Winner of 2013/14 short story competition: Dancing the Animals by Tracey Glasspool

“Ulfa? Ulfa!”
I can hear Granna in the distance. She’s calling me home but I want to stay. The forest has become my refuge again. Here, amongst the tangle of trees, I can drown out the voices which followed me; teasing me, taunting me, calling me ghost-eyes. Mama says I should be proud of my eyes - ice-grey like my father’s, a memory of him. But I so want them to be brown like Orson and Aya’s. Normal.
It’s cool and still under the boughs. I catch a scent and lift my head – deer. I wish I had my bow. I could take a prize back to Orson – maybe then he would admit I’m the better hunter.
“Ulfa!”
Just a little longer.
I don’t know why the others won’t accept me. Even when I help them they whisper. It was me who found little Danill when he wandered off. Me, who tracked him into the forest. But they looked at me as if I was the one who’d led him there, not the one who brought him back to safety.
“Ulfa! Quickly child!”
I’m closer to home and Granna’s voice is louder, clearer. I shake the forest from my hair and start to run.  Granna is never agitated, but right now anxiety is flowing from her words. 

Orson is in the garden, a pyre growing under his hands. No time to stop and ask why. He shouts as I pass him. “Ulfa - you’re filthy! Wash your hands and feet before you go inside.”
I look down. He’s right – mud streaks my hands, my bare feet. I must have lost my shoes again.
I stop by the pump and freezing water gushes out, making me gasp.
Then a scream.
Mama. 

Granna is sitting with her, wiping her face with a cloth.
“Mama? What is it?”
There’s no response other than a groan. She clutches at her swollen belly, writhes on the bed. Her eyes are tightly closed but her mouth is a cavern. Leo sits on the other side of the room, his head in his hands.
I kneel by Granna. “Is it the baby? Is it coming? It’s too early.”
Granna nods, wringing the cloth in a bowl by her knees, dabbing at Mama’s face. “Something is wrong,” she says, the words hissing between tight lips.
Mama screams again. She flails an arm and I catch her hand, hold it close to me.
“Hush, Mama,” I say. “It will be alright.” But a look at Granna’s face tells me otherwise.
Granna passes me the cloth. “Hold her steady,” she says and moves down to Mama’s belly. She’s murmuring, low words I can’t catch, but they seem to soothe. I can feel my own heart slowing, my breathing steadying. Granna’s hands move with purpose. They are curled tightly, gnarled and old, but they know what they are doing. She feels around the swollen mound that houses my brother or sister, moves lower between Mama’s thighs. When she brings her hands back they are a vivid, shocking scarlet.
She heaves herself to her feet.
“Stay with her, keep her calm,” she says to me and then she goes to Aya, who is tending the fire, keeping it burning so the water will be hot.
“I need herbs, Aya. Quickly.”
She reels off a list, some I recognise, some new to me.
As Aya runs from the house, Granna shouts after her. “Don’t forget red sorrel.”
She returns to me.
“The baby wants to come but it’s stuck.” Her voice is low, for me alone to hear. “It’s upside down, Ulfa, I can feel its feet. I don’t think I can do this. I need help.”
I nod. “Who can I fetch?”
But Granna shakes her head. “Not that kind of help.” Her eyes slide to Leo and she lowers her voice even further. “We have to ask them,” she says and I begin to understand.
“I’ll help Orson, with the fire,” I say.
As I leave I glance at Leo again. He has always been good to us. Like a father should be I imagine, although I would not know - ours died when I was a baby. Leo is kind, fair, always strong. But now he looks like a little boy, his face pale as ewe’s milk, his skin coated with a sheen of sweat that has nothing to do with the heat of the room. He will be of no help to us. 

In the garden, Orson has a pile of wood almost as tall as himself. He is striking flint, waiting for a spark. It catches at a bundle he has made of dry straw and  twigs and a flame leaps out. I have to fight my reaction, my instinct to bolt. That first rush of flame always startles me, scares me. Orson is watching me and there is something in his eyes. Something sad and much older than his years.
“Aya is fetching herbs,” I say. “Granna wants us to ask for help.”
“I know.” Orson looks away. “I knew as soon as she asked me to set the fire.”
“Have you done this before, Orson?”
He nods. “Just once. Aya and I both have. You wouldn’t remember – you were too tiny.” He looks back at me. “There is always a choice, Ulfa. Remember that.”
I don’t know what he means, but as I am about to ask him, Aya returns. There is another scream from Mama and we both run inside, leaving Orson to the flames. 

Granna snatches the herbs from Aya, grabs a pot. She shoos us towards Mama. “Stay with her girls. I need to get this boiling.”
We sit with Mama, holding her hand, singing nonsense songs – the same songs she sings to us when we are sad or ailing. I hear Granna at the stove, chopping and stirring. She is muttering again and the smells wafting from the pot make my nose run and my eyes tear. The room feels heavy, cloying. Too warm. I long for the cool of the forest again, to be away from all this. But Mama is murmuring and I turn back to her, feeling guilty. I wring the cloth, smooth damp hair away from her face.
“Ulfa,” Mama manages. “Aya. Where is Orson?”
“Hush Mama, he’s in the garden, building the fire. We’re going to get help Mama. We’re going to help you.”
Mama starts to struggle, to rise.
“No!” she says, but another wave of pain grips her and she doubles over. When she is back in herself again, she seizes my hand. “No, Ulfa. You must not do this.” She is frenzied, agitated and I don’t know why.
Granna is at her shoulder. She presses her back against the sofa and pushes a leaf of red sorrel into her mouth. Mama tries to protest but another pain-wave overtakes her and she is gone. 

 “It’s time, girls.” Granna passes a cup to Aya, filled with a dark brew. The fumes are strong and bitter. “Take this to your brother, drink.  You know what you must do.”
As we leave, Granna calls me back, takes my hands.
“Ulfa,” she says. She stops, her fingers rubbing mine. Her hands feel rough and papery. “Ulfa. If there was any other way I wouldn’t ask this of you. I’m sorry child. I’m sorry if the choice comes to you.” Then she takes my face in her hands, presses her dry lips to my forehead.
This scares me more than anything else that has happened on this day; more than the taunts, more than Mama. I know Granna loves us but her emotions are always contained and this glimpse beneath her mask is too strange, too unsettling. She pulls back. Holds me with her gaze. “Ulfa,” she whispers again and lets me go. 

The fire is raging. Darkness has fallen and the stars are sprinkled across the sky as if swept there by an unruly hand. There is no order to them, no sense and I long to tidy them, as I always do.
Aya carries the cup to Orson and he takes it, drinks deeply, before passing it back to Aya who drinks and passes it to me. Oldest first, youngest last. Aya pulls a face and I resolve to keep mine a mask, like Granna’s, no matter what I taste. It’s hard. The brew is bitter and it’s all I can do to stop myself gagging. I take a deep draught, swallow it down.
I watch my brother and sister, ready to take my cue from them. I trust that they know what to do. Tonight we dance the animals, invoke the spirits of our ancestors, invite them into our world. We will ask for their compassion and their clemency; ask for the life of our mother and her unborn baby. If they are merciful we will wake from this dream to find them both well and whole. Orson is Bear, Aya is Falcon, and me - I am Wolf. 
Orson has a drum and he begins to pound; a slow beat, resonating deep in my bones. I can feel the brew sliding into my veins, thickening my blood and I wonder when I will know, what I will feel. The drumbeat speeds up, along with my heart. I begin to move.
And the world slips out of focus.
All I can hear is the beat, faster and faster. All I can feel is the air rushing about me as my body contorts, bends and sways to a rhythm I neither know or can control. I am aware of Orson and Aya moving about me, but they are shadows, just light and shade, no details at all. I feel something building within me and I want to raise my head and howl. My body feels strange, as if I am trying to be two shapes at once.  One human, one...not.
A power enters me and my muscles stretch - fill with a strength I have never had before. I could run forever, with strength like this. Does Aya feel the same? Could she take to the air now and fly? 

“Ulfa.”
There is someone else there. Someone other than the three of us. He is at once a stranger and as familiar as my own face. Ice-grey eyes. My father.
“Ulfa.” His voice is deep and low. “You must choose.”
It makes no sense. Choose? Choose what?
“Choose, Ulfa.”
“Ulfa!” I hear Orson now. “Remember it is your choice. It was father’s when you were a baby. Ulfa – you don’t have to do this.”
There is anguish in his voice and I finally understand.
I am being torn in two. One path will take me back - back to human form, to my sister and brother, Granna and Leo. But not Mama. Not Mama. The other... the other is my sacrifice to them. My own life has been a gift, given by my father who danced the animals for me. And now it is my chance to repay that gift. It is my choice.
There is no choice.
To return and live without Mama? To deny the baby its chance of life? No choice at all. The child will carry my gift, as I have carried my father’s. I pray that it never has to be repaid again.

The drumbeat slows. My shape is beginning to settle now, become solid and whole, muscles finding a pattern both unfamiliar and remembered. The world is changing, alive with scents and colours I could not smell or see before. It feels right. As if this was the shape I should always have been, the reason why I always felt out of place.
I hear Orson and Aya calling for me, and then the cry of a newborn, healthy and vigorous. But the voices are blurring, becoming hard to distinguish - just noises now.
Then, from the blur of sound, one final voice rises up in gratitude, clear and strong. Granna.
“Ulfa,” she calls. “Thank you, little wolf.”

In the forest I see the glint of ice-grey eyes. They are waiting for me. Waiting to take me home.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

This story really shows exceptional promise. Well done!

Anonymous said...

Loved this, wonderful atmosphere and imagery. It gave me great pleasure. Thank you.