Cold Iron and Green Vines

Issue #69

I crumbled to my knees on the front steps of the church as the hinkypunks closed in on Danny O’Neil. In the twilight of the village square, their bodies were like whirling balls of smoke and light, each one’s single foot hopping almost too quickly for me to see. They had brought the smell of the bog with them, thick as sludge and duckweed.

I clung to the wrought iron railing balled tight in my fist, but my fingertips had gone numb a long time ago. Not that the iron was much proof against enchantment. I could hear the jangle of Danny’s anklet as he whirled in time to the bog spirits’ dance, testimony that iron could bend magic but nothing could break it.

But magic can be bound, something whispered inside me. I thought of vines creeping across a stretch of mud, piecing together bits of land in the slime-slick marsh. For an instant, I thought I might be able to do it,might be able to reach into the hidden depths of myself and call upon my own green magic. I could almost touch its warm glow. But something inside me flinched away.

Then Danny O’Neil’s anklet jingled in the darkness beyond the village square, following the balls of light toward the bog. I couldn’t pull myself free of the cold iron railing to run after him.

My mother wouldn’t have been afraid.

Behind me, the church door groaned and lamplight spilled out onto the stairs. “Miss Yaricka, I’ve been worried sick.” Father Doogan’s wheels creaked over the flagstones as he rolled toward me. His joint-oil smelled strong as he leaned down to pat me with a dry wicker hand. “Come inside, dear.”

“But Danny O’Neil-” I shook my head and tears flew off my cheeks like tiny guilty birds.

Father Doogan leaned out over the railing, his inner steamworks chuffing as he caught a sound in the distance. “Oh dear.”

Somewhere out in the darkness, something splashed. I choked off a sob.

“Oh, child, don’t cry.” His voice trembled. “This is my fault. I didn’t send for the sooleybooley men soon enough. There are so many parishioners ready to pass on to a wicker body; it’s just too bad the mountain passes closed so early this year.”

“I could have helped him. I should have helped him.”

“And when you’re ready, you will. When you’re older. Now you should come inside and have some dinner.”

I wiped my cheek on my shoulder. “Father Doogan?”

“Yes, child?”

“I’m frozen to the stair rail.”

He gave his chest plate a sharp rap to open it and leaned over my pale frost-twined fingers. “Oh, Yaricka, you do miss your mother.”

His steamworks glowed berry-red inside him and heat roared out on my hands. It wouldn’t be so bad to take a wicker body. They must never feel cold. I thought of my mother, facing the cold Wild winds out by the ward-walls.

“I do, Father.” I might have cried a little, but any tears dried in the heat of his steam engine. “She would have reminded me to wear my gloves.”

A crowd packed the village square the next morning, wicker grandfathers and grannies creaking and steaming in the chill air and children organizing games around the winter-stilled fountain. The younger women, still able-bodied and clinking with stacked iron anklets, made little knots of chit-chat, their babies clinging like burrs to the bottoms of their skirts. The Council of Elders was meeting in the church to discuss Danny O’Neil’s disappearance.

I didn’t know where to stand. Fourteen was too old to play in the dry fountain and not old enough to talk about babies. I belonged in the church. After all, it was my home now. I nudged a russet-colored leaf with my boot toe and scowled at its crunch.

“You look like you could use a second breakfast.”

I spun toward the rough voice. “Mother Hawthorne!”

Mother Hawthorne offered me a muffin, brown and spicy enough to prick my nose. I sniffed it long and deep before biting into it. It smelled just like my mother’s best muffin recipe, and it was still hot. “Thanks,” I mumbled, mouth full.

She settled against the nearest tree trunk, studying the closed church doors on the other side of the square. “Are you ready to go into the bog this morning? I imagine they’ll cancel lessons.”

“You really think so?”

She rubbed her knee, making a face. There was no one else living in Oakridge who’d kept their own body as long as Mother Hawthorne. Her ankles were huge with iron anklets and charms. “I’m sure of it. Iron’s too valuable to let it sink to the bottom of the bog. And with the enchantstorms hitting the mountains so early, spring thaw is bound to be bad. We’ll need every ounce of iron we got.”

I took an extra big bite of muffin. I didn’t want to talk about spring.

Mother Hawthorne mused on. “You’ll want to find another anklet yourself. You’re getting of an age to worry about hinkypunks. Myself, I could use another anklet—but I’m not eager to find Danny’s.”

The thought of finding Danny O’Neil’s cold white leg somewhere in the mud and trying to work the anklet off it made the muffin lose its flavor in my mouth. “Me neither,” I whispered.

She found another muffin in her pocket and bit into it. She had one gold tooth, bright as trouble. I wondered if Angus Cooper had cast it for her on his anvil, or if she’d had it made on one of her travels. But most people outside of Oakridge didn’t bother replacing teeth; they all went wicker-and-cogwork as young as they could.

She caught me staring. “You got a question?”
I didn’t want to ask, but I had to know. “Why do you still have your own body?”

She looked at me hard. “You ever touch a piece of velvet before?” She didn’t wait for me to nod. “You think those wicker-men can feel velvet with those fake fingers of theirs? You like the idea of being stuck to the pavement the rest of your life ‘cause your feet won’t roll anyplace with rocks or mud?” She shook her head. “I’d rather risk the bog than give up living a real life, no matter what the sooleybooley men tell you.”

The church doors sprang open and the Council of Elders came out, most of them creaking in steam-powered steel-and-rattan bodies. The whole village jangled and creaked as it hurried toward them.

Mother Hawthorne patted my shoulder. “I’m going out to the bog. I’ve got traps to tend. And at my age any head start I can get is a good one. If I find Danny’s anklet, I’ll save it for you.”

I didn’t follow her. After last night, I knew I needed to go out to the oak grove before I did anything else.

I cut north up Main Street, the houses and shops all silent with their folks gathered in the village square. I wanted to hurry, though. I didn’t want to hold up my trip to the bog too long—soon it would be full of people working and whistling, their faces friendly but their eyes probing my back. Ever since Father Doogan took me in, people had been watching for signs that I had my mother’s powers. I rubbed my hands together and stuffed them in my pants’ pockets. They still felt cold this morning.

And I really didn’t want to look at Angus Cooper’s smithy as I passed. I knew the ward signs around the entrance were faded and scuffed. They’d need to be refreshed before spring thaw, and it would probably be better to paint them before the snows began to fall. More of the work my mother had left for me.

But the orange flames of Angus’s forge called my eyes. My feet stopped moving and I was looking straight at the huge hearth, Angus and his apprentice adjusting the bellows in the ruddy light. The half-finished tattoo on Angus’s back, the bare outlines of ward sigils, stood out like a garden plot left unplanted.

The green magic inside me roiled.

Clutching my belly, I broke into a run. I couldn’t stand the sight of those uncolored ward sigils, no protection at all. The thought of Angus Cooper facing spring thaw with that half-made mess of magic on his skin hurt as bad as the energies twitching loose in my body. It drove my legs faster, faster, blurring the houses as I reached the end of our town.

The magic settled itself a little and I slowed to a walk. Here at the edge of warded civilization, the houses clumped more tightly, backs to the ward-walls, shrinking side-yards squeezing the gardens forward until the kale lapped over the street’s cobblestones. This close to the Wild, winter’s storms battered these cottages with waves of glamour that the outer ward-walls only weakened. It took a lot of iron to keep people inside safe on those nights.

Already the wind felt stiffer. It tugged at my hair where my hat and collar didn’t meet, and its touch on my neck burned. Tomorrow might only be Yule, but the air smelled like midwinter. I passed the last of the cottages, and I was alone with only my goosebumps.

Ahead of me, the oak grove moved in the wind. The trees butted right up to the great brick and iron walls that held back the Wild.

My footsteps slowed. I hadn’t come out here since last Yule, when I helped mother repaint the sigils on the ward-walls. She hadn’t been herself when we’d cut through the oak grove. Her eyes glowed chartreuse and her hair stood on end. I hadn’t understood that it meant she’d been called. That the last and greatest of the green-binder’s power was growing inside her. I just knew it was Yule and it was time to paint the ward-walls and bake spiced muffins.

My shoulders shook as I reached the smallest of the guardian oaks, but I blinked away my tears. Mama always hated it when I cried.

I set my fingers against the gray bark, finer and smoother than the other oaks. This tree was young, its body slim and supple. It would be years before its limbs stretched out over the top of the wall, branches softening the cruel north winds as they carried their load of enchantment. The older trees groaned as the wind rubbed their great branches together, and green power flickered along their twigs.

“I miss you, Mama,” I breathed. I pressed my cheek against the trunk. “And I’m changing. I don’t know what to do.”

The tree’s leaves rustled over my head, almost like words.

“I don’t know how to be a green-binder. I didn’t think I had the magic inside me, and now that I do, I don’t know how to get it out. Danny O’Neil’s dead because of it.”

Outside the ward-walls something nameless sang in a thin falsetto that made the hair rise on my neck. The old oak trees grumbled as the wind sawed at their branches. And the young oak said nothing. I hugged it tight.

After that, there was no place to go except back through the village to the bog. There were lots of folks out today, fishing and harvesting bog-berries, the last press of outdoor work before the snows fell. Oakridge went quiet in the winter. It was safer to stay inside with the iron bolt slammed home.

A fisherman waved at me, and Gina Wells offered me a handful of bog-berries from her collecting basket. When she smiled, she showed rust-stained teeth. An iron-eater. Some said it helped, but I couldn’t imagine what it must taste like. Like a mouth full of blood, or fear. There was enough to be scared of without tasting it all the time.

I walked on. Further out, boys probed black pools with sticks, looking for Danny O’Neil and his iron anklet. I waved at a couple but kept walking. I didn’t want to find Danny, and I had someplace I needed to go.

I passed the last of the white sticks that marked dry ground and followed memory deeper into the swamp. The birds gabbled to themselves, unconcerned by my presence. On either side, pools bubbled and hummed with gases and creatures, but ahead were solid hummocks of marsh grass. Anyone else would have carried a stick to test the ground, but I knew the right places to put my feet. All of the marsh was outlined inside me, down in that strange green power I wasn’t sure how to tap.

Then I came to my plank bridge, algae-slick but still strong. A deep pool separated my little island from the rest of the marsh, and as I crossed over to the rocky nubbin, I felt a weight leave me, like taking off my iron anklet before a bath. I sank onto the ground and looked up at the cap of willow branches. The scent of mud hung over everything.

I closed my eyes and breathed it in. When newcomers arrived in Oakridge, they complained about the mud smell, but to me, it was the smell of home. Even after soaking in the tub, I could still smell the sludge-scent on my skin. It reminded me of growing things and birdsong and frogs calling in the night.

I focused my mind on the growing things.

Things were always growing in the bog. Only winter could slow the encroachment of tree roots and vines and duckweed and algae, and this far from the mountains, winter only lasted two cold months. I could feel the willows’ awareness of the cooling days, their crankiness snaking through the thin soil along the threads of their roots.

The sound of leaves on leaves called my mind away from the willows and out to the vines, which were always impatient for attention. “I’m listening,” I murmured. And they sprang up, straining their tendrils to my fingers, twisting around my wrists, rubbing against my skin. They had a lot to say. The hinkypunks had kept them up all night, singing and dancing. The crows had fed this morning, and their shit stung the newest leaves. Darkness was coming too early.

I still had the scar on my wrist from my first trip to the island. I’d been so scared, and I’d struggled so hard. Now I understood that the vines hadn’t meant to frighten me. They were just so excited by the green inside me they had to reach out to me. But their juices had caused an infection. The mark was ugly and puckered and I kept it covered with long sleeves or a bracelet. I wasn’t ready for anyone to ask about it.

I sat up slowly enough to let the vines slip loose of my arms and pile themselves across my toes. They were sensitive plants, quick to pick up on moods and reach out to those needing care. Like duckweed, they were the explorers of the bog, the first plants to cross any dry surface, and the most eager for spring thaw.

When spring thaw came, the bog was renewed. After the long months of enchantstorms loaded with glamour-dust, spring run-off sent streams of wild magic flooding into the marshland. The bog’s boundless growth fed on sunlight and water, but it was magic that stirred it into the frenzied bounty Oakridge depended upon. Bog-berries couldn’t grow without the power of enchantment. Marsh sharks wouldn’t breed without the stirrings of glamour.

And of course, there were no hinkypunks without magic.

I worked my lip between my teeth. There was balance in the bog that I was just beginning to understand. My mother had understood it; Mother Hawthorne too, though she had no more magical power than one of her spiced muffins. Maybe being a green-binder was as much a matter of paying attention as it was painting ward-signs and speaking to plants.

I rubbed my eyes, still dry after crying in the oak grove. The vines rubbed against my ankles. “I could have saved Danny O’Neil.”

The vines withdrew from my feet. But when I stood up, I saw a fine iron chain half-buried in the leaves, warm from pressing against my backside. The clasp was twisted and rusty.

I ran all the way back to the village, my feet slipping from the path and skidding on the slime. If I’d been anyone else, the black pools would have claimed me. But I could feel weeds and lilies pushing me back onto the path, and the trees bent their boughs close as if offering steadying hands.

Through the village square, past the smithy; it didn’t matter who stared. My hair tumbled loose of my cap and half-blinded me, the strands twisting like young vines. I skidded into the oak grove, Danny O’Neil’s eight ounces of cold iron closed tight in my fingers.

“Why?” I panted. “What does it mean? What happened to Danny?”

The trees did not even groan.

I knelt beside the thin, young oak. “Why did you have to become a tree, Mama? I can’t ask you anything.”

I shut my eyes and tried to imagine how any of it happened. How Danny O’Neal had let his anklet get rusty and worn out. How the sooleybooley men trapped a man’s soul inside a rattan shell. How my mother had gone out to the oak grove and drawn a cover of earth over her body, stretching it up into the shape of a sapling.

I opened my eyes, and my hands were glowing. I stared at them, hardly breathing as tracings of cool fire and green swamp-slime moved beneath my skin. The trees around me lit up with the same phosphorescence. Green ball lightning rolled from branch to branch.

Something brighter and whiter than the fire inside my skin glowed against the dead leaves. I just stared at it. An acorn made of light.

Go on, something inside me urged, something like the voice of the vines and the willows. I hesitated. Once I picked it up, there would be no turning back. I’d be able to control the magic inside me, but some day, it would call me here to stay.

I glanced up at the oak sapling and wished it would say something. But of all the plants and creatures whispering inside me, only the oak trees were silent. They just watched me, glowing.

My fingers shook as I stretched them toward the acorn.

I squeezed it and a crack darkened its surface, a crack that spread until the hard shell split in two pieces and the brilliant nut sat in my palm. Its light thrummed to same rhythm as the pulse in my veins, a tempo matched by the throbbing light in the trees and the vibrations I could feel in the earth beneath me.

Beside me, the oak sapling began to radiate a strange warmth. I thought of Father Doogan’s steamworks glowing red in the night air, but this warmth was kinder. It could never burn me or dry my knuckles. It was the tender heat of a compost pile, warm enough to steam on a fall morning but never scorching. It was like my mother’s arms around me in the middle of the night, easing me out of a bad dream.

The warmth seeped into me, pushing out the cold that had settled during the night as I crouched on the church steps. My heart fluttered and then slowed. There was no reason to cling to cold iron any longer.

I popped the acorn into my mouth. Its living heat burned all the way down my throat, until it settled in a tiny lump someplace beneath my breastbone.

The glowing beneath my skin and in the trees faded. I sagged against the young oak’s trunk, suddenly tired, but smiling. “Tomorrow’s Yule, Mama. I’ll have to help at the bonfire. And it’s cold enough, it might just snow.”

A twig fell down from above and landed in my lap. I picked it up and studied the whorls of lichen. Its bark was rough against my skin, a wordless reminder to wear gloves.

Sunset stained the sky when I finally finished painting Angus Cooper’s smithy. I was stiff and sweating as I washed my brushes in water from his pump and scrubbed the soot off my face.

“You better hurry, Miss Yaricka,” Angus reminded me. “Bonfire should start any minute.”

I jammed the brushes in my pocket and grabbed my jacket. “I’ll be there as soon as I can. Don’t let them start without me!” My feet skidded on the flagstones in front of his door.

“Wait.” His stack of anklets clattered as he hurried to catch up to me. “You forgot this.” He folded Danny’s anklet, clasp repaired, in my hand. “You really going to come back and finish my tattoo?”

The anklet was still warm from the forge. “Would your green-binder lie?”

He was still grinning as I turned to run back to the cottage. I’d readied my supplies for the bonfire this morning, although it had felt strange at first to work inside the house where I’d been born. I hadn’t set foot inside it since my mother had tacked a note on the front door and walked up to the oak grove.

I snatched a knapsack and joined the stream of people headed for the village square. We all hurried. No one wanted to be late for the Yule celebration.

Father Doogan stood beside the fountain, the fine fibers of his face stained purple by the dying light. Despite the cold weather, someone had turned on the water in the fountain for the night. It eased the minds of the wicker-skinned. Their bodies might be mostly steel cogs and copper piping, but their rattan skins were still flammable.

Father Doogan raised a torch above his head. “Let us celebrate the season of Yule!”

He laid the torch against a lump of pitch on the top of the wood pile. Fire sprang to life with a crackle. People cheered.

Then I stepped forward.

The cheers faded.

It wasn’t easy to drag my big knapsack up to the fire’s edge, but I did, and when I stood beside it, I felt every eye fixed upon me. I knew they were taking my measure. Probing me for weaknesses. They did it the way my mother had probed the wards on the ancient walls or the way a berry-picker tested every step she took out in the bog. I swallowed, and my mouth tasted of iron.

But just for a second. The heat in my breastbone told me I was ready.

“Every winter we stay inside our houses and keep our doors bolted. It’s a reminder of what life is like beyond our walls. It’s a reminder of how lucky we are to live in the bog.”

I opened my pack and removed one of the branches I’d collected in the oak grove. I held it before me and willed it to give off a little of that green gleaming I’d seen in the wood yesterday. People gasped. It was the sign of a green-binder, calling cold light from wood.

I tossed the branch onto the wood pile and watched fire finger its edges. Beneath the packed soil of the village square, tree roots were trembling with excitement. In the darkness, I could feel the hinkypunks, listening hard beyond the last path markers.

“Tomorrow is the first day of winter. Tonight is Yule. It’s a night for giving gifts and sharing blessings. So here is my gift. Merry Yule, everyone!”

The oak branch caught fire. I threw the other branches and twigs in too, even the twig my mother had dropped on my lap. They were all the gifts of the green-binders, the ones who’d given up their flesh-bodies to take their places as guardians. Their shed limbs sent up sparks of red, white and lichen-green.

In the back of the square someone began to sing in a clear soprano voice, and Father Doogan’s baritone joined in, then another voice and another. The old harmonies joined and rose with the sparks. All around me, people swayed and sang, and the feeling of Yuletide sank into my bones.

Then the pale lights filed out of the bog’s darkness, their voices joining in descant. Tonight the hinkypunks did not dance. They carried too many gifts to leap and dive. On their shoulders they bore baskets heaped with wild rice and bog-berries, platters stacked with fish and eels. They circled the villagers with slow, tentative hops.

Then Evelyn O’Neil held out her arms, and a hinkypunk approached her, its light brightening with every tentative jump. She lowered her face into its cloud of silver smoke and light, and her eyes were bright with tears of love.

My own eyes filled with a different kind of tears. “Happy Yuletide, Danny,” I whispered. I hadn’t known how to save him, but I could call up his spirit from its new home in the marsh.

Other families accepted gifts from their bog-lost, stirring their lights with wondering fingers, crying into bundles of sweet marsh-grass, exchanging sprigs of mistletoe. The hinkypunks’ pile of offerings grew beside the fire, and Father Doogan began organizing men into carrying brigades. It would all go into the church to share, the same as last year and all the other years the green-binders had welcomed the hinkypunks.

That was how the balance was built, I realized. Spirits and green-binders and ordinary men and women, strung along a beam of magic, wound tight by duckweed and windstorms. It was iron that threw things out of alignment. The sooleybooley men had only worsened things when they gave us steam-powered bodies that magic couldn’t touch. I’d have my work cut out for me, trying to balance out their iron’s cold stillness with my green vines.

Mother Hawthorne came beside me and put her arm around my shoulders. She smelled of peat smoke and willow leaves. Like the bog.

I kissed her wrinkled cheek. “I have a Yule present for you.” I held out the anklet.

In the light of the fire I saw her smile. “You don’t need it, do you?”

I shook my head. I wasn’t afraid of enchantment any longer. I could dance with the hinkypunks all night and never lose my way in the swamp, not with the green magic lodged inside my ribs. That was a gift I had to give myself.

Angus Cooper brought out his fiddle and struck up a jig, and Evelyn O’Neil was the first to start dancing. The marsh spirits and villagers—both the flesh-bodied and wicker—clapped their hands and whirled and dove. Tomorrow, I knew, it would snow.

But tonight, the flames and the dancing made the village square as warm as a midsummer’s evening. I threw off my jacket and began to dance.


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Wendy N. Wagner grew up between a swamp and a cemetery, coloring her viewpoint forever. Her short fiction and poetry has appeared in Abyss & Apex, Crossed Genres, and the anthologies The Way of the Wizard and Rigor Amortis. She is also the Assistant Editor of Fantasy Magazine. She makes her home in Portland, Oregon, and blogs about words, food, and all things creepy at http://operabuffo.blogspot.com.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“Gizzard Stones” by Garth Upshaw
“More Full of Weeping Than You Can Understand” by Rosamund Hodge

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Comments & Scrivenings
2 Comments on “Cold Iron and Green Vines”

2 Responses to “Cold Iron and Green Vines”

  1. 7Syllable says:

    06-01-2011, 12:40 AM
    7Syllable

    I really enjoyed this piece. The simplicity of a tale about someone just embracing their path in life. It sounds like an interesting world that I wouldn’t mind visiting again.

  2. categardner says:

    06-14-2011, 03:02 AM
    categardner

    I loved this coming of age story, Wendy. Some gorgeous imagery.

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