A Mother Goes Between

by Rose Lemberg

Darja’s husband stood in the doorway, his bulk a blackness of smoke-smelling furs that obstructed the way back into the warmth. For three years the log-house had been her home, but now the starving wind slashed her, the snow choked her, the heart-heavy dusk smothered her face.

Darja smelled the teeth rotting in her husband’s mouth, dripping poison down his tongue. “Take your whelp and bury it in snow.”

She pressed the woolen sling closer to her painfully distended breasts. Inside it, her daughter was quiet. Not sleeping. Alert. Unnatural.

A monster born of sin, the villagers hissed, for Darja had gone between, had lain where the smell of her wolverine lover hung heavy in the undergrowth, damp fur and fresh kill, pine needle and sweet sap. Young girls and wives, the witch-song went, go not between, for boundary babes are badly born. The kin would not accept her child, not once they’d found the babe’s striped face under Darja’s paint and ointment. The witch had said so. Darja’s own mother had said so, many times. How long do you think you can conceal this from your man?

“Would you lift your hand to a child, husband mine?”

He tore his gaze away and spat into the snow, wiped his crooked mouth, and slammed the door against her.

She screamed after him, “Great Wolverine chose me!” Tmu of the summer, furnace-breath, had turned his roving eye towards her in desire. But she had brought his seed into the village—evil luck, and drought, and blight, they’d said, and injury upon good children.

What of my child?

Kill it.

She pulled her furs closer, shifted the sling to her back. The babe was slight for a nine-month old, small and soundless, but she wouldn’t let the wrongness of it trouble her. Blood of her blood. Blood stiff as hoarfrost, cruel as bitter winds. Above her head, the stars tore bright holes in the evening sky.

Feet leaden, Darja wobbled on the frozen stones from house to palisade. The garden gate loomed against whiteness. One more boundary to cross, and each crossing would take her farther from the hearth, from curdling milk and millet gruel, the piss-sour smell of her husband’s flesh. Away from the small hearth gods her mother had baked for their wedding, away from the icons blessed by the priest.

She felt the between from afar, the deep incision in the ground that repelled snow, repelled spring water, summer grass. Between the village and the taiga. Between the domain of the great kind god and the realm of the spirits. Once she had gone across it, and now she must go again.

The garden gate screeched, closing behind her. The pup was here again, its brown-and-gray head cocked and round ears perky. It was no dog pup, with its curving back and bushy tail, but it had a puppy’s face and big baby paws; they balanced awkwardly, one hind leg lame and dragging on the snow. Its eyes were caked shut with blindness.

Darja patted her parka. The pup’s pink tongue lolled as she pulled a buckwheat blin from her pocket and tore it, tossed half of it, dripping warm butter, upon the ground. Only the deformed children came to her now. Always the village mothers hugged their good children close against the wrongness of her child. “Don’t look, or you’ll become like it. The wind will blow your face off. Steal your voice.”

The pup sniffed the offering and gulped it up. It cocked its ears at her in expectation, but Darja shook her head.

“Later, you little glutton.”

The puppy snorted, then refocused on Darja again, its blind eyes as unreadable as the snow. A voice, thin and silvery, making no sound, resonated inside the bell of her skull.

Do not be afraid on your path. Inside every silence there are ancestors of words. Snowflakes are pregnant with summer. The world is made whole upon the between.

“I’m not afraid!” Her hand grasped the long-dagger at her hip. The hilt of the weapon, bound in her grandmother’s skin, and her aunt’s, scorched her fingers. They all disapproved of her, even the dead. There was only one way to appease the old gods of men and the spirits of the forest, one way to make the world whole upon the between.

Kill.

The uncanny pup limped away from the knife, became a shadow, melted into the faithless dusk.

Darja’s hand slid off the hilt. I’m sorry, child. I didn’t mean to scare you.

She remembered the last month of her pregnancy, when, sweaty with her burden, she had watched as her husband chiseled the cradle from a fallen oak. He’d bitten his lip in concentration, his forehead and eyes warm with hope.

Great Tmu, you sired this child. You should have been here. For me. For her. Oh Wolverine, they say you’re not like people. But do you not feel what a father feels?

This wailing. The wind
Knows not where to burrow
I welcomed it inside my cunt

Across the between Darja went, into the taiga blue with pines and desolate with blistering snow. The bundle pressed her back, and Darja thought she felt her daughter’s breathing, faint as a flickering candle, as it shivered warmth through her lungs. Alive.

She walked among the pines, among the oaks that had shed their summer might to clothe themselves in frost. Her mottled furs were not half-soft or warm as theirs. Beneath this forest, bears lay smothered by their dreams, and slugs and hedgehogs slept among the roots of oaks. The forest covered up its children, safe from harm.

What of my child?

In front of her, the shadow fell.

Tmu wore his man-shape, but he loomed larger than any man, bearded, his skin the color of soot, his massive forearms fur-covered. He went unclothed, here in his domain. The long sweet pain grew inside Darja’s bones, the desire for him, thawing her into tears. She sniffled them away, wished for a face of frozen steel, a mask of pine-needles. There was nothing.

She unbound the sling and lowered the blanket gently to the ground. Swaddled in sable and homespun, the babe was still, her striped face expressionless, wild eyes focused on nothing. Darja sank to her knees, clutched her hands to her belly in supplication to what powers she knew not.

He did not move.

She found her voice at last, a starving stray inside her throat. “Behold our child. She makes no sound. She does not look at me. My lying people say she has no soul.” Her daughter may be lost, but she was there, the fleeting warmth of her—soon to die, Darja’s mother had soothed.

She spoke again. “They will not suffer her. You take us, Tmu. Protect her. Please. She is your blood.”

His mouth gaped wide. Inhuman, red and spiraling inward upon itself, a fall without return. She’d kissed—but it had been in summertime. Now the bitter wind strengthened her, the cold—an armor of granite, affixing her to winter.

“My kin don’t mate for life,” he said. “A week or two at most, molded together upon the sweltering earth.” The dry twigs digging at her back, she thought, the musk of him, the madly swaying leaves against the summer sky. All buried.

“And the babe,” he said. “It is unnatural for our two kinds to bring a birth. A boundary babe is badly born, we say. You should have dropped, like I told you.”

“I went to the swamp,” he said, “Belly-deep in the murk, I plucked the marsh blossom under a full moon for you.” His voice scraped her ears like a beast in a snare. “Drink of this draught, I said, and the seed will be flushed from your womb.”

“How could I kill my own child?” Darja cried. Below, on the blanket, the babe stirred, settled, one cheek pressed to the undyed homespun. Nine months now, but this child of hers could not yet sit, could not even raise her head or roll over onto her belly. Oh, my little one. If only I could hide you again in my womb.

“Help her!”

Tmu spoke, his voice like falling crows. “No.”

She said, “Do you not feel what a father feels?”

A small shadow came from behind, limped around her. The pup. Uncanny warmth, unseeing eyes the color of homespun. It panted, every breath puffing the gray and brown fur on its sides. It bent its striped face over the blanket to lick her babe’s striped face.

The winter thawed from Tmu’s eyes. “Come away, Kytgy,” he said to the blind pup.

It turned to Tmu, and the voice in Darja’s head sounded gentle as snowflakes rubbing against each other. Heal her. Make her whole.

“I cannot, son,” he said.

The puppy sneezed, then rubbed his nose with an oversized paw. Do not be afraid to make right. The spirit flows inside the blood. A shaman’s spirit cannot die.

“I cannot, child,” Tmu said again. “I cannot raise my hand to the deed.” He picked his pup up. Kytgy let out a contented sigh, curled up in the cradle of his father’s arms. A child both lame and blind, but it never had to beg its place, its life. Not like her child.

She heard the voice again, a stream of tiny bells in the log-house of her soul.

I’m not that blind. I see the spirits in all things. Inside the burning of the snow I see the pine needles, and inside them the ancestors of sap. The night churns out spirits to inhabit stars. Inside my sister I see myself.

A wailing whiteness blinded Darja, freezing the tears to bridge her eyes and cheeks. She thought then she heard the creak of footsteps. “Tmu!” She yelled, “Where are you going, Tmu! Give her a name at least! A name! You are her father!”

There was no answer. Darja’s hands shook at the folds of the blanket, wrapping her babe against unwieldy frost. Tmu was gone when she straightened under her burden. The orphaned forest was still.

Shut it, you
mothers of hale babes. Mine
rustles underfoot. Mine
harms no one,
except in your stories

Darja edged back into the village, unheralded even by dogs. The darkness pressed itself upon the earth, upon the log-houses of her sleeping kin. Even the snow abandoned her—underfoot, its whiteness had bled into slush. Darja pressed the sling close to her belly, fearing her daughter too would lose her firmness, become soft, ooze to the ground like mud.

Nowhere to go, unless perhaps her mother would take them.

She pulled her glove off, shoved a hand inside the bundle. The babe’s tongue licked along her finger, a tiny warmth to Darja’s frost—she hadn’t noticed how cold her limbs had grown, her belly empty and rumbling.

Darja wove between the houses, beggar-like inside her too-generous skin. Please shelter me, mother, for I have gone between, and now I return. I return. Do you not feel what a mother feels?

She drew her hand out of the sling and turned around and around, dizzy, disoriented. The forest echoed to her left, spilling Tmu’s shadow over the village. There was no sound—the pigs and geese lay cold inside the barns, and people sprawled unmoving on their beds. She smelled the sleeping villagers behind their bolted doors. Her husband’s sour whiskey breath. The sharp ammoniac odor of the witch. The gagging scent of rose water, the priest. In winter, so they say, the dead are oppressed by the stench of the living, and come out of their graves to kill.

Another door. At last.

She knew it to be painted blue to ward off Tmu’s eye, but it shone pale white now, as if it had absorbed all sickness from the snow. She shouldn’t trust—but memories of happiness, of cherry dumplings, summer winds, betrayed her. Darja pushed and entered.

Her mother was awake, kneeling on the ancient, scrubbed floorboards to gut fish before the open fire. She wiped the knife on her apron and gestured the avert against Darja, but her lips moved soundlessly, the ancient curse unspoken. “He threw you out at last. I told you so.”

Darja didn’t know what to say. Why had she come back here? Her mother thought Darja a sinner. She’d gone to the priest. To purify my girl with holy icons, she had begged, To burn the evil seed from her with the iron cross. And yet Darja had come back.

“Mama, I…” She hesitated. “I’m not angry anymore. About the priest.”

The old woman closed her eyes and swayed in front of the fire, caressing the hilt of the paring knife. “Not angry anymore? And what about me, child? I begged the holy man for you, and you refused. ” She leaned closer to Darja, eyes still shut. “I begged the witch then, do you know, to teach me what to do.”

Oh yes, and you went, Darja thought. You and Tmu. Did you not see each other, in the swamp, waiting for the blooming of my child’s death?

“I went barefoot to the marshes, unguarded, bitten by insects, stung by nettles. Under the full moon, I waited ankle-deep in ice water, waited all night for the marsh blossom to bloom.” Her mother’s eyes opened, bloodshot, laced with tears. “You threw the elixir away.”

The old woman looked into Darja’s face finally, eyes kind like summer afternoons full of laughter and slices of buttery bread. “Oh, little heart. I know how hard it is for you. You carried it beneath your heart. But it’s not a real child. It will not live long. Inside, it is rotten. It is dying. And as it dies it eats your life. You look so drained. It’s wrong, all wrong. Let the old woman kill it for you.”

Darja recoiled, bile in her mouth mixing with the memory of her mother’s bread. “I wanted a baby girl,” she whispered, “Like you had me. She’s not so different, from when I was little.”

“What do you say to me? My girl was perfect. Without a blemish. No, you were nothing like that.” The old woman struggled to her feet, eyes dark, determined. “I’ll do it for your sake.”

“No!” Her mother wouldn’t change. Why had she come here, then? She was between now, placeless. No matter where she went, the miasma of boundary places oozed from her, corrupted all she touched; but like the restless dead that scrape the windows of their kin, so Darja craved to touch—her lover, her child, even her husband, anyone. Anyone, against this cold.

“I hoped you’d shelter me, shelter her, mama, please…” Don’t all daughters crave their mother’s embrace, warmer than a lover’s, safer than any man’s? “Do you not feel what a mother feels?”

“Oh, yes. I love you so much.” The old woman straightened, pressed herself to Darja’s body, careless of the bundle between them. The child jerked inside, and Darja sensed the wickedness of the paring knife in her mother’s hand.

“Forgive me! Forgive me!” Darja grabbed the door handle and pushed herself out, into the wailing of the new snow. She ran away stumbling, clutching at the sling, not looking back. You love me, yes. So much that you would kill my child for me.

She whispered to her daughter, “Little one, they have it wrong, my kin and the Wolverine. You’re perfect. You too will learn to look at me, learn how to speak. You are so soft, and your perfect little face—I don’t care how striped it is. Nobody wants you. Not a people. Not a kin.

“But I.

“I’ll be your people, daughter mine, and the between your home.” Darja’s heart fluttered, too big for her chest, a black, clumsy thing. They would not survive long, in the boundary places, but her little one was safe with mama, always, always.

Was her daughter still breathing? She couldn’t tell.

At the very edge of the forest she stopped, waiting for a sound, a rustle, but there was only the wind breaking chunks of ice off the pines.

Darja dropped to her knees upon the path, unwound the sling with desperate hands. The little girl’s chest still rose and fell, thank the great kind god on the iron cross, thank the ancestors, thank—but the babe’s eyes glazed, and her breathing came in short whistling sobs. Her daughter was making a sound. The wonder of it stopped Darja’s hands in mid-lurch, but then her heart curdled like milk curdles. On the babe’s right-hand side, the woolens had soaked up moisture. She patted the swaddle, praying for piss, but the babe’s legs felt dry. Darja pressed a gentle finger to the stain next, put it to her tongue. Tasted iron.

Gulping guilty breaths, she leant over the child for shelter, tore at the swaddling woolens. Touched her babe’s skin. A long shallow gash at one side, not a killing blow, but the wound still seeped. How much blood in a child so small? She patted her parka desperately, but there was nothing for healing, only the leftover blin in one pocket.

She spread the sling upon the snow to tear it into strips. There was a gash in the material where the bundle had faced outwards, towards her mother.

Kill.

Kill, for you.

The snow creaked. A softness hovered above, a smell of mouse droppings and incense and wolfsbane. The witch, her face ancient and brown, her frame broad and gaunt as a scarecrow’s, her hands clutching each other inside sleeves of calico cat fur. “Here you are. Your mother said to go after.”

Darja spat bitterly. “To check if she finished?”

“So she said. Paid me five sable furs, your mother.”

Darja pulled the woolen swaddle-cloth around her bleeding babe, soft body oozing through the sling’s wool to the wounded snow. “No closer, bitch.” Her hand was on the knife.

The woman shrugged, knelt by her, not too close. Her mouth puffed sweet decay into the air. Under the witch’s tattered cat-fur coat, bone hexes and blue beads rattled, wards wrapped in skin, wards made of hollow rounded stones, the ones called chicken gods. Here was one human unafraid of the Wolverine’s eye.

“I’ll help you.”

Catching Darja’s disbelieving gaze, the witch mouthed, “For I too have gone between, into this forest, long ago, to lie beneath the heaviness of summer pines.”

Darja took her hand off the knife. “Come closer, then.”

The witch scooted closer. Took rags out, and vials. Unstoppered some. Cleaned the wound. Bandaged it. “Shallow. Lucky, but then again, Tmu’s children are hard kills.”

“How can I repay you?” Darja asked, as she pulled the swaddling clothes around the babe once more.

The witch shook her head. “I’ll take the furs your mother gave, and lie. You keep quiet, that’s your payment.”

Darja wanted to talk more, to argue, but milk ran down her breasts in warm rivulets. She picked her daughter up and opened her parka. The little girl latched, and the desperation of her lips around Darja’s nipple turned the world upside down with relief. She tilted her head back, catching snowflakes upon her burning face as her daughter drank from her. Still alive.

She heard the witch’s voice then, coming, coming. “You should kill your lover’s child. Many a cursed babe was restored to haleness by drinking the blood of its rival sibling.”

Something small was pressed into her hand. A vial, by the feel of it, carved from a nubby antler. “Rub the snare with this, and Wolverine’s child will come to you.”

Snow fell. Darja didn’t notice when the witch left, trailing behind her the odor of incense and ash. Long-needled fir-trees blanketed her in shadows. The babe was quiet, breathing sleep, its lips still brushing Darja’s breast.

Do not be afraid.

Rend apart my flesh
child, my heart
drums for you
shaman child, my heart
makes a road

The wolverine pup whined quietly in Darja’s snare, good hind leg broken and bleeding, the other twisted uselessly upon the snow. His tongue lolled, licking the metal. A damp and slightly oily scent rose from the snare, the witch’s concoction she had rubbed in.

Darja hadn’t believed he would come. Hadn’t wanted him to. But here he was.

She knelt by him. The pup licked Darja’s hand, the movement of his tongue warm and rough, almost like her daughter’s had been. Kytgy’s voice echoed, dreamy and drugged, inside her head. Mama?

“No, Kytgy. I am not your mama.”

I’m sorry, Darja thought. Her hand wrapped around the hilt of the knife, fingers dug into her grandmother’s skin, and her aunt’s.

Sin upon sin. What right did she have to kill Tmu’s son?

A mother’s right.

Just like her mother’s right, to want to kill her own for her sake.

My daughter has no-one. I promised, I swore to protect.

Kytgy.

She stroked his head, fingers brushing the warmness of puppy-soft fur. He felt hot, feverish to the touch. She traced his striped face, combed the strands of gray fur gently away from the brown. “I cannot do this, little one.”

Kytgy licked her hand again. It’s all right. Do not be afraid. His tail curled between his injured hind legs, tap-tap-tapping the snow.

“You always came to me at my house, you ate from my hand, followed me into the forest, you talked—”

His soft cheek trembled against her palm, and the voice in her head wobbled dizzy with the smells of oil and urine, musk and salt. Please… it hurts… The blind eyes no longer looked at her.

You said not to be afraid. I never was, she thought. It was you, always you, my pup, my child. You spoke so to yourself.

I am afraid now.

She took a breath. The ancestors, he’d said, in everything. Where were they now, who should have protected these children from harm, who should have thawed the speech inside her little girl? They were they, silent and invisible while Kytgy lay broken, dying at her hand? In the winter, the earth hides its dreaming below the snow’s heaviness, and even the ancestors, she thought, steel their hearts against life.

She lowered the sling to the ground, unfolded the corners. The babe’s heart-shaped face, circled by the fur wraps, blurred in her vision. She wiped her eyes clumsily, watched as her daughter’s eyes wandered. The sky above the glade yelled silence.

“Forgive me, little one.”

She slashed Kytgy’s throat, squeezed the lifeblood into her daughter’s mouth. The babe gulped desperately, gurgling and choking. The snow around them curdled into the earth.

She breathed in, the air slashing her lungs like poisoned knives. The smell of Kytgy’s blood, mixed with witch’s brew, dizzied her. She waited, waited for her daughter to make a sound, a movement—

But the babe’s eyes fluttered closed, and only her little chest rose and fell, twinned with Darja’s breathing, rose and fell, rose and fell.

Rose.

And fell.

For many long moments Darja sat motionless, refusing to draw a breath. She picked up the babe, pressed the limp little body to her with both trembling hands, willed her caged heart to beat the air into her daughter’s lungs. The evening stilled around them, and the encroaching night darkened the trees into funereal wardens. There were no tears left to cry—behind her eyes there grew an emptiness unvisited by summer, disowned even by the winter wind.

Darja freed Kytgy’s broken body from the snare, and dug a hole in the bloody snow with her knife and her hands. She curled him gently into the earth, placed the last half of the buttery blin by his head as a funeral offering. Take your whelp and bury it in snow. She blanketed him in whiteness, gently drawing hands together in circles, like a prayer.

That done, she lay down on the ground by Kytgy’s grave, and tucked her daughter’s body close, and spoke to the forest spirits to empty her of life.

In the dream, there is darkness. Her heart is the only thing she can hear. Below, a narrow road into the narrow emptiness, unseen but felt. A boy-child of about six years—he’s brown and gray, a wisp against the dayless, nightless path that leads below.

White animals rise as he descends—mouse and otter, lynx and bear. He speaks transparent words, and one by one the guardians move aside.

Blood makes a beat. Her heart is hard and steady, drumming his steps through the worlds.

She opened her eyes to Tmu’s towering figure, his dark fur blemished with new gray. He crouched on the ground, sniffing the congealed blood, the shallow grave. There was no rage in him, only immense sadness. “Why did you do this?”

What did I dream of? It is gone now. He is gone. Beside her, her daughter’s body was ice upon the blanket, frozen heartblood, bereft hopes. Darja’s swollen breasts hurt, but there weren’t any children left to feed.

“I wanted my daughter to live,” she whispered.

He licked the salty black snow. Turned away from it at last. “I’ll take the little girl to the between.”

Of course, she thought, of course, my daughter had no place in the village, or in the wood. So you will bury her where even the grass refuses to settle. But she didn’t argue when he unwrapped the swaddling furs, picked the small limp body up and carried it to the black incision in the ground.

“Yes,” he said to her, “I feel what a father feels. I protected my son. It is too late for that now.”

Tmu lowered his head to lick the child across the eyes, again, again. Then he spoke, in a voice deep as summer stirring under frozen earth, in a voice of thaw breaking ripples over her daughter’s unlife.

“I name you Kunlelo.”

The babe drew a ragged breath. Opened her eyes. For the first time, her gaze focused upon Darja. A voice of bells echoed in her head, puppy-proud. I journeyed underworld, he said. I brought my sister’s spirit back. Is she not fine? The babe mouthed the words along with the silvery voice in her ears.

“Kytgy,” Darja breathed.

A shaman’s spirit cannot die.

He’d known. He’d asked his father to heal the babe, and Tmu said he couldn’t raise his hand to the deed.

“Is my daughter in there now, with you?”

She is here, and whole, but she will never speak. She’ll see for me. I’ll speak for her.

“Kytgy.” Tmu lifted the babe, cradled it in his arms. Stepped across the between again, so that he stood on the forest side, she on the village side just like that first time they’d met, when Tmu’s lips had tasted of blood and ripening berries. His face was grim now. “Shaman or not, you didn’t know what he would do, what would happen. You spilled my son’s lifeblood.”

Oh yes. For all the worlds to right themselves upon this between, the burden of her sin was greater than winter. Darja drew her hand across her mouth, choking against the dog fur of her parka.

Tmu said, “We go now.”

“Take me with you,” Darja cried. He turned his face away. She threw herself after them, but the between rose up, invisible frost, biting spikes. Without her child she was but a villager again, to cross at Tmu’s permission, or not at all. Beyond the veil of rime, her little girl twisted in Tmu’s arms, and her eyes latched on to her mother’s.

Kunlelo sends her love.

She smashed her fists against the boundary as the Wolverine walked away from her, into the forest. From a great distance she heard Kytgy’s voice, spoken for her, just for her. We’ll come to you one day, in summertime.

She’d wait then. Away from this between. The kin would embrace her now, oh yes, her husband, mother, even the priest, masquerading betrayals with rosewater breath. She wiped her mouth, wondered if all witches had been boundary mothers. Time enough to find out, while she waited for her children to return.


Rose Lemberg is an immigrant from three countries. She currently works as a professor of Nostalgic and Marginal Studies somewhere in the Midwest. Rose’s short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, and other venues, and was recently reprinted in People of the Book: A decade of Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy. Her poetry has appeared in Apex, Goblin Fruit, GUD, Jabberwocky, and Mythic Delirium, among other venues, and has been nominated for the Rhysling Award.  She edits Stone Telling, a new magazine of boundary-crossing poetry. Rose can be found online at http://roselemberg.net.


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