by Jessie Bishop Powell
When people asked about Johnna’s dark skin and hair and her grey-violet eyes, her mother Manda said, “She was my surprise baby.” Those traits, especially the eyes, belonged to the Auric tribe, whose standing with the ruling council was never stable. So the askers usually pretended to think Johnna was descended from her stepfather, even though she looked nothing like him or her younger siblings on that side.
Her father, when Johnna saw him once a year, was more honest. “Pfft. Accident,” he said. “The caravan leader had a fetching daughter, and I had a terminal problem keeping up my drawers.”
Johnna grew up among her mother’s folk, nomadic traders who settled into their mountain valley only in hard winter. Manda polished and mounted gems in cunning settings. She twisted necklaces , bracelets, and rings into life. Johnna took the name Cooper from her stepfather. He soaked wood and banded it into casks. Winters, his shop came alive with the sounds of hammering, and summers, he set up his travelling forge to keep working.
Johnna herself was apprenticed to the bowwright, and she had nimble fingers and patient hands. She chose feathers and wood all summer long as they traveled. She sat with Darric in his wagon in summer and in his shop in the cold months, and he guided her hands as she smoothed the wood to a shine and notched it for stringing . “Every tree has a curve, no matter how slight,” Darric said. “Pay attention to that as you work; make the bow conform to that natural shape.” She used the feathers to fletch arrows, where she also mounted the sharp little tips she whittled down from flint or obsidian.
Increasingly, Johnna’s next oldest sister minded their brothers so their parents could sell the family’s goods. Johnna often went with Darric now. They were watched closely, the sandy haired bachelor and his young apprentice. And they were careful, never alone long, because tongues wagged in their tribe. It wasn’t something they spoke of, but in the summer, if Darric went into the wagon for something, Johnna made a point to sit up front. Or if she needed something in back, he took the reins or tended to the horses in some other way, so that everyone could see they were not alone in the dark. Winters, they sat in his shop, perched on stools, the door open to outside, even though it was cold.
Johnna slighted her friends to hone the craft she loved. It wasn’t just making the bows and arrows, but testing them. Darric taught her how to hunt and shoot true, so she could know her own work’s quality. Then too, she earned a little money, because Darric put her pieces alongside his in every town, only telling which had been made by the prentice when pressed. She kept this cash secreted with her stepfather’s barrels. Her peers might overlook her darker skin and hair and her purple tinted eyes, but none of them had the skill to earn money from their prenticeships yet. They would say Darric favored her, perhaps even that he was courting her, if they knew he gave her money of her own.
She was just now fifteen, the age her mother had been at her own birth. Young by her people’s standards. Still, one of her friends was already betrothed. Sari meant to marry outside the tribe. Her vocation ran more towards growing things, skills that made her ill suited for a nomadic life. She was engaged to a farmer near Derrydown, and if they still liked each other when they met again next summer, her parents would let the wedding go forward. Johnna did not want a husband yet. She was friendly with a number of boys, and she supposed she would go with one of them when the time came. But primarily, she meant to craft bows and hunt.
Then came her father’s letter, sent with a straggler who had to stop and replace a wheel and who barely crossed the passes before the mountain snows isolated the village for winter. “My wife died,” her father wrote. She had been heavy with their third when the caravan wound through Auricstead the previous fall, and Johnna could guess how she passed.
The letter went on, “I have a wet nurse for the babe, and I can manage for the winter. But come Spring, I must built up my hut again and add a room to take a new wife in the fall. I would pay a good wage if you came and watched your sisters until late summer.”
Johnna’s mother laughed when she saw the note. “He was always so direct,” she said.
“He doesn’t make it sound very appealing,” Johnna said.
“He doesn’t at that,” Manda agreed.
“He says he doesn’t want the appearance of an affair,” Johnna told Manda, quoting the letter. “It’s one thing to have loose drawers when you’re a young man, but a widower best be clear he isn’t buttering both sides of his bread.”
Johnna’s mother laughed again. “So direct,” she repeated. “But think about it,” she went on. “There are grandmothers he can hire among the Auric if that’s his reason. It’s a side way in for you he’s offering, if you want to take it.”
“And if I don’t?”
Johnna’s mother shrugged, smiled. “Then you don’t,” she said.
Later, sitting with Darric, both of them sanding bows, Johnna said, “My father wants me to sit with my sisters for two seasons.”
“Oh?” Johnna no more discussed her parentage with Darric than she did the reasons they must always leave the door open when a third party wasn’t in the shop.
“His wife died,” she went on. “Mother says he’s giving me a chance to be an Auric.”
“And do you want that?” Darric set aside his bow and watched her.
Since he had set his work down, Johnna did the same, but that left her nothing to do with her suddenly anxious hands. “No,” she said, gripping the edges of the stool. “But I do want…” it was hard to put into words what she wanted.
“You want them to acknowledge you,” said Darric. “You want them to stop looking around you and pretending you are purely the Cooper’s daughter from the Arom tribe.”
“Yes. That’s exactly what I want.”
Darric picked up his work once more, allowing Johnna lift hers again, as well. He sanded awhile, smooth long strokes that Johnna tried to imitate on her own bow. After a time, Darric said, “You would rejoin us when the caravan came through in fall?”
“Of course. I hadn’t thought of actually going,” Johnna told him. “I don’t like to lose two seasons learning.”
Darric smiled. “You wouldn’t lose a thing if you kept working. And you would have time to gather a fair amount of wood in two seasons.” He didn’t have to tell her that some of the most expensive bows he sold were teak or that the time the Arom spent in the southern woodlands was too short for his liking. But the caravan had to hurry by then, to get back to the northern mountains before the heavy snows and ice came.
Johnna thought of the Auric forests, where Darric had traded some sixteen of his best bows last year for enough wood to make just five more. He expected to sell those for more than every other bow now in the shop, and Johnna was to craft one of them.
“You think they would let me take their wood?”
“I think if we finish three of those,” he pointed to the unstarted wood standing in a corner of the shop, “and you take them with you, they will buy them for a cost and open their forest to us both. They will see the value to themselves in what we sell.”
Johnna put down her work again, this time to cross to the corner where the teak waited. She ran her fingers lightly over her piece. “That would be something,” she said. It wasn’t just that Auric teak was a strong hardwood. It was infused with Auric magic simply from growing where they lived, and sanded and fitted right, those bows shot truer than any in the world. “That would be something,” Johnna repeated.
“Your father would teach you a little of their skill,” Darric went on. “Think about the weapons you could make. There hasn’t been a hunter mage since before my father’s time.”
Johnna looked up sharply. “But Darric,” she said, “I don’t fly! The Auric mages all fly.”
“Yes you do!” he countered. “Or you did anyway. When you were a babe in arms your mother and grandmother tied a little string to your ankle and towed you behind them like a kite.”
“How would I fly, Darric? I don’t have wings!”
“Well I don’t know where they went, but you used to. I wasn’t quite an apprentice myself, but I remember the arrows my father fletched with your feathers were said to never miss their mark.”
Johnna stared at Darric, her mouth slightly open, her hands dangling at her sides. Then she reached behind herself and patted across her shoulder blades, as if she expected wings to have sprouted out of her shirt while they were talking. Forgetting her coat on its nail by the hearth, she turned and walked out of the shop.
In the street, she ran all the way home and burst in as Manda set a piercing green emerald in a delicate lady’s ring. Normally, Johnna would never have disturbed her mother at work, but now, she no more saw the ring than she did the coat left behind in Darric’s shop.
“Johnna, what happened, child?” Manda exclaimed.
“Darric says I used to fly!”
“Well yes, “ her mother said. “Your feathers stopped growing in when you started walking. But your father told me they would come back if you ever wanted them.”
“Well why didn’t you ever tell me?”
“You never seemed very interested in your father’s people.”
“I guess I wasn’t until now,” said Johnna. She sat down on the hearth and watched Manda.
Manda went back to the gem. “You’ve met your baby sisters,” she said. “They could do with a bit of family right now, and you have a good hand with the littles.”
“I suppose so.” Johnna ran her hand across her shoulders again. Her whole back had started itching when Darric first told her she used to fly. “But I’m not Auric!” she burst out.
Now Manda laughed. “Of course you are,” she said. “You’re as Auric as you are Arom, dear.”
“I mean I couldn’t stay with them. What if I got there and they tried to keep me?”
“Their trouble with the ruling council has always been they force people out, not that they keep them in.”
“And father says,” again the hand across her own shoulders, “that if I want to fly, my feathers will come back?”
“Yes. The flight isn’t something external. It’s stored within your body. Find a way to work it out.”
Johnna thought her body was working those feathers out all on its own from just that brush of thought. She felt needles of pain all down her spine, and it was all she could do to keep from tearing her shirt off and running bare-chested into the winter air to cool the stinging.
It was that pain far more than her mother’s words that made her believe Darric. She would not lose ground in two seasons with the Auric. Instead, she would gather wood and knowledge. She would learn to train her bows with Foresight, so a hunter might see, an instant before releasing the string, if the shot would fly true or if it should be held back, the arrow unwasted.
Now her back felt like live embers had sparked onto it from the fire behind her. She lurched to her feet and then she did struggle out of her shirt. It was growing too tight, and she thought the wings would shred it. Manda looked up again from the gem, then set it swiftly aside to help her daughter. Johnna collapsed against her mother, who swayed, but held her upright as blood spilled down the girl’s sides and her back and shoulders erupted into a riot of brightly colored feathers.
After a few minutes, Manda asked “Are you all right?”
Johnna made a little sound then said, “Tender.”
“I should say.” Manda lowered Johnna to her knees. “I’m going to get a robe for you to put on backwards, then I’ll take you down to the springs. We can stop at the apothecary for numbing powder.”
Johnna sank down to rest on her arms, which quaked. She felt top-heavy and off kilter. She thought then that she would go to the Auric, to care for her sisters and to learn what to do with herself. She would not stay more than the two seasons, and even that would be hard for someone so used to travel.
She formed in her mind the fixed image of that teak sitting in Darric’s shop. She felt as though she held it already, smoothing, polishing, and notching the wood. This she would take, along with Darric’s two finished bows, to sell to her father’s tribe. But the next bow she made she meant to keep for herself, to learn to hunt in a whole new way. She barely minded that she would miss Sari’s wedding. She had larger things to do in her fifteenth summer, and in spite of her weakness and her pain, she found herself smiling when Manda came back into the room.
Sade shifted on her rug and ruffled her shoulder feathers. “Pass me that bowl,” she instructed, her blind eyes focused somewhere over Johnna’s shoulder.
“Which?” Johnna asked. There were three bowls in front of her.
Her grandmother said, “The one you were thinking of.”
“Oh.” Johnna picked up the right-hand bowl and passed it across the low fire.
The old woman nodded and turned it over in her hands, tapping her fingers rapidly around the rim. “This is a good one,” Sade said. “Now tell it to me.”
“Excuse me?” Now, Johnna shifted. But where her grandmother had changed positions to get more comfortable, Johnna moved because there wasn’t any comfortable to be had in this hut. Her shoulders itched, her feathers tingled, and her rump was sore. She had been sitting with her father’s mother for only fifteen minutes. Yet in that time, she had earned three rebukes for her failure to observe tiny and inexplicable things.
Behind the hut, Johnna heard her father and several other men hammering on the frame for the new room. She turned her head to look out the open front door and check on her sisters, playing just outside. Ba’aita, she of three summers and a thousand temper tantrums, was leading poor little Li’ita on a chase. Ba’aita flew just out of Li’ita’s reach, never beyond the circle Johnna had chalked into the dirt, but always just at its perimeter. Li’ita, who had only one summer, flapped along after her sister, calling “Bita! Bita!” and laughing . The new baby was not outside. This youngest sister was with the wet nurse, who would bring her home at sunset.
Sade said, “Tell me the bowl.”
Johnna clammed her mouth shut, not willing to say she still didn’t understand and risk another encounter with the sharp side of her grandmother’s tongue.
Ba’aita burst suddenly through the open door. She flew straight into the flimsy back wall, knocking it down into the construction mess with the force of her impact.
“Not again, Ba’aita!” Johnna said, rising to see if the child was hurt. Although this was the first time Ba’aita had knocked down an entire wall, she had already cracked her wooden bowl in half at breakfast and torn one of Sade’s spell books in impish play. Naptime, Johnna thought, couldn’t come soon enough.
The small offender hovered a little off the ground, gazing down at the fallen wall with wide eyes. Blood ran in a steady stream down one arm. “Sorry,” she whimpered . Only it sounded like “Solly” because she hadn’t learned how to make her r’s yet.
“Why didn’t you stop her?” Sade demanded.
“Well I didn’t know she was going to… Oh. This is something else I should have Seen first,” said Johnna.
Sade sighed and got up herself, their lesson at an end.
Johnna heard her father’s voice. “Well here’s a mess,” Aif said, coming into view. Indicating Ba’aita’s bloodied arm with a pointed finger, he asked, “What got her?”
Sade knew without the benefit of vision. “She hit it at the roofline and scraped a nail.”
“Come down, Ba’aita. Come here,” Johnna said.
Now Ba’aita saw her shoulder and the whimper turned into a wail. “Come on,” said Johnna. “Come to me.” But instead of coming closer, her sister flew up a little higher, her bright blue feathers beating rapidly in alarm. She wanted to come down, Johnna saw, but couldn’t slow her wings.
“You have some of it,” Sade mused to Johnna, “but not the rest. You know why she doesn’t come down, but couldn’t tell she was heading for the wall in time to stop her.”’ Johnna bit back a sharp reply and Sade clucked. It didn’t matter whether or not Johnna said the words, her grandmother heard the thoughts. She didn’t chide this visiting granddaughter further, though. Whether Johnna did or did not carry her people’s magic, she could certainly tend well to her sisters, and that bought her a little space from Sade’s edges.
Sade had doubtless known Ba’aita was headed inside, though Johnna wagered the old woman didn’t expect this level of damage. The lessons weren’t vindictive. If Sade had realized the wall would pop out and little Ba’aita be truly hurt, she would have warned her oldest grandchild to be ready for the younger one.
Johnna flew up to catch Ba’aita, ruing the kick-hop she needed to get off the ground. Her father’s people could liftoff from sitting. Johnna might share their physical features, but she was not one of them. Still, once airborne, she caught Ba’aita easily, sliding her arms in under the girl’s wings and pulling the child close. She stroked Ba’aita’s back, smoothing her feathers until the little wings stilled and the girl slumped into a limp puddle on Johnna’s chest. Johnna held her much in the way she held the baby, who liked to snuggle tummy to tummy.
“It hurts,” Ba’aita sobbed as they landed.
Sade stalked around the wall’s perimeter with Aif, studying it for all the world as if she hadn’t lost her sight. “Tell me the wound,” she instructed Johnna.
It didn’t take the Foresight to answer this. “It needs sewing,” she said.
Ba’aita howled “No!”
“How many stitches?” Sade demanded.
Johnna’s started to say, “I don’t know,” but she stopped after the word ‘I’. “Four,” she said instead. “It needs four stitches.”
Sade grunted. “Good girl,” she said quietly. “Can you do it, or do we need the healer?”
“If I didn’t need to hold her, I could do it,” Johnna answered. “But if I don’t hold her, she’s liable to fight.”
Sade nodded. “Go then. I’ll see to Li’ita.” And she left off pacing about the fallen wall to walk around front to check on Ba’aita’s younger sister.
Over dinner, the main room still open to the newly-built frame behind, Sade said, “I’m beginning to understand how Johnna Sees things.”
“And?” Aif asked.
Sade answered, “She sees with her eyes, not with her soul.”
Aif and Sade sat at the head and foot of the table with Johnna plopped in the middle, one little sister on either side of her. Ba’aita was still subdued, her sewn up shoulder bound in a cloth that she complained hurt. She didn’t want to eat much, so Johnna was chiefly concerned with tearing Li’ita’s food into small enough portions that the little girl wouldn’t choke.
The wet nurse had returned the littlest sister. Baby, Aif explained to Johnna, was too young to have a name. Among his people, a child had to live a full year before its naming day, unless it happened to be particularly swarthy. There was no sense wasting a name on a baby if it didn’t live to see the use of it. And Baby was not swarthy, couldn’t even properly be called healthy. She was still so young that her wings wouldn’t lift her, and she lay quiet most of the time.
Johnna had never known an infant so listless. She suspected that the wet nurse shorted Baby for her own child. Therefore, she made a watery mash to put in Baby’s mouth in the morning before giving her to the nurse, once more as soon as the nurse brought her home, again before they all went to bed, and one more time in the dark hours, when the infant woke hungry, rooting for milk Johnna didn’t have.
Johnna contemplated Baby now, rather than listen to her father and grandmother’s discussion. Baby lay on her back on a quilt, her downy little wings flopped wide open to either side of her body. Johnna tried to decide if the infant looked any stronger since her own arrival. She thought not, and this worried her. If anything, Baby seemed more frail, less likely to live long enough to be named.
It made her glad her own mother was an Arom trader, not an Auric magician. Her people named babies at birth, a layer of protection against the world’s ills. And Johnna had been named even sooner. Since Manda was only fifteen at her daughter’s accidental conception, the tribe named Johnna in the womb, calling her “John”, a strong name that could be used for a boy or a girl.
Johnna missed her mother and stepfather now. She wished spring would turn quickly to summer, then to fall. She wanted to go back to her Arom family, where her sister was turning eleven and her brothers were seven and five. She left for Auricstead when the village began preparing the wagons, and by now, the Arom would be well on their way for another year.
Instead of the slow pace set by her tribe’s sturdy pack animals, Johnna took the stage coach, which covered in a week distances the Arom spent an entire month traversing. When Johnna arrived, Ba’ita and Li’ita flew out to meet her, and Johnna was suddenly glad she had spent the entire cold winter learning to fly, so that she did not seem a novice in comparison to children who were still practically babies.
She enjoyed these siblings. Li’ita was too little to really understand what had happened. She wanted for nothing more than cuddling and playing. If Li’ita got up in the night, it was only to seek out the warmth of Johnna’s bed mat, to snuggle and snore. Ba’aita, on the other hand, remembered her mother, and sometimes woke crying inconsolably, so that Johnna had to sit holding her, stroking her silky hair for an hour or more. Baby only cried out once each night for that little meal Johnna left covered on the table. And Baby was so quiet that Johnna slept with a hand stretched out over the child, fearful that she would otherwise fail to hear her need.
As her father and grandmother moved on to the topic of the room her father was adding to the hut, Johnna went on watching Baby wave one listless arm. Aif was courting three women now, a widow and two who had never before married, one of those not much older than Johnna herself. Aif and Sade mused how best to decorate the room for the new wife after it was finished and whether to bother replacing the makeshift wall that had cut Ba’aita, now that the weather was growing warmer.
Baby lowered one arm and lifted the other, an exercise in holding up a heavy weight. Then something in her posture shifted, and she was no longer holding up her arm. Rather the arm was holding the infant down. “Baby?” said Johnna, bringing to a halt her grandmother’s argument about putting a sleeping hammock in the new room. Johnna half stood, and Baby twisted her head, a violent movement that caused her back to arch. Her face turned blue and in the instant before Johnna could move, the little girl’s body collapsed in on itself and she vanished.
Johnna screamed, “Baby!” and then sat down shaking, because Baby was fine, her little hand still extended to the ceiling, the tiny fist curling and uncurling as she lay on the floor.
“Johnna what happened?” her father asked.
“Nothing!” said Johnna. “I feel foolish.”
“Johnna!” he said sharply, “What did you see? Look at me and tell me what you saw!”
“I didn’t see anything.”
He took her by the shoulders and said, “Then what did you think you saw?”
“I thought… she died.” Johnna indicated Baby with a wave. “She died and disappeared before I could get up out of my chair.”
Aif growled in the back of his throat. Then, “Johnna,” he said, more gently than she had expected, “if you must see with only your eyes, then you must learn to trust them. Now take her quickly to the healer. Come get me if I am needed.”
Johnna stood, and though her legs would hardly hold her body, she crossed and gathered up Baby’s warm, reassuring weight. But small, so small. Outside, instead of walking, as she preferred to do after dark, Johnna flew to the healer’s hut, remembering as she kicked off the ground that he had said, “See you this evening,” when she left with Ba’aita earlier in the day.
Indeed, he was waiting when she landed once more at his door. But when he saw the tiny bundle in her arms, he let out a dismayed whistle. “I thought it would be Ba’aita again,” he remarked, taking Baby. Johnna expected confusion then. She thought he would look at the baby and ask her why she had brought it instead. But he cradled Baby and held two fingers to her tiny throat. He said, “Go for your father.”
As she turned to leave , Johnna thought she heard a rattle as Baby drew breath.
After that, she didn’t know anything. Aif left for the healer’s hut, and Sade and Johnna cleaned up from supper in surreal silence. Johnna wrapped Li’ita and Ba’aita in their sleeping mats, then lit a lantern and sat vigil in the front room. She expected to be alone, but Sade soon joined her at the table.
“What will happen?” she asked her grandmother.
“It depends on what is wrong and what magic they can conjure.”
“Then you can’t See?”
Sade said, “No.”
Forgetting Sade could hear her thoughts, Johnna wished she had understood the depth of Baby’s illness sooner.
“No,” Sade repeated. “Some things simply cannot be Seen.”
“Oh,” said Johnna.
“But I can tell you this,” Sade went on. “If Baby survives, it will be because you saw with your eyes what the rest of us could not see with our souls.”
It was a compliment, but little comfort. Johnna didn’t answer and leaned heavily on the table. Stacked in front of her, waiting for breakfast in the morning, were the three bowls her grandmother had been teaching her to scry with earlier in the day. Johnna picked up the top one and handed it to Sade, who did not need to be told to reach out.
Johnna said, “The bowl is two shades of red, swirled together and spiralling out from the bottom. The darker red is deep as heart’s blood, like it leaned in too close to a volcano and came away scarred by lava. The lighter color is more like clay, or a bird’s feathers, rising up from the earth’s center and lifting the heart’s blood away from the burning heat.”
“Good girl,” said Sade.
Johnna went on, speaking quickly before she lost the thing she had seen at the very bottom of the bowl, balanced between the vermillion and the flame. She said, “And my sister’s name is Earthbound Bird. I do not know the words in your language, but that is how it goes in the common tongue, and she must have it if she is to live.” Johnna was breathing heavily when she finished, shaking as badly as she had been when the vision of Baby’s death overcame her at supper.
Sade turned the bowl over in her hands. “Loma’ai,” she said. “Earthbound Bird. Not small?” Johnna knew enough of the Auric tongue to know that ‘ita’ at the end of a word meant small. Ba’aita translated to ‘Small Firebird’ and ‘Li’ita’ came out ‘Small sky’. They would likely drop the diminutives as they grew, as most of the tribe’s children did.
Johnna shook her head. “Not small,” she said. “Not Loma’aita. Loma’ai. If she grows, she will be ‘Ai’ as my father is “Aif’. ‘Bird’.”
Sade nodded and turned the bowl over twice more before setting it on the table. “It had best be me to tell them, then,” she eventually concluded. “The namer will spend less time arguing about the waste if she does not have to also complain because it was first Seen by an outsider.”
Johnna agreed. She watched her grandmother walk to the hut’s door and lift into the sky, knowing Sade’s magic would guide the old woman as if her eyes had not completely dimmed Johnna watched the door for a long time after Sade left. Then, because nothing else seemed to help at all, Johnna picked up the bowl and stared hard into its center, trying to find things that simply could not be Seen.
About the Author
Jessie Bishop Powell has been writing since age 10. Her favorite authors include Dianna Wynne Jones, Tamora Pierce, and Neil Gaiman. She holds a Master’s Degree in English from the University of Kentucky but considers it irrelevant to good writing. Jessie grew up in rural Ohio. She now lives in Montgomery, Alabama with her husband and their two children. Jessie’s first book, Divorce: A Love Story was published as an e-book by Throwaway Lines in 2011. The Marriage at the Rue Morgue is her debut mystery.
About the Narrator
Tina Connolly is the author of the Ironskin and Seriously Wicked series, and the collection On the Eyeball Floor. She has been a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Norton, and World Fantasy awards.
She co-hosts Escape Pod, narrates for Beneath Ceaseless Skies and all four Escape Artists podcasts, and runs Toasted Cake.
Find her at tinaconnolly.com.