Contest #9 winner 🏆

What Dead Songbirds Sing

Submitted by Sofia Lago to Contest #9 in response to: Write a story about unrequited love.... view prompt

Toma discovers her childhood swing on the Sunday after she returns to Shiloh. It hangs limply from the cherry tree’s branch, creaking as it sways in the May afternoon. Around it, the grass is so tall it nearly hides the wooden plank from view. She knows it’s Sunday because she hears the church bells from the direction of town where the fisherfolk live, rolling up the inlet with high tide the way it did when she was young.

My Dearest, she imagines writing as she sits. Splinters poke through her nightdress. The rope’s green now. The wood’s making a sound like it wants to break.

So it is. She pushes at the ground with her foot, mud sticking between her toes, and the wood groans beneath her. At the limit of her vision, she sees her wash stretched out on one long line tied between two spruce trees. Her dresses and smocks billow in the wind, a colorful flurry of cloth. From here, the house isn’t visible. Her hens cluck a ruckus, muffled by distance.

The wood lets out a grandfather’s moan, and the church bells’ final ring settles as pain at the base of her spine. Toma slips off while the swing’s still swinging, and leaves.

***

My Dearest, Toma doesn’t write.

           I must confess I am not brave. Your letter remains unopened, though I carry it with me. You join me in the mornings in the chicken coop. I carry you to the garden. You were with me when I caught my dinner at the hooligan’s run. 

***

When Toma first sees Kit in the kitchen window’s reflection, she drops her pail of sheep’s milk to the ground. Clang, splat! It splashes and tips, spilling over the grass, soaking through her apron and skirts.

“How in the-” she starts, but when she turns, she finds only her mouser Muska skulking in the weeds. Beyond the greenhouse, Savka the rooster announces what should be dawn — if dawn existed here. A cool breeze bows the spruces and hemlocks, and carries the smell of springtime: promised rain, rotting salmon, forget-me-nots in bloom.

Her yard is devoid of humanity. Wild. Half-tamed, if that. She is alone.

Toma turns again, and retrieves her pail, though her hands shake so drastically the handle rattles. As she straightens, Kit’s letter crinkles against her palpitating heart. There’s no one but herself in the window. In the darkened glass, she appears sickly. The morning wind blows at the black curls that escaped her bun.

“You’re not there,” she says aloud. Half-tamed silence captures her voice, folding the words inside itself before it disturbs the peace.

With a deep breath, she wills herself to calm and crosses the threshold of her cottage. Behind her, Muska meows, a raven caws, and an eagle answers. And Toma is alone.

***

Church bells echo across the inlet, floating over the water from Shiloh proper, so cacophonous it seeps through the trees and prickles Toma’s skin, but they do little to mask Kit’s song.

Sous les feuilles d’une chêne, sings the untethered voice. Je me suis fait sécher.

A raspberry breaks between Toma’s fingers, sticky and red. Bloody. The song goes, Sur la plus haute branche, un rossignol chantait. 

There are no nightingales here, though, and when she stands, the only birds to join Kit’s mournful tune are the ravens. The basket of berries hangs heavy from the crook of her elbow. Though she has dirt on her apron, she ignores it; there’s no one here to care for her appearance, and she long stopped caring herself.

She wipes the back of her wrist across her forehead, as if that will rid her of the moisture the drizzle dropped. Raspberry guts and muck join the raindrops. As the church bells fade, so does the song.

J’ai perdu mon ami sans l’avoir mérité.

Then they’re both gone, the memory of them weaving phantom imprints in the damp June air.

This is what she should write: Was it necessary to follow me all this way?

Though the song is gone, it will return soon, as it always does. Mama is dead. Papa is dead. Her brother, Yasha, disappeared during the War. Yet it’s Kit who she can’t shake, Kit who said, “It was only ever you,” and to whom she answered, “I’m sorry.”

Ten months later, Toma had run across the country to escape the dead. With Yasha’s whereabouts unknown and no husband to speak of, her grandparents’ isolated home is now hers. She thought it would be far enough, here in what could be the corner of the world that God forgot, surrounded as it is with its snowcapped mountains and cerulean sea, busy with the repairs and garden and animals. Now, she does the work of both man and woman, and ends her days so exhausted she sleeps despite the long sunlit hours. Only Saturdays does she rest, her idleness permissive through the laws her father taught her. It should be enough to keep the ghost at bay. It should.

It isn’t.

***

August 14, 1873
New York, N.Y.
Miss Tamara Liss
66 Grand Street
New York, N.Y.

Kit’s handwriting is a parody of neatness, made of shaky angles and looping lines unbecoming of a member of high society that Toma memorized years before this letter darkened her doormat. “My mother would have a fit if I wrote like you,” she said once during their youth. It was when she had first come to New York, to the tenement building on Orchard Street, and still described the swing in her grandparents’ yard with a measure of fondness.

“Miss Mabel says I’m improving,” Kit said, but that improvement proved to only ever be minimal.

The s’s in Miss connect, as do the e’s in Street, and the T in Tamara looks more like a J. She scrutinizes the envelope in the evenings when the apparition gives her peace, sitting alone on her covered porch while she neglects her knitting. For all she imagines how she would write her own letter, she rarely spares a thought to what this real one reads. Is it in English, as she or Yasha would write? Yiddish, as Papa or Mama would? The new neighborhood French? Is it a love letter? An apology? An explanation? A curse?

None of those options are good, though she doesn’t know which may be considered the worst. It’s out of fear for any that she has yet to pry the gummed seal.

During the day, she keeps the letter tucked into her dress. Shiloh, even at the height of summer, is not hot, but humidity nonetheless sticks the heavy paper to her skin. The letters fade, tattooing against her ribs. She carries it with her up the mountain to the frigid lake, and keeps it nested in her discarded garments when she strips to bathe. A heated burst of air trickles down into her bones, though the wind in the mountains is chilly enough to raise bumps on her arms.

She scrubs her name from her body with a rag and listens to Kit’s song, coming distant from the tree line—J’ai trouvé l’eau si belle que je m’y suis baignée, it goes. For as beautiful as the water is, it’s also bitterly cold, and her lips go the shade of a corpse’s before the refrain is through.

There’s a noise behind her like gnashing teeth as she steps out, and she startles so badly she falls. When she glances over her shoulder, she spots a brown flash disappear beneath the lake’s surface. An otter, then. The native people, her grandmother’s people, tell nightmarish warnings about them, about creatures that drown men by using the faces of their loved ones and then steal their faces in turn.

When she stands, blood drips from her knees, and she finds footprints encircling her discarded dress. Behind her, the water breaks with a splash! and needlelike claws go clitter-clatter over the stones.

No Land Otter People made these prints, nor had Kit died here and joined them. Instead, Kit died alone in a house in a city, died in a way that left inspectors knocking on Toma’s door asking, “How well did you know the deceased?”

The lead inspector’s unwanted assistant was a Litvak, with a matching accent and a matching name. His eyes were bluer than Mama’s — and than Kit’s. Prettier certainly than Toma’s drab brown. That’s what she thought when he returned for the fifth time to say, “There was no culprit but the deceased’s own hand, Miss Liss,” and, “You haven’t known me long, Miss Liss, but I believe—”

Kit said, “It was only ever you.” Kit said, “We can be happy.”

“I’m sorry,” Toma said. “We can’t.”

To the inspector’s unwanted assistant, she said she was sorry, and that he couldn’t make her happy, but she had no doubt someone else would love him very much. He told her he loved her before Kit’s body could rot, and all she thought was his eyes were prettier than her own.

She wipes her knees with her apron, scraping blood and dirt onto the clean cloth, and slips into her dress. One, two, three. Even with the buttons all done up, it still hangs loose about her body. It once fit, but she wears no corset now. In the weeks since she returned, she’s grown so thin that her arms protrude like twigs from her sleeves. She’s a stick-figure drawing of a young woman.

Might she write, Do you mean for me to follow you instead?

***

Toma falls asleep one evening on the porch, and wakes to warm breath on her ear and Kit saying, Yes.

“Yes?” Her voice is hoarse. When she draws herself to full consciousness, she’s alone. The daytime rain’s stopped, but the air’s still thick with it. The Far North summer, wet and living.

Across the yard, the swing that Kit had never seen in person creaks from a nonexistent breeze. The sheep baa, though the sound’s softened by the barn. Slowly, Muska creeps into view along the porch’s rail and settles, licking at a calico paw. There’s blood on her lips. A songbird’s feather on her whiskers. White fluff levitates towards the water like waifs. For the first time this summer, the sunset’s come at a reasonable hour, lighting up the sky with the saturated pink red orange of a lovers’ spell.

Kit is gone, and Toma is alone. She rocks back in her grandmother’s cedar chair, watching an eagle flit over the clouds, and thinks she would preserve this moment forever, if only she could.

***

Towards the beginning of August, Toma begins readying for the turn of the season. She smokes a good deal of fish and dries her produce; she builds a straw roof to insulate her chicken coop; she collects firewood to compensate for what she can’t cut; she twists wire into cages above her sapling apple trees to protect them from starving moose. Like her grandfather, she leaves a loaded rifle resting against the porch, easy to grab in case of intruders — predators after her animals, or humans turned dangerous from the wintertime weather.

Kit follows her, growing quieter as the days shorten. The singing decreases. The silence is sullen. On an unprecedentedly sunny day, when Toma hangs her laundry to dry, she walks away to check the salmonberries left to reduce on the stove, and returns to find her wash strew across the grass.

Sighing, she says, “Don’t you have someone else to bother?”

It’s the first time she’s spoken directly, intentionally. Kit laughs, thin on the wind, as Toma retrieves her laundry. There’s a stain on her nightdress, a green streak along the breast shaped like a human footprint. She clips it back on the line beside her autumn quilt, which Kit’s mischief-making was kind enough to spare.

Forgot, says the ghost, and stands so close Toma feels death’s arctic chill through the shawl wrapped around her shoulders. Forget. You. Kit sings, Il y a longtemps que je t’aime, jamais je ne t’oublierai—

“Oh,” she says. Her voice is weak. “Oh.”

Her yard’s half-tamed silence steals away the song. A sudden gust removes the chill from her side and ruffles the footprints from the grass. It whistles through the apple tree saplings’ winter cages, the noise industrial.

Today is August 14, 1874, she imagines. A year and a day ago, she baked a strawberry cake in the Grand Street oven, using the recipe she learned from her grandmother, who learned it from her own in the days before Shiloh was even Невaград. “I chopped them smaller this time,” she said after she walked it three blocks over, wrapped neatly, to give Kit as a birthday treat. “Oh, don’t look like that. It will be good.”

“Is that a promise?”

“On my life.”

They ate their cake from the porcelain plates Kit’s father swore he purchased on a youthful voyage to Cochinchina, and ended their sugary meal on note sourer than a poisoned apple. “I’m sorry,” Toma had said. She said, “We can’t,” and then she left.

Twelve hours later, she woke to a banging on her door. Two days after that, the letter slid through the mail slot. Skip a year, and here she is on the outskirts of Shiloh, running from a reputation the dead ruined, dreading a ghost’s return. 

After she fixes her laundry, she heads to the cherry tree to pick enough for a jar of jam. It’s not until her wicker basket’s heaping full and the sky turned golden that she realizes the humming she hears isn’t Kit’s, but her own.

***

The piano strikes out a pentatonic tune that floats through the room, buoyant from the heat wafting from the fireplace, drifting under ladies’ dresses and settling on men’s coats, just a dusty sort of memory easy for the guests to ignore as they murmur, their conversations nondescript chatter, the details of their faces so dulled and distorted from flighty shadows and warm light that one is interchangeable for the next until she loses her mama papa brother in a crowd too preoccupied with the attractiveness of its own babble to take inventory of a lone skivvy’s grief, but there are still eyes at her back, watching, waiting, cataloguing her tension, which grows in time with the storm building outside the frost-patterned windows and the steadily worsening staleness of the interior air weighing down upon her lungs as the room’s other occupants mill about, pressing closer, shoving against her so she falls back against the plush sofa redder than raspberries, where above her a woman is saying, It’s the Indian girl’s doing, the Dubois’ help, haven’t you heard, she must have bewitched—she flees, running for the door, bursting out alone onto the rocky banks of Kóoshdaa Lake where the rain comes down in a blinding rush, where the ravens fight the nightingales, and when the hand finds a grip on her shoulder, she—

Toma wakes to a flash of golden hair and a death weary voice whispering, Please. Night fell, starlight peeking through the cherry tree’s branches. The swing creaks. On her lap is the letter that she, for once, had left indoors.

 

***

The first frost comes on a morning early in October, and by that afternoon, the swing’s decaying ropes break. Toma’s out by the sheep’s pen when it happens, using the wooden fence as a stand to beat her quilt, and startles at the sound the plank makes against the ground, so she smacks her hip on a post.

In the aftermath, the tree’s bare branches rattle. Ravens flock above it, squawking in displeasure at the disturbance. As she abandons the quilt she dug from the root cellar, she spies something in trees moving against the breeze. An animal, she thinks. She doesn’t want to believe Kit broke the cherry tree swing she spent hours of their childhood describing.

She kneels, tucking in her skirts. The green ropes look shattered. Papa built this swing for her. Braided the rope himself, carved the seat from a plank of firewood. He taught her to read on that swing. She learned he was dead on that swing.

With a sigh, she gathers the splintered seat and rope. At the edge of her vision, her ghost wanders towards the inlet, drifting over the grass. The first frost claimed a remnant of her childhood, but Kit may claim her before the winter has its chance.

***

We could never be happy, Toma doesn’t write.

I never intended to be harsh, Dear Kit. I never intended for my rejection to be so damning. It was not done out of a lack of love for you, but rather in an act of it. We could never have been happy. What right do you have to punish me? Is the burden of your final thoughts not punishment enough?

Sincerely Yours,

Toma

***

Winter comes a handful of weeks after the first frost, and Toma spends the final hours of snowfall tending her hearth. The fire flickers, exhaling smoke into her chimney; Muska watches from the rug, her eyes reflecting the light. Outside, the snow comes down quick as a rainstorm to coat her yard. The trees’ branches sag with it.

Read it, whispers Kit in her ear, seductive. Kit sing-songs, J’ai perdu ma amie sans l’avoir mérité.

On the end table beside her lies the letter, her employers’ address faded so it’s illegible. Read it, says Kit, so Toma plucks it from its resting place. The envelope yellowed by now. In the firelight, it glows.

Read it, read it, read it

With her nail pushed beneath the flap, she stops. Encased inside might be a love letter, an apology, an explanation. A curse. What right do you have, might she write, to punish me?

She closes her eyes. Breathes. Opens them. Listens to the ravens outside her window. Breathes. Then she leans forward, and tosses it into the flames.

The old paper burns, and her world is still. 

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34 likes 5 comments

09:21 Oct 10, 2019

Utterly beautiful writing! You really reached inside me and squeezed my heart until it hurt. And those last few lines were outstanding. Truly brilliant!

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15:38 Oct 11, 2019

Loved this to bits. So filled with imagery, it's beautiful. This line, 'Kit’s handwriting is a parody of neatness' wow.

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18:11 Oct 12, 2019

This is absolutely incredible. I loved the surreality throughout the story. It made the story so beautiful to read. And I’m always a sucker for historical context and artifacts also. This was such a beautiful story and a wonderful, alternative perspective on the writing prompt.

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03:33 Oct 15, 2019

Beautifully written story!

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21:50 Oct 14, 2019

Woah!! Super good!

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