There is a woman in a dark room. She spends most of her time seated in an old rocking chair, staring at the wall. Other times, she haunts the halls of her prison, her eyes like bruises against the sickly pallor of her skin. Everyone says she is mad, that she has lost her mind and all sense of what is real. Likely they’re right. After all, she’s not a person anymore. Just a tombstone filled with ashes.
She is treated kindly enough, the nuns don’t feel afraid of her anymore. All they feel is a distant pity, the kind that you might feel for someone in a coma. The bishop’s men told their abbess that she was uncanny, a witch initially destined for the stake, but later given a chance to take the cloth. Yet in all these years, the woman has not once shown any sign of uncanny attributes.
Behind the veil that makes the separation between reality and dreams, there is a grave. It lies atop a hill, among the charred remains of a house. A house that once stood tall, a house that once echoed with the laughter of those who dwelled within. Nothing but ghosts now.
There is a woman in the grave, lying beneath the ground. She lingers somewhere between life and death, gazing up between the dirt and rocks that cover her, watching those who come to stand vigil at her lonely prison. Sometimes there is a creature, with blue skin and hair like white silk. Other times, it is a woman, a woman with sad dark eyes, wearing a gown of the purest ivory. For some reason, it hurts her most when it is the woman who stands at her grave, a physical pain somewhere below her breastbone, and she shuts her eyes so she cannot see.
There is one who never leaves, a man, he wears an ochre mask and is cloaked by feathers stained with green. He just stands there. Waiting. And all she wants is to ask him what he is waiting for, why he and the other specters won’t leave her in peace, but when she tries to open her mouth, she finds that it is full of ashy soil.
Other times, she lies not in the grave, but stands in a mist so dense, so suffocating, that one might compare it to a blanket. It’s just another prison, but in this one there is no one, not even the specters, and she is utterly alone.
One day, there is a voice, crying out from between the tendrils of mist, calling a long forgotten name.
“Vesna? Vesna, it’s me.”
The voice is familiar, awakening memories that haven’t surfaced in years. She backs into the mist, away from the voice, away from the memories. The voice won’t go away, it persists, pushing forward, grasping at her arms, her legs.
“How long has she been like this?” There is another voice, murmuring in answer, but she cannot make out the words. Usually, all voices that penetrate the mist are like that, distant and indecipherable, mere distractions. This voice is different, it is crystal clear, bright as birdsong breaking the silence of dawn.
“Vesna, it’s me. Don’t you remember? It’s your sister, Olena.”
The voice begins to sob, awful aching sobs that make the numb edges of her heart tingle. At first she resists, but then she begins to move forward. Towards the voice, towards the light.
Then she is there, the hard back of the chair she sits in stiff against her back. The harsh wool of her habit rubbing against her skin. There is a grey form kneeling at her feet, head bowed and hidden from her. She reaches forward, placing her hands on the woman’s shaking shoulders. The woman looks up, her eyes widening with astonishment and delight.
“Vesna?,” she gasps. “Oh Vesna, we thought you- we thought you were dead.”
Vesna slowly shakes her head, feeling as if she is awakening from a deep slumber. Her tongue is thick and clumsy in her mouth, her mind unable to form words.
The woman throws her arms around Vesna. Still sobbing, but they now seem to be tears of joy. Finally, she draws away, looks up at Vesna, her eyes questioning.
“Do you…remember me?”
Vesna stares at her, trying to place that tugging of painful familiarity. There is a memory swimming to the surface of her mind. Twin sisters, almost indistinguishable were it not for the vast difference in their personalities. Both with eyes the color of cornflowers, and hair so resplendently gold that even the sun appeared dull in comparison. Talented, kind, intelligent, admired by all and loved by many. Vesna remembers that once she had felt the bitter bite of jealousy when she had looked at them, but that feeling has long crumbled to dust.
“Olena?,” she whispers, unable to keep the shock from her voice. The woman kneeling before her, how can it be? Yet, those eyes are still cornflower blue, unfaded by time. Her hair as resplendent as ever, that dimple still marking the crease of her left cheek. Olena is now a woman grown, and Vesna’s heart quails at the realization.
Vesna wants to close her ears when Olena begins speaking, because Olena is speaking of the past. Of things that Vesna has been slamming the doors of her mind against for years. All these stories that Vesna wishes could be untold, all these years that she wishes would bleed away. Yet here they are, stretched out in front of her, and her unwilling eyes must read the words.
After Vesna was taken away, the bishop argued that both Cherina and Olena should be sent to convents. Yet by then the people’s ire had cooled, the last of their rage having been spent in the flames that killed Sobena. So the sisters were sent to live with distant relatives of their father. Now wholly orphaned, betrayed by the villagers they had lived with their whole lives, stricken by the loss of their mother and their sister. Olena lapsed into a deep depression, while Cherina found solace in her rage.
The relatives they lived with were kind enough, though the sisters never answered the questions they were pressed with. Wounds never heal, but the pain does fade with the passage of time. Cherina found love, and eventually marriage. Olena also found love, though it took her significantly longer. She found a place to ply her trade, and they both set up lives for themselves. Lives pitted by the memories of old sorrow, but lives nonetheless, and there was happiness to be found, despite all.
Cherina believed Vesna dead, burnt at the stake, her ashes now floating on the wind. But Olena refused to give up hope, and year after year, she stopped strangers at the markets and stores. Plied them with questions, had there been rumors of a witch-girl from Drevach? Did anyone know of her, what had happened? Yet it wasn’t until a couple months previously that a stranger passing through finally told Olena what she had so long waited to hear.
That there was a nun in the convent that resided in his home town, that it lay across the sea, in a place so remote that it seemed redundant to name it a village. Apparently the nun was said to be mad, and when he had asked to know more, he was met by hushed whispers and sideways glances.
“Don’t you know? She’s one of the uncanny… a witch.”
“Hush… she could be listening…”
“You daft? Why’d you think they locked her away behind convent walls in the first place? Witches are rendered powerless by holy places.”
“Heard she was originally from Drevach. Big trading town, lotsa folk pass through there.”
“Why didn’t they kill her?”
“Bishop offered her a choice, be burnt at the stake or take the cloth. Damn fool. ‘Never spare a witch,’ least that’s what my da always used to say.”
“Mayhap she bewitched him…”
So it went on and on, but Olena had heard all she needed to hear. She left her finances in the capable hands of her sister, gathered up the funds she would need, and left on the first ship.
“Cherina… she’s married?” Vesna is unable to absorb this new knowledge, because somewhere, her mind is still that of a young girl. She is still Vesna, living in Drevach with her two sisters. Her life stretching out in front of her like a trail of blank pages. Now all those blank pages have gone, leaving only ashes in their wake. She finds herself on the other side, not knowing how she got there. Not knowing how all those years passed her by without her even reaching out to touch them.
Olena is still speaking, her mouth moving, eyes sparkling and animated. She is telling Vesna something about Cherina being pregnant, about her husband and how he runs a spice route.
“Vesna?,” her sister pauses, her face concerned. “What is it? Why are you crying?”
“Oh… am I?” Vesna hadn’t felt the tears spilling from her eyes until now, they leave warm tracks down her face, and they feel more real than anything has felt in a long time.
“So look, I’ve spoken to the abbess. She’s not the superstitious sort, and as far as the convent is concerned, they don’t actually believe you’re uncanny. They think you’re ‘mentally disturbed.’ I told them I want to take you home to my family, that we’d take care of you.”
“But- the bishop.”
“Oh him? He died five years ago.” Olena smiles, her face glowing with that youthful optimism that reminds Vesna so much of how things once were, long ago. “Don’t worry. Nothing’s going to stop us now. They’ll never lock you up again.”
How can Vesna hope to explain? It’s not these walls that hold her, but the walls of her own mind. She could have left, had she wanted to, but she chose this. She chose this as punishment for her sins. Death would have been easy, death would have been welcome, but no. This is her purgatory, and there’s no way out.
“Olena…you don’t understand. I can’t go.”
“Oh sweet sister, I know you blame yourself. We all did. Cherina blamed herself for not stopping them, I blamed myself for giving up. But you have to let go of all that now, it’s time to live.”
“You don’t know what I am. Mother never told you.”
“Vesna, whatever you are, we love you.”
“I have to tell you-”
“You can tell us, Cherina and I both, when we get home.”
The woman in the grave resists, she covers her face with dirt and tells them to leave her be. If she awakens from her bed of soil, she will have to face the world, all the demons will come out of the dark. Her sorrow, her guilt, her loss… but worst of all, she will have to look in the mirror and accept what she is.
Though she struggles, trying in vain to disappear back into the mist, she cannot escape her sister’s iron grasp.
“I’ve already lost mama, I won’t lose you too.”
There was a tale that their mother would tell them when they were young, about a man who was imprisoned as a stone statue for many years. Then at last, his love was able to awaken him with true love’s kiss. He didn’t come awake all at once, their mother said, but slowly. First his feet, than his legs, and slowly stretching up and up through his body, filling him with animating force.
Standing in the sunlight, for the first time in so long, Vesna feels like the man from the story. A stone statue of grief, the layers of granite and marble sloughing away like dead skin. Underneath, she can feel her living, breathing, skin. She feels reborn, and she is afraid, because how can this moment last with the flames of the past burning behind her? How can anything last, when she is what she is?
The journey to where Cherina and Olena now lives is long and tiresome, but Vesna, still enraptured by the world around her, hardly notices. To her, a world that had at once seemed sad and wilting, now seems like a blossom newly bloomed.
At last they reach a village, or perhaps not a village, for it is larger than any village that Vesna has ever seen. There is many buildings, and so many people, there is fish markets and spice traders. It is a place that swims with color and sound, and it threatens to overwhelm her. Olena explains that it is a city, and that this is where her sister and their relatives live. They come to a house, very different than the one that they once lived in, on the hill. There is servants to take their things, there is marble arches, and the sunlight appears multi-colored from where it spills from a window of stained glass placed in the center of the ceiling.
It is at the bottom of a intricately carved wooden staircase that Cherina meets them. Her cheeks are red and rosy, her face rounder than Vesna remembers it being. Her gown is pulled tight across her middle, and she has a hand braced against her bowing back. Yet her eyes have not changed, and they still gleam with that shrewd intelligence. Her mouth still curves in that slightly haughty smile, that smile, that hides so much warmth. A smile that now quivers as she folds a hand across her face, gasping as she slides to the floor in a cloud of voluminous skirts.
“Vesna,” she whispers. “I never dared hope-”
Vesna dashes to her sister’s side and they embrace, both crying the joyful tears of those who have been parted for far too long.
“How? How can this be?” Cherina’s face is all astonishment and wonder. As if she has witnessed a miracle.
Olena standing nearby, looks ever so slightly smug.
Vesna places a tentative hand on Cherina’s stomach and feels a slight flutter. “Oh…” she exhales, her hand flinching away.
“It’s alright, you can touch. Very vigorous, isn’t she?” Cherina laughs shakily, and Vesna notes that she is flushed brightly and her forehead is beaded with sweat.
“Oh Cherina, I’ve shocked you. You should sit down, rest..”
“No no, I’m fine.” Cherina protests, but she allows Vesna to take her arm and escort her to a nearby chair.
“When is she due?”
“The physician says it’ll be a few months yet, and I say she’ll come sooner. Babe has a mind of her own.” Cherina takes a deep breath, appearing to right herself, before casting a stern look at her sisters. “But enough about that. Sit, I’ll have them bring us some tea. You must both tell me all that has happened.”
So Olena tells Cherina how she found Vesna, about the convent in which she had been imprisoned. There is little to tell, for Cherina already knows most of the happenings that took place after the stranger came through.
Then it is Vesna’s turn, and she knows that is not just her long imprisonment that they want to know of, but everything before that. She wonders at how her sisters have stood by her side, all these years, never knowing the full truth. Always wondering about Vesna and her rumored uncanny powers, how easily they could have turned on her, how easily they could have placed the blame of their mother’s death on her shoulders. Somehow, they didn’t. Somehow, as they await her tale, there is not a flicker of doubt or distrust in their eyes.
She doesn’t want to lay the truth out in front of them, she doesn’t want to witness the moment when their sisterly love turns to fear and disgust. She doesn’t want to see how Cherina will place her hand protectively over her unborn child, horrified that she allowed an uncanny creature so near. Vesna doesn’t want to, but she must. She owes it to them, and besides, they were the sisters who always told each other everything. She can’t be the first to break that silent and sacred pact.
So she tells them the tale, even the worst parts. She rips it from her breast like a beating heart and hands it to them, piece by piece.
At last, having told them of her long confinement, she reaches the end. An end at which she feels equal measures dread and relief. She folds her hands in her lap, and keeps her gaze to the floor. “I understand if you want me to leave now,” she whispers. “I’m sorry. For being what I am.”
“Don’t be so stupid!” The chair scrapes against the floor as Cherina lunges to her feet, her eyes flashing with anger. “You know the tales mother told us. You know that she never taught us to view the other-kin as monsters. Do you really think so little of us? Think that we’re like… them? The ones who burnt our home to ashes, who took our lives and stamped them into the ground? The ones who killed our mother? Yes. They killed her, Vesna. And if you want someone to blame, then blame them. They’re the true monsters.”
Cherina’s eyes begin to spill over, and she leaves the room, her arms folded protectively around herself.
Vesna remains sitting, silent and shocked. Of all the reactions she had expected once her tale had been told, it was not this.
“Don’t let her words hurt you,” Olena says quietly. “She’s still angry. I think we all are, but Cherina never knew how to deal with her temper.”
Vesna turns to Olena, unable to accept the calm way in which Olena speaks. “I don’t understand… I don’t- how can you even look at me?”
“We always knew you were different Vesna. I guess we just never realized how different you truly were. It hurts that mama never told us, but she had her reasons, and were I in her shoes, I would likely have done the same.”
The two sisters wrap their arms around each other, and Vesna cries into Olena’s shoulder. Wondering, like she has so many times, how her sisters can be so strong. Wondering why, even though she is the oldest, they have always been the ones to comfort her.
That night, lying in the unfamiliar bed of Cherina’s house. Vesna finds that at long last, the mist has dissipated, and that when she climbs the hill to stand among the ruins of the burnt house, there is no grave to confine her, not anymore. The specters have faded into the woods, leaving only the man in the ochre mask. When he comes toward Vesna, she does not flinch away. She stands stock still, surrounded by the last tendrils of mist, feeling her heart pound with unidentified emotion.
At last she can ask the question she has been waiting to ask, for so long.
“Are you my father?”
His mouth stretches to form that awful smile, that smile that had once haunted Vesna’s dreams. It no longer has the power to frighten her, and she just smiles back. Wondering what it would feel like to also have sharp shiny teeth.
“No,” he says, at last. “Just a distant cousin. Before he died, he asked me to watch over your mother…and you.”
“Yes. The forest he resided in was cut down. The Leshy, they cannot survive, not without their woods to protect them. We are born from trees, they are our lifeblood and our tie to existence. A sacred pact that has been held between our kind and the forest, for as long as trees have covered this world. We defend the trees, they defend us.”
Vesna feels her heart shatter a little more, feels a sob wrack her body as she kneels in the dirt. Not even knowing what, or who, she is crying for.
He watches her, expressionless. “He fought to the very last, you know, but there was just too many.”
“What about my mother?,” she asks, breathless with loss. “I thought you were supposed to ‘watch over’ her.” Vesna pounds her fist into the dirt. “Why didn’t you save her? Why?”
“There was nothing I could do. It was out of my reach, out of the reach of the forest. Had she made her home among the trees, she may have stood a chance. My priority was always you, anyway. Why do you think I’ve been watching you all these years? Waiting for you to awake?”
“Well I’m awake now. What do you want?”
“For you to come home.”
“Home? I am home. Home is where my sisters are, where my heart is.”
The glance he gives her is filled with irony, “we’ll see.”
She wants to ask him what he means, but he has already disappeared, and she is left kneeling in the soil. Burning with pain and confusion, feeling the holes inside her heart sinking into one another. When there is so many empty spaces within her heart, how does she have any heart left? Or maybe she doesn’t, maybe she never did to begin with.
She’s not real. She’s a creature made of twig and moss hiding under a human skin. She realizes that the demons can’t come leaping out of the dark, because they’ve been here all along. A monster inside of her, clawing to get out, and one day it’s going to split her wide open and devour the world.