Winecask Bellies and Owl Wings

Issue #50

The king of the city gave me a ruby one night. He left it on my pillow, in the hollow he’d made as his head arched back in ecstasy. A perfectly smooth ruby the size of a duck egg.

What would I do with it? I rolled it in my palm, let it ride over the ridges of my fingers. It wanted to move, to travel. I peered into the bloodlight in its round belly. It wanted to see, to illuminate.

So I made a horse. I made bones of iron and a mane of silk. Tendons of rubber from the king’s caravans. I gave it a belly made from a wine vat. Around this I wrapped a skin of black and brown velvet—brindled bars such as no horse had, but that would make a cage to contain its life. And in the right-hand socket in its silken face, I placed the ruby.

I would ride this horse to freedom, away from my prison to the wastes where I’d fly with my sisters on owl wings.

The horse sprang to life. It shook its head and tossed its mane. It snuffled as I gave it grapes to eat. My horse would eat the flesh of ancient gods, not the chaff of the field.

But then my horse whinnied in fear. She turned in circles, unable to see her left side. So frantic did she become that I had to still her with a gesture, and take the life of her ruby eye from her.

When the king came to me again, eager for the joys in my silken lair, I thanked him for his gift and demanded another exactly like it. I refused to touch him until he swore, on his own blood spilled on my limestone tiles, that he would find me a ruby as clear and as large and as smooth as the first.

Three seasons passed, and I did not see the king. But when the first snows fell and were rapidly melted away, he came to me with head bowed and hands bare.

“I have found such a ruby as you desire,” he said. “But it lies in the castle of my neighbor. I haven’t the coin to buy it, and my people, my lands, couldn’t handle a war. By your magic, my love, can you steal it away?”

I took him to my bed that night, in gratitude for his heartfelt attempt, but also because the magic that bound me required it.

Midnight came, and wind tore through the cave as I washed my silken face and hung it to dry. Storms whipped the land as I cleaned the stiffness of pleasuring a king from the long pale gloves of my hands. He slept in my bed, sweet and ignorant.

Dawn stretched its fingers into my cave and brushed the throat of the sleeping king. Light touched black runes on his skin, runes he couldn’t read but wore because his father had, and his father before that. Runes that burned me and bound me.

“Bring me a child,” I told him as he stirred awake and smiled sleepily at me. “One of your own blood, still a babe unspeaking. Then I shall have my ruby, and you shall have my eternal love.”

I watched him ride away down the scrubby wilderness path, the plume of dust rising in their wake a golden beacon in the dawn. Between scattered boulders, the daisies nodded in the breeze—my cheery jailers. Little grew out here but them, and they grew in any season, through drought and flood. The morning star gleamed, and swallows swooped over the land, gulping insects shaken loose by the king. I used to fly as free as they, unbound by the stones of this cave.

Three hundred years past, a now long-gone sorcerer-king lured me to this cave with the promise of his daughter’s soul. She was a mother like myself, and I knew that devouring her would make me weep but would satiate me for weeks. But when I arrived, she held me off with stories of her children. Though I knew I would hear her tales echoing in my heart when her soul was in my belly, the passion in her eyes, the clasping of her hands, the scratches on her wrist from her daughter’s kitten—these would all be lost. So I enjoyed them while her father poured a ring of holy oil around the hill.

Daisies grew along the line that bound me. The final tale the daughter told me before I devoured her was of her toddling son stalking grasshoppers through daisies. I would take him, I thought, when next I hungered. But I was imprisoned before I could, and now the daisies watched me with eyes as dark as his mother’s.

Years passed, and generations. The sorcerer-king taught his son, who taught his son, and they all came to torment me and use me. But the arts and knowledge were lost. A king overthrown, a nephew crowned, ignorance reigned but the runes were worn, because after all, is that not what a king wore? They never knew the true purpose was to guard a soul against my hunger and bind me to their command.

And so I was raped by ignorance.

But my horse, my magic horse.... Made with the love of my captor, I could ride it past the daisies and be free once more.

The baby he brought me was his daughter, his very own daughter, birthed by his lesser wife on the night of a tawny moon. I nursed her on the breeze from my teats and teethed her on locusts. I plucked out her hair and replaced it with willow. I peeled off her skin and replaced it with the surface of a sun-reflecting pond. I gave her an eagle’s eye and a bat’s ear. I showed her how to ride the wind and I named her for the long lost princess who lured me to my doom.

From me, she learned astronomy and numbers and reading and other things no man would have her know. I taught her to bake bread and butcher deer. I taught her seduction, and told her to trust no man, for men would only chain her.

And when she grew to an age when her womanhood budded, when she knew it was a treasure but had yet to find it, I sent her away. She rode the wind into the city and learned the ways of mankind. The king told me she bought a pig in the foreign market and slaughtered it herself in the palace courtyard. They feared my foster daughter, my beloved foster daughter.

But the king loved her as he loved me. Every week now, he came to me, longing for my embrace. Soon, he came every day. Outside, his men grumbled as they camped by the daisy line. He came to me when he should be minding his lands, they said. He spoiled his daughter, his unholy witchy child, when he should be training his son for kinghood. The runes, they said, it was the runes that ruined a once noble family. They needed a king who would not carry the marks of sorcery so boldly.

Oh, how their anger pleased me.

Any day, my child would fly to the neighboring land to steal the ruby. The city would overthrow their worthless king and enthrone one without runes to guard him. I would leap the daisies and burn the city.

My revenge, my daughter, bring me my revenge.

When she came to me, she was a woman—a mother, she said.

“I went to the city of the ruby king,” she said. “I rode the wind through palace windows and bound the guards with my willow hair. With just a kiss, the youngest guard opened the treasury, and we explored the riches together.”

And she held forth the stone, the twin of my horse’s eye. A golden eagle claw clasped it on the hilt of an iron knife. She pulled it from the silken folds of her robe, which she bared to show the black runes inscribed in the water-smooth skin around her heart.

“I love my father,” she said. “And I love my daughter, and I love the sweet innocent guard who gave me that daughter and who died because of my seduction. As I fled the city, they threw him from the walls, and I saw the blood flowing from his blinded eyes. It stains the sand even now.”

“But you’re free,” I said, “without the will of man chaining your heart. And your daughter will be free, and we will all fly with the wind in the wastelands.”

She brandished the knife in the style that I had taught her. “But you do not love! Who will I love in the wasteland? I love my city, and I love the mothers whose children your sisters devour.”

“Every child I take, I love,” I said. “As I love you, more than anything.” My heart, my breaking heart straining against its chains. Would that I could curse all men for turning my daughter against me.

I tore off my face to blast her with wind. The skin of my lifeless horse blew away; the bones twisted aside. My daughter staggered back, but her willow hair bent, and her water skin rippled and carried its own malleable power. She rode my wind in the vortex of the cave, looping back upon me to drive the knife into my broken heart. She shattered the chains, and rent my skin.

Now, I rage over the cities. I see my daughter nursing her fleshbound child in the house of an unfallen king. The city calls her a whore, but she loves too much, and she does not care.

And I blow and I rage.

I touch the blood-stained sand around a city’s walls and curse the hearts of men. Yet I am but a storm, and my rage will pass by. My silken skin is gone, no flesh can hold me. I hunger and I hunger, but no babe will fill my belly. My sisters fly on their owl wings and weep for me. My envy rains upon them and they hide from me in olive trees. For I am but the wind, the wind that flies through shattered hearts.


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Liz Coleman lives in the Pacific Northwest and works at a printing press, surrounded by wooden cases of dusty metal type. "Winecask Bellies and Owl Wings" is her first publication.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“The Alchemist's Feather” by Erin Cashier
“Gizzard Stones” by Garth Upshaw

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Comments & Scrivenings
4 Comments on “Winecask Bellies and Owl Wings”

4 Responses to “Winecask Bellies and Owl Wings”

  1. Merc says:

    08-26-2010, 08:29 PM
    Merc

    This was a gorgeous story! I loved the style and imagery and the intriguing world. Thanks for the great read, Liz–I hope to see many more stories by you in the future. :)

  2. mbrennan says:

    08-27-2010, 04:53 PM
    mbrennan

    Very elegant, and I liked the way the unsympathetic nature of the narrator was gradually revealed.

  3. Guest says:

    09-03-2010, 08:03 AM
    Guest

    Very poetic, but just the right length for very poetic. I like when characters build “things” out of “things” and wind up with an unexpected “thing” so I was a little disappointed that the horse was left incomplete. Perhaps the granddaughter will find the red ruby some day…

  4. steffenwolf says:

    01-14-2011, 09:51 AM
    steffenwolf

    Beautifully written, and lots of very cool imagery, but I had trouble really caring what happened to any of the characters. I, too, wish the horse had been finished, I wanted to see what the result would be.

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