Marianna, Yevda, and Nadya are shivering up there in the sky, (like three jewels jittering inside their flying crowns, or coffins, depending on their fate). Marianna is known as the Sapphire because she is blue eyed; Yevda is the Emerald, green eyed, and Nadya is the Ruby (with brown eyes and red hair). Their fairy tale is one of war and of witches, of poverty and prettiness, of lightness and speed, of secret terror and secret victory. Their enemies call them the Nachthexen: night-witches.
Right now, they want their cigarettes and hot tea; they want their warm beds; they want to drop their payloads and get home safe and sound, to pull off their uniforms and talismans, put on their slippers and brush their teeth, and fall fast, fast asleep all through the next day like princesses safe within a fortress. But first, they must do this one important secret and final thing. They float at night over the enemy territory in their canvas and plywood crafts. The Nachthexen are flying carefully through the purple sky in their Kukuruznik crop-dusters. No radar, no parachutes: only one bomb in each of the taut bellies of their planes. This is their third and last run of the night.
Rising higher into the clouds, two or three miles above ground, they hide until they are ready to dive. Water vapor crystallizes over their goggles; they wipe away the glitter. The cold cloud of air stings their noses; they smell the sweet bloom of brackish water, of Black Sea minerals, mud volcanoes, and petrol. The scents are like thin wires of copper curling around their throats. Marianna the Sapphire fills her mind with the color yellow, with flowers, with prayers, and pine trees in summer. She leads the others towards their goal. The women are calm and ready, though they twitch in their itchy wool clothes, the uniforms of dead male pilots; they hunt in the stiff hides of hunted men. But the ghosts are helpful guides.
At full speed the engines rattle like sewing machines. As they slow into imperceptible space-time, the wind around their aircraft sounds like brooms brushing the sky. The Nachthexen are knitting from star to star, zipping then coasting, cutting holes in the sky like nerve saws. The Wehrmacht army sleeps below with nightmares of fire and blood, of gold and riches in dragons’ mouths, dragons waiting on the edge of their brains like gargoyles; blood lies waiting, pooling, hiding in their ears, fire just below their eyelids; they grip nothing in their hands, but feel stones on their tongues and sharp raw gems between their fingers, and then claws across their bellies, and then jewels spilling from their guts, as if they were all along just stuffed dolls.
Pinned with flowers, and pitted with old bullet holes, the bi-planes slow, sailing with stealth over the sleeping target. At the witching hour of 3:00 AM they idle their engines, humming, then they silently fall, whooshing down like broomsticks, one, two, and three, casting curses over the enemy.
An insomniac soldier down below in the enemy encampment hears the subtle sound of something coming; hears the hum coming closer. He frantically signals the alarm. But it is too late. Gliding low now, the women risk attack from ground fire before releasing their bombs. They are counting seconds in their heads now: one, two, and three. They sail through the lowest point, sighing with the wind. They can hear the enemy waking, rousing, and now running about. If they wake the German gunners they will be studded with a storm of bullets, wings lighting up like paper lanterns. They are saying spells now and letting all their worries and all their weight fall away as they pull the levers, one after the other, and release the bombs. Quickly now they are reigniting their engines, pulling up, up, up as they fly away, hunching in reaction to the explosions and commotion behind them, as the night becomes day for a moment, then fades. They fly hard, wishing for lightning speed, with the taste of red fire whistling through their teeth. The soldiers and gunners are responding. The women hear bullets singing through the wire braces of their wings. Everything becomes magnetic, multicolored, for a moment; gravity goes away. Here Sapphire’s gold necklace and cross float up towards her chin; there, Ruby’s red hair streams and curls like snakes in the air; Emerald sees double, one set of hands steering, the other set just above, curled into glowing fists. Bright stripes of stuttering light and fireworks surround them as they escape back into darkness, like bats, like birds, like witches back into the cave, the safety of speed and altitude among the silvery clouds.
But these creatures knew, they knew they would go on living, for they had done and said all the right things, and they had worn their secret rings, and kept their mothers' kerchiefs and upside down crosses tucked inside their pockets. They wore those spring flowers tied into their hair, the flowers they had picked during the seventeenth minute of the fourteenth hour, under the darkest moon, in the thirteenth field. They had followed the cat, the owl and snake on their nightly routes through the fields. Marianna the Sapphire, Yevda the Emerald, and Nadya the Ruby pulled up those magic flowers of night, roots and all, to wear the moonflowers that would protect them on their mission, and bind the women together with an invisible thread, like three jewels on a necklace, or on a single crown of victory.
Cape Kidnapper’s Home for Lonely Girls
Every Friday evening the nuns allowed the girls to watch one half hour of television before bed.
"...A scientific and natural marvel, the Moa was a giant flightless bird that once roamed the New Zealand islands and was hunted by both the local Maori people and giant eagles. Scientists are learning more about this strange bird due to a recent discovery made near Cape Kidnappers—"
"That’s us!" screamed one of the girls.
"—giant moa bones of a rare sub-species are currently being catalogued by paleontologists. This incredible find is important as the giant Moa is considered the tallest bird to have ever lived. New Zealand scientists plan to reconstruct the skeleton..." The children were rapt with attention. "...They had giant dinosaur-like clawed feet...And an inexplicable detail of these strange creatures is that they didn’t have vestigial wings unlike other flightless birds..."
That’s when Sister Clarita came in and snapped off the TV. The picture went out like a little bomb and the box gave an electric whine followed by the whining of the girls. Sister Clarita shushed them. The curved glass was still hot with colorful energy. One girl named Anika stood up and her long strands of white-blond hair attached to the static-electric screen like feathery tentacles.
"What is vest-i-gial?" little Kora sounded out.
"They’re talking about old wings from before..." an older girl piped in.
Sister Clarita added, "Yes, God made them that way. Vestigial is just something unused from the past that remains even when it’s no longer needed, like—" she paused and collected herself, straightening her shoulders. "—But it’s too complicated to fully explain now." The girls wore frowns on their faces.
"What do you mean from before— like when they were babies?" "No, like from older versions of birds," added the oldest girl, Tilda. "Here," she said as she dragged her finger across a page in her well-worn dictionary-thesaurus, "Vestigial: from the Latin for footprint; vestige, reminder, trace, and something about..."
"It’s time for bed," Sister Clarita said sharply. She took the book out of Tilda’s hands and gently closed it.
I was reading that, Tilda muttered, as she sat down on her bed. "That’s enough reading for now."
Tilda sighed. She was twelve, and had been at the home the longest.
"There should be an orphanage for vestigial wings from around the world," said Kora, who was the littlest girl. Everyone laughed.
"Everyone needs to go to bed now because the doctors are coming tomorrow. You need to be well rested so they find you healthy," said Sister Clarita. She said goodnight and left. It was a special study the doctors were doing. They were going to run some "aptitude and ability" tests.
As the girls got into their nightgowns, they whispered about wanting to be scientists or doctors when they got older. Tilda told them to be quiet and then whispered to them, "Would you rather be a scientist or would you rather be a magician?! Would you rather wear spectacles or wear tattoos...on your face!?" Her eyes went wide and she stuck out her tongue. The girls giggled quietly. "Would you rather wear pants or a cape!? Would you rather carry a computer or a wand?!" After each question, the girls giggled. Then Tilda said, "Need I remind you all that tonight is a special night?"
But then she noticed something, shushed the girls, and said, "Listen. It’s perfectly beautiful…" Tilda went over to the window and lifted it open. "The fairy penguins are calling their mates back to their nests." The sun had set, and it was around nine pm. Though the little penguins could not be seen in the blue twilight that matched their coats, their braying undulated loudly and their trumpeting created shimmering layers of sound that echoed off the sea cliffs. The girls listened for a while in wonder, and Tilda’s mouth hung open, as if she wanted to cry out also and see who’d come to her if she did.
"It's magical," said a girl. "It's scientific," said another.
But more importantly, it was Saint Bridgid’s Eve, and Tilda had a plan for everyone.
Tilda walked quietly around passing out sparkling blue abalone shells, two small ones for each girl. There were twelve girls total. As she handed out the shells, she gave each girl a little blessing for new beginnings and that they show great "aptitude and ability" tomorrow and forever more.
All the little orphan girls fell asleep with abalone shells over their eyes so they wouldn’t see the sorceress come and give them their token of fortune. But if in the morning they were to find a pearl in their ear, or a fish in their palm, or a rock in their sock, they would know what might follow. Tilda explained: a pearl meant a new parent, a fish meant freedom, and a rock meant another year in the Home.
Normally—that is, in the Northern Hemisphere—St. Bridgid’s marked the beginning of Celtic springtime, but here the seasons were the other way ‘round, and the first of February more nearly marked the beginning of the fall of summer into autumn.
When all the girls woke in the pink and lavender light of dawn, they were surrounded by the singing of the tui, fantails, gulls and the booming of the Pacific waves. They found the shells had fallen off their eyes, scattered like iridescent gems across their sheets. They had to wake before the nuns started ringing the bells, before the clatter of bowls and spoons and cooking sounded. The girls stretched their clammy hands open and closed, feeling for any tokens, or fish, silver, shiny and wet. Then they moved their toes around and felt for stones, and with their little pinky fingers they checked their ears for pearls. They looked all around for objects of fortune.
"What does it mean if I’ve found a bowl of milk beneath my bed?" asked the littlest girl, Kora.
"That’s just for the lonely cats, of course," Tilda replied.
"And what if I’ve found sand in my bed?" said Bronwyn.
"That just means you haven’t washed your feet!"
"A tiny translucent crab?" Orietta said quietly.
"Somewhere under the sea, a merman waits for you."
"A worm!" announced Raewyn.
"A boy in the form of a bird will come to you!" And giggles for miles.
"What does a pearl look like? Is this a pearl?" and Kora presented a fingernail.
"No, that’s just a piece of the moon. What are you doing with a piece of the moon in your ear?!"
"I found a bone . . . a Moa bone!" Mia proclaimed excitedly, as she showed everyone a small white and glossy stick.
"It means you will be a paleontologist!" Tilda inspected what was clearly a chicken wing. She could hear the nuns starting to move around downstairs. She started to clean up the shells and encouraged the girls to get ready for the big day.
"Did you find anything, Tilda?" Kora asked.
Tilda paused. She put her hands in her bathrobe pockets and frowned.
"I can’t show you my things. There’s too much magic in them." The girls sighed in disappointment. It was true that she had a box of treasures hidden under her bed along with her books.
"Tilda, what if you never get out? Maybe none of us will," said Bronwyn. Tilda was quiet.
Nobody found a pearl and nobody found a fish and almost all the girls found pebbles or sand in their beds, but after a moment of reflection Tilda said she was quite sure she’d get out and she promised them they’d all be free one day, and if not she’d personally come back to help them. She’d be covered in tattoos and carry a large wand and she’d set them all free with a spell.
Tilda told the girls if they needed more luck, they should follow these instructions: Tie a little doll out of grass. Make a little bed for her on your pillow. Share your thoughts with little Saint Bridgid. Make a cross out of sticks, burn a flame in the forest, and extinguish it with spit. Take a piece of ash, and rub it across your forehead, and then rub it across the doll’s face, too. Luck will come your way.
Tilda said, "Someday all of us will leave here, and most of us will never see each other again. But if you keep your doll with you, you’ll keep one of us, a girl from Cape Kidnapper’s with you, always."
The doctors pronounced that Tilda was too apt and far too able for her ilk. And the nuns were astonished; it hadn’t been their doing. The doctors ran the tests again, and the nuns said something unscientific must have occurred because that girl was nothing but trouble most of the time. Something very unscientific and strange. Yes, some vestigial magic, Tilda thought.
Valerie Marie Arvidson writes fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and many pieces accompanied by photos and pictures. Her writing has appeared online or in print with Headland (NZ), Sundress Publications' Best of the Net, Drunken Boat, The Seattle Review, Blunderbuss, Anomalous Press, Apt, and Hunger Mountain, (for which she won first place in the 2009 nonfiction contest).
She is originally from outside Boston but currently lives in New Zealand where she is pursuing her PhD in Creative Writing with a doctoral scholarship at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington. She earned my B.A. in English with a focus in Creative Writing from Dartmouth College (2008) and my MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Washington in Seattle (2012). Please check out her website if interested in learning more: http://valeriemariearvidson.com/