The gravedigger felt bad for the little girl with the wild red curls. She wore a ragged brown dress, embroidered all over with vines and flowers, and clutched a quilt tightly around her shoulders as she looked down into her father’s grave. The gravedigger himself was shivering, but giving her the quilt that he kept in the shed with his shovels seemed the least he could do. He had four children with a fifth on the way, and could scarcely afford to put shoes on all of their little feet. If he took in all of the orphaned children whose parents he buried, he would have not a crumb to feed any of them. He could only hope she had an aunt or a kindly neighbor to take her in. She didn’t, of course.
Aside from the girl, the only mourner in attendance of the widower’s funeral was a large owl, which sat in the tree above their heads and occasionally flew down to perch on the girl’s shoulder and nuzzle her cheek or pick at her hair. The gravedigger thought this was strange, of course, but the animals in this town had been behaving strangely for the past decade or so, and it was not uncommon to use birds for hunting. Usually falcons or hawks, but an owl didn’t seem to far of a stretch. People are like that, you see; they will look for any excuse to avoid seeing what is right in front of them. In the end, the dead man, Vadim, was covered with dirt a trio of yellow daffodils the girl had found God-knows-where, what with the ground being frozen, placed above him, the gravedigger folded his quilt, put away his shovels, and went home to his wife and children. The strange little girl with the wild red curls was just another orphaned child, none of his concern.
The girl’s name was Katya, and the owls name was Greya. Katya didn’t have a mother; she had died not long after Katya was born, so Katya was raised by the gentle hand of her father. Every morning, when Katya woke, Vadim braided her hair carefully and tied it with a little green ribbon. Every day at noontime, the braid had come mostly undone, the curls flying about her head like a fiery halo. She would hand Vadim her ribbon, and he would shake his head and smile to himself. “Mei miniat pada zirkat,” he would say. My little wildflower. In the evenings, when Katya was exhausted from a long day spent foraging for herbs with her father to sell at the market, Vadim would sit in an old rocking chair before the fire. Katya would clamber up onto his lap, and the rocking of his chair, the feel of his fingers combing through her curls, the rough sandpaper of his voice, would lull her to sleep before she even closed her eyes.
When Katya was very small, she went to school for three short weeks. Her father was a craftsman and a forager; he collected herbs in the spring and summer, carved children’s toys and spun clay pots in the forest and winter. Katya could hold a whittler’s knife before she could walk. Vadim didn’t have much money, but he rarely needed to purchase much of anything aside from finely woven cloth and thread. Everything else could be made, found, or done without. He could write his own name, shakily, but legibly enough, and he could read simple words, when he needed to. There was no question of what Katya would do when she was grown. She would be a forager, potter, and carver, as Vadim before her and his father before him, unless she married, in which case she would raise children. This was how it worked in those times. If your father was a farmer, you would be a farmer. If your father was a doctor, you would be a doctor. As Vadim wasn’t a scribe, teacher, or record-keeper, it wasn’t necessary that Katya learned to write, but Vadim wanted her to make friends and be with other children. He knew she wouldn’t, not unless forced; as she would much rather spend her days in the forest collecting mushrooms.
Katya was seven years old that first day of school; and, for that matter, the last. She sat in the back of the classroom, tying and untying knots with her hair ribbon, doodling flowers on the desk with her chalk when the teacher wasn’t looking. She learned to write “Katya” in big, sloppy letters on her slate. She didn’t talk to anyone, nobody talked to her, and that was just fine, until the day the older boys took notice of her.
It was recess, and Katya had just pulled a particularly juicy apple from her pocket. She alighted atop a stump at the edge of the schoolyard, content to kick her boots in the dirt, listen to the birds sing, and watch the other children play. Three boys, maybe nine years old, each at least a head taller than Katya, were following a group of girls in dresses around, making kissing noises. They were not afraid of the opposite sex, and proud of the fact. The girls would stick their tongues out, squeal, and run away giggling, and it went on like that for ten minutes or so, until the boys grew tired of chasing, and went off in search of an easier-to-catch target. A large, sandy-haired one, clearly their leader, spun in a slow circle, a fox in the henhouse, selecting its prey. As his eyes came closer and closer to Katya’s stump, she busied herself with cleaning her apple on her apron. Unfortunately for her, Katya was unknown, and the sandy-haired boy wanted a new game to play.
The boys came gallivanting up to Katya, and a brown haired one snatched her apple, taking a huge bite out of it. He let out a loud groan, juice dribbling down his chin. Katya just looked at the ground, refusing to make eye contact. A tall, almost twig-like boy with brown skin and short black hair reached out, pulling one of her curls and letting it bounce back like a slingshot. She gave no response, hoping they would grow bored, as they had with the other girls.
“You’re really not very fun, you know,” said the sandy-haired boy.
“Yeah, come on, lets go find something else to eat,” agreed the tall one.
“Or, we can try to get her to play with us,” snickered the brown haired boy, and shoved Katya on to her bottom. She landed awkwardly, a small pebble directly under her tailbone, and felt her lower lip tremble slightly. No. No, no, no. Not right now, not in front of them. I can cry later, she thought furiously, with Da, I can cry with Da, but not right now!Katya blinked again and again, determined not to let the tears spill over, but felt a hot wetness on her cheek and knew her body had betrayed her.
“Aww, widdle baby’s crying!” one of them mock-whined, kicking dirt onto her dress and laughing. Katya was done being pushed around. She looked up into their faces and opened her mouth, prepared to say so, but was shocked to see their eyes widen. She looked down at their feet, where roots that had been dead just a minute ago had turned green and hooked about their ankles, sending them crashing into an awaiting thicket of thorn bushes. A chorus of laughter rose from a semi-circle of schoolchildren who had gathered to watch. Katya rose to her feet and looked down to see her tormentors’ faces still pale with fear.
“Badhex’van!” they cried, “witch! She’s a monster! She cursed us!” but Katya had already spun on her heal and run from the schoolyard for the last time, “badhex’van” still echoing in the distance. They had no idea how close they’d come to the truth, and neither did Katya.
Katya ran and ran, faster and farther than she’d ever run before. She heard the flapping of wings above her, but didn’t look to see what was following her. In fact, she didn’t look anywhere, the world was just flashes of green and brown. She didn’t know where or how far she was going, had no destination in mind. Thistles caught at the hem of her dress, tearing the thin material. Branches caught at her hair, streaking mud across her face. She ran until her lungs ached and her feet were numb, her socks soaked and muddy from splashing through a stream. Only then did she let herself collapse at the base of a large oak tree. Only then did she let herself sob. A large white owl landed in front of her, its head quirked to the side as it examined her tattered clothes, her muddied face. The owl did a funny little dance-like hop until it sat beside her, almost as tall as she was, and craned its neck to pick twigs out of her hair, letting out low, comforting sounds from its throat. This is the story of how Katya met Greya.
Now, after weeks of begging Vadim to take a bite of stale bread or drink a spoonful of broth, Katya’s father was dead. Vadim had never known about Greya. To him, she was just a strange owl that had taken to perching atop his thatch roof. Whenever he mentioned it, his daughter smiled, as if recalling a delightful secret, so he didn’t mind. He had no idea that the strange owl sometimes flew through a window Katya had left open for it at night, when it was too dark for Vadim to see, or that it comprised the other half of Katya’s universe, aside from himself. But now, Vadim was gone, so as Katya looked around the kitchen of her childhood home, taking in the details in broad daylight, Greya sat atop the table, preening her feathers. Katya was fourteen, she had no reason to stay in this old house, and it felt so empty without he Da’s rumbling laughter. So she’d taken her father’s canvas gathering bag and loaded it with an extra dress, her father’s hunting knife, and a set of nesting dolls he’d made for her as an infant that she couldn’t bear to leave behind.
Katya slung the bag over her shoulder, whistled for Greya, and slipped out the door.
“Achenia. Goodbye, house,” she whispered, resting her hand on the doorframe, “goodbye, Da.”
When Katya and Greya were bored, or when they wanted a snack, their favorite game had always been a devious one. They would follow their noses, searching for the houses that smelled of fresh bread or spice cookies. Greya would let out a shriek, swooping into henhouses and stirring up a ruckus. Katya would hide in a bush or behind a tree, watching as someone ran to the chickens, yelling, often without shoes, before slipping inside to claim her prize. By the time the poor baker noticed that half the pastries were missing, Greya and Katya had already long since clambered up a tree, Katya giggling, her face covered in sugar and cinnamon.
Now, the girl and the owl trekked through forests and across rivers, stopping at villages to steal bread from unsuspecting families, eating rosehips and huckleberries when there were no villages for miles. Katya would sit on a sun-warmed rock, embroidering flowers over the holes she frequently put in her dresses, and Greya would sing low melodies, the girl’s voice weaving through in high tremors. Animals came from far and wide, prey curled beside predators, their prejudices put aside in favor of a delightful nap bathed in sunlight and harmony. Katya, at long last, had come home.
So, my darlings, if you ever count your cookies again and again, only to find one missing, or hear beautiful music from deep within the forest, or see a rabbit asleep in the fir of a fox, smile, and call out to Greya and Katya, for they have come home.