It was when the child was dying that the woman who spoke to spirits came.
It is always when children are dying that women who speak to spirits come.
They don’t knock. They scratch at the door with their ragged nails, or whistle a three-note tune outside the window. Any other children are immediately sent to bed, and the father of the house rises and ushers her inside.
“Get up,” Zobei said softly. “You know you have to let her in.”
Rin stared at the floor.
“They should wait. They should wait until they are called. Until they are asked for.”
Zobei touched his hand. “If I go, she will be insulted.”
“What difference would it make? They never help anyway.” He stood up. “I know, I know. The man opens the door. Oh, Zo.” He put his hands over his face.
“Perhaps the spirits have good news for us.”
“Have they ever?”
He went to the door. Before opening it, he took a deep breath to compose himself; he put on the expected respectful demeanor. The woman who spoke to spirits acknowledged him with a brief nod.
They always look ordinary, the women who speak to spirits. This one was dressed as if she were just heading out to the shops, with a gray shawl around her shoulders and crocheted hat with blue bobbles on her head. She carried a shiny black handbag with a metal clasp. Peering around Rin, she nodded again when she spotted Zobei.
Custom demanded that a woman who spoke to spirits be offered a seat by the fire and as much food and drink as she could get herself around. Rin led her to the hearth and gestured for her to sit. The woman who spoke to spirits glanced at him. “It’s summer. There’s no fire.”
“It’s the tradition,” Zobei said.
The woman who spoke to spirits sighed. “I know. But it wouldn’t kill people to be a little flexible about these things.”
Rin and Zobei looked at each other. Traditionally, the father was silent in the presence of a woman who spoke to spirits, but Zobei could see that Rin was very close to saying something, probably the same thing Zobei was thinking: our child is dying, and you use an expression like that? She gave Rin a little frown, and he looked away.
The woman who spoke to spirits walked to the table where Zobei was sitting. Her tread was heavy, though she was not a particularly large woman. “I’ll sit here, if you don’t mind,” she said. She pulled out the chair across from Zobei and settled herself on it, then placed the handbag on her lap.
“You’re not the one who came last time,” Zobei said.
“No. That was my sister.” She took off her hat. “I don’t know why I wore this. It’s much too hot. Sentimental reasons, I suppose.”
“I know that hat. I mean, I’ve seen it . . . ” Zobei trailed off.
“My sister’s.” She sat back and folded her hands.
Zobei caught Rin’s eye and tilted her head toward the larder. He grimaced, but acquiesced. The woman who spoke to spirits took note, nodding as he began to load a tray with meat-food and pepper-bread.
“Your sister came to our house twice,” Zobei said softly.
“And how many children do you have living?”
“Just the one.” Zobei steeled herself. “And what about your sister?”
“What about her?”
“Is she living?”
“Living.” The woman who spoke to spirits let out a short laugh. “Yes, she is living. But she has gone to dream.”
“She is asleep?”
“Her dreams are full of sleep.”
Rin, carrying the tray of food—and drink—to the table, blurted, “You mean she has gone mad.”
“Nothing of the sort. She is merely elsewhere for the time being. Where is the ill child?” She did not look at Rin, but neither did she mention the rule he had broken. As soon as he set the tray on the table, she reached for the plate of cured pork and snagged the piece with the most fat.
“The child is not ill,” Zobei said.
“Dead already, then?”
“No.” She paused, calming herself. “She was born weak. Like the others. She grows very slowly. She does not—does not move much. Other babies grasp things, kick, put things in their mouths. Turn over. Learn to crawl. She does none of these.”
“She is already in the dream.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Rin burst out.
“And the other—two?—were the same, you say.”
“Yes,” Zobei said. “The same.”
The woman who spoke to spirits took a thick slice of pepper bread, bit off a fair chunk, chewed it thoroughly, and swallowed. “All right. Enough with satisfying the old traditions. I have eaten, and as soon as the man here dips me a mug of water, I will have drunk, so that’ll be done with. Let us turn to matters of more significance.”
“Don’t tell me you don’t have any water.”
“Yes, naturally we do, but we thought—” Zobei looked at Rin, who seemed close to storming out of the room, or overturning the table, or bursting into tears.
“I know. Spirits of another sort. Frankly, I never developed a taste for them, myself. So, then, the child. Where is she?”
“In her cot,” Rin said. “Do you not see her, there? We put her by the window, so that the sun could touch her.”
The woman who spoke to spirits asked, “Is it the sun you sacrifice to, then?”
“No,” Rin said. “We . . . we don’t practice much.”
“But you thought it couldn’t hurt.”
“Can it hurt?” he snapped.
“No, of course it can’t. And I would like that water, please.”
Clamping his mouth shut, Rin stalked over to the water barrel by the door.
“Do you not mind that he is speaking to you?” Zobei ventured to ask.
“Ah, another old way. Why should men be silent? They have as much right to speak as women.”
“But the spirits do not speak to them.”
The woman who spoke to spirits shrugged. “The spirits speak all the time, but most women can’t hear them, either.”
Rin plunked a cup of water on the table. “What are the spirits saying now?”
“Oh, they sing and murmur and babble as usual. The world is full of friendly spirits, you know. But mostly they have their own concerns. You call us the women who speak to spirits, but we don’t really talk to them. We listen, and sometimes we understand.” The woman who spoke to spirits stood up and walked over to the cot. She put her hands into the sunlight. She did not touch the child. It did not seem as if she even looked at the child.
“Why do the spirits tell you to come to those whose children are dying?” Rin asked. Zobei gestured for him to hush, but he shook his head fiercely.
“They don’t tell us to, exactly. They talk about many things. Imagine . . . ” The woman who spoke to spirits gazed out of the window. “Imagine the whole town gathered in one place, with everyone talking at the same time, about hundreds of different topics. In all that noise, some words come through clearly. When we hear that a child will soon die, we come because sometimes we can help. Or we think we can.”
“Your sister couldn’t help.”
“She couldn’t help your other two children live, you mean.” The woman who spoke to spirits turned around. “Sometimes there is other help we can give.”
Zobei and Rin both lowered their eyes. “This one will die, too, then,” Rin said after a moment.
“I didn’t say that.”
“She will live?”
“I didn’t say that, either.”
“Dear god, I think I understand now why the men are meant to keep silent, serve the food, and leave the room. It’s so we won’t put our hands around your necks and wring the life out of you.”
“Rin, don’t,” Zobei said softly.
“I’m going outside. I’m sorry, Zo. I can’t—I can’t bear . . . ” He swallowed hard.
“Neither can I,” she said.
She went to him, and they held each other. “Tell her to leave,” he whispered. “You can do that.”
Zobei squeezed her eyes shut. “I don’t know.”
“The other one was not like this, was she?”
“I can hear you,” the woman who spoke to spirits said. “I have very good hearing, if I do say so myself. I’m sure my sister was not like me. She kept to the old ways, which are all well and good, until they’re not, if you know what I mean.”
“No,” Zobei said. “We don’t know what you mean. That’s the problem.”
“Your child is a beakless bird,” said the woman who spoke to spirits.
Zobei’s arms tightened around Rin; he pulled back, but did not break her hold completely. “You get out now. Get out of our house.”
“Have you not ever seen them? Down by the water’s edge, where all those green pebbles are? Perhaps not. You have to go in the spring, early in the spring, and early in the day, just as the dawn is breaking.”
“Beakless birds are evil omens.”
“No, they are not. That is more old thinking. They simply need to hatch again.”
Now Rin made a true effort to pull away from Zobei; she squeezed him hard, then harder, until he stopped. Then she let him go. “Wait,” she said to him, and to the woman who spoke to spirits, she said, “What are you trying to tell us?”
“The birds know. The mother birds. Possibly the fathers as well. It is hard to tell. The male birds sing while the female birds build the second nest.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The second nest, for the second hatching.”
“She’s mad,” Rin said. “That’s all this is. The babble of a madwoman.”
Zobei shook her head. “Did the spirits tell you this, or have you seen it yourself?”
The woman who spoke to spirits smiled. “It is different with children, of course. Children are not birds.”
“What do we have to do?”
“Zo, you’re not taking any of this nonsense seriously?”
She put her hand on his arm. “My love, please. This is how they speak sometimes, in half-riddles and fragments of visions.”
“Her sister, too?”
“No, not her, but before we married, remember, my youngest brother was dying. I was there when a woman who spoke to spirits came. None of us could really understand her, until we stopped listening to the words.”
“I don’t understand any of this,” he muttered.
“The beakless birds are nudged into the new nest, and then the nest is sealed shut, with mud and clay.”
“And then?” Zobei asked.
“Ah, and then.” The woman who spoke to spirits shrugged. “The spring passes, the summer comes, the summer goes. The mother birds and perhaps the father birds guard the new nest, for if the nest is damaged, there is no third chance.”
“And if the nest stays safe?”
“When the beakless birds are ready, reformed, they peck their way out. If this happens, it happens in the fall.”
“The fall?” Rin said. “And then winter comes, and they die anyway.”
“All right,” Zobei said. “I think I understand. We need to make or find a place where the child can grow more.”
“You need to dig a hole and bury her.”
Rin shouted, “Bury her? Alive?”
“She is in the dream, the dream full of sleep. If she wakes, she will be strong.”
“How can she wake if she is buried under a mound of dirt?”
“The same way the beakless birds sometimes do, in their second nests of tightly-woven twigs and clay shells.”
“How many times have you done this?” Rin asked.
“I do nothing. It is you who must dig the hole and then keep watch.”
“How many times have you known it to work?”
“More than once. Less than always.”
“Zo. We can’t do this.”
“You can,” the woman who spoke to spirits said. “You don’t have to, but you can.”
“Where should we bury her? By the lakeside?” Zobei asked.
“No. Your garden will do. Remember, you must keep vigilant watch.”
“It is summer now. How long do we watch?”
“Perhaps until late spring. Perhaps until the winter after next summer.”
“Will you help us?”
“Haven’t I already?”
Zobei and Rin looked at each other. They held back their words for several moments. Then Rin said, “So if we do this, you will not come again.”
“I’m sure I’ll probably drop by once in a while.”
Zobei put her hands behind her back so that the woman who spoke to spirits would not see that they were shaking. “Are there charms to say? Prayers to offer? Sacrifices to make?”
“I expect so.”
“Will you guide us in these matters?”
“Naturally. That is what I am for.”
Rin made a sound in the back of his throat.
“All right,” Zobei said. “Rin, get a shovel. How deeply must we dig?”
“Until your heart tells you to stop.”
“Zo, I don’t want to do this.”
“Would you rather watch our third child die without doing anything? Without trying?”
“This way, she dies quicker.”
“This way, she has a chance.”
“You believe that?”
“Do you really, or do you just want to believe it?”
“I want to. Don’t you?”
The woman who spoke to spirits threw back her head and shouted, “So are we all! But though the risk of failure is high, the chance of success is real. The birds know. The spirits know.”
“What if something goes wrong?” Rin asked.
“What if something goes right?” Zobei murmured. She went to the cot and lifted out the child. Bones and skin and brittle, curly hair. She settled the child’s head against her shoulder, then began to rock her gently. The child did not respond, not even with a whimper or a feeble kick.
They had not even given her a name yet.
“Go dig,” she said. She went back to the table, where the spread of food and drink still lay, nearly untouched. She sat down, the child on her lap. Rin stared at her. And then, silently, he went left the house.
Zobei said, “What if she comes out, next summer, or in the winter after that, like a bird? With a beak. With wings? What if she flies away from us?”
“Oh, wouldn’t that be a marvelous thing to see,” said the woman who spoke to spirits. She sat down at the table as well and helped herself to another piece of cured pork.
Zobei was about to snap that no, indeed it would not be, but then she thought again. Better a child with wings and a beak, better a child that flew away, than one who never grew, who wasted away and died. Yes, it had to be better. “It isn’t likely, though, is it?” she asked, stroking her daughter’s brittle hair.
“That’s why it would be marvelous.”
“I have never heard spirits.”
“As I said, most people don’t.”
“I have never seen beakless birds.”
“Are you sure?”
Zobei thought. “Perhaps once. But I never saw them hatch again. And I never saw you before today.”
The woman who spoke to spirits smiled. “Nor I you.”
“My child has no name,” Zobei said. “Do you think we did wrong?”
“By not naming her? No. That can wait.”
“But if she dies . . . she dies nameless.”
“And if she lives, you can give her a dozen names.” The woman who spoke to spirits picked up her handbag. “Come on. I would wager your man has dug down far enough by now.”
Zobei didn’t move. “I know I said—I know I told him to do it. But how can we put her in the ground, breathing?”
“Because you know what will happen if you do not.”
“Tell me. Truly. When we cover her will earth, we will smother her. Today is the day she dies.”
The woman who spoke to spirits stood up. “Truly, I tell you, I do not know. I know what they say about people like my sister, people like me. They say, It is always when children are dying that those women come. But that is not true. Sometimes we come when children are going to live. I have no other answers to give you.”
Zobei bowed her head. “You gave me more than I expected.” Slowly, she stood up. “You said the spirits are friendly.”
“Oh, many, many of them.”
“And some are not?”
“Ah. Well. There are always exceptions.”
“We will have to wait so long. A year or more.”
“It will kill us.”
“It won’t, unless you let it.”
Zobei said, “Your tongue is too quick.” She touched her chin to the top of her daughter’s head.
“I suspect you’re right. It’s probably because I mostly talk to myself. Come along. Would you leave your man waiting in the garden, staring at a hole in the ground?”
“Your tongue is also cruel.”
The woman who spoke to spirits asked, “What became of your youngest brother?”
Softly, Zobei said, “He lived.”
“Ah. Yes, sometimes they do.”
They went into the garden. Rin cried when they buried the child, and then he returned to the kitchen and drank all the strong drink in the house. Zobei did not. She did not cry; neither did she drink. She sat in the garden all night. The woman who spoke to spirits sat with her for an hour or so, and then said she had other places to go, other people to see.
That was nearly a year ago. Zobei and Rin have watched diligently. Rin got drunk only that first time. The woman who speaks to spirits visits them every few weeks. Zobei and Rin have not died from the waiting and the watching, though they have grown quiet and rarely touch each other. When the woman who speaks with spirits comes, she tells stories that have no clear ending.
In these modern times, many folks say that when a woman who speaks to spirits comes, it is better not to let her in.
They say this, but no one really knows what the right thing to do is. Perhaps if we could hear the friendly spirits more clearly, we would understand more. This could happen. There was a time when no one at all could hear spirits. It is possible that one day everyone will be able to, and from confusion, clarity will emerge. Until then, we struggle with uncertainty, as our mothers—and fathers—have before us.
When children are dying, women who speak to spirits come, and talk about beakless birds and whistling trees and wishing sand and dreams full of sleep and flakes of snow that fall in summer and burn the tiny demons that dance in the dust motes. We have all heard these things and a thousand more like them, for there isn’t a family in the world that has never had a child die.
Soon Rin and Zobei will dig again, uncover what they buried, and discover if their beakless bird has grown into a child who can live to become a woman.
We watch and wait, too. We tend our own children, and hope that a woman who speaks to spirits never comes scratching on our doors. But when one does, we seat her at the hearth and fill her with food and drink, and in the end we do what she says, because while many things can and do go wrong, once in a while, or perhaps a tad more often, some things do go right.