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Fraxinella

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Jorinde misses her garden.

She misses a lot of things, since she’s become a bird: her bed, opposable thumbs (that can untie twine), the sun, her lover. But thoughts of Joringel bring sadness with the longing, and sadness, Jorinde finds, is both easy to get lost in and difficult to return from. So Jorinde thinks of her garden.

She thinks of it in pieces, trying to place them in her mind: the forsythia in the far corner, the daffodils with the tulips, a bright border all around, the lavender - where was that? It disturbs her to forget, so in the eye of her mind she plants them beside the forsythia and moves on to her poppies.

She watches the sorceress’s hearthfire while she remembers, and when the flames become too hot and too bright against her delicate bird’s eyelids she turns them green with her imagination, cools them with a watering can, lets them lengthen into stalks and grows herself calm.

---

Joringel dreams:

He is bone-tired and satisfied when he finds her in the garden, lovely and young amid the flowers, her hands gloved up to the elbow and a bright dress pooling around her knees. He flops down on a rock beside her, closes his eyes, turns his face up to the sun, and lets out a long groan of contentment.

“Tired, are we?” Jorinde asks, all teasing lilt and the brush of hair against his cheek as she leans to kiss him.

“Ha, ha.” Joringel replies, “You know, some of us don’t have the luxury of playing with pretty flowers all day.”

There’s silence for too long, so Joringel opens his eyes. Jorinde is looking at him speculatively, and when their eyes meet she reaches for her flowers: first one, than another.

The first, all bright purple-and-yellow, she tucks behind his ear: “Belladonna,” she says, and, “ten berries will kill a man.” The second, red and cup-shaped, she pinches off at the bottom of its long stem and tucks down the front of his shirt, pointing out that “This pretty little poppy, distilled, could put you to sleep before you knew what happened.”

She reaches behind her now. Joringel reaches for the flower she picks, but Jorinde pulls it away, pressing his hand back down with her free one. “Fraxinella,” she says, showing him the cone-shaped sprig of lavender blooms, delicate and pale and lovely. “is covered with an oil that will give you blisters if it touches your skin, but only if you’re in the sun. And...”

She rummages around in her bag and produces match and book, which she hands to him to light. She takes the lit match, and, holding the fraxinella between their bodies, she touches the head of the match to its base. Before his eyes, the tiny light becomes a spurt of flame, licking along the edge of the flower before dying back down and leaving the blooms pristine. Jorinde laughs at his surprised face, and she is still explaining the flammable vapors of the flower with painstaking patience when he awakens abruptly to an empty bed.

---

On her second day in the sorceress’s castle, Jorinde begins pecking at the thick hemp twine that ties her leg to her perch. It should work - the hemp is in strands, and it should be breakable if time consuming - but she eventually has to acknowledge that something about it is magic. Still, she plucks at it each evening with her beak, hoping against hope for progress.

On the fourth day, she notices that the hemp securing her neighbor - a pretty if bland little meadowlark - has a tear in it, tiny but real. That night, when the witch goes to sleep, Jorinde leans down as usual, but where she had been pecking at her own binds, she goes to the lark’s instead. The lark - girl? - lark looks at her with sad, lost eyes, but allows Jorinde the work.

---

He is bone-tired and satisfied when he finds her in the garden, lovely and young amid the flowers, her hands gloved up to the elbow and a bright dress pooling around her knees. He flops down on a rock beside her, closes his eyes, turns his face up to the sun, and lets out a long groan of contentment.

“Tired, are we?” Jorinde asks, all teasing lilt and the brush of hair against his cheek as she leans to kiss him.

“Ha, ha.” Joringel replies, “You know, some of us don’t have the luxury of playing with pretty flowers all day.”

There’s silence for too long, so Joringel opens his eyes. Jorinde is looking at him speculatively, and when their eyes meet she reaches for her flowers: first one, than another.

She picks the berries of the first - ten small dark rounds - and slides them one by one into his mouth. Joringel cannot stop her, cannot weep, cannot move - he is frozen solid like ice, like stone, like the sorceress made him the day she stole Jorinde away.

“Where are you, Joringel?” she asks tearily, “Why haven’t you found me?”

Frozen, terrified, poisoned, dying, he cannot reply.

---

The sorceress keeps her magic on the hearth, under a big, iron cauldron where its red glow can mix in with the always-dying embers. She dips her fingers into it at least once a day, to add or to take. Sometimes the move is casual, comfortable, like she’s running her hand across a lucky charm or a favorite old piece of furniture. Sometimes she’s furtive, quick and darting and stressed, a fleeting, tense-fingered confirmation followed by a slight relaxation of her shoulders. Sometimes she falls asleep in the chair there, slumped, with one hand dangling down to press idly against the closest pieces of coal. Sometimes - more rarely but still too often - she clutches at it, unburned and manic, while she shouts at a girl she’s changed back from a bird just to listen.

It took Jorinde a week and a day to notice this, and now she watches the place constantly, taking note from her perch. She keeps her head tucked close to her breast in an approximation of sleep and eyes slitted open only the barest amount. Marigolds, she thinks, eyeing the gold at the core of the embers, marigolds would be nice for summer. She plants them in the center of the garden of her mind, and she watches, and she waits.

---

The first, all bright purple-and-yellow, she tucks behind his ear: “Belladonna,” she says, and, “ten berries will kill a man.”

The second, red and cup-shaped, she pinches off at the bottom of its long stem and tucks down the front of his shirt. She begins to sing as she does, high and bright and haunting:

 

“My little bird with throat so red
Sings sorrow, sorrow, sorrow;”

She reaches behind her now, and he knows that she has a thin wisp of a singing voice in real life, but here it is clear and soaring:

 

He sings to the little dove that's dead,
Sings sorrow, sor—”

She chokes on the verse and falls forward on hands and knees, coughing up red petals and feathers that scatter in the grass where she retches. Her hand clenches and unclenches around the flower she had reached for - she is a bird, no a girl, no a bird, no a girl - a girl - but only when she grips on tight.

---

The sorceress wears gray, gray, gray, all swathed fabric and cowled hoods. Jorinde has seen her face thrice, all in shadow. In the first glimpse she gets, the other woman is wrinkle-faced in an angry way, like she snarled once and her face froze since. The second time Jorinde sees the sorceress’ face, it is bright and young and unlined and mean and illuminated by nothing but firelight. She is standing over her cauldron at the time, a wicked little silver knife ginting, a bird’s bones picked clean of meat and thrown back into the fires that cooked them. The sorceress catches her looking and smiles as she picks a stray string of meat from between her teeth.

---

He is bone-tired and satisfied when he finds her in the garden, lovely and young amid the flowers, her hands gloved up to the elbow and a bright dress pooling around her knees. He flops down on a rock beside her, closes his eyes, turns his face up to the sun, and lets out a long groan of contentment.

“Get up.” Jorinde snarls, her voice bursting with a fierceness he’s unaccustomed to, “get up, you useless pile of shit.”

Joringel does sit up hard, staring at the pretty face of the woman he loves all twisted in anger. “Wh-what?” he asks, but she’s not listening.

What she is doing is ripping up flowers, throwing them at him while she shouts something he cannot quite hear but knows in the way of dreams is accusatory and insulting. At first he thinks it’s the poppies she’s throwing, since the flowers are red, but the petals are too small and when the sun hits his skin it burns, burns, burns.

---

The next time the sorceress takes a bird-girl to the hearth, Jorinde is in the midst of futilely pecking at the lark’s binds. So she learns how they can be torn: in the moment before the sorceress slides her knife into the soft breast, in the seconds between one spell and the next.

If nightingales could cry, Jorinde would. Instead, she closes her eyes to plant fritillaria by the tulips and remembers how sage smells when fully grown. She pretends not to feel the lark’s eyes on her; she pretends not to know that her own eyes are becoming that same kind of sad.

---

This night picks up with Joringel’s flesh still sizzling in the sun and red petals all about him, in his lap, in his hair, like soft bits of solidified blood. Jorinde is staring at him from the center of the wreckage, her hands twisting the cone-shaped plant back and forth, worrying the few remaining petals from their stem.

“I do know we shouldn’t have gone so near the castle,” she says, cloying and apologetic, “I do know. I didn’t mean to get lost.” Her eyes are shining with something, but this time he thinks it is not tears.

His throat, he knows, is clogged with something that is. “I know,” Joringel says, “neither did I. I told you I knew the path--”

“--and I knew you didn’t,” Jorinde smiles, “but I wanted to explore the woods, too. We always were too fond of adventure, my love.”

“Were we?”

“Come to me, love,” she says, and he sees that the bright thing in her eyes is hard, “but not until you can save me. You’re no good to me ‘til then.”

---

Each successive life is a moment of despair and of hope all at once; the twine snaps, so do someone’s bones. Invariably, they scream. Sometimes, Jorinde screams with them.

---

The garden is still in ruins, a wasteland of fading red petals. There is a nightingale there, pecking at the flowers with her futile beak and looking at him with her dark sad eyes. She plucks one and flies it to him, drops it into his outstretched hand and it’s familiar, it is, all tiny blossoms and tapering shape, but it’s off somehow he can’t quite catch. He knows that if he could only touch her with its petals she would become something else, something he needs, but she’s gone before he has the chance.

---

“What’re you looking at?” the sorceress shouts at her. Jorinde thinks, not for the first time, that the woman might be insane, but the thought is only the briefest interlude before panic sets in, and Jorinde focuses on peonies, pink ones, beside the irises, to stave it off.

Jorinde has seen this before, and so she is not surprised when the sorceress reaches out to yank the small nightingale that is Jorinde off her tether and the woman who was Jorinde falls forward in its place. She stumbles, uncomfortable in this old-new too-big skin of hers, and retches onto the floor with sudden vertigo.

“Well?” the sorceress near-shrieks, “what, girl?”

“The fire, ma’am,” daylilies look nice with penstemon, white, “you keep your magic there.” Jorinde’s voice shakes, but her hands, clenching against the floor, do not.

The sorceress laughs, falls back into her chair. “Yes, yes I do. Inherited it, you know. That’s how these things work,” Jorinde glances at the fire, “we pass it down and we keep it safe.” Foxglove against the wall, for the shade. “My predecessor used to keep it in a knife,” the sorceress flips the wicked little silver blade she uses for sacrifices, and for a moment the angle of her body and the fireplace means her eyes and the knife both go alight. Looks pretty with delphinium. The blues and purples look nice together, all in cone-shaped clusters. “Knives hurt, you kn-”

Jorinde steels herself, lets her mind drift to her garden and sharpen to the moment all at once, and lunges for the fire thinking I could add some fra-

-xinella,” she says, showing him the cone-shaped sprig of red blooms, delicate and pale and lovely, “is covered with an oil that will give you blisters if it touches your skin, but only if it’s in the sun. And...”

She rummages around in her bag and produces match and book, which she hands to him to light. She takes the lit match, and, holding the fraxinella between their bodies, she touches the head of the match to its base.

It burns, first the stem and the bottom blooms and then the whole flower aflame with long, consuming, wild tendrils of fire that reach up and out and around and eat everything in their path. The flower burns and the garden burns and the world burns and Jorinde, Jorinde his love, Jorinde burns in a torrent of flames that engulfs her entirety long before Joringel, pale and shaking and crying and-

-pulling her back - the sorceress has her by the hair, but not before Jorinde manages to touch, feels the magic burn without burning all the way up her arm, remembers flowers that burn but do not burn, feels the magic spin outward off to somewhere, off to someone she loves, someone who can help, someone who-

-lies restless in a garden, collapsed in grief and dreaming of his burning love. Beside him, a lavender flower bursts suddenly into flames, a momentary torrent of fire that should turn it to ash. Instead, the fire dies away, and the flower, now bright red but otherwise unharmed, waits for Joringel to wake.

---

Jorinde should have expected it, and yet she is surprised when the sorceress picks her out as the next sacrifice. She struggles, and screams her nightingale scream, and flaps her wings and pecks the sorceress’s old, leathery hand, but the sorceress is used to this. She hears, as if from a distance, the screams and shrieks and squawks of the other birds (girls) and she wonders why they even try, why she even tried - it does no good. They all know it does no good.

She feels the heat of the fire below her delicate bones, sees the glint of the sorceress’ cruel eyes and crone-smile and the blade beneath them, and then - a scream.

Multiple screams. Screams that are not coming from Jorinde.

The first scream is from the sorceress, who drops her, arms coming up to defend against the lark that has broken free and now pecks at the sorceress’ eyes. The second is deeper, a man’s shout, and it comes from the entrance to the room.

Jorinde can see little from her place on the floor; the impact hurts all over, and she wonders, detached, if her small bones are shattered. She hears Joringel’s voice, watches him with wonder as he presses a red flower towards the sorceress’s sternum. The sorceress, still swiping at the lark attacking her, points a finger at Joringel. Jorinde, from her place at the very edge of the fire, can feel the magic as it builds, preparing to lick towards the place where the sorceress points. Jorinde digs her wings and what talons she has into the dirt floor and, with what strength she has, propels herself entirely, bodily into the fire.

---

Jorinde burns:

Her skin is on fire and her tiny organs are on fire, too, with her bone the thinnest partition between. The fire - magic - fire - burns through her, draws away from where it lives and find a new home burrowed deep, then it burns her from the inside out. She wishes against the pain - harder than she ever has wished for anything in her life - for Joringel, for her humanity, to not burn even as she knows she is burning. This time, Jorinde knows the scream she hears is her own.

---

Jorinde is fine. She is a woman again, with tears and opposable thumbs that can untie knots, and the girl-who-was-a-lark-who-was-a-girl introduces herself as Marlinchen and smiles a small smile when Jorinde points out that all the other bird-girls are leaving as fast as they can, hoping to forget. Marlinchen says something vague about this kind of thing running in her family and goes to hug Jorinde hard.

When Marlinchen touches her, Jorinde feels the jolt that runs through both of them and the other woman steps back quick, expression shuttered. Jorinde knows what she felt - something darkly familiar, brightly familiar, familiar like the red-dark-bright-red of embers on a sacrificial fire but also...not. It’s familiar, but more alive. Not consuming, but growing. More green.

Jorinde knows what Marlinchen felt because Jorinde felt it, too; Jorinde has felt it every second, every heartbeat, every syllable since she burnt. She’s felt it in her gut and her throat and her spine, a growing, pulsing presence that wants further in and freedom out all at once. She glances at the man she loves, who is turning birds into girls the same way he believes he turned a sorceress into an ordinary human - with a flower that was not magic until Jorinde burned it so.

Marlinchen catches the direction of her gaze. “Be careful there,” she says, and Jorinde almost laughs at the inadequacy of it. She nods, and they promise to write, but she knows by the wary look in Marlinchen’s still-sad eyes that she will never hear from the other woman again.

---

Joringel dreams:

She rummages around in her bag and produces match and book, which she hands to him to light. She takes the lit match, and, holding the fraxinella between their bodies, she touches the head of the match to its base. It burns, first the stem and the bottom blooms and then the whole flower aflame with long, consuming, wild tendrils of fire that reach up and out and around and engulf everything in their path. He can see her in the midst of the fire, and she is smiling, opening her mouth to talk to him and looking entirely fine. He flinches when sparks leap towards him, but leans close to hear when she says “Joringel,” and “Joringel, I-”

-Joringel wakes, too hot. He kicks off his side of the bedcovers and feels inexplicably cooled by the solid warmth of his wife.

---

Jorinde keeps her magic in the garden where she planted it, its red blooms a stark contrast to the cooler-colored foxglove and delphinium. Still, she likes to watch it glow in the dusklight, while she leans into her husband’s side; she likes even more to watch the way it pulses when her daughter draws near, reaching out in green tendrils so fine they might be mistaken for oddly tinted sunbeams. The girl does not love the garden the way Jorinde does, but is willing to take her needlepoint outside to satisfy her mother’s whims.

When her daughter is older, the girl will reach to pick an impossibly red flower one day and will feel her body growing, growing like moss on a tree and her insides straining against her outsides and her skin fit to burst. She will not burst, but when she returns to herself the bobble of thread she holds will be green, green like the the leaves of a forest flower, and she’ll have something...else, inside her, something that was red and became green and is now golden. Something she will have to learn to use, but not too much or too cruelly. Something to keep safe. Maybe she will keep it in her embroidery kit, in the bottom corner pocket, unassuming and unbuttoned, with a bit of yellow thread peaking out.

This will happen one day, Jorinde somehow knows, but not today. Today, she sits in her garden, lovely and wrinkled and old amid the growing things, and is content.