Where Souls Go
The girl was scarce into her thirteenth spring when she died.
Oh Sun! Great Father of all things that fly! Take this child to fly with your children high above the mountains.
Oh Moon! Great Mother of all that runs through the night! Take this child to run with your children in the forest.
The Sun’s great birds, black-feathered Ravens, ate up the dead girl’s heart and liver. The Moon’s running warriors, gray-furred Wolves, ate up her arms and legs. So her heart flew over the village and her legs ran through the woods around it.
But the dead girl’s mother the wood-wife had kept just two of her little teeth, and braided them into her hair. When she walked out in day, the Ravens circled above her. When she stepped forth in night, the Wolves followed her and would not leave her side. Feathers, fur wrapped around the child’s bones, they followed the wood-wife. They did her bidding. So for two years she walked the kingdom round, until she met her own first footsteps on the grave where they had buried the girl’s soul.
“I will never let you rest,” the wood-wife said to the child’s soul. But when she turned round, there was nothing of the soul in the Wolves. There was nothing of the soul in the Ravens. “You were not meant for a slave beast,” the wood-wife said to the soul. “You were meant for ruling, and for blessing, and for cursing.” Then she turned her steps to the center of the kingdom, and the Ravens and the Wolves drifted after her, leaves on the wind that blew ever inward, through the teeth in her hair to the world where souls go.
From first snowfall to elderbloom, the wood-wife walked toward the King’s seat. Not a dry leaf dared bear her tread, but followed her upon the wind. Not a branch dared block the light from her. Not a gate in the city dared close her out. Before the Queen she stood; the Ravens above her swirled the light to dancing, the Wolves around her danced the stones to light. A train of leaves flew after her, unresting. She undid the teeth from her hair and held them out, dandling in her palm. Dark was her face and narrow, her lips red as blood, her hair black as night; her hands wove magic, spider-deft.
“Put these into your womb, lady, and know your husband. So shall you get an heir.”
The Queen but blinked, amazed with light and leaf, and all was gone save two white stones, cradled in her hand.
Nine months passed, and in the cold of March snow fell, melted, fell again; the Queen was delivered of two children, born a fortnight apart. Eldest a boy, hair white as bone, eyes black as Raven’s feather; youngest a girl, hair black as night, eyes gray as Wolf’s fur. The boy she named Raans, meaning ‘promised;’ the girl she named Geesta, meaning ‘fulfilled.’
Harsh grew the boy as Raven’s cry, sly grew the girl as Wolf’s tread. They learned ruling, and blessing, and cursing. Yet their lives circled ever inward, through the stones in their mother’s womb to where souls go. Ever as they grew she waned, old moon in new’s embrace, summer’s day sinking into winter night. In bed o’nights, the king felt her bones through her skin. The night of the boy’s thirteenth year, he felt her heart tremble, as it would leap from its seat and go where souls go. Yet a fortnight her bones stayed with him, until the girl’s thirteenth year had passed. On that morn, the queen died.
Oh Sun! Great Father of all things that fly! Take this woman to fly with your children high above the mountains.
Oh Moon! Great Mother of all that runs through the night! Take this woman to run with your children in the forest.
The Sun’s great birds, black-feathered Ravens, carried the queen’s heart and liver to her son, that he might eat of them. The Moon’s running warriors, gray-furred Wolves, carried her arms and legs to her daughter, that she might feast on them in the night. So her heart and her legs ruled, and blessed, and cursed in the kingdom. But the teeth from her womb they carried back to the wood-wife, and she braided them into her hair.
From last snowfall to harvest-time, the wood-wife walked toward the King’s seat. Not a flower fell, not a fruit ripened, where she passed. Not a leaf dared grow large enough to block the light from her. Before the King she stood; dark was her face and narrow, her lips red as blood, her hair black as night; she stood before him with the boy at one hand and the girl at the other.
“I am she who will bring your children from springtime to harvest,” she said, and the King stretched his hand out toward her and led her to the throne. Spring flowers decked their wedding bower; the new moon wheeled above their bridal bed. The boy and girl ran strong in the sunlit day, sly in the moondark night, and ever circled around the teeth in their new mother’s hair, on the wind that blows to where souls go.
All that year there was no winter in the land but endless spring, spreading flowers before the new Queen’s footsteps wherever she walked. Where she trod, leaves broke out above her head, yet none dared grow large to shield her from the sun. Her children were ever beside her, white-haired and black, the blossoms of youth. Truly the land was blessed, the people said, from snowfall to elderblossom time.
But there came no other time, as if the year had died a child. No fruit swelled and no grain ripened. At midsummer the people ate spring flowers, at hallows they ate unripened roots, and at midwinter they died. Ravens carried their hearts and livers to the new Queen and her children, wolves their arms and legs. As they ate, the children looked ever to their mother, at the teeth knotted in her hair. “I will never let you rest,” the wood-wife said to them. “You were meant for ruling, and for blessing, and for cursing.”
“We have blessed and cursed,” said the boy.
“There are none left to rule,” said the girl. “Let us go where souls go.”
Like Wolves, like Ravens, they fell upon their mother. They tore her liver, her heart, her arms and legs. But all her magic she cast into the teeth in her hair, leaving her life unprotected. “I may die, but you shall never follow me where souls go,” she told the children. Under the girl’s hand, between the boy’s fingers, the teeth turned to dust spread on the wind.
As far as the dust flew, that is their kingdom. It is always springtime in that land, flowers forever bloom and no fruit sets. From snowfall to elderblossom-time, Wolves rule the night; from springtime to hallows, Ravens scour the sky. All who wander into that land think themselves first blessed and then cursed, and their hearts, their legs, their bones, stay in that land forever. Ever they circle around it, in the wind that blows to where souls go.
Patricia Bowne’s writing ranges from folk and fairy tales through dark fantasy and academic satire. Her short work has appeared in a variety of publications including Tales of the Unanticipated, Unsettling Wonder, and Year’s Best Fantasy 3. Her novels about life in the Demonology Department of a modern university are available from Double Dragon or via links at her website, www.raosyth.com.