TW – animal cruelty, death.
Everything was ready for the ritual. I had counted down the days, or more precisely, the nights - since I turned eleven.
Looking out over Delltree town, I stood back a little from the sandstone cliff. Holding my torch in one hand, I pulled newspaper and twigs from my rucksack. I roughly fashioned the base of a small fire behind the concrete trig point, partially sheltered from the breeze. Larger sticks and bits of branch from the tree line behind completed my construction.
Unpacking the ornate wooden boxes from my rucksack on top of that moonlit hill was exhilarating. As each one emerged from the canvas bag I ran my fingers over its hand-carved lid, mouthing the words to myself. Seven boxes, each containing a license to another world of experience.
Five strong hearts and one perfect bloom I had consumed at that point. Six items, each one at midnight on consecutive birthdays. And the seventh was to come now on my seventeenth. At the point where three counties met, the highest ground in each.
I rummaged in the side pocket of my pack, pulling out a small sweet tin and tapping my fingernails on the lid in a satisfying rhythm. With the tin laid at my feet, I tugged off my boots and socks. The grass was damp, and the earth soft, but at least it wasn’t raining now. My coat and jumper followed my footwear into an untidy pile on the ground, topped off by my jeans. I wondered for a moment if stepping out of my underwear was really necessary but then, who was going to see me? I took them off. Clothes would only hamper my spell.
It took three attempts to light the fire. The breeze didn’t help at first, but eventually the newspaper kindled. The heat rose as larger sticks found their way onto the pile.
The muscular heart inside the sweet tin was fresher than some of the others had been. I had only removed it that morning. Once it was impaled on a metal skewer, I crouched down towards the fire. I held the wooden handle, keeping the heart steady in the dancing flames. Like most of the others, it tasted similar to beef, but with a subtle metallic tang.
Licking my lips, I turned my attention to the wooden boxes and their contents. I remembered the acquisition of each one, starting with the violets, gathered from the woods at age ten. My mother had reluctantly helped me to crush and boil the petals. The heady perfume, matured all that time in a glass bottle, was ready for this moment. The taste of the remaining intact flower on my eleventh birthday was easy to recall, though it was six years since I had eaten it.
Laying the boxes in order, starting with the violet perfume and ending with the raven’s feathers, I opened the first one. As soon as the lid was off the bottle the scent took me right back to that childhood summer in the woods. After one deep breath of the floral essence, I poured the liquid into the flames. It hissed between the crackles of burning wood. This would surround me with eternal sweetness.
Next were the fluffy hind paws of a rabbit. It had taken several days of disappointment and empty snares before success. But finally my prize was a healthy young buck. He’d struggled as I worked to remove him from the trap, so it was easier to kill him first. It had been a whole week until my birthday, so his heart was a little grey by the time I cooked and ate it. It tasted stale, but it was worth it to gain that speed. As the feet dropped into the brutal flames, the smell of singeing fur caught in my nose.
On my thirteenth birthday, I consumed the heart of a nightingale. Too difficult to capture, it had taken three weeks' pocket money to purchase the bird. The farmer’s son didn’t ask questions but did demand a kiss for his troubles. A small creature, it was tricky to cut apart without damaging the organs, but I extracted the heart and removed the head and body from the neck with a craft knife. And so as I placed the feathered throat on top of the kindling, my beautiful voice was secured.
The following year came the dog. By then I considered myself fairly strong-stomached, but I couldn’t take the life of man’s best friend. Fortunately, the farmer’s son from the year before had buried his much-loved Labrador on a suitable day. It took a few hours but I dug her up from the bottom of his field, taking what I needed almost before she was cold. The blood that spilled was contained in the grave. I stroked her head before covering her over once more. Her ear flaps dried well, remaining silky to the touch even now. I dropped them into the flames wondering what I would hear first with my upgraded sense.
The doe hadn’t been on my original list. But she added something valuable to the collection, as well as adding another year to my project. It was well worth the wait. She had literally been caught in the headlights of my dad’s pickup as he drove me home from late-night hockey practice. As he slammed on the brakes I stared into those shining and perfectly almond-shaped eyes. Startled and unblinking, the deer had stuck to her spot as the red and black bonnet of the truck collided with her dun and white chest. She’d been thrown into the bushes, and I’d gone back for her the following morning. She wasn’t hard to find, but was big and difficult to butcher. Once I finally parted her ribs the rest felt easy. I opened the box and removed the dried-out eyes. They no longer gleamed but that was fine; I’d eaten the enormous heart very fresh. The gloom-shaded eyes reduced to ashes in my fire.
The penultimate year’s extract had been the forebrain of a fox. By then I had honed my skills and the operation was easy once the skull was open. I sliced and dried the cortex ready for storage. The fox’s heart was similar to the Labrador’s and took some time to eat. Both of them were a little tougher than expected. It was a small price to pay for that level of cunning. I opened the box and one by one dropped slices of dehydrated brain into the curling flames.
My attention turned to the final offering. The last box contained the raven’s flight feathers. Holding them up to the firelight allowed me to glimpse their purple iridescence. Ah, the raven, the bold and confident raven. He was perfect. I’d killed him, supposedly by mistake, when taking the first aim of the day at a clay pigeon shoot. My dad knew I was a better shot than that and must have suspected something. But he didn’t see me collect the carcass and didn’t ask any questions. After all, shooting was my birthday treat; he didn’t want to rub it in that I’d missed an easy target. I hadn’t been sure what kind of bird I’d acquire that day, just that it had to be stronger than a nightingale. Half expecting to make do with a dove, the raven was an excellent prize.
I placed the feathers among the burning wood and recited my chant.
‘Your precious and beautiful parts,
Give me magical gifts through your hearts,
By fire and by smoke in this perfect place,
I take in your powers with enduring grace.
Where lay lines of three counties meet,
Come to me and make me complete,
Make me your subject and make me your mage,
Come alive in my body as I come of age.’
I inhaled wisps of smoke to the bottom of my lungs, and waited.
The sweet smell of violets rose around me, subtle on the night air. Swishing my arms from side to side did not dissipate the scent. It was part of me now. My eyes refocussed and I could see further down the hill, make out more detail in the distance. The fence and stile I had crossed to get there were visible. The rustling of nocturnal animals in the woods behind me became apparent, perhaps mice or a badger. Sounds that had eluded me until now.
After a few quiet minutes a change swept through me. It started at my feet, with power being drawn from the hilltop itself. Then my ankles and calves tingled. My legs were toning and shaping ready for action. My body became lighter as the rabbit’s swiftness came over me. The feeling reached my shoulder blades and my back strengthened and bulged slightly. A prickle started in the skin, as the beginnings of a pair of wings materialised from either side of my spine. Flexing and tensing the new muscles in my back would move them. The weight of them grew and a sensation of pins and needles spread through the emerging tissue.
As the feeling stopped, I cautiously stretched my newly born wings. The dying firelight was just enough to make them shine. When closed together they almost brushed the floor. But they were lighter than expected and I carried them with ease. Looking back over my shoulder I could see the shimmering apex of the right hand wing as it rose and fell away behind my back. I stretched again, this time wrapping the wings around in front of me, a black, feathered shroud. They were warm and comforting, shielding my naked body from the night like a dark yet iridescent angel.
A smile sparked across my face and a few joyful tears left my eyes. I pulled my jeans and boots back on. They were tighter now, but I could just squeeze into them. I opened my bag again, looking for something to fit my new physique. There were several options. A halter-neck top, perfect. It would cover my breasts while leaving my back conveniently exposed. Once all the boxes and clothing were back in my rucksack I poured a bottle of water over the remains of the fire, then stashed the backpack in the hollow of a tree. Flying was going to be tricky to start with and the extra weight would unbalance me.
The trig point seemed a little shorter than before. I pushed my toes into the grass and raised my heels, lifting my hands above my head, reaching for the sky and spreading my enormous, opalescent wings. My new form felt powerful, godlike. Bending my knees, I sprung up from the grass in one easy bound. It wasn’t just speed I’d gained from that rabbit's feet. One leap and I was standing proud on top of the trig point, perfectly balanced in spite of the movement in the air.
Looking down into the valley, my improved night-vision allowed me to track the road heading out towards Blycester. It gave me a quiet and familiar route to follow. I stretched each wing in turn, surprised by how natural they felt. I beat them a few times and folded them together again before springing down easily from the trig point, landing as softly as a feather.
I flapped my wings again and gave a little jump. They generated great lift and moved the air with ease. As I beat them again and again, I rose off the grass, but not enough to call flight.
I looked back to the sheer sandstone cliff between me and the field below.
I took a run up, on my strengthened legs, bounding at speed across the hilltop towards the drop, wings outstretched, catching that breeze. I hadn’t even reached the edge before I took off. Within seconds I was soaring over the field, over the fence, over the valley. Trying a few changes of direction to check my control, it felt easy to manoeuvre across the sky. Once I got over the initial shock of how well it had worked, I found myself laughing like a child, clapping my hands together and singing. Singing! The nightingale had blessed me with the voice of an angel! Clear and sweet and perfectly in tune, and so well appreciated by my upgraded ears.
To avoid getting lost, I flew low into the valley, lining myself up above the road out of town. It wove its way through the hills for a few miles offering a good chance to practice altering my speed, lifting and lowering my flight path and taking in my familiar surroundings from a very unfamiliar viewpoint. Goose bumps and shivers ran all over my body but the sense of freedom was phenomenal.
After half an hour of elation I was craving a warm fireside. Also, I wanted to show my birthday gift to my parents. My mum especially had doubted my ability to cast this spell. On the day we crushed those violets, over six years ago, she took pleasure in telling me that I was setting myself up for disappointment. ‘It will all end in tears,’ she had said, more than once. The preparations had been a secret from her since then.
Circling round Pan’s Hill set me up to follow the road back towards town. My village was only two more miles out the other side and flying home wouldn’t take long. Then it occurred to me. I should try out my improved legs and feet. I reduced my altitude until I was gliding above the main road, level with the treetops. I slowed right down ‘til almost hovering in the air, then dropped myself gracefully onto the pavement with a few slow beats.
There was renewed bounce in my step, a spring as my ankles absorbed the tension and released it with ease. My rapid walk became a jog, which quickly became a sprint, covering the ground effortlessly, bounding through the night. I approached a bend in the road and broke free of the pavement, cutting across the tarmac to minimise the distance and maximise my speed. There was the hum of a car engine but with my enhanced hearing it was probably miles away. I continued to run down the centre of the road.
A second later, headlights swept around the corner ahead and I stopped stock still, impressed with how quickly I could reduce my speed. As the shining lights approached, the squeal of brakes cut the night. My fox brain gave me a score of suggestions of how to remove myself from harm’s way but I could not react. The edges of the picture around the dazzling glare showed me that it wasn’t any car. It was a truck. A red and black pickup truck, probably looking for me.
My mother’s words rang true. There was crushing disappointment in the last two things I ever experienced. Just before I gave up all of my newly granted gifts, to the tall, hooded man with the scythe. They were the agonising impact of the corner of my dad’s bonnet and the fleeting reflection I caught in the windscreen, of tears in my perfectly almond-shaped eyes.