By Barbara Rein
My mother hid me from prying eyes for months after my birth. When she finally brought me forth, people took offense and burned my father in delicious agony lest he seed another like me. To save herself, my mother publicly spat on me. In that, she saved me too. To questioning villagers, fearful I might taint their sinister ways, she would answer.
“Bah, she has no powers. Leave her be. She is my burden to bear.”
She forbade me to interact with others, caging me in punishment should I uttered a word beyond the confines of our home. But in the privacy of night, she enveloped me in love.
For five years she swaddled me in ebony hues to disguise my fairness. Concealed thus, I became the forgotten child, a shadow in her wake, my footprints swallowed within her deliberate short strides. And for good reason. Only she knew the healing emanating from my touch: the broken wings, the twisted limbs, the unyielding breasts of animals I mended and made whole again in my alabaster palms. Only she knew the unimaginable death awaiting us should my secret be revealed.
On cloud-streaked dawns though, when veiled light cloaked our secret treks, I came alive. My mother would hurry me to the edge of our world where the sea turned vicious as it touched our shore. We hid among boulders that sentried the beach. And she’d warn.
“Never show your footprints in the sand. Else evil will find you. No one should know we were here.”
From our vantage, we watched the wrenbows peck for food. Elusive birds webbed of foot and pale as my skin. Birds that came to feed from beyond the roiling surf where the sea flowed calm and cleansed. We listened to their hums and coos as we waited for the first blush of day. And when it came, my world lit up.
The colorless wrenbow feathers transformed into a symphony of crimson, turquoise, emerald, and gold. I could scarcely catch my breath for the splendor. Yet the song was fleeting. Once touched by sunlight, the flock rushed to the air, rainbow quills scattering as their wings beat a furious tempo back to sea. A brilliance of lost plumage littered the beach in their wake, webbed imprints all but obscured. The first time I witnessed the retreat, I cried.
“Mother, why do they leave?”
“Beauty does not last here. If they stayed, they would die. Watch now.”
As the sun spread higher, the glorious feathers smoldered and caught fire, curling inward and turning to ash. It was a lesson I would heed. In secret, my mother declared me a beauty. To live, I had to hide, never showing my true self to the light of day.
I was not my mother’s only torment. From the other she cried openly, wearing the oozing raised knob on her neck as a badge of honor. The villagers lauded her suffering. I cried with her and for her, feeling every stab and ache she radiated. Her suffering became such that she pushed me away. I wanted to go to her, to touch the offending protuberance and rid her of agony, but her warning was harsh.
“Do not touch my wound or you’ll be the death of us.”
One day she fell into a fitful, whimpering sleep. I could bear it no longer. I climbed onto her lap and lay my head upon her breast. With my hands, I cupped the vile tumor leaching her away. Then I too slept. When we both woke in a soft daze, she crooned and stroked my silken hair, a loving touch made more so for its dearth. Then in a fright she dumped me from her lap, running her hands in panic along her neck. Where once railed torturous misery, now only smooth skin flushed tender and healthy. I had never seen my mother in such outright fear.
“Hurry, child, get dressed,” she hissed. “We must leave here. Now. Everyone will know your secret. We are in such danger. Oh, what you have brought upon us!”
She bundled me up, carrying me in her arms through the pitch of night, hushing me, kissing me, cursing me, bringing me to small, rocky cove. There she dislodged a narrow boat from its shelter and placed me within. Her whispered a plaint stays with me still.
“In full of moon, hidden by mist,
Watch over this child I set adrift.
Let currents flow where e’er they may,
Let land behold ‘fore seas lay claim.
Let this fair child rest safe ashore
Where loathe and fear will tread no more.
Watchful eyes, my bidding do,
Avow my daughter life anew.”
She plunged us into the ire. Angry waves tore at her as she pressed the craft through the heaving brine. One final thrust launched me beyond the wrath—to the mercy of softer, rolling tides. I coiled in the boat, wrapped in a thin cloak and an agony of tears. The slap and sway of the water, like my mother’s arms, lulled me to sleep.
I roused to a familiar sound hovering about me. To soft thuds hitting the floor. I opened my eyes. As the boat dipped and bobbed in the sunlit sea, vibrant wrenbows circled overhead, calling me, feeding me. I scooped up bits of fish and berries, squeezing odd-shaped oranges to slake my thirst. I knew the birds by their coos and hums. But I’d never seen them linger in their rainbow hues, unaffected by the sun. I clapped at the array of beauty. And like the wrenbows soaring boldly in full light, I cast off my cloak along with my fears and set my fairness free. The birds stayed my journey, entertaining me with swooping antics, watching over me as they perched on the gunnel at night, and flying off to bring back sustenance by day.
I don’t know how long I drifted with the swells. One morning I awoke to shouts. Human voices, not of the birds. I sat up and rubbed my eyes. People—fair skinned, flaxen haired like me—rushed into the surf.
“A child. It’s a child. Take hold and haul in the boat.”
They managed the boat ashore. I was lifted up and carried to the sand where a crowd gathered. I shied back. But gentle hands patted. Kind eyes smiled. Soft voices assured.
“You are safe now. And secure. Never fret.”
And I never have. Tender waves lapped at the edge of my new world as a comforting hand led me from the beach that day. I turned back to wave at the wrenbows. Coos and hums filled the air. A kaleidoscope of birds swooped the sand, rainbow wings beating furiously, obliterating all footprints that marked the shore. Evil never found us. No one knows we are here.
Barbara Rein’s book, Tales from the Eerie Canal: 22 Stories of the Delightfully Dark and Creepy, won the Florida Writers Association’s 2021 award for “Best Book of the Year.” Barbara writes “horror lite” short stories (goosebumps, not gore). Reimagined nightmares culled from a childhood diet of macabre fairy tales and endless episodes of Twilight Zone. Barbara is a full-time Floridian recently transplanted from New York. She admits to being dachshund-obsessed, with the long dog occasionally showing up in her short stories, though more often on her sofa, bed, and lap.
“The Wrenbows” won In2ition Magazine’s 2021 Short Story Competition, naming Barbara Rein “Short Story Writer of the Year.”The Wrenbows: A child is set adrift to escape evil. Her only protection—a flock of brilliantly plumed birds.