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We Speak with the Raven Men

Alexis A. Hunter is a speculative fiction writer in possession of a superbly shaped skull. When she's not writing, she can usually be found playing entirely too much Dungeons & Dragons or delving into the art world. Her stories have appeared in magazines such as Fireside Fiction, Shimmer, and Apex, among others. To learn more, visit lex-hunter.com or follow her on Twitter (@alexisahunter).

I am almost fourteen years old the day I kill my grandmother.
In Ravida, the people do not speak. The village is silent--save for the raspy voices of the raven men and the cheery tones of children too young to have lost their speech.
They say we lost our songs when the raven men came. I do not know if this is true. I am thirteen and I use my voice while I can, but I know no songs. I make my own as I tend the garden behind my grandmother's house. Herb fronds tickle my bare ankles and I sing to them. The sun smiles at me, and I bend notes to honor her.
I hear Grandmother's step behind me too late, and stop mid-note. Muscles tense, body crouched, I turn to see her standing in the doorway of our hovel. She scolds me. Or her face does--eyes screaming and teeth clenched, while her raven tempers this anger with gentler words.
"Siene, you know how the songs hurt us."
He has a raspy voice. They all do, but his is always a whisper. Perched on my grandmother's scratchy dress, he has the blue-black feathers of a raven, a razor-sharp, elongated beak. His eyes look human, though oddly set on either side of his avian head. And though I cannot see them, I know that under his wings are his arms, pale with goosepimpled flesh and small, scrabbling fingers.
"I'm sorry, Grandmother," I say.
"It is forgiven," says her raven man. But she shakes her head to the contrary.
In Ravida, a woman's heart and a woman's raven can say two completely different things.
As my thirteenth year nears its end, Grandmother becomes increasingly angry. Somehow, her raven becomes increasingly sweeter. This doesn't help her state. One morning, I burn the porridge and she hurls her cup at me. It shatters against the wall.
Hela cries out behind me.
Before she can speak with further violence, I grab my little sister and hurry her out into the early light of the spring suns.
Hela is only eight years old and she hasn't yet had to weather the things I have had to endure. She is small and mousey and cries a lot. I don't hold this against her. It makes my heart ache, but I don't begrudge her that pain.
"Why does she hate us so?" Hela asks, wiping her face as we make for the mushroom copse beyond the forest, beyond Ravida.
"She doesn't hate us," I say. This half-truth feels heavy on my shoulder. I shudder.
Before Hela can ask more difficult questions, I teach her a new song. It is a song of mushrooms as we gather them in baskets. We are far from the village, from the stench of manure and sweat. The sunlight filtering through the trees dapples our skin as we sing and work.
Until I hear a step behind us.
Mharga, the village healer, stands at the edge of the maze of mushrooms. Her raven's beady human eyes spit fire and his feathers ruffle up; he looks massive perched on sweet Mharga's shoulder.
"Shut those little mouths," he scrapes.
Mharga has tears in her eyes. I do, too.
I rub my shoulder. Prematurely, it aches for a weight I know is coming. On the morning of my fourteenth birthday, I will wake to find a raven on my windowsill. His feathers will gleam blue-black in the morning light and the moment our eyes meet, he will steal my voice.
I will gasp, I will try to cry out--but no words will come.
This is what it means to be a person in Ravida.
I try to understand my grandmother's anger. I know my parents were taken from her. I do not know who is to blame. She will not speak of it.
Her raven man does. A little.
When she sleeps, he will sometimes whisper to me, his voice lower than normal. He tells me my parents would not lose their voices. They refused. I did not know that was something a person could do.
When I say this, he cocks his head. "It is not wise."
If it was, I suppose they would still be here. Hela is lucky that she cannot remember their faces. But I do. How soft with love their eyes would go when they held me. How they encouraged me to sing.
When I confide this to Grandmother's raven man, his little head bows. "I know," he whispers. "I remember."
The night is late, a week before the day I will lose my voice. Hela sleeps in a pile of blankets, curled up by the hearth. My heart feels heavy. There are so many songs left to sing and so little time to do so.
When Grandmother falls asleep in her rocker, hands tangled in her knitting, her raven man whispers, "She will sell Hela to the Navean traders in two weeks."
I almost miss the words for the crackle of the fire. I lean forward on my hard, narrow bench. My voice catches in my throat and I struggle against their pressure. "What? She can't--"
"She thinks the child will be happier this way. She will work for her freedom, but she will never lose--" The raven stops and glances at my throat.
I stare at sleeping Hela. My little pale flower. My truest friend.
How can I lose her?
How can anyone blame me for what follows?
Hela weeps when I tell her what Grandmother plans. She clutches me in our dark, narrow bed.
"But sister, I cannot!"
I am torn. I could fight. I could take her away into the wilds. But what hope would there be of survival? Anger burns through me and I pinch the tender skin of my arm. If I were bigger, if I were older--I would fight them all for her.
But our parents were grown. And even they could not break free. Not on their own.
But I know with a sudden ferocious certainty: Hela deserves a choice. I carefully explain what both paths entail: that she would have to work for her freedom. That she would keep her voice forever and sing to the end of her days, and to her children if ever she had them.
In the end, her grip on my sleeve does not relent.
"No, Siene, no. I would choose to stay with you."
"Even if you lose your voice?" I ask, and mine cracks.
"Even though," she whispers.
She cries awhile longer, her face tucked against my shoulder. I hold her and sing softly so Grandmother cannot hear in the next room. But there's a scrape of wings, a shadow moving in the dark, and I know that her raven man is listening.
My heart beats like a wild thing in my chest.
Tomorrow, I will lose my voice. Tonight, I will kill my grandmother.
She lies vulnerable on her bed, tangled in blankets made by her father and her father's mother. The raven perches on her headrest. His eyes watch me. He lifts a wing, extends a hand, silently saying stop. I do not like seeing the human parts of him and I shudder.
But I do not stop.
Until I am right beside her, watching her chest rattle and fall. I count all the bruises hiding under my clothing. I think of Hela and the choice I must make to protect her own.
I raise the knife and--
"Don't," he whispers.
I hesitate.
He hops closer. "Let me do it."
"Why would you do that?"
He cocks his head. "They will know it is you. They will take you away."
A pause. "And?"
He shakes his head. "None of us can sing. I think... you could teach me."
He is not like the others. Or maybe he was, but he is changing. Hope flickers in my chest, a tender hope that I cling to even as I give in to my fate.
I do not know if this is right. I do not know if it is wise. I am almost fourteen and I am killing my grandmother with a nod.
She does not cry out when his beak stabs deep, deep into her chest.
It is the morning of my fourteenth birthday and I wake to find my grandmother's raven on my windowsill. His feathers gleam blue-black in the morning light and the moment our eyes meet, he takes my voice.
Hela snuggles beside me, safe and warm.
I do not cry out, for no words would come from my tongue. This is the bargain I made, not merely the one they handed down.
This is what it means to be me in Ravida.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, May 22nd, 2020

Author Comments

One of the things I really wanted to do with this story was to play around with complexities, shades of gray. Initially the raven man in this story was meant to be a kind soul, a sort of savior, not like the others. But that was too simple, too easy. The same with the abusive grandmother. I think she really wanted Hela to get away from this life she herself hated so much. Not that that excuses ANY of her deeds. While Siene is hopeful about her new raven man's heart, hopes he's different, changing, the truth may not be so simple.

- Alexis Ann Hunter
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