A woman of humble birth rested upon a rickety hospital bed, trapped in her mind. A large oxygen mask forced cold air into her lungs. Rays of light highlighted faded white hair, a halo around her hollowed face. The warmth illuminated her restlessness as she emerged from a trance. Her bony hands folded at her middle, she nudged the IV poking from her palled hand. The cold fluids pained her arthritis stricken joints, she wanted to give up. These moments of clarity were insurmountable pain. Her soul spent eighty-seven years wandering this earth, it was a long life, she was ready.
Some time had passed since she last felt this clear. She hoped her last words wouldn’t be the horrible secret she’d kept. When the time comes would she remember to tell her beloved grandson? There was too much to explain and never enough time. Would he think of her differently? She stared out the window at the large buildings surrounding the hospital. She always hated the city, preferring the lake scattered grasslands of her home country, Poland.
Her mind wandered a moment, slipping from reality. She reached for the thoughts, they seemed just beyond her fingertips in clouded waters. She knew entering them meant no return. Her finger tip tapped the IV again, pain brought her back. I must wait, Ozias is coming, I mustn't go yet, she thought.
The inoffensive door opened, allowing a slender individual to enter. Dark hair and deep hazel eyes, facial recognition slipped away momentarily. The man held something behind his back, as he smiled softly, two dimples appeared on either side of his cheeks.
“Basia,” he called, “I brought you something.” His smile brightened as he produced a beautiful bouquet of bright red poppies. Recognition flooded her as she stared at his squared face and creased chin, a classically handsome man.
“Ozzy, my boy,” she rasped in a thick Slavic accent, “You remembered the flowers.” Ozias lifted his eyebrows, surprise, he hadn’t expected to be remembered today. Basia had slowly obliterated all memories of him for the last six months. It was the new normal for the pair. There were days he didn’t bother explaining and pretended to be a friend. Reminding her of the son she’d lost was never his favorite thing to do.
“How are you feeling?” He smiled brightly, replacing the last old and withered flowers. The room felt lighter once death was evacuated from their presence but she still felt the scythe to her neck. The illness that plagued her for years would finally take her from this world. Something she fought on two other occasions, entered remission, and to her surprise suffered it again.
“Ah, well, I could be better. You know,” she inhaled deeply, “I don’t think I'm going to make it through today.” Her beautiful grandson, whom she loved so dearly reached for her and he gripped her hand tightly.
“Don’t say that. You’re not ready to go yet,” he spoke passionately. His expression, fierce. I taught him that face, she thought as a wry smile formed on her face.
“Child,” she spoke softly, “I am ready. I have lived a long life. I raised you to be strong and independent. You no longer need me but I need to tell you something before I can go.” Her breath heaved in her chest. Clouded tides began to rise from the shoreline in her mind. Basia was within an inch of slumber. Śmierć would come too soon. Her mind-eye saw a woman draped in white in the distance.
“I do need you. I can’t let you go.” Ozias laid his forehead on her skeletal hand, with the other she weakly stroked his hair. Tears fell from their eyes, saying goodbye was agony. He knew she had suffered long enough. Fear motivated his selfish desire to keep her at his side. How could he prepare for her funeral alone? How could he be as strong as she wanted him to be? He didn’t know.
“I don’t have much time. You are odmieńce not the human I made you believe. I found you laying in a midden beaten nearly to death.” she pulled the oxygen mask from her face, each sentence was painful. “The spell that held you in this form, it has grown weak. Soon you will be transported, there you will meet your true mother.” She used the last of her strength to hold Ozias tightly. Machines began ringing in his ears. Nurses entered but administered nothing. His basia wanted to go in peace. Her hand dropped to her side as she gasped for air. Ozias wanted to save her, he didn’t want to watch his grandma die but he couldn’t look away.
The woman in white approached for the soul she was sent for. Water rushed around Basia’s feet, pulling her toward Śmierć, the white robed reaper, who extended a hand. Basia took it, she dared not glance through her eyes again. Ozias face would be enough to make her desire life.
In the end, he didn’t utter the words goodbye. Ozias, unable to cope with his rising emotion, fled with his racing heart. Once outside, grassy hills unfolded before him, not realizing he was transported, he cried out. As he did a clap of thunder roared across the new landscape. His body felt the same, he was not transformed, but felt rising power within.
“Child, have you lost your way,” a voice called with a serpent's tongue, “I can help you find your way.” Ozias turned and abruptly fell back at the sight of the monster before him. A three headed man with a serpent's body slithered from a large doorway. He looked Ozias over, eyeing his stature. Ozias whipped his head around, vast greenery replaced the massive city he once knew.
“Wh- Where,” he croaked, the serpent looked displeased, but smiled showing massive fangs in between human teeth. Fear shook Ozias, the unfriendly looking beast slid down to meet his eyes. His three heads shared the same sinister expression. The entryway the serpent protected gave off the stench of death and hatred.
“How odd, you smell human, but you can’t possibly be, you’re not meant to enter my domain. The stench of a witches’ spell wafts from you. Odmieńce, you little worthless, changeling.” Angered, his tail whipped from behind him and wrapped around Ozias’ middle. The strength in his tail was nearly bone crushing, Ozias quaked at his strength and size. With his massive hand, the serpent reached it’s fingers around his neck.
“Please, I didn’t know” he cried out. Power rose within as he tried to push against the snakes scaly form. Wind howled along the grassy hills and the clouds above darkened. Rain poured from above, the serpent's three heads looked perplexed toward the sky. His grip relaxed just enough for Ozias to free a hand. He forced the serpent man’s hand away with unknown strength.
“You have strength,” the serpent said, constricting tighter, “Sadly it is not enough.” All three of his mouths opened to produce a deep bellowing laughter. Ozias struggled against his death grip.
“Give it a rest Nyja, don’t you recognize the boy?” a woman's voice chided. Nyja’s six eyes squinted at Ozias’ face as if he had poor vision. His split tongue slipped out of the mouths of the three heads.
“I don’t know this child, Mamuna, he smells of witches and humans. He must be one of your children but he has trespassed to the underworld,” he bellowed like an impudent child. Ozias couldn’t see the woman who stood behind him but from her elegant voice, he thought she would be beautiful.
“This is not one of mine but I did send him to the humans. He was just a babe then but I’m sure you may remember stealing a baby from his mother’s breast and dragging her to the underworld when she came for him.” Her voice sneered, she was becoming angered. Her beautiful voice had a siren-like quality as she scolded Nyja. In response he released Ozias. Realization spread across his face. The storm ceased as Ozias fell to the ground.
“He can’t be. You said the return ritual took place, when you never returned with him, I assumed the babe died.” Nyja appeared worried as he slithered into the darkness of the underworld. His heads protruded from the entrance, ready to lunge. Ozias felt confused, he didn't understand how this came to be.
He coughed violently, the stench of death hindered his ability to gulp down air. He gagged at its potency. A soft hand flirted along the nape of his neck. It belonged to the beautiful siren voice. Mamuna knelt beside Ozias as he hacked. Their eyes met, her yellow goat's eyes startled him and he jumped from her touch.
“Ah, I must have forgotten to mention, a witch took him in. The poor old woman’s first son was killed by her husband after he suspected the child was a changeling. He was not one of mine though, she was forced from her home and came upon this child, I thought it was sufficient payment since she suffered in my name.” She crooned. The woman was beautiful but also child-like. She was small in stature especially compared to the monster. Her hair was green and mossy as if she’d emerged from freshwater.
“Basia? A witch? I don’t understand.” Ozias tried to comprehend the new world he entered. His heart sank as he spoke her name for the first time. The two creatures turned toward him. Waves of fear rippled across his body again.
“It seems he doesn’t know anything,” Mamuna said, the two gave each other a knowing glance. She flashed a smile of white teeth. He felt the wind tug at him like a child clinging to their mother.
“Then I should just kill him before his father discovers what I have done,” the serpent’s tail erupted from the ominous doorway, “Pity.” He laughed maniacally. Ozias, overwhelmed, stumbled backward. Nyja’s tale fell just shy of laying a lethal blow across his chest. Instead the tail wrapped around his feet and slammed him down.
The winds giggled around him like a chorus of children. Mamuna ran off as Nyja approached Ozias. The tail lifted him promptly off the ground and slammed him into the earth. There was no time to have fear as the great snake lifted him again. Nyja opened his mouth wide, dislocating his human jaw, to swallow Ozias whole.
Would this really be it, he thought, Basia would be ashamed to know I gave up without a fight. Her memory gave him enough strength to send a heavy punch into the nose of the center head. As he did a clap of thunder rolled across the sky. The wind chorus howled around the two, a vortex in the sky began to form.
Nyja seemed furious, he shook Ozias violently, while holding his bloodied nose. Unknown power surged through Ozias as the feelings of his grief rushed back to him. While being shaken he swung his body forward and landed another punch to one of the heads. This time he heard the loud crack of bone under the sound of crashing thunder. Lightning struck the two and sent each flying.
He slid violently along the grass while Nyja was thrown into the ruins surrounding his ancient doorway. Wounded, the snake slithered back to its den instinctively. Ozias rose from where he lay, he needed to put distance between himself and the beast. The impact left only scrapes and bruises so he was able to flee. As he began to move the hands of small children pulled at him. He followed the whispers of the wind obediently.
The grasslands turned into sandy beaches, rolling waves crashed against the shoreline. He was pulled into the waves with tiny hands, mesmerized he didn’t fight. His clothes and shoes quickly drenched in the salty waters. He stood waist deep in crashing waves, suddenly a sound startled him from his trance. When he turned to look, Mamuna and a bearded man stood at the shoreline. As they spoke to each other the bearded man raised his hand and summoned him forward.
Fear kept him in his place. He only just escaped from near death. Had Mamuna been angry with the outcome of their battle, he thought, She must have brought this behemoth to finish me off. The waters pushed at his back even with all his strength they were too powerful. It was as if he was caught in a riptide propelling him forward. Once on the shore, the giant strode to him, a smile across his face.
“My son,” the giant bellowed, “You have finally come home.” Confused, Ozias took a step back. His last encounter with these mythical creatures had not been pleasant. However, the chorus of children began to pull and push at him. They seemed to giggle in his ears as he fought their vigor.
“Stribog, he doesn’t know who he is. He is skittish after barely fighting off Nyja.” Mamuna chorused, in response Stribog raised an eyebrow and gruffed loudly. Ozias doubted she was on his side, since she waited to see the outcome of the fight instead of intervening. Perhaps she knew Nyja's strength was too much for her.
“How can he not remember he is a god?”
“It seems a powerful witch cast a spell on him, it was bound with love and broken only at death,” she answered. It seemed she left out parts of the story. Ozias rolled his eyes, she was manipulating those more powerful than her.
“It seems you aren’t going to tell him the truth?” Ozias spoke bravely, the power within made her seem as though she was no longer a threat. Stribog turned quickly in her direction.
“You've conspired against me” he bellowed. She suddenly shed her calm demeanor as her games were exposed.
“Master,” she groveled, “It is Nyja’s doing. He took the babe and his mother from you. It was I who hid him among the humans. I thought that he would hide well since his mother was one. The human mother I placed him with discovered her child was taken. I had no other choice but to leave him with the witch.” Her voice though filled with fear hummed.
“Nyja will pay for this the next time he crawls from that hidey-hole he calls the underworld.” He boomed, he closed the distance to Ozias, and embraced him in a hug. He was aware of how much truth she’d stretched but ignored it. His head was filled with new information.
“I don’t understand,” Ozias stumbled. His heart ached as he realized the loving woman who raised him did so knowing he didn't belong to her. Stribog released his hug but held onto his shoulders as if he were afraid Ozias would float away.
“You will understand everything my son. I have the power to make you forget your life as a human. You will accept your role as my son, I will give you the necessary memories to control the wind spirits. These children have stood in your place far too long,” he chuckled longingly. Forgetting Basia would make his grief easier but would he feel an emptiness in its stead?
“Do I have to give up my memories?” Memories of his life with Basia surfaced, she had a way of lighting up a room. He remembered she had a joke for every situation. Her laughter and gentle smile caused tears to well in his eyes. Her cooking and the way she kissed him goodnight. Tears fell from his cheeks.
“My son, you loved the humans that much,” Stribog whispered, “You must have loved the witch who raised you. I sense your desire to return but there is nothing left of her. Stay and forget, you won’t suffer. If you leave now, you will never return.” Ozias could tell how badly his father wanted him to stay by his side.
“I don’t want to forget her. I want to remember who she raised me to be. I can’t run away from my suffering because she never ran from hers. She lived for me,” Ozias cried.
“I understand. My son, goodbye.” Stribog placed his forehead on Ozias’, they closed their eyes and power drained from him. Suddenly he felt human again. He opened his eyes to find himself standing in front of the hospital where his grandmother’s body remained. He inhaled a deep breath, and wiped the tears from his eyes. His precious memories intact.