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Songs of Bathsheba Evergreen

Gretchen Tessmer is a writer based in the U.S./Canadian borderlands. She writes both short fiction and poetry, with work appearing in such venues as Nature, Strange Horizons, Cast of Wonders, Bourbon Penn, Kaleidotrope,and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, as well as previous appearances in Daily Science Fiction.

...wrap my heart in birch bark
my skin scarred
in black-and-white calligraphy...
In spring, while wet snow still clings to my boughs and frost nips at my roots, a man in rags comes by to ask if he might cut me. The knife in his hand is small and in need of a whetstone.
"Just a scratch while the sap runs hot, my lady?" he begs.
"What's a scratch?" I muse, coming to the bark between us, letting my hand come up to melt the latticed ice patterns to better mark his desperate face.
"A thimble?" he swallows hard. "Two, if you can spare it? My children are starving...."
"Your queen's made a crime of this sort of thing," I warn him. "Are you sure you want to risk it?"
"Yes, my lady," the man nods, eagerly. Oh, he's more than desperate. I wonder if his children are sleeping right now, huddled together under threadbare blankets, or if they're up, crying with hunger. This winter's been harder than most.
He grips the hilt of his sad, little knife in a way that says he'd risk much more than this. He'd do nearly anything to see his children survive.
I give him his thimblefuls and send him on his way.
...bathe my heart in ash and water
a lye to wash the blood right out
a lie...
Not long after, the queen sends her favorite knight--he protects her heart, as well as her crown--to scold me and tell me not to do it again. Matthew says she'll give me one last chance before she sends woodsmen into the forest with axes.
"And how is my sister, sir?" I ask him, once he's finished delivering those empty threats. Emmeline could no more cut me down for firewood than she could give up her pursuit of living a life beyond branch and leaf. She just wants to forget me, that's all. She wants to forget the old ways and where she comes from.
"Tired," Matthew replies, too honestly, running a hand through his ash-blond hair. He's fretting and I wonder...
In late summer, songbirds bring me news from the castle. Emmeline is to have a baby.
...brace my heart in oak and elm
I mustn't bow, I mustn't bend
no weeping willow will I be
when, at last, she makes amends...
Emmeline comes to me in autumn. Alone, desperate. I smell new life growing in her womb, seeded strongly, scent mulched by earthy foliage.
"What do you want, Emmeline?" I mutter, crossing the divide between worlds, crawling out of my roots to meet her face-to-face. How tired she looks! Matthew was right. This child's life drains her own, and it's no wonder.
Dryads can't bear children without sap. She knows this. She was reckless to try.
"I need your help," she replies, in a voice that doesn't sound much like a queen. Too uncertain, too lost, her chestnut-brown eyes showing fear.
"You can transform anytime you like," I remind her. "You're the one who won't do it."
"I can't," she admits, in a halting voice, eyes brimming. "I didn't just leave the roots. I...I had the mage cut them off clean. Bathsheba, please..."
She cut them? What possessed her to do something so drastic? So lasting? Did she hate who she was before so much? The anger in my breast turns to pity and sorrow. It burns like nettles, it stings like thorns.
She's treated me poorly but she'll die if I don't help her. The baby too--my niece.
I take a dagger from a sheath of bark and cut my wrist. I let my sister drink directly from my vein.
...drape my bones in feathered snow
my heart is spruce and pine
for never were we torn apart
and ever were you mine...
Oh, perhaps Emmeline's tears were put on. For she never came back, not once after her baby was born.
She pretends that I don't exist, I know, and still has her many edicts against the old ways. It's self-preservation. To remember is to regret.
Finches nest in my branches all winter, fluffing up their pale pink and rose-violet feathers. They greet the little girl who enters my grove with curiosity. She's curious too, charmed by their vibrant colors and pretty songs, following their flight until she's brought so close to me that I might reach beyond the bark and stroke her ash-blonde hair.
I don't tell her I'm there. I respect my sister's wishes, even if I'll never understand them. I expect it's her father who brings her here, as Emmeline must have told him what she did to save the child. I think it's Matthew's way of thanking me, knowing my sister will not.
But Emmeline's roots are regrowing, even if she doesn't know it.
I grin as I watch my niece twirl in the winter grove, her tongue catching crystal snowflakes, her little palms slathered in pine pitch.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, September 5th, 2022

Author Comments

Here's another story that started life as a Codex Weekend Warrior entry (Vylar Kaftan's prompts are actual magic, I can't stress this enough <3) and I'm so happy it's found a home at DSF. I'm primarily a poet so Bathsheba's "songs" breezed into my head first, with the story growing, like branch and leaf, from those first verses. Also, raise your hand if you used to write poems and stories on birch bark as a kid. Good times :)

- Gretchen Tessmer
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