Territory by Julie Steinbacher
If we do the magic wrong, Lucy, we won’t know until our bodies fail and there’s nothing we can do to go back.
We lie down together in the grass, the damp blades tickling our legs below the hems of our pleated skirts, our hands clasped, and close our eyes, and let our hearts slow until they beat no more. The rain comes first, plastering your dark curls against your forehead, washing away the spell words inked on the palms of our hands. Our skin turns pale and cold, harder and yet more yielding. We stop smelling like ourselves, like cherry lipgloss and hard white soap and the heather crushed on the bottoms of our shoes. We smell like nothing for a time, and then like the bottom of the bins, like the dog on the side of the road, putrescine and cadaverine.
Where are you and I in those moments before the flawed magic works? Hovering somewhere, inside ourselves or above our bodies? Placidly dreaming, like we did so many times last summer as we listened to cassettes of The Clash and Eurythmics in the woods by your house? Or screaming silently, saying, “We didn’t know it would be like this when we gathered the raven’s feather and the fox’s clote. We were afraid to cut the words in our palms, didn’t know that pricking our fingers wasn’t enough blood to preserve our bodies.
“This is not what we wanted, not what we meant to do. Take us back to our letters and our mums and dads. Take us back, even if they beat us and tear us apart and send us away.
“Take us back, even though life will not cure us of this love for one another.”
But the flawed magic is working, and as the rain slows, the questing worms place their soft mouths against us. The beetles tick across our hands and legs, beneath our clothes. We feel little parts of ourselves lost in them, and remember the spell words we uttered.
You, fiach dubh, raven. Me, sionnach, fox. Because you dreamed of wings. Because I wanted to run.
And because we’ve done the magic wrong, but mostly right, by the time the raven comes to your corpse and the fox to mine, we have a couple hundred little consciousnesses each, in the beetles and the snails and flies, the little creatures of the forest. We know the taste of ourselves and each other, the shape of our insides and the many colors skin changes to. The sinking of the earth beneath us, the architecture of skin and sinew and bone. If we could ever come back to ourselves, we’d be horrified and fascinated. But as the small creatures all is order, impulse, survival. Nothing goes to waste.
The spell still calls a fox and a raven, as it was designed to. Your raven is male, a detail we did not consider, but does it matter anymore? He alights on the breast of your white shirt and tilts his fierce dark eye up at the curve of your chin, as if expecting you to wake and meet his stare. He hops to the collar of your shirt and finds the flesh there already started, dips his perfect long beak and takes of you.
As he feasts, you find yourself in the workings of him, one trespass for another. You stir in his hollow bones, twitch the long black primaries. Blink the dark eye and swivel the tail. Did he call himself by a name? Have a mate, a roost? It all blurs, runs out of him as you stream in, but not completely. There’s still the gentle tug of you in a thousand insects, the imperfect spell that ties you inside this raven but does not give him fully to you.
The raven starts when the fox comes to me, he hops away from your opened throat in an anxious dance. You are fascinated by the fox, how beautiful the dull red fur, how yellow the eyes. You want to call to me, but I am not yet in the fox, and the raven simply lifts his thin tongue and croaks.
The fox sniffs the flesh of my legs, startling flies. It is a yearling, thin enough that shadows gather in the hollows of its hips. The wet black nose nudges, and it jumps at the sight of the raven, but tears a strip of flesh from my body before returning, settling to feed.
And now whatever me that was floating above, or screaming, or burrowing away in a thousand scavengers, comes to rest in this beast. He becomes mine from his snout to his prick to the white end of his tail, though not completely. I know you, Lucy, in the raven, and I know my body, though the taste is unfamiliar. I know the wilting uniform means something, the short cut of my hair means something, the bruises on my cheek mean something. But the meanings fade, because we did not do the spell right.
When the fox and the raven eat their fill, they retire, the fox curling at the base of a low pine, the raven in its branches, head tucked in the fluffed neck feathers.
They—we—are connected somehow, though when they wake, they will not return to the village, as we’d planned, to see if we were missed. They would not recognize our parents if we did return, would not know the crease of worry and the deep frowns on their faces. Wouldn’t note your mother in the kitchen palming her rosary, or my father weighing the palm he used on me, taking up a stick and walking to the valley.
By the time our bodies are found, the raven and the fox have moved on. We don’t see anyone cry over us, don’t see our families come together over our deaths the way they never could while we lived. We don’t see the memorial our schoolmates build for us, hear their whispers: “Lucy was always so nice. A bit shy, but she helped tutor me in maths. She was going to go to university for it.” “Once Stevie told off a third year when we’d just entered secondary school. She always looked out for us.”
We become like the saints we never hoped to measure to in life, our bodies reclaimed and washed and knit and powdered. Our fingers pried apart, no trace remaining of the spell.
The story in the Wicklow papers we never read: Girls Found in Glen, cause of death suspected to be digitalis poisoning or some other traceless agent. We didn’t leave a note, didn’t anticipate the fuss. After all, the spell was supposed to allow us to return.
My mother finds a spell book in my room and wonders at the missing page, holds my jumper close and lies on my bed but never between the sheets, preserving my smell. Your father becomes even stricter with your little brothers, herding them from home to school to church to home again, thinking he did not do enough to keep you safe.
But you and I, raven and fox, we are voyagers. It’s not what we wanted, not our perfect freedom on those black wings and russet legs. We’re not together the way we planned. But we gallop across and wing over fields, the thrill of four legs, two wings, the open world ahead, making us alive. In our shared bodies, we yield sometimes, to corvid or canine, a half life of territory and feud and hunt. At other times, sunning in a meadow on a warm summer’s day, you sail down, hop close, perch on my shoulder and stretch your wings until the fox shakes you away. And I in my turn approach your kill and share the meat, until the raven croaks a warning.
We take mates, know the duty of returning from the hunt, the tedium of watched eggs, the closeness of the den. We thank the fates or God or the spells that we are not the ones who sit the eggs or swell with pups, that we are free to roam and meet in wary quiet moments. You are only raven in those moments and I only fox, but we live out our half lives in peace—and when the animals fail, of age and disease, we too are no more.
If I never met you, Stevie, maybe I never would have known this other part of me lived inside. Maybe I would have been content with the day-to-day, the prayers and the dinners in silence with my family, the school books and equations, the way numbers answered all the questions. You didn’t start the dreams in me, but I could have ignored them. Easily forgotten, my mother used to say, of things of no consequence.
I would have thought the dreams pleasing: soaring through the sky. Maybe changed those charcoal feathers to white in my recollections. Maybe I was just dreaming of being an angel in heaven. Like a good girl.
If I never met you, I wouldn’t have taken your hand that time we walked in the woods and you slid, though you wore heavy boots. Your palm was as damp as the leaves from the rain. You tried to act like it didn’t surprise you, like girls took girls’ hands all the time even though none of us had since first year.
Later, I wouldn’t have kissed you by the river after we’d mulched leaves into each other’s hair.
I wouldn’t have pointed to the baring branches of the trees, beyond them, and said, “I have dreams of flying up there.”
You wouldn’t have kissed me again and told me I was beautiful, and made me fall in love with you.
If I never met you, I wouldn’t have been brave enough to tell my friends you were my girl. It wouldn’t have gotten back to my parents. My father wouldn’t have refused to look at me, and my mother wouldn’t have threatened to send me away.
Instead, I would forget the dreams. We wouldn’t find that book in the second-hand shop or believe in spells and spirits. I would be a good student. I would wear my skirts below the knee and stockings never torn, my cross at my neck and just a dab of pink gloss on my lips. I would be modest and pretty, and someday Thomas Byrne would notice the way my white neck curved and ask if he could carry my books. He’d bring me flowers and take me to see a film at the cinema. I’d not think twice about the flash of thighs in camogie practice, the way my blood coursed when I wove between the other girls, the changing room comparisons. All part of a healthy girlhood. Simple appreciation for what God’s given, how He’s blessed everyone.
The first time Tom kissed me, I wouldn’t know the taste of your mouth, like the smell of baking gingerbread on winter holiday. I wouldn’t think his lips too rough, his tongue not delicate enough. Instead I’d think, ‘A boy is kissing me, a sweet boy who all the girls fancy.’ If I was disappointed for some reason, I wouldn’t recognize it.
When Tom met my parents, I’d glow at the little signs of their approval: my mother giving him a slice of tart, my father taking him aside for a “walk and talk.” The first time Tom put it in me, I’d know it was just nerves and the fear of God that made it hurt. It would get better. I would learn to close my eyes and touch myself.
I’d shelve those dreams of university because Tom would want to take care of me. We’d get married out of secondary school, rent a small flat over the bakery while he learned a trade. When the mechanical job didn’t stick, I’d go to work for the baker balancing accounts and ringing up customers. I’d love it, and then Tom would find his feet as a carpenter, and we’d learn I was pregnant.
The dreams would start up again, then, and I’d think, inside me is a little winged thing. The midwife, looking at my belly, would say, she’s sitting high, that’s a girl for sure. And I’d be pleased, imagining her with Tom’s dark eyes and my dark hair. “My little raven girl,” I’d think.
Sure, and it would be a life. Maybe I would wonder, when the dreams didn’t stop and the child’s dark fuzz fell out and foxy red hair grew in, if it all meant something. Maybe I would hold the midwife’s hand tighter than Tom’s when I pushed. Would miss the bready scent of her when I needed her no longer. But then I would have a daughter to raise, and I wouldn’t have time for dreams.
If we decide not to do the magic, it’s as we’re standing in the glen waiting for the rain. We’re afraid to prick ourselves, afraid that the magic could be real, afraid that even if it works and our parents miss us and wonder if it could be their fault, they’ll still keep us apart when we return. You take my palm with “fox” written on it in Gaeilge and hold it, and I pull you close and breathe the warm smell of you.
“They’ll find us,” you say, and I nod, still holding you. And we stay that way for a long time, until the rain starts and sets us shivering, the earth flooding and soaking our shoes. I want to give you my jumper but it’s just as sodden as everything else. So we kiss, desperately, cry when we realize that even if we change our minds the words are smudged—fia– –bh? sionna–?
“Let’s go,” I tell you and lead us back to the road.
Eventually a little van pulls up, the baker on pastry delivery. He’s always been kind, and his eyes widen when he takes us in in the headlights, soft stutter as he urges, “Get inside, girls. You’ll catch your death of cold.”
He knows everyone’s been looking for us, knows why, maybe, but doesn’t speak of it. Tells us there’s a blanket under the seat, and if we like we can take the warmest loaves of bread off the top of the stack and set them in our laps for some extra heat.
You fall asleep with your head on my shoulder, and I feel as though my insides are coming apart, as if little pieces of me are flying in a million directions. Because I know I’m not going home, and I’ll probably never see you again. You can go back—I’ve told the baker your address first—but I won’t.
As we’re pulling up the drive to your house, I wake you. Not caring about the baker, I give you a last clumsy kiss, pressing my chapped lips against yours—so soft—as long as I can without crying.
“I love you,” I say, clasping your hands.
“I’m sorry,” you tell me, but I hush you.
“Not your fault. Never your fault.”
And then your parents are running toward the van, and I duck aside so they hardly notice me as they pull you from it, hold you and exclaim at the chill of your skin, tell you how much trouble you’re in. Your father catches my eye briefly, one slight nod before turning away stone-faced.
I brought her back safe to you, sir. And then the baker turns back onto the road.
“Where’ll it be, Stephanie?” he asks.
“I can’t go home,” I tell him.
I show him the bruise on my cheek.
“You deliver to Bray?” I ask.
He nods, squinting at me in the rear-view mirror.
“I have an aunt there,” I say. One I haven’t seen in years. “She’s keeping me this summer.” A little lie won’t hurt him.
The baker makes his deliveries, and I have him drop me at a house at the end of a lane. I go up and knock on the door.
An elderly woman whom I don’t recognize answers, and when I ask to use her phone she lets me in. I sit in her kitchen and breathe, faster, slower, faster, until she asks what’s my trouble, and I tell her, “I’m your niece, Steph—Stevie. My father hit me.”
“You’re Brian’s young one?” she asks. She clucks and looks at the bruise. “He learned well from our father,” she says. “He wouldn’t like you here. But it’s dark already. Stay the night, if you want. My John’s old room is a spare now.”
I stay, and the next day she introduces me to Fran and David, cousins who need a nanny for their two boys. Fran fusses over my rumpled shirt and messy hair. When I meet the kids, we fall in like siblings. Fran tells me I can stay in the room above the nursery. I settle with them and pick up my studies with the boys. A local schoolteacher helps me prepare for the Leaving Certs, and one day my boys’ Da drives me to take the exams. When my hair gets long and shaggy, Fran cuts it short for me.
“Such a pretty face, Stevie,” she says. “It doesn’t do to hide it.”
My mother comes unexpectedly about a month in, with some of my clothes and cassettes. “Your Da doesn’t know I’m here,” she tells me. She kisses my cheek before she leaves and tells me to take care of myself. There’s no time to ask about you.
I send letters to Lucy Kavanagh. Unsigned letters that cramp my hand when I try to hide my penmanship. I never get any responses. I stop trying after a few years. I wonder if you remember me, if you still have the dreams.
Eventually the boys don’t need me, though we’ll always be like siblings. I apply to university in Dublin to get a law degree, and I get in.
There I meet another girl, a Londoner with dark skin. Melanie studies languages and wants to work for an embassy as a translator. When we finish our degrees we move to London together, and I start my CPE. Melanie calls, breathless, as I’m leaving class one day.
“I’ve been offered a post in Lyon!” she says.
My face is sweaty against my mobile. “Did you say yes?”
“I wanted to talk to you first,” she says.
“Mel, it’s everything you want. I think a celebration is in order.”
I pick up a tart and a bottle of champagne. My stride stretches long as I walk. The world is opening up and up, the bricks passing beneath me, swallowed in the distance.
On the tube ride home I see you.
I don’t know it’s you, don’t recognize you from behind and halfway across the car, just stare at the raven tattooed on your shoulder. There are tracings of letters that run beneath its spread wings, hidden under the strap of your singlet. Then you turn, just enough that the side of your face reflects in the window. I recognize the way your dark hair twists in the front where you brush it out of your eyes, even after all this time. I remember holding your hand in the rain, how with every bump of the baker’s van I worried you’d wake and I wouldn’t be able to leave you behind. You stand and move to the doors, and as you do you look my way. We share a glance of no more than a second, but it feels like years. You nod and get off at the next stop, dark skirt fluttering around your legs. I go home.
Melanie and I get giddy drinking champagne. We curl together on the couch, my cheek against her shoulder, and she tightens her fingers on mine and says, “I’m so happy, Steph, but what about us?” She’ll have to move in two months, and I’ve a year of practical training ahead.
She shifts in my arms so our faces are close. Her green eyes search mine, and I’m not sure what she finds there that makes her hold her breath.
I touch her cheek. Home is a place between us and in us and forever changing. A territory without a map, a dark shape winging away.
“We can visit each other by train, yeah?” I ask. Already I’m thinking of traveling, of new spaces.
She nods, the corners of her mouth dimpling as she stifles a smile, uncertain.
“We’ll try to make it work.” I kiss the tip of her nose, the smile on her lips.
When I clear out the empty bottles before going to bed, something red darts away from the dumpsters. It blinks at me from the shadows, eyes shining green, and pads away.