Once Upon A Time: The Window

A painting in the Rila Monastery in Bulgaria, ...

A painting in the Rila Monastery in Bulgaria, condemning witchcraft and traditional folk magic (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(Panned for not being a really happy ending. I thought it was. Also contains innuendo and some witchy references.)

Once upon a time there was a window. It was high on an attic wall, and when she looked out Serena could just see a bit of green below the sky. Mostly she saw the clouds, and occasionally the sun. Sometimes the bright sunlight would shine right through the window and wake her up. But mostly it was grey and overcast.
The mornings the sunlight came in the window were fewer and fewer these days, as Serena had reached an age where she was awakened before dawn by a pounding on the floor under her head. She’d grab her dress and sandals and slip them on as fast as she could, then slip down the ladder to the attic and try to get a moment at the water basin to wash her face before she came downstairs. Then she had to make the food for everyone, thick gloppy porridge that she had to stand on a stool to stir with a great wooden spoon.
Serena did her best, but the porridge was horribly sticky and she usually ended up eating any burned bits once everyone else had eaten and she was left to scrub out the great pot. She didn’t mind terribly, because the burned bits crunched between her teeth and gave her a black smile that kept everyone else at a distance. They would look at her and cross themselves, talking in low voices about the crazy girl in the attic and her loco mother that they had down at the convent.
Then Serena would dance and sing while she cleaned up the pile of dirty dishes. Every day it seemed to get higher, and took her a couple of hours to get clean and dry and stacked back on the shelf. By that time it was time to start cooking lunch, great pieces of fatty meat, steaming rice, and a bubbling cauldron of beans that could burn you if you weren’t careful.

Serena had burns all along her forearms, because her dress wasn’t long enough to cover them anymore. The field hands whispered that she had the plague and would infect them all, but they ate the food just the same. Serena got some grease from the meat poured over the rice at the bottom of the pot. The rice was crunchy, too, but Serena rarely burned it. When she ate the meat grease, she would smear it across her face and up into her hair to make it wild and strange. It pleased her that the field hands shied away from her, because she didn’t like them. They were loud and drank too much, and she preferred to listen to the trees and the birds when she could get outside.
After lunch, Serena shuffled her feet to a music only she could hear while she cleaned the dishes again. For dinner, she put on more beans, and left a pot of rice to simmer at the edge of the stove. Sometimes it burned, but mostly it did not. Then Serena would slip out into the woods at the back of the kitchen. She would walk barefoot on the pine needles, and rub her face against the rough bark. Serena missed her mother, who had cooked before her, making great quantities of food for the men on the farm. They said that her mother had gone crazy, but Serena knew her mother had just worn out after years of too much work and finally just started shouting at the men and waving a knife until they bundled her off. The convent had taken her, but her mother couldn’t have her daughter with her. So Serena had to stay and if she stayed she had to work.
Before she left the woods, Serena dipped her fingers in pine sap and smelled them. She daubed a little pine sap on her filthy dress, the only one she owned. It smelled so good. Then she walked quietly back into the kitchen, where the rice hadn’t burned yet.
One of the farm hands was there, dipping his fingers into the hot beans. “Out,” said Serena. She knew he wasn’t supposed to be there. His fellows had probably sent him back for water, but he’d decided he could get a snack.
The farm hand grinned at her. She smiled back with her black teeth and wild hair, and his grin faltered. “Get out or I’ll put the eye on you,” Serena hissed. The farm hand grabbed his hat and headed back out the front. Serena laughed and danced for herself.
After dinner, Serena sang softly while she cleaned the pots for a third time. Then, while the men laughed in the common room before heading out to the bunk house, Serena slipped away upstairs to her room. The stars were there to greet her outside her window, and later on the moon should make its course across the window, from sill to sill, silently glowing for her pleasure.
Tonight things smelled different. Serena could feel the creak of the house, the shifting of timbers as they cooled from the sun’s heat. She sat up, looking out the window. A prickle ran along her arms and she thought she heard a cautious tread downstairs. But in this house it was almost impossible to be silent. She listened some more, and then lay down again. Another creak, nearer her ladder.
Serena rolled out of bed, silent as a cat, and crept to the window. She could just reach the lower sill, and she knew the window was old, but it still might bear her weight. Slowly she pulled herself up with arms made tough from wielding pots on the stove. Very slowly she eased open the window, inch by inch, until there was enough room for her to slip out. As soon as she was out, she inched the window closed again. The window was high off the ground, but Serena was near the roof and she put one foot over the side of the stucco before pulling herself up onto the roof. Once there she crouched, feeling the cool breeze on her skin, watching the stars. Inside her room she heard two men talking in loud whispers. One of them was praying and the other man was cursing him. She smiled. She knew both of those voices. They were the ones who feared her the most, so it would be easy to scare them. She hung over the side of the roof, so that only her head was visible in the top of the window. Then she gave out a shriek that they would hear over at the bunk house. Inside the dark attic room, she could hear the men scream and one of them fall down the attic ladder. The other man was blubbering and praying to himself. She heard him half-fall down the ladder, and then try to drag his friend away.
Quick as she could, Serena slipped down onto the window sill. She could hear the bunk house stirring, and someone had lit a lantern. The two men downstairs were making enough noise she wasn’t troubled with the noise of the window. She slid it up and slipped inside, closing it behind her. Then she cuddled up in her little rag of a blanket. It was perhaps twenty minutes before the men downstairs got enough of the story out of the two to come looking. One of them poked a lantern up into the attic before following it with his fearful eyes.
Serena yawned and asked: “is it morning already?” “No,” said the man. “Go back to sleep, please.” Serena smiled. The please meant that for a while they would all be on their best behavior and might even leave her some unburned porridge at the bottom of the pot. But she still liked the crunchy burned stuff best. On Sunday she’d go visit her mother in the convent and tell her the story and laugh. Maybe she’d get her mother to help her make the little dolls of the men that they feared so much.

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