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The Bird Witch

by Colleen Borst about a year ago in Fable · updated about a year ago
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A retelling of the folktale Jorinda and Joringel

The Bird Witch
Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

"My little bird, with the necklace red, Sings sorrow, sorrow, sorrow, He sings that the dove must soon be dead, Sings sorrow, sor - jug, jug, jug." -Jorinda and Joringel, as collected by the Brothers Grimm.

I never asked for the nightingales. To know anything about the story at all, you must first hear the facts that are always left out. So I will try to start as close to the beginning as possible.

The first thing you have to understand is the shadows. I don’t know if they started after the curse or if the curse appeared because of the shadows. I suppose it doesn’t really matter either way. All I know is they have chased me for a very long time. I started building suncatchers to fight them—hoping the twisted bits of metal and fragments of glass, woven together into small delicate webs would trap them. I hung the suncatchers all over my hut until the walls outside and in started to resemble a glimmering golden cage. And it worked. For a while.

But shadows are tricky creatures. They adapt, shifting their patterns and playing with our perceptions. They made their way slowly across the ground and hit under ants, beetles, dropped nuts and seeds, and waited. As the summer turned to fall and the nightingales returned, they gobbled up the shadows with the insects and seeds. The shadows gnawed at the insides of the birds, twisting their sweet songs into sadness, and driving them mad. So the nightingales sought me out. Driven by the instincts of the shadow, the birds flew at my hut, hurling themselves against the golden boundaries I had crafted until they became tangled in wire and glass. One would think they would die from injury, but they don’t. They just stay caught, singing their sad songs, with more and more birds joining them as time passes.

I never built the cage to keep them in—I built it to keep them out. But who listens to a girl who lives on the outskirts of town in a hut, which, from a distance, looks like a cage? And who listens to a girl whose home is covered in thousands of birds that never die and screech sad relentless songs? No one. First, they came to gawk at my hut. Then, they came to throw stones. Then, as the years grew longer and longer, they mostly stayed away, though I could still hear them call me “witch” as they passed by.

I never found an excuse to deny the rumors the wind whispered about me, and even if I had, what’s the use? Even before the shadows and the nightingales, folks from town gave me a wide berth unless it was to knock on my door in the middle of the night begging for me to stop a growing belly, or keep a neighbor away from their husband, or keep their husband away from themselves. On a good night, it could be all three.

Sometimes the plants cooperated. And sometimes they didn’t. It didn’t seem to matter either way. When people got what they wanted, they were afraid, and when they didn’t, they were angry. It was all just different kindling for the same fire to me. Still, my knowledge and relationships with plants provided a reliable stream of fabric, food, and other necessary items and trinkets one might expect in trade for service.

In the beginning, I kept my gate open. People of all sorts came to me in secret, searching for answers or miracles. But I grew sloppy, and that’s when the curse broke through. He was angry—angry at his wife for leaving, angry at his sister for harboring his wife, and angry at me for telling her to leave in the first place. Defending myself through words would have been worthless. His attack was swift and brutal, and it was only when he backed me into the kitchen corner and went to cut out my eye for a souvenir that I managed to grab a small paring knife stabbed him in the thigh. He ran. I fell on my knees, sank to the floor, and didn’t get up for three days.

Afterward, I built a fence and planted marigolds at the border of the garden. I sang to the ghosts of those who walked before me and asked them to keep me safe. The marigolds did their job, judging visitors as they approached and repelled anyone who meant me harm. But even flowers, ghosts, and vengeance couldn’t keep the shadows away.

Eventually, I learned to live with the birds and their sad song and the shadows that fell across the bits of glass and obstructed light from my suncatchers. I tended my plants in the spring and summer, harvested in the fall, and put them to good use in the winter. It was cyclical and predictable, although it could be a bit lonely at times.

Generally speaking, once someone sought me out, I rarely saw them again. I didn’t recognize her face at first. Her hair had turned the colors of salt and pepper. The lines around her eyes and cheeks had deepened with time. It wasn’t until she held out her palm and I saw the silver glint she seemed to offer me that I knew who she was.

I involuntarily took a step backward and almost tripped. She laid the knife on the table, apologizing for startling me.

“I don’t know if you remember me….” She started

“You don’t forget the wife of the man who tries to kill you.” I cut her off before she could finish.

“He’s dead. I’m sorry. I just wanted you to know. Thank you for helping me hide from him all those years ago.”

But I didn’t want her apologies. I pointed to the roof of my home.

“Why do I care that he’s dead? The damage is done. And what use do you think I have for that knife? Will it work to cut these poor trapped birds out? Will it stop others from returning?”

I was screaming at her now and thrust my pointer finger to the door.

“Out. Out. GET OUT.”

After she left, I took the knife off the table and threw it in a kitchen drawer. “A knife is a knife,” I told myself, and I willed truth into the statement. I wanted to convince myself that the tool does not make the weapon. It stayed there for three months, eventually getting shoved to the back of the drawer and out of everyday reach.

After three months, she again knocked on my door.

She held out a red poppy and a single pearl on a black string as I opened my door.

“Take them. Take them away from me, and I will never come back here or bother you again.”

I nodded. I knew their value to her. The poppy was her favorite flower, and this was the freshest and most vibrant bloom from her and her husband’s sister’s garden. Her mother had given her the pearl before dying. It broke the woman’s heart to give her treasures away. And honestly, I didn’t have any issues with that. I just wanted to live my life and never witness her guilt again. “I will. But you have to promise me your children, and your children’s children will never come here either.”

She nodded in return and left.

The poppy looked stunning planted beside the marigolds, and in a few seasons, the flower flourished. Pollinators buzzed and flitted through the petals. I didn’t quite know what to do with the pearl. I had never had much use for objects others considered valuable. So it hung in the kitchen from a cabinet handle, tapping against the wood whenever the cabinet opened or closed. The pearl was a nuisance but seeing as it hadn’t revealed its purpose to me, there it stayed.

One night I was chopping rosemary and juniper and nicked my thumb on the blade. As the blood pooled on the cutting board, I looked at the knife, recognizing the blade that had been stashed away in the back of the kitchen drawer. I could feel my blood rage against my ribs. “No more,” I muttered under my breath. Seeing the pearl, I grabbed it by its black string and yanked it off the cabinet. I quickly walked, almost marching, to the front gate and stood there.

What kind of house was a cage? Even if I had built the cage, the purpose was never to trap anyone. I started crying for the birds—the poor mad birds trapped by my desire for beauty and light. I touched the wood of the front of the gate, held the black sting with the pearl, and struck the door with the knife in my hand in one swift movement. The black string had been pierced, and the pear hung like a watchful eye from the blade.

“No. More.” I hissed as I walked past the marigold and the poppies on my way back into the kitchen. The flowers glowed in the evening light, nodding in the early winter breeze in agreement.

Everything around me went silent as I reentered the kitchen. The quietness was unnerving for a house with constantly sorrowful songs sung from the rafters for over three decades. The birds started to make noise again, but it wasn’t a song. They almost sounded as if they were choking. “Jug, jug, jug,” they went, over and over. I placed my hands over my ears and sank to my knees. The sound of birds choking was all around me. It was worse than the song I had grown accustomed to, but there was nothing I could do to stop it.

Something hit my forearm and plinked onto the floor. I uncovered my ears to look at the damage. The spot on my arm stung a little, and whatever it was left a small red mark. I looked around and saw a tiny reddish-brown pebble by my left foot. And then another one hit the floor next to it, bouncing a few times before coming to a stop. A few more fell, and I crawled under the kitchen table as a cacophony of raining pebbles started to fall around me. The clinking of the stones hitting the floor, the counters, and every other surface in my kitchen echoed through the hut.

As the pebbles continued to fall, I heard rustling above me. The “jug, jug, jug” of the choking birds started to die down. The storm of stones slowed down and eventually stopped. I crawled out from under the table, pushing the pebbles on the floor to clear a path. I was so focused on looking at what I figured to be at least a thousand tiny rocks in my house I didn’t realize the birds weren’t choking anymore, and the light around me had begun to shift. Golden hues, vivid yellows, cool blues, and calming purples stretched across my floor. I looked up and took in a sharp breath. The birds were gone. The golden web of glass reflected the sun into the hut, which, for the first time in many years, was bright and full of color.

I took a few deep breaths, felt my heartbeat slow, and wondered if I could get used to light and silence. I heard a “Jug, jug...clink” to my left and looked. A nightingale perched on the kitchen counter; their head cocked curiously as they stared at the rock that had just dislodged from their throat. Looking up at me, they opened their mouth and sang a single, rich note. It wasn’t a note the bird had sung before, at least not to me, and it reminded me of determination.

“Thanks,” I told the bird, “I suppose you’ll be off now too.”

The bird hopped off the counter, onto the window sill, and then off and into the garden.

I watched them for a few minutes, waiting for them to take flight. But instead, the bird hopped through the poppies and marigolds. They started collecting twigs and stashing them in a secluded corner next to the fence. It was the beginning of a nest.

I smiled. “You can stay,” I called to the bird, “I don’t think I’d be very good in total silence anyway.”

Fable

About the author

Colleen Borst

As an artist and a writer, I love pulling strands of folklore into our current world, imagining what could be, and paying respect to the past.

Visit me at ColleenBorstConsulting.com or etsy.com/shop/ModernHexology

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