A Careful Fire

Issue #184

I

Every night from her room in the master’s house, Mabella listens to the calls of the wingèd women as they soar through the smoky evening air. Outside, their wings cut through the sky’s haze, allowing one to see the stars. Mabella never sneaks outside to see, unlike some of the other women working for the master, for there is always work to be done in the morning, and without a good night’s rest Mabella is foggy-minded and slow. The wingèd women’s calls sound like the songs of freed birds. When she listens, Mabella feels a phantom itch at her back, a wing pair where there never was one. When she closes her eyes, she imagines their dance like white hot comets streaking through the deep dark blue. Their skin is the color of sky. For this reason, blue is Mabella’s favorite color; during berry season she sneaks blueberry tartlets from the kitchen.

“Master’s new wife’s been counting those,” says the cook when she catches Mabella with blueberry stain around her mouth. The cook is the only servant who does not ignore Mabella or snicker behind her back at her strangeness, her quietness, her naivety. “I’d be careful if I was you.”

But the master’s wife rarely emerges from her chambers, and Mabella cannot help herself, until one day the master strides through the kitchen door. Mabella is on her knees, scrubbing the floor. The grit cuts into her skin, an ugly pain but a feeling nonetheless. The master kneels beside her. He smells of cinnamon and sweat; every day he downs a cup of cider after his afternoon walk. Mabella knows this, and more, about him. She watches him when she thinks no one is looking.

“You like blueberries,” he says, so quiet it could be a whisper, if men like him whispered to women like her.

Mabella blushes. Her face would be hot to the touch, if he were to touch it. The master’s hair is long and blond, braided over his shoulder. His sleeves puff out like pillows. His cloak is beautiful purple velvet. Mabella’s leggings are grey with soot.

“I apologize,” she says. She wishes there were something she could say that would make him look at her the way she has imagined being looked at.

“Be more careful, yes? You seem like a careful girl.” And later, when he sneaks a basket of blueberries into her bedroom: “We must be careful.”

The blueberries he squeezes down her nipples stiff in the moon cold, make the soot seem like it belongs, like it is another type of paint another man once dripped down her that she never washed away, though there has never been another man. She pretends that she was born with blue skin like the wingèd.

“You have your mother’s lips. You look like her,” he says. Like her mother? Her mother was beautiful. Is she beautiful? “She had such fire. She was not careful.” He kisses her with blueberries between his teeth; they burst across her tongue. “She didn’t know what love was. You do. You know a good thing when it touches you. You’ll never leave me.”

“No,” Mabella whispers. She hopes that he never stops touching her. “I won’t.”

She bursts each night when he leaves her. He does not leave the berries. She does not wash the juice from her skin but hides the blue stains beneath her clothes.

II

Once, before the master loved her, Mabella used her monthly half-day to sneak to the river past the edge of the wingless city, where the squat stone buildings gave way to woods that smelled thickly of pine. In the river’s crisp clearness three wingèd women bathed. Their nude skin shone silver-blue in the sunlight, like a freshly cleaned mirror. Their wet hair hung in blue strands down their shoulders, spreading across the water’s surface. They splashed and laughed and spoke in their language, which was heavy and sounded to Mabella like spitting. Wholly unlike their night flight songs.

When Mabella ventured into their view, her shadow casting across them, they jerked their heads to peer upon her staring by the shore. Mabella said nothing. They swallowed their language and spoke in hers.

“What does it want?” one of them said. “Does it bring sugar food?” Her wings were red feathered flames with two black eye shapes at the base that winked in the light. They flattened against her back as she narrowed her eyes. “It doesn’t smell like it brings sugar food.” The others pursed their lips; their wings were gold with black cracks that opened as they moved. “It comes where it is not wanted.”

“Ugly, ugly thing,” said another. “It hurts to look at it.”

They turned their backs to Mabella. Her stomach twisted as it did when she pilfered too many sweets from the kitchens. She wanted to say something and nothing. She wanted to run, but her feet throbbed. Instead she turned and walked from the wingèd women’s cackling silence.

“It goes, it goes,” said a wingèd woman. “It leaves us alone.”

On the path home Mabella passed three trappers, one of whom she had known since she was a child with her mother in the market, where he sold curios from his dusty stall. They were setting a live trap with sugar water and jam.

“Was that wingèd I heard?” he asked. “Where were they?”

She looked down at the ground and pointed down the path from which she’d come.

III

Ever since the day at the river, Mabella spends most of her half-days at the crowded market, often at the curio man’s stall, fondling the jars of wingèd fingernails, wingèd eyes, and crushed wing dust. Other days she spends in her room, catching mosquitos at her window and tearing off their wings.

Then one half day the master asks her to meet him in his gardens. The flower smell is sickly sweet. Mabella’s fingers itch for the pressure of the master’s hand, but he does not take it until they are well away from his house.

“Where are we going?” Mabella’s hand is trapped in his, a beautiful cage of flesh and bone. Mabella has not held another’s hand since her mother led her to the master’s front door long ago, when her mother had no choice but to give the young Mabella to her old employer. Her mother’s hand was slick and trembling, and then she let go. The master does not let go.

“Be careful,” he says, leading her across a fallen tree and into the dense wood. He slips blueberries into her mouth each time she opens it to suggest they return. “Careful,” he says as she sucks his fingers. “Do not bite your tongue.”

When Mabella hears the river, she pauses, but the master jerks her, wordlessly, along. “I don’t want to go. It’s getting dark,” she says, but she remembers the way the wingèd women’s bodies looked in the daylight, and she wants to see them in moonlight, wants to see how the white light might change them. They might look more like her. The dark often makes friends of foes.

The master stops at the river’s edge. In the water only one of the wingèd women bathes, floating on her back with wings submerged. The master points at the others on the shore. Mabella gasps. In the shadows, quiet and alone, stand three wingèd, their bodies bearing marks of mutilation. Two with gold wings are missing one eye each. The third, her wings red flames, an also-familiar marking, is missing one arm and the fingers on her remaining hand. Four unmutilated ones lounge in the grass. They do not glance at the mutilated three, but every once and again they peer to where Mabella stands with the master.

The floating one rises from the river and makes her way to the others; her wings are bright yellow with black feathers spiraled along the edges. She shakes the water from her hair, from her limbs, from her wings, keeping her gaze trained to the master’s. The wingèd, Mabella knows, have no men of their own. She does not like how the yellow-wingèd one looks at him. The others pull her away. They stand around her in a protective circle. Then they all push up into the air. As they rise, the master squeezes tighter to Mabella’s hand. She worries that he might break her bones but does not stop him.

The wingèd cut patches in the clouds that let the stars through, it is true. Mabella has never seen anything as small or as bright as the stars above her, but she does not stare at them long. Instead she watches the master watching the stars, watching the far off bodies of the wingèd as they soar. Their songs drift down, the ethereal crooning of another world.

“Beautiful,” he says, slipping his free hand down the front of her dress, and she pretends that he says it about her.

IV

The master’s visits taper. “You don’t have her fire,” he tells Mabella one evening. “It’s not the same without the fire.” Nightly visits become weekly become so long apart that Mabella cannot count the days or else the counting would consume her. Then he does not come at all. There are no more blueberries.

There are no more visits to the river; this she does not mind. Watching the wingèd leaves her with a hunger no berry or tart can satiate. He does not come to the kitchen any longer. He is no longer seen around the house much at all; his wife has gone to visit family in the north, and the master does not leave his bedroom even for dinner. The other servants quiet when Mabella enters the kitchen, but sometimes she hears his name being whispered. Sometimes they torment her:

“What do you think, Mab? Has the old master got himself a bird up in that spare bedroom?”

“Tell us, what was he like, Mab, without those velvet tights hiding away his manly bits?”

“You’d like to get your hands on his berries again, wouldn’t you, Mabella?”

Mabella’s skin burns under her clothes. When the master’s chambermaid catches ill, Mabella hopes that she herself will sicken, so that she might seclude herself in her room until she wastes away, until the master comes to beg her to eat, until he has no choice but to leave his blueberry basket by her nightstand so that she might not die of her hunger. On her nightstand now is a basket filled with her mosquito wings, a collection that grows by the day.

When Mabella hears the servants arguing over who will change the master’s linens in the chambermaid’s stead, she has a better thought.

“I will do it,” she says.

The others smile knowing smiles. Mabella doesn’t care. She will never care again, she promises with forced resolve. She will take what she wants. She carries a basket of flower petals through the hall to the master’s suite. She is in charge of her desires. She raps against the door to his spare bedroom. There is no sound. She will take what is hers for the loving.

She opens the door to a burst of muggy air. The master never let her see his room. A fire blazes in the hearth. The shades are drawn. She does not notice the woman in the master’s bed until she pulls the curtains back.

Light falls across the wingèd woman’s silver-blue body. Her yellow wings shimmer. Dust cascades through the stream of sunlight like dull stars. Mabella drops her basket of petals, which cascade across the wood floor. The wingèd woman wakes with a start, sniffing the air. When she rises, she glances first at the petals. “Dead flowers,” she cries. She reaches out a hand as though to mourn a dying friend. Then she looks to Mabella.

“Well, what’s it waiting for?” says the wingèd woman. “Does it want me to move while it tidies?”

Mabella moves toward the bed. “Please,” she says. “I had him first. Please.” She grips the bedding. “I need him more than you.”

“It does its job,” says the wingèd, scurrying away from Mabella to a chair by the window, where she sprawls across the cushions and watches with narrowed eyes, apprehensive, as Mabella yanks the sheets from the bed.

Mabella starts to stretch the clean linens across the mattress but is overcome by the tightness in her chest; it doubles her over. You have no fire, she remembers. This is what he wants. She balls the dirty and the clean linens and tosses them into the flames. She does not wait for the wingèd woman to speak, or scream, or laugh. She runs from the room.

V

Mabella cannot return no matter how much or little she wants to. There is but one place for her to crouch and hope that the master does not search for her. In the darkened woods, shadowed creatures cry as she tries to sleep. For the first few days she curls beneath scratchy shrubs and itches when she crawls back out each morning, but soon she makes herself a burrow from dirt and sticks and an old blanket she steals from the market, promising the curio man’s empty stall that she will return it. At dusk she sneaks into the city and pilfers food scraps from the merchants’ trash piles.

The first wings she tears in the woods are a queen ant’s who crawls across her body as she dozes in the brush. She captures it wriggling in her palm and plucks the wings off with her fingernails clenched. She lets the ant go. The second wings are from a moth caught in a tangle of branches. She leaves the body to die. She plays with the wings as though they are a doll’s, making them phantom flap in the air. The third wings are a bird’s. She cuts them from its body using a jagged rock. The bird’s blood flows over her trembling hands, and she cradles it as it dies in her palm.

It is better for you this way, she thinks. It is better for all that they not know the sky. The bird’s chest heaves and heaves and stops. Mabella runs the wings down her cheeks; they are soft as the master’s fingers. She peels the torn clothes from her body and runs the wings down her neck, down her arms, down her belly, down her thighs. They leave a trail of blood behind. It is different than the juice from the master’s berries; it makes her feel raw and powerful. She ties the wings around her neck using a length of string pulled from her clothes and without dressing, in the dark of night, leaves the forest for the master’s house. She carries the bird’s body with her.

No one watches the kitchen entrance; the other servants use it for their secret outings, which Mabella was never invited to join. She tosses the bird’s body to the dog who lies sleeping at the stairs. He sinks his teeth into it. Mabella climbs.

When she reaches the master’s door, she pauses at the threshold. This she knows: that she will find either the master alone, and that he will take her once more into his arms and kiss the blood from her body, or that she will find him with the wingèd woman.

She opens the door. The master and the woman sleep facing one another, curled on their sides, the master’s arm thrown across her stomach. The sheets are bunched at their feet. The woman’s wings twitch.

On the table beside the bed is a plate greasy with meat oil and bits of gristle. A knife sits perched across it. Mabella wants. She wants the warmth and the wings. She wants with a hunger she can think of only one way to fill.

The wingèd woman’s breath is cold as Mabella clamps her hand over her mouth. The woman’s eyes fly open, but with the master’s weight and the weight of Mabella, she is trapped. She screeches, but the master reeks of liquor, and Mabella is fast to sink the knife into the ricepaper wing skin. The master does not stir until Mabella has carved the wings from the woman’s body, not even when the wingèd woman cries out to him in pain.

Only when Mabella drops the knife onto the ground does he wake. He yells for help, pressing his hands against the shuddering woman’s back. Mabella knows that he can either stay beside the woman as he waits for someone to come or he can chase after Mabella, who dashes from the room, the wings clutched in her bloody hands.

She bursts through each door until she breaks into the chill night air, which she gulps like water. She fondles the wings. They shiver under her fingertips. She shivers into them, folding them over her like a winter coat. Overhead she hears the wingèd singing. They are calling her home.

VI

In the morning the curio man sews the wings into her back in return for his blanket’s return and a kiss between the legs. She pretends that the wings have always been there, beneath the surface, only recently erupted. In the river, Mabella washes the blood from her back, her first bath in weeks. Dirt radiates out from her like sunlight through a dirty window. She submerges herself beneath the surface and comes up clean.

The wings want to fly. As darkness falls, the wings jerk and twitch of their own accord, as though they live separate from her, as though they itch to join with the sky. Mabella lifts into the air. The wings carry her through the clouds, into the space where birds belong, where the air is thin. Mabella gasps for breath. The wings carry her onward, and onward, and onward, and Mabella tries to peer up at the stars but cannot twist her body to face them. Grey clouds drift beneath her. The wings jerk her about until she rains sick from her mouth. A terrible ache spreads from the wings to her skin to her blood until she loses herself, her vision black.

It should have been beautiful, she thinks. It should have been hers for the loving.

The wings wilt, no longer willing to carry one who does not know how to navigate the clouds. The wings miss their maker, she who grew them from her skin. They fall. They do not fear that they may be crushed when they crash to the ground.

VII

The mutilated wingèd who catch Mabella carry her to the ground but do not stop there. They finger the wings at her back and feel the death inside them; they gnaw each stitch in two and spit the thread into the river. Mabella’s back bleeds again, but at least the wing’s death will not enter her. The wingèd stroke her ugly hair and kiss her ugly cheeks.

“It wonders why we do not love it,” says the one-armed woman with flame-feathered wings. “When it treats us so. When all of them treat us so.”

“We might trade it for sister,” says the one-eyed gold-wingèd woman. “They have her locked up. We can get her back, if she’ll come with us.”

“No, no. We cannot throw it to the monsters. No creature deserves that. The most we can do is leave it at the monsters’ door.” The third, one-eyed, her lips disease-bruised, lifts Mabella onto her shoulders; Mabella’s legs flap against the wingèd’s back, thumping her wings.

“Careful,” the first says.

“It is not heavy,” says the bruised lip one. “Life is not easy for any of us, even this one.”

VIII

Mabella wakes upon a carpet of cold grass in the master’s garden. It is once again day, and all around she hears the bustle of a town for whom the night means nothing more than an opportunity at sleep. They will never feel the wind lift and drag them down. Mabella feels sorry for them, for despite her failure at flight she did the impossible. That is worth the ache that now plagues her body.

She tries to sit up but cannot, so stiff are the muscles inside her. She does not remember how she got here, but when she tries to twitch her wings she finds them missing. She will never fly again. And if she will not fly, will she then return to the master’s house and cook the master’s meals and tend to the master’s stove?

No. She will not be allowed to return for good. But she wears only a thin cloth wrapped around her chest. She lies a few hours more, hidden in a corner where few deign to walk, and when she feels as though the walking will not kill her she stands and limps through the maze of flowers. The few others who meander through the garden turn away upon spotting her. There are reasons for naked women to wander in the master’s garden, reasons no one cares to address.

At the master’s back door she begs to be let in to collect her things. “Be quiet and quick,” says the cook.

The others smirk when they see her. “Come on in,” one says. “Your room is exactly as you left it.”

As Mabella rushes down the dark hallway, they do not hide their laughter. She reddens from the looking, though she tells herself she will not be shamed. She is Mabella, the wingèd, the only wingèd of her kind. It is not until she opens the door that she knows the true reason for their laughter.

The once-wingèd woman stands before her, her torso half-covered with Mabella’s favorite dressing gown.

“Who are you?” says the woman.

“That’s my gown,” says Mabella, moving toward her. Hot roils in her belly like a stew she did not let cool. There are no more berries in her blood. This is all there is, this shaking and burning.

“This is my gown,” says the woman, backing toward the wall. In a mirror hung there her back bears two ragged scars where her wings were. Otherwise she appears the same as she did by the river and in the master’s bed, only now she is dressed in Mabella’s clothes.

“Give it back,” Mabella says. “You have everything else. Just give me the gown.”

“The gown is mine,” says the woman. “The master says my mother gave it to me the day she left me here.”

“That isn’t true. He’s lied to you. You’re one of the wingèd, don’t you remember? You came from the woods.”

“No. See, I have no wings. Leave me alone, please. This is my gown, and my room. It’s all I have. Please go.”

Almost everything in the room is as Mabella left it. All that is different is the woman, and the basket filled with blue fruit on the nightstand.

“He loves me,” says the woman.

“He doesn’t,” Mabella says. The woman sounds so pathetic it makes Mabella sick to her stomach. “You’re not me,” she says.

“I’m Mabella,” says the woman. “Please. I don’t remember before. This is all I have.”

“You’re not me!” Then Mabella is upon the woman, her hands around her neck, choking her until she falls shaking to the floor. Mabella bends to check her pulse but cannot bring herself to touch the woman’s neck again. Instead she slips the gown from her head and takes the basket with her when she goes.

IX

They find her. Of course they find her; she does not try to hide. She walks out of the house and along the path to the market until the guards wrap her hands and drag her to the stone prison box in which she will spend the rest of her days.

Mabella likes to rest her hands against the cold stone, likes to stroke its rough surface. She inspects the cracks and crevices and revels in the stone’s imperfection; it is of the earth, this stone, and it smells of raw dirt when she lies across it at night.

Often the prison is loud with the sounds of unwieldy prisoners calling out for freedom or death or sex. Often the guards rap against the doors until all is a dull roar in her ears. But every now and then Mabella wins a rare moment of dark silence, and it is then that she can hear the wingèd singing through the iron slats of her lonely window.

She understands them, now. They are not so different from her. She too does not trust what she does not know; she will not eat the slop that the guards bring her but devours the more familiar breads, the potatoes, even the blueberry mush brought special for her, from a visitor who never reveals himself. If she closes her eyes, she sees the stars so close that she can touch them if she reaches out her hand. This she does not do. They are best from far away.

X

Every night in her room in the master’s house, the once-wingèd woman who calls herself Mabella listens to the songs of the wingèd women as they soar through the smoky evening air. Each time she hears them, the scarred tissue at her back throbs. It is difficult to sleep with their incessant noise, and the nightmares, and her inability, since the strange ugly woman bruised her throat beyond repair, to sing back at them. Once her voice was beautiful; of this she feels certain. No matter, now. There is work for the morning, and no time for singing and dreaming of stars.


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Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam's fiction and poetry has appeared in over fifty magazines and anthologies both literary and speculative including Clarkesworld, The Toast, Lightspeed, and numerous times in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She recently released an audio fiction-jazz collaborative album, Strange Monsters, with her partner Peter Brewer, centered around the theme of women's voices. She's been reprinted in French and Polish, for numerous podcasts, and on io9. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from University of Southern Maine's Stonecoast Program and created and curates the annual Art & Words Collaborative Show in Fort Worth, Texas. She is active on Twitter @BonnieJoStuffle and on her website www.bonniejostufflebeam.com.

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“The Girl with Golden Hair” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam
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8 Comments on “A Careful Fire”

8 Responses to “A Careful Fire”

  1. Cory Skerry says:

    This is fantastic. I best love that the reason the winged women found Mabella ugly in the first place is because they suspected all humans would be willing to mutilate them, and she only found this out by proving them right.

  2. […] short story “A Careful Fire” appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies in October […]

  3. I love the circular nature of this story and how I’m left with the feeling it will repeat. I also like how the mutilated winged don’t “throw her to the monsters” but leave the choice up to her.

  4. […] “A Careful Fire” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam They turned their backs to Mabella. Her stomach twisted as it did when she pilfered too many sweets from the kitchens. She wanted to say something and nothing. She wanted to run, but her feet throbbed. Instead she turned and walked from the winged women’s cackling silence. […]

  5. […] publish POC regularly, as well as queer, trans and non-binary writers. I’ve recently enjoyed ‘A Careful Fire’ by Bonnie Jo […]

  6. […] during her graduation residency. Bonnie’s stories “Sleeping with Spirits” and “A Careful Fire” are now both online for free reading. Her stories “Husband Wife Lover” and “The […]

  7. […] longlist for the British Science Fiction Association Awards; another Beneath Ceaseless Skies story, “A Careful Fire,” is on the SFWA Recommended Reading List. My humorous sex ghost story “Sleeping with […]

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