‘Seams of Iron’, Adriana C. Grigore

Illustrations © 2022 Katharine A. Viola

 [ Nettles, © 2022 Katharine A. Viola ] When Erin first found the witch’s hut, it was past dusk, and birds were slicing the last spill of sunlight from the horizon, letting it fall like ribbons into the wild, rippling sea. The wind was so strong that the wood of the walls creaked, as if the hut was of half a mind to just let itself be taken away, broken and splashed into the air, like a dry image of a shipwreck. The thistle and chamomile and hyssop that lay around the garden fence were blown back from the cliffside, nearly doubled down to the earth, then shaken around, when the wind turned.

It was cold, but wonderfully so. Erin rushed to get out of the feeble shelter of the hut’s shadow and turned to face the sea, letting the gale splash into her like the waves down below. She could barely hear them at the bottom of that grey cliff, so loud was the call of the world, the winds that pulled the night from over the horizon.

It made her feel clean.

It made her feel light, as if she could have let go and flown away at once with the house. Yet she didn’t, and the house held its ground too, in quiet solidarity. Instead, Erin swept her ruffled hair out of her face, took a deep breath of sharp, brackish air, and pushed the gate of the witch’s fence inward, dragging the frayed edges of her dress up the short, pebbled path to the door.

The witch didn’t answer her knocks for a good long while, so long that Erin thought of seating herself and her stuffed wicker basket down by the door and waiting for the morning, when maybe she would come out. Yet, on her fifth round of knocks, something was knocked over in turn on the other side, and she heard a string of curses muttered far within, before the door finally opened, forcefully enough to make the wood of its frame groan.

The witch looked at her as if Erin was someone come to beg the last piece of bread off her—tired, irritated and drained of patience. She was tall, and younger than Erin had expected someone like her to be, with only a few untimely strips of grey in her long, dark hair. Her eyes were like the sea at night, her face like a wraith’s lost in the forest. She stared at Erin loudly enough that she didn’t need words.

Erin made herself smile and held her basket up between them. “Do you need a cloak?”

Her father used to have the most wonderful cloaks when she was younger. Not few were the days when Erin would take one of them, wrap it around her body, and run to the edge of the woods, imagining she was a huntress, or maybe a woodsman, or a groundskeeper like her father. She was so short then that she would come back home with the hems all muddy and scratched by briars, and she’d do her best to put them all to rights again before anyone saw.

She mostly learned stitching through that alone. The rest she learned from the castle maids, who were only too happy to see her busying herself every once in a while with something more sensible than play-fighting with her brothers, wearing her father’s clothes, or following him around the castle grounds.

They weren’t a wealthy family—that was what they said, when someone saw the brooches holding their robes and wondered at their frayed clothes.

When their great-grandfather had been offered the chance of living in the castle, their father told them once, he’d already been groundskeeper for half his life. At the time, he’d refused the king, politely, meekly, saying that their home was already close enough. Yet, afterwards, the walls of the castle grounds had started shifting, year after year, until they had stretched far enough to encase their home too. As if it had been the land itself that wanted to hold its keeper close; and nobody had ever realised when it had happened, least of all the groundskeeper, or the royalty.

They hadn’t been born into richness. Rather, it had gathered at their seams, like dirt in the wrinkles of their clothes, like dust lingering in the corners of a hastily swept room. Royalty was always something next-door, something that was always there, with all its funny ways of being, familiar and unfamiliar, like anyone seen only through a window.

They weren’t a wealthy family, yet sometimes dregs of wealth slipped in under the door. At wintertide, Erin and her siblings were gifted golden brooches on one side of the garden wall and straw dolls on the other, and rejoiced equally over both. At summertide, their father served them venison on wooden plates and plum pie in silver bowls. It was a strange dance they did around fortune, blending it in their life while hanging on to an idea of humility.

A peculiarity, that was all it was. While others had neighbours that liked to sleep in bed with their chickens, they had neighbours that liked to sleep on sheets of silk, kings and queens and eleven princes with golden birds hanging over their beds.

The witch went deeper into the darkened hut and sat heavily in a chair. There were a great number of pots and cups gathered on a long table beside her, and before turning to Erin again, she busied herself by adding another spoonful of dark honey in a steaming mug and stirring it too little for it to actually melt.

When she faced Erin again, her sour expression had not changed.

“I can’t stay outside in all that wind. I’m gonna catch my death,” the witch said, a bit hoarsely. “What did you want from me again?”

Erin held her basket tight. “To give you a cloak,” she said.


It was a dry word, and colder than the wind outside. The witch raised the mug to her mouth and took a deep gulp. Yet her eyes did not leave Erin, as if she expected her to try to steal something from right under her nose, or maybe take a poisonous snake out of her basket and throw it at her. Others had thought the same.

“I thought you might need one,” Erin said, nevertheless.

“I do?” the witch asked, and set the mug down. “How would you know that? What do you know of me?”

“Nothing,” Erin admitted. “I just thought this cloak was meant for you.”

Here, at last, the witch’s gaze lowered to her basket, and Erin only wasted a moment of that sombre stare before pulling out the cloak and holding it up to the dim candlelight. It was a good size, almost as tall as her.

“What is that?” asked the witch, after a few moments. “Nettles?”

“Yes,” Erin agreed, and lowered the cloak just enough so that they could look at each other again. “I finished it just yesterday.”

It had taken her little longer than a month. She’d gotten fast, over the years.

This time, the witch, seemingly overcome by a bit of curiosity, rose from the chair and took a couple steps closer. “How am I to wear this?” she asked.

“You won’t,” Erin said. “I mean, you will, but not like this. I need to give it to you first.”

Then, instead of trying to explain herself further, she shook the cloak in the air once, and in place of the wilted, brownish green of before, it turned to a smooth grey, like the face of the cliff they were standing on. She held it out to the witch, only getting to feel the softness of the fabric for a moment before it was taken at last out of her hands.

Erin then stood there, with only nettles and other weeds left in her basket, and feeling both a bit relieved and a bit empty, as she always did after doing this. She watched the witch turn the cloak this way and that, as if to see if any trace of the nettle thread still remained. It didn’t—there was Erin’s needlework, her careful hemming, the very pattern she had chosen to knit into it, but the thread she’d used had disappeared completely. As it ought to. It was a rather pretty cloak, all in all.

The wind was roiling outside, as if goading her to come back, to come outside and let it press her on another path, another road. Already, Erin could almost feel her bruised fingers itching to begin again.

The witch raised her eyes to her again, suspicious, distrustful, but perhaps still a bit curious.

“You’re not a witch,” she said, but she didn’t seem to doubt that, at least.

A welcome change.

Erin felt like smiling again. “No,” she said. “Just cursed.”

She remembered that day in bits and pieces, shards and glances. The important and unimportant alike took equal space in her mind, offering her only what was most vivid. It had been sunny, nearly summer, and Erin had been sixteen.

She was out at the edge of the woods, picking old cones she wanted to fashion into a sort of present for one of her brothers, when a cry from deeper into the trees made her look up. When she listened more closely, she recognised some of them as laughter, yelps of joy, but also something else, there, at the edge of hearing. The cry of a stricken bird.

Leaving her basket on the ground, Erin started walking farther into the forest. The deeper she went, the more clearly she could hear the pained chirps hidden behind more laughter. She was almost afraid to step into the clearing when she found it, but once she did, she found the crown princes gathered together, boasting at one another.

They were clad in the brightest white, and their hems and seams were of golden thread, beautifully sewn, but in their hands they held crude slings, and around them were the bloodied bodies of several small birds already.

“What are you doing?” Erin called, but her voice was swallowed by another cry, impossibly loud, piercing the air.

And a raven fell into the grass. A great bird, larger than any that flew around there, longer than her arm, twitching like a twig in the wind. They all marvelled at it, but only for a moment.

Then the winds shifted and the woods cracked, almost as loudly as the cry of the bird, and into the meadow stepped an old woman, prim and tall, dressed in peasant’s clothes. She looked at the raven for a long while, before raising her gaze to the princes, something in her pale blue eyes making them take a step back.

“Who did this?” she asked, but then she saw the slings they all held, the other birds lying around, and her expression soured. “Ah, so it’s like that. You’ve hurt my dear…”

She went closer to the raven and gingerly picked it up in her arms.

The princes were silent as never before. Erin held her breath too, trembling. The sorceress looked back at them.

“Such black hearts in such fair faces,” she said. “To be so wicked while so young, you must have been rotting from the cradle. I saw, however, that even bad seeds need a chance to grow. So let’s see what can be done. May you spend half of every day as those that you so joyfully killed here, and may your eyes not see sunlight but through their eyes, and may it be so that, when seven years have passed, you will be all the wiser for it.”

Then the sorceress shifted one hand, and mist started enveloping the helpless princes, and before they were even completely hidden by it, Erin saw them twist and turn to birds, great black ravens, which all gave a cry when the spell was done, loud enough to shake the woods. And took flight, disappearing into the trees, leaving all their fine clothes and slings behind.

The sorceress then looked at Erin, who still could not flee, terrified to her core. And she too must have only seen her brooch, glimmering in the light, and not her simple clothes and calloused hands, for when she spoke again, it was as if she thought Erin, too, was of royal blood. That was, at least, what she’d reasoned later.

“You have never given a thing away in your life,” the sorceress spat, in the same tone. “Not because you wanted to, not because it gave you joy.”

She couldn’t say, That is not me. She couldn’t even think it. The shriek of ravens was the only sound left in her lungs, echoing endlessly, hollowing her from the inside out. She’d left her basket at the edge of the woods. It hadn’t been much, but it had been hers to give. And she couldn’t say a thing.

“So I curse you to give, all your life, only what was sewn by your own hands,” the sorceress went on mercilessly. “I curse you to give them to whoever is in need around you. And only weeds are to be your thread, and may thorns pierce your heart if you ever think of locking yourself away from this.”

A curse. No way to break it. Erin stared at her, petrified, all her bones trembling within her. Then the old sorceress raised her chin, and pointed a finger at her. “Seven years, and no sound. Do as I said, and speak no words, and when seven years are passed, your hands will be yours again.”

The storm came soon after Erin left the witch’s hut and lasted for days, so that when she was finally able to go into the woods again, all the plants were soaked, feeble in her hands. It was a bit better in that the nettles didn’t sting as much now, but it also meant she would have to be thrifty with her thread while the weeds dried enough for her to spin them into anything new.

The witch found her just as she was carefully gathering sprigs of burdock in her basket, one clear, early summer morning. She didn’t move loudly, nor softly enough to seem unnatural. In fact, in the light of day, she seemed like quite a common person, a tired woman not much older than her. She was wearing the cloak Erin had given her, though, and she didn’t seem sick anymore, so it had worked well.

“I thought the rain had washed you out,” she said, as a way of greeting.

Erin glanced up with a smile. “I have deeper roots than that,” she said, then yanked a more stubborn stem right out of the wet soil as a comparison.

The witch said nothing at that, choosing instead to look at the small sleeve poking out from under the weeds gathered in the basket. “Who is this for?”

“I don’t know yet,” Erin said, breaking off a couple more sprigs and then getting to her feet. “I only know when it’s done.”

“That’s a strange curse,” the witch said.

Erin shrugged. “It’s the one I have.”

This made the witch smile, just a bit. It was nice, Erin realised, to talk about this freely for once, easily, where others would have either shrunk back or shown only pity. She hadn’t been around any other witches since she'd been cursed. And so, she decided to chance it.

“What’s your name?”

“Sigrun,” the witch said, unexpectedly easily. “What’s yours?”

“Erin,” she said.

Sigrun pulled the cloak tighter around her, a thoughtful frown on her face. “My cough stopped when I put it on,” she said.

Erin smiled again. “It was meant to.”

Sigrun didn’t seem to want to say anything more after that, but wandered off a bit as Erin peeled lichens off a tree. Yet, when her basket was full, Sigrun came near again, hands full of plants and a strange, conflicted look on her ashen face.

“Can I watch you?” she asked then. “While you’re making it?”

Erin blinked in surprise, beyond words as she hadn’t been in years. Yet—

“Of course,” she found herself saying.

Seven years of her life had passed loudly enough to make her turn her head against the wind, if only to quiet everything else. That was why, in the end, she let herself be led to the sea. She’d thought the earth louder than the world.

After the crown princes had fled from the castle in the form of ravens, Erin came back crying to see the castle in utter chaos, the news having been passed to them without her help. And in all that shared turmoil, few other than her family observed her own distress, and none knew what she had to do. Not even herself.

The next morning, she found herself walking outside, barefoot, up to the wildest corner of their garden, gathering the newly-grown nettles there. She couldn’t stop or move away. She just sat there, kneeling, until she’d gathered them all, and afterwards she took them, one by one, and started rubbing their needles in her palms, teeth gritted against the pain. That had been her first thread.

She’d started knitting it while hiding in the stables, making stitch after clumsy stitch, purls and knits intermingled badly. It took her two months to finish that first shirt, and then ten more followed. She spent her first year under the spell that way, rubbing blisters into her fingers and poking herself bloody with the knitting needles, but, in the end, finishing all eleven shirts.

She made them all from memory alone, adding a few inches, guessing and sometimes staring at her brothers long enough to make them even more wary than her silence had. For, unlike her, the princes did not return to the castle, neither by day, nor by night. Sometimes, Erin wondered if that hadn’t been the wiser decision, sheltering them from any dubious stares as they nursed their curse in solitude. Sometimes, she thought she felt their dark, beady eyes following her from the trees.

The first shirt was the smallest, and the least well-made, and the seams around one sleeve kept coming undone, no matter what she tried. Yet, they were there. She hid them in the topmost tower of the castle while being watched from the window by a flock of dark birds with human eyes.

Then she left home for good. No words for her father, none for her brothers. She dressed, gathered all her remaining thread, and set off. Her fingers were burning from the nettles, but also itching to start another cloth, and then another. And these seemed to call her from far away.

She passed through villages and towns, sleeping in the open or in barns or in kindly-lent rooms. Every time she passed by a new place, her hands spurred her to start another shirt, another sweater, another cloak. She never knew what she was to do with them until she did, and it always helped. Something to soothe the bones of a weary miner, the eyes of a scribe, the sickness of a maid. They always helped, somehow. That was the good part.

For seven years, Erin didn’t utter a word.

Then, on the seventh summer, the day for which she’d counted in her mind again and again reached her, when she’d just finished a woollen, burdock-spun coat, and given it to a lonely mother somewhere halfway between her home and the sea. Erin stood by a narrow road crowned by rustling trees and rose bushes. She fretted her blistered hands, wondering—was this it?

She expected someone to appear, a bird to come flying out of the sky and set her free, give her back the freedom she’d lost the feel of. And she thought she saw exactly that, too, a glimpse of wide, dark wings, floating somewhere far away, coming towards her, and her heart hammered, and her breath quickened, and she had to lean back on a rose-decked fence as she watched it come closer.

But then, her awe was shattered by the loud sound of a child coughing, a bit lower down the path. And, surprised, Erin turned towards them, and saw them stop their little cart of wares and raise a hand to their mouth. The sounds they made were wet and wracking, horrible to see coming out of such a small frame. Erin had heard their like enough times, along the years.

“You’ve kept your word,” a voice said then, and Erin wheeled around in a panic and came face to face with the sorceress from seven years past, now standing across the path from her.

Farther away on the fence Erin had been leaning on, her raven preened, seemingly completely healthy and even larger than Erin remembered.

“And you’ve done good work,” the sorceress continued. “The princes too, they’re all back with their family. They appreciated the shirts you left them, even with a fallen sleeve. It’s your turn now. I didn’t expect you to go quite so far.”

She raised her hand, and Erin widened her eyes, holding her breath. Then, once again, she heard the coughing of that child. One, two times, before it got even worse. She forcefully turned her head that way, and saw them doubled over, one hand over their chest. They couldn’t last many more weeks like that. She’d known some who hadn’t. She’d known some who had been cured of it by her own work. Was she to chance it?

“What’s the matter?” the sorceress asked.

When Erin looked back at her, her hand was still raised, no smoke or mist around her yet. Erin opened her mouth, then closed it again, and bit her lips. Her hands itched.

The child coughed. The sorceress stared. And Erin felt like crying. It wasn’t fair.

She pushed away from the fence and ran to the child’s side, helping them stand up. Their lips were a bit bluish already, their face wet with sweat and tears. Erin pushed their hair out of their eyes and ran her hand over their back.

“It’s alright,” Erin said, tears brimming in her eyes. Her first words, a possible lie. “It’s alright. We’ll do something, I’ll make you something, and you’ll be alright.”

The child’s breaths started evening in her arms, as Erin kept rubbing their back and shoulders with hands that almost burned with how much they wanted her to pick up the knitting needles once more. Which she would. She would go back to where she’d buried them when she’d thought this all done, and pick them up again.

Her life was a bitter thing at the back of her throat. When she looked back, both sorceress and raven had disappeared from the path.

“How old were you then?”

“Twenty-three,” Erin said.

Sigrun’s hut was a less sombre thing in daylight. Erin had found this out maybe the third time she’d returned there, after taking another garment to another person in need of it. Dawn and dusk both seemed to avoid her shabby windows, and yet, so close to the cliff’s edge as it was, there was nothing to keep it in shadow, and the sea and the pale blue horizon seemed to be enough to see by, on most clear days.

“How old are you now?” Sigrun asked after another moment.

Erin had given up counting after it became irrelevant. She counted now. “Twenty-seven.”

Sigrun kept quiet and continued mixing seeds and powders in a salve someone in the nearest village had begged her for a day before. They were both helping in their trades, willingly or not.

“That’s still young,” Sigrun said, but without any easily perceived emotion and without looking at her.

“It’s enough,” Erin said, and watched her instead.

She’d set her work aside for the day, wanting to focus on Sigrun's. Sigrun’s hands were as calloused as hers where they gripped the mortar and pestle. The grey hairs on her head might have been mirrored in Erin’s, had her hair been darker. She spoke little, and yet she was not quiet, and didn’t seem to mind Erin getting into her space every so often, to bring fresh flowers into the house or clean herself a little corner for knitting.

When Erin knit, Sigrun seemed to take it all in, watching her twist fresh leaves into thread and then cast it into neat stitches as if it was a nature of spell she had yet to learn. When Sigrun worked, though, it didn’t look like a spell. It reminded Erin more of watching the kitchen maids prepare bread and broths than of the witches people had to stay away from. She made it seem easy, but also complicated, and altogether very natural. It was everything Erin’s strange thread-making wasn’t.

Her gaze drifted back to her weeds and nettles, deep green and grey and purple, half-knit in her basket. Her blistered fingers urged her to get back to them immediately, but she’d wanted to move around, to ignore them for a while. It didn’t do to spoil curses too much, lest they grew of their own volition. This, she’d learned only later.

“It’s a wicked spell,” Sigrun said.

“It’s the one I have,” Erin said again, and grinned when Sigrun scowled at her.

Yet, she was always swift with her looks, and her face soon softened again, and she ran her pestle gently over Erin’s hands. The salve it left in its trail was greenish against her reddened fingers and it soothed them almost instantly.

“I don’t know how you can keep yourself so cheery,” Sigrun said.

This time, Erin let her smile turn a bit wry. “It’s the same either way, isn’t it? My attitude won’t change it. It’s out of my hands.” She chuckled, and held her hands up. “Actually, it’s in my hands.”

Sigrun let out what could almost be an amused huff then, and returned to pestling the last ingredients into the salve.

Maybe they were both a bit lonely, a bit alone, living there by the sea or out in the open road. Maybe she’d grown used to it, Erin thought, in what she now realised had been a ten-year journey far from home. Yet, it was nice to feel her heart opening a bit more still, to receive friendship after being quietly starved of it for so long.

She was, like she’d said, resilient. Her life had deep roots in the earth, even if her feet didn’t. Threadbare as she’d felt for years, her seams were iron.

A while ago, she’d started a new cloth, far more complicated than those before. She could only hope that, wherever she would have to go next, it would never be too far for her to come back, in the end.

When she was little, she’d wanted to know big things about the world. Now that she was a bit bigger, Erin found herself wanting to know little things.

She liked being taught how to prepare teas for different kinds of ailments and how to make them taste better. She liked letting Sigrun test various ointments on her bruised fingers and being carefully listened to when she described the effects she was feeling. She liked watching the sea change colour outside the window and listening to the ceaseless cries of birds, so different from those at home.

Most of all, she liked almost living with someone again. She liked getting to know someone more slowly, not over the course of one meal before she set off again, but day by day.

After living all her childhood with so many brothers and beside a castle that seemed always full, it was as if she’d lost part of herself once she had nobody to share it with anymore. There was that shade of her that wanted to be known, to be seen and understood, and to see and understand in kind. It was the simple happiness of having someone to share a thought only you could have had.

Crammed in a small window seat overlooking the sea, Sigrun watched the gulls soaring by. Like flies, but peskier, she called them.

She had been cursed with a heart of iron, was what she’d said. Or was it stone? Some cruel, age-old spell that had made her go far away from all that loved her, for fear of her heart stopping in her chest, or she stopping theirs. It was alright with Erin, though. The cursed didn’t poison each other; it was thought they were already too full of their own venom.

“Was there anyone you missed?” Erin asked, carefully arranging their plates into order.

Sigrun frowned a bit at the sea, a grimace smothered in her palm. “Not quite,” she said.

Erin missed her father and her brothers with a dull ache that seemed to coat her soul. She’d go back one day, she’d told herself. But had never been ready to see the pity in their eyes again.

“All my childhood,” Sigrun began, almost tentatively, “I’ve longed to have someone close. I wanted a hand in mine, when needed, someone with whom to appreciate the warmth of a winter fire, the first taste of summer. I realised, when I was betrothed, that I wasn’t going to get that with the one promised me, however. So, no, I guess I didn’t miss a thing.”

“You didn’t like them?”

There was something more unsure than displeased about the downturn of Sigrun’s mouth. “It wasn’t that,” she said. “It seemed like we got along, at first, and then our expectations suddenly split in two different directions. I didn’t mind marrying. I liked the constancy of it, but I didn’t understand the passion that came with it, the infatuation, the jealousy. I didn’t like it and I didn’t feel any of it back, nor did I wish to. When the curse set, I almost thought, Good.”

Erin looked at her, tried to see past the reflection of the sky in her eyes. She had a feeling she might have seen something she recognised there.

“It doesn’t have to be selfish,” she said.

“I know,” Sigrun shook her head and sighed. “But I still felt like what I wanted was for others some sort of a middle ground, just a path that led from one place to another. And nobody wants to live their life on the side of the road.”

The gulls cried outside, yet between the two of them it was quiet, quiet.

“My father never married,” Erin said.

Sigrun looked up.

“All of us, we were just… children nobody cared for, that nobody had time and food for. If someone had a child they could not raise, they looked for him. He was such a lonely man, and he lived all alone, they used to say. He never refused a soul. But for all that, I don’t think he ever felt lonely. He was constant and content by himself, yet I know he loved us all well enough. Was that a life spent on the side?”

“I don’t know,” Sigrun said, yet there was something petulant about her now.

She did know. Erin smiled.

Sigrun seemed to feel her smile, for she scowled and pushed herself off the window seat. “I’ll make tea. Stop your smirking.”

And Erin did, although only on the outside.

“What did you want to do, before all this?” Sigrun asked her, somewhat reproachfully. “Did you ever want to marry?”

After a beat, Erin burst into laughter. “No, no,” she said, hands on her cheeks. “I wanted to be a candlemaker!”

“A candlemaker?” Sigrun asked, confused.

“Yes,” Erin grinned. She’d forgotten. The memory was sweet as honey. “We kept bees at the castle, and sometimes we would carve patterns into the wax.”

She didn’t remember if she’d ever told that to anyone. At the time, it had just seemed like something she would get around to do one day. Back when her life had seemed to stretch endlessly and quietly before her.

“I make candles sometimes,” Sigrun said, tentatively, as if she still didn’t think Erin was completely serious. “I use tallow, but you can help me, if you like.”

Erin beamed. She had around her a frayed sweater someone lower in the village had given her, months before, and she pulled it closer now, thinking—this was a nice place to live.

“You’ll have to teach me,” she said.

Sigrun raised an eyebrow at the mugs she was filling with hot water. “From what I gathered, you can teach yourself.”

The new cloth seemed to take her longer than anything before, and she didn’t know if it was because she was purposefully slower, or because she was constantly changing the pattern. Yet, it was not done. Not yet, not yet.

She would have gathered her seconds one by one, like grains of sand from the beach, if she could.

 [ Feather, © 2022 Katharine A. Viola ] It was a cold, yet clean autumn day, maybe a year after she’d first reached the coast, when Erin climbed down the precarious rock-strewn path to the shore and let the wind and sea-drizzle envelop her like a low-ground storm. She drew her knees to her chest and pushed the hems of her dress under her bare feet to keep it in place and let out a sigh, watching the ashen sea.

Earlier that morning, she’d finished the garment she’d been working on for nearly as long as she’d been there. It was a coat, long and heavy, a dozen patterns whirling like the wind over its wilted surface. She’d felt no pull, no knowledge of whom it belonged to, not yet. Perhaps she had come to the sea so that it would roar loudly enough in her ears that she would never hear it, that the gales would keep that part of the spell at bay.

She didn’t want to go away. She’d left her home once before. This time, she just wanted to hold onto something for herself.

She didn’t expect it, when she glanced to the side and saw the sorceress, but neither was she frightened. After eleven years living with someone’s curse, you started to learn something about them. She’d never regretted a day’s work, when she gave her garments away and saw the gloom over a person’s head lift a bit.

Yet, a curse was a curse—it refused to let itself be cherished. At the end of the day, any compulsion tasted bitter on your tongue.

“You’ve been difficult to find,” said the sorceress.

Erin raised a shoulder, looking back to the sea. “I’ve been here.”

The sorceress came closer, her dark dress and cloak already gathering the pale dust of sand, making her look nearly statuesque. She watched the sea too, for a while. Her raven was a bit farther away, following and running away from waves in a rhythmic hopping-about.

“I wanted to give you this,” she said. “It was wicked to see it cling to you and do nothing.”

From the sleeve of her cloak, she pulled out a single swan feather, lighter than the whitened sky. She held the feather out to Erin, and she took it, before the wind could tear it away.

“When you wish to, break it in two,” the sorceress said. “The curse will go then.”

Erin gazed at the feather, turning it between her fingers. So feeble, it seemed. She wouldn’t have to do much to break it at all. Yet, it was strange. She almost wanted to put it safe, to be sure she didn’t break it by mistake.

“You’ll have to give something to yourself too. Can you do that?” the sorceress asked.

Erin gazed up at her, then took a breath of air and saltwater.

“Could you give me something for my friend too?” she asked, quietly.

The sorceress looked at her, then she wrapped her cloak more tightly around herself. “I already did, it seems.”

When Erin reached the hut again, she found Sigrun tending to the last autumn plants in her garden. She looked back at Erin in surprise, for she had come panting past the garden gate, but any words she might have said were lost as Erin bounded into the house.

She came out with her basket of threads and needles on one arm and the coat on the other, and then she marched with them to where the fence was closest to the cliff side. Then, before she could hesitate at all, she tossed the basket over the side. It should have been impossible for it to reach the sea, and yet, when she leaned over, she saw it splash into the roiling waves.

“What are you doing?” Sigrun asked, having risen to her feet to watch her.

Yet, Erin did not say a word as she held out the weedy coat in front of her, and then gave it a forceful shake in the wind. It turned woolly and light grey in her hands, almost in an instant.

“This is mine!” she told Sigrun, voice a bit frantic, short of breath still. She twisted the coat around and wrapped it over her shoulders, and then she pulled the swan feather out of her pocket. “And this is me.”

Then Erin broke the feather in two.

And somewhere, birds cried, but not in pain. Almost at once, it was as if a great weight was lifted from her soul, out of her bones, so that she was so light that only the heavy woollen cloak seemed to hold her feet to the ground. Before her, Sigrun raised a hand to her chest and looked down in wonder.

“Is your heart iron still?” Erin asked, voice catching, the wind almost stealing her words.

“No,” Sigrun said, after a while.

Then she raised her eyes to Erin, and she smiled, at last.

“It’s light as thread.”

First published in Common Bonds: An Aromantic Speculative Anthology, January 2021.

© 2022 Adriana C. Grigore

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