A pause only Winnifletch herself notices, a twinge in her guts as she unsacks the gull that Gert Mews has lugged to her sea-spindle shack. Dazed but not dead, the bird crawks down onto her workbench. Think of shearwater honey, Winni tells herself, with predictions truer than gold. She grabs its fat fluttersome breast. Jams it wings-and-all between her vise’s steel jaws. Holds firm. Don’t think of shattered sailors.
Outside, free-gulls keen for their lost fellow, their lament high and lonesome, shearing through dark sheets of morning rain.
“You won’t tell my mam?” By the hut’s traitorous door, Gert gawps at Winnifletch like it’s her own belly set to be crushed. The girl clutches a mickey bottle, empty of dipper and screech. Stormwater drips from her wool collar and hems, lanks her oat-colored braids. On the woodstove a big iron pot’s steaming, pipping and popping a tallow-stink tune. Gert wrinkles her nose, subtly covers her mouth. Thirty-odd noons into what should’ve been a sevenday simmer, the broth is festering, a carbuncle Winnifletch can’t bring herself to lance. It should’ve been a brew to keep body and soul together. To keep her and Shale together.
It should have been.
“I’ve not seen your mam since she was your age, lass. Folk seek me, not t’other way round.” Winni pinches the gull’s snapping beak. “Still, you know the old saw: word wings where it will. Better it’s you doing the saying, and soon, rather than some nosy flap-jaw.”
Sniffling as she warms, Gert scuffs a short path to Winni’s side. Ducks under shell-and-nut garlands, kicks crab traps and half-knotted nets that’re on the floor. Two steps from the hearth, she skirts around a rickety stool where Jinx craw-craws encouragement. Friend and familiar these past ten years, the old crow is a touchstone for Winnifletch, a nattering source of blue-black intelligence.
“This going to hurt?”
For the moment, Winni ignores her. Think of sandpiper cider, its farsights sharp as a mermaid’s harpoon. Casting her mind into chance’s currents, she focuses on the fates and fortunes floating around her. Senses more than smells the brine in their billows. The truths in their tickling breeze. Think of plover milk, its tidings glad as birthday boys bound for the Lundey, rowing to fetch their first harpy wives from its cliffs.
With a mental inhalation, Winni sifts the drift for the right whirl in the air, the right future Gert’s here to imbibe. She draws everything in: these avian vessels, their airborne calls, their salt-spray scent. Magic, not marrow, will soon fill the gull’s delicate bones. Magic to set them all flying.
“Sit, lass.” Without turning, Winnifletch takes Gert’s bottle, slips and clips it below a funnel nailed under the workbench. Gert watches, wary of crow and conjurer both, then lowers herself onto the hearthstones, sighing as the woodstove heats her back. She can’t have more than a year on Winni’s own daughter—seventeen most like, eighteen at a stretch—but already she’s bedded and wedded one of the Stagg b’ys. Already she’s running their kin’s haddock stall down at Barradoon harbour. Already she’s growing some extra girth around the girdle.
But she’s so naïve, this lass. So dependent. You won’t tell my mam? So much younger than Shale, despite her age. You won’t tell? How she snared a husband is no mystery—those pert looks, those pliable legs—but she’s so stupid, clearly. Not believing her fish-smock’s smaller now than it was several weeks ago, before her Stagg lad prowed north on the season’s long trawl. Not trusting the new tune her body is singing, not daring to hear it on her own. Coming down to Winnifletch’s cove instead of talking her troubles out with someone who loves her, asking for spells over her own mamma’s insights. Stupid.
Only two things cause that slow-but-steady swell through a maid’s middle—love and loneliness—and Gert has never wanted for company. Such a simple situation. Such a simple girl.
Although she’s not said as much, not in so many words, Gert must’ve come here to water that bud in her belly. To soak and settle it, once and for all. To drink her fisherman happy.
That old rub.
“Hush now,” Winni says, anticipating Gert’s unasked questions—they always have questions, her many door-darkeners, with their bagged birds and thirsty bottles—questions she can’t and so doesn’t answer.
Will it take long?
Will it go wrong?
Will it work?
Will it fix me?
So many uncertainties.
When is it my turn, Mam, Shale had asked, again and again. Why won’t you help me?
Such scope for mistakes.
Don’t think of silenced songpipes. Winnifletch firms her lips, concentrates. Think of oldsquaw gladwater, its soft fizz a sure balm for sorrows. There, now. Tension trickles from her heart into her hands. There it is: a gull-sized whorl in the ether, swirling just for Gert. With fingers and focus tight, Winni starts spooling it in. A tickle of doubt—Don’t think of Bear, blank, broken—before the flow spins through her and into the struggling bird. Two, three firm twists of the vise’s handle, long screws squeaking. With each turn, the gull’s bones crack. Skin splits as the iron plates clamp together.
This time, Winni thinks, the drift is with her. This time the juice’ll run good.
“A minute and you’ll be on your way,” she promises. And this girl, this pretty, stupid girl, simply trusts her judgment. Trusts her experience. Trusts her.
In so many ways, she’s nothing like Shale.
It’s only this once that Gert Mews asks for Winni’s help. And she hears her out. And she’s here.
Shale’s cleverness, her curiosity, would compensate for their isolation, Winni thought. Between the bottles and jars, the shelves in their shack were stuffed with books—fables and myths, natural histories and tales of adventure, biographies of the greatest mermaids Barradoon had known, tattlers about local harpies and sirens—and before Shale was old enough to fathom what any of it meant, Winnifletch read them all aloud, cover to cover, while she squirmed, while she watched, while she listened.
She’d thought their protected cove, their pebbled beach and their hut, was a world only big enough for them. But after a broken wing dropped Jinx onto their stoop, Winni let their small family grow, just that much and no more. Shale was smitten; the love between girl and crow bound them faster than any of Winni’s spells or splints. Huge on Shale’s lap, the crow abided her small pawings, her splay-fingered strokings, her pickings and pullings at that lustrous ancient black plumage. Jinx sheathed her beak when Shale peered into the bowl of mealworms Winni set out each morning; she waited for her to reach in and squish the fare first. And when Shale spread her wiry arms, burst out their only door to soar over their patch of dune-grass to the coast, Jinx was forever flapping beside her.
“Stay where I can see you,” Winnifletch called as her daughter dwindled. Shale splashed in the shallows, sang at the sun, such a soul-warming sight. “Stay close.”
The crow calls Winnifletch back to the herring gull at hand.
Nectar drips from the carcass, a steady plink-plink-plink of drift-dew. As the phial fills, Winni channels the whirling in her gut, that full-flight feeling, that storm-toss’d and directionless drive, and pushes it into the mix.
The juice runs fast and free.
“There’s your answer,” she says.
“I thought it’d be like steak-drippings,” Gert whispers, standing for a better look. “But it’s hardly red at all. That’s good, right?”
“Not bad,” Winnifletch says, the liquid glowing like her kerosene lamp. Squinting, she holds it up to the window. Nods as wan light sparks off the glass, catching no flotsam or flaw in the brew. Blue-gold or red or netherworld black, as long as it does no hurt, they’ll both be safe. As long as it does no harm.
She screws the cap on tight, all the while rattling off a market-list of do’s and don’ts for the drinking. When she falls silent, Gert slips the bottle under her sealskin, jangles a small leather pouch onto the table, then repeats Winnifletch’s instructions word for word.
“Just so,” Winnifletch says, half-expecting her to mangle phrase and juice both. Mistakes have been known to happen. Spindrift is wild and slippery as seaweed, no more hers to control than the tides. All Winni can do is focus. Catch what she can.
Will it work?
One thing she knows for certain: the tonic will be intense as the heart squeezing it. The dearer the wish, the more dangerous the water.
“Will it fix me?”
I can’t fix what’s not broken, lass, Winni thinks, that old ache seething inside her, that murmuration of regret. There’s nothing wrong with you. Aloud, she mutters reassurances. Platitudes. Time heals all. Good things come. Nothing ventured. Out of habit, she plays to her strengths. Plays it safe. Small birds, small soothings, small sacrifices. No more, no less.
“Fair winds,” she says as Gert lifts her hood and turns for home. Go talk to your mamma. Head bent against the rain, Gert avoids the coast and instead makes for Shale’s track through the dunes. Over and over, her hand returns to the new bulge under her slicker. Patting the proof of magic there.
And if this potion proves wishy-washy? Winni watches the rain sheer down from Gallahorn way, not liking Gert’s chances of beating it to the Mews place. What if all she gets from this trip is a dousing? Well. Lasses always blame themselves first for such failures, don’t they, finding fault with their own minds and bodies when, truth be told, there is none. Most lasses, anyway.
Twice a year, mermaids’ galleons sailed past Winnifletch’s bay. What a vision they made, so many tall ships with black pennants unfurled, bowsprits spearing the horizon. Shield rims glinting above gunwales. Glimpses of women commanding decks and rigging, featureless from this distance, sure of foot and secure in their mission. “Look,” Winnifletch shouted, pointing at the carved vessels, their timbers oiled and gleaming. “It’s just like the stories.”
Shale, small on the seashore, straightened. Shaded her eyes. Looked.
Long before the armada curved out of view, she was stooped once more in a clam-digger stance, scooping a series of holes in the sand. Around her waist, one of Winni’s aprons was folded and rolled, slung like a sailor’s luck-pouch, strings tying the leather into sections. One by one, the ships slipped away behind her. One by one, Shale slipped oval rocks from her makeshift pockets. A kiss and a cuddle for each precious egg, then she carefully laid them, one by one, into the hollows.
“Beautiful, aren’t they?” Winni called.
Cross-legged among her brood of stones, as varied and valuable as a harpy’s own clutch, Shale turned to her mother and smiled. “Just wait ’til they’ve hatched,” she said.
Even as a tot, Shale sang little dirges whenever Winnifletch boiled up the sevenday broths. Every third evening, it seemed, someone or another came a-knocking with problems only a drift-spinner’s juice could salve. The Staggs and Corrigans, the Ridouts and Galloways—reluctant regulars, bringing birds and bottles, taking Winni’s advice, leaving their troubles and good meat behind. Once they’d gone, Shale started up again. It wasn’t just the stench of marrow-melt that brought out the banshee in her, nor the scald of fat sudsing around the cauldron’s lip, but the peeking and poking of beaks in the bubbles, the peeping and popping of tiny eyes.
“My poor sisters, Mither,” Shale would sob, hugging Winni’s plump thigh, begging her to stop this particular cook-craft, ignoring her huffs and don’t call me thats.
“That’s Mamma to you, understood? Not Mither,” Winni corrected, again and again. “I’m no harpy, lass.”
“But I am,” Shale cried, outstretching her skinny, featherless arms. Soft pink mouth pouting, cygnet face. “I am, Mither. You just can’t see it.”
Stop it, Winni wanted to snap, whenever Shale started singing that particular tune. Listen to yourself, she wanted to say, gaze rolling over the rafters. Can’t you hear what you’re saying?
Instead Winni cuddled her close, crooning to drown out the doubts.
You didn’t make me right. I’m broken, Mamma. Fix me.
Now, spooning into her teeming pot the gannet carcass she’d just spun for Jerah Culvert, Winnifletch looks out the shack’s sole window, hands and heart quaking as she stirs, as her mind roams. Across the storm-wreckage churned up on her beach, across riptides and white-crested chop, across the half-dozen miles (as the harpy flies) between her seething fire and all those cold nesting caves gouged into the Lundey’s sheer cliffs. How miserable it must be for harpy lasses out there, she thinks. Stuck in their shells all season, tucked in those awful nooks. Waiting and waiting for someone daring or daft enough to rescue them. To release them. To help them become—
No, Winni had thought, still thinks. Tries not to. Her girl has seawater in her veins, doesn’t she? A spirit shining bright as abalone shell. Shale is no delicate egg-husked creature, part bird and part girl. She’s no prize for horny young bays to claim from Lundey Isle. Her hands aren’t dainty and taloned, their tips polished useless and pretty; they’re mermaid stock, aren’t they? Blunt-built for roughing with spinnakers and stays, for monkeying up to the topgallants, for captaining crow’s nests as she spyglasses wide waters for foes or foreign prizes. No harpy, her!
Especially not with a name like Shale, chosen for the double-prowed ship that had swifted her father in and out of Barradoon. Designed for hit-and-run raids, those longships, much like the fair-haired men who sailed them. Wave-wrangler that he was, he had moored long enough to frisk the chill from Winni’s bed; short enough to avoid the by-blow.
He sure was something, Shale’s da. Once.
Broth spits, scalding Winnifletch back to the fireside. The spoon slips from her grasp, sinks deep under foam and bones. She tongs it out, lays it to cool on the workbench, then dips in for a guillemot’s ulna. Then what looks like a dovekie’s radius. Then four scapula blades, each small as a tern’s. Fused together like so—she sketches an imaginary arc with her eyes, sees the new wing-struts stretching high and strong as a pelican’s—they might work on a bigger frame. They could. Maybe.
No, she thinks again, plinking shards and shafts back into the pot. It’s too dangerous; such fancywork, such personal casting. A mermaid’s life, with its boats and battles, is far better than any Winnifletch could ever stir up. Far safer than any potions she’s pressed.
You could try, Shale used to beg. Please, Mither. Please.
Call me Henny, her daughter had said one day, dumping the dregs from Winni’s brewpots. Call me Soars o’er Stars, she’d said, scrubbing blood from the vise—ancient as the Lundey, that name, a rare harpy title, but not right, not for Winni’s stone-and-sea child.
What’s wrong with Shale?
Call me Starling or Sparrow or Crows-at-the-Sun.
What’s wrong with the beautiful name I chose?
Call me Leda, she’d said, after hearing some horrid story down at the wharf, some foolshood about girls and swans.
You’re missing the point on that one, lass.
No you are, Mither. Flat refusing, from then on, to answer to Shale. Claiming flight and feathers suited her better than sails and ships.
Only flighty part of Winni’s girl was her fancy, she had thought then. Just look at those strong arms, that straight back, the stubborn tilt of Shale’s dimpled chin. Look at those cords of salt-swept hair tumbling over her muscular shoulders, those blonde ropes begging to be twined with shell and silver charms. Put a deck under those tanned feet of hers, a harpoon in one hand and an oar and the other, and she was the perfect image of a sailor. A mermaid through and through. No doubt about it.
Fix me, Mither, said not-Henny, not-Sparrow, not-Leda, again and again. Why won’t you fix me? You conjured me up, a babe borne of moonlight and mud—that was a lie, of course; Winnifletch couldn’t tell Shale the truth, not ever, about her father; not about his sleek ship and his round-the-world ways, not how he’d come here so proud and powerful, nor how he’d left Barradoon an awfully different man—so if your great magics made me, your great magics can save me.
Oh the pleading, then, in not-Starling’s ocean-glass eyes. Help me, Mither. Help me for once, the way you do all of them.
No, Winni had said, once too often, more than a month ago. I love you too much, lass. I can’t—
Risk it, Winnifletch had said, twice. That was the second time, thirty-odd nights ago: right after Shale had stopped listening, grabbed her seal-skin and satchel, and slammed the shack’s only door. The whole damned scene so familiar it ached. Much like the first time, there was Winnifletch gathering her ragged skirts, tripping over droplines and glass floats, jiggerpoles and trout bins in her haste. Choking on tears, chasing her love across the threshold, shouting from the stoop as a trail of footprints stretched away across the sand.
Risk it, she’d decided, sixteen years ago, heart and cleft throbbing from the wave-wrangler’s fervent, oh-so-flattering attentions. Her Bear. What a way he’d had with hands and words! What a feast of friendship he’d offered, filling Winni right up before leaving.
Come back, she’d yelled into the dawn wind, brandishing a newly full bottle, its pure garnet liquid flashing love-steeped promises. Stay and your life will be rich. A hexed swill of temptation her Bear couldn’t ignore. Stay and you’ll know true bliss.
Ignorance, Winnifletch thought now, recalling the wrong twist to Bear’s face as he chugged the red cormorant draught. The empty flask thunking onto his otter-pelt boots, spit dribbling from his suddenly slack lips. The complete lack of interest when she’d cupped and kissed his wan cheeks. Only the click of his sun-whitened lashes blinking, blinking. The breath whistling in and out his dumb mouth. The vibrant, once-impish expression drooping into a dullard’s stare.
Focus, she’d snapped, shaking him senseless there on the strand, focus godsdammit, knowing too late that she should have, when crushing that stupid bird, distilling and decanting its juice just for him; she was the one who’d needed focus!
If only she’d kept her head when spinning that drift, Bear wouldn’t have lost his. If only she’d thought less of their far-traveling future together, more on happiness here at home, he’d have drunk himself into her life for good instead of out of it altogether. If only she’d wrung into that bottle all the love he needed, all the love she could give, instead of thinking of all she could take...
Hindsight, she’d thought, spiriting Bear back to his boat. Weeping over the wreck she’d wrought, the ruin she’d made of that once-lively rover. Too late, she’d thought, setting her lover’s body on the thwarts, wrapping his limp hands around the oars, setting him silently adrift. Lesson and limits learned.
Come back, she’d hollered, sixteen years and a month ago later, as Shale trudged away, over the dunes. Please come back. This time holding nothing but hope that her daughter would hear her, that she’d change her mind and come back. That she’d unfix her fantasies from Lundey Isle and its barnacled nesting caves. That she’d leave their skiff moored where it was, right here in their sheltered cove, where she was no harpy but always Winni’s own little girl. Safe and loved and whole.
Fix me, Mither.
I can’t risk it, Winnifletch had said. The drift’s spin was too erratic, too unpredictable, too turbulent to hitch on Shale’s impossible dreams. It would only smash them like paperbark boats on Gutterson’s Reef, leaving everything—and everyone—broken.
I love you too much, Winni wanted to tell her. So I can’t.
The day Shale left, Winnifletch had started mixing what should’ve been the biggest, most potent sevenday broth she’d ever brewed. Hands and heart adding ingredients on their own, fate finding all the right fixings. Bitters to bind and herbs to heal. Jaegers and phalaropes crushed for harbourmen, grackles and ganders squashed for villagers, songbirds squeezed for smart and silly maids alike. Every last remnant of those folks’ feathered questions she’d wrung out, conserved, and dropped into the draught.
A bold combination, she had imagined, for a bold lass. A stew to snuff doubts, to soothe and to succor, to sew up a split self.
A month later, the batch is more bog than brew but still gurgling, its steam slicking the shack’s soot-stained wall. “Just about ready,” Winni says for the thirty-oddth time, but still the pot’s waterline rises. Still the stew goes unsupped. Another flank of driftwood goes on the fire. Another swirl of the spoon. “It’s only missing one thing.”
Jinx crrrrks atop her shelf. Busy nitting and natting under her wings, she plucks a flurry of black down, offers no further comment. Winni admires the deft dartings of her head. The sleek scrapings of her beak. The blue bristlings of her proud breast. So efficient, so assured in her movements. So secure in her existence.
“What else can I do?” Winni asks, staring into the pot, stirring, stirring. All those brittle bones. All those everyday woes, those trivial worries. All those folks she’s helped, all those times. Try, Mither. Just try. But then there’s forever the one—”I don’t want to hurt her, you know?”—the one she got so horribly wrong.
“If she only understood—”
Jinx’s talons scritch against timber as she edges away to preen in peace.
“If I’d only told her—”
Outside, the tempest takes a breath. In the lull between howls, Winnifletch hears a familiar crunching on the path leading up to her door. The tread is heavy and irregular, a cautious scuffling. Like the tides, it draws close then recedes, rolls forth again only to stumble away. Her pulse two-stepping, Winni raps her long wooden spoon against the pot’s rim. Clears it of sinew and scum. Holds her breath. The spoon raps again, its stem and scoop already clean, and again. Eyes down, she watches the grain fade as it dries. She won’t peer through the window. She won’t turn around. Only waits for the door to open behind her. For Shale to come in, drop her satchel and slicker on the water-stained floor. To toe off her boots, slide them under her narrow bed. No forgiveness begged and none offered. No change of heart or mind, not yet.
If only, Winnifletch thinks, afraid she’ll never be able to spin the drift in Shale’s direction, never rein it or her in, never rebuild her girl’s outsides to match what’s trapped in her deepest core. Afraid it’s too late to for this spoiled sevenday spell of sorrow. Too late for her to fix anything. Too late to try again.
“Knock knock,” the wrong voice gruffs as the wrong person blunders in with the wind. The door whips free of his whiskey-slick grip, slams into shelves full-rattling with jars. Parchments whisk off tables and nightstands, garlands jangle, flames gutter in hurricane lamps. Startled, Jinx swoops through the chaos. With a flap and a flutter, she lands on Winni’s shoulder, claws gouging. On the stove, the pot belches—and with a chortled curse, Wilke Maggaw does likewise.
“Get on in here,” Winni says, sharp as a sturgeon’s snout. As he wrestles with the door, she peers around Wilke’s cable-knit bulk, taking in the bare path behind him, the wide coast and frothing sea, the smudge of Lundey Isle in the distance.
“That’s some hollow-blown gale,” Wilke says, lifting a longneck to his gob. Lipping for last drops. From the fumes reeking off him, Winnifletch guesses he drained those dregs more than once, hours ago. “Reeled these feet of mine right off course for a while,” he says, “right off course, those winds almost wobbling us anyway and anywhere but down here to Spinster’s Cove.”
“Hm.” Winni squints out into the gloaming, looking far and near. No glint of firelight in the Lundey’s dark caves. No hint of warmth for the harpies nesting there. No torches bobbing up the evening blue strand, guiding young wanderers home.
“Could’ve waited until tomorrow,” she says, shouldering him in and the door shut. “I’m going nowhere.”
“Ah, bluster.” To stifle hiccups, Wilke jams a fist against his chapped mouth. From a boiled leather sack slung low on his belt, he manhandles a limp-necked puffin. Holds the dead thing out like a tussie-mussie. “Netted this beaut just for you, lass. Can’t let it go to waste.”
Winni suppresses a sneer. As if he’s doing her a favor, showing up like this, week after week, year after year, bag and guts a-swill with spoiled juice. As if the slop from any old corpse could heal his reef-raw skin. As if he’s never learned a thing from her, not a single thing, to help himself. As if she doesn’t have her own spells to squeeze. Her own baits to bottle. Her own perfect birds to break and remake.
The puffin was barely a fledgling, fragile as happiness in her hand. It won’t be good for much. “Sit,” she says.
“These legs will hold, Winnifletch. Better view from up here, anyhow, watching you work and such.” The red spidering on Wilke’s nose and cheeks disappears, his face suddenly a single shade of fluster. “Always were a handsome woman, Win...”
“An ounce’ll do you for now,” she says, vise squealing, skeleton snapping, her own jelly jar collecting the creature’s small drippings. “Sip it slow and careful, right? If you want it to last.”
Old Wilke keeps talking as though she hasn’t. Typical harbourman: tongue-tied ’til a dram or ten slippens his knots. “Never could get my head around that Bear Ingersen’s treating you so poor,” he says. “A woman with your talents.”
A pause as Winni’s head whips up, vision blurring. “What’s that now?”
“Leaving you holding the bassinet like that,” Wilke goes on, “taking no care for his own pretty bairn.” Frowning, he swigs at his dry flask. “Saw her up the strand, just now,” he says, quick-changing subjects the way only delusionals and drunks can. “Your Shale. Keeping odd company, you ask me, strutting around in this weather with those hideous half-feathered lasses.”
“Oh,” Winnifletch whispers. “Was she all right?”
“What an age we’re living in, lass. Birds for best friends, Bear for a father.” Wilke turns and spits. “Some Bear. Hound, more like, siring pups at every port, boasting about it between pints. Always, some sweetheart swallows the bilge water he’s pumping. Guess you’ve heard about his latest doings with Abe Mews’s sweet Gertie? Bold-faced knocking on her boathouse window while the Stagg b’ys is away. Leaving his pawprints all over the place.”
Stupid girl, Winni thinks, numb from tongue to toes. So stupid. But how?
“Hoodwinked, she was. Same as the rest.” Swaying now, Wilke sweeps his rough hand around, taking in the workbench and stove, the iron pot and its month-long moldering, the basket of broken bones on the table. “What a cruel trick, shaming you girls into solitude.” He staggers forward and swipes the puffin juice from Winni’s cold fingers. “Playing you like that, then playing brain-dead. As if this beak-and-brinkle brew of yours has ever done more than wet a man’s whistle.”
He lifts the jar with a chuckle, glugs it dry, then coughs himself even redder, words slupping from his whiskey-thick gob. “As if it’s actual magic.”
The puffin lies in the sink, untouched, deflated. Good for nothing even before that fool Wilke wrecked it—too gaudy, those tiny fluffers, more show than substance—but she’ll save its meat for their supper. As ever.
Must get lonely out here, he’d said. Bear first. Then Wilke Maggaw. A soul must get hungry for company...
Winni grimaces. Still on her shoulder, Jinx stretches her neck and rawks. A long, low, chastising cackle.
Stupid, so stupid.
“Spells and spirits don’t mix,” she says, hands trembling as she wipes down the vise. That’s why the juice was weak tonight. That’s why there was no change in Wilke’s complexion, though he’d swilled every last drop. That’s why the chafe hadn’t uncracked from his cheeks. The old oaf was too drunk to absorb it. Too soused to see what she’d done, what she’s always done, for him. For all of them.
“Actual magic.” She shakes her head. “As if there’s any other kind.”
All those years ago, her spell had worked, in an unexpected way. It hadn’t hurt him, thank the stars, but it had done what she’d asked of it. Not as she’d wanted, of course, but even so. Though Bear hadn’t stayed here with her, something kept drawing him back to Barradoon, again and again. His life was full of riches now, wasn’t it? And in his own hound-dog way, he’d found bliss.
Hopping from foot to foot, Jinx knocks her skull against Winni’s. Focus. Think of eagles, kites, jackdaws. Petrels and pelicans. Robins, sparrows, geese. Proud migrators, fierce hunters—great wedges of birds that travel so far, so free, but only for so long and no longer. Mermaids of the sky, that’s what Shale is, what she’ll be. Sailing off into the blue each season, living, loving, then rewinging her course right back to where it, and she, began.
The right bird will bring Shale home.
The right brew will send her off again, broken, rebuilt.
Will it work?
Will it fix me?
A pause only Winnifletch notices, a twinge in her guts that says her instincts are good.
Faster than second-guesses, she snatches a fishing net off the floor, whips it around her shoulders, and traps Jinx in its tangles. Think of falcon oil, fast-fixing the future. Think of eagle sap, true as north-star navigation, unerring in cast and course. “I’m sorry,” she manages, breath short and chest cramping as she slams the bundle onto the workbench, securing her grip as it wriggles. “I’m so sorry.”
Think of this crow.
Think of Shale.
“Call her back,” Winnifletch cries, shunting Jinx into the vise, twisting. One, two, three turns, sharp and sure and so sorry so sorry so sorry. “She’ll listen if you call.”
My poor sisters, Mither.
This time the juice is good. It has to be. The flow is fast, the glass soon brimming. Hard to see through her tears, but she feels its strength as it trickles through her, the potency of Jinx’s lifeblood. Bruise-black as the plumage Shale loved so much, dark but translucent, still as a moonlit night. A potion of perfect clarity.
Will it work?
Winnifletch is certain.
It’s safe, she tells herself. This drift will spin the right way. Our way. Here. Home.
When the crow is dry, she lifts the body and cradles it close. Bear was never broken. I’ve hurt nobody. She presses a cheek against Jinx’s cooling breast. Kisses her silent beak. Lays her quietly on the rickety stool. Except my girls.
“It’s good,” she says, putting the juice on the workbench. Gently sliding the glass away from the edge. While she waits—she won’t make Old Wilke’s mistake; she’ll not guzzle this pressing before its magic has settled; like a good stout, it needs to rest before drinking—she turns to the stove. Strains the bones from the stock, sixteen years and thirty-odd days too long in the stewing, then deposits them one by one on the table. Back and forth between cooktop and board, she collects and carries, splashes and spills. Eyeing the crow-glass. Sifting time for the right moment. Stirring for rifts to repair.
She lines up the longest shafts, fanning some into powerful curves, and pictures wings springing from Shale’s arms, fitting and fletching her span. Think of sinew and song and sleek silhouettes, she tells herself, think Sparrow and Starling and Soars o’er Stars.
Hours pass as she puzzles the pieces together. Night winds hush into dawn. The sea shushes up to the shack’s pilings, sighs slowly back. Soft light spills over the windowsill, yellow and rose, gilding the harpy’s new frame.
Sore and sorry, Winnifletch finally gathers the glass. Jinx’s juice. Shale’s summoning. With eyes closed, she casts her mind over the water. Think of the Lundey. Outside a murrelet cries, its keer-keer clear and cold. Think of Henny.
“Come back,” she says before sipping, slowly, steadily, the only spell she’s ever swallowed herself. Think of Leda and Crows-at-the-Sun. The afterbrew burns, bitter and brutal. It whirls the churn in her belly, threatens to bring up everything she’s ever kept down.
“Come back,” Winnifletch whispers, deep in the drift, spinning. Limbs shaking, she fumbles for a chair, pulls it over to the door, close as she can without blocking it, and sits. Dizzy, she leans forward. Listens for footsteps, for Shale’s sweet singing. Gulls wail as they wing overhead, away.
“Come back, my girl, and fly.”