A Winter's Story

Margo Berdeshevsky


Dark and sullen and mean, silken as a shut eyelash, suggestive of something under the covers at dawn, yet a bounding flyer on gazelle’s limbs under a red half moon. She had had . . . so much hope. The child was now her own. They could breathe in a kind of unison. She could hold each finger, and sing as softly as she’d once wanted to be sung to. The child would know her name. Know its own name. Have a few good dreams. Grow tall.

And he hated her. She’d fed him and washed him and sung to him, and begged him to love her, and received his egg-blue stare, a first week of cuddles, and then his purposeful scratches on her naked limbs at night, his alternating voices, a yowl and an out-hiss and once in a great while, the purr of male authority, in the mornings and in their last moments before sleep. A stare that had begun with curiosity but edged into shadow and then to a violence, torn. He wanted to hurt her. Both understood. She’d coveted her friend’s child, and thought if only . . . well, she used to love all children until hers turned into the devil child, and she had to give him back to the night.  

She cried, grieved, and got older.            

As a little child herself, she’d never been a beauty. Small-boned, eager, brittle, “artistic,” her mother had insisted, although her hands turned inward like tiny reddened bird limbs, ending in something close to claws. An abortion that didn’t work, her mother once confessed. But she was kept. And grew to be a woman who lived at a window on a second floor.            

Small crows, the filthy city variety, hovered just beyond her ledge in the late afternoons when the light lowered. Hungry for discarded bread or souls.

She’d lived with no roots. She had a small whispery voice. She’d kept parakeets at first. Kept domesticated squirrels. Took in the orphaned boy-child, who quickly hated her. Who jumped and broke her painted vase, broke her Chinese plate, broke her favorite teacup, all with nasty swipes. At last, she gave him away. Wanted to leave him in a woodland park beyond the town. To say I’m sorry. You are cruel. But she gave him to the proper agency as she knew she was obliged to do, and gave up. Turned silent. Turned away. Like one of her parakeets with clipped wings, she watched her window. Living alone, she hung a grease ball of congealed seeds from the iron railing, and waited, hoping only for sparrows who’d come near to dive and land and feed.

And now at last she wanted to help something. Nurture something.

A light snow came in silvered hints, ahead of dawn's ice. She grew old.  

In a dream in the middle of last week she lay in her childhood bedroom, indigo and white patterned wallpaper of an intricate webbing of unopened rosebuds and vines, a thin gauze canopy draped over the bed her mother had chosen for her to grow up in. A mother’s surrender to having a daughter she had not wanted. A woman should enjoy her bed in the world, she was told. And hide well from monsters. Never let them come near your bed. She hadn’t been taught how to recognize one. As a grown woman, her lovers were very few. Two. One was from the east. One was from the west. And then eventually, there were none.

Inside the dream last week she dreamed that she slept. And that a pearl-headed pin, an antique hatpin, lay close on the sheet to her curled hand which wasn’t exactly a fist, but was not an open hand that could touch or catch, either. She slept, the pearled pin-head no brighter than the shrinking winter moon. Size of a fingertip, the pin lay quietly next to her hand. She didn’t touch, felt no need to wonder why it was there, she slept, and in the dream a man entered her room and neared her canopied bed, a wide-girthed and unspeaking shadow of a man who slid something underneath her pillow and quickly and quietly, he left. She didn’t recognize him.

But she’d had other not dissimilar dreams since she was very small. The shadow man always approached her bedside, and in those other nightmares she would try to scream and no sound would come. She would scream with no voice until she awoke and he was not there. In this one, it was the same. No voice.

Now, it was the longest night of the year. The crows were quiet, they watched the December silvered sky and the dimming of contours of her street. And smaller fliers watched  too. Awake or still sleeping, she was unsure . . . wrapped in her long dark blue robe, and she moved in her dim room, and she lit candles to scare away any shapes.

The child she’d given away had survived the imagined woods and the agency and its ensuing life, and the woman was often sure that he had become an habitual stalker on her street. She never saw him, but she was sure that he watched how long the dark would last, that he watched how well or how poorly she was doing, in her window on the second floor. Better than last week when she cried all night in her high-backed chair beside a glass without curtains. She was sure that he noted that, too.

Better than the weeks before. Solitudes she’d never learned to welcome, intimacies missed like her animals—surely the ones she’d had must be dead by now—and her bed was crowded only with her pillows. But she was better this week. She felt that her long season was ending.

The crows were soundless. Remembering her mother, dead for forty winters, on the solstice, they must be whispering. All their eyes were closed.

Now, lighting candle after candle in her room, the woman hummed a snatch of a lullaby she’d sung . . . before. And she stroked a long rutile-threaded stone that was lodged in her velvet robe pocket, a crystal gift delivered in another of her anxious dreams. The crystal was threaded with needles, thin and golden and reddened filaments inside it. With a chill and smooth flat side, and a more rugged unpolished one, it was exactly the size of her open hand, and shaped like a small scalpel, tip bent like the fine point of a flame.

In the most recent dream, she’d known and not known the man who entered her room and left it, this time. Couldn’t and wouldn’t look at him. She’d stirred, stretched out her arms and then closed her own twisting small hands over her belly, a gesture she’d made since earliest childhood to calm her nerves. To seal the place where infants are cut. Mama, she thought. And then erased that word. Wanted, she thought. And then erased that word. Practiced a better thought. Better to become my own mother. Father, she thought. And she wanted to erase him   also. Never the most beautiful pebble on the path, she curled around herself like an old tree’s roots. Wrapped herself in her own arms. I’ll be better, she promised herself, promised a very hungry thing inside herself, all night. Not until the shadow disappeared did she reach for the gift that he’d left.

Her hand grazed the smooth surface of the object’s head first, then explored its entirety. The tip was so sharp it could blind or pierce. In the dark of her sleep and dreaming, the shadow’s quiet gift placed under her pillow, her fingers stroked it. Long. Pointed. This one’s head was larger than the pearl one that remained still on the other side of her pillow, this one was the size of an infant’s fist or a small glass doorknob. This one shone a little, laced on the inside with the fine network of rust and golden hairs. She balled her own hands into tighter fists.

She moved a word around and around on her tongue. A steady low voltage of electricity thrummed inside her hands. She held the gift, opened her fist, closed it, petted the thing as dawn moved at her window in ragged pinions of not exactly light and not wings, and she saw the object more clearly. It was not beautiful. It was cold. Another word came to her, and she held it under her tongue like a capsule.

Dreaming still, now she had two weapons with her in her bed. I’m no killer, she whispered and she thought that she yelled. What is this for? Bellowed it into the room, and out to the hallway beyond it, where the shadow had walked out. Now she had a voice. Now she thought maybe it was her father whom she’d never loved, who answered her. Love, she whispered. Protection, she heard him say. For protection. And he was gone from her dream.

Finally awake, she touched her bare feet to a chill floor and edged along the far wall, avoiding the window that had no curtains. She tied her robe more tightly. Lit all her lamps and all her candles at once, pulled a heavy dictionary from her shelf to find the word she still tongued, left over from her dream. Her breath came faster. Her fingers found it.

Her hands were twisting again, one against the other. Her tongue was a busy, nearly independent thing inside her mouth. She bit on it until she tasted blood. Returned to the page in front of her. Magical. For protection.

Her heartbeat was a caged squirrel on its wheel. She opened her computer, tried to breathe slowly. Hummed. Nodded. Typed that word, and clicked the search. Lifted her hands away from the keys. Her fingers twined as the substance of dream faded.             

There, a precise duplicate of what she had dreamt filled the white screen. It was the size of an infant’s fist, laced with rutile threads, and next to it . . . another one with threads still more delicate and more golden. And next to it, one that was sharper and ended in a point more like a small scabbard. And she touched the screen with just one finger from her left hand, her right hand turning in on itself, more bird claw than ever. She touched, and then the beautiful object lay completely in that hand.            

Afraid to make the floorboards creak, she stood and then she knelt. Curled into fetus. And uncurled. Still holding the object. Then she placed it on top of her pillow and left it there.

They’re all dead, she said aloud. Now she hummed, that high-pitched prayer she’d learned in a kindergarten. Her feet twisted under her, and she hummed the whole of the tune. She thought about the child she’d once given back. Thought about birds who were just outside, and their claws. Thought about the sharp thing she’d been given. Remembered pins she didn’t want to use for weapons. Refused to. I’m not a killer, she said aloud. Remembered that word from the father in her dream, protection. And she spit out a long and very low stream of air when she whispered the words thank you. And then, one last time, the word that was a jagged pebble, underneath her tongue.

Yes, she was awake now. She decided she’d brew a strong black tea over a slow flame, and didn’t open the door when the ringing began. Didn’t open it when some voice called her name. It was the wrong name. Outside, nothing wanted to be awake. She felt no pain. But the child she’d once known had entered and would remain.