Midnight Wren

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Sweat dripped down her back and humidity clung to her clothes, but as uncomfortable as she was, Wren did not stop sewing. Everything depended on finishing in time. The summer had been unusually hot at Briar House, and it was spilling into these early days of September. Her fellow inmates, teachers, and even Mistress Gregory had gone away for summer holidays and wouldn’t return for another week. Wren, of course, remained, with only the housekeeper and gardener to keep her company.

Like everyone at Briar House, they kept well away from her. The school was, without a doubt, a second-rate boarding school. Every student with a hint of scandal in her background, every teacher a bit too unrefined for better schools. Even so, Wren was shunned.

It wasn’t the circumstances of her birth. No, plenty of girls here came from unwedded houses. Nor was it her ebony hair, than shone in the moonlight with a hint of blue, the greenish cast to her skin in certain light, or her missing eye. There were other girls here who didn’t meet any standards for acceptable beauty or physical fitness, and they were all given the same adoration and attention. There was a kind of sisterhood among them, a sense of knowing that they would not fit elsewhere in society and so elevated themselves within their own.

Nor was it the whispers of the village over the mountain and through the treacherous forest. Billie May’s mother had been a Rider in her youth, before she turned traitor, and Billie was easily the most popular viper in their year. No, it wasn’t the vague association with the village, which no one ever confirmed with any certainty. It was something worse, something that could not be abided here, when every inmate of Briar House was someone’s secret shame.

It was the neglects that hung about Wren like a rotting stench. She wasn’t pampered like the other girls, despite the fact that her family was as wealthy as any of them. No one came for her on parents’ weekends, no one wrote letters, no one sent new clothes or trinkets for holidays and birthdays. Wren wasn’t here to be polished into something fit for the lower echelons of the highest society, it was clear she was here to be forgotten and so she was.

She was unseen and trapped, and would remain so all her days. The idea made her queasy and dizzy. To always be hidden, to never be free, to never know herself outside one prison or another -- it was very nearly more than she could bear. She shook these thoughts aside. Wren’s arms were tired and her back was stiff, but still she sewed. She must finish in time.

***

The sewing began after the headmistress departed for her summer home, with a warning. Mistress Gregory, imposing and impossibly beautiful said, “Touch nothing while I am gone. Do nothing while I am away. Be as a ghost in this house and leave no trace of yourself.”

Wren nodded in agreement. She knew how to be a ghost. She washed her own clothes, cleaned her own room, and stepped lightly on the floors and carpets. She stepped lightly on the gravel walks in the garden. She never touched a plant or picked a flower. She ate only what was leftover when the gardener and the housekeeper were done with their meals.

One day in late August, as twilight fell and the cicadas sang, she walked the garden paths, sure not to leave even a footprint behind, and spotted a feather. Glossy and black, it shone with blue, just like her hair. She looked around and could not see a bird that might shed such a treasure.

Something about it whispered, I am of your blood, I am of your bone. Mistress Gregory had been clear: she was not to leave a piece of herself behind. She picked up the feather and continued walking. She found another feather, then another and another.

Soon, dozens of them filled her arms, and eventually the skirt of her apron, which she used as a basket to carry them back to Briar House. The next day and the day after were the same. More feathers and no birds. She piled the feathers into baskets, which she wove from reeds near the river, just beyond the Briar House gate.

Then she waited. She knew the feathers were hers, though she did not know why she knew this. She didn’t know what to do with them at first, so she rearranged them by size and left them in the baskets that did not belong in Briar House any more than she did.

She watched the moon wax to fullness, and that night she startled awake. Her tiny room, at the top of the attic stairs was bathed in cool white light. The feathers glowed in the moonlight. Though no window was open anywhere, they rustled in their baskets, as if a breeze had blown gently by or they had been stroked by a hand.

At this thought, Wren felt cold and she reached for the sheet she’d thrown aside in the attic heat. Heightened awareness crawled over her skin and she felt something touch her arm, which she jerked away. It touched her again. Something cold and sharp. Something she might say felt like a knife, if she hadn’t known it was a claw. No, not a claw, a talon.

Then came the singing. It was a soprano, hoarse and haunting, but beautiful even when the notes it sung went flat.

Where oh where has my little bird gone?

Where oh where can she be?

Through blood and stone,

Feathers and bone,

Where oh where can she be?

 

She was here at the start,

But now we’re apart.

Where oh where can she be?

 

I have searched high and low,

But none seem to know,

Where she’s gone,

but she’s still dear to me.

 

Wren could hear there was more to the song, but the voice was far away. A cloud blew over the moon, and the spell broke. The feathers stopped glowing, nothing was touching her, and the house was quiet once more.

She spent the next day anxiously pacing. That night, the moon was still nearly full and she tried to stay awake to watch its effect on the feathers. But by the time the moon was high enough in the sky to cast its light on them again, she’d fallen asleep.

This time she woke to the scrape of a talon down her arm and the sound of the song, already in progress.

Where oh where has my midnight wren gone?

Where oh where can she be?  

Through blood and stone,

feathers and bone,

where oh where can she be?

 

She must hear my song,

For t’will not be long,

‘Fore they drag her back down,

she must sew a black gown,

a mantle that’s fit for a queen.

The voice continued singing, but again seemed a great distance away. She wanted to hear the rest of the song, but dared not leave bed, frozen as she was with fear at the line, ‘Fore they drag her back down. Her body clenched with revulsion at the memory. The one she could not place. The nightmare memory.

The hands that grabbed at her, thick and violent, pulling her from something she loved. Dragging her down and down. The shouts of triumph as they cut out her left eye to complete their evil spell. The blood that spilled on the ground, the crunch of bone as they made her anew. The never-knowing what she remembered, the fractured source of strength, the hole she felt at the core of her being, where something was missing. They took something from her, more than her eye, more than her freedom. They took something that must be returned.

She looked at the feathers in the moonlight and they did not glow. This night, they swallowed the light. She knew what to do with them, but she wanted to hear the rest of the song.

The next morning she barely remembered falling back asleep and she went through her day in a daze. As shadows fell, and twilight crept over Briar House, she felt as though she was waking up. Where she’d numbed herself for years, she felt again. She stretched into her skin, into her body. She gently touched the scar around her eye, and did not shudder once.

As night fell, she stroked the feathers and shivered with pleasure, because it was just like touching herself. She could feel her fingers stroke them. She felt them rustle as though they were attached to her own body. She and the feathers were one, and she would make the gown.

Wren curled into the chair, folding her long legs under her and waited for night to fall. This time she would not fall asleep. This time she would hear the whole song. But again she nodded off and was woken by the scrape of a talon on her arm. This time she was early, the singing hadn’t begun.

Deep within the house, she heard steps on the stairs. Up they climbed until they were footsteps outside her door. She held her own breath, only to hear heavy breathing on the other side of the door. Then the song began. The voice was closer than it had been before, as though the singer pressed their lips against the door, and the song had changed.  

Where oh where has my little bird gone?

Where oh where can you be?

Through blood and stone,

Feathers and bone,

Where oh where can you be?

 

You were here at the start,

But now we’re apart.

Where oh where can you be?

 

I have searched high and low,

But none seem to know,

Where you’ve gone,

but you’re still dear to me.

 

Where oh where has my midnight Wren gone?

Where oh where can you be?

Through blood and stone,

Feathers and bone,

Where oh where can you be?

 

You must hear my song,

For t’will not be long,

‘Fore they drag you back down,

you must sew a black gown,

a mantle that’s fit for a queen.

 

Where oh where has my little girl gone?

Where oh where can you be?

Stolen away,

Sixteen years and a day,

Steal you back, will I, so you’re free.

 

Now I see where you’ve gone,

And it will not be long,

‘Til I steal you back,

Steal you back,

‘Til you’re free.

Wren held her breath, until she felt her lungs burn and tears stung in her eyes. She gasped for air and rushed to the door, throwing it open. The hallway was empty. Sixteen years and a day.

Wren swallowed, feeling her throat acutely for the first time in years. She would be seventeen on September 6th, sixteen years after she’d come to live with her father. Impossible thoughts swirled in her head. Impossible, because her mother was dead, or so she’d been told. She almost pushed the idea away, but for a flicker of clarity. The memory, the nightmare memory of the hands. She was not being pulled down into something, but being pulled down from somewhere.

With certainty, she knew she must make the gown, and so stole into the headmistress’ bedroom, which was never locked. With the house empty of students, teachers and most of the servants, she was free to do as she pleased and had no remorse for entering Mistress Gregory’s room. She riffled through Mistress Gregory’s sewing table, looking for needle and thread.

She found the needle she needed immediately, but had to lift a secret panel from the deepest drawer to find thread. Such strange thread it was, not made from silk or satin. No blues or purples or greens, but only the color of hair. Here was Mistress Gregory’s secret, the mark against her.

Mistress Gregory was a sorceress of the worst kind, one who set the fate of her students with bits and pieces of themselves. Each spool of thread was tied with various beautiful bits of torn dresses and tattered hair ribbons, bound with sacred herbs and flowers, to promote abundance, wealth, and beauty. Each was made to ensure the success of the girl it was harvested from but one. Hers. Hers, bound with ugly, dingy twine and hunk of iron. She tore the twine and iron from her spool and her body felt light as air, as though her bones were hollow.

The next morning, she began work on the gown. It was a thrilling, but painful process. Just as she could feel her own hand touch the feathers, in the same way she felt her hands upon her own skin, she felt each prick of the needle, each tug of the thread. The memory of the hands, and what had been stolen eroded a little with each painful pull.

***

Finally, her birthday arrived and the gown was finished. She quivered as she slipped out of her badly made dress. This was different. It was sleek and elegant, and she was unsure how she’d known the way to sew a gown of feathers together, but it was stunning. Sixteen years and a day. If the song was to be believed, tomorrow she would be free. She pushed the thought of her mother away, afraid to touch it, afraid to hope.

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The housekeeper made no overtures for her birthday, and her father sent no messages or presents. It was as it had always been, until twilight fell and the cicada song turned to a chorus of screams. In the garden, in the place she’d found the first feather, she found a crown, wrought from the same black feathers that made her gown. As she drew it up from the ground to look at it, she saw it glittered with tiny, teardrop shaped diamonds.

Tomorrow, the wind crooned, in the singer’s voice. “Tomorrow,” she whispered back. When night fell, she slept easily and did not wake until late the next day. When she woke the sky was so dark she could only just tell it wasn’t night. The gown gleamed in the dim light of the attic.

There was little left to do but put it on, she supposed. As she stepped into it, something was different. Something about the interior of the gown was prickly, like pulling on a coat of burrs. It stung her body, clinging to her skin, but she did not take it off. Fear and anticipation sang through her bones and muscles when she looked at the crown. She felt her blood rushing through her veins, and the dress clung even more tightly to her body as she raised it to her head.

Open the window, came the voice she knew was her mother’s. She opened the window and an enormous raven swept in on the stormy wind. Their gazes locked and she nodded once in recognition. The nightmare memory was clear now. She’d been pulled from the sky. Pulled from freedom. Pulled from the shelter of her mother’s wing. Her eye taken to stop her ability to shift forms. Sent here to be hidden away and kept weak by Mistress Gregory.

But she was not weak now; no, now she was strong. The gown dug into her human skin, the little prickles became sharp talons. Wren’s human blood seeped into the dress and tears rolled down her face. They were tears of pain, but not of sadness.

She would not be parted from her own self a minute longer. Wren embraced the pain of becoming, and when she was whole once more, she spread her wings and followed her mother back to the sky.

Allison Carr Waechter is singing to bones and stones, calling autumn in. Send tea. You need not read the rest of the Tales of Wolf Hollow to understand this one, but perhaps you'd like to know more about the village over the mountain. If so, click here