Thistle Onions, 2023
Tonight was the night that the people paid homage to the World’s Soul, the night that was always filled with good food, cold drinks, and merrymaking of all kinds.
The streets were filled with people young and old, walking and dancing and rolling and moving in just about any way a person can move. People gathered on doorsteps, chatting and drinking; they raced through alleyways, singing and laughing; they pushed carts full of good-smelling desserts, pausing to hand them out to any child who ran up to them with shiny coins clutched in their hands. Few people would be sleeping before the wee hours of the morning, too busy celebrating their lives and the lives of everyone and everything who had come before them, or would come after. Soul’s Night was a favorite holiday of the masses.
One woman, however, remained curiously still and silent.
She sat up high, on a rooftop overlooking the bustling town square. A dark cloak was drawn tightly over her shoulders despite the warmth of humidity of the summer air. No one looked her way, or seemed to be ware of her presence, which was just what she wanted at the moment.
The woman watched as the people below laughed and danced. Her gaze didn’t focus on any one person for longer than a few seconds, flitting back and forth over the crowd. She was searching for someone.
A bright star streaked its way up into the sky and broke into thousands of pieces with a BANG, and the crowd below gasped and applauded, stopping what they were doing to watch the flickering lights.
The woman’s eyes skimmed over the crowd of onlookers, tracing back the path of the rocket to find the person who’d set it off: Ollie. Not the man she was looking for, but where Ollie was, Milo was bound to follow.
And yes, there he was. Ollie was working to set off another firework, and Milo sat beside him in his wheelchair, a box resting in his lap. His mouth moved, and Ollie cracked a grin as a second star leapt into the sky. She couldn’t hear them from here, not with the sounds of everyone else so overbearing.
So the woman stood, gripping the edges of her cloak in her hands, and stepped off the edge of the roof.
She fell for only a moment, and then she was rising, a woman no more, but instead a bird, dark feathers hidden against the dark of the sky.
She flapped her wings, tilting herself to dive into the crowd. She was no longer outside of their notice, and people jumped out of her way, gasping and crying out and laughing as she raced past. And then, with another quick flap and a little jump, she alighted on Milo’s shoulder, her talons sinking into the thin fabric of his shirt.
“Hey, old hag,” Ollie said with barely a glance in her direction as he worked on his firework display.
She croaked grouchily back at him, and he cackled in return.
Milo’s hand reached up to her, scratching along her head feathers, and she leaned into his touch. “Here to enjoy Soul’s Night?” he asked, voice low and gently rumbling.
She croaked again, this time a happier sound, and Milo responded by gently petting the feathers of her wings. Soul’s Night was one of her favorite festivals, and she had celebrated it many times in many different forms over the centuries, but her favorites by far had been those spent like this, in the form of a crow, perched on the shoulder of her Favored.
Milo turned his attention back to his husband, passing him a package from the box in his lap. “Almost gone,” he said.
Ollie took the package, tearing it open to reveal another firework. “Just about time for the big finale, then,”he replied, setting the firework into place and moving to light it. “Looks like your feathered friend is right on time, as usual.” The firework shot upward, streaking up into the sky and exploding into the shape of a flower. “Think Mom’s gonna show up this year, in the flesh?”
Milo shrugged, and she felt her talons scratch against his skin. She readjust herself and gave a quiet caw of apology. “Don’t let anyone hear you call her that,” Milo said, passing him what was likely the final firework in the box, given the much larger size of it. “You remember what happened last time.”
Ollie flapped a hand in response. “Yeah, yeah. Not my fault no one believes me. I mean, everyone knows the Blackbird Hag picked you, so how hard is it to believe a god might like me, too?”
She croaked in agreement. She wasn’t the only one who could choose a Favored, after all; but most believed her wife to be so much bigger and grander and all-encompassing than any other deities that they refused to believe she would ever deign to do so, that she would ever have the need or want to do so.
The final firework lit, Ollie and Milo paused to watch the beautiful display for just a moment before beginning to clean up their workstation. The night was still far from over, and she hopped onto the back of Milo’s wheelchair so as not to impede his movement as he rolled himself forward. The wooden frame of the chair was already scratched from her previously perching there, so she had no qualms about sinking her talons into it.
As Milo and Ollie headed for one of the sweets carts, she took the opportunity to observe the crowd from this vantage point. Everyone was having a joyous time, from children playing to tag to merchants hawking their wares to couples getting handsier than would be publicly appropriate any other day of the year. It was a pleasure to see so much human joy, and she hoped it would never end.
Her wife didn’t always attend Soul’s Night, or at least, she didn’t always attend this town’s Soul’s Night festivities, not with how many are taking place at the same time throughout the land. But the last few decades, she had been coming here nearly every year. Not always in a form that most would recognize, but nearly always appearing in some capacity.
She turned back to Milo and preened his hair a bit as she waited for her wife to make an appearance.
Ever since she had found Milo and made it clear that he was her Favored, the people had begun treating him with both respect and suspicion. It was unfortunate; she knew he would prefer to keep his head down, to remain unnoticed by the greater world around him, but she also knew that there would come a time when public knowledge of Milo’s status as her Favored would be a necessity.
The woman at the sweets cart handed Milo his requested pastry and waves away the proffered coins in his hand, eyeing the bird on the back of his chair warily. She didn’t do the same for Ollie, however, gladly taking the coins and dropping them into her money box.
It struck her as cruel, though she knew that the people here didn’t believe Ollie was truly Favored by any gods, to charge him of all people on this of all nights.
They moved away from the cart, back into the crowd, and then there was a pressure, a presence, and she turned her head toward Ollie to see a tiny spider crawling along his arm.
She croaked a greeting, heart warming. Ollie glanced down to see the spider and grinned, lifting his hand to allow the spider to climb into his palm.
“Thought maybe you weren’t comin’,’ he said, and the spider didn’t move or respond in any way that the bird or the people in the crowd could hear, but she knew that Ollie could understand her. He laughed and gently closed his hand over the spider, hand dropping to his side. He turned to Milo. “She says she’s here just for us this year,” he said proudly, and Milo nodded back at him.
And that struck her as perfect. These people might have treated Ollie with derision for the crime of not being believed, but he was the one who got to spend Soul’s Night in the company of the World’s Soul herself, unbeknownst to anyone else.
The four of them spent the festival together, the World’s Soul and the Blackbird Hag watching as their Favored and the people of the town they called home celebrated their lives.
Once the sky began to lighten and the fires began to dim, merrymakers making their way home to collapse into bed for a few hours’ rest, she gave Milo a gentle nip on his ear and took off, wings flapping against the dewy air.
Below, Milo lifted his hand and waved his goodbye. It wouldn’t be long until they saw each other again, they both knew.
She settled herself on the same rooftop on which she’d begun her night, and then she was a woman again, all wild hair and cloak-wrapped form.
It was only moments later that she felt that same pressure again, and then there was another woman beside her, tall and stately and beautiful as the day they first met, lifetimes ago.
The Blackbird Hag leaned against the woman, watching as the horizon slowly began to brighten, the sunlight creeping its way over the distant hills. “Had a good night, Eden?” she asked.
Eden, the Soul of the World, god of life and creation, took her hand in her own and gently brushed her lips against her knuckles. “Every night we spend together is a good night, my love,” she said.
The Blackbird Hag chuckled and stretched her neck up to kiss her wife on the mouth. “Can you believe those little punks are almost thirty now?”
“You say that every year. Have you forgotten how a human’s lifetime works, my love?”
“You know what I mean!” she sighed and rested her head against Eden’s shoulder. “At least this is one of the good lifetimes. I don’t know how many more of the ad ones I can handle.”
“With luck, we won’t have to witness another one of those for a very long time,” Eden said, wrapping one long arm around her shoulders. “I have to say, I’m happy we get to be so hands-on in this one. I’m tired of having to look in from afar and influence things from such a distance. Being able to talk to them directly is a welcome change.”
“Yeah, me too. Hopefully the next one will be like this.”
“We can only hope.” Eden kissed her again, and they sat together until the sun came up, illuminating a new day.