It felt like a day that would not pass like all the others.
Goosebumps had been appearing on her twiggy arms since morning when frost still clung to dead grass and naked trees. It was still misty outside when the little girl with the name of a goddess yanked on her mother’s apron for the first time.
‘Mama, Mama, is it today?’ she asked, waving her juniper twig around, littering the rough floor with needles.
Mama wiped her forehead with the back of her hands, then shook the flour off them.
‘Today. We’ll go out when I finish this.’
‘We’ll go. We’ll go!’
Although the days were finally getting longer, the work that day halted around noon. The carpenters dropped their chisels, the farmhands put the animals in, and the washerwomen poured away all the cloudy water. Everyone was too distracted to work today; how could they concentrate when a swarm of children could barge in at any moment, carrying the effigy and slapping them with spiky juniper twigs? The little girl could hear their giggling and cheering every time they dipped the effigy into any puddle they could find around the village. It was a good thing it hadn’t rained in a few days.
When the pale sun rose up the sky at noon, the effigy was passed down from children to young men and women who wore flower crowns and had weaved colourful ribbons in their hair for the occasion. They led a procession of people down towards the river. The little girl and her calloused-handed mother joined their family, the little girl’s brothers and sisters, and followed the human flow. Mama had to hold her in a tight grip; otherwise, she would have already jumped in front of the crowd.
‘I can’t see her. I can’t see.’
‘You saw it this morning.’
‘Not the whole!’
She did see the effigy in the morning, but witnessing it being made was nowhere near the same as watching it being carried by the jeering young villagers on the way to the river. It had only been made that morning; first, it was two thin logs tied together in a cross, and then it was given a body of straw and cloth. Her sister let her help sew the fabric that the straw would be stuffed in – the limbs – and hold the ribbon, which they added to decorate the plain white cloth. Slowly, slowly, an image emerged before them.
‘You need to patch her here,’ she suggested to her sister, pointing to the joint between the arm and the body where straws were ungracefully poking out.
‘What? No, it’s fine. Go away. Away with you! Mama!’
Mama lifted her into her arms and touched her head with her cold cheek before she could scream how this isn’t right and how they can’t let her bleed straw like this. Mama quickly distracted her by turning away from the body to instead observe another group of girls who were kneeling on the floor and shaping the head.
‘Look, they sewed a white kerchief, and they will embroider a pair of eyes and a mouth on it. And they’ll give it a cap and red ribbons for the hair.’
As she spoke, the face got eyes – now a mouth – and eyebrows, and she had to jerk her head away and bury it into Mama’s shoulder. ‘I can’t look.’
Mama chuckled and caressed her wheaten hair. ‘It’s not alive. Not real. It can’t do anything to you.’
‘Then why are we making her?’
The procession moved past the empty fields and brown meadows to the forest, where the river drew a sort of boundary between the human and the still-wild. Across the bend, the land belonged to pines and spruces, while their side was covered with wheat and rye. Her hand caressed every plant she passed on their way, in curiosity or comfort. Some years from now, she would be tall enough to see across them, but not yet. All that was green once seemed downtrodden and disappointed, resembling her Mama during the short cold days.
‘Mama, when’s the harvest?’
‘Oh,’ Mama moaned. ‘Not for a long time, my little sun. When it gets warmer. Then we’ll be here every day. I can already see the sunburn you’ll have.’
‘Then we’ll get wheat?’
‘Why don’t we have it now?’
‘We do. Just ground. As flour. You ate it this morning as bread.’
A child’s silence.
Mama chuckled, bent down so that her spine cracked, and picked the little girl up in her arms again. ‘Things change. They come in one form and leave in another. We harvest wheat, grind it into flour, and bake it with water so that we can eat it as bread.’
‘Does bread change?’
‘Well, if you don’t eat it and leave it, it turns mouldy and green. So yes, it changes.’
‘And if you eat it?’
A mother’s silence. ‘Well,’ Mama finally said and pursed her lips. ‘Then you do what you did in the bush. That might have been the bread or yesterday’s stew.’
The little girl nodded in vague understanding, having become distracted by her sisters, who started to sing. She joined them, humming:
Zima zima bela,
vrh gora sedela,
pa tako je pela,
da bo punčko vzela.
Ker punčka nič ne dela,
ker punčka nič se ne uči,
čakaj, le čakaj,
Mama put her back down when the crowd started forming a long line along the riverbank. The adults all huddled shoulder to shoulder and bent forwards, while the children slipped through the gaps their legs made and crouched where the water could reach the underside of their shoes. Every one of them instinctively put the tips of their fingers into the river, as a greeting or a prayer, only to be bitten by the freshly meltwater to the point that their nails hurt. Every one of them immediately pulled their hands back, as if the river was a dog baring her teeth and warning them of her depths and dangers.
The air was thick and misty with human breath. All the people present bent even further forwards or balanced on their tiptoes for fear of missing the moment when the boys threw the effigy into the water. Murmurs, breathing, and the shifting of legs almost drowned out the ritual speech of the village elder, and the little girl felt as if the day was dragging and dragging until they raised the effigy above their heads, and then –
A heavy, wet sound accompanied her fall, and the splash hit the nearest bystanders’ feet. When she started to flow downriver at a snail’s pace, they began shouting and cheering. Straw was bleeding out of her seams and holes, blade after blade, and leaving a golden trace on the surface.
Her face was glued to the effigy. She was spinning and turning, then ran aground and got stuck on the shallower bank, but the river called her back, enviously pulling her close only to spitefully push her to the other side every time.
She waited with eyes like hooks for the effigy to come closer. She was crouching with her fingertips submerged and watched as it floated towards her with a stretched-out arm, and she raised hers in an echo. If she could only fix the goddess’s ribbon or take some of her golden blood as a memento – but before the girl could, Mama forcefully pulled her back.
‘No, no, little sun,’ she whispered, clutching her twisty, eel-like little body. ‘It’s bad luck if we touch it. Your hand could wilt and wither as those flowers in the meadow did. We have to let it flow down the river and drown, and then we’ll have spring, and then we’ll have wheat and flowers back.’
She stopped resisting and sniffed into Mama’s kerchief. ‘Flowers?’ She looked at her hands – pink, light pink, and cold from the water.
Mama fixed her wheat-blonde hair and tucked it behind her ear. ‘That’s right. We’ll have flowers all along this river bank and in all the meadows. Daisies, yarrows, and poppies, your favourites.’
Mama’s fingers were coiled around her own. She stood up, hand still in hand, and turned back towards the village.
‘Oh, and we can’t look back on it either; that could bring the plague. And beware if we trip and fall on our way home; that’s sure to bring the worst.’
Mama’s voice was as soft as the murmur of the river, which was burying the effigy in its muddy depths. She didn’t dare ask what was the worst.
‘Do you promise you won’t trip or fall?’
‘Will you carry me?’
Mama smiled. ‘Yes, I will carry you.’
Slowly, the procession rolled back into the village. Men stretched their hands and went back to smithing and building; women removed the ribbons from their hair, put their caps on, and went on with laundry and milking. Every one of them looked wistfully at the meadows, where snowdrops, the constant messenger, let them know that their sacrifice would not be in vain and that what they were waiting for would come.
The sun slipped down the sky and was already touching the treetops when Mama brought her back to the village. She started yawning when they visited the cottage in the woods and had slept nestled in the furs at the wrinkled woman’s house while the woman and Mama were talking in blurred voices. She only woke up in Mama’s arms when they were outside their home and Mama whispered to ask if she needed the outhouse.
‘No, no,’ she mumbled.
‘Alright, then go inside, get to your bed and go to sleep,’ said Mama, opening the door.
Her siblings were all already lying on the palliasse, exhausted from the busy day and the exciting activities.
‘Where are you going?’
‘I have to go!’
‘I’ll wait,” she said, leaning on the doorway.
Mama winced, then wrapped a scarf around her and rushed to the outhouse. For a moment, the little girl thought she saw Mama slip on a pebble and lose her balance, but she wasn’t sure. The day was over, and winter with it.
It felt like a dream that would not pass like all the others.
She was shifting and turning, boiling in her own sweat, and choking on cold, salty water. Unbearable, unbearable. She wanted to undress and thought about tugging at strings and sleeves, but there was no power in her arms. They were limp, heavy, and stiff as logs.
New hands appeared, hands that were agile and light. They helped rip her clothes off. Thank you, oh, thank you, she wanted to say, but before she could use her throat, her mouth was filled with blades of straw. She was full, but the hands kept going, kept shoving and pushing to make space for more. I’m bleeding; I’m bleeding straw; stop, stop.
Finally, they decided she’d had enough, and a girl’s shape emerged from the darkness. She couldn’t see her face, but the glistening light the girl carried quickly punctured her lip and pulled a red string through her mouth. Stitch, pull, and knot.
She hadn’t a voice to speak her thoughts and her hands were too heavy to do anything anymore. Her screams were lost beneath the pale sun that was climbing up the sky to watch her from his misty throne. They were loud instead: the adults cheered and the children laughed and waved their juniper twigs around, green needles littering the ground as they passed empty fields and meadows.
She was hoisted up and held by the neck, the small of her back, and the joints of her limbs. Her ascension was brief; she remembered it had rained a few days before, and soon her body was swung and dipped into the first puddle, and the second, and the third, until cloudy water dripped from her hair ribbons and she was leaving a golden trace behind her.
When they reached the border between the human and the still-wild, where frost clung to pine and spruce needles like a possessed lover, they raised her up again. From the corner of her eye, she saw her distorted reflection in the water. The waves were forming and rippling into an embrace, into a trap. The fluid arms took her in and jostled her around like a rattle before passing her on. Her head bobbed up, and she emptied her nostrils when a desperate scream pierced the mists:
Mama. Her outstretched arm was light pink. Mama would, but couldn’t dive in the water because of the other hands that were pulling on her kerchief and the white cap.
She kicked and the river, compassionately or maliciously, pushed her towards Mama, towards Mama’s hands. Her calloused fingers touched the fish-like skin of something that was once a little sun, but as soon as pink met white, Mama’s fingers withered and wilted. A pained scream pierced the fog.
Every one of them turned away to prevent the plague or the worst. Every one of them watched their steps, carefully avoiding each stone and puddle on the way back to the village, the juniper twigs crunching beneath their feet. The boys returned to smithing and building, the girls to laundry and milking. Not one of them looked back at the body of the effigy that floated downriver, past the fields and forests until every single blade of straw was soaked and the weight pulled her down where she lay on mud and mulch.
Every one of them watched the meadows in the coming days for signs of what they wanted.
The snowdrops drooped. Nothing else bloomed, and nothing else would.
She thought: Who could blame her?
Maruška Slavec is a student of English and Comparative Literature with a pedagogical specialisation at the University of Ljubljana. Coming from the coastal region of Slovenia called Primorska (“by the sea”), which is a bilingual area, means her second language is Italian, but she feels more comfortable in her third, English (Slovenian is reserved for thoughts). Her writing attempts always steer into the mythological and fantastical, which are also her favourite genres to read. She loves horses, wolves, witches, and olive trees, all of which feature in anything she writes. This short story is dedicated to the people of Ukraine.