When the nightmares began, General Pfeil blamed them on her retirement tea. They meant well—the soldiers under her command—but they should never have recited that stupid ditty. She’d made a career out of words and was quite good with them—not the best wordflinger her country had, but good enough to outlast the war and smart enough to keep the peace after. Trouble was, battle-ready wasn’t the same as war-kilned, and every generation had its own patter and syntax. The young soldiers probably assumed it was a harmless ribald rhyme. But words forged in battle were never harmless. And that stupid ditty was the second stanza of a longer, never-to-be-repeated offensive which won the Fall of Bittentell, turning that locale from town to boneyard.
Ever since they sang it as their farewell gesture, the words echoed in Pfeil’s head, pulling her back into her infantry days as a wordflinger. Will you go a’wintering with me / in the snow and ice and haze? / I will let you spring upon me / and summer you all of my days.
Pfeil considered herself tempered in the way of fine custards and the best swords. As she was a full-taloned general, it was clear her country agreed. For her half century of service, they gifted her with a key ring anchored by a rose-gold talon, an exaggerated epaulette embroidered with a hawk, and a first edition of The Four Stanzas of Battle by Ero Samor, which was often mistaken as an allegorical epic about war but which was actually about love. Pfeil accepted them all in the spirit they were intended, though she couldn’t help think if they understood this little about gifts, something as invisible and impermanent as a border would be beyond their ken. Which did not bode well for the future. But, as her children were fond of telling her, the future was no longer hers to shape. Her body was old and her mind shedding memories like a snake seeking rebirth. So why now were her glory days stubbornly forcing themselves upon her?
She did not believe in ghosts, but she did believe in being haunted. And then there were four. Like cardinal points. Like seasons. Close as lines in a quatrain…until Death whittled their canon some more.
It occurred to her that, all swords aside, she was the most cracked of all. No wonder she was revisiting her death-soaked youth every night and checking the sky for vultures each day.
< in your heart death lounges <<
After a life lived on its edges and frequently on the move, first battle to battle, then base to base, General Pfeil (Ret.) packed her few belongings—mostly clothes, some photographs and keepsakes, a box of medals and citations, a sonnet-encrusted sword—and moved into the heart of her country. Her children dwelled there making families and lives of their own and it seemed as likely a place to billet as any. She rented a compact bungalow equidistant from her three offspring and, at their urging, went to work rejuvenating the patch of garden in her new backyard.
On her knees, she made tiny trenches. Hid desiccated bits so the vultures couldn’t get them. The smell of freshly turned dirt filled her nose. The general’s hands shook as she dug rounded pits to drop in seeds and bulbs—graves or wombs, only time would show.
I will let you spring upon me
Pfeil’s breath seesawed wildly and she wondered if the weeding of her unwanted garden would be as traumatic as the sowing. The bark of a neighbour’s pet and its incursion into her yard had her on her feet and ready to gut the beast with a blunted trowel. This, she knew, was not the reaction of a well-adjusted gardener or a full-taloned general who’d held borders inviolate decade upon decade.
In hope of banishing the tremors and memories which besieged her as well as the stanza which hounded her, she buried The Four Stanzas of Battle in the centre of her garden under a tomato seedling, a gift from her youngest child and their family.
The dreams weren’t vanquished as easily as that. Instead, they crept into sunlight, their shadowy tendrils taking unseen hostages. Going to the store for groceries could transform from chore to incursion in enemy territory with a simple draw of breath. She started collecting sticks along her daily patrols of the neighbourhood, worried she might run out and have to whittle her own arrows. Arrows like wars were a thing of her past and she hadn’t used one since the peace treaty was signed. Yet the past chased her, panting down the back of her neck.
Some mornings she was surprised by the wrinkled face which met her in the bathroom mirror. It seemed a shame to have kept her mind for so many years only to lose it now when faced with nothing more threatening than questions of which restaurant to dine at or what clothes to wear. It was so much simpler when all was uniforms.
Retirement was the worst thing which had ever happened to her.
< blood burbles like a mad, mad brook <<
To make matters worse, Pfeil’s eldest child proposed a family trip to see the youngest’s latest artwork, The Lady and Her Vultures, in situ. Pfeil was happy enough to celebrate her children’s successes, but did Derring’s sculpture have to be across the border in Bittentell?
Again with Bittentell, Pfeil thought. The past rising up. But no. She’d go. She’d travel to Bittentell, see the monuments, pay homage to the dead she killed there, the friends she lost, and bury that second stanza—and her nightmares with it—once and for all. Bittentell was a small part of her life.
Will you go a’wintering with me
Her entire wartime service was a mere six years or so. Such a small fraction of time. The people she knew then… None were in her life now. Perhaps some perspective was needed, and it would please Derring to have the entire family see their artwork at such an important exhibition. Crossing the border to visit a museum, even if it were one built upon a slaughterhouse, was not the same as an invasion. She’d trust herself to remember the difference.
< rushes out, down, over—soaking boots <<
The general was not half as haunted as Bittentell. Of course, Pfeil only housed one skeleton while Bittentell was home to thousands. She felt overexposed as they crossed the border. It wasn’t the first time she’d crossed—her career practically required it—but it was the first time with her family in tow and her concern for their safety made her ears ring and eyes swivel. Her hand glossed over her hip, searching for a sword which was not there. That was the paradox of Bittentell: it was both the same and not the same just as she was both the same and not the same. Perhaps they had both mellowed with age yet were too steeped in regrets and blood to ever fully forget. You are an old woman, she told herself repeatedly. You are an old, old woman. And like her and Bittentell, the need for a mantra was the same though the mantra itself was different.
Her middle child took her hand. “Everything good?” Armana asked.
Normally, she’d add a teasing General-Mom, but Pfeil reminded her children that outside their country her military designation would be best unnoted. Pfeil was certain their hosts knew who she’d been and were aware she was here, but it’d be best if everyone pretended she was nothing more than the mother of one of the artists.
“Fine, fine,” Pfeil answered, patting Armana’s hand.
“It’s prettier than I imagined.”
The general agreed. Not being inundated with vultures spruced the place up. It was also quieter sans sounds of battle then carrion-eaters eating. This Bittentell had a vague spring-like smell rather than the dusty, bloody miasma she associated with the place. The sky overhead was fair and blue. She knew it could not be true, but her memories of war were sepia-tinged as if the sun had never shone. All was dusk in her mind’s eye though she knew most of the fighting occurred during the day. It was as if her brain had drawn a shade across those days to keep the stark, bright light from blinding her.
and summer you all of my days
Their guides had given clear standards of decorum for visiting Bittentell—chief amongst them, this is a sacred space; behave accordingly, and do not move or take anything. “Bones and other items occasionally work their way to the surface. We ask that you leave them where they are. There is absolutely no digging. Please respect the dead.”
On the far side of what once was the town square crouched the memorial which housed the museum. Its façade spoke of a long-lost age and Pfeil guessed it had been built from what remained after the armies left the town, pushing the front westward. A small plaque near the entrance confirmed that yes, the buildings here now were sourced using the former town. Names were carved into the walls—not with military precision but crooked and jumbled as if Grief itself took up a chisel. Every inch of the inside squiggled and twined. Close up, it was madness. But if one stayed in the heart of the room, it was a fanciful mosaic. The general could see troop movements in its design; the battle played out on these walls.
I will build us a palace
and use your bones to do it
General Pfeil clamped down on her brain. Hard. Harder than she ever bit her tongue when bodies fell around her and the screams were too much to hold back. She was here to bury the second stanza—of the ditty, of her life—not remember the rest of it. “Derring,” she called. “Show us your work.” Because hers was long done.
< Death wakes; yawns like a cavern <<
The Lady and Her Vultures sat atop a pedestal in a curved niche. It was the bust of a warrior, her hair as spiky and feathery as a vulture’s ruff. From her back rose the necks of two vultures; their flap-ready wings created her cloak. It was hard to tell where the birds began and the woman ended. They flowed into each other as though the lady were turning into a third vulture or a third vulture had turned into her. Her hands held not fingers but talons—three on each: sign of a general. Derring had outdone themself.
Around the museum talk swirled. Words with power crooned to Pfeil, begged her to make them real. She ignored them. Those days were gone. The quartet shattered. She walked quickly to the furthest niche in the museum, away from the words calling after her, away from the people pressing in, away, away. Like an arrow. Fly.
“Do you like it?” Derring asked, appearing at Pfeil’s shoulder. Pfeil looked down into a display case to see what her child was talking about and saw arrows. Her heart tripped, then thudded. Five arrows lay on a bed of blue velvet, their shafts carved with the formulas of her one-time enemy. Re-creations. “I’ve met the artist. I could introduce you, if you’d like.”
“We made arrows like those,” Pfeil said, voice sounding more brittle than ever she’d heard it.
“When you were in the war?” Derring said.
General Pfeil never talked about her experiences during the war. Everyone knew she fought; simple mathematics could confirm that. But she never mentioned specifics. She had not always been a general but from her stories, you’d think she had. “Yes, when I was in the war.”
“You made arrows? You and Dad were wordflingers?”
As usual, General Pfeil bypassed her child’s inquiry. This time, however, she offered an interesting aside as a lagniappe. “I knew Lady Vulture. She didn’t look at all like your sculpture.”
“Lady Vulture is a story.”
“Before that, she was a person,” Pfeil said. “But in the end, we become stories or forgotten.”
“It’s the words. They don’t always fly true.” General Pfeil bristled, came back to the here and now, left the nightmares in her wake. “Those arrows wouldn’t kill a gnat. They’re pretty, but that’s all. Your sculpture’s better. More power there. Be careful of it.”
“I’m tired now. Tell everyone I will see them in the morning.” Tomorrow they’d begin the journey back home: a retired general and her offspring.
< inky wings unfurl; shadows cross your sun’s eye <<
Pfeil didn’t dare sleep. She couldn’t chance waking up in Bittentell as her former self and finding vultures squatting over mounds of bloodstained clothes. See them ripping into viscera with beaks, their bald heads glistening with effluvia. No, better to sit watch and await the sun.
As the sky lightened, Pfeil left her temporary quarters, immediately oriented to a Bittentell which no longer existed. She ambled over rock and stone, soil and bone, until she found their one-time camp. There was nothing there to remark it, but she knew it just the same. Every canon had a military designation and a nickname. She’d been with Death’s Courtiers though by the end of the war, they were the only ones who called themselves that. All else called them Vulture’s Wake. The misnomer drove Harkenbach mad, such a stickler for denotation he’d been. “We’ve never feasted on a carcass together and, though we may gather them, we’re not at a wake.” She’d tell him it was poetic licence, and he’d mutter and etch his way through a quiver, his words tingling her senses.
Death’s Courtiers hadn’t minded the vultures they’d attracted. Considered them a good omen. Better to be the source of food rather than the food itself. The birds had become pets of a sort; though now, Pfeil wondered who had been keeping whom.
She strode west as the arrow flew, stomping moss and grinding bits of bones beneath her steady shoes. The sky oranged, dawn almost here, and nearby something chirped—a sparrow or wren, she thought. She glanced right and something caught her eye—the nock of an arrow, its fletching long rotted off. Still, she knew it had once sported vulture feathers, pitch black and silky long. She knelt by it, her watery eyes sensing more than seeing the scorched words upon its shaft. She knew those words, recognized them, even if they were bent and broken and mostly buried—but the past is never truly buried, is it?
The arrows in her memory were always clear and pristine, battle-ready. All of a sudden, too suddenly, she remembered scrounging amongst corpses for arrows with their words intact. Searching for ones whose magic missed—those feet would not be repeated, their syntax proved dud. Harkenbach was the only one of them who would reuse misfired arrows. “They simply haven’t found their target,” he’d say. “They’ll work on the right person.”
She grasped the tail of the arrow and pulled. It slid from the ground as if it belonged in her hand more than in the dirt. This arrow had found its mark—its words were illegible, its shaft stained with death, its head blunted from impact. Still, she knew its maker.
Hearing the admonishment of the guides in her mind—leave things as they are—she tucked the arrow under her clothes as though it were a secondary spine. It teased her scars—filled in the empty pocks her body carried. In its place she left the ditty her soldiers sang at her tea, burying the second stanza—winter, spring, summer—at Bittentell, where it belonged.
< like a vulture, my arrow carves your heart <<
General-Mom returned home, feeling rested and refreshed, only to discover that the Ero Samor book she’d buried in her garden had unearthed itself. Its author’s name protruded rudely from the soil, lording itself over the thin blades of green her seeds had produced.
Because the past doesn’t stay buried, preferring to inflict itself on the present over and over again. Like an arrow that doesn’t realize it’s spent.
General Pfeil sighed—she’d always been better at raising soldiers than children—then went inside her borrowed bungalow to pack for the journey ahead. Seemed she was doomed to march once more.
< a feast upon your carrion soul <<
Before she left, she took her sonnet-encrusted sword from its spot beneath her bed and gave it to Derring for safekeeping. When her youngest went to run their hands over it, Pfeil stopped them with a sharp slap. “It is only good for war. It knows nothing else. The blade was baked by my father when cake wasn’t enough to keep us alive. The words are my grandmother’s—she was a wordsmithy. It’s versed in death. Do not speak it. When war comes again and our blood is called to serve, they shall need this.”
“I’m sure they’ll have better weapons by then. Even your arrows are now archaic. This though is art.”
“But no less deadly. Should your The Lady and Her Vultures take flight, none would be safe from its bite. A sword without words is nothing. Any wordflinger who wants to return home needs both. Remember, the arrangement matters. Sibilance, too. And no matter how dull the blade, the words are always sharp.”
The stolen arrow went with her. A small reminder of the dead she carried.
< naught but a vulture’s swallow <<
General Pfeil trekked high into the hills upon Hawkseye, an enclave of privilege poised above an impenetrable border, squeezed between rich and richer. That a wordflinger ever hailed from a place like this and abided here now was just shy of incredible. But war did not care who you’d once been. And who would expect less from Lady Vulture?
Pfeil had expected to need directions to find the right house, but the foul odor and familiar dark wings circling overhead pinpointed her destination. Passing residents eyed her warily as if they’d never seen such dusty attire or perhaps they atavistically mistrusted anyone who visited the neighbourhood’s eyesore. The house itself was magnificent, a graceful behemoth perfectly perched before a valley of twisted trees. Upon its deck posts perched two scraggedy vultures, more feather than flesh. And everything, everything stained in vomit and shit.
The front door slid open and the volucrine sentinels swivelled their heads. “Off with you,” Ero Samor threatened. “Or I’ll sic the birds on you.”
“Ha! I’m not carrion yet, Love. But who could tell over this reek? Is this how famous poets live?” While Pfeil had turned the military into her career, Samor left the service after Bittentell. Not in body—no one was discharged until the victory bells rang—but in spirit, Samor was long gone. She’d lost her taste for death and tuned her words to more peaceful pursuits. That she still had any vultures was a testament to the deep scent of death upon her.
“Ah, the canny captain comes to call.” Samor gestured Pfeil closer. “I’ve smelled worse, Sparrow. So have you.” Pfeil couldn’t argue with that. Even if she could, there was little point. Samor had always been better with words and could fling them with or without arrows to carry them. Her tongue was sharp enough and it was unlikely years had blunted its tip—not when she whetted it with narrative poems the public devoured the way her vultures had dined upon her enemies.
“Your vultures are starving.”
“They still have hope I’ll feed them,” Samor said. “Stupid things. Say, ‘Hello.’”
Neither Pfeil nor the vultures obeyed the poorly lobbed command.
< a speck: eluvium to eluvium <<
The aged warriors circled the reason for Pfeil’s visit the way vultures looped the battlefields, waiting for the dead to be abandoned. They fell into an easy comfort, reading each other’s silences as well as their words. Pfeil’s nightmares settled into strange dreams and the panic plaguing her subsided in the presence of her old canonmate.
“They write songs about you. My grandchildren find them quite catchy.”
“Songs.” Samor snorted dismissively. “Songs are nothing but death set to music. What sort of tribute is that?”
< Fly forth. Conquer. Keen. <<
“Tell me of your life.”
Pfeil shrugged. “I made general. I have three children: Windwin, Armana, and Derring. I retired. I tried planting a garden.”
“Wait—WAD? You named your children We’re All Dead?” Back in their canon days, WAD was their first directive: Word Advance Destroy. But because it meant wordflingers were driven like lambs toward the front’s axe, amongst themselves they’d co-opted it.
“I—” Pfeil’s eyes met Samor’s laughing ones. “I suppose we did. Oh, skies above, I did.”
Through their laughter, Samor gasped out, “NDY, Sparrow, NDY.”
Not Dead Yet.
< slides into your body’s pockets <<
“The vultures—” Pfeil began. “Are they—?”
Samor shook her head. “The original volt is all gone. The ones which roost here are their children or grandchildren. Some strays. I don’t keep track.”
“You must feed them something. Otherwise, they’d kettle off.”
“Just my ghosts,” Samor said, but apparently that was enough.
< turns your insides out <<
“I attempted to bury your book, Love, but my garden threw it up.”
“Should’ve burned it. I’ve heard it works best.”
“That scene with the rats and the corpses…”
“I was young and wanting people to see the horror in death which I was feeling. I’ve grown more subtle with age.” Her knee popped as she stood. “Creaky, too.”
< lay waste to barren waste <<
“The words. You still work them.”
“And I suppose a general had no use for word-work? You train your soldiers with sock puppets and paper dolls?”
“Hardly the same.”
“Says the committee to the kettle.”
“Is that a vulture joke?”
“It’s a Pfeil joke. Laugh, Pfeil, laugh.”
“That’s a Pfeil joke.”
< blood the pulp bloody <<
“You switched our stanzas. Mine was to be the opening salvo. Yours the last.”
Samor gave a half-hearted shrug. “Canons go where they’re ordered. Words go where they fit.”
“And vultures, Samor? Where do they go?”
“Where they’re loved. When you’re as ugly as them and dine on death, you quickly find not many places will have you.”
“We gave them a home when we didn’t have homes ourselves? To what end?” Pfeil had little memory of her childhood home. It was lost in the first skirmishes of war (back before either side put much muscle into it). Her family went soon after and then Pfeil was conscripted into Canon D—Death’s Courtiers—Vulture’s Wake—and scribbling words onto arrows…with Samor…and Harkenbach…and Thenagain.
Pfeil’s lines were all hammers—direct and to the point, sound and fury signifying nothing. She drenched her arrows in ink, having trained in fondants and frostings at her father’s bakery.
Samor’s lines wove nature and death together into a tapestry—whether on arrows or in books. She carved her lines in scrawling designs meant to catch and hold the wind.
Harkenbach was all defined intent, and Thenagain—he was their clown. Knock-knock jokes and rhyming couplets. Once he tried a formula in the way of their enemy and Harkenbach asked Thenagain if he meant to theorize them to death. “No,” Thenagain said. “I thought I’d try to make them smarter.” Near his end—Thenagain died at Bittentell—he etched crude pectoral glyphs and vultures on his arrows, inked we come in blood. Someone added the letter L to a batch and the flingers of Vulture’s Wake laughed for weeks about that. Not the good kind of laughing, the sick kind where everyone’s reached the end of their line and has nowhere to go but down. By then, Pfeil was scrawling DIE DIE DIE in capital letters on her shafts, half in anger, half in wish fulfillment.
“We made peace the best way we knew how, Sparrow.”
“I’m to bed,” Pfeil announced.
Samor’s whispers dogged Pfeil’s retreat: “The last stanza always goes back. It must, Sparrow. We’re circles, all the way down.”
< until but bones picked clean <<
“How many talons did you grow, little Sparrow?”
“I know you’re feeding them. I counted eight this morning and saw the empty tins you leave out. Six healthy, two…not. Why don’t they eat? What is that pair waiting for?”
“All of the talons then. Good for you.”
< weLcome <<
“I went to Bittentell.”
“Ahhhh.” Samor sipped her tea.
“I stole an arrow.”
She put the cup down. Tea sloshed over its rim. “One of ours?”
“Whose? Was it mine? Let me see.”
Pfeil dug her treasure out of her pack and reverently handed it over. This, of course, was why she’d taken it in the first place. To share. Perhaps if she’d shared in the first place, there would’ve been no need for the theft, no need to confront Samor and toss blame about like a child’s ball.
“I have nightmares.”
“Of course we do. It was nightmarish. I didn’t realize how much until the toll at Bittentell. Young and stupid is a thing for a reason. War relies on it. We were so bent on surviving, we had no time to think about what we were doing. The sheer awfulness of it.” Samor did not meet Pfeil’s eyes, examining the recovered arrow instead. “From Harkenbach’s stanza, I think. It landed well. His own?”
“I’m certain of it.”
“The ‘with love’ line.”
Tears sprang into Pfeil’s eyes. Each of the DCs—or VWs—had written a stanza for Bittentell. A poem to end the war, they’d declared. A poem to end all poems. They’d spent hours wording. Shared their lines with the other canons as all marched on Bittentell. The second stanza—the catchy one which wormed its way deep in Pfeil’s brain—was Thenagain’s. Pfeil had returned Thenagain’s words to him.
But brought home Harkenbach’s.
“What ever happened to Harkenbach? Do you know?”
“I married him,” Pfeil said and snatched the arrow back.
“He’s dead then.”
“We’re all dead,” Pfeil said.
< carry on, carrion, carry home <<
The next morning Pfeil and Samor carved arrows. It took longer: their hands cramped more, their fingers weren’t as nimble, these words had to be perfect. It was farewell. It was their last stanza.
Pfeil inked. Samor carved. They switched arrows and critiqued each other’s work. Something they’d never had dared in their youth.
By sunset the words were ready. “One more fling for sanity’s sake?” Samor said as if the entire day hadn’t been leading up to this.
“The past doesn’t stay buried,” Pfeil said. “But the only line we can change is the next.”
“You can’t reword a spent arrow. You can’t pluck a stanza from your life, Sparrow—bloody though it may be—and expect the surrounding lines to hold the structure. Lives, like stories, must be dealt with as a whole.” The pair walked outside onto Samor’s shitstained deck to watch the sunset together. And while it was still light enough for their aging eyes to aim, they shot the last two starving vultures dead.
At first light, Pfeil took her pack (Harkenbach’s arrow tucked safely inside) and thanked Samor for her hospitality. “Don’t feed the vultures,” she said, checking the sky.
“We’ll see,” Samor said and hugged her friend goodbye.
< like an early Spring thaw /
and I the mountain stand firm—but crumbling. <<
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Story copyright © 2021 by H.L. Fullerton
Artwork copyright © 2021 by Carrion House
H. L. Fullerton writes fiction—mostly speculative, occasionally about haunted memories—which can be found in more than 50 anthologies and magazines, including Mysterion, Fireweed: Stories of the Revolution, and Translunar Travelers Lounge, and also has a somewhat haunted novella out: The Boy Who Was Mistaken for a Fairy King. On Twitter as @ByHLFullerton.
Carrion House a.k.a. Luke Spooner currently lives and works in the south of England. Having graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first-class degree, he is now a full-time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales, his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy, or dark in nature and essence.