Daddy feared I might speak. Beside me, Ruby whimpered.
Mrs. Carmody said, “I wouldn’t think I’d hear such from a wizard’s wife!”
A grinding rumble sounded, and I peered around the corner. On the man’s back I saw a wolf draped in Ona’s clothing, its snout daring Mrs. Carmody to argue.
Ruby squalled, “Mam,” and she burst out from beside me. Only before she’d got halfway there, she fell down and rolled over twice. And then she wasn’t Ruby anymore, she was a wobbly-legged wolf pup yelping in pain
In an instant, Ona shifted back into the skin I knew best, crying out as her body came back into itself. She left the twitching man and ran to Ruby. And then Mrs. Carmody went to them both, her angry voice replaced by a healer’s concern for the little girl we all loved so much. “What does she need?”
“Easy, easy, easy,” Ona said, wrapping her arms around my sister’s now furry chest.
“Can she have a willow bark tea?” Mrs. Carmody prompted.
“Yes, when she’s changed back,” said Ona. Without turning my way, she said, “Birdie, put your clothes on. Get me Ruby’s dress.”
I ran back to our room to get what I’d claimed to be coming for in the first place. As I returned to the middle room, a crack like snapping wood announced Ruby’s return to herself. She lay sobbing in Ona’s arms and didn’t protest when the dress was pulled on to protect what passed for dignity in girls of five summers. Mrs. Carmody was carrying a cup over from the fire, where Ona and Daddy had already brewed the willow bark tea for the man in the floor. I knew it hurt. I heard Ona cry out, and when they fished Ruby out of the river, I heard the pain in the blacksmith’s nephew when he changed, but I don’t think the man who lost his arm was in half so much pain as poor Ruby just then.
Mrs. Carmody handed the tea to Ona, then bent over the herb man like she’d never been afraid he might bite her. He groaned, but picked up his head at Mrs. Carmody’s sharp command. “Here, help me out,” she said to Daddy. “He needs to be on his back, now that the worst is over.”
They rolled him, and Mrs. Carmody examined the stump. Daddy had wrapped a dressing on it, and Mrs. Carmody seemed reluctant to remove it, or to disturb the arm very much. “I’ve got teasel. Birdie, bring my bag over.” she commanded. Then, she asked, “Did he have his pack with him?” Daddy pointed over to a corner by the hearth, where the mud crusted shirt and cloak lay. “Birdie, bring it to me.” Again to my father, “Did you cut at the joint?”
I brought the things she had asked for, and she carefully unwrapped the herb man’s bundle. He said suddenly, “Drynaria leaves near the bottom.” It was the first sensible thing I’d heard from him since he told Daddy about the infection.
“Were you using them before?” Mrs. Carmody asked. But the man was gone again, lost in his pain. “Well, it’s something,” she said. “And if you live, this will be what saved your life.”
It was hours later before Ruby could be tucked into her bed. By then, Mrs. Carmody had soaked the man’s arm stump in more of the willow bark tea and made him drink a tincture of drynaria leaves and teasel roots. She went out back, and I followed her down to the river.
She tugged a leather thong off over her head and threw it into the stream with a harsh cry. “What was that?” I asked.
She jumped a little, and I realized she hadn’t known I was behind her. “Birdie, they named you aright, child,” she said. “You flit around behind us and listen when we least think you’re paying attention.”
“What was it?”
“Foolish superstition,” she finally said. “When he was courting me, my husband gave me a rabbit’s foot, and I’ve kept it around my neck all these years. But after seeing that man in there and knowing what part I played in laying a good friend low, I can’t keep it any longer. It reminds me of something your Mam used to say.”
Suddenly, my mother’s phrase came back to me as if I could hear her voice speaking. I said, “Do not rely on a rabbit’s foot for luck. After all, it didn’t work out too well for the rabbit.”
“Yes, Birdie,” said Mrs. Carmody. “That’s exactly what she used to say.” And she took my hand and led me back inside for the night.
This piece stands alone, but it follows this one.
For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Tara Roberts challenged me with “Do not rely on a rabbit’s foot for luck. After all, it didn’t work out too well for the rabbit.” and I challenged Joelyn with “And spring and spring and spring burst out finally in my soul.”
Ann said, “Amtrak never gets anyplace on time.”
“For the fourth time, I’m sorry,” said Karl.
“Sorry!” Ann’s voice rose. “We’re in the middle of Nebraska, and the wedding starts in an hour. This is the worst gift you could have given me.” Karl didn’t answer, and Ann didn’t stop. “You’re so cheap!”
“What do you mean, cheap?” he protested. “This cost us twice as much as plane tickets.”
“And it’s taking four days instead of four hours! What a waste of money.” Ann pounded on the window. Gretchen is almost married. And I’m missing the whole thing because …”
“I said I was sorry!”
Ann wiped her eyes and blew her nose, then reached into her tissue packet only to find it empty. “I’m her matron of honor! You ruined my sister’s wedding.”
“I just thought we could do something special together. How was I supposed to know we would be running twenty hours behind schedule?”
“I should have been there yesterday morning. I should…” Ann broke off to answer her vibrating cell phone, glowering at her husband as he rummaged more tissues out of a suitcase. “How’s everything going?” she asked the caller.
“Annie!” Gretchen’s voice trilled. “It worked!”
“What worked?” Ann asked.
“Everybody’s being so great about it!” Gretchen bubbled on. “When you called yesterday, I got Mom on the horn. We moved everything. As long as you’ll be here by six, it will all be fine.”
Karl found the tissues and held them out, a lonely peace offering. Ann accepted and held onto Karl’s hand. He clasped her fingers back, extending their shared hope.
“You postponed your wedding?”
“And at the eleventh hour, too!” Gretchen sounded positively thrilled.
“You’re not married?”
“Not without you sis. I just couldn’t.” And then the elation transformed into something else and both sisters cried the absent miles into their phones.
For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Bran macFeabhail challenged me with “You’ve been given a gift. You aren’t supposed to question gifts…but maybe you should question this one. ” and I challenged femmefauxpas with “…and green was the grass in my valley”
This is also my entry for this week’s Trifecta Writing Challenge, where the word of the week is “cheap”.
Sade shifted on her rug and ruffled her shoulder feathers. “Pass me that bowl,” she instructed, her blind eyes focused somewhere over Johnna’s shoulder.
“Which?” Johnna asked. There were three bowls in front of her.
Her grandmother said, “The one you were thinking of.”
“Oh.” Johnna picked up the right hand bowl and passed it across the low fire.
The old woman nodded and turned it over in her hands, tapping her fingers rapidly around the rim. “This is a good one,” Sade said. “Now tell it to me.”
“Excuse me?” Now, Johnna shifted. But where her grandmother had changed positions to get more comfortable, Johnna moved because there wasn’t any comfortable to be had in this hut. Her shoulders itched, her feathers tingled, and her rump was sore. She had been sitting with her father’s mother for only fifteen minutes. Yet in that time, she had earned three rebukes for her failure to observe tiny and inexplicable things.
Behind the hut, Johnna heard her father and several other men hammering on the frame for the new room. She turned her head to look out the open front door and check on her half sisters, playing just outside. Ba’aita, she of three summers and a thousand temper tantrums, was leading poor little Li’ita on a chase. Ba’aita flew just out of Li’ita’s reach, never beyond the circle Johnna had chalked into the dirt, but always just at its perimeter. Li’ita, who had only one summer, flapped along after her sister, calling “Bita! Bita!” and laughing . The new baby was not outside. This youngest sister was with the wet nurse, who would bring her home at sunset.
Sade said, “Tell me the bowl.”
Johnna clammed her mouth shut, not willing to say she still didn’t understand and risk another encounter with the sharp side of her grandmother’s tongue.
Ba’aita burst suddenly through the open door. She flew straight into the flimsy back wall, knocking it down into the construction mess with the force of her impact.
“Not again, Ba’aita!” Johnna said, rising to see if the child was hurt. Although this was the first time Ba’aita had knocked down a wall, she had already cracked her wooden bowl in half at breakfast and torn one of Sade’s spell books in impish play. Naptime, Johnna thought, couldn’t come soon enough.
The small offender hovered a little off the ground, gazing down at the fallen wall with wide eyes. Blood ran in a steady stream down one arm. “Sorry,” she whimpered . Only it sounded like “Solly” because she hadn’t learned how to make her r’s yet.
“Why didn’t you stop her?” Sade demanded.
“Well I didn’t know she was going to… Oh. This is something else I should have Seen first,” said Johnna.
Sade sighed and got up herself, their lesson at an end.
Johnna heard her father’s voice. “Well here’s a mess,” Aif said, coming into view. Indicating Ba’aita’s bloodied arm with a pointed finger, he asked, “What got her?”
Sade knew without the benefit of vision. “She hit it at the roofline and scraped a nail.”
“Come down, Ba’aita. Come here,” Johnna said.
Now Ba’aita saw her shoulder and the whimper turned into a wail. “Come on,” said Johnna. “Come to me.” But instead of coming closer, her sister flew up a little higher, her bright blue feathers beating rapidly in alarm. She wanted to come down, Johnna saw, but couldn’t slow her wings.
“You have some of it,” Sade mused to Johnna, “but not the rest. You know why she doesn’t come down, but couldn’t tell she was heading for the wall in time to stop her.”’ Johnna bit back a sharp reply and Sade clucked. It didn’t matter whether or not Johnna said the words, her grandmother heard the thoughts. She didn’t chide this visiting granddaughter further, though. Whether Johnna did or did not carry her people’s magic, she could certainly tend to her sisters, which was technically the task she had come to perform. Among her own people, Johnna was studying with the bowwright. No matter what she learned now, she would never be a full Seer or Scryer.
Sade had doubtless known Ba’aita was headed inside, though Johnna wagered the old woman didn’t expect this level of damage. Her lessons weren’t vindictive. If she had realized the wall would pop out and little Ba’aita be truly hurt, Sade would have warned her oldest grandchild to be ready for the younger one.
Johnna flew up to catch Ba’aita, ruing the kick-hop she needed to get off the ground. Her father’s people could liftoff from sitting. Although Johnna shared their physical features, dark hair and skin, with wings lining her shoulders and back, she was not one of them. Still, once airborne, she caught Ba’aita easily, sliding her arms in under the girl’s wings and pulling the child in close. She stroked Ba’aita’s back, smoothing her feathers until the little wings stilled and the girl slumped into a limp puddle on Johnna’s chest. Johnna held her much in the way she held the baby, who liked to snuggle tummy to tummy.
“It hurts,” Ba’aita sobbed as they landed.
Sade stalked around the wall’s perimeter with Aif, studying it for all the world as if she hadn’t lost her sight. “Tell me the wound,” she instructed Johnna.
It didn’t take the Foresight to answer this. “It needs sewing,” she said.
Ba’aita howled “No!”
“How many stitches?” Sade demanded.
Johnna’s started to say, “I don’t know,” but she stopped after the word ‘I’. “Four,” she said instead. “It needs four stitches.”
Sade grunted. “Good girl,” she said quietly. “Can you do it, or do we need the healer?”
“If I didn’t need to hold her, I could do it,” Johnna answered. “But if I don’t hold her, she’s liable to fight.”
Sade nodded. “Go then. I’ll see to Li’ita.” And she left off pacing about the fallen wall to walk around front to check on Ba’aita’s younger sister.
Over dinner, the main room’s back wall still open to the newly-built frame behind, Sade said, “I’m beginning to see how Johnna tells things.”
“And?” Aif asked.
Sade answered, “She sees with her eyes, not with her soul.”
Aif and Sade sat at the head and foot of the table with Johnna plopped in the exact center, one little sister on either side of her. Ba’aita was still subdued, her sewn up shoulder bound in a cloth that she complained hurt. She didn’t want to eat much, so Johnna was chiefly concerned with tearing Li’ita’s food into small enough portions that the little girl wouldn’t choke.
The wet nurse had returned the littlest sister. Baby, Aif explained, was too young to have a name. Among his people, a child had to live a full year before its naming day, unless it happened to be particularly swarthy. There was no sense wasting a name on a baby if it didn’t live to see the use of it. And Baby was not swarthy, couldn’t even properly be called healthy. She was still so young that her wings wouldn’t lift her, and she lay quiet most of the time.
Johnna had never known an infant so quiet, so listless. She suspected that the wet nurse shorted Baby for her own child. Therefore, she made a watery mash to put in Baby’s mouth in the morning before giving her to the nurse, once more as soon as the nurse brought her home, again before they all went to bed, and one more time in the dark hours, when the infant woke hungry, rooting for milk Johnna didn’t have.
She was contemplating Baby now, rather than listening to her father and grandmother’s discussion. Baby lay on her back on a quilt, her downy little wings flopped wide open to either side of her body. Johnna tried to decide if the infant looked any stronger since her own arrival. She thought not, and this worried her. If anything, Baby seemed more frail, less likely to live long enough to be named. Johnna rued this.
It made her glad her own mother was an Arom trader, not an Auric magician. Her people named babies at birth, a layer of protection against the world’s ills. And Johnna had been named even sooner. Since Johnna’s mother was only fifteen at her daughter’s accidental conception, the tribe had named Johnna in the womb, calling her “John”, a strong name that could be used for a boy or a girl.
It seemed to have worked, because Johnna was a healthy infant, and unlike these girls’ Ma, Johnna’s mother survived the birth and took a husband when Johnna was four. Johnna missed her mother and stepfather now. She wished spring would turn quickly to summer, then to fall. She wanted to go back to her Arom family, where her sister was turning eleven and her brothers were seven and five. In the normal course of events, she would have been with them now. Normally ,she only saw her father once a year, when the Arom passed through before winter. But after his wife’s death last winter, he invited Johnna to come in the spring and care for her little sisters until he took a new wife in the fall. Johnna came to help, but also to learn magic.
And she enjoyed these siblings. Li’ita was too little to really understand what had happened. She wanted for nothing more than cuddling and playing. If Li’ita woke up in the night, it was only to seek out the warmth of Johnna’s bed mat, to snuggle and snore. Ba’aita, on the other hand, remembered her mother, and sometimes woke in the night, crying inconsolably, so that Johnna had to sit holding her, stroking her silky hair for an hour or more. Baby only woke once each night for that little meal Johnna left covered on the table. And Baby was so quiet that Johnna slept with a hand stretched out over the child, fearful that she would otherwise fail to hear her need.
Johnna went on watching Baby wave one listless arm as her father and grandmother moved on to the topic of the room her father was adding to the hut. He was courting three women now, a widow and two who had never before married, one of those not much older than Johnna herself. Aif and Sade mused how best to decorate the room for the new wife after it was finished and whether to bother replacing the makeshift wall that had cut Ba’aita, now that the weather was warm.
Baby lowered one arm and lifted the other, an exercise in holding up a heavy weight. Then something in her sister’s posture shifted, and she was no longer holding up her arm. Rather the arm was holding the infant down. “Baby?” said Johnna, bringing to a halt her grandmother’s argument about putting a sleeping hammock in the new room. Johnna half stood, and Baby twisted her head, a sudden, violent movement that caused her back to arch. Her face turned blue and in the instant before Johnna could move, the little girl’s body collapsed in on itself and she vanished.
Johnna screamed, “Baby!” and then sat down shaking, because Baby was fine, her little hand still extended to the ceiling, the tiny fist curling and uncurling as she lay on the floor.
“Johnna what happened?” her father asked.
“Nothing!” said Johnna. “I feel foolish.”
“Johnna!” he said sharply, “What did you see? Look at me and tell me what you saw!”
“I didn’t see anything.”
He took her by the shoulders and said, “Then what did you think you saw?”
“I thought… she died.” Johnna indicated Baby with a wave. “She died and disappeared before I could get up out of my chair.”
Aif growled in the back of his throat. Then, “Johnna,” he said, more gently than she had expected, “if you must see with only your eyes, then you must learn to trust them. Now take her quickly to the healer. Come get me if I am needed.”
Johnna stood, and though her legs would hardly hold her body, she walked across and gathered Baby in her arms, a warm reassuring weight. But small, so small. Outside, instead of walking, as she preferred to do after dark, Johnna flew to the healer’s hut, remembering as she kicked off the ground that he had said, “See you this evening,” when she left with Ba’aita earlier in the day.
Indeed, he was waiting when she landed once more at his door. But when he saw the tiny bundle in her arms, he let out a dismayed whistle. “I thought it would be Ba’aita again,” he remarked, taking Baby out of her arms. Johnna expected confusion then. She thought he would look at the baby and ask her why she had brought it instead. But he cradled Baby and held two fingers to her tiny throat. He said, “Go for your father.”
As she turned to leave , Johnna thought she heard a rattle as Baby drew breath.
After that, she didn’t know anything. Aif left for the healer’s hut, and Sade and Johnna cleaned up from supper in surreal silence. Johnna wrapped Li’ita and Ba’aita in their sleeping mats, then lit a lantern and sat vigil in the front room. She expected to be alone, but Sade soon joined her at the table.
“What will happen?” she asked her grandmother.
“It depends on what is wrong and what magic they can conjure.”
“Then you can’t See?”
Sade said, “No.”
Forgetting Sade could hear her thoughts, Johnna wished she had understood the depth of Baby’s illness sooner.
“No,” Sade repeated. “Some things simply cannot be Seen.”
“Oh,” said Johnna.
“But I can tell you this,” Sade went on. “If Baby survives, it will be because you saw with your eyes what the rest of us could not see with our souls.”
It was a compliment, but little comfort. Johnna didn’t answer and leaned heavily on the table. Stacked in front of her, waiting for breakfast in the morning, were the three bowls her grandmother had been teaching her to scry with earlier in the day. Johnna picked up the top one and handed it to Sade, who did not need to be told to reach out.
Johnna said, “The bowl is two shades of red, swirled together and spiralling out from the bottom. The darker red is deep like heart’s blood, like it leaned in too close to a volcano and came away scarred by lava. The lighter color is more like clay, or a bird’s feathers, rising up from the earth’s center and lifting the heart’s blood away from the burning heat.”
“Good girl,” said Sade.
Johnna went on, speaking quickly before she lost the thing she had seen at the very bottom of the bowl, balanced between the vermillion and the flame. She said, “And my sister’s name is Earthbound Bird. I do not know the words in your language, but that is how it goes in the common tongue, and she must have it if she is to live.” Johnna was breathing heavily when she finished, shaking as badly as she had been when the vision of Baby’s death overcame her at supper.
Sade turned the bowl over in her hands. “Loma’ai,” she said. “Earthbound Bird. Not small?” Johnna knew enough of the Auric tongue to know that ‘ita’ at the end of a word meant small. Ba’aita translated to ‘Small Firebird’ and ‘Li’ita’ came out ‘Small sky’. They would likely drop the diminutives as they grew, as most of the tribe’s children did.
Johnna shook her head. “Not small,” she said. “Not Loma’aita. Loma’ai.”
Sade nodded and turned the bowl over twice more before setting it on the table. “It had best be me to tell them, then,” she eventually concluded. “The namer will spend less time arguing about the waste if she does not have to complain because it was first Seen by an outsider.”
Johnna agreed. She watched her grandmother walk to the hut’s door and lift into the sky, knowing Sade’s magic would guide the old woman as if her eyes had not been so badly dimmed that she could not differentiate between light and darkness. Johnna watched the door for a long time after Sade left. Then, because nothing else seemed to help at all, Johnna picked up the bowl and stared hard into its center, trying to find things that simply could not be Seen.
This is a standalone piece that wound up being a companion to Curve of the Tree.
For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Barb Black challenged me with “Describe a color, any color, to a blind person.” and I challenged Melissa b with “Every Thursday, Al shut off his phone and ‘forgot’ it in his desk. He changed out of one work suit and into another. He liked his second job much better, though the pay was abysmal, and he only got to do it for a few nights a week.”
Stations of the Cross: A Prosaic Response to John Ashbery’s Poem “The Ecclesiast”
The man left oilslick footprints, bright, then dark, mottled sometimes, variegated and unexpected. He was homeless certainly, under his burden of layered clothing and multiple grocery bags, followed by the rank decay of life. And yet, every step forward made a new color on the pavement. He gave the impression of someone from an earlier time, a medieval peddler or Christ under the cross, no Simon to bear his burden.
He walked with a staggering gait, as if the unevenly distributed grocery bags pulled him constantly off balance. He passed a building full of children, and they were outside, drawing on the pavement. They tittered at his footprints and pointed. He crouched low in front of one of them, and nearly at once an adult swooped down to take her away.
She dropped her chalk. He took that and, working on all fours, began his own picture, just the tips of his toes leaving rainbow trails almost indistinguishable from the children’s art. The group fled from him, crowded around the teachers, and he took all the ways of writing for himself. They should have left, then, but they watched the man.
He crawled around and drew a giant sunflower, using whatever color he had on hand, without regard for appropriate proportions. And when he had finished, he said, “This is my manikin,” to no one at all, because the teachers and children had finally gone back inside, “My œcumenic and my truttaceous.” And then he ate the chalk he had used to write out his intentions. White powder and blue crusted down his matted beard while he went on consuming the meaning of his life.
A little boy came out of the building with his mother. They walked past the chalk-eating man towards the subway. They did not notice when the man crumbled and blew away in the breeze, like so much crushed stone. Or that his footprints got up and walked on without him, zigzagging just as before, as if, having been once sent in motion, they could not then be stopped. The custodian came and hosed down the sunflower and the children’s art, but no matter how hard he tried, he could not make the footprints fade. The water ran down to the street, chasing those colorful aberrations, chastising them for their trespasses.
“And what to you am I?” the dead man cries. “Monsignor, will answer thee to me?”
Tired, the voice answers “You are as honey to the air.”
Then both of them blow away on the wind, the wind, the wind.
Somewhere, hear the jackhammer cackle. It is learning how to pray, how to speak a rosary of beaten exclamation points into the street. Steel on cement, it stamps out damnation, perdition on the guilty road that has watched the innocents bleed and the guilty run, that holds in all its secrets, refusing to tell, to tell.
A little girl sat on the steps with her mother. “I see the moon,” she said, “in the middle of the day.”
“That happens sometimes,” her mother agreed.
“It’s pale,” said the child, “like it forgot to paint itself into the sky.”
The mother added, “Or like it couldn’t be bothered.”
“Lazy moon,” the girl teased.
Then she got out her jump rope and went down to the sidewalk to skip and chant. A family came out of the building behind her mother, pouring down the steps together in white dresses, shirts, and ties, like they meant to climb up and color the moon. One pale child in this group wore blue, and she joined the jumproper, leaping easily into the first girl’s rhythm. They sang
Sixteen bluebirds sitting on a fence
Flapped their wings and started to dance
Upward, downward, All along the line
Flapping their wings and looking fine
Count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Don’t miss a beat to stay alive.
Blue bells cockle shells
Evie, Ivy, Over,
I like coffe, I like tea,
I like boys, and boys like me,
Yes, no maybe so
Dance with me before you go.
Their patter travelled up the building, setting in motion a flight of pigeons, which beat the air with wings of dirty gray and white. As the birds settled back, the blue girl’s mother called to her from the curb, where the bus was approaching. The child danced out of the rope as easily as she had bounded in, but then the first girl stopped twirling to wave.
“Well, there’s that,” said the first mother, waving, too, and beckoning her child to come inside for dinner as the noise set the pigeons aloft once more.
They cackle their catechism down the darkening alley, “Feed me, will you feed me? Will you feed me?” And “Gone, I am gone, I am gone.”
Now come see the station, hear the train, the metal on metal crushing down of souls. Do you feel the brakes squeal and hiss, see the wheels creak and roll. Of steam stacks we have none, but smoke aplenty. For the engine is the driver, is the man, is the woman, is the child, is the cradle. And bouncing and swaying, it ever goes faster, faster now, faster, carrying upward like wisps of hope, the passengers’ prayers. Bearing downwards, ever downward towards the tunnel, where the dark popcorns over, turns inside out with a drop of water and some heat. And the train that darkness spits out on the other side of light is never the one that entered it in the first place.
For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Crosshavenharpist challenged me with “‘Fine vapors escape from whatever is doing the living.
The night is cold and delicate and full of angels
Pounding down the living.’~ from ‘the Ecclesiast’ by John Ashbery” and I challenged Allyson with “I’m certain you’re an honest young man. Nonetheless, I need concrete proof before I can make an accusation of that nature”
Here is John Ashbery reading “The Ecclesiast”. It’s an mp3 file, and depending on your speed, it will take a minute to run, but poems are meant to be heard and best heard spoken by their poets. It is worth it.
1) The tense shifts are deliberate
2) ‘Popcorn’ is a verb in the last paragraph.
3) I have chosen to ignore the fact that Phillip Pullman used this last stanza in the final book of His Dark Materials. I love the series. I loathe the conclusion and haven’t forgiven Pullman for shoehorning Lyra and Will into a form with contrived reasoning for the sake of literary convention.
This was a challenge that required a little research, so what follows is a bibliography. Sorry. I’m an academic. And damn it, Madame Syntax made me do it. I doubt this is relevant to the IndieInk challenge, but Madame is still pissed off at The Jester Queen and The Bitch for offering to flush her head over her fondness for long words, and I’m giving her the win here.
Inspired and informed by the following works
Ashbery, John. “The Ecclesiast”. Verbal Armor. Haidi 1966; 17 June 2006. Web. 3 March 2012. < http://verbalarmor.blogspot.com/2006/06/ecclesiast.html >
—. “The Ecclesiast”. From Rivers and Mountains. Pennsound at the University of Pennsylvania. Web. [1966?], n.d. 3 March 2012. < http://media.sas.upenn.edu/pennsound/authors/Ashbery/Living-Theatre-1963/Ashbery-John_03_The-Ecclesiast_The-Living-Theatre_9-16-63.mp3 >
Kiernan, Peter. “Anatomy of Poem – John Ashbery”. Peter Kiernan: Trainee Philosopher. 22 Jan 2012. Web. 3 March 2012. < http://peterkiernan.wordpress.com/2012/01/22/anatomy-of-a-poem-john-ashbery/ >
Lochman, Daniel. “Divus Dionysius: Authority, Self, and Society in John Colet’s Reading of the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy”. Journal of the History of Ideas. (Jan 2007): 1-34. Web. 3 March, 2012.
Stevens, Wallace. “Gray Room”. Paying Attention To the Sky. 1917; 3 May 2011. Web. 3 March 2012. < http://payingattentiontothesky.com/2011/05/03/gray-room-1917-by-wallace-stevens/ >
Suárez-Toste, Ernesto. “The Tension Is in the Concept”: John Ashbery’s Surrealism
Style38. 1 (Spring 2004): 1-15,143,146. Web. 3 March, 2003.
[“Wallace Stevens “A Figure like Ecclesiast”] Paying Attention To the Sky. 3 May 2011. Web. 3 March 2012. < http://payingattentiontothesky.com/2011/05/03/gray-room-1917-by-wallace-stevens/ >
When people asked about Johnna’s dark skin and hair and her grey-violet eyes, her mother Manda said, “She was my surprise baby.” Those traits, especially the eyes, belonged to the Auric tribe, whose standing with the ruling council was never stable. So the askers usually pretended to think Johnna was descended from her stepfather, even though she looked nothing like him or her younger siblings on that side.
Her father, when Johnna saw him once a year, was more honest. “Pfft. Accident,” he said. “The caravan leader had a fetching daughter, and I had a terminal problem keeping up my drawers.”
Johnna grew up among her mother’s folk, nomadic traders who settled into their mountain valley only in hard winter. Manda polished and mounted gems in cunning settings. She twisted necklaces , bracelets, and rings into life. Johnna took the name Cooper from her stepfather. He soaked wood and banded it into casks. All winter long, his shop was alive with the sounds of hammering, and summers, he set up with the blacksmith in his travelling forge to keep working.
Johnna herself was apprenticed to the bowwright, and she had nimble fingers and patient hands. She chose feathers and wood all summer long as they traveled. Then, she sat with Darric in his wagon in summer and in his shop in the cold months, and he guided her hands as she smoothed the wood to a shine and notched it for stringing . “Every tree has a curve, no matter how slight,” Darric said. “Pay attention to that as you work; make the bow conform to that natural shape.” She used the feathers to fletch arrows, where she also mounted the sharp little tips she whittled down from flint or obsidian.
Increasingly, Johnna’s next oldest sister minded their brothers so their parents could sell the family’s goods. Johnna often went with Darric now. They were watched closely, the sandy haired bachelor and his young apprentice. And they were careful, never alone long, because tongues wagged in their tribe. It wasn’t something they spoke of, but in the summer, if Darric went into the wagon for something, Johnna made a point to sit up front. Or if she needed something in back, he took the reins or tended to the horses in some other way, so that everyone could see they were not alone in the dark. Winters, they sat in his shop, perched on stools, the door open to outside, even though it was cold.
Johnna slighted her friends to hone the craft she loved. It wasn’t just making the bows and arrows, but testing them. Darric taught her how to hunt and shoot true, so she could know her own work’s quality. Then too, she earned a little money, because Darric put her pieces alongside his in every town, only telling which had been made by the prentice when pressed. She kept this cash secreted with her stepfather’s barrels. Her peers might overlook her darker skin and hair and her purple tinted eyes, but none of them had the skill to earn money from their prenticeships yet. They would say Darric favored her, perhaps even that he was courting her, if they knew he gave her money of her own.
She was just now fifteen, the age her mother had been at her own birth. Young by her people’s standards standards. Still, one of her friends was already betrothed. Sari meant to marry outside the tribe. Her vocation ran more towards growing things, skills that made her ill suited for a nomadic life. She was engaged to a farmer near Derrydown, and if they still liked each other when they met again next summer, her parents would let the wedding go forward. Johnna did not want a husband yet. She was friendly with a number of boys, and she supposed she would go with one of them when the time came.
Then came her father’s letter, sent with a straggler who had to stop and replace a wheel and barely crossed the passes before the mountain snows isolated the village for winter. “My wife died,” her father wrote. She had been heavy with their third when the caravan passed through Auricstead the previous fall, and Johnna could guess how she passed.
The letter went on, “I have a wet nurse for the babe, and I can manage for the winter. But come Spring, I must built up my hut again and add a new room to take a new wife in the fall. I would pay a good wage if you came and watched your sisters until late summer.”
Johnna’s mother laughed when she saw the note. “He was always so direct,” she said.
“He doesn’t make it sound very appealing,” Johnna said.
“He doesn’t at that,” Manda agreed.
“He says he doesn’t want the appearance of an affair,” Johnna told Manda, quoting the letter. “It’s one thing to have loose drawers when you’re a young man, but a widower best be clear he isn’t buttering both sides of his bread.”
Johnna’s mother laughed again. “So direct,” she repeated. “But think about it,” she went on. “There are grandmothers he can hire among the Auric if that’s his reason. It’s a side way in for you he’s offering, if you want to take it.”
“And if I don’t?”
Johnna’s mother shrugged, smiled. “Then you don’t,” she said.
Later, sitting with Darric, both of them sanding bows, Johnna said, “My father wants me to sit with my sisters for two seasons.”
“Oh?” Johnna no more discussed her parentage with Darric than she did the reasons they must always leave the door open when someone wasn’t in the shop.
“His wife died,” she went on. “Mother says he’s giving me a chance to be an Auric.”
“And do you want that?” Darric set aside his bow and watched her.
Since he had set his work down, Johnna did the same, but that left her nothing to do with her suddenly anxious hands. “No,” she said, gripping the edges of the stool. “But I do want…” it was hard to put into words what she wanted.
“You want them to acknowledge you,” said Darric. “You want them to stop looking around you and pretending you are purely the Cooper’s daughter from the Arom tribe.”
“Yes. That’s exactly what I want.”
Darric picked up his work once more, allowing Johnna to do the same. He sanded awhile, smooth long strokes that Johnna tried to imitate on her own bow. After a time, Darric said, “You would rejoin us when the caravan came through in fall?”
“Of course. I hadn’t thought of actually going,” Johnna told him. “I don’t like to lose two seasons learning.”
Darric smiled. “You wouldn’t lose a thing if you kept working. And you would have time to gather a fair amount of wood in two seasons.” He didn’t have to tell her that some of the most expensive bows he sold were teak or that the time the Arom spent in the southern woodlands was too short for his liking. But the caravan had to hurry by then, to get back to the northern mountains before the heavy snows and ice came.
Johnna thought of the Auric forests, where Darric had traded some sixteen of his best bows last year for enough wood to make just five more. He expected to sell those for more than every other bow now in the shop, and Johnna was to craft one of them.
“You think they would let me take their wood?”
“I think if we finish three of those,” he pointed to the unstarted wood standing in a corner of the shop, “and you take them with you, they will buy them for a cost and be willing to open their forest to us both. They will see the value to themselves in what we sell.”
Johnna put down her work again, this time to cross to the corner where the teak waited. She ran her fingers lightly over her piece. “That would be something,” she said. It wasn’t just that Auric teak was a strong hardwood. It was infused with Auric magic simply from growing where they lived, and sanded and fitted right, those bows shot truer than any in the world. “That would be something,” Johnna repeated.
“Your father would teach you a little of their skill,” Darric went on. “Think about the weapons you could make. There hasn’t been a hunter mage since before my father’s time.”
Johnna looked up sharply. “But Darric,” she said, “I don’t fly! The Auric mages all fly.”
“Yes you do!” he countered. “Or you did anyway. When you were a babe in arms your mother and grandmother tied a little string to your ankle and towed you behind them like a kite.”
“How would I fly, Darric? I don’t have wings!”
“Well I don’t know where they went, but you used to. I wasn’t quite an apprentice myself, but I remember the arrows my father fletched with your feathers were said to never miss their mark.”
Johnna stared at Darric, her mouth slightly open, her hands dangling limp at her side. Then she reached behind herself and patted across her shoulder blades, as if she expected wings to have sprouted out of her shirt while they were talking. Forgetting her coat on its nail by the hearth, she turned and walked out of the shop.
In the street, she ran all the way home and burst in on Manda setting a piercing green emerald in a delicate lady’s ring. Normally, she would never have disturbed her mother at work, but now, she no more saw the ring than she did the wood left behind in Darric’s shop.
“Johnna, what happened, child?” Manda exclaimed.
“Darric says I used to fly!”
“Well yes, “ her mother said. “Your feathers stopped growing in when you started walking. But your father told me they would come back if you ever wanted them.”
“Well why didn’t you ever tell me?”
“You never seemed very interested in your father’s people.”
“I guess I wasn’t until now,” said Johnna. She sat down on the hearth and watched Manda.
Manda went back to the gem. “You’ve met your baby sisters,” she said. “They could do with a bit of family right now, and you have a good hand with the littles.”
“I suppose so.” Johnna ran her hand across her shoulders again. Her whole back had started itching when Darric first told her she used to fly. “But I’m not Auric!” she burst out.
Now Manda laughed out loud. “Of course you are,” she said. “You’re as Auric as you are Arom, dear.”
“I mean I couldn’t stay with them. What if I got there and they tried to keep me?”
“Their trouble with the ruling council has always been they keep people out, not that they force them in.”
“And father says,” again the hand across her own shoulders, “that if I want to fly, my feathers will come back?”
“Yes. The flight isn’t something external. It’s stored within your body. Find a way to work it out.”
Johnna thought her body was working those feathers out all on its own from just that brush of thought. She felt needles of pain all down her spine, and it was all she could do to keep from tearing her shirt off and running bare-chested into the winter air to cool the stinging.
It was that pain far more than her mother’s words that made her believe Darric. She would not lose ground in two seasons with the Auric. Instead, she would gather wood and knowledge. She would learn to train her bows with foresight, so a hunter might see, an instant before releasing the string, if the shot would fly true or if it should be held back, the arrow unwasted.
Now her back felt like live embers had sparked onto it from the fire behind her. She lurched to her feet and then she did struggle out of her shirt. It was growing too tight, and she thought the wings would shred it. Manda looked up again from the gem, then set it swiftly aside to help her daughter. Johnna collapsed against her mother, who swayed, but held her upright as blood spilled down the girl’s sides and her back and shoulders erupted into a riot of brightly colored feathers.
After a few minutes, her mother asked “Are you all right?”
Johnna made a little sound then said, “Tender.”
“I should say.” Manda lowered Johnna to her knees. “I’m going to get a robe for you to put on backwards, then I’ll take you down to the springs. We can stop at the apothecary for numbing powder.”
Johnna sank down to rest on her arms, which quaked. She felt top heavy and off kilter. She thought then that she would go to the Auric, to care for her sisters and to learn what to do with herself. She would not stay more than the two seasons, and even that would be hard for someone so used to travel.
She held in her mind the fixed image of that teak wood sitting in Darric’s shop. She felt as though she held it already, smoothing, polishing, and notching the wood. This she would take, along with Darric’s two finished bows, to sell to her father’s tribe. But the next one she made, she meant to keep for herself, to learn to hunt in a whole new way. She barely minded that she would miss Sari’s wedding. She had larger things to do in her fifteenth summer, and in spite of her weakness and her pain, she found herself smiling when Manda came back into the room.
“Wednesday Washday,” Mam always said.
She had sayings like that for every day of the week. The only other one I remember is “Monday morning do the darning”, probably because it rhymed. But she died when I was small. Everybody in town says Daddy should have given her at least a month in the ground before he started poking around in other women’s holes. But if he had waited, I wouldn’t have gotten Ona for my new mam, and we’d not have Ruby for our baby. Of course, she isn’t really a baby any longer. She’s got five summers on her, and she can do more every washday.
Ona’s husband died of the same sickness that took my mam, and they told me in the village that my Daddy and Ona got married before the stones were piled over the big cairn where they put the fever dead that summer. I was supposed to be mad at him for that. But they don’t understand that Ona brought me Ruby so tiny, who needed a Daddy as badly as I needed a mam. They don’t understand that every year for the five since that fever, when the magnolias are honeythick, Ona takes me to the cairn and we put blossoms on it together. I put one for my Mam, and since she could walk, Ruby puts one for her first Daddy, even though she really only knows my Daddy for hers. And then Ona sprinkles dust for both of them that their sacrifice should be enough.
We always see the others, like the blacksmith’s big son Gavin, whose parents both died. His uncle came down from the mountains to run the forge until Gavin gets bigger. When we meet him at the rocks, we all stand together to lay our flowers, and Ona speaks his parents names when she throws the dust for my Mam and her Roddy, that their sacrifice should be enough for him as well. His uncle barely knew his brother that died, and it won’t do any good if his uncle lays a flower or throws the dust. The dead can only hear the invocations of those who have felt their loss. Ona and Daddy both say so. But Daddy can’t bear to go.
This year, it’s not the fever giving us trouble. It’s flooding and wolves. We can hear the river loud and close everyplace we go, and at night, the wolves are always howling. Ona says Daddy laid the spells strong by our house against the flood, and the wolves will keep to themselves. But the water sounds always like it is rushing towards us, looking to pull our little house loose and rend it apart. And the wolves sound like they’re right outside my window some nights, hungry and lonesome.
Ona says we may as well have high water as fever, may as well have wolves as water. She says the wolves haven’t got anywhere to go. When the river recedes, they’ll go home to the lowlands. But of course they can’t do that now with the river spilling all over the ground.
Last night, Mrs. Carmody came to the house with something wrapped up heavy in a cloth. She opened the cloth, and it was a man’s hand in there. Ona screamed, and all my body but my stomach rose up into my head so I felt like I was floating. My stomach held me down to the ground like somebody poured it full of rocks from that cairn.
I knew it was a man’s hand by the hair on the fingers. Little Ruby didn’t understand what she was looking at, all purple and swollen, the skin jagged and muscle rotting at the stump. She just stared while I covered my mouth to hold back my food, and Ona shrieked, “Cover it up!”
Mrs. Carmondy rolled the cloth tight again, then said “My Derrick found that in one of those metal traps. Those wolves aren’t natural.”
Ona said, her voice still high, running along the edge of a scream, “Like it walked into the trap and had to chew off the paw to get loose, then the paw changed back to a hand after.”
“That’s what we reckon,” said Mrs. Carmody. “I’m sorry to put it to you that way, but you need to know, and I didn’t think you’d believe me without the proof.”
Ona reproved her, “And me a wizard’s wife! Of course I would.” Ona was crowding her apron into her mouth now, like maybe her stomach wanted to turn the same trick as mine.
Mrs. Carmody went on, “I brought you something.”
“Please, no more!” Ona’s voice was a little more controlled now, but it still shook some.
“Not that,” said Mrs. Carmody. “I had a silver idol from my own gran from the last time the wolves came around. I took it to Gavin’s uncle and melted it down. I’m taking the bullets around to my neighbours. I came here first because I knew you had those little girls to think of, and your man off trying to find a spell that will hold the levy at Knightsbridge.” Mrs. Carmody nodded to the gun stretched across the rack above the fireplace and held out a pouch. “You can shoot that?” she asked.
Ona let go of her apron. She took the pouch and nodded. “Yes, thank you,” she said.
Mrs. Carmody wouldn’t stay the night. No wolf would touch a witch, and she meant to finish taking the silver around by morning.
“She’s a good woman,” Ona said, when Mrs. Carmody had gone. “Cares a lot for us.”
I just nodded, still too nauseous to trust my mouth to spit out words and not my supper.
“Here.” Ona handed me the pouch. “Put these on the mantle and we’ll go to bed.” Neither she nor I had much taste for sleep after news like that. But what Ona really meant was that if I would keep Ruby quiet in the bedroom, Ona would try to scry Daddy in her little glass so he might be warned and tell them in Knightsbridge. She had enough of the witch in her, but that wasn’t something we told around. The village already had a witch, and we didn’t want them thinking Ona meant wrong by Mrs. Carmody.
When Ona came to bed, Ruby was long since asleep. Ona kissed Ruby’s face and pushed the hair away from my ear to whisper, “It is well with him. He says not to worry. He will come home.”
Then, she pulled Ruby and I in close to her, and I could finally rest. If Daddy was coming, that was good.
Today is Wednesday, and wolves or not, Wednesday is washday. I’m big enough. I can help. Ona and I both get down on our knees in the yard and scrub the dirt out over the washboard. Ruby tries to do her part, too. We work side by side and watch the river race itself. It comes to a bend near our house, so that it passes on three sides, and there is nowhere we can do wash without feeling it.
“What do we do if the wolves come, Ona?” I say.
“Are you still thinking of those bullets?” she asks me.
Ona lets go of the shirt she’s scrubbing and takes my face in her wet hands. “Your Daddy and I will keep you safe. You and Ruby are our gems, more precious than silver even.”
I lean into her a little then but just as quickly pull away. “Where’s Ruby?”
Ona jumps up and whips around. “Ruby!” She calls.
My sister doesn’t answer, and in an instant, I see why. She walked away while Ona and I talked of wolves, her exploration taking her behind us and too close to the riverbank. Even as we watch, Ruby misses her footing and vanishes.
“Ruby!” Ona screams our baby’s name, and then she’s running. She looks around once at me. “Stay put,” she says. Then, still running, she pulls her shirt up, throws down her skirt and tears at her underthings.
She’s moving so fast, and I am crying so hard, that her body blurs as she strips. Every step is one too late, then she is at the riverbank where Ruby went down, leaning out, staring hard. She looks back at me one more time. “I see her,” she calls. “I can get her.”
Then Ona dives, and it seems at first that my tears have blurred her body again. But it’s not my eyes. Ona is changing, her body tightening as she flies out over the water, her arms and legs pulling up into haunches, her head becoming flat and long. Then she breaks the surface, and I can’t see her any longer.
I can’t bear to be still, so I run to the bank, clinging to the trees when I get too close myself. I can see little Ruby clinging to a tree, an entire tree that has been ripped out into the current, it twisting so that she must flail to stay above water. And then I see the wolf’s snout. Ona is swimming hard to reach our baby.
“Hold tight,” I scream to Ruby, who cannot hear me at all.”Don’t be scared. It’s just Mam coming to save you. You have to let her take you.”
Ona will reach her. She must reach her. We cannot lose our baby. Running footsteps behind me, and when I look back, I see Gavin and his uncle, who could not have heard us screaming, who could not have come so fast from the village and their forge even if they heard. Beside me, they stop for a moment, just as Ona did, and I understand what will happen even before it begins. Gavin’s uncle gets down on all fours and leaps, and I find I cannot watch him change. “They’ll come out down there,” says Gavin, and he points to a place downriver where the bank smoothes out, becomes less steep. “Get the clothing. Hurry. Then get on me. Your father is coming.” And then he changes.
I run madly around the yard, collecting the things Ona, Gavin, and his uncle have removed. I cannot watch the wolves, but I know they will get to Ruby in time. I felt the certainty in Gavin’s voice. With the clothes piled in my arms, I scramble onto the huge wolf’s back. I cling to him with my knees, my fists knotted in his fur, the shirts, and pants, and drawers crushed between us.
And I think, “Does he know? Does Daddy know?” over and over as Gavin carries me to the place where Ona and the uncle will come out of the water. I think he does not know.
Then Gavin stops and rolls me off. He curls on his side, and within an instant, he’s a boy again, only a little older than I am, even if he is as tall as a grown man. He yips in pain, a sound that becomes his own voice shouting. “Help them if you’ve any magic, Birdie. Others are coming. They must not see.”
The wolves don’t need my help, and that is good. Because if I do have any magic, it has yet to show. The wolves have got Ruby between them, and I cannot tell them apart in the water, but they are swimming strongly against the current. They will reach us just where Gavin said.
“You mustn’t speak of this,” Gavin tells me. “It must be something kept between us. Or they will kill us all sure.”
But I knew that already. I know I have seen something I must never put into words. If I do, I’ll lose the only precious things to come into my life since the fever took my Mam. And I know this, too. The water is wild, and it will take a body faster than a body can take breath. But the wolves, them I must trust. They came to protect us from the water. They are here for Ona’s sake, a protection like the dust she throws at the cairn, that no lives be lost that can be saved. That the sacrifices of those already dead should be enough.
For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, SAM challenged me with “magnolias, Wednesday, riverbank, wolf” and I challenged Supermaren with “Mornings suck at our house. Between the noise from the forge and the smell coming out of the dragon pens, we’re all grumpy and nauseous before we finish breaking our fast.”
Billy Squier crooned “In The Dark” on Trevor’s boom box. Trevor lay on the top bunk, while across the room, Paul pounded a joystick. “Be careful with that thing!” Trevor warned.
Paul said, “It’s gonna die soon anyway.”
He was right. When the boys opened the gaming console at Christmas, they gazed unbelieving at the box. The machine inside was used, but very real. Nonetheless, one of the joysticks had been broken within a month, its red button jammed down until it wouldn’t spring up anymore, and there wasn’t any money for repairs. The second stick was held together with duct tape. Both boys knew it wouldn’t be with them much longer. Still, they enjoyed it while they could, and Trevor hated to hear Paul abusing the thing. But Paul had always been the nervous one, and Trevor understood that need to expel energy.
For his own part, he reached above his head and turned up the radio. He wanted to get up and pee, but Miss Anna had been clear. Trevor’s job was to concentrate his wishes down to the yellow-haired dead man in the bottom bunk, and to not get up for any reason whatsoever until the trouble started. The body had to remember who had killed it, had to remember its own animosity towards its murderer. And it could get that from Trevor, who had watched his stepfather shoot it when it had still been a man. Trevor and Paul had been trapped in their shared bedroom with the blonde corpse for a whole night now, a night when neither of them slept.
“What’s that horrible smell?” asked Mom from the doorway.
Paul jumped to his feet, standing so his body blocked the bed. Paul’s job was to keep Mom out of the room when she came home from work. “Where’d you come from?” Paul demanded. “Get outta here! And knock first.”
Trevor propped himself on one elbow and made a show of looking at their mother. In fact, even that motion was a little difficult right now. Those tendrils of concentration that he had been sending down were also wisps that held him in place and made moving a heavy burden.
“Can’t you ask how a lady’s night went at work?” Mom said, and then continued without waiting for an answer, “You aren’t hiding some other smells, are you?”
“Mom, we’re not smoking pot, now let me finish my game! I have to get to the Mothership before time runs out,” said Paul.
Mom stood silhouetted in the doorway, leaning on one raised arm. The backlight hid her features, hid the bruises, so that for a moment, her sons saw her as men must have once seen her, a wasp-waisted goddess crying out desire with her very figure. Paul flinched away from the sight, but he stayed between her and the bed.
“I’m just telling you, if that smell isn’t gone by the time your Daddy wakes up…”
“Randy’s not our father,” Trevor snapped. “Not mine and not Paul’s.”
“Don’t you let him hear you say that,” Mom warned. Randy was asleep in his kitchen chair, sprawled backwards in front of an unfinished beer.
“Okay, fine, just let me finish my game,” Paul insisted.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do with you boys,” Mom said. “It’s absolutely putrid in that room.” But she was retreating down the hall now, and Paul stepped forward to close the door behind her. They knew she was too tired to investigate.
“How are things coming down there?” Trevor asked, his voice sounding as heavy now as his body felt. When the subject wasn’t their stepfather, he didn’t have much energy for speaking.
Paul approached the bottom bunk and rustled the comforter. “Still dead,” he reported to Trevor. “I hope he hurries his yellow head up. Mom’s right about the smell, and if Randy wakes up and comes in here …”
“Is she? I guess my nose has kind of adjusted. I hardly notice anymore,” Trevor told his brother. “Anyway, it will work. Miss Anna said we had to give it a full twelve hours, and we’re at eleven and a half right now. And Randy’s going to be sleeping awhile yet. I got the pills in his drinks.”
Paul nodded, moving away from the bed. Then he picked up his joystick and resumed the task of navigating an alien home to its distant family. “I hope Mom doesn’t decide to want the TV back,” he said.
“That’s a stupid game if she does” said Trevor. “But she can’t come in, and right now, you shouldn’t go out.
Paul didn’t answer.
“In The Dark” faded out, and the DJ put on some girl band, The Bangles or Bananarama. Trevor groaned and reached behind his head to fiddle with the dial without looking.
Out in the living room, the same song Trevor had just turned down came on louder. Mom keeping herself awake long enough to get some breakfast. Or dinner. It was hard to say which meal was what with a third shift job. Mom sang “She’s got it” while Trevor fumbled through stations on a slow-to-tune dial.
“I guess she doesn’t want the TV anyway,” said Paul.
Mom must have been dodging around Randy’s sleeping form, because a couple of times, she stopped singing, then apologized, “Oh! So sorry hon, just getting myself a little dinner, then I’m heading off to bed.” And Paul pounded a little harder on the joystick.
Then a bump, and Paul threw down the joystick and spun around. Trevor sat up too fast and smacked his head on the ceiling. AC/DC crackled on the boom box, “Back in Black”, and Trevor rubbed his skull. The logy feeling let him go as those hundred thousand directed thoughts finally finished their journey through his mind and into the yellow-haired man’s body. “Get the blankets off it, Paul,” Trevor hissed, as he vaulted down the bunk ladder. The trouble was started.
Paul snatched the cover back, removed the comforter jerkily, then backed against the television. Trevor studied the former man and stood beside his brother.
The corpse’s eyes were as yellow as its hair now, and they were glowing. It sat up a little unsteadily, then swiveled its head to look straight at Trevor. “In the kitchen, right?” the dead man rasped.
Trevor nodded, then swallowed hard and spoke. “Asleep at the table. Not Mom. Not even if she gets in the way.”
The corpse nodded, rising until it seemed to fill the small room with its rank smell. “Not Mom,” it repeated in that same growling voice. “But when she starts screaming, you be ready to grab her and run. It’s going to get ugly when I take that bastard back down with me.”
Then, the zombie kicked the door down like it was made of cardboard, while Trevor and Paul huddled together against the TV. “One bright chance,” Trevor said. “God almighty, one bright chance.”
And then the brothers held on to each other, waiting for their mother to scream.
For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Jay Andrew Allen challenged me with “Bananarama. ” and I challenged Grace O’Malley with “Deftly, he wove in and out of the cones, letting the wind rush across his body, holding himself coiled for the moment when he could pick up speed.”
This is also part two of the story I started here yesterday.
Look the lie
Every night, I watch Joe when I’m supposed to be doing the crossword. He manages the money. He knows. He checks our bank accounts and does the math. He knows I’m rarely home during the day, and we both know what it means for our future.
Yesterday, he looked up from the computer and said, “Tell me about him, Christie.”
He wasn’t accusing; he wasn’t demanding. His voice was tinged with sorrow, as if discussing a death.
“Well, you know. He’s young,” I began. I knew the conversation was coming when I took three hundred dollars out of the ATM machine day before yesterday. I braced myself, rehearsed my lines. But I expected Joe to be furious. I thought I could match him anger for anger and lash back saying see what you’ve driven me to? The sorrow though, dried my voice in my throat.
“Is he good in bed?”
“He’s alright. Not as good as you. Just, you know, different.”
“Different,” Joe said. And I thought he might ask Different how? But he didn’t say anything else, just went back to the computer, back to the accounts. Later, he drew me into his arms and said, “I’m glad he isn’t as good as me,” which made it that much worse.
Of course, there is no other man, and Joe knows that. He knew it last night when he asked, and he knew it when I lied. Maybe he thought he could leave me, as long as there was somebody else. Maybe I thought it, too.
At the tables, they call me Mrs. Stone, scoot in my chair, offer me drinks. At the end of the day, they bring my car from the garage. I tip well. I’m not their highest roller, but when I’m there, it’s like the world narrows down to the money and me, to the slots or the chips on the table. My heart throbs and my breath comes fast and heavy. I can feel my own flesh more closely, pressing down in my seat or stool and at the same time floating away with the numbers. I’ll blow my wad for the pleasure of losing it, then come back and do it again, sometimes the same afternoon. It’s nothing at all like making love, and that much at least is true. It isn’t as good as Joe, just different.
Now, I’m watching him at the computer again, knowing that he is watching me as well. He whistles low; I’ve withdrawn some nine hundred dollars from my savings, and not from ATMs, either. There’s a limit to how much one of those will give me. But if I walk up to the counter with the passbook and my ID, the teller would close out the account if I asked.
I want Joe to confront me; I want it out in the open, not tied up in lies and anticipation. But he doesn’t say anything at all. He just goes on with the computer, and I go on with my crossword, as if the biggest lie of our marriage isn’t sitting beside me in my open purse.
For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Steffani challenged me with “Write about the biggest lie you’ve ever told. (Can be fiction or non-fiction)” and I challenged Tara Roberts with “You have less than two dollars and no access to more money. Begging is illegal and the police are vigilant. How do you get food?”