‘Bluebird Magick’, Alexis A. Hunter

Illustrations © 2013 Cécile Matthey

 [ Bluebird, © 2013 Cécile Matthey ] A group of kids huddled under the oak tree, kicking a tuft of blue between them. Just one glimpse and Anya recognized that limp flash of azure. Her gut clenched as she shoved between Rory and Sophie.

Leaping into the circle, a mangled cry tore from Anya's throat. The cry became a scream as she attacked—kicking shins and kneecaps. When they threw their arms out to stop her, she snatched them and bit down hard.

A series of raucous yelps and protests arose from the crowd of neighborhood kids. They fell back and left Anya standing between them and the bird, her eyes flitting from face to face.

“It’s just a bird. What’s your problem?” Rory said, rubbing the sticky, red bite-mark on his forearm.

Anya turned her back to them. With gentle hands, she lifted the lifeless bluebird and smoothed its feathers. A bloody crater marked the place its eyes used to shine from.

Anya sank to her knees. “She was my bird.”

She wasn’t aware that Rory had approached until he spoke, near her shoulder. “It wasn’t nobody’s bird. We found it.”

Anya cradled the creature to her chest, turning to Rory. She glared through eyes red-rimmed and covered in a film of tears.

The group's angry grumblings quieted. Rory dropped his gaze and coughed. His jaw worked a minute before he frowned. “It’s just a stupid dead bird!”

He darted away, and the other girls and boys—after an awkward, fumbling silence—bolted after him.

Anya stood beneath the oak’s branches and tried not to weep as she held the corpse of her only friend. In truth, the bird did not belong to her. It came every morning and sang a wake-up melody outside her window. Only days before, she had spied a nest on the ledge above her window.

Now Anya would have to tell the abandoned eggs that their mama wasn’t ever coming back.

“What are you holding, sweetie?”

Anya flinched at the heavy Russian voice. Blinking to clear her eyes, she looked up at Old Lady Kazakova. The woman hunched over her cane, her form as thin and twisted as the gleaming stick she leaned on.

Anya stumbled back a half step, hiding the bird in her arms. She didn’t reply. Lost in the craggy wrinkles of the woman’s face, all she could think of was escape.

No one talked to Mrs. Kazakova.

Stepping forward, the old lady pried Anya’s hands away from the bird. Her fingers were surprisingly soft and gentle for a witch—for that, the yard boys said, she most certainly was.

Anya released the tuft of feathers and blood, her head drooping. “They killed her.”

Mrs. Kazakova made a clucking sound. Anya raised her head to watch the woman examine the bird with a tenderness that eased her fears.

“Such cruelty in them,” Kazakova muttered. “To end life so beautiful. And you love her, this child of the sky—yes?”

Anya nodded, tears again stinging her eyes.

Mrs. Kazakova leaned close. At this proximity, Anya noticed flecks of paint spattered on the woman’s wrinkled hands. Crusty peels of glue crested her fingertips.

Kazakova’s black eyes burned as she stared Anya in the eye, breath smelling of onions as it billowed out from her parted lips. “Little one, do not cry. You honor life of bird—bird will honor you. Blessing you, in return. I will make things ready. You come to me in some hours. I make things ready.”

Anya shivered, head cocked to the side. Pondering the strange words a moment, she came to a conclusion that lifted her heart. “A funeral?” Eagerness laced her voice.

The old woman chuckled, shuffling away. “Of a sort, little one.”

Kazakova bustled about her workroom, the bird still cradled in her paint-flecked hands.

Her home was more a shack than anything else. One room to sleep, eat and work in. Rickety and old. Wind seeped through the gaps of the walls and made a perpetual cold. A fireplace spewing smoke fought to warm the room, cheered on by logs added every hour.

Kazakova worked with nimble fingers, plucking the bluebird’s feathers before gutting it and adding it to the stew bubbling over the fire.

At last, she turned to her workbench. Selecting a porcelain mask, Kazakova smiled and, humming an ancient tune, prepared the mask.

Anya crept up the pebbled path. The sun sank behind the shoulders of a dozen, dirty-white houses.

A light flickered inside Kazakova’s shack, streaking through one dirty window. Anya stopped and stared at the door, the hairs prickling on her arms. Her gaze darted to the warm light streaming from her bedroom window only twenty yards off.

She half twisted away from Mrs. Kazakova’s door, but a memory of the bluebird halted her.

Perched on her windowsill, it had piped a merry set of trilling notes. Anya enjoyed waking each morning to that sound. While her parents hurled insults and shoes at each other in the next room, Anya would fly away—in her mind—whenever the bluebird sang its magick song.

Anya squared her shoulders and turned back to the door. She rapped her knuckles against it.

When the door popped open, Anya stumbled back. Flickering light from the fireplace washed over her, parted by the dark form of Old Lady Kazakova.

“You come. I begin to think you are too scared.”

Anya considered trying to laugh, but instead gave a strained smile. “I want to bury the bird. She was my friend.”

Kazakova turned, allowing Anya to pass inside.

Anya took two steps in before she froze. Her wide eyes darted across the room as her breathing came in quick, harsh exhalations.

“Whoa … ” she whispered.

Masks. Everywhere. Dozens, formed of naked-pale porcelain, hung around the oak fireplace. Lined from tin roof to creaking floorboards. They stared blankly forward. White, smooth features and black-hole eyes, unfilled.

Anya took a teetering step to her left, approaching a thick workbench laden with bobbles and bits. Foggy jars of buttons shone by the light of dancing flames. Yard after yard of ribbon spiraled around spools or draped over the edge of the workplace. Anya ran her fingers over the silky strips: sapphire, ruby, plum, dark forest green. Thin ribbon and thick, stripes and solids. Lace piled on satin scraps, and a bowl of stinky, homemade glue.

Kazakova chuckled, shuffling to the fireplace and the pot hanging over it. “What you are thinking, little one? You like this place? Here I make my magicks.”

The old woman waved to the pieces hanging above her bench. Anya turned her gaze, sweeping over completed masks. A dozen faces adorned with magnificent colors. All staring down at her out of empty eyes.

Another shiver worked through Anya, but wonder bubbled underneath it. “They are … the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. Did you make these?” She twisted back to see Kazakova ladling soup into a small clay bowl.

The old woman extended the bowl to Anya. Steam whispered off its surface, chunks of white meat stained by yellow broth. Accepting the bowl, Anya inhaled the scent of it—onions and chicken broth, she thought. It warmed her hands as she watched Kazakova shuffle to a seat by the workbench with a bowl of her own.

“Drink, little one,” Kazakova prompted after drawing in a deep mouthful herself. “Bite the flesh of it and tell me how it taste to you.”

Anya eyed the bits of meat bobbing in the thin broth. Her stomach twisted. She told herself she wasn’t nervous. Just hungry.

Anya tipped the bowl to her lips. She chewed the meat; it was tender and gave under her teeth. A shudder worked through her as she swallowed, the warm soup working its way through her body. She felt a tingling in her fingertips and set the bowl on the fireplace before she dropped it. Staring at her hands, she flexed them in front of her eyes.

“I feel … ”

Kazakova chuckled. “That is normal. My magicks are powerful.”

Anya’s face flushed as she looked into the old woman’s eyes. A half-smile tugged at the little girl’s lips. “You’re teasing me. I know. Mama says there isn’t magick, no matter what Rory says about you.”

Kazakova’s brow wrinkled as she sucked in another mouthful of her soup. “You should listen to Rory. Cruel he can be, but he sees what your mother does not.”

Anya didn’t know what to say. Her stomach rumbled again, and she wanted more soup. But her skin itched. She didn’t want to be there anymore. Not when the walls felt like cages and all she wanted was to slip away and be free of this haunting sensation working through her body.

“Where’s the bird?” she asked. “I want to bury her now. Mama will find out I’m gone soon.”

Kazakova waved her over. “First, you must see what I make for you.”

Anya didn’t move. “No, thank you. I want to bury the bird. She’ll stink soon.”

The old woman chuckled under her breath, setting her soup down on one of the few empty places of her workbench. “Fine, little one. You do not come to me. I show you then.”

Lifting a mask out of the pile of adornments, Kazakova extended it for Anya to see.

Anya’s breath caught in her throat—or a piece of the chicken did. She coughed, covering her mouth as she’d been taught.

She needed a closer look at that mask.

Its face was as pale and elegant as every other. Strips of blue ribbon lined its edge, a deep shade that glistened in the firelight. Glitter danced on the black painted lashes, delicate curves slipping away from the eyes. Blue lips, too, full and smiling.

Anya inched forward, barely breathing as she trailed her fingers over the tiny, azure feathers that adorned the mask’s brow. They arched up toward the top like hair, and felt smooth beneath Anya’s fingers.

A particular kind of smooth, a particular shade of blue.

“My bluebird!”

Kazakova had leaned forward as Anya examined the mask, and now she scooted off her chair. The old woman grunted as she fumbled to her knees in front of Anya, now at eye-level. A glitter danced in the woman’s eyes that frightened Anya.

And yet her fear did not make her run. Instead, she just kept tracing the feathers. Over and over, until she found her hands grasping the mask by the sides and leaning down over it.

“I make the magick for you,” Kazakova whispered. “But I am not choosing it—you are having to choose it.”

That tingling that started with a bite of the soup surged through Anya now. It flooded every inch of her body, like someone dumped glitter in her veins. Grasping the mask with a white-knuckle grip, her gaze darted to the old woman’s craggy face.

“How? How do I choose it? What does that mean?”

The old woman smiled, touching Anya’s cheek. Tears sparkled in Kazakova’s eyes, mirroring Anya’s. “It means you will fly and be free. It means you will not cry. But mask needs life, needs magick. You kiss it. You kiss it now.”

Anya stared at the mask. She wondered if she should feel silly about all of this, about kissing the mask laden with the feathers of her dead bird. But she didn’t feel silly. A sober heaviness had overtaken her and she stood quivering under its weight.

A memory of the bluebird overtook her—it shining eyes and cheery song. These fragments in her mind threaded into one course, and Anya pressed her lips against the blueberry lips of the mask. Before she knew it, she had the mask on, azure ribbon tied behind her head. The mask seemed to latch onto her skin. She felt it digging into her face, but she had no room for fear. Only wonder.

Even when pain rippled from her hands, when the cracking sound of bones separating and reforming echoed through the shack, Anya did not fear. It was natural, this magick. More natural than the years she had lived hiding in her room, trying not to hear her mother shouting curses at her drunk father.

When the pain faded and her focus returned, Anya stood trembling next to Kazakova. Looking down, she saw great, feathery wings spreading where her elbows used to be. No more hands, no more fingers. Just streaking sapphire plumage. Large feathers arcing outward, and the mask secured to her face. Still she retained her childish body—legs and stomach and head, all. But a latticework of blue feathers crawled up her bare legs, bloomed down her neck.

Anya turned to Kazakova, a merry series of trilling notes erupting from her throat—laughter of the girl and the bird.

Kazakova leaned back in her chair, pride gleaming from every crevice in her weatherworn face. “This is beautiful. You are no more Anya. You are Azure. You know the skies and the land. You are the first.”

Azure, who was once Anya, flapped her feathered arms and stalked toward the door. Kazakova reached for another mask, a naked one awaiting its transformation. The old woman’s voice followed Azure out the door. “Get more. Get Rory—we will see what magick makes of his cruelty.”

 [ White Masks, © 2013 Cécile Matthey ]

© 2013 Alexis A. Hunter

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