Answers | Saoirse

Estera reached the valley of all that was, is, and ever will be on the twelfth day. She’d hiked through an endless forest of uncanny aspens, sickly white like old bone and marked with black splotches that, in the waning evening light, looked like the hungry eyes of whispers. She could hear them too, howling in her wake for blood and flesh and all the things they could not be. The priestess would have her answers soon.

On blistered feet she walked past a treeline so clearly marked that she might have stepped from one world into another. Mist hung heavy over barren soil and hid the mountains on the far side of the valley. Something glowed faintly through the haze. If the Stories were more than stories…. She felt an icy finger trace the curve of her spine; “Mine,” a voice said in her ear.

Estera broke into a sprint. She’d run out of silver dust on the tenth night and had no other defense but distance. The glow bobbed with her head, expanding, becoming clearer. By the time she realized it was a lake, momentum had her. She threw herself into a graceless dive and let the water take her. Thank the Authors, blessed silence.

She held her breath until her lungs burned before deciding to risk the surface. Inches from air, something cold wrapped around her ankle and jerked her deeper. Practiced strokes turned into panicked flailing. She tried to look down, but the depths shone like the sun. She opened her mouth to shriek, but water gushed in. Drowning. She was drowning. After spending almost two weeks looking for this forsaken valley and finally finding it, she was—

Breathing?

Not underwater at all?

Estera felt smooth stone under her palms. The air smelled of irises and something pungent and earthy. She chanced a peek, and, heartened by the lack of blinding lights, opened her eyes. A woman watched her.

“Hello, priestess,” said a chorus of voices from one mouth.

No, not a woman. But also not a man. Or perhaps both? Its face seemed to shift when Estera tried to make out its features. A dark-skinned girl with a puffy scar across her cheek. A middle-aged man bronzed by the sun with many laugh lines. A plump and dour matron aged by networks of wrinkles. All had lightless hollows where eyes should be. Estera tensed.

“Astute for your kind. Yet if I were one of your ‘whispers,’ you would already be consumed.”

The priestess took a moment to find the voice she hadn’t used since leaving her church. It wavered more than she prefered. “The Authors’ 118th Story tells of a valley where one can learn anything that was, is, and ever will be.”

The creature smiled. It was the most terrifying thing Estera had seen in the twelve days of her journey. “One of my favourites. I enjoy the ones that give you hope the most.” It made a gesture encompassing the cavern. “You are where you need to be. Ask.”

Estera considered asking how she’d even arrived in this needful place, but those weren’t the answers for which her people had died. “My people used to lead blessed lives, protected by the Authors, before the whispers. Now they come out of the aspen woods to steal us, devour us, unmake us until not even a hair is left. I prayed for one-hundred days and nights to the Authors and I fear…I fear they no longer listen. The whispers have only become more voracious. Are we abandoned? Are we—” She paused for a moment. This isn’t what she wanted to say. “Why are the whispers here? How can we be rid of them?”

“Questions and more questions.” The smile became pitying. “Do you really want to know?”

“Of course,” the priestess cried. “How could I not?”

It licked its lips. “That’s your answer. Your kind, you all shine so bright, so deliciously bright. Minds filled with questions and desires, filled with so much emotion that you blind us. You weren’t always this beautiful. We had to guide you with the Stories, nurture you and teach you to become more and more. Now you’re here, and you are.” The creature’s figured wavered, became translucent like mist. Myriad voices sighed in ecstasy. “We are here because you are ready. And you cannot be rid of us until we’ve tasted your every. Last. Breath.”

Curse’s End | Meg

And so, he kissed me, an approximate love in his eyes.

I collapsed to the ground. I shouldn’t have been surprised by the pain, but still I shouted and sobbed and shook.

“What have I done?” he moaned,  head in his hands.

“Don’t—worry—” I tried to say. But already, as the spell came undone and unspooled itself, I was forgetting speech in favor of song. The whole weight of the world pushed down on me, crushing me into a smaller frame. My mouth hardened and elongated into the beginning of a beak. My bones lightened. Feathers sprouted from my skin.

~

When I was first cursed to be human, it’d hurt in an opposite way. The witch cackled as what felt like innumerable teeth ripped and tore at me. Sprawled on the forest floor, far from sky and tree, I thought I’d die. Delirious, I imagined I was being rent asunder by a ravenous wolf. But instead, I molted; my limbs expanded; and my human body, like a nut in a cracked shell, came tumbling out.  

“Until you’ve been kissed with love, you’ll walk the earth, never to return to the sky. You can’t speak of this curse to anyone,” the witch said.

I gasped as the curse’s strictures tightened around me like chains.  I spat blood and feathers at the witch. I would’ve pecked her gleaming eyes out if given the chance.

She left me there in the forest, as weak as a just-hatched chick, arms trembling with the knowledge they were no longer wings. If only I’d done as she asked: brought messages to and from faraway lands, spied on her enemies, consigned my first hatchlings to her cauldron.

But it was already too late.

~

I wandered in search of a cure. My feet bled and the harsh staccato of human words lacerated my throat. I didn’t belong in this body, chained to this earth, separated from the warmth of my flock. My head was forever tilted towards the sky. Oh, what unimaginable pain it was to be human!

In the early days, I kissed anyone I saw. I lunged at unsuspecting mouths. But nobody liked to kiss me, a desperate, strange girl with wild bird nest hair. The enchantment couldn’t be dissolved without love. I found no love, so I kissed less.

~

My brethren were everywhere I went: roosting in the trees, swooping in the sky, pecking at the soil. When I chirped to them my distress, they showed me glades where I could rest and burbling brooks to drink from. They brought me wriggling insects in their beaks, and chittered to me of danger, of predators lying in wait and approaching storms.

But they couldn’t tell me how to break the witch’s curse.

How to stop being human.

~

This town, this gray, miserable, slouching town— his town —was no different from the rest. But he was different.

The local birds sang of how he’d cared for chicks abandoned by their mother, nursed a robin with a broken wing back to health, and cleaned a finch after it tumbled into a barrel of oil. In his shop crammed from floor to ceiling with books, he occasionally attended to the register but spent the rest of his time at the window with his spyglass, watching birds. When outside, his head was always tilted to the sky, like mine.

I wondered if he would do. A love for all my kind was still a sort of love, was it not?

I pushed the door open to his shop. A bell chimed faintly and he looked at me.

“I know you love birds. Will you think of that and kiss me?”

~

It’d worked, and now I was a bird once more.

I  launched  into the air, and flying again was like remembering a melody that’d played in my head incomplete for ages.  I rejoiced and warbled my thanks. The rhythm of my beating wings accompanied my tune.

I hovered by the door, twittering my desire.

He opened the door, and I flew out to join the sky.