A fairytale

It is the feeling of being watched that drags Ben from his dreams.

He tries to ignore it, tries to tell himself that if he opens his eyes he will see nothing unusual in the cramped ground floor bedroom he wakes in every morning. But the fantastical sights in his dreams are already fading. The chill steals beneath his threadbare blanket and coaxes goosebumps from his skin.

Groaning, he opens his eyes and sits up, rubbing his eyes with his fists. This is when he sees what has been watching him.

A raven, its blue-black plumage shining like spilled ink in the moonlight, perches on the windowsill outside. It tilts its head, as if unsure of what to make of what it sees.

A shiver of fear passes through Ben’s chest as he climbs out of bed. His mother has warned him that ravens are harbingers of death. Everyone in the village knows that you had best say your goodbyes if you ever see a raven sitting on the roof of your house. There had even been one balanced on the chimney the day Ben came home to find his mother dead. But no one has ever spoken of what it means when a raven lands on your windowsill.

The raven watches as Ben edges around the bed to the window. He still finds it strange, waking without his little brother in the room with him. But six months ago, when he turned thirteen, he demanded that he have his own bedroom. It is bad enough that he has to work in the fields with his brother and father all day; when he comes home he wants to have his own space.

The floorboards are icy beneath his bare feet; the wooden walls do little to trap any heat. He flaps his arms to scare the bird away, but it continues to watch him, a curious gleam in its eyes. He doesn’t dare call out for fear of waking his father and brother. They would not thank him for that.

Ben crouches so that he is eye-to-eye with the raven. The bird raises its right wing, as if gesturing to the path that snakes into the woods looming behind the house.

Ben, frowning, says, “You want me to follow you?”

The raven nods its head once. It silently takes flight and lands in the low branches of a tree opposite Ben’s bedroom.

Ben swings open the window and clambers up onto the sill. He knows that if he tries to go through the front door the noise will wake his family.

He lands neatly in the grass; this is not his first time sneaking out of the house. The raven leaps gracefully into the air. Ben follows it down the winding path and under the cover of the trees. Wet mud oozes between his toes and bracken scratches at his ankles. He thinks of turning back, but is too eager to see where the raven will lead him.

When Ben loses sight of the bird, it swoops back out of the darkness to guide his steps. The moon glistens overhead, a fat pearl cradled in a bolt of black velvet. The bare branches of the trees are silhouetted against the sky like the legs of dead spiders. The night is quiet, the only noise the rustling of small creatures in the undergrowth.

Slowly, fingers of pink and gold light begin to creep across the black sky, driving the night back into the distance. Ben begins to worry. What will his father think when he wakes to find his eldest son’s bed empty?

Finally, the raven lands in the centre of a small grass clearing. Ben stands in the shadows between the trees, watching as the morning sun bathes the raven in golden light. Before his eyes, the bird begins to change. It grows taller and its feathers begin to flutter to the ground, exposing smooth pale flesh. Arms and hands grow where wings had been, and scaly claws become legs and feet. It is as if the sunlight is a magical elixir, and before he knows it there is a girl standing where the raven had been.

She has long shining black hair that stirs in the morning breeze. Her eyes are as black as the raven’s. She stands completely naked, so painfully thin her arms are like twigs and her shoulder blades poke out of her back like the roots of wings.

She crosses her arms over her chest, and without thinking Ben pulls off his shirt and drapes it around her shoulders. She is small, and the shirt brushes the tops of her thighs.

“Thank you,” the girl says, her voice dry and cracked with disuse.

“Who are you?” Ben asks. “Are you a witch?”

The girl shakes her head. “I have no control over this transformation. A witch placed a curse on me when I was a baby. Every night, when the sun sinks below the horizon, I transform into a raven, and I only become human again with the dawn.”

“Is there no way to break the curse?”

“There might be. But come, sit with me. It’s been so long since I’ve had any company.”

Ben sits with the girl in the clearing as the morning grows bright and warm. Her hair falls carelessly over one shoulder, and she stares at Ben as if she would pluck the thoughts from his brain.

When he asks her her name, she says that it has been so long since she last had a conversation that she can no longer remember it.

“My parents forced me to leave when they found out about the curse,” she tells him. “Since then I’ve been wandering, never settling in one place for too long.”

“You have to have a name,” Ben insists. “I’ll call you Dawn.”

The girl smiles.

They spend the whole day in the clearing, just talking, until finally the sunlight begins to fade and shadows sprout like mushrooms beneath the trees.

Ben jumps to his feet.

“I didn’t realise the time!” he exclaims, panic pulsing within him like a second heartbeat. “My father will kill me.”

Dawn stands in one fluid motion. “Thank you for spending the day with me. Will you come back tomorrow, when the sun rises?”

Ben hesitates, dancing on the spot in his eagerness to return home. Dawn reaches out and touches his hand. Ben falls still. Her skin is soft and cool, and her fingers entwined with his feel absurdly right.

“Of course I will,” Ben promises.

As the last of the sunlight is swallowed by the night, Dawn shrinks again into the form of a raven, leaving Ben’s shirt crumpled on the ground.

Ben picks it up and shoves his arms into it as he races back through the wood to his home. The single storey wooden house, with smoke drifting from its chimney, seems eerily quiet as Ben approaches. He slows, and he pauses.

Bracing himself, Ben enters the house through the front door.

His father is waiting at the table, with Ben’s younger brother, Graham, beside him. Their father is facing away from the front door, so Ben can only see his brother’s face. Graham’s jaw is clenched, his gaze fixed on the fire burning in the hearth opposite the door.

Their father turns around slowly. His face is expressionless, but his pale blue eyes are icy with barely contained rage.

He says not a word, but gestures to the chair at the opposite end of the table. Ben takes the seat opposite his father. The heat from the hearth behind him burns through his shirt and sweat beads on his back. Graham does not look up.

“I’m sorry –” Ben begins, but his father cuts him off with an abrupt raise of his hand.

“We worked without you today,” his father says slowly. “All day, sweating in the sun, calluses burning on our hands, while you went into the woods and played.”

“I didn’t –”

“Lie on the table.”

Ben knows there is no point protesting. Bottom lip trembling, he climbs up onto the table and lies face down on the wood. A pair of hands grabs his wrists and pins them to the table above his head. Ben looks up, into the face of his brother, who quickly glances aside. Their father towers over him, a belt in his hand. He wrenches up Ben’s shirt, exposing his smooth white back, and he brings his belt down hard. Ben cries out. The metal buckle has broken the skin. His father leaves just long enough for the pain to register before hitting him again.

By the time he is done, Ben is left with a crisscrossing of violent gashes across his back. When Graham releases him, he flees to his room and throws himself onto the bed, tears streaming down his face.

When he finally looks up, many hours later, the raven is standing at the window. Ben throws himself from the bed, climbs through the window and races through the woods, following the raven all the way. In the clearing, as the sun tentatively raises its head, the raven transforms once again into the girl Ben has named Dawn.

The moment she appears, Ben starts to cry. Without a word, Dawn walks up to him and envelops him in her arms. Her embrace hurts his injured back, but it has been so long since Ben has been held, so long since his mother died and left him alone, that not even the pain can make him pull away.

“What’s wrong?” Dawn asks, leaning away from him so she can look into his face.

Ben, struggling to contain his sobs, explains to her what his father has done. The sun creeps higher as he tells his tale, and he knows he should hurry back to the house before his father wakes and finds him gone again. But he doesn’t want to go back there. Not ever again.

Dawn listens, her eyes wide with sympathy, and when he is done she brushes the tears from his cheeks with her cool fingertips.

“I know how it hurts to be unjustly punished by those who should love you most,” she says softly.

Ben can feel his blood cooling on his back, sticking his shirt to his skin. “I don’t want to go back,” he tells her.

Dawn pauses, her black eyes scanning his face intently. “You wouldn’t have to, if we decided to leave together.”

“Where would we go?”

“It doesn’t matter. We would have each other.”

“But what about the curse?”

Dawn steps away and momentarily turns her head so that he cannot see her expression. “The witch who cursed me was cruel,” she says, “and she made it so that the curse could not be broken. Except by one thing.”

“What is it?”

Dawn turns back to face him. “I must drink the blood of an innocent.”

Ben’s hand flies to his throat. Dawn crosses the space between them and takes his hand.

“Not your blood,” she says quickly, “not after you’ve been so kind to me. I cannot take the blood myself, or I would not ask it of you. But perhaps there is someone you know…”

Ben’s thoughts, already half focused on the family waiting for him at home, turn to his brother, Graham.

“I long to be human all the time,” Dawn whispers, her breath warm on his cheek. “I want to be normal.”

He thinks of Graham asleep in his bed, his hair tousled from sleep, his rosebud mouth puckered around his thumb.

“I want to spend my time with you,” Dawn continues. “If you did this for me, I would never leave you. I would be with you always.”

He thinks of Graham, holding onto his wrists to keep him still while their father beat him with his belt, and never saying a word.

“We could find someplace to be free, you and I.” Dawn leans closer and brushes her cool pink lips against Ben’s cheek. He blushes and lowers his gaze. Before Dawn, no girl has so much as held his hand before.

“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Ben promises.

He turns and races back through the wood. He runs so fast it seems no time had passed when the ghost of his house rises out of the morning mist before him. He peeks out from behind a tree to watch his father leave the house and head off in the opposite direction to work. His expression is black as thunder; he knows his son has forsaken work for a second day. Graham will join him later, after he has cleared away the breakfast things and set the fire ready to be lit when they return in the evening.

Ben creeps towards the house. He climbs in through his bedroom window. He slips into his father’s room and takes one of the hunting knives kept hidden under the bed before making his way down the corridor and into the front room.

Graham is kneeling on the floor in front of the fireplace, brushing the ashes from last night’s fire into a small dustpan.

Silently, stepping carefully on the wooden floorboards, Ben crosses the room. He stands behind his brother, gripping the knife tight. His palm is slippery with sweat, but his hand does not shake.

He reaches out and grabs his brother’s hair. He yanks back his head, exposing Graham’s throat. Before Graham can speak, Ben draws the knife across his throat. A spray of blood paints the fireplace red. Ben grabs a bowl from the table and holds it before the wound, until it is full of glistening liquid. The light leaves Graham’s eyes. When Ben lets him go, Graham’s small body thumps to the floorboards.

Ben moves slowly now. He places the hunting knife on the table, its sharp edge smeared with gore, and leaves the house. He heads through the woods, carrying the bowl in both hands, moving slowly as if the air is made of porridge.

Finally, he reaches the clearing. The gold morning light blazes down from above. As Ben approaches, Dawn steps from behind a tree. When she sees the bowl in his hands, she takes it from him and sets it on the grass. She hugs him, holding him tight, and kisses his cheek. She leans away, black eyes sparkling.

“I never doubted you for a moment,” she tells him. “Thank you.”

She picks up the bowl. She holds it to her lips and drinks the lot as if she has never tasted anything so good. When she drops the bowl, her lips are stained scarlet. Blood trickles down her chin. A look of exultation crosses Dawn’s face. She tips back her head and closes her eyes.

“No longer will I be confined by human flesh, the bars of this body,” she whispers. “Now I can finally fly by day, see the sun sparkling on the river as I soar above, and glide through the dawn. Now I can spread my wings and be free.”

Dawn is shrinking. Wings sprout from her shoulder blades. Feathers poke through her pearly white flesh. Her nose and mouth elongate into a pointed beak. Ben blinks, and the raven is back in the clearing. Dawn is gone.

The raven hops up and down on the spot. It pauses and locks eyes with Ben, and nods once before spreading its wings and taking flight. The bright sunlight hurts Ben’s eyes, but he continues to watch, until the dark shape disappears into the golden horizon.

A globule of blood trembles on the tip of his forefinger.

Copyright © KELLYPELLS, 2016