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Stephanie Gibbs, a bookbinder in Los Angeles, CA, offers edition and fine binding, book conservation, custom boxes, and paper repair for contemporary and historic books, manuscripts, and documents to clients throughout California.

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sister of embers

Stephanie Gibbs

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It started with the birds descending. They had an evil intent, if by evil, one means they were harming a human, and by intent, one means they acted of their own free will and volition. This ignores any actions the humans may have done, intentionally or unintentionally, in the past, that may have affected the birds or the god who controls them. This also presupposes a defined starting point: did everything, the universe, the big bang, the sudden materializing of a god, begin at the same moment the birds turned evil, or was there some passage of time beforehand, and the starting point becomes arbitrary narrative framework?

The birds seem to be complicating the story, but I can’t very well leave them out, any more than I can leave out the evil stepsisters and the glass slipper and the methods of household management employed by bourgeois families of the unspecified but pre-Industrial past, and I can’t include all of these aspects without inserting some type of warning against a hasty marriage with someone you’ve only danced with, on an evening where everyone was all dressed up and the champagne flowed freely and magic was in the air. I’ve had plenty of those evenings, but, had I actually been able to whisper the proverbial word of wisdom, I might have ventured that a spot of premarital counseling, or, at the least, a third date, would have been a not inappropriate consideration before trading an inarguably uncomfortable domestic arrangement for one that, quite possibly, could be much, much worse. Fairy godmothers are powerful beings, but not compared to royal executioners or divorce lawyers.

This is why choosing where to begin the story is so perilous. This isn’t really even about that interlude, anyway, seeing as how it lasted no more than a month, and nothing about that month was otherwise remarkable in any particular way. Let’s go back.

It started with the birds descending. They had an evil intent, the strong, sharp beaks and talons of raptors; they were larger and blacker than any falcon; there were two of them, and they swooped down onto the wedding party just as the cake was being cut and they blinded the sisters of the bride, then disappeared back into the heavens. Everything happened so quickly that many of the guests were unaware of anything at all, and there were two screaming girls, just barely teenagers, blood streaming down their faces. They quickly were led away from the festivities; the band took up a catchy dance tune; the moment was forgotten by the crowd and the party continued.

The girls were taken to the infirmary, staffed by a midwife who had developed a taste for distilled spirits, and one of them succumbed to an infection that spread from the eye through the bloodstream and into the brain, and the other one survived. She had lost her sight, of course, and had been hobbled as a child by stunted growth in her right foot, and thus knew she had no future position at court. She also knew she had no where else to go. By the time her wounds healed and she had learned how to navigate her dark world, she was still only sixteen, with a dead father, a dead step-father, a dead sister, a disinterested mother, and a stepsister with whom she had never been close and who was now negotiating the difficulties of an ill-advised hasty marriage. She was blind and had a club foot and no particular means of survival, and she did not have any desire to be alive.

It was November and the first snows had fallen; frost glazed the windows, the wolves were not yet desperate in the forests. One afternoon, as she say by the fire in the infirmary with the drunken midwife, she decided she had had enough. She could not knit, she could not sew, she could not clean, she could neither teach nor read, and so she wrapped her cloak around herself, and left.

It did not take her long to consider the folly of leaving without food or a sense of destination in the early winter, and she might have tried calling out for help, except she could not bring herself to care. Perhaps a poacher would inadvertently shoot her, or a band of ruffians attack her, or she could fall into a chilly swift river and drown in a haze of hypothermia. It was all much the same to her. Even if the devil himself had appeared and offered a bargain, she would not have been in any state to even know what to ask for. And she did not believe in the devil, although she believed in poachers and ruffians and rivers, and, if pressed, would have admitted that the birds that took her sight and her sister’s life were evil. She was too exhausted to care much else about philosophical details of god and the devil, and had never thought much about such esoteric drivel, anyway.

She walked slowly, and very quickly lost any sense of where she was and where she might be going, and she collided with trees and walls and quite a few immobile objects she could not identify. As the day grew colder she stopped and sat, just where she was, with no sense of whether she was twenty feet or two miles from where she had started; if she was in the middle of a road or on the edge of a cliff. If she had been injured and nursed in the land where she had grown up, the shape of the landscape would have imprinted itself into her mind, but her family had moved to this region when her mother had remarried, then she had been moved to the castle infirmary after her injury. Even if she had been in full possession of her senses, she knew nothing of the geography of this place. The people spoke a dialect that was thickly accented, so as to be almost foreign, and, outside court, she couldn’t understand a word of the locals’ speech.

As she sat in the cold, she tried to remember what she could of her childhood. There were very few good moments to latch onto; neither her mother nor her sister had even been willing to talk about the past. What she remembered was the deep warm heat of the underbelly of the chickens as she collected the eggs in the morning, and how there was one black hen that had imprinted upon her when it was just a chick, and would follow her throughout the day. She could barely remember her father, he had disappeared before she was old enough to learn her letters, and she never knew for certain if he had really died or something else, maybe something even worse. He had been a giant to her, with a huge shaggy red beard and a leather vest that always had a bit of string in the pockets, and if he wasn’t at home very much, when he was there, he would pick her up and swing her around in circles and she would scream in disoriented delight.

Her mother must have been quite young, barely past girlhood herself, and she remembered summer days when her mother would uncoil her hair and wash it and let it dry in the sun, and it was the same color as the grains growing in the fields, shiny and yellow. When her father was at home, her mother would sing and knit and make jams with the berries from the garden, but when her father wasn’t there, her mother had to chop wood and start the fires and she even must have learnt to shoot game. They never went hungry, but when her father wasn’t there, they didn’t have jam, and her mother didn’t sing.

There, on the corner of her memory, is a thought — had there been a baby brother? She hasn’t remembered him in years and years. He must have disappeared around the same time her father did, but she isn’t sure, she may have never known. There was a time she doesn’t remember at all, and then the flurry of activity with the move, the new stepfather, the new stepsister.

It is very cold out, now; it must be fully night. She lays down on the ground, curls inside her cloak to stay warm. She is hungry and cold, and in the back of her mind she still hears the echoing cries of the birds as they swooped down from the heavens towards her. Her sleep at night is always fitful and prone to terrors; she hears the heavy flapping of the birds’ wings in her dreams. It is very cold; she sleeps, but does not dream. There are no poachers, no ruffians, not even any hungry wolves that accost her as she sleeps.

The sun rises, but she does not wake up. It is a clear morning, and frost has traced her features, left her shape outlined upon the ground where she slept. A small boy is the first person to notice her, and he tugs at his mother’s apron to get her attention. He does not cry: he did not know the girl, he does not recognize death. She had not travelled so very far from the infirmary, but she had managed to leave the castle grounds, and cross a fallow field to the edge of a small village of share croppers. No one recognizes her as being from the court, for her clothes are not fine, and she is buried in the small churchyard, in the corner by itinerants and unknowns. Her story ends.