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A Featherís Weight

by Jessica Reisman

 

In Edward’s dream, the woman slices an orange. First the sweet, pungent scent of fruit mists the air, then a heavy metallic pall overtakes it. He looks down to see blood seeping from the vivid pulp.

He wakes thirsty, slightly nauseous, feeling as if bone slivers or the tines of feathers fill his throat. Early sunlight ribbons through the partly open curtains into the small room and he remembers where he is: Visiting his friend Arminius in the Hungarian city of Buda, its sister city Pest across the Danube.

The room flickers in his sight, as though he were on a train and the passage of light reflection and shadow stuttered over his eyes. His gaze catches on the thin gold band on his left ring finger.

In the mirror he sees the woman from the dream and a young boy behind him. The covers of the bed are turned down on both sides, the imprint of two sleepers left in it. Several pieces of luggage, a woman’s portmanteau among them, lie half unpacked. Delicate earrings set with small light blue aquamarines are pooled in a tray on the bureau. The boy has just come in; his voice is in Edward’s ears.

“Will we see mummies at the dig site Papa?”

“No, Alek,” the woman says as she puts the earrings on and smiles at Edward in the mirror. “Mummies are in Egyptian dig sites.” The earrings glint in a ray of early sun and he stares fixedly into the mirror, into his own eyes, until the voices are gone. He is alone in the room. The air over the window sash is cool, the promise of the day’s warmth still asleep within it.

He finds Arminius reading the local newspaper, waiting for him with a small breakfast laid out in the house’s little dining room.

Arminius smiles; his stocky build matches oddly with the heavy black hair hanging, still boyish, over his forehead. “Good, good,” he says, folding up the paper. “A fine morning. Eat and then we’ll walk over — the dig site isn’t far.”

• • •

Out in the street the light flows pale gold through the trees, along narrow cobbled streets between stone walls and closely built homes and shops, all of red brick and pale stucco with black trim; the shops have awnings. They walk in into a district with older bones showing, more stone, archways, towers with slim arched windows, orchards nestling narrowly in between walls.

“The find is very exciting,” Arminius gestures with his hands. “Your skeptic’s eye will see from a different angle than mine, of course, but the connections we’re finding to certain local legends and stories are wonderful.”

“I’m hardly a skeptic, Arminius. I have some theories about the workings of the human brain that the medical community finds quite scandalous.”

Arminius laughs. “My friend, if you could have seen your face during all those arguments we had about what you called ‘my stories.’ Legends, too, have truth in them.”

“Was I so dismissive? My apologies, dear Arminius. The fire of youth — we both had it.”

“Had it, eh? We are not so old, yet, Edward. Not so old. As for dismissive — ‘superstitious nonsense’ was your favorite phrase.”

Edward laughs. “I cannot help it if the viscera of the human condition are more compelling to me than overwrought oral histories.”

Arminius tsks, sweeping one hand in a slashing motion. “You will not goad me. I am a respected scholar now, eh?”

Light curls vaporous through the morning streets, the city still much in shadow. Edward catches the wavered reflection of his own face in the thick, distorted panes of glass in a vintner’s shop window. Again his vision stutters. The woman walks beside him, the boy between them. He can feel the boy’s hand in his, restless as a small bird.

The light flickers again; briefly there is a white room, the smell of oranges. He narrows his mind, his focus, and there’s only he and Arminius walking in the early morning city.

“The dig began as an excavation for new baths, you said?” He asks to keep himself in the now, the patter of conversation grounding.

“Yes, yes. János, the man in charge of the baths, contacted the university when he uncovered the ruins.”

 Up along a small hill the houses and shops open out to reveal a dip and sprawl of green space. They turn onto a path going down the hill through a large park, the meadow thick with long grasses and tiny wildflowers.

Above them looms the slope of Gellért Hill, covered in the dusty green tangle of vineyards. A whiff of woody scent, the musty scent of birds; he touches a hand to the stone wall that borders the path, the cool roughness dragging at his skin. A hand on his arm, the woman, Hannah, points up at a small owl high in the branches hanging over the wall. “Look, Alek. It’s an Ural, isn’t it, Edward? He’s up late; see his great eyes, Alek, so yellow and fierce?” “Yes, Mama,” the boy says, then offers his authoritative knowledge, “He eats mice and moles.” Edward snatches his hand back, denies also the briefest flash which follows, white walls, the scent of orange with that of antiseptics, sweat. Queasy, he rubs his chest, over his heart, which feels hollow, hollow around a pain he knows he cannot abide. Willfully he pushes the moment into focus. There is only he and Arminius, just they two. Arminius leads him down a branching path through a stand of trees, out of the park back to the street. The city swallows them more deeply, stone and brick and winding stairways.

A stone archway marks the entrance to the baths. Arminius pushes through the unlocked wooden door within the arch and Edward follows into a cavernous dim scented of heat and minerals. The lapping of water echoes under a ringing of voices.

Down a corridor and through another stone archway they reach the baths, long rectangular pools under a high, vaulted dome of ceiling. Water laps at pillars standing treelike the length of the place. The woman kneels beside him with the little boy as the child bends over the water’s edge, peering in, watching their reflections ripple.

Hannah, Alek. His heart twists like a mouse caught in owl claws.

Edward shakes his head and they disappear, replaced by a tall, bony man and two young people, both with the man’s light brown hair and wide-set eyes. The man and the girl, who is maybe fifteen, wash down the stone with brushes while the boy, closer to ten, wades through the water with a fine net, catching debris. Seeing them, the man waves, tosses his brush into a bucket and comes over, drying his hands on the apron he wears.

“János,” Arminius says, “Please meet Edward, the friend I told you about.”

János bobs his head and takes the hand Edward offers firmly. “Welcome. My children, Cila and Jozsef.” The children nod, the girl smiling shyly.

“Is Vajk here yet?”

“No,” János says.

“Good, good, we’ll just go back then.”

Arminius leads him back down the main corridor, past a door open to what appears to be living quarters, to another door, small and wooden. They must stoop to exit.

Emerging from behind his friend, Edward finds himself in the midst of the dig site. Several long troughs, where ancient stone brick shows, have been carefully sectioned off by markers and string. Brushes, picks and shovels, a cart, box sifter, and several camp stools dot the area between cordons made up of corner posts and more string. Piles of dirt lie just beyond, two wheelbarrows parked beside them.

A piece of canvas covers the cart; Arminius removes this and beckons him over. A number of objects sit on the upper shelf, a broken pottery bowl, shards of other pottery items, a small metal figurine, its shape much distorted, several slender metal pins with filigree heads. A deep, damp smell of age rises from them.

“We haven’t yet dated anything positively, but we suspect it was an Avar dwelling.” At his friend’s raised eyebrow, Arminius continues, “Of all the hordes which came through the Transdanubia, the Avars settled the area for the longest, two hundred years. We’ve found wares and tools to indicate an artisan used this dwelling.”

Edward examines the items curiously.

He hears a laugh and the day flickers about him. The woman from his dream stands beside him, and her voice is sweet, a balm to his mind. Her fingers are warm on his arm and she smiles into his eyes —

And is gone. János and Cila have joined them, János carrying a tray of coffee and food.

The girl Cila debates theories on the uses of the artifacts with Arminius, her mind sharp and lively. Listening to them, Edward feels as if a shadow sits at his shoulder, a shadow in which everything blurs slightly. Voices, faces, the place itself — all teeter, unstable. The girl’s voice becomes that of the woman and he smiles when she makes Arminius sputter without an answer. But then his heart turns in his chest and bile rises in his throat.

He sips the strong coffee, swallowing down the sickness. The voice becomes Cila’s again as the girl wanders away from the men, leaving them to their talk while she examines the uncovered stone walls. There is fresh bread, honey, and an orange. János peels it, the vivid scent springing into the air, and divides the sections among them.

The shadow at Edward’s shoulder blots all for a moment.

He is in a dim room, in a bed. His hands shake and he swallows back sickness again, a sour burning taste fills his throat and nose.

Through a misty haze, the dark of old blood, he forces himself to pick up a section of the fruit, to eat it. It is sweet, silky, a bit tart. The haze clears to the sound of a short, high-pitched cry, abruptly silenced.

“Cila!” János leaps to his feet, camp chair spilling over.

Edward finds himself, too, on his feet. There is a crumbled dark hole in the soil and masonry at an end of one of the troughs — something in the ruins has given way: The girl has fallen through.

“I’ll get the ladder,” Arminius says, hurrying off.

“Cila, are you all right?” János calls down into the hole. “Can you hear me?”

 As he joins the other man by the ragged hole, a whiff of dank air rises from out of the darkness.

“Cila?!” János calls again, harshly, becoming frantic.

Moments pass before she answers. They hear sounds of rustling, a small, gasping catch of breath. János calls several more times.

Then her voice rises out of the hole thinly, a querulous echo trailing it. “I’m all right, Papa.”

Arminius and Jozsef appear, ducking through the low door with a ladder and a lantern which the boy attempts to light as he walks.

She has fallen maybe nine feet and gazes up at them, into the lantern light as they lower it on a string. A small cut bleeds through the dirt smudges on her face.

For a moment it is another face Edward sees in the flickering light, his heart stopping with both relief and fear. She’s alright — is she alright? He squints, making the face only Cila’s.

Cila catches the lantern and sets it down, so that the area around her wavers in and out of sight, a tumble of shapes and angles. Next they lower the ladder to her. As she comes up the ladder, emerging into the morning light, and then as he treats her small hurts, sitting with her on camp stools, Edward observes small things: smudges of some dark, oily substance on her fingers and forehead, the way her eyes do not meet anyone’s. Since calling from below, she has not said a word, only nodding to his questions, János’ admonitions to be more careful. The shock, he thinks. She does not respond at all when he asks about the greenish black substance on her skin, in her hair. Her gaze only drops away further as she presses her lips together.

The girl’s left hand lies restively in Edward’s as he cleans the oil from her. Light flickers in his vision and the hand is another hand, older, but as soft, as small, a golden band on the ring finger. The scent rising from the oil is dark, an ancient musk. He lifts his gaze from the hand and the face looking back at him is an older one, hazel eyes and dark lashes, the gentle face, beloved —

His throat is filled with tiny feathers and he cannot breathe — no. No. The pain is too much —

He swallows and there is only the summer morning, the girl Cila, the dig site, Arminius’s delighted exclamations as he climbs the ladder up out of the hole.

• • •

They spend the day examining the artifacts, debating their possible uses. Vajk and another of the dig team come and go. Arminius will not let anyone but his colleagues down into the room Cila fell into until shoring work has been done.

As the day wanes, the sunlight steeping like tea, János approaches Edward and asks him to look in on Cila.

“She won’t speak,” János says, “and there is something… maybe she is hurt in some way, inside?”

“I found nothing, but certainly I will check again,” Edward answers.

The girl sits on a low bench in the living quarters, looking out the window. She has changed out of her dirtied shirt, skirt and over-apron into clean, patched ones. She sits with her knees drawn up to her chest, arms wrapped around them. Her expression is turned in on itself. In her wide-set eyes, some secret turns.

Her brother sits on a wooden chair at a table, swinging his feet, which don’t reach the floor. With a charcoal in one hand he works on a sheet of rough paper. A sheaf of charcoal drawings sits on the table as well, large leaves of rough, pale paper, curling up at the edges as though to cup the shadowed images on them.

A pang of hurt goes through Edward like an auger. Everything blurs, the boy’s silky brown hair, so like his sister’s, turns dark. The girl’s face and figure slide under his gaze from girl to woman. The boy’s voice says, plaintively, “Mama hasn’t moved or spoken, Papa — what is wrong with her?”

Yes, what is wrong, Edward thinks, what is wrong? Vertigo falls through him, the world at odd angles, himself, standing — or lying down?

He focuses on the girl’s face, fixing it in his mind, and the world reforms around it.

“Cila, I’m going to check you over again, all right?” He sits on the bench beside her. He examines her, finds no more than he did before. She looks at him, though, that secret turning in her eyes like reflection in a marble.

For a moment he smells that dark, ancient musk, though no trace of the oil remains on her hands or face.

“Did you find something down in the ruins?” he asks. “Something you liked and have hidden away perhaps? Because you didn’t want it to be taken away to the university?”

János, standing in the doorway, shifts when his daughter does not respond. “Cila? Have you?” He shakes his head. “I cannot believe she would do such a thing, Doctor. You saw — she understands about the work they are doing. She loves it.”

Jozsef shifts slightly, eyes on his sister, and then the boy’s gaze catches Edward’s briefly. He touches the sleeve of his shirt with the slightest lifting of his chin. The sleeves of Cila’s shirt are generous, cuffed at the wrists.

Edward had taken her pulse from the left wrist.

“Cila, may I see your right hand please?”

An expression crosses her face that shocks Edward, entirely at odds with the vivid sweetness he saw in her earlier, her face harsh, almost cruel. She holds her right arm tight to her chest.

“Cila!” János says sharply.

The girl blinks and seems to come back to herself. Lowering her face she holds the arm out.

Edward feels a slight weight in the voluminous folds of the sleeve’s thin weave. He pushes up the cuff and a small bundle drops into his hands: soft, pale, age-stained leather wrapped around something light and fragile feeling. He sets it on the table and slowly unrolls the leather, revealing a delicate circlet of silver filigree with many long, soft black feathers worked into it like locks of hair. The leather and the circlet are saturated, almost stiff, with the greenish-black oil.

“Why did you conceal this?” János asks his daughter.

She will not answer. Her eyes turn bright with unshed tears and Edward sees she must have a moment, and János must, with her.

He turns to the pile of drawings. “Are these your work?” he asks the boy.

“Yes.” Jozsef nods. He has a quick smile, keen eyes.

The light stutters in Edward’s eyes and the boy’s face has a double image. A face he knows much better blurs and then sharpens: a boy who is his own, his own flesh… A scent of oranges makes his mouth flood with hot saliva. He gags, swallows it back, forces the reality around him to unblur. Three realities there are, when it should only be the one, this one.

He touches one of the charcoal drawings. “May I?”

“Yes, Doctor, of course.”

There is one of Cila, capturing the very look of inwardness, of secrets, that Edward has seen. The others are of a cracked, patterned bowl, small pins with filigree work, a little statue, missing a leg, a broken box, empty. He can tell, so sensitive is the boy’s work, the substance of each item. He recognizes some of them as the artifacts Arminius showed him; others must have already been removed to the university. Where the feathered circlet will go. He glances at the girl, who has not moved, but stares at the circlet, laid out on the leather on the table. Her state of mind worries at him, the knot of her behavior one he needs to unravel. An anxious, urgent undercurrent tells him so.

Arminius comes in, concerned for Cila. But when he sees the circlet, excitement lights his face.

“Could it be—” he mutters to himself, as if unaware of the rest of them. “Yes, yes. No, no, mustn’t get ahead of ourselves. But it is all as the legend would have it…”

Looking up, he sees their waiting expressions and glances at Cila and Jozsef.

“Cila,” János says, “you and your brother go and get some bread for supper.”

Still without a word, and with the strange, folded expression on her face, the girl accepts several coins from her father and she and her brother leave.

“This area of Buda,” Arminius says then, “for centuries was a district of craftsmen serving the nobility and the ruling powers — of various tribes and races. The room Cila fell into is clearly one of these — there are more tools, finished work and supplies, primitive silversmithing works. The odd thing, however — on preliminary examination, it seems to have been a secret room; there is evidence of a hidden door mechanism where she fell through.”

His hand hovers a moment over the feathered circlet. “There is a legend from the time of the Avars that has always fascinated me. It appears in fragments in various forms and histories that we have documented.” His hands move with his words, describing pictures in the air. “A man of the Avars, a falconer, dared to disagree with a noble, protesting his treatment of a bird. As punishment for the impertinence, the noble took the falconer’s livelihood: he had the birds in the man’s care killed.

“The falconer loved his birds. He could not otherwise touch the power of the noble, so he sought the help of a bush magus in his grief and thirst for revenge.”

“A magus?” Edward raises a brow.

“A man of occult power and knowledge, a man outside of law,” Arminius says. The cadence of his voice is recitation, something read and memorized. “The magus took one of the man’s murdered falconets to a particular spring, a secret and sacred site, and washed it in the spring’s waters. Using the bird’s blood and feathers, he summoned a demon bird, a spirit of the outer darkness.”

Arminius ignores Edward’s shake of the head.

“The great demon bird shed feathers for the magus and these the magus took to an artisan. He instructed the artisan in the creation of a wreath of the feathers and of silver, forged with arcane workings, the silver cooled in the same spring at which the demon had been summoned.

 “The Avar man put on the wreath and the spirit of the demon bird came into him, changing him to its own likeness. Thus he came to the sleeping chamber of his enemy and killed him without impediment. His own, inner darkness was made fully manifest in that of the demon bird.”

Arminius paced a length, turned, hands gesturing.

“Yet the working was too strong. The falconer could not make himself free of the demon bird — of his own darkest self — even when he had removed the wreath. He went on to kill others in the night — when he slept the spirit would come into him again. And his own kin were among those he killed.

“To release him from the possession, the magus took the man to the spring where he had first summoned the demon bird. There he cut the man’s hair down to his scalp and burned it with a feather from the wreath, then bathed him in the water and the ashes. Thus the spirit of the demon bird was dispersed.

“But broken by what he had done, the man killed himself.”

Edward considers the tale. Distillation of the fabulous and bloody that it is, he thinks perhaps it is not wise of Arminius to tell such a story here and now.

“The magus,” Arminius finishes, “returned the wreath to the craftsman he had commissioned to make it, instructing him to destroy it, as only the original maker could.”

Into the silence, János says, “But perhaps he never did?” His face is somber, lines drawn down about his mouth.

“It’s a tale,” Edward admonishes, “an event originally violent and dramatic perhaps, garnished by decades of storytellers.”

Arminius spreads his hands. “Yes, yes, it is only a tale. But this,” he touches one feather lightly, “brought it to my mind. And the secret chamber of some lost craftsman — here, by the waters of a spring that was once, perhaps, more secret than it is today. You must admit, my friend, the coincidences merit consideration.”

Edward thinks he must have nodded. But the room is flickering, his stomach turning. She put it on, the circlet, he remembers the traces of the oil on her forehead.

“János,” Arminius says, “I’d like to leave this,” he gestures to the circlet, “for the rest of the dig team. Perhaps they can place it in the chamber, see where Cila found it. I’ve written Vajk a note apprising him of what’s happened. Will you see that he gets it and the circlet?”

“Of course.” The bath keeper seems disturbed to Edward and he touches the man’s shoulder lightly.

“I can come back tomorrow morning to check on Cila,” he says and János nods.

“Thank you, Doctor, yes. I’m very worried.”

Arminius adds, “If you need either the Doctor or myself, send Jozsef for us.”

János nods hesitantly.

“Good, good,” Arminius says, and they take their leave.

• • •

It is before dawn, Edward sitting at his window unable to sleep, when Jozsef comes. Seeing the boy below in the street, a small figure in the pre-dawn gloam, a moment’s vertigo overtakes him, the boy again another, so familiar — beloved — child.

He and Arminius accompany the boy through dark streets back to the baths. Jozsef walks quickly, his young face wearing adult lines of worry and fear.

“What has happened?” Edward asks him, but the boy only shakes his head.

In the darkness, the wind hissing through trees and branches scratching at stone, he hears the boy whisper, “Will she be all right, Papa? Will Mama be alright?” But he shakes the words away, following.

• • •

The boy leads them to his family’s living quarters at the baths. They find János coming in, setting aside a shovel, dirt on his hands. He takes them to the girl’s room.

She sits on the bed, eyes wide and blank, hands open in her lap. Her hands and white nightgown are smeared and pooled with dark blood. Drops of it spot the floor, the bed.

János says softly, “I heard noises, the door opening, and found her like this. It was a rabbit. In her hands. Her — she… its throat ripped out.” Then, “My God,” he puts his hands over his face, rubs them up over his scalp. “My god.”

“János,” Arminius says, “where is the artifact, the circlet?”

“No,” Edward says sharply. “Arminius, you cannot think — ”

“What are we to think, Edward?”

“That she has heard Arminius’ story — that there is some explanation. The human mind — ”

“János,” Arminius interrupts, “the circlet?”

“Vajk returned last night; he took it to the university.”

“Look,” Arminius says quietly and points to Cila’s left hand. A single feather, Edward sees now, like the ones in the strange wreath, long and curving, iridescent greenish-black, caught between her fingers, bloody.

“She kept one,” he says, reaching for reason.

But the girl looks up at him then, into his eyes. She says to him, “Help me.” And he is looking into another face, older, well-known, well-loved, her eyes both begging and commanding.

“Go and get cleaned up, now,” he chokes out, and again there is only Cila. She leaves the room with her little brother.

There is no Cila, a voice whispers in his own mind and vertigo assails him. Images, glimpses, a kaleidoscope full of broken glass spin through him: his wife, his son, blood and feathers, white walls and thin hospital sheets, the scent of orange, the glint of a knife…

He strangles the voice, clenches his fists until he feels himself upright again. He pulls himself into one piece, one reality. “I will give her some morphia and sit with her.”

“Edward, we must consider — ”

“No. There has been enough of such talk.”

“Open your eyes, Edward. The tools of science will never account for everything.”

Edward feels his anger rise. “Superstition and old tales are not the answer; I will not have it.”

Frowning, Arminius looks as though he will say more, but refrains.

• • •

Cila waits in a clean nightgown. Edward speaks gently to her, gives her the small shot. She curls up to let sleep come.

Shadows flicker before his eyes. He is looking at Cila, then not; it is the woman and the scent of oranges is in the air. Then another scent, strong, ancient: the dark brume of the oil which saturated the feather circlet and the cloth still seems to cloud the air of the room. He closes his eyes, wills the moment around him to stay solid.

He sits in a chair by the bed. Dawn begins to limn the dark forms of trees and buildings through the window. After a time, he hears the deep, even breathing of the girl. She sleeps.

He falls into a doze.

The scents of orange and blood mix with the rank musk of the ancient oil. Hannah sits beside him.

He reaches to touch her hair and finds feathers, dark, soft, slick, their sheen slipping through his fingers. Hannah, he tries to say. She looks up from cutting the orange and a secret turns in her eyes like reflection in a marble.

He struggles to wake. He must. A light strikes his eyes and he does, sitting up suddenly. A thread of early sunlight glazes the window. He recalls, somehow, a gust of wind from somewhere, the sound of wings.

The bed is empty.

He hurries down the hall. János comes from the other direction. The door to the other bedroom stands open. Edward lets go a breath, orders his thoughts. She has only gone to be with her little boy, her Alek. Her little boy? No, no, he stops, shaking his head. What is he thinking? Her brother, Jozsef is her brother.

János can see into the room and the expression on his face causes Edward to fall back a step. Then, a small act of will, he steps past János as the man sinks to the floor — a sound coming from him, a sound so harsh that it may tear him apart.

Edward has seen death. Blood, suffering, illness. He has learned upon the corpses of men and women.

But he cannot truly see this. He cannot open his eyes wide enough, his mind fully enough to see this. It cannot be understood, therefore it must not be.

Jozsef lies half on the bed, his upper body hanging off, hands trailing to the floor. A necklet of blood at his throat, of ligament torn from its place, the blood masking his face as it drips to a braided rug from the ends of his black hair — Edward blinks — his brown hair. The boy’s eyes are gone. Dark, wounded holes have taken their place. A blackness in his hands. It takes a moment to see that the blackness is feathers, grasped in death and now tangled in his thin young fingers.

On the floor sits Cila in her white nightgown. She looks up at him, rocking.

For a moment it is not Cila, but Hannah. Not Jozsef, but his own son, Alek. And it is himself, not János, who has sunk to the floor, who sobs so harshly.

Hannah holds out her hands, blood and greenish-black oil paints them.

No. No. He closes his eyes, reaching for a reality he can accept.

“Please, we must try what it says in Arminius’ legend,” János says behind him, his voice vibrating through Edward as though it were his own, “We must — oh God, oh God — !”

The light flickers. He is in a bed, rocking, sobbing. A half eaten orange sits on a table. The room is quiet, dim, sparse and orderly.

No.

From far, far away, Edward hears himself say, “All right, man, we’ll do as your legend says. We…” He tries to pull order from the ruins of his thoughts, finds himself moving, in movement, in action, things settling once more, tenuously.

He pulls the body of the boy straight on the bed and covers him with a sheet. Then he wraps a blanket about the girl and leaves her with her father while he goes to fetch Arminius.

Out in the early morning the air is fresh, the trees sigh in a soft wind. He must hold on to this reality.

• • •

They make a small procession into the baths. The quiet lap of water, mineral scent, and the echo of small sounds. János lights the lamps. The light etches stone arches, pillars, benches, and the dome of ceiling out of the dark. Windows set high in the outer walls capture little of the early daylight; the wavering reflection of the lamps’ glow ripples on the sleepy surface of the water.

Edward removes his shoes, feels the cool stone on his soles. János carries a bowl and straight razor, and he and Cila walk down the steps into the water. Her nightgown swirls up around her, a watery white bloom. Edward follows, holding the feather they found in the girl’s hand. Arminius stands by a pillar with a written account of the legend.

Slowly, all of Cila’s silky brown hair is cut off, close to the pale scalp. He finds his hands trembling, his whole body shaking, skin clammy. In the flickering of lamp flame on the water, the falling hair becomes thicker, longer and darker. He recalls the times he has run his fingers through that hair. His Hannah’s lovely hair. That he is cutting away.

No — it is János cutting Cila’s hair.

They burn the one feather with the hair, holding the bowl of smoky fire above the water. The ashes are quenched in the water. They lave that water over Cila’s forehead, her shorn scalp.

In the sheeting of ashy water it all flickers again and then no more. His illusion melts away.

There is no János, no Cila. Dear as they have become to him, their presence has only been rearrangement, a story in his mind to shelter him from the one he cannot abide, cannot make sense of in any way. Cila, János, Jozsef. He longs for them to come back, his dear creations, painful as their story is, so he will not have to face the true story, his true loss. But they fade to the back of his mind, their comfort thin, now, as early morning light.

For there is only himself, his Hannah, his friend Arminius. Alek, his son, is dead. Killed by his own mother when the spirit of a bird demon took her over.

These insupportable events have happened to him, to his wife, his son.

Hannah’s eyes are closed under the sheeting water, pale lids and dark wet lashes. When she opens her eyes, her dull gaze is directionless, inward. It is himself who has cut her hair, driven to this ritual out of desperation, Hannah’s pleas for his help. Arminius is beside him. The nightgown clings to Hannah’s body, her rich curves. Water beads on her skin, in the delicate hollow of her throat. The bowl of burnt offering slips from his hands to splash softly in the water as a cold wind howls about them.

There is a sudden rush of vertiginous dark, the soft smother of feathers all about them, filling the air. He blinks and tries to move but cannot. Dark musk and the rank scent of old meat press all the air from his lungs. The lamps flicker in the wind, a high, fierce cry piercing the air. It echoes and echoes.

“Hannah!” he yells, unable to see her or Arminius in the maelstrom. A great shadowy form rises all around them, the shadow brushing against his face and hands with the soft prick of sooty feathers both insubstantial and terrible. In the upper reaches of the domed ceiling, the glow of yellow eyes. Something alien speaks, prickly as the shadow feathers on the air, in his mind, in the wind turning about the stone of the baths as if will worry them to dust. The shadow gathers itself, a brush of enormous wings through the air, pushing the waters to gulp against the side of the baths, echoing. Edward sways in the current. Sooty feathers rise, up, up through the ceiling’s groins and arches.

Then the greenish light, the suffocating musk, and finally the spinning wind, all fade away. Dawn pales the high windows and water laps softly on stone.

Edward looks into his wife’s eyes. The secret is gone. But the knowledge of her son’s blood seeps into them as he watches. She begins wiping her mouth, over and over, scrubbing at it with her hands, harder and harder.

He cannot look at this knowledge. He pulls himself from the water, climbs the steps, legs trembling, mouth filling with hot saliva. Suddenly his knees hit the stone hard and he is retching, heaving, unable to breath, unable to see or hear, but for a great, ringing void and the sickness which is all he is.

• • •

In his dream there is the smell of oranges and he wakes to a dim, quiet room, a clinic room; he has worked in them enough to know. His body lies on a narrow bed, in a nightshirt, under sheets and a blanket. Turning his head he finds Arminius seated in a chair, leaning on one elbow at a little table. Half a peeled orange is on the table. Beside it, a small gold ring. Hannah’s. Arminius’ face is weary, grief drawn. A newspaper lies over his lap.

At his slight shifting on the bed, Arminius looks up.

“My friend,” he says.

Something hovers at the edges of Edward’s mind, knowledge and memory. He should not shy from it.

“What—” he says, and stops. Because it is falling in at those edges now, like sunlight, rain, dust, air. There is no stopping it.

“It worked,” Arminius says. “No one else will be hurt, will die. You freed her.” He shakes his head. “You must remember that.”

“Hannah,” he says, and hears his broken voice. “Alek,” he says also, a whisper.

“I am so sorry, Edward.” Arminius says and it is all filling his mind now, a flood he cannot hold back, all the truth. They came to visit Arminius at his dig site while traveling for holiday. For Hannah his mind created Cila; for Alek, Jozsef; for himself, János — as that part of him which could have believed in Arminius’ legend before it was too late.

He wants them back, his fiction, because to have the truth is to want back what he can never have, his wife, his son.

Hannah is as lost to him as their Alek. Mind ravaged. She bathes and washes her mouth, ceaselessly if she is allowed to — until the water runs red with her own blood.

There is no story his mind can tell to make order of this pain. All the broken pieces swirl about, Hannah, Cila, Alek, Jozsef, himself, János, water and blood and feathers. The reality of the hospital room, white walls and thin scratchy sheets, the smell of medicine and sickness, and Arminius and a cut orange with the welling, bloody pool of loss and darkness behind it.

In the room’s dim light, the sooty tines of soft feathers move through all he sees.

 

 

Jessica Reisman has been published in Interzone, Realms of Fantasy, most recently in Crossed Genres, and in many other magazines. Her stories have appeared in anthologies such as Cross Plains Universe, Passing for Human, and Otherworldly Maine. Five Star Speculative Fiction published her first novel, The Z Radiant, in 2004. She lives in Austin, Texas and likes a Mexican martini with extra olives. You can find out more at www.storyrain.com.


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ISSUE #19

May 2010

FICTION