Part I

The Owl

Photo: Patrick Brinksma

On the eve of the solstice, the owl settled down on a low branch along my path and watched me. In its winter plumes, it almost disappeared except when viewed against the dark bark. Gold and black eyes stayed on me as I gathered firewood. I stepped on the longer branches to break them, moving between the trees slowly in the snow. I was ever aware of that gaze. My heart pounded and my stomach clenched. The bird demanded my awareness. It never moved. Panting, though the labor was not intense, I gathered my bundle and looked up at the owl, before rushing back up the path to the village. I hoped it would let me be, but I knew that it would not.

I felt sick and anxious, and every night that week I could hear the howling and moaning of the beast procession riding across the night sky. These days out of time were dangerous, everyone knew. The old year had gone yet the new had not yet arrived, and the dead and the wild things came out. We ate simply, fish and porridge, partly to stretch our stores in these Wolf Days, and mostly not to anger the roaming spirit animals, whose mortal counterparts we might otherwise hunt for food. There would be feasting for the entire community in the coming days, and we would not miss those, but in between we were circumspect.

My mother had told stories of the Great Queen, whispered to me and my sister while we helped her spin. She would guard us, my mother said, she would protect us, if only we did our duty. It was my mother who taught me to eat fish at midwinter.

My mother told us about the maidens who were also swans. Their beautiful feather cloaks were left on the shore while they bathed. A hunter stole one of the cloaks, and kept one of the maidens as his wife. She eventually escaped.

My mother escaped like the swan maiden, tangled in a mess of bloody bedclothes, with a fat purple changeling half-birthed between her legs. They were buried together.

My children’s father negotiated with mine and I was brought to this house. After the early unpleasantness, my son came, and I occupied myself with his care. Then my girl came. Half-grown now, my son looks at me with contempt.

It is normal for a bride to weep, they say. It is her modesty. It is normal for a bride to be sad. She misses her family.

These spinning tales are not wisdom easily passed on, they take time, hours by fireside for their truth to be absorbed. I know now why my mother told her stories in whispers.

My children argued over some toy, and my son struck his sister and knocked her into the hearth. Their father laughed, “You have to make sure they know their place!”

A mother knows when her child is wrong. But for all that, it is still her child.

My son’s anger turned to bashful pride at this. The weaving was left undone while I nursed my girl’s burns. “The Great Queen will protect you,” I told her in hushed tones, “If you do your duty.”

Even I, at that time, did not know what that duty might be.

Part II