by Kathleen Andersen
There was a time when women dreamed of animals with beautiful human faces, and, overcome with desire for these creatures, took their daughters to witches who could perform the delicate transformation.
“What shall I pay you?” the mothers would ask the witches who would not reply but smile, showing their mouths full of daggers. Before giving the girls new features, the witches, quick as otters, would remove each one’s soul and turn the tiny glowing orb into their pen of ducks, who would quack and squabble over it and peck it to bits. Then the witches could give the girl fins and a shell, or great hairy paws, or hawk wings, and she wouldn’t make the least complaint.
The witches’ fame spread throughout the land, until it reached the ears of a poor soldier, who began eyeing his young bride with new interest. He woke her early one morning, promising to take her to see the splendours of the capital, but once there led her down narrow streets, dark and so full of smoke that she could not see the beggar children who surrounded them until their small hands were in her pockets. At the end of the most forlorn street, they came upon the witches’ hovel.
“Why have we come here?” the bride asked, but the soldier only took her inside, where the light from a black cast iron stove revealed two pallets of rushes next to a great cage of fat, white ducks, and two witches thin as switches. The soldier asked them to turn his wife into one
of the animal women he had heard of, so he could display her in their village to passers-by for money. Then, he promised, he would return and give them whatever prize they asked.
“You cannot pay us,” the witches told him. “Your wife has what we wish for most,” and turning to the woman for her soul, they found her empty of it. “Wretch! Knave!” the witches taunted the soldier. “We’ll do nothing for you!”
The soldier shook his bride, and cursed her, and ran from the city, leaving her with the witches. She shrunk away from them fearfully, but they reassured her. “Daughter, we want nothing from you, but something to feed our good little ducks. Give them your gloves, and no harm will come to you.” The poor woman tossed her only gloves into the pen, and the ducks ripped them to pieces, each claiming a finger, and the largest, the carefully stitched palms.
The witches told her to return to her husband, and called over a little beggar boy to lead her to the city gates, rewarding him with a plump duckling. The woman walked late into the night to her home, frightened to see the soldier. But he seemed to have forgotten his plan until, a few days later, he said that they should go again to the city. Once more, she followed him down narrow streets to the witches’ door.
Letting them in, the witches scolded, “Simple man, why have you come here? You cannot pay what we ask.”
And the soldier pulled out his purse and gave them five gold pieces, stolen from a traveler who strayed from the road. Again the witches laughed and threw the gold in the gutter and shut the door behind him as he leapt after it. Once more, his wife was left alone with them. But the witches told her, “Daughter, if you have something to feed our dear little ducks, no harm will come to you. Give them your garter.” And so she tossed her only garter into the pen, and the ducks fought over the scraps and tried to wrap them around their beaks to spite the others. Then the bride made her way out of the city not daring to look back, for the witches’ sharp metal teeth
frightened her as much as the soldier’s anger.
Once more, all seemed forgotten, but after a few days, knowing her husband’s restlessness, the bride decided to return to the witches alone. This time, she knew the city’s dark streets well, and arriving at the witches’ home, she asked respectfully, “Dear ladies, what can I give you so that you may fulfill my husband’s wishes?” And the witches replied, “We cannot tell you, but if you have something for our fat little ducks, you may stay and watch others come and go, and find out what you lack.” And so, having nothing else for them, the poor bride threw her girdle into the pen, and the ducks tore it apart, squawking delightedly over the homespun worsting.
The witches told the bride to conceal herself in the corner, and she was glad to hide. Soon enough, a woman entered with her daughter, and began to recount a dream in which the girl grew beautiful wings and learned to sing as clearly as any bird. The witches agreed to cast a spell, and turning to the girl, quickly took their prize. From the shadows, the bride saw a soul, white as a pearl and softer than the child’s skin, pulled from the girl’s mouth. She watched it fall into the ducks’ pen, then, faster than their greedy beaks, the bride snatched it up herself and gobbled it down whole.
At that moment, she felt the most curious joy and also an immense and new shame for her theft, even as she saw the rage on the witches’ faces. Spitefully, they cursed her, each one pulling out a sharp little tooth and piercing her wrist, so that just when she first knew all she had to say to the villagers she had left behind and to the soldier, to the woman now running to the door with the little girl whose expression had gone suddenly flat, she was transformed fully into a bird and lost her powers of speech. Then the witches beat her about her sleek head and drove her from their kitchen. As she fled she felt the ducks’ eyes following her, their bills snapping at her thin shirt, which had twisted and tangled impossibly about her wings and talons.
The new little bird flew bloodied through the night, hindered by its human clothes, and the torment of strange wishes. At dawn, far from the city, it took shelter in a thick grove and began to sing and sing, throat quivering with each trill. With each quiver, a tear fell from the eye of the last girl to lose her soul, and as each tear fell, the fattest of the witches’ ducks, who had eaten many girls’ souls and most of the bride’s clothing, lost another feather. By the time the new little bird finished its song, the eyes of the soulless girl were red as blood, and a baby slept on a pile of feathers in the witches’ kitchen.
In the morning, the soulless girl angered her mother and father with her silent tearfulness, until they turned her out into the streets. She wandered about until she made her way through the witches’ door, where she found them laughing with delight over their baby, and scolding the ducks that backed sullenly away from him. The witches said that the soulless girl could stay with them, if she tended to the child and polished the great black cast iron stove and traveled each day to the market for them. They taught the girl a lullaby to calm the baby when he cried.
Duck-boy, full of girls’ souls
Comfort your mothers when they are old
Duck-boy, dreaming in your bed
No one to fear, nothing to dread.
But the soulless girl never sang, or even spoke.
Despite her silence, she pleased them. She did their bidding, free from emotion all day, except for the hour when the sun rose. At this time the new little bird, far outside the city’s borders, would sing its heartbreaking song, and each note pulled a tear from the soulless girl’s eye that made the duck-boy grow a bit more, until soon he was just as big as the soulless girl. “A fine healthy boy,” the witches crowed over him, kicking at the silent ducks until they quacked in agreement.
The duck-boy grew to love the soulless girl, and to wonder over her silence, and the tears she shed each morning. One day, he went off to find out what made her cry so, and leaving the city, he walked until darkness fell. Then he took shelter under a tree, and fell asleep. When the sun rose, the sound of the new little bird, singing from a branch above, woke him, and he felt his own body tingling with each note.
He called to the lonely bird and it flew down to him, to rest upon his shoulder as he walked to the city, soothing it with gentle words. Back in the witches’ kitchen, seeing the soulless girl, the new little bird sang for the second time that day, more exquisitely than ever before, chest rising and puffing until, with a final note, the girl’s soul emerged from its beautiful throat, and flew back to her, light as a cloud. The girl’s mouth was open in tearful wonder, and her soul drifted back down her throat, bright as the sun, returning all her human warmth. This great love filled her body and spilled out again, falling on the duck-boy, who smiled at her transformation. And the new little bird was suddenly just that, a simple bird, and it gloried in itself, in turning air into song, in its wings and its quick head and its sharp talons.
Only the witches were afraid, seeing the duck-boy glancing at the girl, who took his hand and walked away from the black cast iron stove and the two thin pallets, toward the door. “Stay, dear son,” the witches pleaded, “Stay with us.” But the duck-boy pushed past them so that they toppled into their pen of ravenous ducks, who pecked away at their hair and black cloaks and soft arms and legs, snapping their sinews and hoarding their bones for the marrow. Soon, all that was left of the witches was a pile of gleaming metal teeth, sharp as knives.
The girl and the duck-boy and the new little bird, a dear swallow, set up housekeeping together outside of the city, and lived as the best of friends until the end of their days.
Ah, Tancred you have hurt me too deeply
i., IN WHICH Clorinda disguises herself for the battle to protect Jerusalem from Peter the Hermit’s army.
Clorinda slips a knife into her riding boot, ties the stays emerging from her iron leggings tight around her waist. Over this, a tunic soft as those she remembers from childhood, and then the chainmail hauberk flattens her breasts. A metal coif embraces her neck, and sex disappears when she hides her hair in the fluted helmet. She can never grow used to appearing outside with her face naked, but nobody will notice her eyes today, the slight softness of her cheek and lips. She will lead more men than can be counted against eight hundred warriors on horseback, and all those who walk behind.
Clorinda has been a mercenary, but this time, learning of the Franks’ invasion of the lands of Islam, she fights unpaid in Palestine. In her memory, she has always lived here, although she knows the story that others tell. As an infant, they say, a merchant brought her north from Ethiopia, sent by her mother to escape her husband’s rage, the child’s skin suggesting a betrayal.
Once, during the long journey, her guardian left the baby at play, while he picked fruit. He returned to find her menaced by a tiger, trapped under a great beast that he killed with one swift arrow. Pulled from beneath unharmed, she has never since known fear, although others turn from her. Clorinda has lived as both helmeted boy and veiled girl, her only education in the sword and the quiver.
It is early, yet the finely worked metal softens in the sun. A wasp spins past, and she imagines it landing on her metal body and sticking there, the smallest insignia. Alone, Clorinda makes her way to the city walls, to look out over the field, and her men part to let her pass. They know that she is always first. Her arrow once pierced the knee of a man she led when his horse overtook her own, poised to enter an enemy camp before her.
ii., IN WHICH Clorinda, fighting Tancredi, is slain.
Never has she killed so many, her arrows’ true arc entering her enemies’ eyeplates, her sabre light and twisting past shields to find the soft place where metals protecting torso and arm fail to meet. The Christians come from the north, a land of perpetual winter, and they are silent and slow, their armor too heavy in the sun. Clorinda is small if she dismounts, but on her tall horse she meets each eye. By noon, her men forgotten, she has fought free to the center, where Godfrey of Bouillon gives commands. But Tancredi, an Italian prince, lovingly guards Godfrey.
She recognizes him – she looks into his encampment every day as she walks along the walls in a woman’s guise, hidden beneath her veil. He is far taller and heavier, and so she pulls up her horse and raises her arm high for a hard blow. But he, suddenly quick, leans forward before her sword descends. As his blade breaks through her metal and breastplate, Clorinda’s body becomes an ear to hear the buzzing along her chest as waves of heat leave the rupture, heat she was not conscious of before her body began to cool from inside out, faster than her skin.
Tancredi sees his enemy fall across the horse, he reaches out for the boy’s helmet to pull it off and, pulling, finds his hands full of hair following the helmet, sticking to the silver, wrapped around his wrists. It seems a vision, like the hair he has imagined beneath the dark drapes of the women who sometimes appear along the city walls. The fierce face he hated a moment ago assumes a womanly form in death, and as he tries to look into it more deeply, Clorinda employs the final shield, letting her eyelids fall. Tancredi’s horse shies away from the body, and he drops the girl.
As Clorinda’s body falls, she smells the long forgotten sand that once clung to the oiled mats of a tiger’s hair, her own unformed face moving between the slick and bloodied fur to take what was offered, her mouth filling with milk as the tiger gave her suck, and then the tiger’s body falling over her heavy, and the new blood falling as the body was lifted off her, the heat of the animal covering her even as she was pulled away. Now dressed in her own blood, but feeling the tiger’s upon her still, the last warmth passes from Clorinda.
Without a leader, her men fail, cursing Saturn, the star of misfortune. Hidden behind the advancing Franks, Peter the Hermit prays beneath the sun burning white. Walls are breached, and although those inside plead that all lives are equal as the teeth of a comb, no mercy is shown. Of the rest of that day, historians will record only that by the time the invading soldiers drove their horses through the mosque, the blood reached the bridles.
iii., IN WHICH Clorinda’s spirit, departing her body, takes refuge in a fig tree.
There is no waking or sleeping inside, this still world complete, beyond pleasure. Silent shade forgets herself, follows a wasp. For each species of wasp, there is a type of fig tree, so it takes her to its perfect home, enters through the roots that hold one another beneath the grove, a tangle of knots that swirl up the narrow trunk as it circles itself. Embrace of soft bark, furred and twining, glossed dark and stark against the sky – she is suspended. Her movement is that of the root, the trunk and branches, blossom and bud simultaneous with fruit, and deep in the fruit, the wasp’s egg. She travels and is lost. It is the stillness a feather preserves, even as the wing beats.
iv., IN WHICH Tancredi enters the grove to slash trees; to spend his anger.
Vibrating blade severs moss, bark, drives deep into the moving heart. Silence ruptures, stillness shocked, and beneath it a buzzing as air follows the blade. A new coldness enters the trunk.
Raw air follows inside, and is turned out, transformed in the turning, and a human eye is restored, trapped within the wasps’ divided orbs. Before the tree, it sees Tancredi in his own living stillness, blood drying on his shield, on the cross on the shield.
v., IN WHICH a Chorus of Wasps sings for Clorinda.
The wasps circle him, they sing in his ear: “Have you come to mourn a woman, or to watch blood spread beneath the tree? We have seen you shred a blade of grass along the vein. You who let no day go unpunished.”
Tancredi’s mind roves and he hears no more. He returns to his camp in terror, to be shriven in the men’s chapel. A wooden Mary, carefully carved, hears his confession. Mary’s gown opens to reveal her cradling her own heart, wreathed in thorns. The wooden heart darkens, and after Tancredi touches it, his fingers smell of blood.
Freely adapted from Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered) (1573), edited and translated by Anthony M. Esolen (2000). The title of this piece is taken from that poem.