That night, as she shook out the laundry, Corinne got called in by her mam when the sun started tucking itself in behind the horizon, even though she was grown. “The rooks come out at dusk,” her mam said, the same warning she’d always given.
“Mam,” Corinne said, as she closed the door behind her. “Do I have to marry that Garold?’
She’d been promised to the miller’s son a month ago. Garold was a good enough looking young man, ochre skin dusted with freckles across the bridge of his nose and a lovely auburny beard. They’d kissed behind the mill once, when they were twelve. She hadn’t thought much more of him until the miller had come over, hat in her lap, with a proposition for Corinne’s parents.
Her mother didn’t speak for a moment, hands sharpening knives while she thought. “Well, doll, I suppose you don’t have to. We’d just need to figure out another way to stock the cellar. You know it hasn’t been a good year for us.”
It truly hadn’t been a good year. And Corinne, while not unhelpful, was also not skilled with fine balsam and sharp edge like her parents. She didn’t really have a choice. Not if they wanted to eat. She’d passed Garold in town sometimes, going about her way. Yesterday they’d looked at each other a bit, maybe nodded. She didn’t mind him, not really, but she’d never dreamed of marrying him. His beard really was lovely to look at. She wondered how soft it was. “It’ll be alright. I just need to get used to it.”
Her mam nodded, and kissed Corinne’s brow. “Good girl. Get to work now, will you? For luck.” She tucked an iron penny in Corinne’s pocket and pushed her towards the kitchen to work on the supper.
The next day, Corinne heard there was an old couple hawking the yearly almanac and a few books besides, over at Unastown across the hill. It was only a matter of time before she was asking her mam for permission to head over and see what they had. Not that she had to, but Corinne didn’t see any reason to cause trouble while she still lived under her parents’ roof. And so her mam gave it, only asking that she hurry right back.
She took the little donkey with her. The peddlers had more wrinkles between the pair of them than Corinne had ever seen before, but not much in the way of books. That didn’t make haggling for them any easier. She settled on a slim volume of poetry (and the almanac as well) rather than return home empty-handed. By the time she headed back, the sun was already kissing the mountains.
It was Corinne’s favorite part of the day, not least probably because it was when she was pulled inside. She led the little donkey by a rope, half-reading her poems in the fading light. The blue hour suffused the sky; it made everything its most beautiful self. But the poems made her dawdle.
In the copse of sycamores, just outside the town limits, the rooks found her.
The clamour of rooks fell around Corinne, silent as stones as they dropped from the sky, and exploded with caws. Corinne’s book and the donkey’s rope slipped from her fingers. The donkey brayed in alarm—she couldn’t see for the flapping mass of wings and the cawing.
Corinne stared with grim fascination at the wicked beaks jutting from their shiny black feathers. She did nothing else, clinging to the thought that they had not assaulted her yet, but simply acquired her attention. When she didn’t think that she could listen to another of their cries, they stopped.
A touch on her back made Corinne turn and she saw a woman unlike any other she’d known. Corinne did not think for a moment that this was a mortal woman, though the sorrow on her face was all too familiar. The fey woman was wrapped in her own hair and a massive shawl of iridescent black; both covered her russet-skinned frame from neck to knee. On her head, a jagged crown of silver bone. She stared at Corinne, hunger warring with that sadness.
All sound ebbed away until Corinne heard nothing but the heavy pounding of her heart in her chest. She could have run away. She felt like there were two paths, two futures, leading away from her. One path, she knew by heart, and loved dearly. The other glittered in the gloaming.
Years later, this moment would be crystallized in her memory, more indelibly than any photograph.
“Who are you?” In between the blinking of Corinne’s eyes, all she saw was rook feathers.
The rook woman beckoned to her.
Corinne went to her—what fey magic was this? But even as she wondered, she knew there was no compulsion that propelled her towards the unearthly stranger.
The rook woman answered Corinne’s question with a wicked kiss that stole behind her parted lips. Corinne might have pulled away, but she did not, thinking of that glittering road. And oh, thank the fates that she did not—Corinne was no stranger to kissing, but never like this. It filled her with a rare, aching pleasure she would have said did not exist. The sorrow in the woman’s eyes lifted, for now, as mist fled from dawn.
The rook woman’s name was Greta.
“Will you come home with me?” she asked, and Corinne nodded without hesitation, lips smouldering with a wanting she hadn’t reckoned on ever feeling. She would have said yes to anything.
“Divest yourself of iron,” Greta said.
Every warning her mother had ever uttered about the gloaming resounded in Corinne’s ears so that even as she undid the clasp of her dress so that it fell from her body into a reckless pile, she palmed the iron penny her mam put in her pocket. She picked the pins from her tresses, but behind the curtain of her hair, she hid the iron penny under her tongue.
Greta smiled at her and held out her hand.
The parliament of rooks abandoned their branches and their cries filled the wood. Corinne didn’t even notice when she and Greta became birds, but found herself brought a-wing, coursing through fierce air. She knew herself to be at the whim of the sky but felt Greta arched around her, holding her close. Their staccato hearts drummed a rhythm that beat closer and closer together. The air became sweeter, and though the sunlight faded, the gloaming did not dim, instead becoming more and more silver.
Just as the parliament had risen as one, it dropped abruptly, and her borrowed wings were gone. She stumbled to her knees, near drunk on the feeling of flight, and only when she got back to her feet did she realize that she stood in a room filled with fair people rather than birds. And yet she knew the birds and people of the court were the same. Some of their complexions were ruddy like Corinne’s and some the warm red-brown of Greta, but also some a pale cream or a honey brown. All their clothes were made exquisitely. Corinne looked in dismay at the simple shift she’d worn beneath her dress, only to find her dismay became wonder at the magnificent velvet trousers and brocade shirt she seemed to have conjured from the gloaming. It took only the work of a moment to secret the iron penny in her new pocket.
The rooks’ hall was massive.
Greta took her hand, and wordlessly they wove between unearthly people, lean of limb and sharp of cheek. Their pirouettes and articulate hands—for they spoke with a language as inclusive of gesture as word—made Corinne feel clumsy and graceless. So as they walked through the hall, and Greta paused for a time to briefly dance or exchange a few words, Corinne mumbled a few nothings or nibbled on a bit of fruit, plucked from any number of massive argent goblets heaped with ice.
Greta soon recognized Corinne’s reticence, and waved off overtures to focus on her. Thereafter they spoke little, and then only to taste the sound of the other’s name upon their tongue. Finding the appellations even sweeter than the chilled fruit, they chased these syllables into each other’s mouths with unexpected glee. Most courtiers that elected to pay them notice let the edges of their smiles curl with no small joy, while some few wrestled with biting jealousies and turned away.
How long did they traipse down that ever-unfurling room, with its incessant feasting and revelry? Eventually—over hours or days—Greta and Corinne made their way across that magnificent hall. Corinne was led to a dais holding a raised throne of alabaster and mother-of-pearl. She knelt on the crushed black velvet that spilled over the dais. A man of battered visage slumped atop the seat, his face a muddle of lines and pain. Her lowered eyes marvelled at the richness of his hem, beads of malachite sewn into careful whorls with golden thread. Greta stood beside him, eyes wet with grief.
When Corinne blinked, he too was feathered, but with bedraggled plumage, bereft of shine. She knew that he would soon be gone.
Greta bent over his ear, and he pulled his head up to look at Corinne. “Arise, child,” the king said. Corinne did so, her knees grateful.
“My daughter would have you as one of us,” the rook king said. “What say you?”
Corinne looked around her. The entire court had gone silent, pausing to stare up at this mortal girl their king’s heir had plucked from the forest. Greta looked at her, raw with grief and hope all at the same time. No one had ever needed Corinne like that before.
“If you’ll have me,” Corinne said. Her skin still sang with the memory of Greta’s touch. The king raised his glass in a toast. But Corinne’s sense of obligation plucked at her with small fingers, and as the room filled with the peals of clinking glasses, she cried out. “For just a year!”
Greta and her father turned back to Corinne. She looked at the floor and tried to pretend the throngs of courtiers were not there. She set her mind on freckled noses, her parents, little donkeys. “My family. I cannot abandon them forever.”
A year was short. But it would be something. She looked up at Greta. “A year,” she said again.
Greta caught her eye. Corinne bit her lip and nodded, resolute.
“So be it,” Greta said loudly and nodded. Just to Corinne, she said, “Every second I spend with you is richer than the ones without.”
“So be it,” the king echoed and again toasted their union.
Soon he was dead.
Long live the queen.
Corinne buried the iron penny in an apricot grove, beneath a tree bowed heavy with fruit. The longer she stayed, her bones tried to take on a lightness that made the earth work harder to keep her on the ground. Here, her future was not spoken for.
When each dusk came, Greta and the parliament left Corinne to fly and roost. Greta asked her to join them, but Corinne couldn’t. How could she see her family but not go to them, even to say hello? If she were to speak, how would she explain herself? It was easier to wander the echoing halls.
“Must you go?” Corinne asked. She slept alone at night, in their massive bed.
Greta tried to stay. Aching with the shared weight of Corinne’s longing, Greta strained to out-change the twilight, shedding feathers for skin at dusk’s arrival, but they burst forth mercilessly sooner than she could will them away. They did not speak of it again, though it hung between them.
Faced with these solitary hours, Corinne tried to cherish them. She pillaged the rookery’s library, took liberties with the kitchen’s holdings. But something else marred their time together. Greta became short with her when she returned from roosting, and worried at her temples, as if she bore weight there she could not shake.
“What is it?” Corinne asked, night after night, until Greta broke.
“Something’s gone wrong,” Greta said. She dismissed the servers and the other fair folk, until they were alone in the great hall, sitting beside each other at one end of the table that stretched away in an impossible line.
“What is it?” Corinne asked.
“There is something I didn’t tell you,” Greta said. “About time, and how it passes here.”
“It shouldn’t flow the same,” Greta said. “Usually, when we go out each in the evening, one day, the leaves are changing and the next the snows have come.”
“I don’t understand.”
Greta looked away. “An entire season changes, every evening.”
“But, that would mean that after a year here…” Corinne tried to do the maths in her head.
“Yes,” Greta said. “It would be many years in your world. I should have told you. But I was selfish.”
“Selfish,” Corinne repeated, her hands clenched at her side.
“But it hasn’t been happening that way,” she said. “I told you, something is wrong. Since you’ve been here, when we take wing each evening, it is only the next day. As if we are linked. And I don’t know why.”
She wondered if Greta thought selfishness alone even encompassed the awful thing that she’d done. Tried to do. Corinne pushed back her chair and fled the hall. She brooded alone; she and Greta would never truly be as one. Eventually exhaustion took her, and she slept. It was only hours, but it stuck in her throat like a stone.
The next morning, when Corinne awoke, she saw that there was a tattered book beside her pillow. The cover had been torn off, but after turning a few pages, she realized it was the newest almanac.
“You never got to read it,” Greta said.
Corinne held it against her chest. “How did you get it?”
Greta looked away, embarrassed. “People are frightened of us, you know that. A pair of merchants dropped it.” She gently pulled the book away from Corinne so that she could tap on the torn binding. “Beaks are not suited to carrying books. I’m sorry I lost part of it.”
Corinne stifled a laugh. “I can only imagine.” Her own smile annoyed her. She was still sour on Greta. Or trying to be.
Greta took Corinne’s hands in hers. “It was wrong to lie to you. I was wrong. I’m sorry. I’ll do anything to make up for it.”
Corinne felt tears well up, but she blinked them away and made her heart hard. “Will you take me home?”
Greta squeezed her hands. “If that is what you wish, so be it.” She looked away, her eyes closed tight. Corinne thought she was crying too.
“It’s not what I want,” she said, voice ragged. She pushed her way into Greta’s lap, as if she wanted to hold all of her as once. “It’s not what I want at all.”
“Good,” Greta said. “Good.” She pressed her wet cheek against Corinne’s.
Corinne marked the weeks with braids in her hair, until her head was a mane of woven locks. She thought of many reasons that she shouldn’t return, but they were all chased away by the memory of her mam tucking that iron penny in her pocket. And the hard year that she must have made so much harder.
There came the day when she knew it was time. The rookery held a bittersweet feast in the hall, attended by all the fair folk. When the day began to fade, Corinne collected herself, took one long last look at Greta and held her hand. Greta opened her mouth to speak, to beg perhaps, but she had waited too long, and her mouth became a beak in a rush of feathers. Greta took wing, and Corinne with her, though the means of it still defied description.
They brought her to the wood, unknowingly stepping upon the book of poetry she’d abandoned a year prior. The clamour of rooks rose into the trees, apart from one, whom Corinne knew was her love. Her tears dried as she slowly made her way home in the dark. The little donkey brayed at her from his stall, like she’d never left. At the knock of her hand, her pa opened the door with an eye for trouble, but his face lit up with wonder and relief at the sight of her.
“I looked for you,” her mam said, but that was all. They asked no questions, none at all. As if they wanted to erase her absence from their memory.
Her mam looked at Corinne’s belly every day like she expected it to become fuller. Corinne was sad that it didn’t. A child would be a fine thing to remember Greta by. Her mam was as keen as before to have her inside before dusk. The first few nights she refused, and stoically watched the sun steal away. But the sadness that came then was too great, so she took to heading in unbidden. When Corinne’s belly never grew, her mam realized something that was a semblance of the truth, and filled the house with iron things. Crossed scissors, horseshoes and pennies adorned everything.
Garold was mentioned only once: to inform her that he’d married the glassblower’s daughter nine months ago. At first, when a week had passed, Corinne unknotted one of her braids, thinking to reverse her manner of keeping the time. But after the third week, she let anger take over her fingers and she cut them all out. The people in town stared and whispered amongst themselves.
It wasn’t only her hair that was gossiped about—since living amongst the rooks, Corinne had decided to no longer wear skirts. This might have been irredeemably socially awkward if she weren’t to have apprenticed herself to the seamstress. The daring styles and expressive shapes she made, drawing inspiration from the fair folk, were marveled at by the wealthiest of those in town, and soon became heard of in the city.
It was not how she expected to be of help to her family, but very little had turned out as she expected since that day in the woods.
A year later, Corinne sat at the hearth beside her mam with a history in her lap when a knock came at the door. She furrowed her brow but read on as her pa went to answer it.
“Corinne?” Her pa called out. She expected the seamstress to have brought a new order, or perhaps an unexpected delivery of fabric. But Greta filled the doorway. She wore black, yes, but had no crown, and Corinne saw no feathers on her in the darkness of her eyelids.
Without asking, her mam took down the horseshoe above the door. Greta stepped over the threshold gingerly, as if it might expel her. After her mam and her pa returned to the hearth to give them some privacy, Greta and Corinne embraced. Where the year had put muscle on Greta, it had given some extra curves to Corinne. When they finally stepped back, their hearts were raw and confused but singing.
“How?” Corinne asked at first.
Greta held out her hand, where a fresh-wrought tiny twist of iron circled her ring finger. Her nails still bore the dirt beneath them from when she had scrabbled at the earth in search of the penny. “The apricot grove stopped bearing fruit,” Greta explained. “It was easy enough to understand, once I’d tried. And I brought this for you. To wear at night.” She gave Corinne a ring of her own, of blackened wood and silver bone.
Feathers flashed across Corinne’s own limbs when she put it on. “Will this—?”
Greta took Corinne’s hands and nodded, urgency in her eyes.
Corinne led Greta back to the hearth. “Mam, Pa. This is Greta.”
Her parents were silent, waiting. Greta smiled at them, tentatively, and at first the logs sparking in the fireplace were the only thing to speak. But Corinne broke the silence. “The rooks come out at dusk,” she started. Though it was a while in the telling, and made her ache something fierce to share something so raw, she told them of her year away from them.
Corinne’s mam stood up first, to open her arms and beckon Greta to her. Greta hesitated, but Corinne’s mam nodded. “Come here, my girl.”
Greta went to her, and so did Corinne. It wasn’t clear who started crying first, but they were, all of them. Even her pa, coming in to enfold them all in his big arms, had wet eyes.
That night, when the sun fell behind the mountain and dusk claimed the day, Corinne and Greta took wing with the rooks, coursing over warm updrafts and roosting with the parliament. And at dawn they awoke at the foot of a sycamore, smiling and dripping with dew.
Corinne smiled at her love, holding Greta’s soft hand in her calloused fingers. “Will you come home with me?” she asked, and Greta nodded. Without hesitation.
Things changed for the village, when the sun fell. The village gathered together, most days. Stalls stayed open late, selling warm tea and puff pastries. The seamstress sold tiny black wings made from excess fabric, and the children ran about cawing. All to watch the rooks arrive and cut across the sky with their queen and her love.
For as long as Corinne lived.
And even when she was long gone, and the almanacs ceased writing of her town and their strange traditions, young women who wrestled with their fate would steal out from their homes at the end of the day, pestering the sycamores with their home-wrought rhymes and sonnets and centos. But the rook queen had learned her second heartache well; she had no further eyes for mortals. And yet some evenings, she banished the clamour and stood alone in the forest, crushing an iron penny in her fist. Just to savor the burn, and remember.
dave ring is a queer editor and writer of speculative fiction living in Washington, DC. He is also the publisher and managing editor of Neon Hemlock Press. His short fiction has been featured in numerous publications, including Fireside Fiction, The Disconnect, and A Punk Rock Future. Find him at www.dave-ring.com or @slickhop on Twitter.