Lizzie turned the horse in a slow circle. There was nothing but trees, all hung with snow. She shivered and felt glad of the too-big velvet. “Where did it go?”
The horse made a puff of white in the air. “Magic,” was all he said. She could feel him waiting beneath her; she’d forgotten this about riding horses, the way her body merged to another and she was not longer just a human girl but also a powerful creature with four hooves solidly connecting to the earth. She drew a breath and flicked the reins, and they began.
The horse’s hoofbeats were muffled by the snow. They crossed the clearing and entered the forest: evergreens and bare gray branches woven together to make a wall, but the horse found a trail and navigated through the tangle of trees. It began to snow. Neither horse nor girl spoke, and the steady rhythm of the horse’s movement lulled Lizzie into a kind of half-sleep.
There was a tower, a high tower, and on it hung a key. The key was old and rusted and showed the signs of having hung out in the elements for years and years. She was a bird soaring high over this old fortress. She stretched her wings and felt the updraft carry her; she needed only the slightest movement, the shifting of one feather to change her course. She circled and circled over this lonely spot.
Lizzie jerked her head up. She had fallen asleep in the saddle. “Why did we stop?” She looked around. The horse nodded its head. Something was fluttering in the snow only a few paces before them.
Lizzie stood in the stirrups and looked. It took her a moment to make it out: black feathers: it was a raven.
The bird saw her looking and cried out. It’s caw was feeble and Lizzie shuddered. She was about to sit back down in the saddle and ride past it when it opened its beak again. “Help me.”
Its voice rasped and grated and made Lizzie clench her teeth. It didn’t look away, and she found herself unable to break its gaze.
“Help me,” it croaked again. “And I will help you.”
Lizzie froze where she stood. She could feel the horse waiting, too, waiting for her signal to stay or move on. If he had an opinion he did not share it.
Then a memory flew to her: her mother was speaking to her. She was very young.
“We can’t bring wild things into the house, Lizzie.”
“But it’s hurt! We were throwing sticks to see who could be the best hunter and I hit it. It’s my fault.” She was six, maybe seven. Hescher and Jacobi hung back by the door, snow melting on their winter clothes.
“We can’t help it,” said her mother. “Its wing is broken. It would be kinder to kill it.” She reached for the black bird in Lizzie’s small hands, but Lizzie drew them close and cradled the bird.
“What if I was a bird, Mama? Wouldn’t you help me?” The question hung between them. Her mother glanced out the window, wondering, surely, what the neighbors would say if they heard she was taking in a bird that could just as easily be baked into a pie. She said nothing, but she nodded. Lizzie remembered the splint, the wrapping, feeding scraps of bread to the bird, who watched her steadily the whole time with its black unblinking eye.
She looked up. The raven watched her.
She slid out of the saddle. The snow was deep, nearly to her knees. She waded across the trail and looked down.
“What if I was a bird…” her stomach growled. “Are you hungry? Will you share my bread with me?” The raven’s head twitched. Lizzie reached into the snow and lifted it out. It weighed next to nothing, as if there was nothing to it but a fistful of feathers. Lizzie’s hands burned in the sudden cold. She wiped them on her too-large pantaloons and cradled the bird in one arm. Her other hand found the loaf of bread in her shoulder bag. She broke off a piece and held it out. The bird snapped it up and immediately opened its beak for more. Again she pinched off a morsel of bread, again the raven ate, again it asked for more. Again, and again.
And then the pack was empty of bread. Still the raven waited for more. Lizzie drew out the hunk of cheese. The raven pecked, tilted its head, and the food was gone. Lizzie felt how empty her own body was, but she said nothing.
The raven ruffled its feathers, wriggled and righted itself in her arms. It preened and stretched and fluffed itself. It stood on her forearm, claws gripping tightly. It cocked its black head and stared hard at her. Lizzie flinched, but waited.
“Because you have shown me a kindness with nothing to be gained, I will give you a gift: my name. I am Black Wings the raven.”
Lizzie waited. “Is that all?”
The bird looked at her. “You should think before you speak. ‘Is that all?’ Where have you been that you don’t know the power of names? To know the true name is to be connected. To be never alone. I thought you knew this.”
Lizzie’s mind raced to the tower, to the women who waited there. “Yes, yes, of course I knew it, I’m sorry. Everything is so strange…”
The raven cackled. “Indeed it is. All of life is to those whose eyes can see it, whose mouths can name it. Where are you going dressed in another’s clothes on a horse of power?”
Lizzie looked back at the horse. “A horse of power? What do you mean?”
The raven rolled its eye at her. “You don’t know the beast you ride?”
“Enough,” the horse pawed at the snowy ground and the raven fell silent. Lizzie looked between the two of them but neither offered an explanation.
“There is a lot I don’t know. Perhaps you can help me with that.” When the raven said nothing she continued. “I need to find the Yaga’s hut— Baba Yaga, the Mother of—“
“I know, I know. And so does he,” said the bird, hopping so as to see the horse better. “Don’t bother asking me for help until you truly need it.”
“But, how will I find you?”
“You silly creature. You won’t.”
“You know my name. That is enough.” Then it lifted off her arm and flapped up, black against the gray-white sky. She stood and watched it until it was gone and the sky was blemish-free once more.
She turned and looked at the horse. “A horse of power?”
The horse shook it’s head. “It grows late. We will not reach our destination before dark. You must make a sleeping place with evergreen branches for the night.”
By the time she had cut the boughs and packed up a windbreak of snow, it was dark. The horse knelt down beside her and blocked the opening of her lean-to but gave her no answers. Her feet were cold, her stomach was empty and her mind buzzed with questions. At last she scooted over and leaned against the horse’s warm side and fell asleep.
READER RESPONSE: Leave a comment and tell me what you like, what images stand out, or your curious questions. (No suggestions/grammar critiques, please). Thanks for supporting my work-in-progress! -Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux