Authors: Wendy Delsol
“What kind of bird?” Hulda asked ominously.
“Big and black,” I said. “A crow, maybe, big enough to be a raven even.”
A gasp worked its way around the room like a Dodger Stadium wave. I had to fight the urge to stand and lift my arms. It was definitely something I said.
“Are you sure?” Hulda asked.
“About the bird, yes.”
“And about Fru Grimilla’s presence at the scene?”
“It sure looked like her.” Again, a ripple of surprise rolled over the women.
Hulda exhaled with a slump. “Katla, what you describe is a very serious accusation against Fru Grimilla. The carrion-eating Raven is the Messenger of Death, the chooser of the slain. It is the counterforce against which we operate to create balance. Our sworn enemy. Do you understand?”
. “I’m not sure I do.”
“Ravens are evil-born beings, masters of dark arts, snatchers of souls, an ancient cult rewarding immortality to those who execute three truly heinous covenants.”
“Were this to be true,” Hulda continued, “that Grimilla was indeed conspiring with a Raven, then she would be exiled, for all time, from the Storks.”
God help me
“Katla, your first bestowal of an essence is a moment of great mysticism. Many a Stork has had flights of fancy in the moments preceding her first meeting. I myself thought a Swan Maiden had granted three wishes.” Hulda waved at the air. “And I’m still waiting for them.” I briefly considered mentioning the black bird at the scene of our bear encounter, but what did it have to do with the issue at hand? Grim wasn’t there that day.
“It all happened so fast,” I said. “And another witness didn’t see her. I think you’re right. She couldn’t possibly have been there and then disappeared in the blink of an eye. And I swear I never knew anything about Ravens. I honestly didn’t mean to accuse.”
“Is fine, child,” Hulda said. “We do not doubt your integrity.” She looked around the room, which had fallen eerily silent. “I suggest we proceed. Katla Gudrun Leblanc”— boy, Hulda could belt it out for such a small thing —“you have called us here today?”
And that was it. We were back on track. The first thing that went through my mind was how in the name of Elmer Fudd was I going to make it through any sort of talk or presentation? My wits left me. No joke. I heard the door shut behind them. Everyone was looking at me. I was expected to stand and deliver. Then I thought of how my mom taught me to tackle hard puzzles, or really anything daunting: start with a corner. I’d gone through a big jigsaw phase when I was young, doing puzzles way beyond my years, and often frustrating myself in the process. My mom had sat so patiently with me, always forcing me to come up with my own strategies, but still guiding gently. I just had to start small.
I stood, and though it felt like a thousand little drills were boring through my skull, I took a deep calming breath and started with a corner. “I have been contacted by an essence.” I remembered that Fru Dorit had started with the essence. I could do that. “A girl. She will be shy and a lover of nature. She is destined to live in a cold climate.” That wasn’t so bad. Even my head felt a little better. “There are three possible vessels.” My posture improved. “One is a sixteen-year-old girl who has been alarmingly deceived by her partner, an unfit parent.” As I spoke, Hulda raised a single digit. “Another is a twenty-five-year-old newlywed.” This time Hulda raised two fingers, a peace sign of sorts. “She wants a child,” I continued, “though the relationship is temporarily strained, and the husband often away long stretches for work, and the mother is restless. This child could force them to settle.”
“And the third?” Hulda asked, wagging three fingers, a flashing
“A thirty-eight-year-old divorced mother of one. The relationship is new.”
“And your recommendation?” Hulda looked at me kindly.
Weird how, in that briefest of moments, a million things flew through my head. I thought about how defeated Monique had been. I hoped Jaelle would know how to teach her daughter to puzzle through life with the skill and patience my mom had shown me. I thought about how content the baby had seemed in my dreams, and of my mom’s own cheery disposition. And then it felt as if my thoughts were being guided by someone else. I resisted, formed thoughts, remembered intentions, strengthened resolve; yet my mind, and then my voice, continued of its own accord. “The divorced mother. She will love the child dearly.”
The room got very quiet after that. I sat down and watched as, individually, the women held up one, two, or three fingers — a silent vote, predating the written word, possibly even language as we know it.
“Ah,” Hulda said. “Katla’s recommendation is approved.”
I was too stunned to react. Though my scalp felt immediately better, I was confused by what had transpired. Then all of a sudden, as if a blanket had settled over my shoulders, I felt calm, and warm, and peaceful.
It didn’t last long. Fru Grimilla came barging through the door, out of breath, and with a Barbie ski cap on her head. “I apologize for my tardiness,” she said, fussing with the too-pink, too-small monstrosity that even Penny was too old to own. “There wasn’t a hat of mine to be found in the house.”
. I thought of our
Extreme Makeover: Minnesota Edition,
which concluded with Penny kicking a bag of hats under the bed. Could my life get any more complicated?
“What have I missed?” Fru Grimilla asked.
“Katla has recommended a thirty-eight-year-old divorced mother of one for her first vessel,” Hulda said. “We have ratified this choice.”
“Divorced,” Grim said. “I do not approve.”
Hulda opened her hands in a gesture of futility. “Is too late, Fru Grimilla; the decision has been recorded.”
Old Grim’s face went bug mad.
“Fru Hulda,” said Fru Dorit, who had a very girlish quality to her voice for one so old and plump, “I, for one, would like to congratulate Katla on her first recommendation as a Stork. She showed great poise and maturity. I also wonder if we will be addressing the Raven charges against Fru Grimilla this evening?”
Just when I was beginning to really like suck-up Dorit, despite her relation to Wade, she had to go and add “pot-stirrer” to her résumé.
“Especially as this would be her second accusation.” Dorit made a clicking sound with her tongue.
Make that pot-licker
“What Raven charges?” Fru Grimilla shouted.
Hulda clasped her hands together in what could only be described as prayer. “Thank you, Fru Dorit, for reminding us of our obligations.” Though Hulda’s tone didn’t really sound all that thankful. “I remind everyone that past charges, once cleared, are null and void. New charges, should they be filed, would require a tribunal. For now we seek only to discern if such action is necessary. Katla, again we ask you to describe the events of this evening.”
Kill me now
. Because the look of rage on Grim’s face was certainly a promise to do it eventually, and the knit of her eyebrows hinted at a sooner-than-later resolve. I described the scene, truthfully, but with plenty of elbowroom for Fru Grimilla to add her own account.
When I had finished, Grim stood. “This is an outrage. I know not how to respond to such groundless accusations.”
“Not accusations,” Hulda cut in. “As you heard Katla say, she’s not sure what she saw.”
“It’s true,” I said. “It happened so fast. Even now, it’s all such a blur.”
“So, Katla,” Dorit said, “do you charge Fru Grimilla with conspiring with the Raven?”
“No,” I said quickly. “I don’t.”
“I should certainly hope not,” Grim said. “For I promise to defend myself by whatever means necessary.”
And we have a winner
. “Like Fru Hulda said, I was probably just nervous and seeing all kinds of crazy things in anticipation of today’s meeting.” Sure wished I’d gotten the wish-granting Swan Maiden hallucination instead. Just my luck, I supposed, to conjure the Messenger of Death. The meeting adjourned with Fru Hulda tabling the Raven discussion for later. I remained in my seat for many moments recovering. Finally, I looked around. Only Hulda and I remained.
“I am proud of you.” Hulda patted my hand.
“I made a mess of things.”
“The first is always the hardest.”
“Fru Grimilla hates me.”
“No. She doesn’t hate you. It’s just that Fru Grimilla is very devoted, very passionate in her duties. To have her loyalty questioned is a great insult.”
“I swear I didn’t know anything about the significance of the Raven. But I have to say, it doesn’t make me feel any better about my close call today. What if someone’s out to get me? Because I’m a Stork.” Contrary to popular belief, it did not help to talk about it. It only made it feel more real, as if the sound of screeching tires and the smell of burning rubber hadn’t been sensory enough.
Hulda, lost in thought, twitched her forefinger back and forth in the air. “Ravens seek immortality. With dark magic, they coax both man and beast to do their evil bidding, to fulfill their devilish covenants. They risk everything in their quest. Do you understand the consequence of failure?”
“I’m not sure.” But again, I wondered if I should mention the bear attack. How much more
could it get?
“Damnation,” Hulda said in a low, rough voice.
That I understood.
“Storks, on the other hand, have a passion for both this life and the next. They are chosen to deliver souls. A great honor. A betrayal of this trust — it’s just unthinkable.”
“I guess that makes sense.” And it did. Crotchety was one thing, but devilish was a whole ’nother country.
“Do not worry yourself. Only your sister Storks know your identity. You are safe within our ranks. Sometimes a big black bird is just that.”
“Uh, Fru Hulda, what did Fru Dorit mean by a second accusation?”
“Did you not understand that she was cleared of this charge?”
“Yeah. I got that, but still, it struck me as important.”
She tapped her chin. “Is old business, but it involves you.”
“The first accusation against Fru Grimilla came after your accident at the lake. There were reports of a coat of peacock blue at the scene.”
“She was there?”
“This never was proven. In fact, she had a sewing circle with the Girl Scouts that day.”
“But given these new charges . . .”
“Katla, listen closely to me. Fru Grimilla’s name was cleared. This is old story with no relevance.”
“But . . .”
“We speak no more of this,” she said with a slash of her hand.
I had so many more questions: about the Ravens and their covenants, and about that day at the lake, but I knew better than to persist. She might need a leg up, but once in the saddle, Hulda was one big bad boss lady.
She then got a funny kind of proud look on her face. “Your recommendation for the vessel, I approve. You’re a very strong girl. And you made a good decision. The earth element, a logical choice. A mother who is grounded. Of course, you knew this already of the vessel, and much more.” Hulda squeezed my hand affectionately.
Somehow I suspected she, too, knew plenty about the vessel, including name, rank, and cereal of choice. Nonetheless, she seemed pleased with me. And while we were on the topic of family, I supposed then was the time to strike. “Uh, Hulda,” I stammered, “do you think you’d be willing to meet my dad?”
“Of course, child. I should love to meet your father.”
“Do you think you’d be willing to show him your factory?” My nose twitched. It always betrayed me in awkward situations. “Given the whole wind symbol from my dream.”
Hulda took a long time to answer. It seemed like a bad sign. “An interesting interpretation, though I wonder its merit.”
“My dad isn’t exactly excited about it either.”
Hulda perked up. “He resists?”
“What are his reservations?”
“Too far away, I guess. Weather as a likely delay to delivery schedules.”
“Yeah.” An unexpected visitor who is reluctant and fears the weather — I should have guessed by now that something like this would excite Hulda.
“You bring him to my factory tomorrow.”
“Did you sleep well?” my mom asked me the next morning. She looked just as sunny and calm this morning as she had yesterday, and the day before. I wasn’t sure how long it took for our decision to kick in, but she clearly hadn’t figured it out yet.
“Pretty good,” I said, though I hadn’t. As much as I trusted Hulda and wanted, badly, to believe that sometimes a big black bird is just that, the whole Raven thing — even just knowing they’re out there — had me rattled. As did mailboxes. And logs, of any shape or variety.
“Did you get your project done?”
“Yep.” I patted my book bag, which contained nothing more than a simple social studies assignment due that day.
“You sure looked beat when you got in last night.” If only she knew. And then it struck me. She really did need to know. I looked down at the bowl of healthy kibble she was crunching. She definitely ate well, but I also noticed the big mug of coffee in her hand. She’d have to cut down on that, wouldn’t she?