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All the Old Knives

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Dulce ridens, dulce loquens,
she shaves her legs until they gleam
like petrified mammoth-tusk.

Adrienne Rich, Snapshot of a Daughter-in-Law

 

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Bind me with red thread, she said to the woods.

 

Bind my eyes with goat-gut and my mouth with bone splinters.

 

Bind between my legs with copper, copper teeth and bright red berries.

 

He has gone north, north to the dry lands, north to the dead and their thin copper faces.

 

North for a woman who’ll stay at his hearthside. North for a sweet one, a soft one, a dead one.

 

North for a girl who won’t stray to the dances, a girl of bright knives and the chatter of sharp swords. A wide smile like red lichen, like white stones in winter.

 

She said to the woods and she said to the water. She told them, I tell you, my name is Kyllikki.

 

 

Behind her, his mother drew bright beads of blood from his bone comb, bright beads from her tough skin, thick and worn like white mica.

 

Behind her, his sister hid her smile between her teeth. She'd told him Kyllikki had gone down to the village. Down to the village to join the bright dances.

 

He’d looked at her then with a mouth like stretched sinew.

 

We had an agreement. He said. When I took you.

 

She said to him don’t go, my loved one, my lirling. She said then oh baby don't leave me I love you.

 

His sister had seen her bent over his saddle. Her mouth still all full of the sounds of her homeland. Now she’d bought her own catch home, a fat juicy story.

 

He’d said he’d go north and she’d dreamt of high fire banks. Of cracking like bones in the soft slough of ashes.

 

She said to the forest, my name is Kyllikki.

 

 

Behind her, his mother tied a knife to her saddle. She took the meat from the racks and the salt from the birch-box. She put his comb in her hair and set her face against morning.

 

She said to Kyllikki, well, come if you’re coming.

 

I’ll fetch back my boy from the teeth of the north lands. I’ll carry him back from across the dead river. I’ll rake up his bones from the soft lap of darkness.

 

She said to Kyllikki, well, come if you’re coming.

 

She had opened her home and her hearth to Kyllikki. Brushed out her hair from the tight snarl of travel, put fat on her lips when she’d bitten them open. Listened at night when she talked of her homeland.

 

He has brought me a fine thing, a fine girl, a treasure, she’d said as she poured out thick milk for Kyllikki.

 

He’s a brash boy, hair like red thread, but a fine one. She’d said that of course he would make a fine husband.

 

She said to Kyllikki, well, come if you’re coming.

 

Kyllikki kissed her; walked into the forest.

She said to the forest, my name is Kyllikki.

 

Kyllikki walked south over soft beds of needles. Around her the sweet smell, the fire-start of resin. She said to the pine trees, my name is Kyllikki.

 

Kyllikki walked south over stones like old goat-teeth. She walked out her boots over suck-marks of lichen. She said to the old stones, my name is Kyllikki.

 

Kyllikki walked south under tall shocks of birches. Behind her his mother went north to the dry lands. Kyllikki looked up to the sun through the thin leaves. She stopped at the banks of a lake like old whale bone. The light came across it like firelight on copper.

 

She said to the water, my name is Kyllikki.

 

I know said the face like a moon in the water. I know you, Kyllikki of bright lights and dances. I saw your skirts swirling beside the dark water. Red thread in your black hair and a belt of fine silver. The fire-banks behind you like bright copper comb-teeth.

 

Come into the water, Kyllikki, I’ll show you. I’ve danced since I gave up my gold and my bridegroom, a dirty old god who won me in a wager.

 

My name used to be Aino but now I’m quite different. I can tell you your man lies undone in dark water, his mother may find him but you can forget him. He lies like hot stones split apart by cold water.

 

She said to the water, if your name was fair Aino, I’ve heard it while drinking thick milk by the fireside. They tell stories of you and your brother and mother. How he pitted his words against wily Väinämöinen, gave you up sharpish to keep his mouth above water.

 

She said to the water, you’re cold now, fair Aino. I see your pale face like a moon in the water, but I won’t join that man in a journey to winter. I like my red blood and its warmth, my fair Aino. It’s too late for my mother to come riding to save me.

 

I won’t catch you, Kyllikki, come into the water. The currents are cold but they move like the seasons. I won’t drag you down like a place at the hearthstone. I’ll give you a dance for your journey, Kyllikki, a dance like the water, the seasons, a story.

 

I give you my word, she said, sweet like ice water. My good name to carry, my dancer, Kyllikki.

 

 

Kyllikki put out her finger and touched the dark water. Aino lipped at her hand, at her flat lengths of callus, at the stories of hard stone, the heft of the shuttle, the long fingers white like thick milk in dark honey.

 

Kyllikki raised it up to her lips, dripping water. Her mouth stretched in a smile like a branch of young yew-wood.

 

I’ll come into the water, fair Aino, she told her. And you'll let me back up if I say so, fair Aino, if you want me to spin this new thread for your story, if you did leave your bright beads all lost in the forest, if you spitted that god on the teeth of his wager.

 

And she eased out her legs from her thick boots of leather. She laid her stiff skirts over the bilberry bushes. She unbound her dark hair from its coils and bent forwards. Her lips met the lips of the face in the water.

 

Standing high the low sun caught the curves of her body. Fire banked under her skin like the hot blood of laughter, and she stepped out like a dancer across the dark water.

 

She stepped out and warm arms caught and held her, a whisper. I watched as you danced all that night by the water, said Aino, Kyllikki, Kyllikki my darling I saw you my dancer. And her teeth met her breast and her arms, strong as water, held Kyllikki close as she whispered my dancer, you taste of the fireside, the land of the living, you’ll go on, Kyllikki, go back to your homeland, you’ll be strong in stories, in iron words and gold ones. You'll dance out your story.

 

Aino, said Kyllikki. Fair Aino, I see you. And they bit at each other, fierce under the water, the ghost-girl's tongue sweet as a word from her homeland, the fire in her belly like hot thudding dancing, the skin under her nails smooth and full as flood water.

 

Fuck me, fair Aino, she said under the water.

 

Fuck me with your sharp teeth and your old stories. With your hands smoothed by water, the low slick of your hipbones, your cunt with its bright taste like warm wet new copper.

 

Aino, she said, she licked after the new taste, she opened her legs there, deep down in the dark water.

 

Fuck me like this, love, she said and she showed her.

 

 

And then when her footsteps came black from the water, when she left them behind like quick runes on the pale rocks, when she held like a last kiss a mouth full of clear water, she swallowed it down, warm and strong in her belly, and she said to rocks and she said to the birch trees, she said to the pines as they crooked to the mountains, she said to the water her name was fair Aino.

 

She left her bright beads by the side of the water, she sought out the black mud, the dark room of the ocean, for he'd carried her name in his mouth like a token, spat her up to the old goat, that old god, the word-wright.

 

But I'll carry her name in my belly like warm milk, like the honey they use in the dead lands for fairings.

 

If I see her again when I come to the dark lands, I'll carry my life like a life in my belly, like a parcel of fairings, like warm milk and sweet honey. I'll show her the words that I sowed in the south lands, the paths I have walked down, the stories I've woven.

 

And we'll kiss in the dark as we kissed sharp in the water, her soft hand in mine as we turn to the dead lands.

 

I'll live out my life like a dance by the water.

 

For, she said to the bright air, my name is Kyllikki.