Each winter at The Ordering, the ribbons were handed out. Every girl who had entered her thirteenth year was ordered to attend.
“Mother, I’m frightened,” said Anja.
“Hush,” said her mother. “Of course you are. I was frightened too.”
“But you are so very pretty, and I am not.”
Her mother slipped behind her daughter’s chair and ran a cool finger along her empty neck where the ribbon would go—a colored marker to be worn for life.
Only the prettiest girls in the Kingdom were granted Blue. Noblemen from all over the land would compete for their hand. An Orange or a Green was not so bad either. Girls who earned those colors were granted the right to motherhood and respectable employment. An Orange might marry a farmer or work as a secretary in one of the better offices.
But a Brown…now a Brown was not so lucky. A Brown was made a Second Daughter, and a Second Daughter was never allowed to have children, to marry, or to love. A Brown was meant only to serve.
“All ribbons are an honor,” said Anja’s mother, removing her hand from her daughter’s neck. “Do you believe that?”
“Good.” Her mother sat down beside her. “My daughter, what do you want most in this world?”
Anja considered carefully. There were many things to want. A blue ribbon and a castle full of Browns to do her bidding. A cold mountain lake into which she might slip on a hot summer night. A magic pot that would fill itself each time she was hungry, or a child with hair like spun gold.
But Anja wanted none of these things.
“What I want,” said Anja, thinking of the pretty birds that soared over her family’s fields, “is to fly.”
Her mother looked at her gravely, fingering the green ribbon about her own neck. As a young girl she had lived in the country and worked the fields as well. But, as many wild things do, she had grown into something lovely. Not symmetrical, not small, but wide and thick and strong—the kind of girl who was made to plant her feet in the mud and bless the seeds. Though she was given but a Green (her lowly beginning being too much for the system’s highest honor), she was amongst the ten called to the King’s bed on Ordering night.
Now, she took her daughter’s hand, “If you wanted, I could make you a Blue.”
“How?” asked Anja.
“It was the King’s seed that grew you. Whoever comes from such a union is owed, no matter her standing or birth.”
“But I wouldn’t really be pretty,” said Anja.
“The has great magicians who can cut and stretch and remake your face to be as you’d like it. The actual skin is no great matter. Is this what you want?”
Anja had not known such magic existed. But it woke nothing in her heart.
“I want,” she said once more, “to fly.”
“So be it,” said her mother. “Say goodbye to your father and your home. Tomorrow we go to collect your wings.”
“Tomorrow is The Ordering,” said Anja.
“Such things,” said her mother, “no longer concern us.”
Anja woke before dawn to the touch of her mother’s cool fingertips. She rose from atop the stinking wool blanket. On her way out the door she stooped to kiss her father who stirred but did not wake.
Outside, the world was still. The snow had crusted over, so that it bit into Anja’s ankles like teeth as she walked.
“Where are we going?”
But her mother did not answer.
They walked until the sun—weak at this time of year, a sparse orange flicker like the last ember in a fire—began to set. There were no other humans for miles. Only deer, and once a white wolf who followed them for a chilly hour of fear before retreating permanently behind a hill.
At dusk they came to a ring of evergreens in the center of which sat a small black house. It was of the most curious shape—all round and sitting atop two thick tree roots bent like chicken’s feet. On its thatched roof a crooked chimney gasped puffs of sooted smoke.
“Who lives here ?” asked Anja. From inside, she heard a low voice, singing:
Cry, my daughters.
Water my gardens and raise my crops.
Come summertime we harvest.
Her mother raised a hand and knocked.
The door opened and a witch stepped out.
Anja had never seen such a creature—she was hardly human. The hag wore no clothes and her greyed skin sagged so that her tits stretched to her knees, the pubis between her legs sprouting white, tangled fur.
“What do you want?” The witch asked.
“I have come to deliver my daughter.”
“No!” Anja begged, confused. “Please, mother! This is not what I want!”
“What price will you pay?” asked the witch, ignoring Anja’s cries and speaking only to her mother.
“The customary one.”
“So be it.” And before Anja could even say goodbye, the witch grabbed the tender flesh beneath her arm and pulled her inside.
“Mother!” Anja cried. But it was too late. The door was closed and her mother gone. She had been betrayed.
The heat from the fire inside crackled and the flames leapt as the Witch pulled an ax from off her wall.
Forcing Anja’s body down across a wooden table, she chopped the girl’s arms off one after the other, watching them fall like pieces of kindling to the dirt.
In the morning, the witch made Anja bury her arms in the garden. She was not alone. Other armless creatures, pale and ghostly, walked beside her, watering the rows with their tears. They, like the witch and now Anja, were naked.
“How do we get out of here?” Anja begged one of them, a tiny waif no bigger than a child but with full breasts and long, red hair. In another world she might have been a Green, or even a Blue. The girl trained her golden eyes at the clumps of frozen ground.
“We are needed here to tend the witch’s garden,” she said, and wept harder.
The days passed, each the same as the last. The witch’s daughters—for so she called them —minded the garden each night from sundown to sunrise, digging it up with their mouths, and gnawing the bones buried beneath to stay alive. During the day they piled into the witch’s hut where they slept like dirty rags, one on top of the other. Sometimes the witch slept with them, and when she did, she’d sing.
Cry, my daughters.
Water my gardens and raise my crops.
Come summertime we harvest.
Anything can become a life. The witch’s garden was Anja’s. Spring came, and the earth thawed. Turning over the mud became easier, Anja’s teeth sharper from gnawing the bones. At night, she began to feel a strange itch on her back, and sometimes one of the other girls would scratch it for her with the scabbed nubs of her arms.
On the first day of summer, the girls were out as usual digging in the garden, when they heard the sound of horses from far away. It was the King’s army. They surrounded to the witch’s house in full armor, their retinue stretching back for miles, forming a sea of metal.
“Why have you come?” the witch asked, stepping outside to address their leader—his name was Bertrand, and he was the king’s right hand. Bertrand wore robes of scarlet and metal armor that covered his legs, his breast, his heart.
“We have come” he answered the soldier, “to claim what is owed. These daughters were not brought to the King as is his right.”
“They are my daughters,” the witch answered. “And you cannot have them.”
She stood before the men naked as she always was, naked, the skin on her weather-beaten body thicker than the leather the soldiers wore.
“You lie.” Bertrand raised his right arm, and behind him the ocean of horses and metaled-men parted to let through a line of prisoners, each tied to the waist of the other with a rope.
When Anja saw them, she gasped, for amongst them was her mother.
The prisoners were all women, their hair unwashed, faces dirty, but each with a ribbon around her neck of green or orange or even, on a very few, blue.
“These,” said Bertrand, “are their mothers of the daughters you have stolen. They are traitors to the king.”
Anja’s mother’s face was hardly recognizable, aged decades in the space of a the months they’d been apart. Anja tried to call out to her, but her voice was lost.
“I’ve come for the girls you keep,” Bertrand addressed the witch. “You have abused them sorely, and the King demands their return so that he might grant them their Orders.”
“They are not his to take,” said the witch.
Bertrand motioned with his chain-mailed fist, and behind him, the mothers were brought forward so that they stood in a line between the men and their daughters.
“Watch,” he said. “This is what happens to those who betray the King.”
The soldiers raised their swords and plunged them, each into the beating breast of a mother. As the murdered women sank onto their knees, their blood fell into the witch’s garden. Anja cried out, but when she looked at her mother’s dying face, she saw not fear, but joy.
“The price has been paid,” said the witch to the dying women. Then she turned to the girls.
“My daughters, it is time.”
The witch sank to her knees in the freshly bloodied earth of her garden and began to dig. Anja and the other girls dug with her. And this time, instead of bones, each girl found a golden pair of wings.
Anja lay her back upon the cool ground and felt the itch that had been there disappear as silken feathers stroked her skin instead. The wings rooted into her back, and as a plant sinks its feet into the earth, they attached.
Dripping mud from their naked breasts, the witch’s daughters stooped to kiss their dead mothers’ brows before rising, rising, into the air.
Below them, the soldiers trembled and then ran.
It did no good.
The daughters came on, diving down, their wings beating confusion into the men, who turned swords against swords, killing their brothers. Chaos became but another daughter, and on that battlefield, the men who’d come to reclaim them were instead reclaimed.
The witch’s daughters fed.
Their teeth, sharp from all the long days of gnawing bones, cut through metal and into flesh. Their bellies, too long empty, consumed. When they finished, the daughters left the soldiers where they’d fallen.
Then they went to release their sisters. In the city, people saw but a great cloud, descending. Wings of limbless angels, with bloodied teeth.
Vampyres, Valkiries, Harpies, the people did not know what to call them in their fear.
The witch’s daughters did not care. As one, the flock descended, and each daughter found a ribboned woman. And each daughter, with all the gentleness of a lover, bent to bite the silk from her sister’s neck.
One by one, the ribbons fell—Orange, Blue, Green, Brown.
Until finally, on all the women, was but a single uniting strip of raw, red flesh.
And the daughters became lovers became sisters became mothers became whole.
Together, they raised their voices in song, and in the witch’s garden the dead sang with them.
Smile, my daughters.
You’ve watered the gardens and raised the crops.
Now is the time for harvest.
Heather Herrman’s debut novel, Consumption, is available through Random House/Hydra. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous publications including Cemetery Dance, Dark Markets Anthology: Volume 10, Writer’s Resist, The South Carolina Review, and Snake Nation Review. Her work has received support from The Prague Writer’s Program and The Nebraska Arts Council. She holds an MFA in fiction from New Mexico State University and is an Active Member in the Horror Writers Association. You can find out more about her work at www.heatherherrman.com.