First the antique strain
Jacqueline West’s poetry has appeared in journals including Goblin Fruit, Mythic Delirium, Stone Telling, Illumen, and Sybil’s Garage, and has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is the author of The Books of Elsewhere, a fantasy series for young readers that debuted from Dial/Penguin in 2010. Visit her at www.jacquelinewest.com or jacquelinewest.livejournal.com.
I wrote this while reading Sarah Hannah’s gorgeous collection, Longing Distance, not long after Hannah’s death, and I was thinking about poets and suicide, and mortality and immortality, and about the bargains we make when we’re consumed by art.
Until the morning of my wedding, I had never seen Grandmother Borodina frightened. Angry, yes. Disapproving. Sullen and secretive, smacking gray dough against the floured board so that all of us knew enough to say out of the kitchen. On rare occasions she was pleased, and then the house would be filled with sweet scents and the off-key croak of her singing. But frightened—never.
Grandmother liked to tell the stories of how she and her sisters had scared the wolves away from the sheep’s paddock, armed with nothing but torches and pans. “We chased after them, yelling and whooping. They ran into the woods so fast you would have thought the army was on their tails,” Grandmother would grin, leaning back in her chair with her hands folded boastfully over her belly. “We were just three little girls—but we scared those beasts out of their skins.”
And then there were her stories of dark things, of the vlkodlak and vampýr, the blood drinkers and shape shifters always waiting for children to wander foolishly into the wood. Even sitting on the fire-warmed hearth, I could feel the cold fingers of drowned vodianoi, hungry spirits that came back from death to grab at the ankles of unwary maidens, pulling them under the green water. I believed her tales entirely, caught in Grandmother’s words like a fly in gossamer.
Looking into Grandmother’s black eyes, I could understand why wolves were afraid of her. Anyone would have been—anyone but Matus. He would laugh while the rest of us scurried out of her way, his smile sharp as a hook, his eyes bright with mischief. Only Matus.
Now no one is left who dares to stand in her way.
On the day of my wedding, I woke late. My brothers and father were already outside, at work on the morning chores. I went down to the kitchen, expecting to find Grandmother bent over the oven, preparing last dishes for the afternoon guests, but at first glance, the kitchen was empty. I looked at the fire, snapping low and red. A few used plates still sat, unwashed, on the table. This was strange—strange for my grandmother not to be hard at work, and strange for her to leave a mess, however small, out on the table for anyone to see. As I stepped forward to clear the plates, a bony hand clamped tight around my wrist.
“Hush,” hissed Grandmother, putting one lumpy finger to her lips. “Don’t move. You will startle him.”
Grandmother pointed silently to the ceiling. Perched on one of the wooden rafters was a small black bird. Cocking its head, it hopped between the braids of garlic and hanging herbs. I felt Grandmother’s body tense. She did not release my wrist.
“He wants the crumbs on the plates. Soon he will come down.”
“Poor thing. How did it get in?”
“How did he get in?” Grandmother echoed harshly. “He meant to get in. There is always a way, for them.”
“Perhaps if we open a window—”
“And let him get away? No. That would be worse.” Grandmother gripped my wrist tighter. “A bird in the house, and on the morning of a wedding. A bad sign. He carries death on his wings.”
I pulled my wrist out of Grandmother’s hand. “I am going outside,” I said, backing slowly out of the room. Still staring at the small black bird, Grandmother gave no sign of hearing me.
At the well I splashed my face with cool water. The summer day was wide awake all around me, with insects chirring in the grass and the breeze rustling the green embroidery of the leaves. I could hear my brothers at work in the barn, their low voices, their rakes scraping the dirt.
I went to the garden, snapping the stems of the freshly-opened flowers. Grandmother’s superstitions exhausted me. Her mutterings, her old-fashioned rituals, her plot of strange, nameless herbs in the corner of the garden. Once I had believed everything she told me. I spent years guarding against the hidden evils that lurked all around, setting harm in our paths. Now, as a grown woman, almost a wife, I found Grandmother’s warnings embarrassing. There were other old women like her in Slovensko, of course, muttering over their fires, tossing mysterious bits into kettles. Practically heathens. I was afraid of what Father Kotka would say if he knew. I was afraid of what the Doubroveks would think of us.
With my bouquet, I went back into the house, letting the door slam behind me. Perhaps I would startle the bird, and give it a last chance for escape.
“Did you catch it?” I called loudly.
Grandmother looked up from the table. On the boards before her lay the dead black bird.
I stepped closer. The bird’s neck had been snapped. Its wings jutted out on either side of its body, as though frozen in mid-flight. Its lidless eye stared up like a drop of night water.
“Stay here,” Grandmother said. Settling herself on a stool, she picked up the broken bird and started to pluck its feathers. A glossy black pile, like bits of charred wood, began to grow.
“You have bad luck, Drina. It follows you. It is like a dog at your heels.”
I stared at the gray braids wrapped around Grandmother’s head, at her quick, lumpy fingers stripping the bird bare. Its stippled skin was appearing beneath the black furze.
Grandmother placed the plucked bird on a skillet and slid it into the fire.
“What are you doing, Grandmother?”
Grandmother tossed twigs into the flame. “You will eat him. You will take his power.”
My stomach, already nervous for the wedding, clenched in disgust. “Grandmother, I can’t do that.”
“You will. You’ll eat him, even his bones. Leave nothing that can follow you.”
“No.” I stood, backing away from the table. “I won’t.”
“Drina. You will do this, or there will be no wedding today.”
The smell of the bird’s sizzling meat drifted toward me, and I thought I would gag.
“I don’t believe your stories anymore,” I said. “I won’t do this. No matter how you try to frighten me, I won’t.” Turning my head away from the smell, I hurried out of the kitchen and up to my bedroom.
My hair was brushed and pinned up for the rosemary wreath when a soft knock came at the door. Grandmother stood in the hallway, glowering at me. I said nothing. Shaking her head, she held out a small cloth bag cinched and tied on a long string.
“Take this,” she commanded, when I did not move. “Wear it around your neck today.”
“What is it?”
“You need to obey, not to ask questions.”
I took the bag from grandmother’s outstretched claw.
“Put it on,” she said sternly.
I nodded, stepping back and closing the bedroom door. I listened for Grandmother’s shuffling steps to move away toward the back stairs. Then I broke the string that tied the bag. I had expected a bundle of Grandmother’s herbs and petals, some buds and leaves ground into a powder. But the bag contained no potion. It was filled with feathers: the feathers of a small black bird.
Angrily I stuffed the bag beneath the fabric of my mattress. These superstitions made Grandmother no better than a gypsy. I pictured again her wizened hands snapping the bird’s neck, stripping the feathers from its pale flesh. The certainty came over me that Grandmother had eaten the bird herself.
The soft folds of my summer dress settled around me. I turned from side to side before the small mirror. The dress’s blue color set off the flush on my skin. The rosemary wreath lay neatly on my hair. But I did not feel the joy a bride is supposed to feel. Filip Doubrovek had never inspired such emotions in me. What I felt was a sturdy defiance rising up from the soles of my feet, steeling my body. Any blow struck at me today would glance off as easily as a falling apple blossom.
As it happened, the injury was not for me.
Just a few hours after the bells rang for the wedding, I was back in my own bedroom, farther from being Filip’s wife than I had been that morning. The rosemary wreath was growing limp. I pulled it from my hair and tossed it on to the bed. It landed just above the spot where the bag of feathers was hidden. Swiftly, I yanked the bag from its place, opened the window, and, ripping its rough fabric, let the feathers scatter in the wind.
The petals on the Doubrovek family’s cart had scattered in the same fashion when the horse reared. The procession was halfway to the church, rolling past the cottages and the low wooden gates of the village, where neighbors gathered to wave at us. Then, the sudden sound of screams, frenzied whinnies, a crack as the cart leaned to one side and fell, snapping the brace of a wheel. The horses jolted in their harnesses, kicking and shying.
Filip’s mother lay on the ground. Before the men swarmed around her like a bunch of black-coated flies, I saw her battered head against the dirt, a few flecks of blood clotting on the ground.
My brothers had turned the horses around, rushing me home, still wrapped up like a gift in my veil.
Filip called late that evening. My father made excuses for me, leaving me to rest undisturbed in my room. Creeping slowly onto the stairs, I listened to Filip’s droning baritone and my father’s rougher, softer voice, rising up from the parlor.
They talked of plans for the funeral—four days of waiting and prayer, the body on display in the church, as it was always done in our village.
“Of course, I will honor my word,” Filip was saying stiffly. “After the period of mourning, in an acceptable amount of time, I will marry Drina.”
My father was quiet. Then, “Good,” he murmured. “This thing was not her fault.”
“No,” said Filip. “It was only bad luck—very bad luck.” He cleared his throat. “I must go back to keep the watch.”
“Yes,” said my father. “We will call on your family tomorrow.”
Filip’s footsteps clopped closer as he headed toward the door. Standing, I flattened myself against the wall in the shadows. When the door had closed behind him, I crept down the stairs and along the hall, avoiding my father, who sat slumped over a book in the parlor.
Grandmother was alone in the kitchen. She sat at the table, pulling the stones from a pile of cherries. Her fingertips gleamed with red. She glared up at me without lifting her head.
I sat down across the table.
Grandmother’s fingers kept working, poking into the hearts of the cherries. “Do you want tea?” she asked.
I shook my head.
Grandmother sighed through her nose and pushed the bleeding mound of cherries away from the edge of the table. “This is a very bad thing,” she said.
I nodded, looking down at my hands.
“So now you see. You disobey, you don’t listen, and now you see.” Grand-mother leaned across the table until her char-black eyes caught mine. “You bring evil on our house.”
“What have I done?” I asked, indignant. “The horse was startled, and it upset the cart.”
“But what startled that horse? You know who it was.” Grandmother grasped my hand, pinning my fingers to the table. “It was him.”
I stared into Grandmother’s face, posed like the tip of a hot poker in front of me.
Grandmother nodded, sitting back in her chair. Her fingers left sticky red spots on my hand.
I stood up. “Grandmother, that is ridiculous. I would laugh, but I am too afraid for your soul. Matus is dead. He has been gone for two years. He is beneath a block of stone in the churchyard, not on the road through the village, waiting to startle the Doubrovek’s cart horse.” Now that I had begun to speak, the words poured through me like well water. “I do not believe in your old warnings and superstitions. I can see the difference between the real world and the imaginary one!”
“You think that there are only two worlds?” Grandmother said softly, looking up at me. “Then you are the fool, Drina.”
“Matus is dead!” I shouted. I even stamped my foot. “If somehow he could come back to this world, you know that I would have wished it so! But he is dead, and I will marry Filip, and I will forget that Matus ever loved me!”
Grandmother stared at me, as impassive as stone. “I see,” she said. “It is because you wish him back that he comes.”
Hearing this, I turned and left the kitchen.
Twilight came late. From my pillow, I watched the sky blacken through the slats in the shutters until the room itself faded into darkness.
Some time late in the night, there was a fluttering at my window. The clasped shutters thumped against the wall. I lay in bed, listening as the fluttering and thumping became more urgent, until at last I rose and opened the shutters so that the silver moonlight poured through. There, on the window ledge, sat a small black bird.
The bird did not seem startled by my closeness. It walked solemnly up and down the window ledge, cocking its head at me, then hopped from the ledge and lit on the grass below. I could see its small, bright eyes glinting up at me in the dark. Still watching me, it flew back up to the window ledge, and again back down to the yard. There it sat, waiting, watching.
Wrapping my shawl around my shoulders, I ran quietly down the stairs and out the door into the farmyard.
The summer night was warm and still. There was no noise from the barn, no soft creaking of night insects. Even the leaves hung silently on the trees. The light of the moon washed the world, leaving only shades of black and silver.
Some paces ahead of me on the path sat the little black bird. When I approached, he took wing, landing several steps ahead. In this way, I followed him beyond the gate to the hill where the path forked, one branch descending into a small wood while the other trailed away toward the village.
I had taken the wooded path many times before, each time that I had visited the Doubrovek’s farm. The sprawling stone house, the envy of everyone in the village, stood just beyond the wood’s edge, on a high slope overlooking acres of orchard and vineyard. Low, thorny trees reached out long arms that were thick with blossom in the spring, dragging with ripe fruit in the fall. I had always visited the place with a pleased but somewhat bewildered sensation, knowing that one day it would be mine. Perhaps it was the eerie cast of the moonlight on the world, perhaps it was the thought of PanÃ Doubrovek’s body lying in state somewhere inside the grand stone house, but tonight I walked the path to Filip’s home like a stranger. I kept my eyes on the small black bird that was flitting through the shadows in front of me, turning back now and again as if to see that I was following.
Beyond the spot where the path narrowed, lined on either side by towering oak trees, there was a sudden plunge into a small valley where once had flowed a stream. The water was long gone, but the path still traced the lines of its bed, climbing up again before wending out of the wood. As I watched, the bird flew between the tall oaks and then plunged downward, out of sight. I followed, rushing after it through the narrowing path, but froze in surprise on the edge of the old riverbed.
At the bottom of the slope, covering the milky ribbon of the path, was a pool of shifting black water. It rippled, glinting in the moonlight, casting up small crests that flashed with sudden motion. I stared, disbelieving. It could not be rainwater—a puddle this deep and wide, when there had been no storms—and it could not be a trace of the long-dead stream, disconnected from the riverbed to either side. Then, as I inched slowly nearer, I realized that the pool was not water at all.
The pool was made up of small black birds, clustered together so thickly that they formed an unbroken mass. Their jostling movement gave the effect of ripples on water, but oilier, darker—there was something ominous about their opacity, as if there were something hidden beneath them, something just out of sight.
As I stepped closer, and as the birds moved backed away from me with obstinate hops and flutters, I saw that there was indeed something there.
Under the thinning pool of glossy black bodies, I saw another body—a human one, though almost unrecognizable. The clothes that covered it hung in sticky tatters, ripped with hundreds of beak-sized holes. Beneath those tatters, the skin had been pecked and shredded, in some places to the bone. Before I turned away, retching, I caught a glimpse of hollow eye sockets, battered cheeks and lips, bloody hands. No matter how mauled the body, I recognized Filip Doubrovek lying there on the path.
I staggered back up the slope toward home, chased by the sound of hundreds of birds settling down to feed behind me. I ran past the oak trees to the edge of the wood, where the moonlight broke flat and bright, and through the open farmyard gate all the way to the kitchen door.
It was dark inside the house, with the fires long dead. Hands shaking, I gathered up a pile of tinder and tossed it into the oven, adding more wood until the fire blazed and leapt. I pulled Grandmother’s stool close to the oven. I tried to remember a prayer, but the words I had chanted since childhood had left me. Instead I clasped my hands, my back to the fire, watching the light that glanced off of the pots and pans, flaring the dangling bunches of herbs with red.
Then, below the soft sound of the fire, I heard the nearby flutter of wings. I looked up. On the rafter above me perched one small black bird.
The bird swooped down onto the table. Cocking its head, it hopped lightly toward me. Its feet tapped on the rough boards. In its beak, something glinted—something small and gold, something familiar.
The bird hopped to the very edge of the table. There it stood, a few inches from me, waiting. Slowly, I held up one hand, and the bird dropped the ring into my palm.
I recognized the ring as if it had been my own. It was the only valuable thing Matus had possessed: a narrow band of real gold, inlaid with one bright garnet. It had been his mother’s. Matus wore the ring on his littlest finger, the only place where it would fit. When we married, he told me, it would be mine. The ring had been glinting on his folded hands when they lowered the lid of his coffin two years ago.
Now I held it in my hand, turning it so that the garnet flared in the firelight. It was bright, and precious, and beautiful. And I understood.
After they found Filip’s body—or what remained of it—on the path, the people of the village began to treat me like blown glass. Today they tiptoe around me carefully, whispering to each other as soon as they are out of earshot about my dead suitors, my bad luck. My father and brothers are cautious and quiet, telling themselves that it is the shock of this second loss that accounts for my complacency, my calm acceptance of my fate. There is much that they don’t see.
But Grandmother sees everything. Often while I sit, smiling, over my work, I look up to catch her eyes on my left hand, where there is a gold and garnet ring. I meet her eyes. She does not say anything. That fear which once looked so strange on Grandmother’s face is now permanent, affixed like a mask. I have come to expect it. I smile again, and look back down at the cloth in my hands, watching the ring glint as it catches the light. I know how I am loved.
A lot of my recent work, especially in poetry, has been inspired by research into superstitions, with a focus on the Slavic and Germanic superstitions that are part of my Bohemian heritage. This story stemmed from the common belief that a bird in the house is a sign of impending death. This somehow melded with a lot of wedding superstitions, shape-shifting tales, and ancient religion into something that I knew was much bigger than a poem. There’s a bit of the romantic belief that love is stronger than death in there, too.