In the Bloodlands, revisited
In the Bloodlands, wishes can come true… for a price.
Julia envied the birds, so she lured them to her windowsill with nectar and seeds, caught them barehanded, and ate them, still wriggling and shrieking, until she found she could raise her arms and lift herself from the ground. Not flight, exactly, she could never quite break the shackles of the earth, but something like it, something close. She kept this secret, floating only at night; and the birds feared her like a god, and told her things they overheard listening at windows and in the fields, and she became known in the village as a wise woman. Many came to her for advice or to bargain for the secrets of their enemies. She took to wearing a cape patterned with feathers that draped beneath her arms like wings.
While hovering among the rooftops one night in the village, she saw Matthew with his new wife Maria. Crouched on the neighboring thatch, she watched them making love through the window; watched the strong muscles of Matthew’s back flexing in the moonlight, and wanted him for her own. She resolved that when either of them came to her for advice, as they surely would, she could find reason to separate them. She set her spies to watch them, when she could not return to their window.
Time passed, and Maria swelled with child, but neither Matthew nor Maria never came to Julia. The birds told her they had no secrets- they were simply happy. Julia, privy to the petty spites and furies of the whole village, was bewildered at the simplicity and wholeness of their love. But she was not one to be denied her desires. She could be patient.
One Spring morning, when Matthew was at home with his new son, and Maria was walking home along the cliff-side with a satchel of ripe plums at her hip, a flock of starlings flew at her face and pecked at her until she lost her footing.
Julia waited, sure that when Maria failed to return to him, Matthew would come to her to find out why, and she would reveal with endless sympathy how Maria, unready for the burdens of motherhood, had run off with a passing traveler from another land. Julia would be there to comfort him in his grief, to welcome him and his child into her house, grown luxurious with the offerings of the villagers.
Only, instead of tumbling into the sea, never to be found, Maria’s satchel caught on a root and broke her neck, leaving her there for Matthew to find – dangling, but accessible, with the marks of a hundred tiny beaks pocking the skin around her eyes.
Matthew’s grief festered within him until it turned to rage. He dug a grave for his wife in the garden behind their house, and, with a whispered apology, laid his son, quietly sucking on a piece of whiteroot, beside her. When his labor was finished, he fell, exhausted, and slept beside the fresh turned earth. When the next morning he found a stalk growing from the grave, with a single blood-red plum dangling from its end, he ate it without questioning, and immediately succumbed to a fever that lasted for three days.
He awoke alone, tied with hempen rope to a tree far from the village. Snapping his bonds as if they were rotted vines, he stumbled back toward his home. As he knelt beside a clear stream to slake thirst deeper than he had ever known, the face he saw in the water was that of a monster, as much reptile as man.
Matthew lurks at the edge of the woods by night, watching the silhouettes of the houses in the village. He longs to return to his old, happy life, but knows this is no longer his home. Then he sees a strange shape, hovering about the rooftops, surrounded by smaller, flitting forms that alight on its shoulders as if whispering in its ears. Forgetting the safety of the woods, he draws closer, just as the shape touches down by Julia’s door. Unhampered by darkness, his eyes show him her feathered cape, and her winged servants. And he knows.
Bellowing a roar that wakes the whole village, Matthew charges toward Julia, his clawed feet churning up the moist earth. She barely has time to lift her arms, five feet, ten feet; but he is faster than a man now, and he leaps up to catch her legs in a crushing embrace.
Suddenly, they are soaring, above the clouds, the moonlight blinding, the wind deafening in their ears, spiraling across a sea of white foam, her avarice and his rage forgotten in this unexpected moment, her exaltation and his fear.
When again she swoops down, through the clouds, across turbulent waters, it is to a coast neither of them recognize. Their speed is still great, and Julia cannot quite veer away from the stand of strangely upright trees. His body weighs her down, her legs numb from his unfailing grasp. They careen wildly toward the straight boles, but Matthew swings his legs out and the boughs shatter under the impact of his armored shins.
On the other side of the trees, they crash to the ground and tumble apart, to lay on the wet grass, both exhausted beyond measure, they stay there, unmoving, for a long time, listening to one another’s breathing.