Fanni Sütő is a writer in her mid-twenties. She writes in Hungarian and English; poems, flash fiction and countless unfinished novels. She tries to find the magical in the everyday and likes to spy on the secret life of cities and their inhabitants.
I stole my mother’s life. It was a moonless night, darkness embraced the castle and the world waited with the stillness of a nocturnal bird stalking its prey. Her labour was not going well. The smell of life and death mingled around the bed, sweetened by the tinctures the midwife boiled to aid my mother.
When I finally arrived and my mother held me in her arms, her eyes grew wide with disbelief. She was brave; she didn’t scream. Her soul escaped silently, with a faint sigh. Agnes, the midwife smuggled me out of the castle, wrapped in the silk of darkness. She could still hear my father’s cry when he found his wife dead and his child missing. He ordered the whole city to be draped in murk-black for a whole year and no loud word could be spoken after twilight. My birth brought silence into the night.
Agnes couldn’t tell my father I was alive because it would have broken his heart again. I was not the princess he wanted. I was a twist of nature, an abomination. In the place of what should have been pink baby skin I had the feathers of a raven, my eyes were black beads. At least I didn’t have a beak. Agnes called me her sweet bird-girl and she loved me as a child of her own. Yet, the first feeling I remember was guilt and self-hatred.
I could always count on Agnes to smother my fears with lullabies or to chase away my hunger with the blood of berries.
She taught me everything she knew. She made me love nature as my second mother and the trees whispered their secrets in my ears. I understood which plants gave you strength and which ones took your life away. In my darkest days, I held poisonous leaves on my palm, leaves I knew could kill me in an instant. I stared death in the eyes and waited for him to reach out for me. He never did. I always ended up throwing the leaves away. It was just a test. It’s easier to die than to live and I wanted to prove that I was not a coward.
I also learnt to play chess, a game of cruel logic and strategy. I became a great commander of my small ivory army and very soon I always defeated Agnes who laughed and caressed my feathery head.
“You will be a great queen one day,” she said. I hated her optimism.
Agnes was the only living and breathing human I knew but my world wasn’t empty. Every day I was walking with Petrarch and his Laura in the forest, feeding my loveless heart the emotions it never knew. I read Boccaccio’s stories and laughed in the face of the plague. I descended to the deepest circles of darkness with Dante. I dreaded going to Hell. There was no place for monsters in Paradise. I knew my fate was sealed. I would burn in Inferno. I cried every day, mourning my afterlife. I never stopped reading though. I devoured the horrors with a perverted pleasure.
My life was simple and uneventful until my thirteenth birthday. On the night of midsummer I felt a strange magic stirring in the forest. I wanted to run out and see the fairies from the tales of Agnes but the air was heavy with summer smells and the call of sleep proved too strong. As soon as my head touched the pillow, I sunk into the strangest of dreams.
I was flying in a forest. It was broad daylight but the trees grew so densely that only a few fingers of sunlight reached through. The forest hummed with life, insects crawled around in the undergrowth, birds sang the gospel of summer heat. Everything was green and alive. I felt free for the first time in my life.
In the waking I couldn’t fly. I had feathers but my human body was too heavy. In this dream I was a bird, a majestic raven and I could go wherever I wished. Suddenly, I heard a sound I have never heard before. It was a laughter, the honest laughter of a boy. I had seen boys before, from a safe distance, hiding in the crown of trees. I flew in the direction of the sound and found a group of boys sitting on a clearing, looking at a rabbit they had caught. I felt sorry for the rabbit, as it lay at their feet, its blood trickling at the ground.
There were four boys but I had eyes only for the laughing one. He was standing up, his hair brown and shiny like the fur of a bear and his nose big and bent, reminding me of the beak of my favourite birds. I knew he was not handsome. I saw beautiful people in the illustration of my books and compared to them he was ugly. In my eyes however, he seemed to be the most wonderful creature alive. They spoke a language I didn’t understand, a language of strange flowing syllables, melodious and masculine at the same time. Maybe they were fairies. I watched them until I woke up with the first ray of sun. That morning everything seemed different; the world was full of meaning. I had a purpose. I wanted to find that boy and for his sake I wanted to become human.
I lost my first feather the next day. I was scratching my head and a feather fell off. I grabbed it, ran up to Agnes and cried in her lap for an hour. I didn’t tell her but I convinced myself that I was going to die as a punishment for my dream and desires. I saw trees dropping their leaves and becoming bald, lifeless skeletons. I was afraid of winter.
I lived so close to the thought of death that it didn’t really scare me until that moment I found something to live for. Agnes tried to cheer me up with mirages conjured in the corner of my room or with jewels she made from acorns and pebbles. I was inconsolable. I sneaked out of the house in the dead of night and rambled in the woods. The creatures of the night were scared of me first but after a while they came to recognise me as one of their own. I was losing feathers in an alarming pace. Agnes gave up trying to comfort me; she just walked in my shadow and collected the pieces I lost.
By the winter solstice I had only one feather left. I was standing naked in the middle of my room, in front of a huge, foggy mirror and I was scrutinising my body. It was smooth and perfect, it felt like the skin of a stranger. A tear drop rolled down my cheek: why was it upon dying that I had become normal? I took the last feather between my fingers. It was a lonely black streak above my heart. I tucked at it. The last thing I saw from under my closing eyelashes was the feather slowly floating to the floor.
I woke up in my bed with Agnes’s face beaming above me like the full moon.
“Death is not much different from living,” I muttered.
“You are not dead, Miss Beatrice, you are an adult.”
“It feels horrible,” I said looking up at the ceiling which seemed to be whirling above me.
“You will get better when I tell you some good news. The king is holding a ball in the castle and we are going there tonight.”
“Are you mad, Agnes?” I sat up but I fell back immediately, I was too weak still. “The king would kill me if he knew...”
“He will not know. In the eye of the world you are a lovely young lady now. Soon you are going to be a princess and maybe even a queen one day, if you find the man of your dreams.” She gave me a pointed look like she had known the deepest secret of my soul.
Agnes prepared me a bath of milk and hawthorn leaves. She combed my hair with a coral comb and clad me in a dress made of deep green velvet. Hadn’t I seen the shiny threads holding the fabric together, I would have suspected it to be made from enchanted moss. She hung a row of pearls in my neck and pierced my ear with a golden needle. The drops of blood froze in their fall, turning into the loveliest ruby earrings.
“If anybody asks who you are, say you are the orphan of the Marquis de Carabas and your castle stands in the forest.”
“But that is not true.”
“It may not be now, but it will become true if you say it to the right people at the right moment.”
I didn’t like it but I just bowed my head. Agnes always knew what she was doing.
The king’s castle was the most magnificent thing I had ever seen. Sweet melodies of mandolins swam in the air, golden dresses sparkled and ladies laughed happy and bubbling like sparkling wine.
The king was the shadow of a great man, his hair white and his hands trembling. When he saw me, something flashed in his eyes and he made his way to me through the crowd.
“And who might you be, lovely young lady?” he asked, kissing my hand. His voice was kind but sad, like the music of a discordant harp.
“I am an orphan my Liege, my dear father the Marquis of Carabas passed away some years ago. I was raised by my nurse in a castle in the middle of the forest.”
“You remind me of a woman who was dear to my heart,” he said and caressed my face. His touch was dry and lingered on my skin too long. I stepped back, bowed my head and hurried away to refill my cup. Only when I poured myself some wine and spilled it on the white table cloth did I realise that my hands were shaking. The spot looked like blood. Liars go to hell; I remembered and wished I had stayed home reading Dante.
I came home from the ball before midnight and fell into a dark, dreamless sleep. I woke up to what sounded like thunder but was in fact iron-gloved hands knocking on the door. I ran down a long stair-case which I never saw before and found Agnes talking to a knight in front of our castle. I gasped as I looked at the building which used to be our tiny cottage. It was no an elegant stone building with turrets and ivy hugging the walls. Agnes gave me a strict look and I shut my mouth into a polite smile.
“The knight came to announce that His Royal Highness is on his way to visit us. He should arrive in fifteen minutes. It gives us a little time to prepare you for the occasion.” She bowed deep before the knight and shut the door in his face.
“Listen, this is going to be important. You have your things ready in a trunk and you are wearing your best dress...”
I looked down at my nightgown but then Agnes clapped and it turned into a white muslin dress faintly smelling of lilies.
“Your future is back to its rightful pass, my role is done here.”
“What are you talking about? You scare me...”
“You should never be scared. You have a fearless heart and a sharp mind; the world should kneel at your feet. Take this,” she placed a beautifully carved casket in my hand, “but use it wisely and keep silent. People are terrified of things unknown. Try to hinder the day when all the remains of your innocence is gone, for on that day...”
She couldn't finish her sentence because there was another knock on the door. “Take the box upstairs and get ready. I will greet the guests."
I went into my room, gave a last look to my luggage and with a sigh I wished farewell to the scene of my childhood. When I stepped out of the room, I heard shouts and a muffled scream. I ran down into the kitchen to see Agnes in a pool of crimson blood.
“What have you done?" I shouted and kneeled next to my nurse.
“Rise, rise dear child! Don't shed any tears for this woman. I have slain the witch who stole you from me when you were a babe-in-arms. You are my long lost princess Beatrice!” He tried to embrace me but I pulled away and wrapped myself into silence the rest of the day. I saw the knights carrying huge boxes full of jewels and beautiful dresses but I didn’t understand what their purpose was. The king followed my gaze and frowned.
“Do not worry about those, my dear, they are just foolish offerings of a misplaced intention. But they will be yours either way.”
Without Agnes I felt empty and lost like a bird without a nest. The only thing which kept me going was the dream about the boy and the hope that I would find him one day.
As time dripped by, the memories of the past slowly drained away from me, taking the thoughts of magic and Agnes with them. In the whirlwind of royal visits, balls and other duties, my childhood faded away into a din watercolour. I became a real lady of the court, listening to the sonnets of flame-eyed poets and giving my tokens to knights who would fight and sometimes die for me.
I took a lover on a lethal summer. The air was too hot and the fruits rotted away untouched on the trees. He was a handsome man and his touch felt like silk but he couldn't fill the emptiness raging inside me. He was a nobody, a man of no rank and property. The relationship was doomed from the beginning. So when he proposed to me one night, I was so confused that I got overwhelmed by the horrible conviction that I had to kill him.
I gave him a long kiss and dropped my cushion on his face. I held it there until his body became still and relaxed. When I removed the pillow, he wore a horrible but beautiful expression which reminded me of fallen angels. I sat next to him and caressed his hair, trying to figure out what to do. For the first time in long years I remembered the little casket and the remains of my innocence, I looked for it everywhere and found it eventually in a dusty, long forgotten corner.
I took a feather out of the casket placed it on the forehead of my last lover and wished him to disappear. Dizziness came over me and when I steadied myself again, I saw that the body was gone. I found a golden ring in its place. I fell next to it and slept until the next twilight. When I woke up, I found myself strangely detached and light. I looked down at my hands, just to find black wings in their place. I should have been scared but it all felt so natural that I didn’t have any other thoughts on my mind than freedom.
I threw myself out of the window and rode on the back of the wind for three days and three nights till I arrived to a forest which seemed strangely familiar. As I descended, I noticed a hunting party led by a young man with wavy brown hair and a beaky nose. He held out his hand in invitation and I landed on his palm. A bemused smile played on his lips. He caressed my head then his long fingers pulled at my leg. I dragged along the golden ring and I didn’t even notice. He burst into laughter.
“This bird gave me a ring, it wants to be my wife,” he said and pulled the ring on his finger. “Find me,” I said but I was not sure if it came out as words or just a croak.
I wasted many magic feathers on stalking his moves. He was a king of a half-pagan land, some feared him, some respected him. Very few loved him. He was a great admirer of women and my heart cried out in jealousy. He wished to marry some but I threw handfuls of feathers on the fire and prayed to all the gods I knew to keep him for me. And they did. Some of the women died, some of them found their way back into the arms of past suitors. My patience paid off. One day envoys arrived from his court and asked me to visit. My father, who was no more than a skeleton with power, sent treasure chest upon treasure chest with me, wanting to buy me a secure place after he was gone. I could never be sure if it was my charms or my father’s presents that softened my beloved’s heart but by the end of that month I was the fiancée of Matthias, a great king and head of the Black Army.
“It is as though I had seen you before,” he said and kissed my hand. He pulled a familar golden ring on my finger.
On the eve of our wedding, I lay in wait, silently reciting some verses of Paradise to keep myself awake. When the castle finally sunk into silence and only sound was the buzzing of mosquitoes, I made my way to the courtyard. I felt so excited that I wanted to scream and dance. I had a surprise for my beloved. I knew he had a sweet tooth and an eye for beauty so I was going to prepare something which would delight all his senses. I placed one of my raven feathers on my palm and willed it to burn. It went up in a dark flame and left a heap of dust in my hand. I blew the ashes in the air, imagining the garden of Eden and thinking of the sweetness of love. Nothing happened.
I was starting to question my own power when a sugar flower appeared in front of my feet and it was followed by many more. In a matter of a few blinks a whole grove of brittle emerged from nothing. In the middle of all stood a tree of my own height, laden with sweet and crunchy apples. I caressed one fruit and felt sweetness and magic stirring inside. I hurried back to bed and plunged into sleep.
I woke up to the cries of trumpets and the applause of drums. I wanted to run downstairs and see how my gift pleases my betrothed. But I had to be patient and endure the machinations of my ladies in waiting, as they dressed me in my bridal gown and braided my hair into elaborate tendrils. By the time I descended the guests had crowded the garden and a good many of them were marvelling at my grove of brittle.
“It looks like magic,” Matthias said to a man with a huge moustache. His voice was polite but I could hear suspicion and fear underneath. My heart sank.
“Beatrice, what do you say to this garden of delight?”Matthias asked when he saw me. His mouth was smiling but his eyes remained cold.
“It is my present to you. My cooks worked in secret all night long. I hope it is to your liking.”
He seemed to ease up a bit and when he picked one of the flowers, he offered some petals to me.
“It is delicious,” he said and after kissing my forehead, continued talking about taxes and costumes.
Our marriage was hell and heaven, like most marriages on earth. He was a great man and I was a woman of strong will, who would not bend at the storm of his anger. Many said the sweetness of a child would soften our ridges but my womb remained fruitless. We would have needed a baby’s laughter to keep us together and the country desperately needed an heir, a star of hope in the gathering darkness. The Turkish Empire was sharpening its claws on our frontiers and I burnt many murky feathers to help the Black Army win. In the afternoons when Matthias and I measured our strengths in endless chess games, I wondered if it was worth it, if my life could have been different. When I tricked him and managed to kill his king, I was sure I made the right choices and I found my own Paradise on earth. When he triumphed, laughing in my face as he swept away my pawns, I thought I only paved my way to Hell.
It doesn’t matter now, he is long dead and he took a part of me to the grave. The country is crumbling and some people blame me for it. I am alive, he is dead, it is natural their anger rains on me.
I open my dusty casket I have kept for such a long time, hiding it from the servants and even from my husband. A lonely, black feather is waiting for me at the bottom. I’m taking it out, resting its cold velvet against my palm. As the last memory of my innocence goes up in flames, I ready my soul for the long journey to find my place between Heaven and Hell.