Saturday Storytime: Water, Birch, and Blood

This story from Sara Norja makes me wonder what I’d find if I returned to the lakes and forests of my childhood. I mean, I know, all impaired memory aside, but it still makes me wonder.

“A magpie laughing in front of a house,” mutters Kristiina, “means bad things are coming. Old things.”

“Old superstitions!” My father laughs. “Have some more cake, Mother.”

The magpie shimmers in the sun, its feathers gleaming blue-metallic. I can’t keep my eyes off it. Only when it takes off and flies into the forest, towards the lake, do I come back to this world.

The white stone is still clutched in my hand. It should be hot and sweaty from contact with my skin, but it’s cold. As if it had that moment appeared from the bottom of a lake.

That night the storm lulls us to sleep, breaking the heat’s back, a momentary respite. Before I head to bed in the sauna’s dressing room, where the boxbed has been spread to accommodate me and Maarit, I stand outside the sauna building and let the rain bathe me. Eleven-thirty in the evening and it’s still twilight. Even the rain-clouds can’t make it dark yet. Summer sings in me. I get drenched on purpose, let the rain unleash a longing on my skin. When I get inside, Maarit enfolds me in her arms.

I awake to the sun filtering through the old lace curtains. Maarit is fast asleep, her hair spread on the pillow in a brown cloud. I smile and resist the urge to run a hand along the naked curve of her back. I don’t want to wake her.

I check my phone. Four in the morning, far too early for even Kristiina to be awake. I feel too hot and the air in the room is stifling me, so I get up and slip on my light flower-speckled sundress. It clings to my damp skin. I check on Kristian in his cot and another smile reaches the corner of my mouth. I pluck my towel from its hook, linger at the door for a moment watching my sleeping family.

Then I go out into the morning.

The sun has risen half an hour before, but the world is still dew-dripping and new. The birds are noisy in their celebration of the dawn, their chattering louder than it ever is in the city.

I can feel the heat of the day building up. I have to swim. Perhaps the lake will help me cool down a little. No one else is around yet. I can feel the sleep-energy spreading out from the cabin and sauna house . . . No, of course I can’t. It’s my barely-awake brain playing tricks on me.

The floating jetty creaks and rocks beneath my bare feet. The branches of the silver birch beside it tickle my neck as I pass. It feels as if spirits are stroking my skin, and I shiver.

I strip my sundress off and let the burgeoning day’s heat lick my body. I feel a tingling all over, an itching I’m not sure is merely physical. The lake is calling to me. A vast stillness has spread over the waters. I slip in.

The lake-water is warm, but still cooler than the air. It slides around me like birdmilk. With strong, steady strokes I swim out. The shore on the other side is still half shrouded in morning mist. I plunge my head underwater

–and feel I’m being sucked under, memories flood me with the raging power of water, I’m raising my hand in supplication to the great bear-queen, who tells me I am the one to help their world in its direst need –

I emerge from the lake, gasping for breath.

I remember.

That summer, they called to me through the lake and I followed, passing through the water next to the guardian birch. When I reached the surface again, spitting lake-weeds from my mouth, I was Elsewhere.

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Saturday Storytime: Water, Birch, and Blood