When the White Bird Sings
by KT Bryski
Bones show best in cold weather.
Sharp lines cut under skin; bare branches crack against the sky; snow drives on snow. In a land wiped clean, only the essential remains.
The village freezes, and hungers.
Catja crouches at a stuttering hearth. Embers leak scant heat. She stirs a pot set amongst the ashes, a rusted iron belly filled with meltwater and oats and a segment of apple smoked long ago in the far-dead autumn.
At her shoulder perches a white bird. A clever fellow he is, with plumage so bright it hurts and a hooked little beak. His dark eyes never blink, shining like apple seeds flung against the snow.
“Go on,” the white bird says. “It’s all right.”
Catja brings a spoon to her lips; she suckles clouded water, tentatively welcoming its weight and warmth. She hunts the oats one by one, holding each upon her tongue.
She comes to the apple segment.
“Wait,” says the white bird. “Save that for later.” His voice pricks needle-sharp and needle-bright.
As she hesitates, he nuzzles her cheek, his feathers soft as dream. “Tomorrow, you’ll be glad you waited.”
Glassy morning shatters. In stillness so deep, snowfall kisses the windowpanes. Though Catja and the white bird wake before dawn, they do not leave until nearly midday, for she complains of weakness.
“Lace up your boots,” the white bird pleads.
Her fingers tremble, wooden. It takes too many tries.
“Put on your mittens.”
How her head spins. She clutches the bedpost, black spots blossoming across the floorboards.
“Without work, you cannot eat,” the white bird whispers.
And so, the woods.
The trees gape, toothed with icicles, famished in themselves. The white bird flits ahead, one more pale flash against the snow-blind expanses and snowbound branches.
The very air cuts.
Catja enters the glittering forest as she would a cathedral. The hard blue sky domes overhead; columns of birch and beech bend with the dying year’s melancholy. She dares not gaze skyward for long, keeping her eyes on her boots. The sun bites, and in such weather, tears freeze quickly.
“To work,” says the bird.
Catja peers through the thickets. Sloes show like bruises under a snowbank’s pallid cheek; she secrets them into a leather pouch. Between humped roots, she finds a squirrel’s forgotten cache: a few acorns, empty chestnut casings. And then—wonder of wonders—a branch of hawthorn berries, sugared with snow and gleaming like blood.
Her stomach growls. Before she’s realized, she has a berry pressed to her lips.
“Save it,” the bird says.
“But I’m hungry now.”
The bird fluffs his feathers. “Very well, if truly you suffer…”
She slips the berry into the bag.
The sunlight richens with the failing of day, melting buttery gold down the snowbanks. Beneath her tattered coat, Catja shivers, and she’s about to ask the white bird if they can go home—but then, she stops.
In the midst of the wood, a garden.
Inevitable, perhaps, as the winter itself.
Cragged grey stone cuts through the trees with a nursemaid’s primness, aproned with moss and untroubled by snow. On the far side, orchards moan with fruit, their musk swelling the breeze.
“Oh, no,” says the white bird. “Oh, no, you mustn’t.”
But Catja’s already scaling the garden wall into somnolent rose and lilac. After so long scraping against winter diamonds, it’s like she’s fallen into a wine-rich tapestry. Variegated greens fill the garden—viper and velvet—cushioned lichen, spring leaves, mallard feathers—too many shades—she loses count.
“Go back—unsafe—she’ll get you—”
A blushing apple beckons from the nearest branch.
But desperation drowns all thought. Catja seizes the apple and bites wolfishly, juice dribbling to her chin. Sweetness explodes across her tongue; she sinks to the warm earth, the garden whirling around her.
“Now you’ve done it,” the white bird mutters.
A creak sounds from far away. A cottage stands at the garden’s end, a perfect gingerbread cottage with scarlet shutters and puffing chimney. Someone comes striding down the path.
The bird trembles. “You’ve trespassed on the witch.”
So she has.
Perhaps witches are also inevitable. This one looms over Catja, drowning the sunlight, her face canny and gritted as roots under frozen earth.
The apple falls from Catja’s hand. But it’s too late, of course.
And so Catja finds herself at a scarred kitchen table, her breath knifing her ribs. The witch leans on her elbows, her brambled hair escaping a ratty brown cap.
Behind her looms a stove. Freshly blacked, wholly iron, it dominates the entire wall. Heat radiates across Catja’s cheeks. If she holds her breath, she hears the fire thrumming within.
“Why were you eating the fruit of my garden?” the witch rasps.
The white bird’s claws dig into Catja’s shoulder.
“I asked you a question, girl.”
“I’m a woman,” Catja snaps back, stroking her frightened bird. “Not a child.”
The witch nods. “My mistake. Yet the question remains, even so. Why were you eating the fruit of my garden?”
“I—I was hungry.”
The words break like ice as the white bird whimpers. Catja slumps back in the chair, empty and heartsick at once.
But the witch smiles, all yellow teeth. “Then we shall have to feed you up.”
Apples and berries, watered with blood—
Bread of bone and ashes—
The roasted joints of little children—
Such is the food of witches. The white bird tells Catja so, his voice growing ragged with warning.
It is strangely intimate, the witch’s bedroom. A narrow bed, a stool, a rickety table with a pitcher and wash basin. Sunlight speckles the wooden floor, glinting off sketches pinned to the walls. Details of leaves, mushrooms, flowers, rendered in charcoal.
Only a curtain separates sleeping quarters from kitchen. Even here, the oven’s heat penetrates.
The witch’s hand slips around Catja’s shoulder, squeezes, and then withdraws. Catja twitches, trying to dispel the chill shuddering down her spine.
“The bed’s clean enough,” the witch says.
Colder yet, Catja gulps. “Where—where will you sleep?”
The witch cackles. “In the other room, never fear, stretched by the fire like a hound at watch.”
Perched atop Catja’s head, the white bird shifts. A trill of alarm issues from his snowy breast.
The witch bows sardonically. “Rest well.”
Like a whisper, she slips through the curtain, leaving Catja to sink to the floor. The thought of climbing into the witch’s bed weakens her knees in a manner she cannot articulate, not even to herself.
The bird flutters to the floor. “Do you know what the witch desires, stupid girl?”
“She will fatten you to bursting.”
Without thinking, Catja grips her wrist, thumb overlapping middle finger. Thumb overlapping index. Again. Again. Again.
“She will eat you whole.”
“No…” Catja murmurs, but she cannot forget the curve of the witch’s lips.
“She will glut you like swine turned out to the trough. And swine that you are, you’ll swell for the slaughter. When the time comes, she’ll stoke the fire high and ready her oven.”
Catja curls herself around her knees.
“One shove,” the white bird whispers, “and you’ll be inside. How your skin will blister and bubble; how your fat will gleam and crackle. You will roast, girl. Blood boiled out, meat dripping juice.”
Fingers around wrist. Thumb over index. Again. Again.
“Tell me, dearest, tell me true—is that what you want?”
The bird looks at her, long and level. “Then do exactly as I say.”
Wood piles high in the oven; the red flames dance.
Catja sits on the floor, wrapping her fingers around her wrist, and her muddled thoughts labour across dark sea ice. Words break up; the currents heave.
With the falling of dusk, the witch returns. The curtain swishes aside. Soft footsteps stalk across the room as the white bird hides. Catja stares at her folded hands. Her heart gallops, rapid and unsteady.
Can she rush the witch? Bolt through the house?
No, she can barely crawl.
“You need to eat,” the witch says.
No, she doesn’t.
“Fine,” the witch says. “I’ll leave it here. I expect to see it gone by morning. A good night to you.”
The witch’s footsteps retreat. Just for a moment, at the curtain, she glances back—her eyes shine green as the garden. But then, she’s gone.
The white bird chitters. “Well done! Brave, bold, beautiful, dear!” He flies to the floor, where a wooden tray lies heaped with tin plates. “Now, let’s see what tricks she’s wrought.”
The nearest plate bears a pie with gleaming golden crust, shining like a beetle’s carapace. Through cut-out stars, Catja glimpses gravy-laden meat, translucent onion. She inhales deeply, her teeth aching with longing.
“Child pie,” says the white bird. “Most certainly.”
The next plate holds a brace of pigeons, roasted so the skin crisps and arranged on a bed of new potatoes and carrots all drowning in butter.
The white bird sneers. “How much grease will you yield her?”
Swallowing hard, Catja lifts the final plate.
A single loaf of bread. Coarse and the colour of molasses, its top slashed by a cross. With trembling hands, Catja cuts a slice.
Steam rises from the middle. The crumb springs obligingly beneath her fingers. Instantly she thinks of other hearths and other meals—she thinks of mornings before the winter came—and the hunger pierces so deeply that she bursts into tears.
“Please,” she whispers. “Oh, please.”
The bird hops onto Catja’s finger, his dark eyes sorrowful. “Do you want to live?”
“Then you must be very strong. That one slice. Keep that.” The bird casts a glance backwards. “But the rest…”
Setting her jaw, Catja takes the bread. She’ll show the witch. She has lived through the coldest of privation. She can survive this, too. Setting the slice on the coverlet, she tosses the other plates out the window. The room still stinks of food, but she shoves her hunger down and the threatening tears vanish.
“Be brave,” the bird says, gently. “Take heart.”
All through the long and lonely night, she makes that morsel last.
The dance continues day by day. At sunrise and sunset, the witch enters with garden-warm eyes and platters piled high. Fowl, fish, stews—breads, sweets, cakes—fruits of the vines and roots of the earth—Catja revolts against the variety, and the sheer, unrelenting quantity. Right in the witch’s face, Catja hurls her temptations into the garden. She crosses her arms, defiant, but the witch only sighs.
“You’re a singularly foolish woman.”
She has not touched Catja since that first day.
The emptiness magnifies beneath Catja’s ribs. She hardens her resolves, forgoing even the rations the white bird deems safe. Cup of milk, pigeon wing, carrot scraps; they all sit untouched while she laughs, exhilarated and another step further from the witch’s plate.
Indeed, the witch’s magic seems to be failing. Winter has stolen into the cottage. It lurks in Catja’s bones, black-ice coldness setting stiffer each day. Despite the white bird’s efforts, she stays longer and longer in the witch’s bed, huddled beneath the quilt, breathing her scent.
“Poor thing,” the witch whispers, laying another blanket over her. It’s good, thick wool from over the mountains, where the tempests and cold weather last all year round. Her voice is softer in kind, her hands gentler.
Just for a moment, Catja unbends.
“Did you see her fingernails?” the bird asks later. “Claws, more like. Ready to strip your flesh.”
In the night’s frozen belly, she traces bones beneath her skin, counting ribs and ridges, sinews and sharpness. With her fingers light upon her breast, she measures the uncertain stammer of her heart.
“It won’t be long now,” the white bird says.
The next morning, the witch doesn’t leave, but sits on the floor, long legs tucked beneath her skirts. A plate sits on the bare floor between them both. Two slices of plain brown bread, a plum, and a scrap of smoked salmon like a flake of dawn. Challenge, threat, or both? Catja stares at it, her chest tightening. Since childhood, she’s loved smoked salmon.
The witch ignores the plate. “What is your name?”
She startles. “Catja.”
The witch nods. Silence stretches, awkward enough that Catja coughs and adds, “Did you make the drawings?”
“Every one.” Calmly, the witch butters a slice of bread. As though it’s the most natural thing in the world, she raises it to her mouth and takes a bite. “To watch the plants, to know them, and then to capture their likeness—it’s a dear pastime.”
Catja’s mouth waters.
“And you?” the witch continues, brushing crumbs from her front. “What pastimes do you favour, Catja?”
What is there, but the cold and empty days, relentless grey skies, and the white bird?
“Ah,” says the witch. “I see.”
Dull heat floods Catja’s cheeks. With short, faintly scarred fingers, the witch lifts the smoked salmon. Slowly, carefully, she tears it in half.
But there she stops. Catja’s fists clench. A scream lodges in her throat like a fishbone. She wants to shake the witch. Eat it. Just eat it.
“Tell me, Catja—do you live with parents? A husband?”
“I—” The salmon mocks her. Tempts her. Her thoughts scatter like snow in the wind. Why won’t the witch eat?
The witch leans forward. “It’s all right. Would you like some? Look, we’ll share it.”
A sliver of pink flesh, held out.
Their hands brush as Catja takes it, and she flushes deeper. She takes the salmon into her mouth—and oh, the sweet-smoked taste, the delicate tearing between her teeth. Damnation never tasted so divine. Pleasure leaks out in a half-smothered moan, and before she can stop herself, she snatches the other slice of bread and devours that too.
The witch doesn’t comment. She simply shakes out her skirt, touches Catja’s knee, and says, “I’ll bring in more wood—we’ll want the oven hot tonight.”
The moment she does, Catja’s stomach cramps. The white bird launches himself across the room. “What have you done?”
The white bird sings, all rage, all rage.
She is an empty hearth; she is only ash.
His beak finds its mark without fail. Blood smears the witch’s blankets and drips to the floor. Catja does not scream—does not scream—does not. Does she want to be eaten? Is she so gluttonous? Can she not feel herself engorging, ready for the cookpot?
Truth hurts; his beak pierces. She tries to shield her head, but the white bird’s wings whip her furiously. It is only because he loves her.
It is only because he wishes her safe.
It is only because Catja cannot protect herself.
“But she seems so kind.”
Witches cannot be trusted. Never. The white bird prods Catja’s stomach. How long before the witch sharpens her knives and pulls out her recipe cards? Two weeks? A day?
“Please stop,” Catja whispers. “I’m sorry.”
With his cold wing, the white bird dries her tears. “Then escape,” he says. “Tonight. Go quickly, lest she eat you whole.”
The woods, again.
Darker this time. Shadows pool between the trees and blacken the snow. Wind rattles the branches, tinged with smoke and moonlight. She stumbles through drifts, teeth chattering.
After the white bird, they remember the cold. They always remember the cold.
With the white bird on her shoulder, Catja fumbles through dark trees. Rushing snow bites her bare face and arms, every flake a tiny mouth. Far away, the witch’s axe sounds its steady heartbeat thud.
We’ll want the oven hot tonight.
“Run,” the bird whispers.
Catja gathers herself. She’s left her cloak in the witch’s cottage—or somewhere among the orchards—she cannot remember. Perhaps she deserves to freeze.
“Come,” the white bird sings, “come, my dearest, keep going.”
Snow plumes to her knees, a diamond-fall that steals her breath with every step. Rough bark scrapes her arms. The world fractures; snow and moonlight cut like the white bird’s beak.
“Come, my love. Good girl. Good girl.”
Her heartbeat stutters and judders, her temples pounding. As the trees pulse around her, she grabs the nearest branch. Standing there, panting, she hears a distant voice on the wind.
“Hurry,” the white bird croons. “Keep running. She mustn’t find you.”
She takes a step. The coldness retreats, swept away by—nothing. Grey, buzzing nothing. Not unpleasant, neither frightening, nor terribly important, it sends her sinking to the ground.
The bird shrills. “Move!”
Obedient to the last, Catja tries.
But she cannot.
Snow falls on snow. A steel wind howls. And as the drifts pile upon her head and back—as snowflakes seal her eyelids—even the white bird quiets.
She’s not even hungry, anymore.
There are lands where the soil never thaws.
So, too, there are hearts that the cold never leaves. The witch knows all about this, of course.
She wakes to a gently-held spoon, salty broth wetting her lips.
Inside, Catja crumples. Without opening her eyes, she turns her head away, despair crashing upon her until she nearly retches. The same wool blankets swaddle her; she smells wood smoke and roasting meat.
“Catja,” the witch whispers. “Please, try.”
She opens her eyes, though her lips remained tightly clamped.
No. The white bird nests on her chest, surveying the witch with black-stone eyes. As the witch brandishes the spoon again, the bird hisses and snaps, “She won’t.”
The witch withdraws as though slapped. She sets the spoon and broth aside. With that, Catja’s breathing eases. Beneath the blankets, her hands unclench. Weariness aches in her bones—for so long, she has been so tired.
“Catja, listen to me.”
“There is nothing so sweet as the white bird’s song.” The witch’s voice is too calm, too steady. “Nothing so pure, nothing so gentle. But the white bird lies, Catja.”
“I do not,” the white bird says.
“You mustn’t listen. You must stopper your ears against it.”
Catja cannot remember the last time someone spoke so kindly. Within her heart, the ice cracks. And the tears burst free.
“I can’t,” Catja sobs. “I can’t; without him, I can’t do it, I—”
Very softly, the witch says, “I did.”
“Long ago,” the witch continues, not looking at her. “Another bird. I did it. You can too.”
“See?” the white bird spits. “She will kill me dead and eat you whole.”
Catja grows silent, she grows still. She cups the white bird in her hands, his feathers silk in her palms, his rapid heart galloping in time with her own.
“You are weak,” the white bird says, with the winter’s own voice. “You are so much meat, ready for table. You are—”
Sick of winter, weary of famine.
And hungry. So very, very hungry.
She crushes the white bird until his blood drips between her fingers.
Even in his dying, the white bird sings, all rage.
Winter and famine. It would be easy enough to say they lifted with the white bird’s death. The longed-for end: Catja feasted, she basked in the spring. She drank deep of the witch’s kisses and they both were well. Even more, they lived happily ever after.
Easy enough to say. And yet, and yet—
Some soils never melt, some hearts never thaw. And there are some songs never forgotten. In the winter nights, Catja hears the white bird still, his phantom voice thrilling, the clear chimes rising.
Fingers around wrist. Thumb over index.
“Stopper your ears,” her loving witch whispers, taking her hands.
And for the rest of her life, she tries.
About the Author
KT Bryski is a Canadian author, playwright, and podcaster. She has stories in many short fiction publications, including Lightspeed, Nightmare, Augur, and PodCastle.
She’s won the Parsec and the Toronto Star Short Story Contest, and she has been shortlisted for the Sunburst and Aurora. KT co-chairs ephemera, a speculative fiction reading series occurring monthly in Toronto (or YouTube, depending on COVID-19).
When she’s not writing, KT can be found frolicking through Toronto, enjoying choral music and craft beer.