Helen Marshall

When you were thirteen years old—the year your father died, the year the paraffin ran out and you almost froze—Mother gave you a bearskin to wear. Your ribs had been shaking so hard they felt like railway tracks when the train was rushing past, but she laid it over you and sure enough all went quiet and still with the heat of that thing, its downy bristles and the fuzzed suede of the underside, the thick musk of blood like perfume in your nose. “Call him Papa,” she told you, and you did.

Some nights, Papa would speak to you. His teeth were old and yellow, hooked like a surgeon’s needle. Two had fallen out of those listless gums, but every story Papa told, he assured you, was damn true.

“I belonged to the Devil once,” he huffed. “I was a soldier. Two women died out of hatred of me. One drowned herself and the other hanged herself from an alder and its catkins fell all over her like a veil.”

But you didn’t know who the Devil was.

“Ah, boy! The Devil is hot and cold. Some men fear him and some men love him. He carries a sharp hook in one hand, and by God, you’ll know him by the stamping of his feet, which is like a thousand horses. That was how I knew him during the days of Ceaușescu, when the food shortages made madmen of us all. If he looks at you with his left eye you’ll feel something sprouting violently inside you. An itch, maybe, or some deeper hurt. You’ll not know where it comes from, but it’s the Devil.”

You wished Papa could keep you safe from the Devil, but he said, no, he couldn’t do that. The Devil got in where he was invited. Papa told you to be careful of making wishes, but that was so difficult. For that whole winter, you were one-quarter dreaming and you were three-quarters want.

Papa’s tongue was made of wood, and his eyes were glass, the colour of eternal life. Mother said he had been handsome once, in his time. He’d worn a soldier’s jacket, and he’d owned a carriage with four white horses. He’d smelled of jasmine tobacco and heliotrope, and his manners were as fine as any man’s and better than most.

Papa wouldn’t say if this was true or not. He knew when to keep his jaws shut. Mother didn’t like to be contradicted.

Soon after that winter, Mother told you a sister was coming, would be with you soon. Outside the mistletoe was growing fat as a beehive between the leafless branches, and you had been so lonely—lonely, grief-dumb and cold—that the news made your heart leap. Papa watched you carefully with his dull, milk-white eyes, but you stroked his head and told him not to worry. You hadn’t wished for this. It was its own sort of good fortune.

“Aye, but your mother…” he whispered. His breath was warm, and it fluttered in the air like a white bird.

You worried about where you would put the little darling. Would she lie with you beneath Papa? There was still no paraffin. You had become accustomed to frost and the bitterly hard floor—Mother had sold the soft, woollen carpets long ago—but she would be weak and round and in need of warmth.

Papa said: “Ionel, when your sister comes, lay me over your shoulders. Your skull will nestle inside of my mouth and when you wave your arms I’ll greet her as a papa should. We shall dance, and the bad spirits will be kept away.”

Papa had you practicing everyday while Mother went out to visit with the neighbours and collect the shirts that needed mending. He worried about the dead, what grudges they might bear against your family. And just like he said, you would crawl inside of him and he would tell you how to move, how to stamp your feet. It was heavy work, and your sweat slicked his insides like an expensive oil bought cheaply. You did this many times until your feet were sore and blistered. But little by little you learned to move as he moved.

“The noise,” you said, “is it like the Devil coming?”

“No, boy,” he told you, “that’s a far worse sound. I pray you never hear it!”

When you danced Papa’s teeth would curve around your cheeks. You felt as if you were half-boy, half bear, and the thought gave you a thrill like a well-told lie. But the teeth were growing loose. One clattered against the warped floor boards.

“Keep it,” he told you. “May it bring you good luck. May it keep you safe.”

 “You are so dirty, Ionel!” Mother scolded you. “Where have you been playing?”

“Nowhere,” Papa told her. “It is not for you to ask him such things.”

You had to repeat the words, though, for Papa’s voice whistled between the open spaces.

 Your sister Mihaela was born in the springtime when the campion was beginning to bloom in brief shocks of pale pink. What a child! She was red-faced and squalling, cheeks puffed out like a winter storm. She blew and blew and blew and when she did the whole house shook. But Mother was all smiles for her, and nursed her easily. You didn’t know how. There had been little enough to keep you hardy, and your skin loose on your bones.

But you danced for her, just as you had promised. Papa lay heavy upon you. You waved your hands, and you stamped your feet, and inside you felt a shudder growling and growling inside you. Mother was so angry with you! “No more noise,” she told you. “We must have peace in this house.”

“But Papa says…”

“No more of that, no more nonsense. No more noise.”

“I gave your mother a ring once,” said Papa in his strange hush. “And she promised me she would remember it. And she did, oh she did. But old age is hard, and she has forgotten it all. Is the child even mine?”

Three days later the child’s body was stiff and aching. You told Mother to let you take her under the bearskin and warm her as you had been warmed, but Mother wouldn’t release her. She clutched Mihaela against herself, but the child’s mouth would not move. Her eyes were screwed up, the skin around purpling and thick with standing blood.

“Oh, little one, oh, little one, I will not lose you too,” Mother wept, and you were weeping too.

You left the house and took to the woods. There was a place, Mother had told you about it, where her sister had hanged herself. You knew the branch. There was a thin bracelet of pith where the bark had been worn away by the rope.

You sat beneath the alder, and the shade fell like a cool hand on your forehead. You wished you could welcome these thoughts into you—the sorrow, the terror of it all—welcome them like guests. But you could not.

There was a woman there. She looked as your mother looked, but her face was more beautiful. She had long tresses of gold that fell around her shoulders, and her body moved like a dream of dancing: slowness, softness, beauty shimmering. She was a spirit, you knew that, but you would not stamp your feet to keep her away.

“Hello, Ionel,” she said, and her voice was like Mother’s voice.

“Hello, Auntie.”

And she held out her arms for you. You fit between them snugly, your elbow resting upon her knee. The sweet smell of her, the sweet touch of her was a comfort. She brought the gold fleece of her hair to your cheeks. What frightened you then was not the coldness of her touch, but the sharp sprouting of desire that followed.

 In the morning the baby was squalling again. She beat her tiny fists against the hard earth where Mother had lain her. You were transfixed by the sight of that squirming body, so full of life, so full of rapturous roaring.

Papa was settled in the far corner where little sunlight fell through the narrow window, glass being expensive. You had sprinkled the length of him with tobacco and rubbed him with oils. You knew you would not touch him, there was no need—summer was coming—and so he was silent and stung.

But Mother was happy. She cooed to Mihaela, and tickled her belly until the child gave up her shrieking and waved her feet wildly with joy. Soon after she grew quiet, and those fierce eyes of hers began to drift shut. Mother held her close, her forehead tucked against the hard meat of her inner arm, and rocked her gently. “Abua – bua - bua,” she sang, “your mother will gently kiss you.”

 “Tell me a story,” you said to Auntie. Her back was set straight against the alder, and her fingers stroked the purple petals of the lavender stalks.

“Enough, boy, of stories. Can’t you see I’m tired?”

You are beautiful, you wanted to tell her, you are dead. But instead you filled yourself with stubbornness: “Tell me anyway.”

“Alright, boy. A story then? Once there was a woman who wanted to marry a man.”

“What sort of man was he?”

“He was a changeable man, Ionel. Some days he was one sort of man, others days he was an entirely different beast. People can be like that, never just one thing. Now hush up, and let me tell you.”

You always hated when she spoke to you like that, like a boy.

“Her mother did not wish her to marry, so she gave her daughter a ball of black yarn. ‘Marry him,’ she said, ‘when you’ve washed this white.’ And the girl went to the river, and she washed the yarn but it was black as black and nothing was going to change that. The girl wept as girls are always doing in these predicaments and, taking pity on her beauty, a spirit rose up from the water. ‘Why do you want your man so much?’ asked the spirit. ‘There are easier paths to happiness than that one.’”

“Who was the spirit, Auntie?”

“A friend, Ionel, now hush, I say, or I won’t tell you the rest.”

And you settled back into the grass, watching her carefully through the sun-squint of your eyes.

“The girl was young and she was foolish, and the spirit could see very much that she was in love and there was nothing for it. So she gave the girl a red flower, and told her to wash the two of them together, the wool and the flower. Of course, when the girl did, both came out as white as snow. When she returned to her house, she gave her mother the flower, and the old woman was so startled she thought the spring had come early. She went up to the mountain with nine thick, sheepskin coats.”

“Which mountains, Auntie?”

“These mountains,” she said dreamily. “Before Ceaușescu ordered the mines to be built they were so beautiful! But we’re speaking of the mother, so listen. Every day she threw away one of her coats. On the tenth day she reached the height of the mountain, down to nothing but the worn linen of her frock. But she was foolish, and when the snows blew they froze her old body stiff and solid.”

“What happened to the girl, Auntie? Did she marry?”

“Heavens, boy, I reckon she did. But she lied to her mother so no doubt she came to a very bad end in time.”

“That’s not a very good story.”

“It isn’t a story,” she said with a melancholy look, “but a warning about love.”

 When Mother grew tired of Mihaela’s teeth, she fetched milk from the neighbour’s goat in a tin. Some mornings, she would let you dip your finger into the creamy froth and the babe would suckle it from you. Then she would make small contented noises, her eyes fluttering, fingers tapping jocular rhythms against your wrist. You handled her carefully. She was a dainty thing, a marvel to you.

“Was I ever so small?” you asked, and Mother would only laugh.

“Of course, Ionel!”

You picked this apart in your mind after. That summer was full of new realizations. It was as if your body was a hive that had been smoked to slumber and only now was it coming awake. You could not help but stare at your mother, enraptured by the soft curves of her body, how her breasts hung heavy with the milk she would not give to Mihaela.

“Aye, it hurts so,” she told you, and sometimes you would see the blood that stained her shift after the child had suckled. Yet there was a kind of magic to it all. There were things you wished to know, but Papa wouldn’t speak to you. He slept fitfully in the corner where you had shrugged him off, and though his heavy black nails glinted in the sunlight of the small window, he neither moved nor twitched when you came to him.

So you found others to satisfy your curiosity.

There was a woman who took in laundry, dried out and haggard as smoked mackerel, but her daughter was beautiful. Anca of the frank blue eyes, Anca whose curling brown hair was soft as lamb’s wool. You two had played together when you were younger, easy, but now when you offered to help her carry her bundle along the mossy banks she was skittish and wouldn’t always let you. On the days she did, she would climb into the water so it soaked the hem of her shift. She would smash the clothes against a smooth, hard rock and she would murmur to herself: “Haia, hai, hai, how many children have you got? I’ve got twenty-one.”

Hearing this made you shy with her. Afterward, you would stare at your tiny sister, wondering how the magic got into her and whether you could ever do a thing like that.

That evening, you curled Papa around you even though the air was hot as an oven. Mother had crushed fennel seeds for tea and everything smelled too sweet. “Papa,” you whispered, “Papa, please. How can I give Anca a child?”

And Papa looked at you mournfully, his soft jaws slackening: “There is a thing you will do with her, Ionel.”

“What will it feel like?”

“Like dancing, my boy. A feeling like dancing. The best feeling in the world, apart from one. But I pray you will never know that other feeling, lest you come to like it.”

 Summer came, and with it the thud of plums dropping onto the hard earth and the buzzing of the wasps drawn by their honeyed scent. The church bells sounded at odd intervals. You were fourteen now, and you wanted to celebrate with a kiss, but Anca claimed holiness, chasteness. She would not kiss you, no matter that you brought her red flowers and white. No matter that you combed your hair. She told you she had a dream, and in it you were doing awful things. You strangled her mother with her hair, you hid the body at the bottom of a well.

The dream made both of you uneasy, and afterward you couldn’t look at the woman without imagining the feel of her hair twisted around your fingers. You wondered if there was a shadow self within you, a beast that wore the rest of you like a cloak of skins. You wondered if it was like that with other boys, what they felt, what they dreamed about—what hidden violences were buried in them—but there were none to ask. They were all going to the cities where there was work, women. All that would be left soon would be a dream of men.

So you ate cheese and stale bread, pork fat, the curled skin of onions. You took your sister to see the shepherds in their sheepskin capes as they drove the herds into the mountains for the summer. They were smaller in number that year than they should have been; the beasts did not live long anymore. The poisons from the mines, long closed, had leeched into them, softening their bones. The legacy of Ceaușescu, a weakness that had fixed itself in everything.

Mihaela played amidst the tall grasses, and when a bee stung her and she began to howl, you pulled the prick from her palm with your teeth.

No one came to speak with you. You were invisible to your neighbours. You wondered if Anca had told them about the dream and if they believed it. And you wondered about Papa, how it had been for him when he first came here as a stranger.

“He was a good man,” Mother had told you, “and he cared for me better than I deserved. When I saw him first I knew, well, I knew what he was, what he had done. It was written over every inch of him, and I would not touch him. My sisters told me I was crazy, sick in the head. My sisters told me he was a soldier, he would be wild, he would drink and swear and smoke and he would hurt me if he had half a chance. They told me what they had seen: firing squads, ropes for hanging, corpses. They said he had been there at the end, when the General Secretary was shot. They had traveled more than I had. I had never left the village.”

She was pulling at the threads she had spent the winter twining. You couldn’t help but watch the way her hands moved, how the red wool curled over her knuckles while the baby slept fitfully. Later she would thread them through the creaking loom, and, oh, how her hands would fly across it! The scraps she would fashion into tassels for Papa, for when he danced.

You were happy for this time with Mother, happy she would speak to you, but her face had an ashy look as if the sun had not touched it for years.

“And was he like that?” you asked her.

“He was and he wasn’t. Isn’t that how it always is? He waited. I did not touch him, but he waited. He went with my father up the mountain for the summer, and he wore a cape he sewed himself from the skins of three animals. The factories had gone by then and the gold grinding mills were suffering. It was worse in other places. To the east, they say, Geamana had been flooded with poison from the copper mines, layer upon layer of thick, killing mud. The villagers had been told to leave everything. But here? Here we did not speak. We had all become silent, dumb. Like animals. But we knew. The ones like my father were lucky, too little to be noticed. But by the time they returned most of the men had left, the ones I knew as a child. I can’t remember their faces now, but they didn’t stay here. Your papa did.”

“And the aunties?”

“Ah, Ionel. That’s a terrible tale!”

“Will you tell it to me?”

“Na na, not today. I don’t want to think on it. Listen, Mihaela has settled. Isn’t she sweet when she’s quiet?”

And she pulled you close to her, and she rested her chin upon the crown of your head. Her breathing was shallow, full of strange hitching sounds.

 On Saint Michael’s Day the village was crowded. The chill November breeze rattled the panes of windows long since shut up. It was one of your favourite days. You had always loved Saint Michael, loved the hammered image of him in the church, how it glowed in the candlelight. You wished you could be like him: perfectly holy, perfectly righteous. Perhaps then Anca would love you.

Papa told you that was foolish. “A woman wants a man of flesh and blood,” he said, “nothing more, nothing less.” But what did you know of men? You felt as if you were the last of your kind. The others were gone, gone, gone to the cities. Only the old and the feeble were left, those who could not change or move on. Those who would not leave the things they loved behind.

But you didn’t wish to think about Anca. You didn’t wish to think about the colour of her eyes, like clay; the colour of her hair, like an alder branch that has been stripped.

She had decided to go. You heard this from Mother who heard it from Mirela who heard it from old Eugenia who heard it from the girl herself. Anca’s cousin had written to her, saying he needed help in a shop. He would provide for her transport. He would take care of her.

You could see her in the church as the old priest mumbled his way through the mass. She sat very still, her hands clasped in her lap. Her back was straight, and she listened. You tried to speak to her in the yard, but she wouldn’t meet your eyes.

“Oh, Ionel,” she said, and her voice was sad. “I don’t want to leave. Mother worries. She’s so old! When something breaks there’s no one to fix it. You know how it is. Nothing lasts here, nothing grows.”

Her lips were trembling. You wanted to comfort her, to take her in your arms, but she held herself very carefully away from you.

“I’m afraid,” she confided. “I’m afraid of what the city will be like? There are shops and such, they tell me, and dances. There are men who would make for good husbands, I suppose. But what if they laugh at me? What if they think I’m slow and stupid?”

These words were like a poison in your heart. How could anyone think her slow? How could anyone laugh? When you told her this, she smiled shyly. She let you take her hand and she led you away from the church, through the cobbled streets of the village where the houses sat so closely together they could have leaned on each other for support. You didn’t know why she was doing this, why she wanted to make it harder for you.

“Please,” she told you, and she looked up, briefly, through the veil of her lashes, “please tell me you won’t forget me?”

You wondered if she would let you kiss her. Just once. And you felt your flesh twitch as if it belonged to another creature.

“I’m so full of desires,” she whispered, “but there’s nothing here for us anymore. This place is a dream. It will be over soon. The world is waking.”

And you wondered about the Devil. In your ears was the noise of a thousand horses and in your heart was a heavy, tearing hook. If you could call him now, what would he offer you? What would you ask from him?

 That evening you looked for your auntie beneath the tree. Her hair was soft as gauze but she would not let you touch it, not then. It was as if she could smell the sorrow on you. You were an unwelcome houseguest.

“There will be others,” she said, but she didn’t sound as if she believed it. Everything was slipping away from you. You were fourteen but still you could see no way further into the future.

“Perhaps you’re lucky,” she said at last, her gaze shaded and indistinct. “Perhaps Anca is lucky. Let me tell you about love. Let me tell you about what it is like.”

And this is the story she told you:

“Once there was a bear who grew into a man. He had been a soldier in the years before when soldiers were needed, necessary. Feared, yes, but respected too. He knew what he was, and he enjoyed it well enough as all beasts enjoy what comes naturally to them. He killed people. He knew what he was doing.

“After the fighting was over, his family would not take him in. They were afraid of him. His neighbours hated him, for he had known their sons, he had taken some of them with him. None had returned.

“So he wandered, starving and unkempt. He was a soldier in peacetime. He wasn’t cruel. He had never been cruel, but I don’t know if he was good either. Our father thought so, but our father was an old man. We’d had a brother once too, Tamas, and our father never knew where he went, though most likely he was buried secretly as so many were. We’d heard stories—my sister, Maria and I, no, not your mother—about what Tamas had done. But I suppose back then every family had stories such as those, and if not those stories then others just as bad.

“Our father let your papa stay with us. For seven months your papa was quiet, and he lived quietly. He did not speak to us except to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ But he watched us. I could tell he was watching. And then the two of them went away with the herds.

“It was hard for us here. Your papa was not the only man of his kind in the mountains—those who had prospered in the times of violence—and there were others who came when the men of the village were away. We saw them coming, and we sent your mother into the forest to hide. She was the prettiest of us, the youngest, but Maria and I, we stayed. We had to. They would have taken everything from us, and we had so little to begin with.”

Auntie grew silent at this. Her eyes were grey and glassy, and they reminded you of Papa’s. Her tongue was wooden in her mouth.

“Ionel,” she said at last, “you must promise me: be good. It’s in you to do this, I know, you’ve been a good boy, a blessing to your mother. But the world will not seem enough to you. You must never take what is not freely given. Never ask for more than you deserve. Love carefully. Let only good things grow from you.”

She touched your face, and the fleeting chill of death ran into your bones.

“The men came down from the mountains before the snows came. Your papa had a trophy with him, a bearskin. Our father boasted he had shot it himself, but your papa hushed him up. They had grown close, those two. And your papa had changed. He didn’t like that he had killed the bear. He wouldn’t touch his rifle after that.

“And we didn’t tell them what had happened, about the men. Not them, not your mother. But our sister, Maria, well. The men had left Maria a gift. The gift took hold inside her. Our father was so angry that he cursed her, called her all sorts of names and wanted to drive her from the house. I think he was scared. I think he knew what had happened, or guessed, and he blamed himself for it. For leaving us.

“The baby came, and he had dark eyes. He laughed often, but Maria never laughed again. Maria died in the winter. You know how, there are stories of it. She walked into the river with stones in her pockets, and the washing women found her tangled in the weeds. Our father had grown weak by then, and so it was the stranger—your papa—who buried her.”

“But how did Papa die?” you asked her. “Why didn’t he stay here with Mother to see Mihaela born?” But she shook her head.

“From grief, from hunger. From living with too little and wanting too much. From a slow-acting poison. From a broken heart. From the burden of memory. He drowned. He was shot. He died silently in his sleep. He died as we all died. There are times when so little divides the living and the dead that it is easy to crossover. Easier than you think.”

“Will she speak to me, Auntie?” You felt shy then, even asking this.

But she would not look at you. Her gaze was caught by the alder tree, the slow, swinging weight of the catkins. “She will not, Ionel. Some die in regret, but not all. She wanted to leave this place.”

You were silent for a long while after.

“While your Papa lived, he cared for your mother,” Auntie tells you, seeing your misery. “He said her love was like the spring coming early. He was a ravaged house set right by her kindness. And he loved you too.”

And you shivered as if the first winds of autumn had come early.

“Let her go, Ionel. Love Anca and let her go.”

There were few in the church at Christmas. Anca was not the only one who had left. You had seen many of your neighbours packing their things into rickety carts and letting the mules set their own pace. The smoke billowed from so few chimneys, pine branches had been nailed to so few doors.

“Come along now, Ionel,” Mother told you. That was to be Mihaela’s first Christmas. You had made her a little doll from yarn. Mother helped you do it, helped you learn how to twist the wool and form it. It was safe in your pocket, but you worried for it anyway. It was the first good thing you have made with your own hands.

After the mass had been said, you knew it was time. You slipped out into the streets which were laced with snow and hard frost. A sharp wind coloured your cheeks, but you slid Papa over you and inside was is very warm. You had tied great red tassels to his ears, the tassels Mother had made when the year was warmer.

You could feel the drumbeat before you heard it. It rocked the earth, vibrating up through your toes, your knees, your ankles and into your stomach. There were not enough dancers, you knew this. It frightened you how few there were because the night was dark and very long, there were few stars, and you knew the Devil was close at hand. But that evening there as also the music of pipes floating in the air. Mihaela was laughing. She had grown big over the last months, and Mother held her gently between her knees. She was not bothered by the noise. She giggled and clapped her hands, and you thought for a moment it was because she recognized you. Even though your face was covered, even though the weight of the skin of your father made graceful movement difficult. She recognized you because of your smile, which was hers, the sharp hook of your nose, your dark, dark eyes.

“Ionel,” Papa whispered in your ear, “move like this, like this.” And you did as he told you. Your feet crashed against the earth, and your jaws lifted into the air so you could taste the sweat as it poured down your face.

There were times, he had warned you, when there was a weakness between worlds. When spirits could sneak in through the cracks. There were good spirits and there are bad spirits, he told you. Good memories and bad ones.

You knew that this was one such time—the longest night. When the spirits were closest, most dangerous. And as you looked at Mihaela, her apple cheeks, the soft curls of her hair, what you felt was one-quarter love and three-quarters a terrible, sprouting fear. The world would be hard for her, you knew, it would do cruel things to her. And you knew you couldn’t stop it, no matter how you tried, no matter what you wanted. You were not a bear. You were just a boy. Her brother.

But the Devil wasn’t the only creatures who knew how to stamp his feet.

So you danced harder, longer, with your own kind of madness. You danced past your own body’s endurance until your feet were numb and your back was twisted, and you couldn’t tell if you were beast or boy. You danced for your mother. You danced for your sister. You danced for Anca and her wants, and her wizened mother, and Auntie, dead and gone and beautiful still. You danced to keep the Devil away, to silence the ghosts. To keep them safe. You danced until the skin slipped away from you, your wanting slipped away from you. You danced until you were naked, raw and filled neither with dreaming nor want but only the sweetest kind of joy.

HELEN MARSHALL is a Lecturer of Creative Writing and Publishing at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England. Her first collection of fiction, Hair Side, Flesh Side, won the Sydney J Bounds Award in 2013, and Gifts for the One Who Comes After, her second collection, won the World Fantasy Award and the Shirley Jackson Award in 2015. She is currently editing The Year’s Best Weird Fiction to be released in 2017, and her debut novel Everything that is Born will be published by Random House Canada in 2018.