I woke in the night to a frantic sound, like a sheet being shaken. I rose from my bed and went near the fire. A little bird fluttered wildly around the room, and finally alighted on my loom. I approached the window slowly, lifted the latch and opened the shutters to let it out. The night air was chilling and dry. A gust brought in a dusting of snow and I drew back. When I looked up, the little bird had gone, and the owl sat on the window sill. The next moment, the owl had changed. A tall, fair, dark-haired woman in a long, white feather cloak stood before me. The Great Queen herself. The spirit animals howled outside the window and kicked up the snow.
She sat at my spinning wheel and began to spin, her bare foot, blackened and flat with webbed toes, pushed the treadle. She spun out several feet of yarn, then drew it from the skein, looped it over her hand and examined the the ropes.
I stood in silence, unable to look away, unable to speak. Her profile was sharp, with an aquiline nose and pointed chin. In the low flickering light of the dying fire, she seemed to take on the aspect of a vicious animal, like a goat with a wolf’s snarling muzzle, then the shadow would change, and she appeared wizened and frail, and again she would tilt her head or shift in some way, and be young and beautiful again.
When she looked at me, her eyes were the same familiar gold and black. She looked at me for a time and I trembled, unable to look at her for longer than a moment. Her eyes seemed soulless somehow, even as I felt her to exude some greater All Soul. She spoke no words, but finally I felt compelled to look back at her, as if she had taken my chin in hand. She would take them both. She meant my children.
“No, no!” I cried out, pleading, suddenly heedless of waking my sleeping family. But they slumbered on. This vision, this encounter, was for myself alone. She took the ugly and the unloved things to herself. I knew this. My mother had taught me this, and now the Great Queen reminded me. Still I begged, “No, please! Leave me my children. I will do better. I’ve been too indulgent with him. I will be stern! I will teach her more.” I sank to my knees, “I will… you must…please!”
She walked away from me, further into the room, toward the beds, my own with the master of the house on one wall, and the children’s beds both against the other. For a moment the light fell on a great entourage behind her, creatures of every evil sort, goat faced as she was, and worse, stretching across the room and out through the window. Behind them were the spirit animals, great boar and bear and wolves, small foxes and stoats, the hunting birds. Then they all disappeared again in a swirl of snow blowing into the room.
I felt that I must argue no further. It would anger her. Then I heard a thousand voices behind one strong female tone say, “Get up,” and so I did.
Her eyes were on me again and I could not meet her gaze. I knew I had betrayed the calling of my nature to true motherhood and had twisted my children. She laughed, and I looked up in surprise at the sound.
Your nature is not what you know, I felt her voice resonate in my bones, though she made no sound.
She moved to the bed where my child slumbered and pulled the blankets away, then she lifted the long tunic. The child’s long, slender legs seemed fragile and pathetic, the narrow hips exposed and vulnerable. She sliced into the belly with sharp fingernails and blood spilled out. The wound steamed in the cool room.
Small things, little people, children, fat and purple in coloration, pressed around her, appearing from beneath her cloak, dancing eagerly, making small sounds in high voices. It sounded like speech, but no language I had ever heard. She pushed her hand into the broken flesh and pulled out the entrails, roping the intestines around her hand as she had the yarn. She looped and looped and looped them, examining them as she did.
The small spirit children mewled.
“Hush. Patience,” she said, her voice at once harsh and melodious, like a wind that brings a storm. After a time she was satisfied with her scrutiny and passed the viscera down to her children.
The children tore into the entrails with sharp teeth, savaging the ropy length into pieces. Their small discolored hands and faces glistened a garish red. One piece she held, and with a bloody hand, brought to her mouth and also tore into it with pointed fangs. She plunged her hand into the rend again, withdrawing organs that she also shared out.
The monstrous children giggled and chattered and delighted in the feast. They slurped and snapped and moaned and sucked the running blood from their hands.
When their meal was done, she drew a pouch from her cloak, and pulled out flax and herbs which she pressed into the cavity she had made. She pushed against the side of the flattened belly, and added more grasses and leaves, pushed again, and stuffed more. Finally the flesh was filled to her satisfaction, slightly rounded, misshapen. She drew out a needle and thread, and closed up the tear, leaning close to the belly to bite off the end of the string. With great delicacy, she drew down the tunic, and recovered the child with blankets, and pressed a kiss to the now pale and sickly brow.
With the touch of her lips, the eyelids fluttered and the child let out a great sigh, and breathed on steadily in sleep. The Great Queen’s young and beautiful visage had returned and as she turned to me, she tongued a bit of flesh lodged in her teeth. A spot of blood darkened the corner of her mouth. I gasped suddenly, and realized I had been holding my breath while she savaged the body of my child.
When she moved toward the other bed, I lurched forward, “No!”
A force like a strong wind knocked me back to the ground and held me there. “Do not interfere with forces you cannot understand!” her thousand voices commanded me.
She hunched over the other bed, lowered her face close to the sleeping one. I watched and nothing seemed to happen, just a mingling of breath. This one has passed through fire, I heard in my head, it is to be mine.
Finally she came toward me, and her children swarmed around her legs, and quickly all tucked in and disappeared once more beneath her cloak, like chicks under a mother bird’s wings. I stumbled back, bumped into my spinning wheel, and felt the spindle pierce into my back. She took me by the arm, steadied me, and then took my hand between both of hers. A gust kicked up the snow again, and then she was the owl once more, golden eyes watching me. She launched into the dark night.
In my hand were two smooth, flat, round stones. I set them on the chair beside my spinning wheel and closed and latched the shutters. In the room, everywhere that the snow had blown in, instead of silvery and melting powder, the warm glow of gold dust and flakes reflected the embers of the fire. I swept it up and poured in into a pouch that I tucked among my skeins of yarn.
I looked to my child’s bed again. There was no gore on the floor or blankets, and both children slept peacefully.