They have clipped my wings and I can no longer fly. I’m fading away. Much of the time the little strength I have leaves me and I retain only enough energy to lie here. If I am to survive I will need to move. This place is dangerous for me. The wrought-iron fence surrounding our expansive property has proven to be less for keeping others out and more for keeping me in. I am a bird in a cage. Like a pet.
“Freyja,” my mother says from the doorway. I can hear the tinge of warning in her voice. I stare at the ceiling. “It’s time you got up.”
“For what purpose?” I murmur. My eyes remain fixed on the pink canopy covering my four-poster bed.
“Freyja,” she repeats. I hear the uptick in her voice and note its increase in intensity. I roll my eyes. I sigh and sit up. My long black hair falls in a curtain behind my back whereas it was previously fanned out on the pristine, pink duvet. My mother frowns at me. She shakes her head. “Of all the…” she stops herself and shakes her head again. She turns and leaves the room giving an almost imperceptible head jerk, my sign to follow her.
The faces of my ancestors stare out at me from the elaborate paintings lining the dim hallway. By the time we reach the main staircase the portraits have gotten more familiar. My mother’s own immortalized eyes stare at me from the last one.
My father is waiting for me at the head of the dining room table. He puts his papers down as we come in. He folds his hands, knitting his fingers together.
“My Freyja,” he says. “How are you today?” I look at him.
“Tell her to stop being so dramatic,” my mother says. “It is unbecoming of a young woman.”
“Stop being so dramatic. It is unbecoming of a young woman,” my father echoes. My mother sighs. “I still do not know why you had to go and ruin your hair like that,” she adds.
“Hair grows, dye fades,” my father says with a wave of his hand. “We did not bring you down here to discuss hair.”
“No,” my mother says. “This is to do with your role in this family. All the drama is unbecoming of a young woman. As an adult. You should already know you cannot live the way others do. I suppose it’s our fault for allowing you to attend public school…”
“I don’t understand,” I say. I feel the rage building once more within me. “I got a passport...I didn’t break the law. All I want to do is take a trip somewhere with my friends.” My father rubs his eyes and lets out a long sigh.
“Freyja,” he says, “your mother and I would like nothing more than for you to do that, but -”
“Is that why you burned my passport then? Because you WANT me to go?”
“Freyja,” my mother admonishes, “there are things you don’t know.”
“Then tell me!” I slam my palms down on the end of the table. I see both my parents wince. “I am so sick of this. You keep me here and you won’t even tell me why? I’ve never been permitted to invite guests over and now I can’t leave either?”
“Freyja,” my father begins, “I realize we have asked a lot of you through the years...you see where we live. You know it is a bit different from others. This land has been in our family for generations. We must protect it.” I just stare at him. Protect the land? This is nonsense. I feel tears of anger well up in my eyes.
“You’re the first daughter ever since...ever since the beginning,” my mother adds. “That alone may change something. We can’t afford any more risks.” I throw my hands up in exasperation.
“This is ridiculous,” I mutter. The doorbell rings and its shrill noise startles us all. My grandmother enters the room accompanied by two men holding clipboards. The landscapers. My mother smiles brightly at both men and offers coffee. My father gestures for them to sit down.
“You should stay Freyja,” he says to me. “All of this will be yours one day. You should help us plan.” I feel the landscapers' eyes on me as I sit down. I refuse to meet them.
“Just tear it all up,” I tell the two men. “Start from scratch. Take all the plants. The ones next to the gate, the walkway, the back fence…”
“No,” my father interjects sternly. “The back is not to be distrubed.”
“I thought you wanted my opinion.” I say, flatly.
“The back is not to be disturbed,” my father repeats.
“As I said, tear it all up. Dig the yard up while you’re at it. Put in a pool.”
“Freyja,” my father’s voice is cold. “Stop with this nonsense.”
“Why?” I challenge.
“There are things you do not yet understand.”
“Then help me understand them!” I stand up so quickly my chair falls backward. I leave the room without looking back.
My grandmother, my father’s mother, finds me sitting alone in the rose garden in front of the house. She holds out her hand to me and I take it, allowing her to pull me up.
She sighs. “I think it’s time,” she says. She does not look at me as she speaks and instead looks off into the distance.
“Time? For what?” I ask.
“Time for you to understand who we are, who you are,” she says. I look at her, quizzically. Dramatic is not how anyone describes my gentle grandmother. I am the dramatic one. She still does not meet my gaze as she begins to speak.
“You do realize all this comes at a price?” She holds her hand out, palm up, and makes a sweeping motion to gesture to the vast land.
“The truth is, you can never leave here. Our family is bound to this land. It is both a blessing and a curse. To leave, would be to ruin everything. Long ago, a deal was made. It is time you know it all.
Seven generations ago our ancestor was struggling. He farmed the land, toiling endlessly. At first, his efforts paid off. He did well for himself and even married the daughter of a local merchant. His new wife detested farm life. She did not want to help till the fields or harvest crops. And since no two harvests are alike, our ancestor’s luck soon changed. His crops stopped being as fruitful and he and his wife were struggling financially. The successful harvests of years gone by had lulled him into a false sense of security and he had spent much of his money trying to appease his new wife. Right as their troubles were beginning they welcomed a new baby, a daughter. His daughter’s birth was the first time he saw his wife smile at something other than a purchased luxury. The happiness his wife seemed to feel at the birth of their daughter waned as quickly as their fortunes.
Now nearly destitute, the wife would sit by the window the entire day, staring into the distance. Our ancestor would return home from his work in the fields to a cold hearth and starving child. Out of love for both women, he resolved to do whatever it took to turn their luck around. This is where he made his fateful choice. He visited an older woman who lived on the other side of the village. He went at night so it would be less likely to be spotted. This was a woman to whom no respectable man or woman spoke. He found himself on his knees begging the woman for help. He swore to do anything she asked and that he would pay any price.
‘Any price?’ the woman asked. ‘Any,’ he replied. She smiled and told him it was done. Baffled, our ancestor left her presence, hoping for a sign. His sign came in the form of seven stillborn babies. All sons. His crops grew despite any drought or rainy season and there was plenty of money to go around. His daughter, now eight, was a cheerful, happy child. But even she could not cheer up her now-despondent mother. The loss was too great. Fearful for his wife, our ancestor returned to the older woman. ‘Did you not get what you wanted?’ she asked. ‘I did,’ he admitted. ‘Did you not think a fee would be collected?’ she asked. ‘I did not know,’ he answered. ‘Only foolish men don’t pay attention to the cost of getting what they want,’ she told him. ‘Please ma’am,’ our ancestor found himself begging. ‘What can I do?’ ‘What is it you want?’ she asked him. ‘I want my wife to be happier. I want her to stop losing babies,’ he said. ‘No longer concerned about crops are we?’ she asked. Our ancestor hesitated, ‘I still want my crops to do well,’ he admitted. ‘What price are you willing to pay?’ she asked him. ‘Any,’ he said.”
A chill ran down my spine at those words. Without prompting, my grandmother continued,
“The old woman smiled. The smile remained on her face as she gave him the details of his payment. ‘Do you love your daughter?’ she asked. ‘With all my heart,’ our ancestor responded. ‘Good,’ the woman said. ‘What you will do is fairly simple. Once you leave here it must be done. If you leave and do not complete your payment, I cannot help you. Even if you crawl back here I will be powerless to help you change your fortune.’ Our ancestor was puzzled, but nodded his agreement. ‘You will need an ax, a bucket, and your finest cup. First, your wife must have one more child. Before the baby is born, you will take your wife and your daughter to the well behind your home. It is very important that you do not tell them any of this in advance. This is for you to know and you alone. Once you are at the well, call your daughter over to you. I assume she trusts you? Good. You will take an ax and remove her head while your wife watches. Yes, that is what I said. Remove her head. Behead her. Be sure to catch some of her blood in the bucket. You will need it for later. Once you have collected enough of the blood you can dispose of her in the well. She is now useless to you. Don’t look so shocked. Were you expecting this to be easy? Next, you will take the blood over to your wife. You will each drink a full cup of the blood. Your wife cannot know the reason. You may need to help her complete this step. The rest of the blood is to be sprinkled around the edges of your property. It does not need to be a thick, unbroken line. But it needs to form a border. Once you have done this fortune will always find your family, regardless of the decisions your family has made. The unborn child will be born alive and healthy. It is between you and your wife to have additional children if you wish. The oldest of the remaining children will take over your properties I assume? Yes, that would be best. Your heir and your heir alone should know of the price you paid for he or she will continue the payment. Yes, as you did. The first child of the next generation should be sacrificed and the body kept on the premises. The method of sacrifice may be up to your heir’s choosing, though, as that is the part of the payment to continue. Do this and prosperity will never leave your family. Should you fail, nothing you do will have any impact on changing your fortune. That goes for your heirs too. Should one of your heirs fail to pay, your entire family shall fall into ruin. Should that happen, that heir will be the last of the family line. Any existing children will perish and that heir will be unable to conceive any more. You have been instructed and you have been warned.’ Our ancestor stopped outside the woman’s door to vomit. He could not imagine doing anything she said, but he was also afraid of the consequences. And thus, the cycle began. And now Freyja, it is your turn to continue as heir.”
I stare at her dumbfounded. “Do I...have a sibling?” She smiles. “That is one reason among many that you cannot change the landscaping by the fence in the back. I believe we planted a Rose of Sharon bush for her.”
I struggle to keep myself contained. “Mother said I am the first daughter to be born.”
“Yes,” my grandmother confirms. “The eldest child is always a sacrifice, but the second has always been a son. Until you.”
“And if this is to all stay in the family and it is impossible to leave, how did my mother end up here?” I ask.
“The same way all of the wives ended up here,” Grandma responds. “I think that might be best left for another day.” She turns and walks back toward the house. I walk in the opposite direction, toward the back fence. As soon as I see the Rose of Sharon bush I turn and run.
The price of leaving is blood. The price of staying is blood. The price of my life is blood. This runs through my mind as I walk the perimeter of my bedroom, running my fingertips along my belongings. What is worth keeping? This knowledge is heavy. I think of my good-natured father. A chill runs down my spine. I close my eyes in an attempt to focus.
Everything I own may as well be covered in blood. I pick up my handheld mirror, an antique. The girl staring back at me is pale, haunted. I blink. As I open my eyes another vision greets me. Another girl is staring back at me. There are black holes where her eyes should be. She is covered in blood. I drop the mirror. It shatters upon impact. I stoop down to pick up the glass and a sharp pain causes me to recoil. My index finger now features a long cut, courtesy of the glass. I watch as drops of deep red blood fall onto the shards of glass, where the broken image of the bloodied girl still stares up at me. A wave of dizziness nearly overcomes me. I sit down and close my eyes. I force myself to take deep breaths. Fragments of my grandmother’s revelations swim through my mind. To stay would be to be complicit in the perpetuation of a sick tradition. To leave would be to damn my family along with myself. I know what I need to do.
I wait until after sunset to begin preparations. It is not as easy as I imagined. I stop and second guess myself several times. The only light in the darkness is from the match I strike on the side of the matchbox. I stare at the match until the flame nears my fingertips. I consider letting it burn all the way down, burn me. I stare at the dark ground just within the ancient fence as I drop the match. The small flame immediately swells into a monster. With any luck, the rest of the kerosene will catch as easily. I give the house one last look, readjust the Rose of Sharon bloom tucked behind my ear, and walk away.