“Moths in a Fluttering Heart”
by Christine Lucas
When Maria returned to her village, she found it burned to the ground. Nothing was left of her kinspeople but blackened corpses littered across the village square. She searched around; the moths in her gut a panicked swarm, stinging to be let out. She found a few more corpses: those shot on the narrow cobblestone streets. On weak knees and with eyes burning from the lingering smoke, she turned towards the woods, her moths breathless with guilt and relief in equal parts. If Evdokia, the midwife, hadn’t sent her to the herbalist two towns over, she’d be dead too. At the edge of the village, Maria found Papa-Kostas shot by the Virgin’s shrine, in a pool of blood.
Maria sniffled and he raised his head, his eyes unfocused.
“Maria? Is that you, girl?” Barely a whisper.
Maria gawked, then nodded. He’d called her just Maria. Not Zavo-Maria. The slur that the villagers had attached to her name had stuck enough that its omission made Maria uncomfortable—as though it made her less and more at the same time.
“Nazis,” Papa-Kostas managed. “Looking for resistance fighters. We didn’t tell.” A fit of cough. “Evdokia… dead too. See to Charon’s supper, girl. Don’t leave us here, stranded.” He raised his right hand, the tips of his first three fingers brought together, and air-crossed her, before his arm fell limp. “May gods old and new bless you, child. Forgive me.” And he spoke no more.
The Ferryman’s supper. Maria’s moths fluttered all at once. She picked up her skirts and ran in the woods. It hadn’t dawned yet. Would she make it on time?
She ran upwards the nearby hill and then downwards into the small ravine, to the banks of the creek. Not far from there, the ravine opened up to a deep canyon, its slopes a forest of pines and ancient oaks: the sisters of the Dodona Grove. The creek swelled and joined with more creeks to become Acheron, before the dark depths of the world siphoned its waters beneath the surface. Maria headed away from the Acheron, towards the little hut and the nearby cavern, where the villagers brought their herds every November to out wait the winter’s cold.
It was safe inside the hut—few people could find it, most of them dead now. Dishes were stacked on a narrow table by the cold hearth, and sacks of grain and buckets for milking the goats at the other side. Maria sat on an old, creaking stool to catch her breath. Her panicked moths had fled her gut and plodded through her blood now, making her dizzy. She took deep breaths to rid her nostrils from the stench of burned flesh, inhaling the scents of curdled goat milk and pinewood. Then of other, unsettling scents, of murky waters and dead tadpoles, and just a whiff of honeysuckle…
The Ferryman’s scent, and the scent of the death that followed his heels.
Maria sprang to her feet. The supper! She really was zavo, sitting idle while Charon awaited. If she angered him, would he forsake the souls of her kin? Would he release the dead upon these lands as punishment? She shook her head until the moths with wings of guilt scattered from her thoughts. No. She’d made sure no such thing would happen, now that Evdokia was gone. She filled a bowl with grain and a cup with wine and placed them on a tray. The moment she opened the door to carry the tray to the riverbank, the stench of stagnant waters and rotting leaves made the moths in her heart stand absolutely still. Just before dawn’s first light, the shade of flowing robes on a skeletal form boarded the rising fog over the creek–fog shaped as a boat. But he boarded alone. Alone? Without the souls of her people? Would they return to haunt her, for failing them? What had she done wrong?
The coins! She’d forgotten about the coins!
Maria put the tray down, then marched to the box hidden behind the hut and filled with an assortment of coins: Turkish piastres, ten-lepta Greek coins, even a few ancient drachmas and obols. She pocketed a handful of them, picked up the pickaxe and headed home, praying at every step that the Nazis wouldn’t return.
Along the trail, her own mind betrayed her with words of scorn, and her thoughts had the voices of the dead. “Where are you going, Zavo? Eh, Zavo-Maria? Stay with the goats, where you belong! You’ll only make things worse!”
Had the haunting started already? Evdokia had always insisted they had three dawns for Charon to accept the Fare. Maria hadn’t been away that long. She tried to count on her fingers and failed. She wiped her eyes. Zavo-Maria. Crooked Maria, for the small hunch of her backbone and her lazy left eye. Stupid Maria, for her stutter when her gut swelled with panicked moths that choked her and tied her tongue. The villagers called her other things too: wind-blown and light-of-shadow, for seeing and hearing things that weren’t there. She almost turned around—but then the moths fluttered back into her chest, and sheltered her heart with their warmth.
So she soldiered on.
She buried Papa-Kostas at the site of his martyrdom, near the Virgin’s shrine, with a copper drachma in his mouth. Then on to the village square, to the others. When she approached the pile, she found a dog guarding the corpses. The animal wagged her tail when she saw Maria—Arkous, a silly herd dog, who thought all chickens were her pups. She’d lost half her left ear defending goats from wolves one winter, and that also earned her a limp and a useless left eye. It almost earned her a bullet to the head, too. The villagers wouldn’t keep around animals that couldn’t earn their keep. But Maria had cried and begged, and Arkous was left roaming the village, begging for scraps and abducting chickens.
And now she stood guard by her murdered masters.
Maria whistled and Arkous ran to her.
“We can’t leave them like that,” Maria told her, her voice low, her words perfectly articulated, like every time she spoke to animals. “We must get them ready. Be good now. If you scare the Ferryman away, what will happen to them?”
The dog watched Maria, tail-wagging and tongue-hanging, as Maria started to dig.
“But if you’re a good girl,” Maria said, “Charon might let you meet his own dog, who’s a king among dogs. He has three heads, too!”
The soil hadn’t hardened yet from winter’s first frost, but still hard for Maria. As the sun rose, her back and shoulders ached, her palms blistered, and sweat soaked her undergarments. But she couldn’t stop; she had to finish by nightfall, so Charon would take them along this time. She kept the fluttering moths in her gut drowsy with all the stories Evdokia had told her over the years. She’d never said them aloud before because of her stutter. Arkous wagged her tail and sometimes dug too.
“… Cerberus, I think he’s called. Yes, really, three heads! And he herds the souls of the dead!” Maria propped on the pickaxe, catching her breath. “What do you think, girl? Would he make a good husband to you?” Maria giggled and started digging again. “Evdokia promised me a husband before the war… There’s this lad, this Yannos, two villages over, who’s big and strong. I saw him, last year, at the mid-August gathering. He’s good-looking too! I didn’t talk to him—what could I say? Evdokia said he’s zavos, like me… He can’t read, but he works hard and doesn’t hit women—Evdokia promised that he doesn’t. Perhaps just a slap or two, when he’s tired. He promised her this, when she told him about me. After all this, Evdokia promised she’d arrange for…”
After all this. After the war. But there was no after anymore—none that mattered. Except perhaps Charon’s ministry. She glanced at Arkous’ wide eyes.
“You know, perhaps you will meet Cerberus. There’s always that one woman in every generation to tend to Charon, so the old ways won’t be forgotten, and the area receives his blessing, and remains free of the restless dead. That was Evdokia. But now she’s dead. They know, those wise women, and return to service life after life, on Charon’s boat. But now there’s no one left. Only Zavo-Maria.”
Her voice broke, her eyes welled up at the sight of the scorched pile that was her past and her present, at the long stretch of empty days that was her after. A long line of dawns carrying the tray to the riverside, awaiting the true wise woman. She rubbed her chest, to quiet her anguished moths that wanted out of her ribcage—out, to join the others so she wouldn’t be an outcast, even in death.
She’d lost her parents very young to smallpox and, ever since, these people had been her family. Sure, they called her zavo, and they sometimes made jokes and played pranks she didn’t understand that made her weep, and sometimes they shoved her a little too hard and the youngsters stole her things, but didn’t all families squabble? Evdokia had taught her secrets and lore, and Papa-Kostas had let her sleep in the church during the cold winter nights, and the baker had always given her all of yesterday’s bread, and she’d always been given clothes and shoes without many holes. And now she was all alone.
Careful jaws around her hand, pulling her away. Maria blinked. Arkous was right; she couldn’t linger. She had to do right by Evdokia. If she took too long, the Ferryman would again leave them behind for good. Just before dusk, she started throwing the remains in. She had no time to piece them together; in they went, charred thighs and blackened backbones, skulls brittle from the fire that crumbled in her hands, bones big and small, some with the christening crosses melted into the ribs, along with wedding bands, nazar charms, and gold teeth. Arkous helped too, carrying body parts, then digging frantically to cover them up.
Maria fingered the coins in her skirt’s pocket. Sometimes nothing could save the dead–like that Nazi collaborator, that Mastro-Petrounia from Dilopho. He became katachanas, destined to haunt the crossroads until the world’s breaking. If she tossed the coins in the grounds, what if the Ferryman missed them, amidst the pebbles and the dirt?
She’d try another way. She covered the burial mount and returned to the hut. Arkous followed her steps. Maria chose the shiniest tin bowl to hold the coins. She left the bowl at the edge of the water, on the limestone slab next to the Ferryman’s supper, so he’d know that he had passengers to pick up. Maria stood and watched the water, biting her nails. She watched until the sickle moon descended over the treetops and the owls hooted their warnings.
Maria hurried back and curled up amidst the goats in the cavern. Arkous came and muzzled her way into her arms. When she woke up the next morning, both food and coins were gone.
The seasons changed, and the forest swelled to claim the ruins of her village. Dandelions sprouted from cracks in broken walls, white patches of chamomile littered the border between ash and soil, and sparrows perched atop the bell tower. Trees bloomed and bore fruit—apples, figs and mirabelles. Some of the hens who’d scattered into the woods returned and cooped up in the remnants of the old bakery. Maria gathered fruit and eggs, and Charon’s supper dish was never wanting.
A replacement for Charon’s ministry never came. The fighter planes stopped flying overhead. Bands of troops sometimes passed through the woods. Maria hid when she heard them approach. She knew what enemy troops—sometimes friendly too—did to lone women; Evdokia had explained things to her. So Maria hid and counted the passing of years by the blooming of the almond tree just outside the ruins. Five times the tree bloomed—five springs since she buried her kinspeople. She considered visiting the other villages, but she couldn’t risk missing Charon’s supper. What if she came across more Nazis?
So she made her home in the goat cavern. Her cot of straw and hole-ridden blankets itched a little, but it was warm, if a little hectic, with all the bleating and the indignant clucking of the chickens Arkous carried to the cave. She shoved her dreams of family and home, of a husband and children to the back of her mind, beneath a carpet of moths with numbing wings. This was now her purpose and her duty, to keep the supper bowl full and the land safe.
It was life, such as it was.
Shortly after the almond tree bloomed for the sixth time, Maria found the wounded soldier sprawled atop the burial mount in the village. At first, she thought him one of the undead who prowled the northern forests—too many of those killed on the Albanian front had been left on unhallowed ground. But this one sobbed like the living.
Maria hid behind a blackened wall, now covered in ivy. What was he? Threat or kin? He sported a blood-soaked bushy beard. He wore a tattered army uniform, and a pistol was strapped at his belt. His left arm hung as if damaged, and with his right palm he stroked the soil.
“Mana,” he cried. “Mana…”
Maria’s throat choked on a sob, on a torrent of moths aflame by the sudden swell of grief. He’d come home to his mother and found a grave. Whose son? She’d never dared to look at young men long, so they wouldn’t think her shameless. With all that hair, would she recognize him, even if she knew him? But those brows… that nose… He resembled Evdokia’s son, who’d left to fight as soon as the war had started. There had been no news, no letters, and everyone had assumed him dead. What was his name—Elias?
Maria sat and waited. The sun rose overhead, until he lay still and quiet, and the moths in her heart fluttered all at once. The poor man wasn’t a threat; he was kin—injured kin. How could she have left him baking under the sun, without a sip of water? So she forced herself up and approached him with slow, cautious steps.
A cry when he saw her. Was it her loose hair? Was it the twigs and dead leaves and straw caught in her wild curls? Was it her lazy eye, her trembling lips that had forgotten how to form words? Or was it her clothes that hung loose and flowed behind her like hole-ridden rags of a vourkolakas, freshly risen from her grave?
A cry, a gasp, then his eyes rolled backwards and his head fell on the mount. The moths circled Maria’s heart in a fluttering clinch. Had she scared him so much that his mind broke? She leaned closer and her moths quivered in unison when his chest heaved. Blood soiled his uniform, a dark stain between heart and shoulder. He needed help, whoever he was. Evdokia had taught her to treat injuries: willow bark for his fever, honey for his wound, and a mix of herbs in thick soup to stop the bleeding. But how to carry him back? She’d seen the villagers put together a stretcher from poplar branches once, to carry a woodsman with a broken bone down from the mountain. If she tore her underskirt to make rope, could she do the same?
She couldn’t. The underskirt-turned-rope couldn’t support his weight. The stretcher came apart after twenty paces, near the old bakery. Maria managed to drag him by his good arm there. Arkous spat out a young chicken and watched with her good eye, her body rigid. Maria rolled the man over into a sheltered corner, between broken walls and poplar trees, hoping she hadn’t injured him further. Arkous took a sniff, her ears twitched back at the scent of blood, then turned to Maria.
“Stay. Defend.” Maria hoped that Arkous’ herd-guarding instincts would kick in.
When Maria returned with blankets, clean cloth, wild honey, and a cup of willow bark brew, Arkous hadn’t moved.
“Good girl,” Maria told the dog who then ran after the nearest chicken to mother it.
It took Maria a while to wrestle the man’s tunic off. There was an exit wound at his back, so she didn’t have to dig into his chest to get the bullet out. After she’d cleaned his wound, she managed to feed him a little bit of brew. He shifted in and out of consciousness, calling her “Mana” at times, pushing her hands away, sometimes cursing “those damned traitors,” then sputtering about “Security Battalions.” Eventually, his eyes regained focus. He met her gaze, then finished the brew in one breathless gulp.
“Thank you,” he whispered. “You, Zavo-Maria?”
She nodded, her tongue a knot of quivering moths.
Another nod. Salty moisture stung her nose.
She shook her head.
He covered his eyes with his palm. “She loved you, you know…” A deep sigh, then he laid his head back down and wept himself to sleep.
Maria sat cross-legged beside him. Arkous came and curled up beside her, her massive head a welcome weight on her thigh. But the dog kept sniffing the air and turning towards the soiled tunic. The moths in Maria’s heart fluttered with concern. Wolves and lynxes prowled these woods, and he was easy prey. She’d better go down to the creek and wash the blood off. Elias had blankets for the night, and Arkous would help keep him warm.
On the way back, her heart swelled with exhilarated moths. After the village burned, the forest had been a home and Arkous her family. What could Elias become for her? A mate, a memory, or another corpse to bury and a soul for Charon?
Maria stopped by the hut to pick up a coin. Just in case, she’d sew it in the tunic’s hem. She filled the dishes, but found she couldn’t carry everything at once. So she left the supper and picked up the tunic, the washing bat and her last bar of soap and headed to the shallows of the creek.
She’d barely soaked the stained tunic into the water when the others found her. Three armed men—three gendarmes—and the forest fell silent in their passing. One of them had officer’s stripes on his shoulders. The other two followed his heel. He glanced at her for a moment that stretched on, as if measuring her from loose hair to bare feet. His gaze fell on the stained tunic in her hands, and it chilled her more than the water’s flow.
“Whose is that, wench?”
Her voice stuck in her throat in a web of frantic moths, warning her to still her tongue. Only a garbled sound came out. She sprang to her feet to flee. The second gendarme grabbed her by the arm and held the tunic up to the light. She tried not to stare, but her moths found his cheekbones and the crook of his nose familiar.
“That’s the commie scum’s, no doubt,” he said. “That’s where I shot him. And it’s the village idiot who found it. Just our luck.”
The officer lit a cigarette. “You know this wench, Stavros?”
Stavros nodded. “Just a bird-brained idiot the midwife and the priest looked after. I guess old Evdokia felt guilty for botching her delivery. Instead of telling her parents the child was stillborn and leaving her in the forest for the wolves, the midwife kept her around as her pet, and filled her empty head with nonsense about old gods. And here we are.” He spat on the ground and tossed the tunic aside. “We won’t get anything out of her. Her tongue is as useless as her brain.”
The officer took a long inhale. “She knows how to wash off blood, doesn’t she? If she can wash, she can point.” He gestured at the third gendarme, the one with a wide face and the bulk of a bear. “Yannos, bring her. You said there’s a goatherds’ hut around here?”
Yannos? Her Yannos? No, it couldn’t be him. Maria dared a glimpse at the large man’s face. It sure looked like him: same build, same restless gaze—two brown eyes checking for lurking enemies in everything that moved. Maria had seen how the others treated him in that one festival, after a drunken fight broke loose. They goaded him to the front, to take the bulk of the hits and deliver a few back. They fed him scraps of acceptance in cheers that were mockery and disgust in equal parts, to lull his heart that yearned for family and kin–for purpose.
None of the villagers had been family and kin—not really. They hadn’t wanted them. What use was a zavo to them? Maria knew that. Every last moth in her heart knew that. She’d never belong, no matter how Evdokia had struggled to prove otherwise, stranded between love and guilt herself.
And now the man Evdokia had promised her as a husband, the one who’d claimed to never hit women, dragged her into the hut by her hair. Did Yannos know that the other gendarmes were using him? Did he care? Maria tried to protest, tried to tell him it’s me, your Maria, the one who’d be your bride once the war was over, the one you said you wouldn’t hit, but she choked on her sobs. Panicked moths lined her throat, grappling on every sound and tearing it apart. All that reached her tongue were shreds of words begging him, “No!”
Once inside the hut, without as much as a grunt, Yannos threw her down. The impact pushed the air out of her lungs along with a single sound: his name, a plea and a prayer.
“Yannos?” You promised.
The others chuckled. They laughed slap after slap, kick after kick, until her head buzzed like a wasps’ nest and her moths lay absolutely still, a carpet of motionless wings on the pit of her stomach.
“Give up the communist scum, wench,” Stavros said, somewhere above her. She couldn’t see him; her right eye wouldn’t open, and her left saw only the dirt floor of the hut. “He’s not worth it. Take us to him, and we’ll leave you be.”
A lie. Maria knew it. Let them call her bird-brained, and light-of-shadow, and wind-blown, she knew it. They’d kill her. And they’d kill Elias, and Arkous, and slaughter the chickens for their supper. And she knew that she would eventually lead them there. If the moths hadn’t stolen her voice, she would have told them already to end the pain.
But right now Maria had no voice to speak, no strength to get up and point, only to lie down and watch ants and bugs crawl on the dirt, and count her final moments in blood dripping from her nostrils. The gendarmes left her on the floor while they rummaged through the hut and pocketed Evdokia’s coins. After they finished the wine she’d stored for Charon, they continued with the raki from their backpacks. They drank and laughed and smoked, and the officer said that he knew some Americans who’d pay good money for ancient artifacts like the coins. Drunken plans followed, about all the things they’d do to that injured communist and all his comrades, once they caught them, until all three passed out in deep slumber.
Something glinted in the starlight that crept through the boards of the roof, an arm’s reach away from her: the coin she’d pocketed before they came. It had slipped from her pocket during the beating. But what did it matter now? Did anything of all that matter, anything Evdokia had told her, when it scattered so easily in the hands of those who were smarter, stronger, better?
The officer snored on the narrow divan, with his feet on the old cedar stool. They hadn’t broken the stool for firewood. But they had broken her. She was less to them than a stool. But the stool wasn’t crooked. It wasn’t zavo. Worthless. Nothing. It took a beating and a black eye to finally see the truth through the mist of her lazy eye: she’d always been nothing.
A fluttering caress over her swollen eye. A moth: not one of her own, that were now slowly awakening in her gut. A wild moth, one of those the locals called little souls, for they embodied the souls of the dead. Its wings touched her aching eyelid again, sprinkling nymph-dust and restoring the sight. And Maria saw beyond the confines of her body and the hut. She caught a glimpse of Elias sitting up beside Arkous. Another flutter of the wild moth’s wings, and it spoke with an ancient, feminine voice.
Family comes in many forms. So does purpose.
Whose soul are you, Maria wanted to ask. But then Elias glanced around, rubbing the dog’s head. Another moth fluttered over his face, and his brow creased. Then he stood up, moaning. He used one of the discarded poplar branches as a crutch, and limped away, calling Arkous to follow. Arkous glanced once at the roosting chickens, then towards the ravine. For a moment, the dog’s good eye locked on Maria’s through the vision, as if seeking permission. Maria could only weep, and she made her tears a blessing. Go, and be safe. Be happy. Then the vision shattered with a sprinkle of mothdust, but not before Maria saw Arkous leaving, following her new master.
Only the coin now remained in Maria’s vision. And, at the back, by the wall, spilled goat milk and stomped-on grain: Charon’s forgotten supper.
Maria reached out and grasped the coin, moving her hand as noiselessly as possible. One of the oldest ones, an obol, crafted from ancient metalsmiths long before the gendarmes, long before the Nazis and the Ottomans. How much would the officer’s Americans pay for this? Did they even know its real value? She clenched her jaw, pushed herself up and managed to sit. With the coin in her palm, her index finger traced the outline of her swollen eye and her split lower lip. Something cramped inside her and stole her breath. She turned towards the small window, dizzy with air hunger. Through the yellowed curtains, over the narrow bed where the officer snored, a rose hue colored the sky. Somewhere outside, a dog howled. Arkous, saying goodbye half? No, that howl reverberated through the forest, as if splintering to three different howls–from three different throats?
In her palm, the obol burned. All around her, forms of moth-dust and starlight formed. Some feminine, some masculine, some neither, some both. None of them were familiar, but all of them were kin. Those who’d come before her, the women who ministered an ancient deity with a three-headed dog, since before the Trinity, since before the Twelve. And they all smiled at Maria, welcoming her in their midst. They lingered for a single heartbeat before they dissolved to ash and dust.
From beneath the hut’s door, a mix of scents slithered inside: moss and stagnant waters, rotting leaves and dead fish floating on a murky surface—Charon’s scent. The moths in her heart fluttered and rose.
Her hand moved upwards, to place the obol in her mouth and meet the Ferryman, at last. Not on the ground. On her feet. She rose, and everything hurt. Somewhere at the sidelines of her consciousness, the officer awoke, cursed and reached for his pistol.
“What you think you’re doing, zavo?”
Maria turned and faced him. I’m not zavo, she wanted to yell. I’m not nothing. I’m many things, and none of them like you. But when she opened her mouth to speak, the obol grew hot and heavy on her tongue until it dissolved in her mouth, its metal lining the inside of her cheeks and spreading down her throat and up her nose.
The sudden taste of ancient metal rallied her moths. Countless little wings, countless little souls flowed out from her throat, from her nostrils and her eyes in an endless torrent. They swirled around her, higher and higher in a maelstrom of wings, then plummeted down around her, and lifted her up over the ground. The blood crusting on her face, in her ears and nostrils dyed their wings red, and the metal of the obol gave their wings armor. All around her, instead of the flutter of wings, Maria heard the whetting of blades.
When the officer pulled the trigger at her, they swarmed and formed a sphere that engulfed the bullet. It took them a moment before scattering in spirals and waves, but no bullet fell to the floor. The officer cursed and aimed again. This time he never shot. The moths charged and shrouded him, a swarm of razors and blades and needles: slicing and pricking and drilling holes through his mouth, his ears, his eyes, through every exposed part of his body they could cut through. When the others awoke at the thud of the body hitting the ground, the swarm of metal wings charged them too.
Three bodies sprawled on the ground. A creek of blood spilling through the crack beneath the door, rushing to meet the Acheron downhill. A cloud of moths hovering over the dead, slowly circling, drunken and dazed at the aftermath of carnage. Three howls just outside and the scent of murky waters waxed stronger than the stench of slaughter, rousing her moths. They dusted blood and gore off their wings until they shone in the waning starlight silver and gold. Then they circled and frothed around her, forming her veil and her wedding gown.
Behind the door, her future and forever groom awaited.
Christine Lucas is a former Air Force officer from Greece, and is mostly self-taught in English. Her work has appeared in several online and print publications, including Daily Science Fiction, Pseudopod and Strange Horizons. She was a finalist for the 2017 WSFA award.