Read Four and Twenty Blackbirds Online

Authors: Cherie Priest

Tags: #Fantasy, #Horror, #Contemporary, #Dark Fantasy, #Fiction

Four and Twenty Blackbirds

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Four and Twenty Blackbirds

CHERIE PRIEST

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this novel are either
fictitious or are used fictitiously.

FOUR AND TWENTY BLACKBIRDS

Copyright © 2003, 2005 by Cherie Priest

Unrevised, shorter version published in 2003 by Marietta Publishing

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form.

Edited by Liz Gorinsky

Book design by Nicole de las Heras

A Tor Book
Published by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC
175 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10010

www.tor.com

 

Tor® is a registered trademark of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Priest, Cherie.
Four and twenty blackbirds / Cherie Priest.
p. cm.
"A Tom Doherty Associates Book."
1. Orphans—Fiction. 2. Young women—Fiction. 3. Blessing and cursing—Fiction. 4. Racially mixed people—Fiction. 5. Signal Mountain (Tenn.)—Fiction. 6. Birthfathers—Fiction. 7. Georgia—Fiction. I. Title.

PS3616.R537F685 2005
813'.6—dc22
2005040584

Cover art by John Jude Palencar

0 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

This book is dedicated to the kids in my life—
my little mortality markers,
Alex and Chelsea.

Now you two are getting old enough to hear
my really
good
spooky stories.

Special thanks to Adrien for the insight and determined patience, and to Jym for the constant motivation. Thanks also to Dad, Donna, Mom, Aunt Wanda, Jan Haluska, Wilma McClarty, and Eileen Meagher—who knew it all along.

Yet another round of public appreciation goes to some new friends and colleagues, without whom this edition would have never seen the light of day. Unending thanks to my agent, Lantz Powell, for defending me against the mad pirate; to my editor, the indefatigable Liz Gorinsky, for always being on my side; and to Warren Ellis, for giving me a remarkable chance.

Four and Twenty Blackbirds

I
Eden

I

"Draw me a picture of someplace you've been that you liked very much," Mrs. Patterson suggested, pronouncing each word with the firm, specific articulation peculiar to those who work with children. "It can be anyplace at all—an amusement park, a playground, a tree house, or your bedroom. Maybe you went on vacation once and visited the beach. You could draw the ocean with seagulls and shells. Or maybe you went camping on the mountain. You might have gone down to the waterfall for a picnic, or up to Sunset Rock. Pick a place special to you, and when you're finished, we'll put your pictures up on the bulletin board in the hallway."

I cringed, staring down at the blank sheet of coarse cream paper. Before me was a plastic tub filled with fat, fruit-scented markers, ripe for the choosing. While the other kids at my table dove into a frenzy of scribbles I stalled for time, popping the lid off each color and sniffing for inspiration.

Red is for cherries. Purple is for grape. Green is for . . . I didn't recognize the scent.

But green is for . . . yes, green is for water.

I jammed the lid onto the back of the marker and began to scrawl a wide pool across the bottom half of the sheet. Green is for water. And for alligators. I picked up the yellow marker (supposed to be lemons, but smelled like detergent) and drew two periscope eyeballs poking up through the swirls. Then I outlined them with black (licorice) and drew a long snout with two bumps for nostrils.

Brown. Brown was chocolate.

I sketched tall, thin trees that reached up past the top of the page. And snakes. Brown is for snakes. Wrapped around one trunk I placed a spiraled serpent with a wide open mouth. I gave him a strawberry pink tongue shaped like a
Y
.

But I was missing something. I chewed on my thumbnail and tapped the brown pen. A house. A brown house set on blocks for when the water rose too high, with a cherry red canoe tied to the front porch just in case. A brown chocolate house, made of flat boards with a sloping gray roof that let the fresh rainwater run into a barrel. Gray is for . . . A gray roof.

And gray is for . . .

Gray is for . . .

Mrs. Patterson's hands fluttered into my vision. "My goodness, Eden. What a vivid picture you've made! Now, where is this?"

"Gray is for ghosts!" I blurted out.

For a moment the other kids were quiet, but then a few began to giggle. The giggle traveled halfway around the room, then died of shame under our teacher's withering frown.

"Class," she addressed it as a warning. "Eden has drawn us a very good green swamp with alligators and snakes, and a house."

I sank down into my chair and repeated myself more softly. "And gray is for ghosts, Mrs. Patterson. I haven't put the ghosts in yet."

Mrs. Patterson understood. Small and frail, she was a shriveled and sweet black woman who'd emerged from retirement to figurehead my kindergarten class. She made cookies every night before she went to bed because she knew some of her kids didn't get any breakfast before school. She crocheted all twenty of us little sweaters during the winter and took us to the city pool for free all summer. She was simply kind, but all the same, she terrified me.

Not on purpose, of course. She wouldn't have scared me deliberately, but whenever I saw her tiny, wrinkled hands I thought of dead birds; and every time she breezed by my desk they were flapping their bony, naked wings.

I think my fear hurt her feelings, or perhaps she thought something terrible was going on at home for me to be so silent and frightened all the time; but all was normal in our household so far as normal goes. I was raised by my aunt Louise and uncle David. They had no children of their own, so it was just me and that was just fine.

Everything was fairly ordinary until I started school. Until then I'd never had much interest in doodling, finger painting, or any of the other sloppy activities of early childhood, but once I entered the hallowed halls of elementary school, people handed me crayons and watercolors at every turn. Suddenly there was construction paper, glitter glue, Popsicle sticks, yarn, and paste. We used ink to make thumbprint caterpillars and paper bags to make cartoon hand puppets. We had sidewalk chalk to make Van Gogh-esque night scenes on black paper or hopscotch squares on the four-square courts outside. Our educators wanted us to expand our brains, to think outside the box—to look inside our gray-matter nooks and bring forth
art.
Most of the time, it was fun.

So although I was deathly afraid of Mrs. Patterson and her skinny, swift-moving hands, I sought her approval, and I wanted to fit in. I crafted the standard benign animals out of modeling clay and rainbow scenery from felts, and I usually got gold foil star stickers or smiley faces on these uniform endeavors. But anytime we had free-thought art projects things got iffy. Any time I had to delve too deeply into my imagination I found myself confused and unnerved. The "someplace special" project was no exception.

When I was finally done, Mrs. Patterson dutifully tacked it up on our bulletin board with the rest, though she discreetly sent it to the lower left corner.

When the classroom emptied for gym or for recess, I don't remember which, I lingered behind and stared at my creation with a morbid intrigue. My elderly teacher sent the class ahead with one of her colleagues and she stayed behind, letting the door quietly close us into privacy.

"Who are they?" she asked. "Who are the three gray ghosts looking through the trees? You didn't give them any faces."

I concentrated—tried hard to focus. I could hear their voices, singsong and sad, but sometimes fierce. Sometimes demanding. Always close.

"Do you know who they are?" she asked again, the same non-threatening tone she always used on me, like I was a stray cat on the verge of fleeing before she could slip me some cream.

"They're . . ." The memory flitted fast, and was gone. "They're sisters who died. He killed them."

"That's very sad."

"No, it's very angry—they're angry he did that to them. They loved him and he killed them." The words fell across my lips, dropping down into a pile at my feet and accumulating there before I could make sense of them. "Now they stay in the swamp, because he cut them up and threw them into the water for the gators and the birds to pick apart. And their blood turned the green water black, but I didn't do that part because I don't like licorice."

"You don't like . . . oh. I see. The markers."

"Yes. The markers." My whisper trailed away to something less audible, and I realized how foolish I sounded. With a flash of paranoia I turned to her and almost took one of her scary bird hands, then changed my mind at the last moment and folded mine together, praying to her instead. "But you can't say anything to anyone. If you do, they'll send me to the pine trees, like they sent my mother, and you won't let them do that to me, will you, Mrs. Patterson?"

"No, Eden," she assured me after a perplexed pause. A quick light brightened her face for a moment, but then her forehead wrinkled again. "No one's going to send you to the pine trees. No one's going to send you away."

Mrs. Patterson tried hard to understand, but how could she have known? I didn't know either, back then, that you're not supposed to remember those things at all, those traces of the lives you've had before; but I've carried them with me as long as I can recall. Sometimes they rise out to meet me in subtle ways—in the gentle fears and convictions that old ghosts bring when they haunt you from the inside out. But sometimes they manifest in visions, in nightmares, or in kindergarten art projects.

I went back to drawing bubblegum butterflies and marshmallow puppies. Mrs. Patterson invited the social services people to come and observe me, but I put on a good show. I could give them what they wanted. Eventually she gave up trying to corner me and seemed to accept the undercurrent of madness that ran beneath my crayon creations.

But once in a while the three ghost women would cry, and I'd find myself inserting their six searching eyes into plastic-wrap windows, or cotton-ball clouds, or watercolor trees.

I wanted to make sure they could see me.

II

Here's another one.

Later that same year. I'd not yet turned six.

I lived on Signal Mountain, one of a chain that surrounds Chattanooga like the rim of a bowl, split down the middle by the river. Signal is populated by rich white people on one side and poor white trash on the other, which made my family's ethnic ambiguity something of an oddity. But I was a social creature, and the mountain was a safe playground for everyone. My cronies and I had free run of the tree-covered ridges, and we spent more time carousing through the woods than we did in our bedrooms.

Sometimes it was hide-and-seek, or tag, or—before I knew any better—blue versus gray. We wandered briskly in cutoff shorts and sneakers that let our legs get shredded by the brambles, and in long-sleeved shirts that caught on low branches and trapped pine-cone seeds and needles. We stomped through streams and climbed up rocks. We chased one another senseless every day after the big yellow bus dropped us off at our neighborhood's entrance. And most of the time, it was good.

Most of the time I ran with my friends until my lungs burst, alternately stalking them and being stalked, hiding behind wide round trunks and under piles of mulching leaves in shallow ravines. Most of the time I didn't have to worry about anything more profound than spiders or ticks.

But then the women, no longer content to lie quiet and filtered, became dissatisfied.

One day, they began to speak.

I was behind a tree, squatting in a pile of leaves lest I be discovered—so I guess it was autumn. Yes, because come to think of it, I was wearing a chunky blue sweater over my shirt. When I saw the first woman she was standing still. A few dead leaves dropped from overhead, wafting back and forth until they settled at her feet. The mountain was dying its yearly death, and rot was in the air. Even the dirt between my sneaker treads smelled of compost. But until I saw them there that afternoon, what did I know of decay?

With the corner of my eye I caught a long flash of palest gray, almost white. I thought of an old dress, dangling on a wire hanger from a tree branch. I stood and turned to see better, not yet aware enough to be afraid, and even when I saw her more clearly I was only surprised. It took me a minute to remember I was not asleep.

She held there motionless, tugged only by the faint gusts that rustled the trees. The wind made her dress barely billow around her legs, so she must have been there, real in one way or another. Her face was as pallid and indeterminately hued as her dress, and her eyes were more of the same.

"Hey," I said, not to greet her but to get her attention. "Hey."

Her eyes rolled to meet mine.

She opened her mouth but did not yet speak. Instead it seemed every sound in the forest was pulled inside her gasping lungs and I was standing in the vacuum. I knew my friends were only yards away but I did not hear their small, fast feet shuffling through the undergrowth. No birds sang and no squirrels knocked winter nuts down into empty trees. Even the shadows stopped crawling across the rocks as the sky held the clouds above in place.

My breath snagged in my throat and refused to leave my chest.

Tears came to the woman's eyes and dripped to the forest floor unchecked. Her head swiveled slowly, looking past her left shoulder and then her right. Her choked, thin voice cried out to the others.

Willa, Luanna—she's over here.

Two other women appeared, one on either side of her. They had the same vaguely African features as the first, with hair bound into submission by scarves tied in loose knots. Their faces might have been round once, but their skin was drawn back and their wide cheekbones made shelves that shadowed their hollow jaws. Their teeth were exaggerated by fleshy lips robbed of their firmness, and when they spoke to one another it was a terrible sight.

There she is, his darling one.

His pretty one.

Oh, Mae, she's returned to you. She's returned to us.

Mae crouched low to examine me with her enormous, brimming eyes.
My baby,
she said, reaching one scrawny arm to my face.
My baby. Miabella.

But when the back of her hand brushed my cheek, the horror of her dusty, dead breath broke the spell and my screams split the supernatural quiet that had descended over the mountainside. I howled until my cries went hoarse, and the women withdrew. Mae left me last, turning with a slow, miserable sob and vanishing into the crowded trees. The last thing I saw before I shrieked myself unconscious was her retreating back, slashed and stained with long, dark streaks that could have been nothing but blood.

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