Once upon a time, there was a forum for writers, and on that forum, there was a challenge: write a short fantasy story describing someone’s entire life in 1,500 words. My entry went over the word limit, but people liked it anyway. Later, I have used their suggestions to rewrite and shorten the story, except that I did it in Serbian. It was published in Gradina, an old and respectable Serbian periodical, and my editor used it as the opening story of my short story collection Macji snovi (or, if you prefer, Cat Dreams).
Here’s the original version.
“Push! Push!” the midwife urged the young woman. Mother-to-be screamed in agony.
“I’ve got the head! Keep pushing, honey!”
Young woman kept screaming. Raleia, her five-year-old daughter, watched in terror as the midwife pulled out the newborn, little bony wings tearing up her mother’s insides. Mother gave one final scream and fainted. Raleia couldn’t keep quiet anymore.
“Will my mom be all right?” she asked.
“For now, honey. We have to wait and see what Shaman says,” the midwife replied, tired. Raleia looked with hostile eyes at her baby sister. That little wretched thing almost killed their mom, and if Shaman said there was anything wrong with her wings, their mom would be killed instantly. Not to mention that, having delivered a winged baby, their parents wouldn’t be permitted another child. No brother. No one to bear their father’s name.
Shaman came soon enough. He carefully examined little wings.
“They look healthy to me,” he finally said. “Hail the Holy One!”
Everyone in the room – the midwife, father, mother who came back to her senses, even Raleia – cheered. Having a Holy One in the village was a good thing. If they treated her well, she would love them, and when she turned fifteen, she would fly to her Ancient Mother, Rain Dragon, and speak good of them. And Rain Dragon would take care the fields were fertile, and the people were fertile, and everyone was happy.
And mom was permitted to nurse her for one year.
Raleia’s father had once told her that long time ago humans mated with dragons. It was a wrong thing to do; humans knew that, and dragons knew that. The mating was possible because dragons were shapeshifters, but it was still a wrong thing to do. Rain Dragon, the queen of all dragons, forbid it. But some young people were foolish, and some young dragons were foolish too. And then came the children. Most of them were just misshapen creatures, not capable for life; but some of the children, though misshapen, survived, and had their own children. So now it was impossible to tell who was of pure human blood, and who was not.
And then came a very long time without rain, and people starved. And people died. So the ones still alive prayed to the Rain Dragon, saying there were her children born from wombs of their women, and she should help. The Rain Dragon answered their prayers. She sent rain. And she told them that Gods were angry because of the mixed blood, but she had a solution. And she told them that every now and then she would send them a Holy One, a healthy child with dragon wings. Every other human child with dragon blood was an abomination, and should be killed instantly, and the parents with it, so they wouldn’t have any more children; but the Holy One should be well taken care of, and when the child was ready, it would come to her, and she would reward them for their kindness. The parents of the Holy One, though, should be killed, because of their dragon blood, so eventually, there wouldn’t be any more dragonbloods.
Raleia’s father also told her that this law was altered in years. There were never enough men to work the fields and hunt, so the fathers were spared, though they were forbidden to have more children. Mothers were to be killed, as mercifully as possible, of course. Mother of the Holy One was to be permitted to nurse her baby for one year; she should be killed after that.
Raleia cried bitterly when she heard that, and she hated her newborn sister. But her mother made her promise she would love her little sister and take good care of her.
“She won’t remember me,” mother said. “She’ll need all the love she can get. None of this is her fault. She’ll feel so alone and scared if you don’t love her.”
Raleia thought of this.
“Like Myshana?” she asked. Myshana was her friend, golden-haired girl who lived with her grumpy grandparents because her mom and dad died in a fire when she was a baby. Myshana was nice, but she was very shy and always seemed scared she would do something wrong.
“Worse. There are other children who don’t have parents, but she’s the only one with wings. And everyone expects so much from her, even though she’s just a baby.”
Raleia looked at her little sister, asleep in their mother’s arms. It’s so sad, she thought, she can’t even have a name. Holy One is a Holy One, she knew, but she wished a name to call her sister.
“Can I call her Wingy? When nobody’s around. It’s not a real name. You think the Rain Dragon would be angry if I did that?” she asked. Mother smiled.
“Yes, you can call her Wingy. I don’t think the Rain Dragon will mind,” mother replied. She had her own thoughts about the laws and the Rain Dragon, but she knew they were heretic. She also knew better than to pass them on to her daughter.
A year passed by. Raleia did her best not to think of her mother’s approaching death. She busied herself taking care of Wingy, and she found the little one adorable, with big blue eyes and dark hair, just like their mother’s. Wingy was a happy baby; she rarely cried, and laughed often. And there was always a smile on her little face when she saw Raleia. And Raleia was happy to take care of her. Her father never told her that, but Raleia knew she was a dragonblood, so she’d never have babies of her own.
Raleia was not permitted to witness the death of their mother, but Myshana described her everything. First, the Shaman cut the woman’s throat. It was fast, she never felt a thing, or at least Myshana saw it that way. Raleia knew, though, that Myshana hoped Shaman would take her as his wife when she was old enough. He was looking at her already.
After he cut her throat, Shaman took out the mother’s womb. That was to be taken to the cliff, and thrown from it, as a gift for the Rain Dragon who lived at the bottom. The rest was to be burnt, and the ashes were to be thrown in the river, as a gift to the River God, like the ashes of every dragonblood parent.
Raleia knew the exact moment of their mother’s death, because little Wingy cried out loud. Maybe there was something special in that baby, after all, except for the obvious fact that she was born with wings.
Years passed by, and Wingy showed more and more how special she was. She dreamed of future sometimes, and was able to warn the village the wolves or the raiders would attack. Her wings were healthy indeed; she was flying around when she was five. Shaman taught her to cast some simple attack spells – dragonbloods were always quick to learn spells – and everyone was surprised, not seeing the purpose of it. But when she was seven, and another group of raiders came by, she was flying around, happily casting her spells, and no one from the village died. And she was beautiful, and loved by all, except Myshana who was a bit jealous because Shaman paid so much attention to her. Myshana was living in Shaman’s house for two years now, since her grandparents died, and people were uncertain of their relationship, but nobody dared to bother Shaman.
Sometimes, Raleia and Wingy would lay on the grass and talk about the Rain Dragon. Raleia would stroke her sister’s strong wings, and Wingy would promise she would take her to meet the Rain Dragon after the longest flight, as the two called the event.
Children loved to play with Wingy – hey, not everyone had a winged playmate. Shaman warned them they must never, under any conditions, hurt her wings. As Wingy was growing up, he warned the parents of male children that Wingy must remain a virgin. The parents soon realized importance of the warning, since Wingy was becoming more beautiful every day, and she carried her bat-like wings with such grace it only added to her attractiveness. And loved by all, she was eager to please everyone.
Raleia looked at Shaman with suspicion. He never touched Wingy, except to teach her something, but there was something in his eyes when he looked at her, some gentleness that wasn’t there for anyone else, not even Myshana. And though Wingy made as many mistakes as any other child, she never got a single harsh word from him. Raleia was uncertain of her own feelings. Was she jealous? But why? Wingy could not have children either. But still, there was one man who looked gently at Wingy, and many who looked at her with desire; and not one who looked at Raleia.
The long awaited day came, Wingy’s (sorry, Holy One’s) fifteenth birthday. Wingy had often asked Shaman what exactly was she to do, but he would only smile and tell her it wasn’t time yet.
Well now it was the time, and Wingy was eager to do whatever she was supposed to do. She wondered what would Rain Dragon look like. The village people loved her, but would Rain Dragon love her too? Would she be pleased with her? Wingy felt nervousness she wouldn’t admit to anyone, not even Raleia. And especially not to Shaman, who looked so good even in his fifties, with long gray hair, slender but athletic body and dark eyes that looked so gently at her.
Wingy got out of her house. Shaman was there, as the rest of the village.
“The day has come, Holy One. We have been good to you, the best we knew how. Will you fly for us? Will you tell your Ancient Mother of our needs?” Shaman ceremonially asked, his face as calm as ever. Raleia was not in the crowd. Neither was her father, but Wingy didn’t have time to wonder why. They would explain later, she had no doubt of that.
“I will,” she replied, looking at Shaman, praying she didn’t make a mistake. She unfolded her long wings, showing everyone how strong they were, how suitable even for the longest flight.
“Than come with us, Holy One,” Shaman said. She followed him to the center of the village, where the altar was placed. The same one where he slew her mother, but she didn’t want to think of that. He was only performing his duty.
She looked at him questioningly.
“Stand still, this won’t last long. There’s only one way to reach her, and you must be prepared for it,” he whispered to her. She nodded.
Wingy tried not to scream when he broke the main bones of her wings. She glanced at him in shock and pain, only to see him fighting back his tears.
“Can you walk?” he whispered to her. She nodded again.
“Follow me, Holy One,” he said. She did as she was told, not knowing what to think. How was she to fly now? But then, the Shaman certainly knew what he was doing.
She thought she got a glimpse of her sister and father in the crowd, but couldn’t tell for sure.
They arrived to the cliff. Shaman motioned to her to stand at the edge. He was in front of the crowd, his back turned to them.
“I’m sorry,” he mouthed.
“Will you fly for us now, Holy One?” he asked. She could see tears in his eyes now.
Suddenly, she understood. She looked again at Shaman. He seemed older now, much older, and she remembered the boy he was training. There will be a new Shaman soon, she thought.
“I will fly for you, and I’ll tell my Ancient Mother how kind you were to me,” she replied. The crowd cheered. Wingy turned and jumped.
Her fall seemed like a longest flight she ever had. Before she reached the bottom, she could clearly see white bones of a long dead dragon.