The primary race of this realm, Goodfolk, divided their year into moons and spans. A span was ten days, and a moon was three spans, thirty days. I didn’t go to the farm of Bragi and Tanuvia for a full span. I spent the time recording the songs of the forest to accompany my story. I had locusts; a pair of mating opossums; five species of owls; the wind blowing through a narrow cleft of stone; a mewling bear cub; and the lap of waves on a small lake. I went back, intending to record the crash of glass and scattering of coins on a wooden floor as I stole a copper coin. It was evening, and the air was blue; the sky, pale indigo. Tanuvia was in the barn currying the horse, Mazy. The cow, Bumble, was milked each morning and let out on pasture each day. Once I located Tanuvia, I ignored her and flew to the house.
I peered through Bragi’s open door. He was in his chair again, but his basket was set aside on the bed. He held a narrow clay jug with a handle and was aiming through a hole in the front of his trousers, pissing in the jug. I hopped to the cupboard shelf with the jar of copper coins. Tanuvia had pushed the glass jar into the corner. I lowered my head and shoulder to extend my beak toward the glass. Bother the girl! I couldn’t get my wings into play. I bobbed and tapped, trying to spin the glass toward the edge of the shelf, where I could knock it off. Between my beak and the round glass, there was too little friction, and the jar resisted my efforts.
As I struggled, there was a knock on the front door. I pulled my head from the shelf and flapped out the window. As I alighted on the thatched roof in the evening air, Bragi yelled.
“She’s not here!”
The young man at the door had a hank of dirty blonde hair. He was broad-shouldered and tanned. He thought a moment and turned to leave, but Tanuvia spotted him from the barn.
The young man’s features lit in the twilight. “Hai, Tanuvia. Your father said you were gone.”
“I was gone. I’m not in the house.”
Though it wasn’t funny, Grantham laughed. She shut the barn door, came to meet him, and he pulled her close for a kiss. Adjusting my vision to draw in more light, I walked the edge of the thatch. Tanuvia’s hands roamed the buck’s burly torso, drawing moans from him. She drew back to whisper, and I quickly adjusted my mic.
“Our little spot in the wood?”
Eyebrows high, he nodded. Holding hands, they ran, laughing as they rushed across a plot of potato plants. The young woman played as hard as she worked. Her vegetables were weeded and watered, her kitchen as well-ordered as before, and that did not happen by magic in this realm. This time, I followed, just to be sure I hadn’t mistaken Tanuvia’s activities when I failed to observe her with Adan.
As a romantic rendezvous, the little spot was disappointing, the first convenient crotch of a tree to stash a basket. Tawdry. Tanuvia spread a blanket, and they went without light under the trees while night dropped around them. Tanuvia nudged the young man to his back and worked the buttons of his shirt. Indolent, he laced his hands behind his head. Jutting his chin, he closed his eyes, and groaned as Tanuvia set her wet tongue above his belt and licked the dark line of his hair to his navel. As she lapped like a cat, Grantham’s knees twitched, and my attention wandered. Finally, her fingers wandered to his buckle, which she deftly unhitched while he groped under her shirt, grasping without her finesse. I left when Tanuvia, a white faun in the darkness, mounted the young man, rendering him cretinous. Though the lust and participation of the two appeared equal, Tanuvia was clearly the superior lover.
At the cottage, I dilated my lens to collect light. I flew to Bragi’s windowsill and watched him transfer the two halves of his body from the chair to the bed. The labor explained his muscled torso and corded arms. He had relieved himself with the jug, but had he eaten? What happened when Tanuvia was gone, rutting in the woods? I winged from the sill to a rafter to observe. If Tanuvia neglected her father, it changed the story completely. As I settled for the evening, hiding my black, feathered form in the shadow under the thatch, a wail drifted from the wood, the crisis of a young woman. In his bed, Bragi groaned, mourning.
Some stories were more heart-rending to collect than others.
She came in alone, reeking with the scent of the buck. Groping in the darkness, Tanuvia struck a lamp to light the way.
“Da? Are you alright?”
He didn’t answer.
“Who was it this time, Tanuvia?”
“Da, please. I’ve told you a hundred times I’m a woman now. I can bed who I like.”
“Those men are slatterns, every one of them. Not one would help you or stand by you if you were in trouble. And what if there is a child? You’d be alone.”
“There won’t be a child, Da. Besides, I would have you if there was.”
His sheets rustled, and his tortured bedframe squealed as he lurched up to face her. I hunched on the beam.
“What could I do? The child could fall against the fire, and I couldn’t catch her. She could have a fever, and I couldn’t bring water. She could wander into the woods, and I couldn’t help you find her. You have no idea how hard it is to raise a child. And who would work the plots, Tanuvia? Are you going to nurse a baby while you hoe weeds?”
“Da, I take care of it.”
“With the herb? Is that how? What would your Mam say?”
“It’s only until I’m ready for a child.”
“So you are using it.” His sheets sighed as he lay back in resignation.
“Don’t be like this, Da. I haven’t turned my back on god and goddess. I want children someday just not yet.”
“Your Mam and I thought we taught you better than that. We thought you understood the sanctity of issue and womb. What you do to those men with the womb’s bane is wrong. Every man should enjoy the fruit of his issue, daughter. You deny them.”
“Da, I don’t think they mind.”
“Oh, you don’t think? Did you ask? Do they even know what you do?”
“They know I don’t ask them to remain as a consort. That’s a pretty good clue, Da.”
“So you don’t tell them?”
“It’s not discussed.”
The bed shrieked again as the man jerked his torso to sit.
“Mam would be shamed if she was here. You’d never do this if I had two good legs, Tanuvia! Get out of my room!”
“Da, Please. Don’t be angry with me. I’ll bring your supper. It’ll only take a minute.”
I sunk my head low between my shoulders. Working by the light of her lamp, Tanuvia rushed between cupboard and table, preparing a plate of food for her father. She sliced bread, ham, and cheese. In her haste, she cut her finger and impatiently wadded a rag against the wound. From a pitcher in a double-walled crock, she poured milk, arranged everything on a tray with the lamp and a fresh peach from a basket, and stood outside his open door.
“Da. I brought your supper.”
“You smell like him. Stay out.”
Tanuvia caught her breath and took a step back, reeling from her father’s rebuke. The light wavered as the tray swayed.
“I’ll wash. May I come in then?”
“Just bring it and go.”
The light on her tray moved across the room. Her father growled wordlessly, and she scurried out like a mouse, sat on the edge of the rocking chair, bowed her head and didn’t move, waiting in the quiet and the dark. After a while, rising like a small wraith in ringlets, Tanuvia peered into his room, satisfied herself that he ate, and crept unseen to her room.
Their heated conversation left me with a score of questions that needed answers if the story was to be understood. What was god and goddess? And womb’s bane? And what concerned Bragi more, that she might conceive or that she didn’t? Peculiar, that one. Abandoning my hideaway in the shadows of the ceiling, I glided through her door to land on her footrail and cawed. Tanuvia yelped, and her father called.
“It’s only that bird, Da! The one that likes the pennies!”
He shouted back. “Give it a penny!”
“Nai! Those pennies come dear, Da!”
Tanuvia crossed to the door to shut it, then turned to me with the bright and innocent curiosity of a chickadee. She took a step closer, and I fluttered to the windowsill, prepared to escape.
“I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
I’m not frightened.
“Oh, you do more than mimic.”
Much more, Tanuvia.
She picked up the lamp and brought it closer.
“I like your eyes. They’re beautiful.”
So are yours.
“Are they? Da says they are. I don’t have a mirror.”
Your man friends don’t tell you they’re beautiful?
“Oh.” Her shoulders slumped, and she turned to put the lamp on the little table beside her bed. “You heard all that between Da and me.”
Every word although I didn’t understand it all.
“There’s nothing to understand. Da is right. But I get lonely. And there’s nothing…nothing…but rows of potatoes to hoe.”
You don’t want a consort?
“Of course, I do. But none of those men.”
You seem to like them well enough. I’m sure one would give you children if you allowed it.
“Pft. Men like that are cheap. Grantham is in another bed by next span. Some men don’t deserve their issue honored, no matter what Da says.”
Tell me, Tanuvia, what that means. Why is it important to honor the issue?
“You don’t know?”
Vaguely, perhaps. I’m not Goodfolk. Only a raven.
“Oh. Of course.”
I transmitted a perfect imitation of a man clearing his throat. Actually, I played back the recording from my ever-growing collection.
“Ai, about the issue.” She remembered. “Well, these things are sacred. We don’t talk about them.”
You talked with your father….
“He’s my Da.”
She was not forthcoming. I settled in, hunching my shoulders, reluctant to sift through the debris of her mind. She undressed for the second time that night. She wore linen smalls beneath her trousers, which she tossed as nonchalantly as the rest. The blonde tuft of fine curls at her pelvis was the primary source of the masculine scent on her body. Her small breasts were as delicate as white doves, and her nipples were pale, inconsequential, and flattened in the heat. She lay on her bed, legs and arms splayed, and brushed her fingertips across the downy hair of her abdomen.
She mused. “What do I call you, Raven?”
Raven is fine.
“That’s not a name.”
Then call me Muninn. That’s a name.
“An odd name.”
I’m an odd bird.
“That you are.”
Sure she was in no position to capture me, I flapped past her head to alight again on her footrail. She propped her head on her hands and peered down.
“Are you a girl bird or a boy bird?”
Some AIs chose a gender, but I had never considered the question. I rolled a mathematical die and said I am a male bird.
She sighed and sat up again on the edge of her bed. “I suppose I should wash. I smell as awful as Da says.”
She didn’t bother to dress. Except for her father, she was alone as she padded barefoot and naked as a libertine sprite in an arcane woods. She pumped water and carried the pail to her room. Using liquid soap from a clay pot, she bathed while standing on a towel. In the lamplight, the sudsy water glinted as it streamed down her curves. She washed under her arms and between her legs. When she was done, she let the air dry her skin for the cooling effect. By this time, the heat and humidity of her bath had caused her flattened curls to bounce into their natural spirals.
“Do you mind if I key out the lamp? I’m tired now.”
I cawed and hunched more deeply, which she took as an affirmative. In the darkness, she was soon asleep.
I was not. I had sampled her blood from the accidental cut of her finger, and I had Grantham’s tissues in her bath water to which I applied a barrage of diagnostics and simulations, searching for the womb’s bane and its action. I found it in the young woman’s bloodstream. I had expected a steroid, which was why it took me so long, but I discovered, instead, a poison, a specific protease, harmless to Tanuvia because she didn’t produce the poison’s target. Only Goodfolk men made the protein for the protective coat that allowed their seed to penetrate mucosal layers. Within Tanuvia, the Goodfolk issue died before it ever reached a point of conception.