Valravn (excerpt from a current work-in-progress)

By Chandler Klang Smith

A different wood; a different moon. This is the early moon, crescent as a fingernail, snagged in the silk of the still-pale sky. Barely dawn, when these sisters enter the wood with their snail buckets.

I will gift them names: Ivy and Sweetbriar. Ivy is the prim, plain older sister, the keeper of wisdom. Sweetbriar is the fanciful, feral one, sheltered under her protection. Pairs of sisters in stories tend to be these types, I’ve noticed. One sense and one sensibility, as it were. One serious, law-abiding, scientific or religious – the other a madcap dreamer. Perhaps sisters naturally tend to arrive in sets of two, like seasoning shakers: paragon and renegade, preservative and spice. Complementary flavors, the two varieties of female success.

“Sister,” whispers cherubic Sweetbriar, rosy-cheeked in the chill of the morning dew, still rubbing her eyes awake, “do you really think we can slay the Valravn?”

Ivy consults her compass, checks the dagger on her belt. “I believe it is our duty,” she affirms. Solemn as a salt pillar beneath her hooded cloak, even as she refuses to look back.

*

The sisters live in a village at the edge of the wood. Their father is the milkman and their mother is the cheesemaker. They spend cool evenings by the fire in the big room of their simple stone cottage. Ivy steadily knits while Sweetbriar rolls yarn balls for their kitten, or tries to stand on her head, or clumsily plucks the lyre and sings, for many verses, songs she makes up on the spot all by herself. This is the first adventure they’ve gone on.

It is out of the ordinary, the quest of two young girls to slay the Valravn. But sometimes a bold child must step up to address what the adults will not.

*

Since long before the sisters’ conceptions, the people of the village have made a yearly sacrifice to the Valravn. It used to be the heart of a stag. Then it was the heart of a horse. For the last three years, it has been the heart of a human being, selected by raffle at the festival. The Valravn craving ever more from their community’s lifeblood, a beloved soul hell-banished each time. They never went willingly, not when their number was called, not the blacksmith, nor the schoolmaster, nor the tavern’s proprietress. Every chosen villager cursed and screamed and begged for their lives. The Valravn, the community’s captor – but also, the elders maintain, their benefactor, bestowing riches not of this world, filling their wells with healing elixir, fecundifying their soil and their barnyards.

Well. These two sisters have their own opinions about that. They work their chores. They fill their snail buckets. They know where the riches of these households come from.

*

The Valravn is half-wolf, half-raven. He stands on two vulpine legs like a human man and his pelt bristles with thick black feathers. He lives in a cave with all of human history painted on its walls in arcane symbols. His beak drips blood.

He sears the hearts before he eats them, so the flesh cracks and blisters and the inside gleams back to life.

*

The girls walk through the cool of the morning into the heat of the day. By noon, Ivy carries Sweetbriar’s cloak and slippers as the latter wades in a babbling brook.

“I’m hungry, Sister,” Sweetbriar says, outstretching her arms to balance on the wet stones.

“We should not stop to eat, not till weakness claims us. We have just begun our journey.”

“It’s hard to have adventures on an empty stomach.”

“We eat none but what the Valravn gives us,” Ivy replies firmly. “Every mouthful we take before he lies slain, the deeper we sink into his debt.”

“But Sister, you don’t believe what the elders say. The Valravn doesn’t give anything to anybody. He only takes.”

“What the Valravn gives, consumes more than it provides. But nothing – we should wish it was nothing.”

“Then how come you told me the Valravn never gave the village a single thing we needed?”

“Because the Valravn doesn’t give the people what they need. He gives his acolytes what they want.” Ivy pauses to toss back the hood of her cloak and drink water from her leather flask. If Sweetbriar is unmistakably puppyish, Ivy is so slight and inscrutable, it would be hard for a stranger to guess her age. In her, youth is a kind of blankness. A stealth mode. “I didn’t tell you this, little one, but when I delivered cheese to the mayor’s house, the mayor’s wife – the chooser of hearts herself – invited me in out of the rain. I saw that she wore around her neck a curious new stone. Though the day was dark, it glimmered like a firefly. Like trapped magic.” Ivy refills her flask from the spring. “The Valravn gives presents to his favorites. That is why they do not keep him in check.”

“But we don’t owe him anything. We would never take his bribes.”

“Perhaps we would not. But our father has.”

Sweetbriar stops splashing her feet in the current, looks up in disbelief. “No.”

“Do you remember when Cow took ill past midnight? Lowed and lowed, and would not stand?”

“I would remember, but I was sent back to bed.”

“That night, when all other remedies had failed, Father pricked Cow with a silver spindle and Cow calmed enough to birth the stillborn calf feet first. The calf we ate in stew for a fortnight.” Ivy grows pensive, remembering. “It was not a spindle I had ever seen before.”

“But it was a good thing, for Cow to live. We eat her cheese.”

“Is it a good thing, if it’s gotten in an evil way?” Scolding: “Sweetbriar.”

The child sighs and recites. “‘Nothing is good / that is not right. / What’s done in dark / will come to light.’”

 Ivy smiles, slightly. She may be the one driving this mission. But she knows she’d never be able to actually complete it without her little sister.

*

They won’t be missed for hours, not until dark. The forest is where they’re supposed to be. The forest, their parents like to say, is their education. The sisters spend most days combing the woods for snails, turning over every leaf. Some of the snails are food, and some of them are medicine, but the snails in this wood are not poisonous. Poisons do not grow in this forest. Not yet. The Valravn has arrived but there is still time before terror begins to bend the world around it.

Innocence is still possible.

*

Ivy has obtained a map of the Valravn’s location, a map written in burn marks on hide. She will not tell Sweetbriar where she got it, and in truth, Sweetbriar does not wish to know. Ivy always finishes the worst tasks alone – it is the curse of the elder sister.

A map like this does not come from a happy place. It smells of musk and ash that stains both girls’ fingers as they pour over it in a clearing, trying to find their way back to the path. The sky has turned overcast.

“Perhaps we should have turned left, at Dubious Rock,” Ivy frets. “We may have to retrace our steps.”

This is the sort of map that requires a legend to define its symbols – it bears scant resemblance to the wood in which they stand. Sweetbriar can make no sense of it at all. But she wants to seem grown-up enough to merit consultation. “Which way does the compass say?”

Ivy takes the compass from her cloak and opens it for her sister. “Oh no.”

Ivy sets it on a nearby tree stump, and together the girls watch the fine needle spin: first left, then right. Then in steady ticks, counterclockwise. Sweetbriar does not remember what this means. But Ivy does.

“Aunt Hither-Thither,” she calls into the dark wood. “We know you’re near!”

The spaces between the trees Escher into the trees themselves, grow dark as shadows on a velvet curtain. The air itself parts like a splitting cocoon.

Their mother’s younger sister – though she looks far older – springs forth in frizzy braids with gaps in her smile, wearing the old, ragged skin of a cinnamon bear, leaning hard on her burl staff with its knob of riven quartz. Her hat Hygrocybe conica, a mushroom best left among the snail slime and rotten logs.

“My babies!” she shrieks. Half cackle, half laying claim. “You scrumptious hunks of my sister’s heart!”

*

Aunt Hither-Thither, their mother’s sister, used to live in the village. She brewed elixirs in her cauldron, wore heavy lanyards of drying herb. She allowed skunklings to nest in her root cellar, and harvested their scent for bear deterrent she sold to the local foragers. Imagine that: a woman, unwed and unwashed, in her own filthy house, expressing the scent of a skunk for gold.

Yet all of it was allowed. Aunt Hither-Thither was only expelled from the village because she began, covertly, to sell her potions in bulk to some of the housewives, to allow them to become home merchants of her goods – “sorceresses-in-training” was the expression that drew the most horror and ire – and, when exposed, refused to apologize for doing so. She would either have her coven, or she would make her way alone. The housewives stood, dead-eyed, by their husbands.

She made her way alone.

Sweetbriar was a babe-in-arms when Aunt Hither-Thither departed in disgrace. But Ivy remembers. She has thought about her aunt much over the years. Her aunt was powerful, yet she squandered that power to prove a point. She left the village, she did not steer it. She never faced the Valravn.

*

“We don’t need your help,” Ivy tells the old witch. “Sweetbriar, let’s go.”

“Hogwash.” Aunt Hither-Thither is more amused than annoyed. “What brings you to my neck of the woods?”

“It’s nobody’s neck,” Sweetbriar retorts. “We’re on a quest.”

“A quest, huh? And maybe you thought you could swing by my place, pick up some enchanted gear? Some advice?”

“We’re only here because we were lost. Fortunately I’ve found the way again.” Ivy rolls up the map but not before Aunt Hither-Thither catches a glimpse. She tries to snatch it but Ivy is too quick.

“Kiddo.” Now serious as a heart attack: “Is that a page of the Dead Law Atlas?”

“So what if it is?” Ivy lets her voice go cold and unbothered.

“You’re in over your head, which isn’t screwed on properly, either.”

“I know what I have to do. I know the prophecy.”

The aunt’s expression grows stormier. “What do you know of the prophecy?”

“I know only a child of the village can slay the Valravn.”

“And what makes you think you’re that child?”

“Maybe it’s me,” foreshadows plucky Sweetbriar. They both ignore her.

“This isn’t make-believe,” Aunt Hither-Thither continues. “There won’t be a trail of breadcrumbs to lead you back. Are you really willing to do what’s necessary?”

Ivy doesn’t flinch: “How do you think I got the map?”

“There’s more to the prophecy than you know. Much more.” Aunt Hither-Thither scratches a chin bristle, thoughtfully. “The three of us ought to talk.”

*

Why did the other women join Aunt Hither-Thither’s coven in the first place, you might ask? Stooped even in youth, with her garb of rags and owlish unibrow, Aunt Hither-Thither was not a likely aspirational figure. And yet it was this very unlikelihood that did make her aspirational. It took a special certainty to commit so wholly to unholiness. To squat down in nature’s armpit and scrounge around for the secrets.

The housewives wanted to know the things she knew, but they didn’t want to make the same sacrifices to know them. Ivy doesn’t care about sacrifices. She’s ready for this. She thinks of the old song, You’ll never see me cry. She takes her younger sister’s hand and leads her through the wood, toward the witch’s hut.

*

If the forest is their education, Aunt Hither-Thither’s part of it is a book with its leaves uncut. As they walk, the sisters don’t become more lost so much as more bewildered. Why are they on this path, rather than any other? How long have the trees been spiraling upwards, into these branching convolutions, gnarled as an old crone’s hands? If they, the girls, themselves grow old – a fate not guaranteed in light of their present task – what will they become?

*

The witch’s hut isn’t a hut at all. It’s part clapboard cottage, part covered bridge. The witch has built her home over a creek that runs through the wood, a little house rudely straddling a stream.

“There’s a drain in the foundation that I use to discard waste,” she explains matter-of-factly. “Potions. Runoff from experimental fermentations. All manner of fluids. It gets in the water and the water gets in the dirt and everything that grows up out of the dirt. Soon this whole area will start to transform, no matter how the men of your village feel about it. Huh! Want to know how I know? Take a whiff on this side, where the water’s flowing in.”

The girls smell the air before it passes beneath the shanty-truss. The water smells like… water.

“Now over on this side.”

They wouldn’t have noticed the difference, but when she points it out: pickle brine and varnish? With a just little hint of brimstone?

“I’m not even home, and it’s extruding this much.” She slaps the building’s wall affectionately. “My house makes its own magic at this point. I’m that magical of a person. I feed the stream, and the stream feeds the river. And that’s why I’m well-equipped to advise you. Because I make almost as much good magic as the evil kind you’re going up against.”

*

The sisters don’t want to go inside the dripping house. You don’t either. I’m the first to admit it’s gross in there, in the lab of creation. Things writhing in jars. Roots with baby faces. Homemade glue. Menses. Even the good witches have to wrangle with what is. Any time you change what is, you produce a lot of waste. I’ll be the first to cop to that.

*

The aunt does what witches always do when they have children in their houses: she fires up her oven and puts her stew pot on to boil. Then she draws up a rocking chair at her hearth to tell them a story.

It’s a story about the Valravn. But it’s not just about the Valravn.

*

“A new time is coming into the world. The future days will be the days of magic. The kind of magic we have now, it’s a magic of unbrokenness. If you ask me, we need to crack it a little. Shake a few pieces loose. Like I said, I’m a good witch, but this is one way Beaky von Beakerson and I are alike: we’re forerunners. Making the way for something new. Did your mother ever tell you that we met him?”

“Mama met the Valravn?” Ivy, disbelieving: “Why didn’t she kill him?”

“We were in the woods looking for snails and we found him curled up asleep in a nest on the ground. Blue black quills, shiny as wet ink. Pup paws that had never touched dirt. A hatchling. Your mother was just a kid, she took mercy on him. She’s had to live with that regret.”

That explains a lot about their mother. The sisters have different theories as to exactly what.

“Maybe you’re right,” Aunt Hither-Thither continues. “Maybe you are called to do this. Held accountable for her inaction. Doesn’t seem fair to me, but I don’t know how any of this is supposed to work. I do know, though, that the Valravn, he’s not the only seed that evil has sown. There are other monsters, like him and worse. Once he’s gone they’ll step up to replace him.”

“Then we’ll replace them,” pipes up Sweetbriar. “Only, we’ll be the good monsters.”

 Aunt Hither-Thither laughs and laughs.

*

“Sweetbriar, I get the sense you’re a very young seven and a half,” Aunt Hither-Thither tells her niece. “So I’m giving you this amulet of protection. It’s a bezoar. You know what a bezoar is?”        

“No.”

“You don’t need to know.” She ties it around the child’s neck on its thick cord. “Ivy, I can tell you run headlong into danger. At least this way they won’t see you coming.” She strips off her cloak and flips it around for them to see its lining of invisibility before she hands it over.

Aunt Hither-Thither packs the girls a basket before they go: tinctures and bandages and a canteen of vegetable stew that will never run cold or dry, whose flavor she describes as “nutritional.” Then she shows them the door. Before they know it, the girls are back where they started. It feels a little like the woods swallowed them up and spit them back out.

Sisters walk in silence. Sweetbriar especially seems troubled. Her lower lip sticks out. The amulet hangs heavy around her neck.

“What’s troubling you, little one?” asks Ivy after a time.

Sweetbriar shoves her hands deep into the pockets of her dress. “If Aunt Hither-Thither’s magic is so great, how come we have to slay the Valravn alone?”

“Perhaps her magic is not so great. Or perhaps…” Ivy shrugs, only slightly. But slightly is enough. “When Mama met the Valravn, Aunt Hither-Thither was there too.”

“So?” Sweetbriar asks – but the clockwork in her head is starting to turn.

“Aunt Hither-Thither didn’t slay him either. She told us that Mama has had to live with the guilt. But she didn’t mention anything about her own guilt.”

Piecing it together: “Maybe Aunt let the Valravn live… and she isn’t even sorry about it?”

“The mayor’s wife has no sorrow for what she’s done,” Ivy elaborates. “The well-compensated rarely do. Where do you think Aunt Hither-Thither got her great stores of magic?”

“She said she made it all herself.”

“That is what she said.”

Sweetbriar hesitates.

“But…”

“But what, little one?”

“Maybe Aunt’s not sorry because it’s not her fault. Mama is the big sister. She might have decided for both of them. She might have told Aunt what to do.”

“Do you do everything I tell you to do?”

Sweetbriar scowls on command. “No.”

Ivy laughs merrily. “Oh Sweetie, you are incorrigible.”

They walk a little farther, each lost in their own thoughts. The wood now once again conforms to the murky shapes on that map of soot and hide. Ivy can see them moving along its little line, like a cursor pulsing its way to a story’s inevitable conclusion. Sweetbriar has no notion of this at all. Her thoughts are on her mother and aunt, children themselves that long-ago day they stumbled upon a pitchy nest in the woods.

What had happened when they spied the Valravn? Had it slept, and looked harmless, the way all babies do? Or did it open one yellow eye and promise them wishes – wishes with a condition only Aunt Hither-Thither was willing to accept? Suspicion gives a sick stomach to a child.

“I don’t trust her,” Sweetbriar says out loud. She struggles to untie her amulet, desperately, as if it’s a millstone around her neck.

“Sweetbriar, what are you doing?” Ivy shouts, but it’s too late. Sweetbriar chucks the bezoar as hard as she can, deep into the forest. It ricochets off a knotty tree trunk and disappears into the fallen leaves quite a ways away.

“It was part of her plan,” Sweetbriar breathlessly announces. “Her plan to stop our quest. Maybe she enchanted it to make us fail, or get scared.”

“Sweetbriar, how can you speak like that about your own aunt?” Ivy asks. But there’s something funny in the way she says it – something like pride. She’s taught her sibling well. “Go over there and look in the leaves. We need to examine it thoroughly before we jump to conclusions.”

“Okay, but this’ll just prove me right. You’ll see.”

Sweetbriar runs headlong into the forest, in the general direction of the bauble’s trajectory, her unkempt hair flying out behind her. The undergrowth is thick here, strewn with sticks and half-mulched deciduity. When her foot strikes the trap, she at first thinks it’s a branch snapping under her. Then the ground folds in – and the earth opens up – just like a room Redecorating itself.

*

What.

*

When Sweetbriar comes to, she sees her sister standing at the top of the hole, looking down at her. Silhouetted against the gloaming sky.

“Can you move?” Ivy asks.

Sweetbriar can’t even shake her head. She can feel the ooze from the crack in her skull.

“Good.” Ivy throws in a rope and begins to climb down into the hole. Despite the difficulty of the task, she carries her empty snail bucket with her. “The Valravn prefers for the heart to be cut out while it still beats.”

*

This isn’t the story I thought I was telling.

*

When Ivy climbs back out, her blade is bloodied and her bucket is full. I gave her that dagger to protect herself, but it’s not just a dagger, is it? It got changed somehow. Into a hunting knife.

Ivy doesn’t fill in the hole. She doesn’t need to. Even if you looked down there without falling in yourself – no small feat – you’d never see the child’s body under the invisibility cloak.

*

For some reason, Ivy walks through the forest with her little sister’s heart in a bucket.

Fairy tales are full of female psychopaths. The witch with the spindle. The witch with the mirror. The witch with the gingerbread house. But it’s a strange thing, to witness that psychopathy in its beginnings. Psychopathy is too kind a word, in fact, because that suggests neurodivergence and the guiltlessness a diagnosis provides. This didn’t have to happen. This happening makes no sense.

Ivy ties a red string to a bough. She’s just doing stuff at this point, as far as I’m concerned.

*

Why didn’t Aunt Hither-Thither go with the girls on their journey – Gandalf their hobbits, as it were? There’s no way she could have predicted this twist, but it was obvious enough they could use some adult supervision. Can we blame her? Should we blame her? Why is it that a woman always has to choose between her destiny, her creativity, her space – and watching the children? Even when the children aren’t her own?

The amulet protected. The invisibility cloak hid. Aunt Hither-Thither told the truth: she made the magic all by herself. No good deed goes unpunished.

*

The Valravn is only able to hyperfocus late at night. He prowls the forest with every feather quivering like an antenna, drinking up the moonbeams, until the break of dawn. Then he returns to his cave nest, where he sleeps till afternoon in a bed of branch and bone. He understands human language, but his thoughts and emotions, if you can even say he has emotions, exist outside of language. That is what makes him supernatural. There will always be animals we haven’t discovered, but a beast like the Valravn isn’t an animal and he isn’t a person either. Even when we see him with our own eyes, he doesn’t fit the logic of our realm. He remains undiscoverable. That’s what makes him a monster.

A human child has no such excuse.

*

Ivy is the villain of this piece. The villain, not the anti-hero. To make her an anti-hero, you’d have to remove every action that defines her. Strip Cruella of her furs.

*

Ivy arrives at the mouth of the Valravn’s lair, carefully sets the bucket on the stones. For crying out loud, does she plan to curtsy? When he emerges from the shadows, she mercifully does not. Maybe she’s too surprised. She has never seen a naked man before, but of course the Valravn is not a man, and perhaps not even naked. Plumage isn’t nudity, even when it covers a wolfish form.

“I’ve brought something for you,” she says, and steps back from her offering. She watches as he stoops to feed. He didn’t eat the other hearts raw. None of them were this tender. Did Ivy’s red string foretell the sight of his raptorial maxilla tearing this muscle to bloody shreds? Whoever coined the expression “eats like a bird” clearly never saw a ravenous one.

The Valravn rolls his neck and stretches back up to his full height, or at least the full height his cave will allow. He does not transform into a stygian knight, but the meal has affected some change in him, infused him with a brief magnanimity. A beastly courtesy. His yellow eyes are twin suns, suns from another galaxy, dead suns still flickering in the night sky. Wishing suns. It is time for Ivy to get her heart’s desire. What will it be? What could it be? I don’t dare to hazard a guess.

Chandler Smith

Chandler Klang Smith’s genre-bending novel The Sky Is Yours (Hogarth/Penguin RH, 2018) was listed as a best book of 2018 by The Wall Street Journal, New York Public Library, Locus, LitHub, Mental Floss, and NPR, which described it as "a wickedly satirical synthesis that underlines just how fractured our own realities can be during periods of fear, unrest, inequality and instability." Chandler has an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University. She has served twice as a juror for the Shirley Jackson Awards, worked in book publishing and as a ghostwriter, and currently teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College. 

 

Cover photo by: Oleksandr Fraze-Frazenko