by Fanni Sütő
Eliza was lying in the middle of the wheat field, listening to her mother’s impatient calls. It was dinner time, but Eliza didn’t want to go.
She stayed perfectly still while her mother passed row after row. A long centipede crawled across her hand, countless hairy feet tickling her skin, but Eliza didn’t budge. She bit her lip and told herself that these creatures were useful; that they were a part of the great circle of life. They fed the birds in the sky, and Eliza loved birds. She especially loved swallows, because her father had once told her that swallows brought summer with them on their wings – and Eliza loved summer more than anything. Sadly, she never saw much of it. Their house was built on top of an icy mountain, clouded in snow and fog. Her mother couldn’t stand the heat; she was only in her element when it was cold. And her mother always had her way.
Her calls echoed over the field:
“Alright. If you don’t want to come home to dine, I’m not going to force you. Why would you listen to me anyway? I’m just your mother, nobody important.”
The harsh words made Eliza flinch, but she still didn’t move. She knew the tricks of her mother. She was trying to wake her guilt and make her feel like a bad child.
“But don’t you come sulking to me when we’ve put the dishes away. You’ve made your decision. There is no dinner for you tonight,” her mother continued.
Eliza smiled to herself and thought about the sweet apple hiding in her pocket. She wrapped her fingers around its round weight where it rested next to something else: the key to her mother’s workroom. She’d managed to steal it from her mother’s belt that morning, when she shooed Eliza out of the house.
“It’s your father’s fault,” her mother went on. “He is spoiling you and your brother, and then he is wondering why the two of you are out of control.” The wheat leaves rustled as she made her way away from Eliza and towards the house. “Alright, young lady, I’m going to have my delicious dinner and you can stay out for the night at your pleasure. You’ll see hunger is not a nice companion. Nor are the creatures of the night.” Her voice came from further and further away before silence descended on the fields.
Eliza shuddered as the evening wind swooped down into the field to touch her, but she wasn’t going to give up. She had a mission, and nobody was going to stand in her way, not even the cold.
Eliza had been making plans ever since she went to the village alone for the first time, several months ago. She’d tried to play with the children of farmers and shopkeepers, but they ran away from her and called her a witch, a death-child or a monster. Some of them even threw sticks at her. Eliza had been standing in the middle of the street, crying and confused, until a pauper dressed in rags and scraps took pity on her.
“The problem is you look too much like your mother,” he said, contempt softening his voice. Sadness flashed in his eyes as he continued. “You can’t help it, but that’s how it is. They’re never going to like you.”
And so Eliza avoided the locals, but she still went to their orchards, where she chased butterflies and pillaged ruby apples or golden pears. Her favourite pastime, however, was to spy on the villagers. It annoyed her that these people seemed to know more about her mother than she did. They said similar things about her mother that their children had said to her: cruel, evil, a witch. She didn’t want to believe them, but the rumours she overheard ate away at her.
Eliza knew exactly what her father did for a living, which made it even harder for her to accept how little she knew about her mother. He had golden fields of corn far away from their cold mansion, and he had a garden filled with flowers of every shape and colour. Eliza loved running around the flowers, breathing their sweet pollen. He also had many, many animals, and every living creature seemed to love him. He was a happy man. Eliza often asked him about her mother’s work, but he only ever said it was very important and very difficult.
“Your mother is a strong woman”, he would sigh, and Eliza could hear the deep affection that still lingered in his voice after all these years. The whispers of the village folk echoed in her ears, however, and a horrible suspicion sat in her stomach. Maybe her mother was actually an evil witch. Maybe she had cursed her father, forcing such a happy man to love someone as cold as her? Eliza didn’t know what to think, but she knew she would have to investigate the matters further.
She started by asking her mother upright, but she didn’t even acknowledge the question. She dismissed her daughter with a frown and told her that her room needed cleaning.
Eliza felt she had no other choice: she had to find answers on her own. She started plotting. Sometimes when she felt stuck she wished she could ask her brother, but he was always out and away, floating paper boats down streams and chasing neighbourhood girls. He was all noise, but no ears. Eliza listened. She had to do it alone.
So there she was in the field, with the key in her pocket and the centipede finally off her hand, waiting for the falling night to cloak her. Owls hooted in the distance and bats flapped their wings above her, but she was determined, and she wouldn’t let her imagination scare her away. She rose from her hiding spot and headed home. Looking back over her shoulder she saw a girl-shaped dent in her father’s wheat. Walking past the house, she ran her fingers along the sturdy logs that made up the walls. She peered through the dining room window and saw her parents sitting down to eat in the orange glow of the chandelier. It looked like a scene straight from one of the paintings that lined the walls. The soup was steaming as her father helped himself to a serving, and Eliza could almost taste its golden flavour on her tongue. She stood there for a moment before jolting back into motion; she had to get going. Her mother always worked after dinner, so this was Eliza’s only time to act. Continuing around the house to the back garden, she spotted her mother’s workshop.
She hesitated in front of the locked door, feeling a little guilty as she pulled the stolen key from her pocket. She thought of her mother’s relaxed smile by the dining table, but then she remembered the laughs of the village children. She had to know. Her hands were trembling as she turned the key and she pushed her way into the little room lit by a few melting candles and the moonlight pouring in through the window. Eliza expecting to discover a witch’s kitchen full of potions, cauldrons and broomsticks. She found nothing of that sort: it was a plain old library with hundreds, maybe even thousands, of books. There were books spilling out of the shelves, in stacks on the tables and piles on the floor.
“Magic books!” she exclaimed in a rush of excitement and reached out for one. She touched it carefully at first, ready to pull her hand away if the book wanted to bite her, but nothing happened. The cover felt cold under her fingers. Instead of the magical incantations and blasphemous images she’d expected, she saw names; names written in her mother’s small, neat handwriting. Not knowing what to make of it, she opened another book. That, too, was full of names. It didn’t make sense! Surely the villagers and their stupid kids wouldn’t hate her for a simple thing like… whatever this was!
Eliza walked around the workshop, pulling down books at random, but they didn’t give away any more secrets than the first one. After checking the shelves, Eliza stopped in front of a table with a single, huge open book on it. A quill moved ceaselessly over the pages, as if an invisible hand was leading it. Eliza had to stand on her tiptoes to see what it was writing. More names. Most of them Eliza had heard before, but some of them were foreign, and she didn’t even know if they were for men or for women. She sighed.
She felt silly for believing the rumours and harsh words she’d overheard. Her mother just liked names – it could have been much worse. In the magazines she sneaked out from her brother’s room sometimes she’d read about people who collected eyeballs or pinned insects to paper. Compared to that, names were an innocent thing to collect. She walked up to the window in the back to look out on the endless field of snow behind their house. She was never allowed to play there, but she wouldn’t have wanted to anyway. She hated the cold.
A pale moon rose above the landscape and as Eliza gazed over the stretches of snow, her heart skipped a beat; there seemed to be figures in the white light. She thought it was a mob of villagers finally coming to get revenge on her mother. Startled, she took a step backward and stumbled over a pile of books. A couple on the top fell to the floor with muted thumps, Eliza put them back cautiously before turning toward the window, inching closer to get a better look. She studied the people outside and realised with immense relief that it wasn’t a mob at all, but endless rows of what looked like ice statues. They were far away, but Eliza could see that none looked the others. They all had different faces and different kinds of clothes. There were women in royal garments and elaborate hairdos, men in soldier’s uniforms or religious habits. There were children playing with dolls and balls and a thousand other toys. She could also see animals at their feet, animals of all kinds; squirrels and pigs and peculiar creatures she could not name. Their translucent shapes glistened under the glow of the moon. Admiration replaced the fear in Eliza’s heart. Her mother was an artist! The villagers must have been jealous because the only things they could make were raggedy scarecrows, but her mother could create statues out of ice, so lifelike one expected them to move!
“Oh, you miserable creature,” said her mother’s voice behind her back, making Eliza flinch away from the window.
“Mo-mother, I’m sorry,” Eliza stammered. She looked around to find an escape route, but her mother quickly closed the door behind her, trapping them both in the workshop.
“You don’t know how sorry you are. You shouldn’t have seen this, not for long years,” her mother said in a quiet voice. Eliza was shocked to see tears in her mother’s eyes, softening her usually strict expression. Shame weighed on her like cold, wet clothes after a sudden rainfall. She wanted to apologise, to tell her mother that for the maybe the first time in her life, she felt proud of her
“I don’t understand. You have books and some nice statues. That’s not witchcraft, it’s art!” Eliza felt her cheeks burning red with embarrassment.
“Art? You silly child… I’m no artist, and I’m worse than a witch,” her mother said. Her voice was soft.
“But you’re not!”
“You’re too young to understand,” she sighed.“I wanted to keep this from you as long as possible. It is a heavy burden for a child to bear.”
“I don’t understand.” Eliza suddenly felt weak and sat down on the cold floor, least she would fall.
“Of course you don’t,” sighed her mother again, and to Eliza’s surprise, she sat down next to her. “What did you see in those books, Eliza?”
“Names,” Eliza said, avoiding her mother’s eyes by looking at the floor.
“Do you know to whom those names belong?” her mother asked. Eliza bit her lip, not sure what to say. She’d never seen her mother so upset. Not even the time when Eliza knocked down a jar of strawberry jam from the pantry, which shattered and stained the immaculately white wall red.
“They belong to dead people,” her mother said.
“Why would you collect the names of dead people? How would you even know so many dead people?” Eliza shook her head in disbelief.
Her mother didn’t answer, just stood up to look out of the window. In that moment she seemed taller, more regal than she usually did. In the fading light her worn cloak transformed into the dark velvet drapes of a queen – a sad, lonely queen. Eliza felt bad for her mother and closed her eyes. When she opened her eyes again, she was just her mother again. Eliza rose to join her, and for some reason there seemed to be even more statues now. It must have been a trick of the light, she thought. It was her mother who made the statues, and her mother was right there, so there couldn’t be any new ones. Yet, the thought scared her and she couldn’t help but reach for her mother’s hand. Like everything else in the workshop it was cold, so very cold.
“Mother, I’m afraid,” she whispered.
“You shouldn’t have come here,” her mother said, absently stroking a thumb over Eliza’s hand. “Not until I was too old and tired to do this. Not until you and your brother had grown strong enough to decide that your old parents were too much of a burden. The day will come when you exile us to the end of the world, where no eyes can see us and no ears can hear us. You’ll throw us to the vultures of forgetting.”
Her mother’s eyes stared into the distance, and her voice sounded from far away; as if they had a great sea between them.
“Mother, how can you say that? My brother loves you!” After some hesitation she added, “I love you, too. We’ll never do such a thing!”
“You cannot know what you will or will not do in the future, child. I have seen it, for my eyes look at the beginning and the end of the world at the same time. I know every person and every animal that have lived on the face of this earth. I know the name of every plant that has turned its leaves towards the sun. I meet all of them eventually.”
“Mother…” Eliza looked at her mother. There was a long moment, and then she understood.
“It can’t be…” She covered her mouth with her hands to repress a cry of disbelief.
“But it is, and I am sorry.”
Her mother sounded genuinely sorry. Vulnerable. It all made sense now, the growing list of names, the sad, cold statues, and the hatred of villagers.
“Then… what does that make father?”
“Your father,” her mother smiled, “that dear man. He is my better half, and my greatest rival. He keeps creating new life so that I won’t get bored. His task is happier than mine. He gives life, and I take it away. But I don’t envy him. I have a task that is just as important as his, and I do it well, even though most people resent me for it. We couldn’t exist without one another. I hope that one day you will find a good man like him.”
Her mother reached out a hesitant hand and stroked Eliza’s hair, something she hadn’t done in years.
“I know you think I don’t love you, but it’s not true,” she continued, and Eliza felt the sadness in her words. She wanted to deny it, but no sound left her throat. “How could I not love you when I love the whole of creation? But I love you and your brother most of all. You are the only instances when I didn’t take lives, but I gave them. Two such wonderful children! That is why it pains me so much that one day you will need to take my place.”
“But I don’t want to hurt anybody,” Elisa shook her head violently.
“You won’t. Even if you do, it cannot be helped. Unpleasant tasks need to be done, too.”
“Father always said that when I asked him about you.”
“You see your father is a wise man. I can tell you one thing, and it might make your task easier, it might not. It’s easy to be the good one, the one everybody loves. Look at your father! When he goes to town, everybody bows to him, mothers rush to greet him and they hold up their children so that he may bless them. Women with empty wombs kneel to his feet and pray for a new life to come to them. And when I go to town, what happens? They close their windows, bolt their doors and cover the eyes of their children. I don’t mind. Always remember that it’s the ones doing the hard things who need to be the strongest. And I know you’re a strong girl, Eliza. You’re going to be good. Better than me. You may even be able to make people like you.”
“How? How could I? You’re killing them! And then I will have to!”
“Death is mercy to some people, a salvation. You will understand this one day, when you see it with your own eyes. Death washes away the differences life struggles to maintain, people find peace knowing that they’re just like everybody else in the end.”
Eliza stood there, staring at her mother as if it was the first time she saw her. She felt the same loneliness she’d seen in her just a moment ago, and she felt as if she understood some of it.
“Now now, we don’t need to spoil your childhood with this. Come here, you brave girl.”
She put her arm around Eliza and caressed her head with cold fingers.
“You won’t remember any of this, my darling. Your days will be carefree and happy, and the varnish of forgetting will only break down when you enter your adolescence. We still have a few years until then. Now go back to the house, your dinner is waiting on the table. I need to get to work, your father will see you to bed.”
Her mother led her out of the workshop and Eliza found herself at the back door of their house. She shook her head in surprise; she didn’t know how she’d got there. She must have crossed the backyard, but she didn’t remember it. She shrugged off her confusion and left it at the doorstep. She ate her dinner, a rich soup made from vegetables that grew in her father’s garden. While she ate, her father told her stories about his day, the people he met, the animals he talked to. When Eliza finished and put away her plate, her father sent her to clean herself and go to bed. He told her one last tale before she fell asleep. It was the tale of a beautiful dark queen who lived in a cold castle and reigned over fields of ice.
From that day on Eliza found her mother less intimidating, and she did her best not to annoy her as much as she used to, although she wasn’t sure why.
Sometimes when the evening shadows grew long, she had a lingering feeling that there was something bigger out there, a great, forgotten secret. “Is this all there is?” she kept asking her brother, without ever getting a reply He grew up to be a sailor who spent most of his time away from home, still chasing girls, and riding the waves.
Eliza stayed home and listened to the songs her mother sang while cooking and helped her tend to the winter garden, a place she wasn’t allowed to enter until her sixteenth birthday. It became her favourite part of their estate, although sometimes she wondered why the statues seemed so lifelike.
One morning in early Spring when she was cleaning the snow from the head of a squirrel, something snapped in her. Memories dripped through the veil of forgetting, and Eliza found herself as a child in her mother’s study, curious and silly. She remembered the cold touch of her mother’s hand that hid her memories. The knowledge sank in slow as the sea, fast as a mountain stream. Her mother was in the greenhouse fetching some brooms, and when she came back and saw the expression on Eliza’s face, she knew what had happened.
“You remember,” she said. It wasn’t a question.
“Are you upset?” her mother asked.
“No,” Eliza answered without hesitation. “I understand that you did what you thought was the best for me.” She swallowed back tears and stepped into her mother’s embrace.
“A few years ago you would’ve been furious,” her mother said with amusement, “and you definitely wouldn’t have hugged me.”
“True. I’m sorry if I was a bad child.”
“You weren’t.” There was a long silence, but Eliza heard her mother’s silent apology. They looked at each other for a moment before they both sighed, and continued working in the snow. No more words were said, because they weren’t needed; the two women had learned to understand each other’s silence.