September 30, 2019

DEATHLESS by Karina Steffens

I have no use for Death,
not anymore;
there is a better way to mend a broken heart...
I hold the bone needle between finger and thumb. A slender, fragile thing. It looks so delicate, unlike the bone from which I carved it. Unlike my trembling, clumsy hands. How easy it would be to place another finger on the tip, right there, and press –

You are a fool, Koschei!

I snatch my hand away in time. What devil filled me with the urge to break it, destroy the needle and my only chance? When have these second thoughts crept in, this sentimental death-wish? It is absurd and dangerous and far too late.

Some men build fortresses around their hearts; others drown them in strong spirits or Rusalka lakes. Such maudlin, humdrum ways to drive away the pain. No, in my quest for death, I served a year as herdsman to the witch's steeds. Each night, I took Baba Yaga’s horses out to pasture beyond Smorodina, the fire river. Each time we crossed Kalinov Bridge, I waited for my Death – and yet she spurned me too.

Knowledge came instead.

I have no use for Death, not anymore; there is a better way to mend a broken heart.

My breath slows down until I hear each drop of water trickle down the cavern's roof. A mass of bedrock hides me from the surface, but not for long. Above me, in a Thrice-ninth Tsardom, a hut on chicken legs lumbers through the forest, sniffing at my trail.

Between its crooked walls, on top of a Russian brick oven, Baba Yaga whets iron teeth and spits the shavings to the floor. Her nostrils quiver at the lingering stench of mortal spirit: that thieving sorcerer, Koschei.

But I have left a deeper mark behind than just my smell.

Right there, under the sarafan, on the old witch's leg; her left leg, the skeletal one. Her finger dips into an ointment and traces the gash where a sliver of shinbone has been chiselled away.

This she will not forgive before the sun has blackened in the sky.

Soon, when the bony-leg has healed, Baba Yaga will mount her mortar, steered with a pestle and a broom, and find the culprit. Ooh, but she will crunch the villain's bones until he begs for death!

For now, the hut on chicken legs hunts in the forest. And while I stand here in this grotto, listening to echoes of self-doubt, my scent uncoils ahead of it like a ball of twine.
I hold the bone needle between finger and thumb. My hand is steady as I aim it at my ribs.

A flash of darkness on the edge, an icy bite against my chest. The needle plunges through layers of skin, muscle, and bone, until it finds my heart and eats it raw.

Pain is first to come and will be last to leave. The rest of them come rushing out. Compassion, passion, rage: everything must go. Love. All the tiny particles of life blaze briefly as they pass. Hope. They flee into the needle like a frightened school of herring.

My mouth waters at the idea of salted fish, washed down with a fiery shot of vodka. The thought escapes into the needle, leaving a taste of ashes in its wake. And I know in my bones that I will never savour food again. What use are the flavours of life to one who has no Death?

I hide the needle in an egg, the egg in a duck, the duck in a hare, the hare in an iron chest. I bind the chest in chains and bury deep among the roots of an oak tree on the lost Island of Buyan.

Baba Yaga may sharpen every single tooth, but I no longer fear her. The witch will never find my Death.

My hair has bleached to ivory, my skin has withered to the bone, but immortality is a small price to pay. Or was it the other way around?

And my heart? It is no longer broken. You simply cannot break a thing that isn't there.

Now, what can one do to fill eternity? Perhaps take up collecting: gold, young maidens, power? Oh, I will think of something, given time.
 
Karina Steffens began her love affair with fairy tales as a young girl in Soviet Ukraine, quoting Pushkin at anyone who'd listen. It followed her to Jerusalem, where she picked up a degree in Journalism, and to Dublin, where she consults as a web designer and writes SFF. Her work has appeared in Gathering Storm and Empyreome.
Find her on Twitter @KarinaSteffens.

Cover: Amanda Bergloff @AmandaBergloff

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