The sun was baking cracks into the earth just inches from my feet with my legs pulled up nearly to my chest. I was drawing in my journal sitting against the wall of my house, the rough stone scratching me slightly every time I adjusted. I had found a new animal the day before with great wings and big round eyes and was trying to draw it from memory. Mother said it was important to keep records of everything I encountered in case I found a use for it in the future. Memories faded but what I put to paper would always be there. The shutters opened and I looked up to see my mother looking down at me.
“Greilya go get your brother, dinner’s ready.”
I sighed, but got up to go find Espero. I wrapped my journal back in its leather cloth and put it in my bag before heading off toward the woods. I loved exploring the woods, but Espero loved it so much that he never wanted to leave. We had our usual places though so it was always easier for me to go find him.
I started with the pond, it was one of his favorite spots because he loved catching tiny frogs. I crouched down and trailed my hand through the water. “Espero!” I called. When there was no response I moved on to the big white tree stump. It had mushrooms growing all along the sides and Espero and I would sometimes take turns sitting on it pretending to be king or queen of the woods. “Espero!” I called as soon as I got there, there was no response but I thought I heard something so I called again “Espero! Where are you?”
“Greya? Over here!” I heard him somewhere off to my left. I wandered that way and found my brother knelt under a tree looking at the ground. He looked up at me “I found a bird, I think it’s a baby”.
I looked at the ground and saw a tiny bird chirping up at my brother, not freshly hatched but too young to fly. “He must have fallen out of his nest” I looked up to see if I could find any nest in the branches but they were too high to see anything.
I looked back down at Espero his dark hair was frizzed up in all different directions and like always his skin had a thin coating of dirt “Can we keep him Greya? I can take care of him.”
“Mother would never let us keep him, she always says no pets.” Espero looked defeated, and started petting the bird with one finger. “Maybe we could keep him in the woods and take care of him.” I suggested.
He immediately looked excited again “Yea, that’s a great idea! We could take care of him out here! I could dig up worms for him to eat! And you could chew them up for him and throw up into his mouth!”
I made a disgusted face “Ew, no, we’ll just chop up the worms and feed them to him.”
“Oh, ok, I guess that works too.”
“Yea, it does.” I knelt down, and inspected the bird more closely. He was barely able to move at all. “We can’t keep him on the ground though, something might eat him.” I thought for a moment “We could keep him in the hole in the willow tree. He should be safe from foxes there.” The hole in the willow tree was where we hid all of our most precious possessions.
“Yea!” Espero hopped up excitedly and then more slowly bent over and scooped up the baby bird. Holding the bird with both hands we very carefully made our way to the willow tree.
I was the only one of us who could reach the hole in the willow, but only if I climbed up a few of the knots on the tree first. I reached in and gently moved the items we hid within to the side. There was an empty turtle shell, a giant eagle feather, various tiny and brightly colored rocks, a fish skull, and a tiny shell fossil. Once I had cleared enough space I bent down and got some leaves and grass to lay inside. Then I carefully took the bird from Espero and put it in the makeshift nest. The bird chirped loudly at me as I secured him into the space and then jumped down to land beside Espero. “He should be safe up there. We need to go. Mother will be looking for us; I was supposed to be bringing you back to the house.”
Espero was still looking up at the hole, his large brown eyes lost in thought “Why?” he asked.
“Cause it’s time for dinner, he’ll be ok” I pulled him toward me “come on.” I said and we headed off back toward the house.
“What should we name him?” Espero asked while we ran back.
I thought for a moment “How about Juniper?”
“What? You don’t like it?”
“I didn’t say that.” He said between deep gasps. It was a long run back to the house. “Maybe something less girly though” he looked at me from the corner of his eye.
I glared at him “You pick a name then” I snapped. He was quiet all the way back to the house.
We reached the front door, panting heavily, and mother was waiting for us with her hands on her hips. “So when I told you to go find your brother did you have to go two county’s over to get him? Where have you two been?” Her eyes were wide and she was wearing that scary face where if we said the wrong thing we’d get a beating instead of food.
Espero knew to be quiet at these times and let me do the talking. Being two years his senior, I tended not to put my foot in my mouth as often. “It just took me a while to find him, is all. He was in the last place I looked. We ran here as soon as I found him.”
She didn’t move, but her face softened “You weren’t out playing?” she asked, as she arched one eyebrow.
“No, honest we weren’t.” I looked at Espero and he shook his head in agreement.
She stood there a moment longer looking at us and then turned back to the stove “alright then, go bring in some more water and then we’ll eat. Your father is already home.”
After following her instructions we sat down to eat. It was nearly dark so mother lit a lamp at the table and a lamp at father’s side table. Father insisted on continuing to read while eating and mother had insisted on him eating with the family. They compromised with a small side table next to father’s chair that allowed him to read -without the risk of spilling anything on his book- and eat at the kitchen table at the same time. Father always studied something, and neither Espero nor I ever knew what. Mother was dished out more stew that consisted of deer meat, carrots and potatoes. Most of our dinners were stews of various ingredients that depended on what Mother could hunt or grow at that time. In fact, the majority of her time was spent finding and preparing our food. Though in summer, when food was more plentiful, she had more time to teach us things like hunting, gardening, weaving, and reading. She promised to show us how to play a lute, as soon as she could save up enough at market to buy us one. Espero and I were famished so as soon as food touched bowl we were shoveling it down.
“I’ve made enough baskets to go to market tomorrow.” Mother said to no one in particular.
Usually we begged to go with her on market days, but we both wanted to go back to the woods to check on the bird instead. So I crammed a big helping of stew into my mouth and didn’t look at her in the hopes that she would just not notice our lack of interest.
“No one wants to go with me?” She looked from me to my brother. “hmm, that’s strange” she took a bite of food, piercing us with her eyes “I guess you two could stay behind and do some chores.”
We both looked up “No, no” I said “It’s just… Espero, he hasn’t been feeling well.” I turned to him and he immediately hunched over and gave a little cough.
Mother leaned over and felt his forehead “Uh huh” she said suspiciously. “Well I guess it’ll just be me and you tomorrow Greilya.”
“No, I mean, shouldn’t someone stay and look after Espero?”
“Your father can stay.” she said, and took another bite of stew.
My father, without looking up from his books, said “He’s fine.”
“He speaks!” mother exclaimed “Here I was thinking you were just some dead thing posing as my husband so he didn’t have to come home for supper.”
“If only such were possible.” father stated with a smirk. Espero looked horrified.
“You’ll stay in the house tomorrow, with your son, or so help me I will leave you here to starve to death.”
With that father looked up and sighed “very well.”
I almost protested, but mother interjected “Good! So Greilya can help me at the market and you two can have some quality father and son time.” she looked satisfied as she got up to clean our bowls “Now off to bed with you both.”
* * *
The next day we had a smaller portion of what we ate the night before for dinner. Mother gathered the baskets on her cart and I groggily grabbed my bag and went to help her. “Oh no” mother said “Go scrub yourself down, you won’t be coming with me looking like that.” She picked something out of my long hair in disgust.
“I didn’t want to come with you at all.” I mumbled.
“What was that?” she asked.
“Nothing, mother, I’ll go clean up.” I grabbed a brush and trudged down to the well. There I found Espero struggling to gather some water to take back to the house. “Here” I said and helped pull on the rope to bring the bucket back up.
“Thanks Greya,” and then in a quieter voice “and don’t worry dad always gets distracted, I’ll be able to get away and check on Ajax.”
“Ajax?” I asked.
“Oh yea, I didn’t get a chance to tell you. I thought of a manly name for the bird.” He smiled his toothy grin at me.
I laughed “Ok, I’ll trust your judgment there, but if it turns out to be a girl bird I think she’ll be pretty upset.” I pulled up another bucket to use for washing.
“It’s not a girl bird.” he whined, as if he knew.
“What’s wrong with girls?” I asked while I tried to get the brush through my hair.
“Nothing, they just talk a lot. And anyways I just know it’s a boy is all.”
“Wait, is that why you don’t talk around father? You think boys don’t talk? I mean, I think our father is kind of the weird one there. Guys in the village talk all the time.”
He glared at me “You wouldn’t understand.” and with that he headed back to the house and nearly toppled over several times trying to carry the water.
The closest village to our house was called Curzo, and was approximately a two hour walk. We didn’t go very often, only when mother had enough extra food or baskets to make it worth the trip. Mother’s cart was small, but with the long walk and no animal to pull it, we still needed to make several stops. It was early when we got there so it was easy enough to find a place to set up for market. After a few hours of helping her mind the cart, mother gave me some money to get salt, soap, and flour. I wandered down the dirt path and searched the carts for the things we needed. I saw Marlo, the fruit vendor, and went to say hi. She had bought baskets from mother several times before. “Oh look at you little Greilya! You’re shooting up like a beanstalk! How long has it been? How old are you now?”
I smiled at her “It’s been a while, I’m 8 and a half now.”
“Oh and a half. Little lady you’re becoming, to be sure. And where is your little shadow today?” She looked around trying to spot Espero.
“He stayed home this time.” I said as I eyed all the fruits she had for sale.
“Oh that’s a surprise, I didn’t think you two went anywhere without the other. ah well, some things change” she reached under her cart looking this way and that and then quickly put an apple into my smock “and some things don’t.” she winked at me.”Tell your mother I said ‘ello.”
“I will” I smiled and continued down the road with my search.
Further down the path, I heard a loud voice speaking out. I continued until I found the source at the end of the road. It was an older man with specks of grey in his beard. He stood on top of a crate with a small crowd of people gathered around him “These witches, or Necromancers as they call themselves, are a slight against the gods!” He shook his hands at the crowd as he spoke and they seemed to murmur in agreement “The King of the Dead may try to have us believe that these fiends are useful, but what use do we have for devils that bring back our dead and turn them into monsters? How does it help us to send these devils to the King so that he can further enslave our people to the dark and unnatural?!” The murmurs of the crowd grew louder “All they ever do is come to us and demand their tax and rob our graves to feed their armies! They care little for our problems and even less for our loved ones being allowed to rest in peace!” Everyone seemed to be in agreement with that and the bearded man began to gather a larger crowd around himself. I felt someone grab me by the shoulder and looked up to see it was mother.
She was looking at the bearded man, “Did you find what we needed Greilya?”
“Not yet. What is everyone so upset about?” I asked.
She ignored my question, “I sold all our wares, let’s find what we need and get home.” I could tell by her tone, I was not to argue. She turned me around and we headed back to the cart without stopping to buy anything.
* * *
We made it back home before nightfall. Father was in the house reading and Espero was gone. Mother had been silent the whole walk back, and oddly did not seem upset by Espero not staying in the house. “Go play Greilya, I need to talk to your father.” her voice was quiet and almost sad. I wanted to ask what was wrong. I wanted to know why the bearded man had upset her, but I knew she would just get mad if I asked. I looked up at her, some of her curls had come out of her bun and were sticking to her face with sweat. She had the same expression when Espero and I would get hurt and she was bandaging our wounds. “Now, Greilya.” This time her tone was sharper and I immediately headed out of the door and to the woods.
I knew exactly where Espero would be and, despite the long walk I’d had home, I ran all the way there. A thought occurred to me as I ran, how could Espero get to the bird? We had both forgotten that critical detail, and as I arrived at the willow tree, I could see Espero had not been successful. He sat under the willow with scrapes on every limb of his body from his attempts to get up the tree. “He stopped chirping Greya!” I could tell he had already been crying, but with that statement, tears welled up in his eyes again. I quickly climbed the tree and found little Ajax cold and unmoving in our nest.
I gently took him out and brought him down to the base of the tree. “I’m so sorry Espero.” I started crying as I held the baby bird, and gently put him at our feet.
Espero could barely speak between sobs “I tried, I tried to get to him. I got him, I got him worms.” With that he started crying in earnest and I held him while we both cried.
“It’s not your fault Espero, I should have found a better spot. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” As I held him all I wanted was for the bird to be ok, for Espero to be ok. I wanted to look back at the bird and see we were wrong and that it was still alive. As we sat there I began to feel cold, it started slowly in my head and then moved throughout my body in a quick burst. As the feeling receded I heard movement at our feet. Espero heard it too and we both looked down at Ajax.
The birds head was moving back and forth slowly, twitching unnaturally at varying intervals. I looked on in disbelief and Espero got up excitedly. “He’s ok!” he yelled as he went to get the worm chunks.
I had felt the bird. He had been cold and stiff. As much as I wanted him to be alive, he wasn’t, I was sure of it. “Espero…”He didn’t seem to hear me as he tried to feed the bird bits of worm. The bird did not notice anything was being offered to him and continued twitching and moving as if Espero wasn’t even there. “Espero, the bird was dead. I know he was dead.”
He looked at me in confusion and then back at the bird “But… How?”
“I think” I swallowed the lump in my throat “I think it was me.” Espero still looked confused. “I think I’m a witch.”
“No!” Espero was almost in tears again “No, Greya, they’ll send you away. Stop it!” He kept looking from me to the bird though he was backing up now. “You have to stop!” With those words the bird stopped moving and was a dead thing once more. Espero dropped to his knees, it was too much. He put his face to the ground and just kept sobbing. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t think.
I have no idea how long we sat there, but when I finally got up, it was dark and my brother had stopped crying. I helped him up, and with one arm around him, we made our way back to the house. It was a slow trek, as we were both exhausted. “You can’t tell anyone Greya.” He spoke so quietly I could barely make out what he was saying.
I bent my head closer to my brother’s face. “What?”
“You can’t tell anyone” he continued “If you tell, they will send you to live with the king, and I will be all alone.”
“I won’t tell anyone, Espero.”
He stopped and looked at me with an expression more serious than I thought possible for my brother “Promise?”
“I promise,” I said matching his seriousness. Satisfied, he nodded and we resumed our walk.