The Dark Birds31 min read


Ursula Vernon
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My mother had daughters year after year, and one by one, my father devoured us.

There were only three names allowed in the family, and only three children. There was the oldest, who was always Ruth, and the middle child, who was always Susan. The youngest was “the baby” or simply Baby.

When a new daughter was born, she became the baby. The former baby became Susan, and Susan became Ruth—and Ruth vanished.

Telling the story like this, it sounds as if we knew what was happening. We did not. I am telling you this so that it will not be a shock to you, the way that it was to me.

The Ruths, I expect, mostly figured out that something strange was going on. The trusting ones believed Mother’s story that the former Ruth had run away with a passing trader. The suspicious ones watched with hooded eyes, and thought that they had not seen any traders recently … but then again, to escape this house, who knew what the old Ruth might have done?

And there was a new baby, who rapidly took every scrap of thought and energy that the new Ruth might have. Depending on her age, Susan might not be much help at all. Even the suspicious ones might have lost their way, waking up in the night to change a sobbing sister.

Still, I cannot say that every Ruth was eaten by our father. Of so many ogre’s daughters, surely not every one was a fool.

I am fairly certain that the Ruth immediately before mine was not a fool. She chose her moment and ran and took her Susan with her. There was only the baby left, who was very young. Mother gave birth and collapsed back, and woke to a gray hearth and an empty house, and Father bellowing from the root cellar.

(I am guessing here. My mother would never have told us so much. Still, I can picture it more clearly than I like.)

Now, there were often gaps between daughters. We would come spaced out, by four years or five, and Mother lost babies sometimes. Gaps were not unusual. But a gap where the baby was sudden Ruth, and there was no Susan at all—that threw the family into disarray.

Mother grew hollow-cheeked and gaunt, with knuckles like red walnuts. Father growled and scraped his teeth against the foundations of the house.

The new Ruth could barely toddle and certainly could not tend the garden or care for the baby.

Our mother paced back and forth with the baby at her breast, her hair gray and wild on her shoulders, and finally she said “We must hire a girl. We have no choice.”

Our father spoke from the basement in a voice like mud on stone. “Do it. A fat one.”

“No,” said Mother, stomping her foot over the voice. “Not a fat one. Not for you. It has been so long, they must have forgotten, but they’ll remember quick enough if you eat her!”

“Orraaahaaahaaa …” said Father, laughing, and shook the house until dust fell from the ceiling.

(I can see this much too clearly in my dreams. The birds must have told me, I expect.)

So Mother dressed herself and went to town and hired a girl to help around the house.


That part, at least, I cannot imagine. She must have bought the poor girl’s indenture, because anyone who could leave would have. But she came, a skinny girl with hair like rags and broken nails from passage on the ship. One of her legs was bad and she could not run, which was likely why Mother could afford to buy her indenture at all.

She lived out in the shed, next to the woodpile. She might have argued, but I imagine she had only to hear the sounds from the cellar and be grateful that she was not in the house itself.

I wonder sometimes how my mother explained those sounds.

My Ruth grew up talking to the indentured girl, who was named Lily. It is from Ruth that I heard all the stories, handed down like sermons. The Gospel of Lily, more precious than anything written in the family bible.

She vanished one night, shortly after a new daughter was born. Mother said that her articles of indenture had run their course, and you couldn’t keep a servant forever, and that was simply the way it was.

The new baby became a Susan within the year. And the baby that followed …

Well. That was me.


Mother gave birth by herself, of her own choice. “I’ve done this before,” she growled. “Leave me alone.”

My sister Susan looked at me, and I looked at her, and we took ourselves out of the house and sat in the garden. It was early evening and Ruth was pulling weeds.

She looked up when we came out. “Has she had it yet?”

I shook my head.

“Well, come and help me pull weeds, then.”

I helped her until it was too dark to see. Lambsquarters and chickweed and wild mustard went in one pile, grass and cleavers in another. One we’d eat, and the other we’d throw over the fence.

I could just barely remember having chickens and feeding them some of the weeds, but it had been too long. There were no chickens now, and Mother flew into a rage when we suggested getting more. “Chickens don’t grow on trees!” she snarled. “I’d have to sell you to get chickens. Maybe I should, and how would you like that?”

Honestly, I didn’t know what it would be like to be sold. Being an indentured servant sounded bad—Ruth had explained what those were, and that sometimes you went to terrible places and couldn’t leave. Susan said that she’d at least see some other places that way, but I was too afraid to think of it for long.

At last Ruth sat back on her heels, and I leaned on the mill stone. It was a great heavy round thing, half-buried in the earth. Mother had said once that it was there when Father had built the house, too heavy to bother moving. It was cool even in summer and you could lean your back against it like a chair.

I sniffed my fingers. They smelled green, like sun and grass, and a little bit like earth.

“There’ll be four of us soon,” I said. “With the new baby.”

Ruth turned her head. I couldn’t make out her expression.

“Will there be?” she said. “I wonder.”

And then Mother called for tea, and I got up to go inside, which means that the last words I ever spoke to my older sister were stupid words, and the last ones she spoke to me were a question to which she already knew the answer.


Mother’s labor was easy, she said, but she was fond of saying that even an easy labor is hard enough. I brought her tea three times. She slept and woke, and sometimes she screamed, and we crouched by the fireplace and waited.

It took a long time. We slept by the fireplace ourselves, which we didn’t usually do. Father grew restless when Mother screamed, and once he roared, shaking the foundations. The tin roof rattled and rang with the noise.

Midnight came and went. “Go get water,” said Mother. “Baby, Susan … go to the creek.”

It was a long way to go in the dark. The birds called. Some of them had low, throbbing voices like mourning doves, and others were high and keening as a hawk. Most of them, though, called a repetitive three-note call, like the whippoorwills—oh-die-will, oh-die-will. At night, they would all get going all together, the whippoorwills and the chuck-widows-wills and the dark birds around the house, making a racket so loud that you could hardly think: whip-poor-will! whip-poor-will! oh-die-will oh-die-will!

They made Father restless when they sang like that. I liked the summer nights for the plentiful food and the fireflies drifting through the clearing, but not the birds.

Susan and I would sleep out on the roof on those nights. Ruth slept in the shed by the woodpile. I think she might have let us join her, but there was hardly enough room for one person, let alone three. She had been the one who knew Lily, so she was the one who kept her shrine.

Susan and I took buckets off the nail on the side of the house. The moon was bright overhead. The whippoorwills tended to quiet in the deepest part of the night, but the dark birds kept going: oh-die-will oh-die-will. Every now and again a chuck-widows-will would join in, but you could hardly hear the chuck part unless you were standing on top of them, so it was … widow-will! … widow-will! underneath the other calls.

The dark birds looked like grackles, with moon-colored eyes instead of gold. They perched along the garden fence sometimes, but did not come nearer to the house.

We reached the creek by moonlight, only stumbling over tree roots once or twice. The creek was low this time of year, and the water we scooped up looked black by moonlight.

“Do you think it’ll run dry this year?” I asked. It had happened once before, and it had been a long grueling walk every day to fetch water.

“I don’t know,” said Susan.

I turned back toward the house, and there was a dark bird on the path.

It was moving strangely for a bird—fluttering up and down as if it were wounded. It looked like a black rag caught on a line. I took a step back.

“What is it?” asked Susan, nearly running into me.

“A bird. It’s on the ground.”

“Catch it,” said Susan. “We haven’t had meat in a long time.” She set her bucket down and began walking stealthily toward it, hands outstretched. “You go around the other side.”

Oh-die-will!” sang the dark birds in the trees. The bird on the ground flapped frantically.

I tried to sneak around behind the bird. Last year’s leaves crunched underfoot. The bird cried out—not the three-note song but a high skree-ee of alarm.

Susan pounced. The bird leapt out of her grasp and flung itself into the air. It left the shaft of moonlight and I lost sight of it for an instant, then it slapped into my chest, bounced off, and into the lower branches of the tree behind me.

“Stupid!” hissed Susan. “It went right at you!”

“I didn’t—I wasn’t expecting it to—”

Susan groaned. “Baby …” she said.

“I’m sorry!”

“Never mind.” She picked up her bucket. “Let’s just go back.”

Here is a story from the Gospel of Lily—that she came from a land that was cool and green, where the fields were open and did not grow up into forests the moment your back was turned. She did not like this place, overrun with catbriar and creeper and wild grape. It was not green enough.

“But it’s green here,” Susan said, when Ruth told the story. “Everything is green. Green’s the only color here.”

“She said it wasn’t the same green,” said Ruth.

I grew up dreaming of that other green, unable to picture it, wondering if it was like the blaze of sun through poplar trees or the deep green of chestnut leaves in shadow or then again, like the flat first pads on a sprouting seed.

Ruth didn’t know. Sometimes she would make things up, to make the story better, but she could not conjure up a color that none of us had seen.


Mother stopped gasping a little after dawn. We heard a cry, like a little bird, and then silence. I dozed off again in front of the fire and didn’t wake until Susan touched my arm. “Come on, Baby,” she said. “Let’s go look.”

“Go look at what?” I asked groggily.

“The baby, stupid.”

For a moment I could not understand her—I was Baby, I was right here, I couldn’t very well look at myself—and then I realized. The new baby. Yes. Of course.

We crept upstairs. The stairs were very deep and we had to climb them like a ladder. Mother took them two at a time.

Mother was asleep with her arms around an infant. It looked very small, no bigger than a rabbit, tucked into Mother’s elbow.

“It’s small,” I said stupidly.

Susan nudged me. “She,” she said. “She’s not an it. She’s our sister.”

It was only then that it occurred to us to wonder where our other sister had gone.

We searched around the garden, in the shed where Ruth slept, on top of the roof. We went into the trees around the house. The dark birds were mostly sleeping now, with only an occasional oh-die-will! and the blue jays were scolding each other from the trees.

We did not abandon the search until we heard Mother calling us back to the house.

“Where’s Ruth?” asked Susan, poking her head over the top of the stairs. “We can’t find her.”

Mother rolled her eyes. “She went to town,” she said, sounding irritated. “For herbs.”

Susan and I exchanged glances. None of us had ever, so far as we knew, gone to town. In fact, we didn’t even know which way the town was.

“When will she be back?” asked Susan.

“No idea,” said Mother shortly. “Later. Never. I don’t know. Go make some more tea.”

Susan went out to the pump to get water. I hooked the kettle over the fire and got the little crock of tea leaves out of the cupboard.

When the water was steaming, I threw in a handful of leaves and bent over them, inhaling the smell of mint and bee balm.

“Are you worried about Ruth?” demanded Susan.

I tried to ignore her. The smell of herbs was in my nostrils, and perhaps if I could pull the scent deep enough into my lungs, it would chase out the sudden dread.


“Yes,” I said wearily. There was no point in trying to put Susan off. She would jab at you until she got the answer she wanted. She was the stubborn one, the brave one, the one who squared up her jaw and prepared for a fight.

I was the soft one, the peacemaker, always running after to try to smooth things over, to stop her squabbling with Ruth or needling at Mother.

I knew perfectly well that Susan despised me for being soft, but that was fine. I despised myself for it as well, but there was no point in trying to change. It was simply the way of things. There were not enough of us in the family for anyone to be allowed to experiment with different roles.

I brought Mother the tea, creeping quietly along the floorboards. Father was silent in the basement, not bellowing or scraping, but I didn’t want to wake him.

Mother looked tired, her gray face set in creases like an old towel, as she lay in her nest of blankets and hides. All I could see of the baby was the back of its head.

She took the tea. “Thank you, Susan.”

I wasn’t Susan, but it didn’t seem worth bothering over.

“Is it a girl?” I asked.

“It’s always a girl,” she said tiredly, lying back on the hides. “Go away.”

I crept away again.


Ruth didn’t come back that night. We stayed up very late waiting for her. She didn’t come back the next day either, even though both Susan and I stayed out in the garden watching for her.

The great golden mangel-beets were coming in, their tops sticking up above the ground like yellow fists. We pulled up clumps of grass and purple-flowered henbit. The flock of birds in the trees around the house sang, their voices rising and falling like ragged breathing.

Susan pulled up great handfuls of henbit, not talking. I thought she might be crying, but I didn’t want to ask, because then I would find out.

I did not want her to be crying.

Bees swarmed around the edges of the garden. I played tag with one, chasing it, then retreating back over the line. It buzzed at me, hanging in mid-air, but wouldn’t come any closer. Bees wouldn’t cross the line where the shadow of the house might fall, even if the sun was over the top of the clearing. It was annoying because you couldn’t plant anything that needed bees close to the house. Ruth grumbled about it sometimes. We piled the wood up there instead, on either side of the windows.

The paw-paw trees would grow in the shadow all right, though. Flies didn’t mind the house. Neither did wasps. At least once a season, Ruth had to get a long, long pole and knock down a wasp nest. She was really good at it—she could smack the nest away in two hits and then drop the pole and run and not get stung.

I wondered who was going to knock down the wasp nests now that Ruth was gone.

It had settled into my head, some time in the last day, that Ruth was not coming back.

Because Susan is crying. Susan is the brave one, the smart one, the fierce one. She’d know. If she’s crying, then Ruth is gone for good.

“Where do you think she went?” I asked.

It was the wrong question, or perhaps the right one. Susan sat back on her heels and wiped a green-streaked hand across her face. She said, on an angry sob, “I don’t know, Baby. And why didn’t she take us with her?”

“Do you think she left at night?” I asked. “I don’t remember her leaving. Maybe she didn’t want to wake us.”

We went back inside as it started to grow dark. Mother was sleeping, so we did not wake her.

“Should we feed him?”

“He hasn’t yelled,” said Susan, and that was that.

We had vegetable soup. There were handfuls of millet in it. Millet was about the only grain we could grow, other than corn. There was a swampy patch not far from the house that Susan said we should try growing rice in, but we did not have any rice.

All that we knew about growing food came from a dog-eared volume called The Responsible Farmer’s Book of Lists. Ruth had taught us to read from it. Susan read better than I did. I didn’t see too much use to it—we all had the book memorized anyway, and what was the point in learning about things like snow peas if we didn’t have any seeds to grow them from? So I just recited the book when she pointed to a line, rather than try to puzzle out each letter, one by one.

Ruth said there were other books in the world, but that seemed like an extraordinary amount of effort. Writing my name took me whole minutes. Writing a word like “responsible” would take forever. When the author had finished writing each word in The Responsible Farmer’s Book of Lists, he had probably died of exhaustion.

(There was the family Bible, of course, but people didn’t write Bibles. God had written it, and God was presumably an excellent speller and had all eternity to get all the words in the right order.)

Ruth had not seen any other books. Lily had, and told her. She had told us all the stories of Lily, handing them down like gospels. Lily had said there were houses with dozens of books in them. Lily said there was an ocean and cities bigger than the town.

Lily was gone now, perhaps back to that very same town.

Mother went, perhaps once a year. She wouldn’t take us, and she came back in a foul mood after, but sometimes she had new seeds. We’d gotten the marvelous spotted beans the last time she went.

Even now, splitting open the pods and seeing the rows of spotted beans made me feel rich.

She hadn’t gone to town this year. Possibly that’s why we believed for so long that Ruth might have gone instead.


“Ruth isn’t back yet,” said Susan, the next morning.

“She isn’t coming back,” said Mother. She scowled down at the baby. “You be Ruth now.”

Susan stared at her. Her face was blank. She clearly didn’t understand, and when she didn’t understand things, she tended to get angry.


“Go make some tea, Ruth.”

“Mother, that’s Susan,” I said hurriedly, trying to get into the middle of it.

“No, you’re Susan,” Mother said. “And this is the baby.”

Susan turned her head back and forth, not a shake exactly—more like she was trying to find a way to look at this that would make sense of it all.

“Mother, I’m Baby,” I said.

“You’re Susan now,” she said. “This is Baby. That’s how it works. Quit mewling and get me some soup.”

I took Susan’s arm—or Ruth’s now, I suppose—and tugged her away before she could explode into rage. It did no good to rage at Mother. She would ignore you until she didn’t, and then she would clout you in the ear and nothing would change.

There was a scraping, rattling noise from the basement. Mother glared at us over the top of the baby’s head. “Go feed him.”

We went down the stairs together. “It’s your turn,” I said. Susan—Ruth—would have argued with me, I think, but she was thinking hard. A line had formed between her eyebrows.

She went out the back door to the turnip barrel and took out an armload. They were the last of the ones at the bottom, starting to turn mushy. We’d have more soon from the garden.

The trapdoor rattled when she pulled it open, and she grumbled. I ran and held it for her while she descended the ladder, one arm full of beets.

The rattling grew worse for a moment, then stopped. I heard a growl, too deep to make out, and then my sister saying “Not a chance. You won’t have me that easily,” and the sounds of beets crunching as he ate.

She was always brave.

When she came back up the ladder, looking tired, I felt guilty for making her feed Father.

We went out to the garden. My sister sat on the fence and swung her feet, not carelessly, but in an angry, jittery motion. The line between her eyebrows was like a scar.

I took a stick and wrote S-U-S-A-N in the dirt. It took me a little while. I could never remember whether the slash in the middle of the N started at the top or the bottom, and I had to erase it with my hand several times.

“She can’t just make us change our names! I’m not Ruth!”

I stared at the name in the dirt and thought, somewhat annoyed, that I had spent a great deal of time learning to write B-A-B-Y and now it was all wasted. And S-U-S-A-N was much harder. The S’s slithered like snakes and I was never sure which direction they wanted to slither.

I could write B-A-B-Y like that. I hardly even had to think about it. And now my name had changed.

“Maybe that’s just how it is,” I said finally. “Maybe everybody changes their names. I mean … Mother couldn’t always have been Mother, could she? She had to be something else before she had us. And I’m not a baby anymore, so maybe I can’t be Baby. It’s probably normal.”

My sister grunted.

The flock called from the woods, one after another, oh-die-will, oh-die-will.

“What do you think Ruth—I mean, the old Ruth—is going to be called now?” I asked, hoping to lighten her mood.

She didn’t speak for a long time. Her hands clenched on the split rail wooden fence, and I saw splinters dig into the callused tips of her fingers.

“I don’t think it matters,” she said quietly. “I don’t think she’s going to be called anything at all.”


Here is another story from the Gospel of Lily. In that old green land, there were stones, bigger than the millstone that stuck up in the yard. “Taller than Mother,” said Ruth.

“Taller than Father?” asked Susan skeptically.

Ruth hesitated. None of us knew how tall Father would be if he ever came out of the cellar, but these were Lily’s stones, and thus exceptional. “Taller,” she said finally. “Much taller. As tall as trees. And no one would ever knock one down or dig one up, because little people lived in them.”

Lily had gone away from the land of stones and taken a boat across the sea.

The sea was in the Bible, too, and the Responsible Farmer’s Book of Lists recommended seaweed as a top dressing in places where it was available, though it must be washed well to remove the salt. All three of our Gospels thus confirmed one another, and I think only Susan was troubled that none of us had any idea what the sea looked like, except that it was salt.


I’ve made it sound as if we never saw any other people. That isn’t true. You can’t live in the middle of the countryside and never see anyone. Hunters came through at all seasons, whether they were hunting game or mushrooms. Farmers with pigs would turn them out to get fatted on acorns, then drive them back to their farms in autumn. There were tinkers who came to mend the pots and we paid them in food because it was all that we had to pay with.

And there were always do-gooders, of course. They came around particularly at Christmas, with coats and mended blankets and an orange for each of us, and told us that it was the birthday of Jesus. Ruth was best at talking to them. Susan asked questions that made the do-gooders stay longer. Ruth could be properly grateful, which they liked.

There was a trader that came twice a year. Mother went out to meet with him. He had been coming for a long time. Most of the people, though, we dealt with. Mother could not come out, we said to the do-gooders and the tinkers and the hobos asking to do chores. She was frail.

I was nearly grown before I learned that frail meant delicate and weak. Mother was neither. She was probably about nine feet tall at that point, though some of that was recent.

“Gracious!” said the trader when he came next. “You’ve grown!”

“It happens,” she said, and the trader reached up and slapped her flank like a horse and laughed.

“Have you seen Ruth?” asked Susan, standing in the doorway of the shed.

The trader glanced over at her, distracted. “Eh?”

“Shut up, Ruth,” said Mother. She took the trader’s hand and led him into the house.


The Gospel of Lily said that she came here on a boat bigger than a house.

“Was it the Ark?” I asked.

“Bigger,” said Ruth. “The Ark only had two of the animals.”

“And seven of some of them,” said Susan.

“Fine, and seven.” Ruth rolled her eyes at this interruption. The boat had hundreds of people on it, maybe thousands, coming from the green land to this one. Many of them were sick on the boat and it was caught in a storm and went up and down and up and down until Lily did not know which way was up and which was down any longer.

“And a woman took care of her,” said Ruth. “An old woman with white hair. She held her hand for three days and Lily got better.”

“And on the third day?” said Susan sharply.

“They came and took the woman away,” said Ruth. “She’d died sitting up, holding Lily’s hand. They wrapped her in a sheet and threw her into the sea.”

“Was she a saint?” I asked.

“Probably,” said Ruth, the first time I asked. “Yes.”

Forever after, in the Gospel of Lily, the old woman was a saint who healed Lily and was martyred for it, wrapped in sheets and thrown down to feed the hunger of the sea.


The house was dark when we crept back to it. Mother was sitting in front of the fire. The chairs no longer fit her. She looked tired and her hair was matted with grease. She had eaten all of the soup.

“Mother?” said Susan.

Mother glanced up at her. “Oh,” she said. “Susan. It’s you.”

Susan went oddly still. I could see the muscles of her back go tense. “Where’s the baby?”

“The baby died,” said Mother. “Go fetch some firewood. The fire’s nearly gone.”

It took a long time to fetch enough firewood, and by then it was too late for soup. I was not hungry. It was my turn to go down and throw mangels to Father. I took two armloads down the ladder and tossed them into the dark.

He was easy enough to feed. You just didn’t get too close. Mother had explained that he couldn’t see well and he’d snap our arms off without thinking about it. I don’t know if that was true or not.

I could hear him chewing with his great grinding teeth. I wanted to tell him that the baby was dead, but maybe Mother had told him already. Maybe it wasn’t my place.

Susan and I laid on the roof that night, close enough to the chimney to get warm. We did not talk. There was nothing to say. I cried a little, but I don’t know what I was crying for.

In the small hours, I woke.

Susan had her hand over my mouth. I could see her face in the moonlight. She held a finger to her lips for silence.

I nodded, although I don’t know why it mattered. The dark birds were calling so loudly that I doubt anyone could hear either of us speaking, and the whippoorwills and the chuck-widow-wills were calling alongside them, a great cacophony of will … will … will …!

She gestured to me to follow. We crept to the edge of the roof, in the shadow of the chimney, and when Susan looked down, so did I.

There was a dark shape scratching at the dirt behind the house.

It was Mother.

I put my lips next to Susan’s ear. “What’s she doing?”


Mother paused, looking around. There was something furtive about her movements, as if she was trying not to be caught. Who could she be hiding from?

She turned back and I saw her hand vanish into the earth to the wrist. She pulled out a handful of earth, then another, and then she took something in her other hand and laid it into the hole.

“What is—”

“I think it’s the baby.”

I asked no more questions.

Mother filled the grave back in with the side of her foot, three long sweeps, and then stepped on the earth to firm it up. She looked up again, her eyes searching the roof, and both Susan and I lay in the shadows, trying not to breathe.

Oh-die-will!” screamed the dark birds, swirling through the air around her. “Oh-die-will!”

“Whippoorwill!” answered the nightjars from the woods.

Mother made a noise of disgust and batted at them as if they were gnats. The flock, like clots of shadow, broke apart into the woods.

She went back into the house. I heard her moving underneath the roof, the clomp of her feet going up the stairs, until she was just beneath us. For a moment, I had a mad feeling that she would reach her hands up through the wooden beams and grab us and pull us down to make sure we hadn’t seen.


The last Gospel of Lily was from when she lived here. She had been working in the garden and a man came to the fence, a man with dark skin and terrified eyes.

“Hide me,” he begged her. “They’re looking.”

“And did she?” I asked, knowing the answer, but knowing it was my job to ask.

“She did,” said Ruth. “She hid him—”

“In the shed!” crowed Susan.

“And when the men he’d run from came to find him, Mother came out and scared them off,” said Ruth. “They were small compared to her. She didn’t know that he was hiding there, and she cursed them for coming around her property. And they went away again and Lily hustled him out that night and he lit out north by the stars.”

“I’d have gone with him,” said Susan.

“She couldn’t,” said Ruth. “He was a runaway slave and they’d kill him if they caught him. And Lily couldn’t run. She had to wait until her indenture was up, and then poof!” She spread her hands in front of her. “She went away.”


Susan waited until the next night. The moon had risen and was almost about to set when I woke and found that she was gone.

I listened. Mother was snoring. So was Father. The whippoorwills had stopped, and only the dark birds sang. And underneath, very quietly, the sounds of something scrabbling at the earth.

I went down the ladder one rung at a time, still listening. Then around the corner of the house, and then—

“What are you doing?” I hissed.

“Checking something,” whispered Susan, driving the trowel into the earth.

“But that’s where the baby is buried!”

She looked up at me. Her gaze was cool and remote and her eyes reflected moonlight back like the dark birds.

“I know,” she said, and struck again with the trowel.

It was monstrous.

It was my sister.

“If you won’t help dig, keep watch,” she said.

I turned my back so I wouldn’t have to look at her desecrating a grave. I stared into the dark, waiting for noises, for discovery.

There were only the noises of a summer night. Even Father’s breathing was even and regular under our feet.

I heard the sounds of digging change and I thought of what the trowel might have struck. My throat felt as if it were closing up.

Oh-die-will,” whispered the dark birds. “Oh-die-will.”

The digging stopped.

I did not dare turn around. This was sin at its darkest and deepest point. The Bible had not even conceived of such sins, or if it had, I could not remember reading about them.

All I could remember, indeed, was the line There were giants in the earth in those days. I had always assumed that they meant men like Father, crouching in root cellars, but what if there were other giants, what if the earth was full of them?

What if Susan reached into our sister’s grave and a hand reached back and took hers? A giant even larger and hungrier than Father?

I realized that I could no longer hear her breathing.

“Susan?” I whispered. “Susan, are you still there?”

“Of course,” she said roughly. “Where else would I be?” She let out her breath, as if she had been holding it, and I heard the sounds of digging again.

“What are you doing?”

She did not talk for several minutes. The dark birds called and called in the trees, and Father turned over in his sleep.

“Burying our brother,” she said at last. She threw down the trowel and vanished into the dark.



It made very little sense to me. Mother had daughters. She always spoke of having daughters. There had been others before us—she had mentioned them to Lily, I think, and Ruth had passed this down as part of the gospels. But always daughters.

“Are you sure?” I asked Susan the next day, when we went to the creek for water.

I did not need to say for what. I had been afraid to speak of it at the house, for fear Mother would wake and hear me. It had been Susan’s sin, digging up the dead, but I had not stopped her, and that made it my sin as well.

“Of course I’m sure,” she said crossly. “I know what’s between my own legs well enough. He was like Father, not like us.”

I leaned against a tree. Worms had made careful trails through the bark, doubling back on themselves, like words I couldn’t read.

“Why did she say he was a daughter, then?” I asked.

Susan pulled on her hair. “I don’t know,” she said angrily. “Unless she didn’t want anyone to know.”

“I wouldn’t have minded a brother,” I said. I had no idea how it would be different than having a sister.

I dragged the bucket through the water. Green strands of algae floated like hair.

After a minute I said “Well, there will be another one, right?” Mother had never made any secret that there were other girls before us, that they had gone out in the world. Like Ruth, probably. I wondered if they met up together and talked about the old days, the warm spots on the roof and the way the birds called at night.

Susan stared at me.

“You don’t understand,” she said. Her voice was odd and slow, as if she was only now understanding it herself. “There’s no baby to take care of. We can go.”

“Go!” I said. “Go where?”

“Anywhere. To town. To the green land. Up north. Someplace that isn’t here.”

I literally could not understand what she was saying at first. Then the idea began to take root in me, slowly, like a seed unfurling and sinking down runners into the earth.

To leave. To go away. To walk into the trees and keep walking, not turning around.

Was that possible?

“Why did we never leave before?” asked Susan savagely. “Why didn’t we? I don’t know! Is it an enchantment, do you think?”

“But … but we’ll starve, won’t we? If we don’t have the garden? We’ll get lost … and Mother …”

“Damn Mother!” hissed Susan.

Her blasphemy was too astonishing. I gaped at her like a fish pulled from the stream. The dark birds’ call rose and fell like breathing.

“Susan! You can’t!”

“I can,” she said. “You’re coming with me.”


If we had gone then, this story would be different.

If we had gone then, perhaps Susan would be telling it instead of me.

But we went back to the house, because Susan thought we would need supplies, and Mother was waiting in the shadow of the woodshed.

Her hands were enormous, as large as Susan’s head. She plucked her from the ground like a woman pulling weeds.

“What are you up to, girl?” she growled, as Susan spluttered and struggled. “You were sneaking around last night and getting into things you shouldn’t.”

“Mother!” I cried. “Mother, put her down!” I grabbed uselessly at her arms.

“Do you think I’m a fool?” hissed Mother. “You think I don’t see you slinking around here? Thinking you’re being oh-so-clever?”

She shook her on every word, and I heard the click of Susan’s teeth meeting as her head snapped back and forth.

Perhaps if Susan had denied everything, we might have come through. But Susan was never the peacemaker, never the one to smooth things over, and when Mother stopped shaking her, she raised her head and shouted “Why didn’t you tell us it was a boy?!”

There was a little silence around those words. No one breathed.

And then, from under the earth, Father said “Aaaaaauuuhhh …?”

Oh-die-will!” screamed the dark birds in unison.

Mother transferred her grip to Susan’s neck and slapped me aside with her free hand.

She strode into the house, dragging my older sister behind her, to the trap door on the root cellar. I ran beside her, grabbing at her, my head still ringing from the slap, trying to slow her down. “Mother—Mother—stop, stop!”

She flung back the door and went down the ladder one-handed. I stood at the top, my mouth hanging open, and I heard Father laughing in the darkness.

“Thaaaaaaat time?” he gurgled. “Aaaauhhh …”

“No!” snarled Mother. “Not that time! Now eat and shut up!”

I heard Susan scream, and then I heard a sound like when Father ate the mangel-beets, but worse.

The screaming stopped.

Mother’s head appeared in the hatchway of the trap door. I grabbed the wooden door and slammed it downward with all my strength.

I was only trying to stop her climbing. I did not expect to hit her. The wooden door bounced off the top of her skull and she let out a roar like Father when he was hungry and put up one arm and tore the trap door off its hinges.

I ran.

I bolted out the door and around the corner, knowing nothing, thinking nothing, only trying to get away. I was halfway up the ladder to the roof before I thought This is stupid, where do you go, there’s no other way down—but it was too late.

The ladder was small enough that she had to be careful climbing it. The top rung banged rhythmically against the edge of the roof.

I scrambled backward. If I had to, I would jump. There was nothing else that I could do.

Her face came over the edge.

The dark birds struck her in a wave of bodies, like crows mobbing a hawk. She slapped at her face and I heard their wings crunching, but there were more and more, going for her eyes, cackling high, and she rocked on the too-small ladder, her arms windmilling as she jerked backward.

And she was gone.

Oh-die-will!” screamed the dark birds. “Oh-die-die-die-die-will!

I crept to the edge of the roof.

Mother lay stretched out in the garden, surrounded by dark birds living and dead. She had struck her head on the millstone. Her blood mixed with the blood of the dark birds and the earth slowly turned black beneath them.


I had to jump down to the water barrel and I scraped my hands and my shins doing it. I should have gone at once, immediately, but I thought of Susan in the root cellar, and thought perhaps that Father would have known better than to eat her, and maybe he had realized what she was. Maybe she was lying wounded in the dark now.

I had to check.

I came down three rungs of the ladder and whispered “Susan?”

“All gone,” said Father. His voice was thick and burbling with disuse. “All gone. None for you.”

I felt as if I were hanging in the air, and if I moved up or down the ladder, even one rung, the words would strike, and I would understand them. If I understood them, I would have to feel them.

If I felt anything … anything at all … I would die or faint or fall off the ladder and be eaten up.

“Mother’s dead,” I said sharply.

“Is she? Ahhh …” I could hear him moving, a rustle of flesh, a clink of chain. “Yes. As it should be. When they start … throwing boys … it’s time.”

“Time?” I said blankly.

“For a new Mother,” he said.

I was silent. There was only his breathing and outside of the house, the screams of the dark birds.

“Usually … it’s a Ruth …” he said, and laughed. “You’re only the second … Baby … to take her place …”

I told you at the beginning that not all the Ruths were fools. It had not occurred to me then that some of them might be monsters.

“Drag … the old one … down here,” he suggested. “I’ll eat her … when I’m hungry …”

“You want me to be the new Mother?”

He laughed again. I could hear his teeth scraping against the foundations.

“What else … did you think … you were for?”

I went back up the ladder.

Mother lay in the garden. I looked at her and wondered if she had been a Ruth or a Susan or if it mattered.

There was a dark bird on top of the millstone. It looked at me with moonlight eyes, and there was something about the way its head was tilted, as if it were waiting …

“Susan?” I whispered.

The flock descended. They perched on my shoulders, on my head, along my arms. Their hard black feet prickled like sewing needles. My sisters. A hundred Ruths and Susans and Babys.

Was one of them Lily? Was it only ogre’s daughters that, once devoured, became the dark birds instead?

How many of them had been Mothers?

I took a shuddering breath, but I had no time to cry. I could not risk Father knowing what my plans were.

I went to the woodpile and began to drag the firewood out, log after log, piled around the house.

I did not know what would happen after I lit the flame. Perhaps the smoke would suffocate him. Perhaps the fire would cook him slowly. Perhaps the floor would burn away and the chains that held him would melt and he would escape into the world.

I did not want to be there to find out.

The Susan-bird called once, imperious.

“Yes,” I said. I knelt and blew on the spark until it caught, then rose and dusted splinters from my hands. “Yes, I know. I’m coming.”

  • Ursula Vernon

    Ursula Vernon is the winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Mythopoeic Awards. She has written a number of children’s books, short stories, and comics, and writes for adults under the name T. Kingfisher. She likes fairy-tale retellings, gardening, and has strong opinions about heirloom beans. You can find more of her work at

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