The Hanged Man: Part 6: Ostara
Post #45: In which the initiates build a fence ...
Rose Red settled and calmed. Boom-boom. Boom-boom. She remembered the Night of Trees. She remembered power in her hands like green fire. She closed her eyes and kicked off her shoes. The ground felt cool and springy beneath her bare feet. She drew in a deep breath and opened herself. Boom-boom. Boom-boom. She rubbed her hands together and then ran them over cheeks, collarbone, breasts, belly, hips and thighs. Boom-boom. Boom-boom. She crouched and laid her hands lightly, questioningly, on a bone.
The sun went down.
Mary thought of the feel of seeds in her hands, their subtle vibration, the golden threads of light hidden inside their hard cases. She laid her hands on bone after bone, hearing the drumbeat. The others worked around her, with her, needing nothing and giving nothing except their presence.
Artyom knelt, scattered bones spread out in front of him. Vasilisa was nearby and he was aware of her throughout his whole body. He didn’t turn away from that awareness, but carried it with him inward and downward. He closed his eyes. Let me find a way to do it right, he thought. The drumbeat roused something deep and primitive in him. He thought of the Firebird, its vivid joyous color, its wild mystery, its breathless beauty. He closed his eyes and caressed the bones as though they were the body of a beloved woman. The drumbeat throbbed in his blood. He ran his hands tenderly over a landscape of bone, exploring, shaping his flesh to their contours. He felt their texture with sensitive fingertips, rubbed against them with his palms. He felt an impulse to raise them to his lips and lick them, press them against his cheeks. His hands roamed over the bones and then he felt warmth under one of his palms. He moved away from it, questing with his hands, and found only coolness. His hands returned and met warmth again. He opened his eyes and picked up the bone. It was getting dark. The drumbeat had died away. The bone in his hands looked quite unremarkable. Nothing distinguished it from the jumble on the cloth, but he set it aside and began searching through the pile again.
Jenny had feared Baba Yaga ever since she’d known Vasilisa and heard of the terrible old hag. Now she found herself in the Baba’s presence with this strange group of people, and her fear diminished in their company. Rumpelstiltskin was near. She looked at the bewildering jumble of bones in front of her and didn’t know how to begin. The drumbeat invited her to fall into it, but she resisted. She remembered a stone cell and piles of dusty golden straw. She remembered a long night and Rumpelstiltskin’s voice.
The old cradle song rose to her lips, fought against the rhythm of the drum. She wanted to put her fingers in her ears, screw her eyes shut, and sing the song loudly, drown out the alien beat. She must remember the cradle song. She must! Panic rose in her, making it hard to breathe…and then the drumbeat softened, quieted. Was it? Or had she only imagined it? No — there — it diminished. Every beat sounded flatter, shallower. The rhythm slowed…slowed…now it was just a tapping, as it had begun. Tap-tap. Tap-tap. The fire popped and sounded louder than the drum. Tap-tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.
The song rose from within Jenny, rose in a hum tasting of morning sun and honey, a sound full of heart, full of tenderness and love. She let it come, feeling it shape her tongue and lips. She felt the presence of her mother brush against her, warm and soft as sunlight.
From somewhere across the fire pit, another voice joined in the song, rather hoarse, gruff, a beloved voice. Growing in strength, it led her, dropped behind, followed her. Rumpelstiltskin. She laid her hands on the bones, singing, and waited for them to sing back.
Kunik heard the cessation of the drumming and the rise of the cradle song. The firelight caressed Mary’s head as though it loved her. Her hair was the color of sun on corn, rich and thick. The little girl with hazel eyes had grown into a beautiful woman. She’d shown him her seeds, and told him something about what she’d been doing. He thought of the little brown rabbit, Surrender, come out of Mary’s dream and his story from the deeps of winter to this spring night.
Surrender had guided him here, to the circle of firelight where he knelt with the others and sorted through bones. A selchie came to him as he floated in his kayak in the northern sea, bringing an invitation to initiation between one life and another. She told him he’d be provided with a guide if he chose to accept. She also told him secrets would be revealed, though she wouldn’t say what kind of secrets. Following the selchie’s directions, he’d come to shore and found Surrender, still in his white winter coat, waiting for him.
Together they’d traveled from North to South, from winter to spring, Kunik shedding his winter gear and Surrender shedding his white coat, until they’d reached this place, this spring night, this strange circle of people and his old friend Mary.
He was glad he’d accepted the invitation.
One of the young women sang, leading the other voice coming from somewhere outside the reach of firelight. He had a swift, elusive memory of another woman singing a song to a beloved child in a place where snow drifted like fallen stars and the night sky rippled with color, and then it was gone. He began to run his hands over the bones. Bones and seeds, he thought. Bones and seeds…
Methodically, one by one, Kunik picked up each bone, holding and turning it in his hands. He searched for shape within bone, shape of animal or bird or fish — or fence. He felt with the tips of his fingers and the receptive flesh of his palms for patterns, planes and lines and curves, the essence of the shape locked within.
Some bones were long and others small and rounded, or thin and blade-like, or curved. He piled some carefully at his side, putting the discards in a heap in front of Radulf, who sat next to him, stirring his hands and forearms through the pile as though in a dream. Kunik saw the others also discarded into this pile. Each one used his or her own method of finding their bones. Radulf was the only one up to his elbows in a pile.
Radulf knelt before a pile of bones and thrust his hands into them, feeling smooth weight and rounded corners. His fingers found cracks and chips and pits in the bones. The bones made a clunking sound as he stirred them, bumping against his wrists and arms. He heard the drum beat and the song, but distantly. Some part of him remained aware of the fire, popping and cracking, warming the air around it, but distantly. He had no goal and no desire. He stirred the bones, flexing and moving his hands and fingers. He stirred the bones, round and hard, long and curved, whispering and murmuring in muted clicks.
Radulf had been traveling for a long time. He’d left behind youth, wealth, inheritance, his people and the life he was expected to live. He’d been married, once. The memory of that had kept him alone and on the move.
For years, he’d stayed near the sea. It hurt him, but he couldn’t leave it. At night it spoke to him, sang to him, clung to him. He’d nearly drowned at sea as a young man. He loved it, but after some years he felt haunted by it. Finally, he tore himself away and moved inland. He’d run across Dar a time or two, but preferred to travel alone and avoid notice.
Then he encountered Artyom, hunting on horseback with a group of nobles who stopped to question the stranger. Radulf drew himself up proudly and refused to give an account of himself. The forest wasn’t private; he had as much right as they to be in it. He looked, and indeed was, prepared to defend himself with skill and ferocity, and they left him there, stubborn and silent.
Artyom, near the back of the group, stopped and dismounted and had spoken so courteously and with such warm interest that Radulf unbent. They became cautious friends. Artyom was young and Radulf middle aged, but they were comfortable with each other. Artyom invited Radulf to stay with him and his entourage. Somewhat to his own surprise, Radulf agreed.
Artyom traveled with a human skull, a frail, worn looking object, not at all grisly. Radulf had first seen it one day when Artyom invited him to his room after the evening meal. The skull sat on a table from which perch it observed the whole room. Radulf stretched out his hand to pick it up, but thought better of it and withdrew before touching it. Artyom smiled somewhat ruefully, said “Light!” and the skull burst into a fiery glow. Radulf took a hasty step back.
Artyom left the skull burning while they sat down in front of an open window. It had been a damp night of fog. A fire burned on the hearth. The wet air felt pleasant on their faces, refreshing in the over-warm room. Artyom took off his coat, an elegant garment of brocade and gold thread, revealing an embroidered linen shirt underneath it.
“I’ve told you my father was a ruler.”
“Yes,” said Radulf. “And you’re traveling, making alliances, before going home to take his place.”
“Yes. My father’s advisors and ministers are taking care of business in my absence. While traveling, I heard of a woman who spins linen so fine it can be drawn through the eye of a needle. I was interested, and it happened I needed new shirts, so I asked a servant to buy a length of good linen from her. It was fine, so fine I couldn’t find a seamstress willing to put scissors to it. I tracked down the weaver, thinking perhaps she would make the shirts. I discovered one of my own countrywomen. It was the first time I’d heard my own language since I left home.”
“Remarkable,” said Radulf.
“Indeed. Her name is Vasilisa. She agreed to make the shirts, so I delivered the linen to her. In its folds, I laid a feather from the Firebird.”
“The Firebird is a creature from my country, a fantastic bird with glowing feathers. Legend says it leads one to treasure. Many think it’s only a myth, but the Firebird has honored my family with its presence through generations, and I’ve seen it. It comes and goes as it will, but I’ve flattered myself it keeps an eye on me. Every child of my culture hears stories about the Firebird, and I thought Vasilisa would like the gift. The feathers glow, you see, even after the bird has shed them, and they’re particularly beautiful. I sent her an orange one.”
He extended a linen clad arm to Radulf. Around the cuff of the sleeve a flowing pattern of a bird with a long tail and graceful wings was sewn in red silk thread. “This is one of the shirts she made me. They’re each the same, sewn with this pattern of the Firebird around cuffs, collar and hem.”
Radulf fingered the soft linen.
“They’re beautiful. Kingly.”
“She told me she’d never seen the Firebird, only heard of it. She imagined what it might look like and came up with this pattern.”
“She sounds special.”
“She is. I’ve never met anyone like her. The skull,” he nodded to the fiery skull, sitting on the stone hearth, “is hers.”
Radulf raised an eyebrow.
“We’ve only spoken a handful of times face to face, but the Firebird flies back and forth between us with notes.” Artyom spoke with some embarrassment. “I know it sounds silly, but I must keep up appearances and she has her living to earn. She gave me the skull, though. Said it sees clearly and she wanted me to keep it for a while.”
“A strange love token,” said Radulf, “and an even stranger go-between.”
“The Firebird, you mean? Yes. But it leads you to your treasure, don’t forget. What if Vasilisa is my treasure — and I’m hers?” He gnawed at a fingernail, already bitten to the quick. It made him look very young.
“That’s what I keep thinking — what if? It must be so. Why would the Firebird be involved otherwise? I don’t know what the skull means to her, or how she came by it, but I suspect it can somehow tell her what it sees. I want to convince her we belong together. With her beside me I could be the man I was meant to be.”
Radulf looked uneasily at the skull. “You don’t think…you don’t think it can see inside you too, do you?” he asked.
Artyom looked down at the hem of his sleeve, running his finger over the flowing border of red silk firebirds. “Of course not,” he said shortly.
“I was married once.” Radulf stood by the fire, turning his back and letting it warm his legs. “It was a long time ago. I didn’t love her but it was the expected thing to do, a suitable political and social alliance, and so I did it. I abandoned her one day, left without a word and never returned.”
“Did you love someone else?” asked Artyom.
Radulf winced. “I don’t know. There was someone I loved like a sister, but she disappeared and I never found out what happened to her. I’ve always felt it was somehow my fault.”
“I’m sorry, my friend,” said Artyom.
Radulf turned from the window and smiled at him wryly. “If that thing,” he nodded at the skull, “can truly see and hear us, it’s hearing all my secrets, isn’t it?”
“I suppose it is.”
A week after that conversation the Firebird appeared with a note attached to one leg. Radulf was with Artyom as he detached and read it. He was preparing to tactfully slip away and give Artyom some privacy when the other man stopped him.
“Don’t leave. This concerns you, too.”
Radulf halted his departure in amazement as Artyom read aloud.
“You and the man who travels with you are invited to an initiation, as am I and two of my friends. The Firebird has brought word from an old teacher of mine, powerful and wise. Understand it is an invitation only — you need not accept. I choose to go. If you or your friend wish to attend, the Firebird will guide you faithfully. You will not need your servants. I hope to see you there. V.”
Radulf opened his eyes, memory fading. His hands moved deep within a pile of bones. Firelight flickered around him. Now he could hear a sound of piping, insinuating and disturbing. The singing stopped. His hands had selected and set aside a pile of bones. Some were long bones for the fence but others were curved rib bones and what looked like finger bones and knucklebones. The others knelt around him in the dim light. He closed his eyes again, moving his hands through cool, dry death.
Vasilisa sat back on her heels, her back and legs feeling strained from kneeling over the bones. The group around her loosened, drew apart. They stood and stretched tension out of their backs. She looked around and saw each of them had set aside a pile of bones. In front of Radulf lay an unclaimed heap out of which he’d extracted and set to one side his own collection.
As she glanced around, Vasilisa thought it was like a game of Me! Not Me! There were no obvious differences in the bones they’d each recognized, and nothing set the chosen bones apart from the discarded. Yet she didn’t doubt her choices. She’d known her own bones and they’d known her.
Dar and Nephthys came forward. With a single glance, they evaluated the individual piles. Dar bade Mary, Radulf, Kunik and Vasilisa choose the longest and thickest of their bones, and he and Rumpelstiltskin helped them place fence posts. Rose Red, Jenny and Artyom chose smaller, slenderer long bones and a great variety of other shapes and sizes. As the fence posts were firmly planted, Nephthys helped them place the horizontal pieces of the fence. She bound the bones together with a huge spool of sinew from Baba Yaga. Rumpelstiltskin produced a sharp knife to cut it with. Vasilisa had her suspicions about the material from which the sinew was made, but kept them to herself. She avoided working with it, however.
Now and then, someone searched the discarded pile of bones for the right length to fill in a gap.
As they erected the fence, Vasilisa could see two places for gates, one at one end of the oval near the edge of the forest, and the other facing the open grassy meadow, about the middle of the long side.
Artyom and Kunik discovered between them they possessed the bones needed to build a gate. They laid the bones out and fit them together with fascinated enjoyment. Vasilisa thought it was like doing an elaborate puzzle by firelight. When the gate was complete, they bound the bones with lengths of the strong brown sinew and hung it from a fence post. This formed the gate near the edge of the woods.
The second gate was wider and more centrally placed. Everyone had pieces of it. By now the night was well advanced. Baba Yaga hadn’t stirred from her place by the fire. Nephthys gave guidance when needed but kept well in the background. Dar lent a capable hand with construction.
At last, they were finished. Pale bones glimmered in the dark. The fence enclosed the chicken legs and the Yaga’s house, the fire pit and the black iron cauldron. Vasilisa stood with the others, looking at what they’d built. A few bones remained, scattered across Nephthys’s cloth. All the rest had been used.
Baba Yaga rose from her place by the fire. She took a few steps, hitched up her ragged skirt and squatted. She grunted. The unmistakable sound of liquid hitting the ground came to their ears. She rose and without a look at the pale fence, the arched gates and the sturdy posts, she stumped over to her house. Ignoring the steps, she slapped at one of the chicken legs and at once they bent, the steps folding up like an accordion. When the house was low to the ground, Baba Yaga hoisted herself over the threshold and slammed the door behind her. The legs straightened, the windows snapped shut and the house darkened.
Vasilisa met Artyom’s eye and he gave her a weary smile. Dar opened the wide gate with a flourish of his embroidered cloak, and they filed out. The fire burned low. Rumpelstiltskin threw dirt on the embers with his shovel and followed the group, shutting the gate carefully behind him.