Friday Fiction: The Firebird’s Feather

This will appear in the forthcoming Alexi omnibus.

“Mom, why did you have to marry Dad?”

Catherine Mary (Pagonis) Zolnerovich blinked, turned around and pointed the meat clever at her daughter. “Excuse me? What did you just ask?”

Little Catherine, now eighteen and a freshman at Colorado State, looked down at the eggplant she was slicing. “Um, I said why did you have to marry Dad? Why couldn’t you just, you know, have a relationship so I could keep your last name?”

“Because that would be a sin, as well as stupid.” Catherine Mary returned to slicing marinated flank steak. “Your women’s studies professor again?”

“No.” Chop, chop, chop.

“Freshman orientation advisor again?”

“Mooooom, we’re first years, and no.” Chop chop chopchopchop, the eggplant turned into particles of near sub-atomic size.

“Who?”

A deep and long sigh. “Dr. Tolstoy-no-relation, the Slavic Studies prof.”

“What did he say, exactly?” growled a bass voice from the doorway. Sergeant Major Alexander N. Zolnerovich filled the space between the kitchen and living room, still broad-shouldered as he’d been a decade and a half before.

“Mree?”

Alexi bent down and picked up an armful of white fluff.

His teenaged daughter set the knife down. “He said I’m not entitled to use the name Zolnerovich because I’m not pure Slav. Only members of a true rod should use the family name, and he wanted to know mother’s name so he could call me that.”

Alexi shifted his arm a little to allow Gatta, also called Bella and properly known as Belyah Ailuros, to climb onto his shoulder.  Then he cracked his knuckles. “This is the professor who looks as if several generations of Mongols knew his female ancestors very, very well?”

“Daaad!” Little Catherine put her hands over her ears. “Ew. And yeah, he does.”

“Would you like me to come visit and leave Baba Yaga’s phone number on his desk?”

Catherine Mary brandished the cleaver at her husband. “Alexander Nikolayevich Zolnerovich that is not funny.” She set down the cleaver. “And since you are here, dear, you can go see if the grill is ready.” Alexi lifted Gatta down to the floor, despite her protests, and cut through the kitchen to look at the grill. He gave his wife’s rump a pat on the way by, further embarrassing his daughter. “Catherine, what did your professor mean by ‘a true rod?’ I’ve never heard the term before.”

“He means a Slavic family that follows the Slavic pagan traditions, or at least acknowledges them even if they are Orthodox.” Little Catherine pulled a stool out from beside the long kitchen counter and sank onto it. “He’s big into Slavic pagan traditions and recreating the old ways, with all capital letters.”

Her mother snorted. “Sounds like he’s also the kind who would faint if he saw a real Slavic spirit, or came around a corner and the Sweeper was waiting for him.”

The girl grinned a faintly mischievous grin. “Oh yeah. I’d love to see that, like right before finals. Maybe I should see if Dad will let me slip him a firebird feather.”

A faint voice called, “Fire’s ready.” Catherine Mary scooped the meat onto a platter and handed it to her daughter. “Here. Take this to your father and remind him that this is not rat-on-a-stick. It doesn’t have to be charred to be edible.”

Catherine took the platter, muttered something about parents and gross, and eased out the screen door onto the back porch. She liked staying in her grandmother’s old house here in Golden. She could see the mountains, and the large vegetable garden, and a few horses and the lonely cow in the pasture that Mr. Velasquez rented from her parents. Babushka let “Aunt” Morena stay here with her, and Catherine’s parents handled all the property taxes, rentals, and other things, which suited Babushka just fine. Catherine crossed the deck to the grill, sniffing. Her dad had added something sweet to the charcoal, probably apple wood. He opened the top of the charcoal grill and neatly spread the strips of marinated meat on the rack, then closed the lid. “Do I need to have a word with the dean about your professor?”

She shook her head. “No, thanks. He’s a jerk to everyone, not just me.” She leaned against him and then straightened up. “When’s Babushka and Aunt M coming back?”

“Two days, weather permitting. Ivan is not impressed with New York.”

Catherine rolled her eyes. “Not enough tuna?”

“Probably. I have no idea why Babushka thought he’d make a good pet food commercial model. Aunt Morena’s photo shoot did go well, though.”

“That’s a relief.” She took the now empty platter inside to wash it. Alexi stared at the mountains and enjoyed the peace and relative quiet of Babushka’s house. He wished his oldest son, Peter, could come home, but he’d been ordered to the Defense Language School in Monterey and would not get leave until August. Stavros George, age fourteen and invincible, was camping with the church scout troop in Arizona. The beef smelled wonderful and his stomach growled. Alas, Alexi was no longer in his twenties and able to eat anything without showing it. But tonight would be very good; they were enjoying a last night of luxury before Little Catherine went back to Ft. Collins to finish the term, and his leave ended, so they were having lots of really good food. Catherine Mary had inherited her great grandmother’s secret recipe for an eggplant spread that turned pita and gyro-meat into the second best thing on Earth. He shook his head again, wondering how he’d managed to be so blessed as to have his wonderful Greek-by-adoption Indian-born wife and three great kids. Maybe it was a sort of reward for keeping Baba Yaga and her allies at bay.

Alexi opened the grill, neatly flipping the meat and closing the lid again. Peeping never helped. His mouth watered. A minute or so later, his wife emerged with a clean and empty platter, and an opened beer. “A righteous woman is without price,” he began reciting from the “Song of Songs.” “More valuable than rubies.”

She kissed him and after he took the beer, put her free arm around him. “Flattery will get you everywhere. And I don’t like Dr. Tolstoy.”

“Neither do I. Something about him . . . I don’t know. Maybe he’s just a jerk.”

“Like that idiot so-called fire science instructor Peter collided with? Possibly.” Catherine Mary (and Gatta) had spoken with the instructor. What they said no one knew, but the man refused to come out of the closet in his office for several days afterward, delegating everything to a Teaching Assistant who happened to have been a wildland fire fighter before returning to college. Peter finished the course with a B plus. The instructor resigned “for mental health reasons” a week after final exams.

“Well, this late in the semester is probably not the time to get involved. Besides, he’s wrong about the name.”

“How so? Oh, because she’s not using the patronymic?”

“Exactly.” Alexi had sort of wanted to give the children full Ukrainian names, so Little Catherine would have been Ekatarina Theodora Alexandrovna. Catherine Mary had intervened, pointing out the paperwork nightmare involved with just the county hospital, let alone the state and federal (TriCare) forms. And that before trying to enroll the children in school. “It sounds as if the professor needs to stick with history and stay away from religion and traditions.”

“Mrah.”

Alexi and Catherine Mary looked over their shoulders at Gatta. “That settles it.” Catherine Mary gave her husband a peck on the cheek as she collected the beef, managing to side-step Gatta’s attempt at twining around her ankles. “Your plate’s inside, remember?”

“Meh.” Gatta scuffed dirt on an invisible bowl of cat kibble, then dodged out of the way as Little Catherine came outside with the pita rounds.

“Cats,” father and daughter chorused. Gatta sniffed, washed one paw, and flowed up onto the patio chair to bask in the sun and sulk as Alexi heated the bread on the grill.

Two days later Alexi, on leave before returning to Ft. Drum, listened to his grandmother’s account of New York City with that small part of his brain not needed for coping with Denver-metro traffic. He really hoped he would not see anything interesting on or around the road, including little houses on chicken feet. The black cat known as Ivan the Purrable added his own feline complaints from the carrier on the floor of the back seat. Morena Ivanova Zharpitsca, the dark-haired former firebird, rode in the back seat. Road traffic made her nervous, although not as much as ten years before. She was finally accepting that in America, drivers did not view traffic rules as personal challenges to be met and overcome. Alexi suspected she’d still be happier if he drove an Abrams tank or something larger. As it was she did not quite cower in the backseat, but she was not pleased, either.

“ . . . and then he say Ivan not have ‘screen presence,’ and ‘lack personality.’ My Ivan, no personality?” Babushka sounded indignant in any language, including the Russian she spoke at the moment.

“Mrow!”

Alexi accelerated around an econobox with a death wish, then dove between two SUVs to capture the outside lane for the exit to Golden. “That too bad.” He couldn’t drive and translate at the same time.

Babushka said something else, but stopped when Morena gave a smothered squeak. She assured her granddaughter-by-adoption, “Is not so bad. Is not upside-down.”

“It is an advertising sign,” Alexi assured Morena, in English. Which was true, and the city of Denver had told the body shop to remove the sign with the one-half hatch-back. They had not, at least not yet.

Quiet, aside from Ivan’s mutterings, reigned until they reached Golden. “Alexi-Cousin, I have problem,” Morena said as they got out of the car. He wondered what it was. She had modeling contracts lined up for the next year. Her sister-cousin had found work as an interpreter, then found a husband in an import-export business and a new role as an NYC hostess and mother. Morena preferred to stay out of sight, and had given up embroidery for lace-making and sewing her own clothes, as well as of all things, carpentry and carving. She’d turned the shed in Babushka’s garden into a nice workshop and made toys and bentwood boxes that sold well at the parish craft fairs. Far be it for Alexi to wonder about other people’s hobbies. “Problem is this.” She pushed up her sleeve and he bit his tongue hard. A pattern like feathers traced up her smooth, fair skin, shimmering faintly gold like a very light design done in body paint. “Makeup cover but  . . .”

“That is problem,” he agreed, letting her go first into the house. It felt small with four grownups, Gatta, and Ivan, but no more crowded than most barracks. “Other problem,” Alexi sighed as they heard Ivan telling the world of his dissatisfaction.

Morena giggled and whispered, “Ivan bad model. Pose with food, not eat it. Smelled bad.”

Alexi shook his head and grinned. Gatta stalked up and let him know that she was not happy with Ivan. Catherine Mary hugged Morena, then picked up the fluffy white cat. “We need more on firebird legend,” Alexi told her. Morena showed Catherine Mary her arm, then went to unpack. Gatta made a curious sound, puzzled, tipping her head to one side. “No idea.”

After supper, Morena acted uncomfortable. “Am restless, want to be outside. The feathers appeared three days ago, after last photo shoot thanks be to God. Am afraid Koschei come back.”

They all crossed themselves. Alexi clenched on hand into a fist and thumped the end of the sofa. “Damn it. And I have to go back in two days. I’ll look through the books and see what I can find.”

“You still have feathers?”

Catherine Mary nodded. “Yes. Locked away, after Father Milo blessed them.”

Morena relaxed a little at the news, Alexi noticed. He had an idea and leaned forward, meeting Morena’s eyes. “You know that they cannot hurt soul?” he said in Russian. “Body yes, but soul only if given. Cannot take, ever.”

“No?”

“No,” Babushka assured the younger woman. “Rusalka give, others give. But Baba Yaga, Chernobog, others cannot take. Kill yes, but not damn.”

Slava Bogu!” She covered her face with her hands and took a deep, shuddery breath. When Morena opened her fingers, three pearls fell to the floor. Ivan dove for them and batted one across the carpet and under the couch.

Alexi and Catherine Mary looked at each other. “Shit,” they sighed in unison.

 

Three weeks later, Catherine Theodora made a surprise visit home from college. “Oh, just needed to get away this weekend. Roomie’s fiancé is visiting and I got all my work done. Plus there’s some protest on campus I really don’t want to mess with.”

“Mragh,” followed by hairball noises.

Catherine Mary looked over from her pile of paperwork long enough to confirm that Gatta was just being dramatic. “That’s fine, dear. If you have a few minutes, could you pull the books that have firebirds in them? Morena and I need to look up something, since your father had to leave before he found what he was looking for.”

Little Catherine rolled her eyes, after making sure her mother was not looking. “Sure, Mom.” Perfect, she thought. “I’ll do it now.”

“Thanks. Now what exactly is the problem,” Catherine Mary murmured to herself, turning pages in a big five-inch binder of regulations and permit requirements. She still worked for the Forest Service as a wildland fire science consultant. Little Catherine and her brothers knew better than to interrupt their mother when she started talking to herself. If she slipped into Greek, their Dad usually took them out for burgers or Chinese food, bringing something back for their mother. Little Catherine tip-toed out of the office-area and down the hall.

Her parents had bought a condo in Golden. Catherine Mary refused to be a good Army wife beyond the basics, and Alexi supported her decision. Since he’d been deployed to some pretty strange places, he and Catherine Mary had decided that the family would not travel with him like most did. He’d had to work pretty hard to make up for that, and Little Catherine had caught a whiff of the politics as she grew up, but now she appreciated the stability. Plus it kept them closer to Babushka and Aunt M. Which reminded Little Catherine that she’d better pull the books first so her mom wouldn’t ask why she was poking around in the master bedroom.

One of the bookcases had solid doors on it, fastened with silver hinges and a silver lock. Little Catherine found the key in its usual spot under the prayer-books and opened the doors, then begin going through the titles. She didn’t read Russian or Ukrainian as well as she spoke them, and she had to sound out a few of the really old and strange ones. “Right, so firebird? Hmm, that would be this one, and Jaroslov’s book, and um,” she looked at a few more, put two back, and wrinkled her nose at the smell from an ancient notebook that must have come to the New World in the bottom of a crate of onions. How had so many old strange books ended up in the States, anyway? She shrugged. Internet sales, probably. Didn’t Ivan the Purrable have his own account on Flea-bay? No, he’d found a back-door into someone else’s account that one time, which was why he kept getting his phone privileges yanked. Silly cat.

Little Catherine put the books on the table beside the bed, looked around for Gatta, and eased the drawer open as quietly as she could. She probably should not have gone hunting after Peter got grounded for poking around in their parents’ stuff, but she knew better than to get caught, and it was for a good cause. The deep drawer had a small gun safe containing a revolver loaded with silver bullets as well as standard, a jewelry box that Catherine Mary alone had a key for, and way back in the back, a small envelope with another key in it.

After another glance around to make certain Gatta wasn’t spying on her, Little Catherine took the brass key out, opened her father’s closet door, and unlocked the box that hid behind his shoes. She took out a fancy padded silk envelope, like the ones some people kept pearl necklaces in. She locked the box, replaced the key, and hid the silk envelope in her daypack before taking the books to the living room, then re-locking the bookshelves. As she did, she thought she felt the silver medallion of the Theotokos she wore around her neck getting warm, and shivered a little. It was just her imagination. And she wasn’t stealing the feathers, just borrowing them to show Dr. Tolstoy that she was too a Slav and he didn’t know half of what he thought he did.

She visited the washroom, then scrubbed her hands really well. The stomach crud had raced through campus after Spring Break and she did not want to get sick. She peered in the mirror. Ugh, another pimple on her nose. She looked like a cross between her parents, shorter than her mother but lighter built than her father. Her hair had darkened from baby blond to a nice brown with blond highlights, and her dark blue eyes came from her paternal grandmother, although the shape probably went back to her unknown maternal ancestors. Little Catherine tanned more than her father, and a lot more than her younger brother, who could have been a clone of their father. The guys were equally wide, and Little Catherine wondered if buildings in Russia were short and square just because their owners had been.

Little Catherine’s younger brother was staying with a friend so they could play a new game that had released that afternoon. She had her mom to herself, and over supper she asked, “Is Aunt M ever going to take up embroidery again?”

“Not as far as I know, especially— No, I don’t think so. Why?”

“The peasant look is really trendy now, and her stuff is a lot prettier than what’s in the store. Do you think she’d do a blouse or skirt for me if I asked?”

Her mother shook her head, making her long earrings flop back and forth. “No. This isn’t a good time to ask, either. She’s having some trouble that may interfere with her next job.”

Little Catherine had thought being a model would be fun. Then she spent a week with her aunt-by-adoption. No way, that was hard work! “Bummer. I hope it gets sorted out.”

“So do I. Speaking of sorted out, how is your problem with the Slavic studies professor?”

“It’s OK,” Little Catherine fibbed. “He’s picking on another student now. Says Boris isn’t living up to his rod.” She snorted. “Boris was named for the bear in the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and is as Slavic as garam masala.”

Her mother shook her head again. “He sounds about as observant as that math professor Peter had.”

“Oh, you mean Dr. Kim, the one who couldn’t tell Peter and Peter apart?” Since the other Peter was from Venezuela and had the same skin tone as ground coffee, how the professor had gotten the two mixed up remained a bit of a mystery. In a class of two hundred fifty, maybe, but in senior seminar with all of twenty students? Little Catherine still wondered how he’d managed it.

“Yes. Theoretical mathematicians all seem to be a bit odd. He’s not teaching undergraduates this year, is he?”

Little Catherine drank her milk and tried to remember. “Um, I don’t think so. I think he’s on sabbatical.”

“Ah. Pass the salad, please.” Her mother was on one of her periodic Greek kicks, which explained the feta and olive-heavy salad, the Greek bread, and lamb-burger.  Little Catherine didn’t mind. She’d found one café, George-something, that did OK Greek, but it was south of Ft. Collins and Denver, way too far for a run those few times she really wanted dolmades. “Thank you. Ivan has his phone back.”

She chewed her salad, spit out the olive pit, and thought. “Mom, does anyone else have cats that text?”

“Not that I’ve met, but I’m not certain I want to meet anyone who does have cats like Ivan and Gatta.”

“Are they really cats? Under the fur, I mean, are they, you know, normal cats?”

Her mother laughed. “According to the vet they are. Before you were born we had Gatta spayed, and all the bits were right where the vet expected to find them.”

“Mragh!” A pair of white ears appeared over the edge of the table, followed by a pink nose that sniffed busily. “Mrow?”

The women shook their heads. “You do not like feta cheese. You never liked feta cheese.” Little Catherine reminded the white cat. “You don’t like olives, either, and there’s no lamb left.”

“Mroh.” The nose disappeared but the ears remained.

“See? Normal cat. Always wants something but never knows what she wants.” Her mother smiled. “She did get squirted with the spray bottle Wednesday. She was on the counter, trying to get into the ham I had thawing.”

“Ooh, naughty Gatta.” Ham was to Gatta what tuna was to Ivan.

Catherine went back to school the next afternoon with a quarter of the freezer’s contents. “They’re about to expire, your brother is going through a phase and won’t eat them, and I can’t eat all of them. I love your grandmother but she can’t learn to cook for less than a dozen.” Little Catherine had brought a cooler with her just in case, and grinned as she looked at it in the rear-view mirror. All kinds of meat-filled dumplings, pickled beets, pickled cabbage, bread, and other goodies filled the cooler. Babushka thought overfeeding meant love, and took it as her personal mission to see that no one left her house without food. How Aunt Morena stayed slender mystified Catherine.

And tucked well under her clothes was a silk envelope. She wasn’t going to do anything, just show the professor the feathers and return them at the end of the term. Maybe not even that unless he pushed her again. I am so tired of him, she sighed. Maybe I should just report him to the dean. Except he hasn’t really done anything, just made sideways comments and snide remarks. Not like the women’s studies TA. Catherine grinned. She’d brought in a photo of her mother in her firefighting gear, complete with Pulaski, and shoved it at the snippy TA, saying, “Dad wears combat boots, Mom wears fireproof clothes. What’s wrong with her cooking when Dad’s home?” Of course, her mom never did anything on the grill, because she did fire for a living and why should she bring work home?

When she got to the dorm, Catherine stashed the feathers in a drawer, put the food in the freezer with a note warning anyone who touched it that they’d face her wrath, and listened with half an ear to her roommate’s description of the weekend. “ . . . and the protest ended when Prof Toasty started yelling in Russian and waving his hands and acting really strange.”

“Wow. I wonder what they said to tick him off?” Not that she wanted to know, not really.

Jeniffer-with-two-fs shrugged and texted. “I didn’t hear. They’d forgotten to get an amp permit so it was kinda muted in here with the windows shut.”

“Hmm.” Catherine dug through her books, trying to find the novel she needed for the open book quiz on Monday.

By Wednesday Prof. Tolstoy had pushed all her buttons and more. He was lecturing about Pan-Slavism and how it fit into nationalism in the 19th century and the cultural revivals of the late Romantic movement. It would have been interesting except for his digs about religion and true Slavs and the problems of the Orthodox Church trying to eradicate the Old Ways and how the poets struggled to rediscover them through the study of folk-lore. “But they took the church’s teachings for granted far too often, assuming that what the church had declared to be evil was, in fact, inimical to the rod. The stories they glorified, such as those involving the firebird, were all borrowings from outside the true Slavic pantheon, while supposedly evil creatures like Baba Yaga actually should have been recognized as benevolent spirits.”

Catherine blinked and growled, but very quietly. Oh, she really wished her father were home. She had a vague memory of flying in the air on a horse, and her father said it was from when her mother had rescued her and Peter from Baba Yaga. With the help of Gatta, Ivan, the Little Humpbacked Horse, and the Red Mare. Her father never talked about the Red Mare. From behind her a voice asked, “Dr. Tolstoy, what about things like Chernobog that even the earliest accounts show as being associated with negative forces?” Oh great, that would be Eric, one of the neo-pagan wanna-bes. Catherine slid down in her desk to avoid the blast.

“Cthonic powers are often overlooked by folklore collectors, but in the case of Chernobog specifically, and his sons including Koschai the Wise, German scholars assigned them to the evil pantheon as a way to duplicate the false dichotomy introduced by the church into Slavic religion as it was understood by its enemies. As Sergeiovic said, in refutation of the Childe and Grimm patterns . . .” Catherine pretended to take notes as she studied Tolstoy. He reminded her of a fatter version of Lenin from the Soviet posters, but with more hair on his head, and that hair was blond instead of dark. His dark eyes, almost almond-shaped, did make her wonder if her dad had been right about Tolstoy’s ancestry. Ick. Today he wore an embroidered shirt under his suit coat and looked really odd.

Class ended and she got ready to leave. “Miss Catherine,” he said, standing between her and the door.

She, Boris, and Jose stopped. “Yes, sir?”

He handed her a paper, holding it with two fingers. “This is not creative writing class. And I will not accept any more assignments without your correct name on them.” He stalked off, or kind of waddled. Catherine felt her face turning red as she looked at the paper.

“Wow, what happened? Toasty murder a Vulcan in his office?” Boris asked, pointing to the green ink all over the page.

“Says red’s only for good things. Let’s go.” She snapped. Right, she thought, snarling, I’ll show him. Stolen from foreign myths, huh? Don’t really exist, huh?

The next afternoon Catherine waited outside Tolstoy’s office with her paper, annotated until it looked as if she had more citations than text, and a silk envelope. She’d schedulded the last appointment of the day, so she could do her thing and then get away. The door opened promptly and his voice called, “Come in.”

She went in. “You have the proper paperwork for registering under your correct name?”

“No, sir. I have evidence that the assertions in my paper are correct and request that you re-enter the grade accordingly.” Like her dad said, she’d come up with a plan, a back-up plan, and had rehearsed in her mind what she wanted to say. She stayed calm, cool, and polite.

“Really. And am I supposed to presume that this evidence is from a source other than Carson’s New World Encyclopedia of Mythology?”

“Yes, sir.” Catherine put the paper on Tolstoy’s rather clean dusk and pulled the silk envelope out of her bag. Her heart started racing as she opened the envelope and pulled out the crimson and gold feathers. “In addition to the documents listed on the assignment, I have two feathers my father took from a firebird eleven years ago.” In the dim light of the office, the feathers shimmered with their own light, much paler than when Catherine had first seen them. “The firebird is not an artifact of Persian myth incorrectly incorporated into Slavic sources by the hey—! What are you— No!”

Tolstoy moved fast for a fat academic, much faster than Catherine anticipated. He knocked his chair over, lunged around the desk and grabbed her wrist, ripping the feathers out of her hand, then spinning her around and pinning the arm behind her. “No! You defile that which is sacred to the rods,” he half-snarled, half-panted. She tried to kick but he dodged, shoving her off-balance and forward, out the office door.

“Let go of me! Give me those back or I’ll tell my dad!” Catherine yelled, but no one came to see what was going on. Oh shit, she gasped, it’s Friday after three. Everyone’s gone. Oh crap, oh crap, what’s he, no. No, he’s not, oh crap, Mom’s going to kill me I am so toast. He’d twisted her around, managing to open the door to the storage closet across from his office.

“You stay here until I’ve called the authorities to deal with you, thief and defiler.” Tolstoy shoved her into the closet. She tripped over something on the floor, caught herself, and almost got back to the door. Thump click. She pounded on the locked door, then tried to find a light switch by the light of her cell phone. No luck. At least she had 90% power left on the phone.

“But no bars. Oh crap.” Her mother really was going to kill her. She’d be grounded for life. “Right, what do I have to work with. A mop, a bunch of boxes and paper,” she tried the sink, and a little water trickled out of the pipe, “no water pressure as usual, and the hinges are on the wrong side of the dang door.” Her illegal pocket knife wouldn’t be much help against the metal door frame. She had plenty of weapons she could use against the prof if he came back, but no way to open the door.

Catherine gave herself five minutes to act like a scared teenager, pounding the door and yelling for help, crying a little, then took a deep breath. “Right,” she murmured. “What would Dad and Mom, or Babushka or Aunt M do?” Her dad would have broken Tolstoy’s arm and not gotten locked in the janitor’s closet, so that didn’t count. Blowing the door off the hinges was also not an option, since she couldn’t find any cleaning chemicals or anything really dangerous. And taking a chainsaw to the door required something she didn’t have on hand. Babushka would not have gotten caught, either, but she’d be calm, pray, and make friends with anyone and anything that acted as if it were of the light. Catherine paced a little then sat in the corner, rubbing the charm on her cell phone case.

The phone chirped. Huh? She lifted it and didn’t see anything, but when she put it on the floor, a text came through. “Oh, I am such an idiot. The wifi reception’s better down here because of the gap under the door.” Could she guess the password? It was probably one of the four general passwords, and she tried them. No luck. “Hmm, this is for faculty, so what about” she tried something really dumb. It worked and the phone chirped again as it locked onto the signal. Catherine brushed her hair away from her face and bent over, reading an incoming text. It was from Ivan the Purrable, and she rolled her eyes. Of all the times to— “Ivan!”

She texted back as best she could, sending the cat a condensed version of the problem. Five minutes later he replied, in Russian as usual, and she read aloud, translating through auto-corrupt. “Papa? No Baba, Babushka no come. Morena with Mother. Told them. No,” no what? “Oh, no panic. Easy for you to type, cat. Trouble come, storm come, help come. No use feather!!!!” What did he mean by that? “Told Belarus.” Huh? Oh, he told Belyah. “You told Gatta? I am sooooooo toast.” Catherine put the phone down, rested her head against the wall and closed her eyes. Her mother would kill her and the white cat would keep saying “I told you so” or whatever cats said.

After a few minutes, the rest of the text penetrated Catherine’s brain. What did Ivan mean by “not use feather?” The firebird feathers didn’t have magic any more. She slapped herself in the forehead. Of course they did, or they would not glow. And there was that one story, about how Prince Ivan summoned the firebird by whirling the feather over his head, and she had to come to him. Would that work? Could Tolstoy call Aunt Morena by swinging the feather? That would be stupid, because she’d probably bring Babushka, Ivan, and a shotgun. Except Ivan said Morena was with her mother . . . Why? Was it related to that problem her mom had mentioned over the weekend.

The phone chirped. “Am on way. Trouble coming. Be ready to run.” Oh great. Her mother would probably break every land speed record in Colorado. Yes, Mom, I know I’m in trouble. Ivan already said that. Catherine closed her eyes again.

She must have dozed off despite everything, because she woke as the phone shrieked and the building shook. “What the fuzz?” And she really, really needed to go. Really needed to go. That big iced tea had not been a good idea. She blinked and skimmed through the texts. Storm warning for Larimer County, high wind and large hail the main dangers, exactly what Catherine wanted to see. Her mother was on the way, a storm was shaking campus and would probably flood it again, her professor was being a jerk, and she was missing the season finale of “Which Witch.” And Jeniffer would ruin it with spoilers before she could catch the episode on the ‘net.

The building shook again and she heard howling. The howling came closer and she crammed herself into the corner as hard as she could. What now? She heard footsteps, fast-moving, and she grabbed the broom and stood, ramming the end of the wooden handle against the door. “Let me out! Let me out!”

“Shit, lady, you were right.” Catherine heard keys and the door opened, flooding the closet with light. “Get out of there,” a man snapped. Catherine scooped up her phone and did as told.

“Tolstoy! Where’s Dr. Tolstoy? He shoved me into the closet, locked the door,” she started to explain.

“Later. We have to get to the ground floor, now.” He started to take her arm but her mother moved faster, almost dragging her daughter down the hall with one hand, a cat carrier in the other. The security guard followed as Catherine Mary raced down three flights of steps. Little Catherine didn’t think her feet got to touch the floor again until they reached the bottom, near a bathroom.

“’Scuze me.” She darted in as soon as her mother’s grip relaxed. She emerged to find her mother crouching, opening the cat carrier. “Um, Mom, I can explain—”

“And you will. Later. The guard’s checking for any stragglers. Gatta can find Morena. Don’t ask, just take this and come on,” she handed her daughter a silver rod, like a thin baton or pointer. “Your professor is a flaming idiot. And if we don’t find him before Morena does, he’ll be literally flaming.”

The white cat took off as if launched and the women followed. Catherine Mary stashed the carrier behind some ornamental grasses by the building sign and the two kept as low as possible as they followed the white blob across the parking area, toward a cluster of trees beside the grassy, open floodway. At least, that’s where they seemed to be going. Lightning flashed from the storm and the world vibrated from thunder. No rain fell yet, but the wind felt wet. As they got closer to the grove, Little Catherine could see red and gold light from between the spruces and evergreens.

“Fuck. I’m going to kill that idiot if he survives this.” Little Catherine stared, gape-jawed, at her mother. She also tripped over the curb, barely catching herself before she fell hard. “Damn it girl, be careful. Don’t give him any blood or anything he can feed on.”

Her mother had never, ever sounded like this before, scaring Little Catherine to her core. Her mom also didn’t usually have a pistol on her belt, either, or a silver knife in her hand. What had she started? The stories, they weren’t just stories, but surely two feathers couldn’t cause this much trouble, could they? The light grew brighter and they heard a scream, part like a woman and part like a furious bird, an eagle or hawk. Gatta screamed as well and continued into the grove, Catherine Mary not far behind. Little Catherine slowed down, then stopped.  She rested, hands on knees, gasping for air before swallowing hard and following her mother into the trees.

Tolstoy was yelling in Russian, pointing one of the feathers at Aunt Morena. Morena was screaming back, trying to get to him, but she could not reach. Why not? Little Catherine squinted against the shifting light and gasped. No! Her aunt was shifting form, her legs part human and part bird, like her arms. She tried to call in Russian but a bird-like sound came out instead of words. Pearls streamed down her face like tears, and Little Catherine started crying as well. Aunt M was in pain, terrible pain, as the magic twisted her body. And what could do that to a person except one of the big bads, like Chernobog or Baba Yaga? Had Tolstoy summoned one of them? Could he?

Catherine Mary had gone ahead, and now had Gatta in one arm. The cat scrambled up onto her shoulder, fur fluffed, screaming bloody murder like a white demon. “Stop that right now, Tolstoy. You have no idea what you are trying to call,” Catherine Mary ordered.

“Get away, female. You are not true rod. Go back to your own place.”

“Neither are you, Mongol bastard. Hell, half of Napoleon’s army probably knew your great-grandmother really well.”

Little Catherine wanted to dig a hole and crawl into it. Mother! Ewwww, that was just gross.

“And the damn spirits do not care, not anymore,” Catherine Mary continued, getting a little closer to Tolstoy. “I’ve fought Baba Yaga, Chernobog, and a damn stupid bint who got herself made into a rusalka. Do not tell me I can’t deal with Russian magic, because I’ve dealt with far too much of it. Now drop the feathers and get out of here before trouble really arrives.”

“Your words are nothing. I am true rod, I call true spirits.” His hair had gotten plastered to his head with sweat, and it looked as if the sweat was making the embroidery on his shirt run, like the dye was bad. “Go away. Firebird is mine, answers to me. I will bring back the real spirits, I will—”

Crack BOOM! Little Catherine ducked. Catherine Mary yelled something in Greek, Morena shrieked and Gatta launched. The white cat sailed across the distance between the tall woman and the professor, landing on his face and sinking her claws into him. He screamed, dropping the feathers as Catherine Mary followed, her daughter close behind. Little Catherine caught up with her mom just as Gatta turned loose, dropping and scurrying out of the way and Catherine Mary bent down to grab the feathers. Her aunt cried out again, almost pure bird, the rain slammed into them, stinging and icy.

“You leave my cat alone!” Little Catherine started hitting Tolstoy with the silver stick. “You— Leave— Gatta— Alone!” Her mother grabbed her arm and threw her off the man, shoving the feathers into her hand as she did.

“Morena!” Little Catherine turned. Her aunt was caught, half human half bird, twisting. Something with the feathers?

“Mrrrooow! Maaaaaaaah!” Gatta danced back and forth. Little Catherine hurried over and for lack of a better idea, shoved the feathers against her aunt’s arm.

Crack BOOM!

Catherine felt pine needles on her back and rain pelting her face. She couldn’t see or hear anything. She could breathe, though, and smelled ozone and char and something bitter. The wind howled through the pines. Something tried to burrow under her arm and she squinted in time to see Gatta pushing, butting her with her head. The cat looked horrible, drenched and skinny. Little Catherine rolled onto her side, carefully, and got on all fours. Gatta ducked into the shelter and started washing ferociously, growling a little.

Morena’s voice came into Little Catherine’s ears, faint at first, then louder, in Russian, then English. “What do with body?”

Body?

“Nothing. He died of natural causes. Cerebral hemorrhage would be my guess, probably had high blood pressure. Runs in Alexi’s family too.” Her mother did not sound the least bit upset, rather clinical in fact. “Playing with that kind of power did not help.”

“Evil is evil.”

Little Catherine took a deep breath. “He didn’t think so, Aunt M. He said in class Wednesday that the Church turned good spirits bad, including Ba—” she caught herself just in time. “The Sweeper and the Swamp God.” This wasn’t the time to use proper names.

“Mrow. Mroh, meh maa hsss fffft mrOW!”

“Not going to argue, I’m just repeating what he said in class. The Church and tale collectors made good into evil.”

Morena walked up to where Catherine crouched. “The rain’s ending. You can stand.” She offered her hand, fully human once more.

Little Catherine stood, then hugged her aunt, ignoring the tattered clothes and scent of scorch. “I’m so sorry, Aunt Morena! I had no idea he’d go crazy, no idea that you’d be hurt. I didn’t mean to hurt anyone, I just wanted to show him that he was wrong and that I really am a Slav and that he shouldn’t mark my papers down because he disagrees with everyone else doing Russian folklore and—”

“Shhh, little one.” Morena held her as she sobbed, stroking her back. At some point her mother took over, letting Catherine Theodora cry into her shoulder. “You did wrong, but it is over. He is dead, I am healed, and the magic is broken.”

“Mraw.” Gatta nodded once, as if to end the discussion.

Little Catherine sniffed. “I didn’t want him dead, I just wanted him to re-grade my paper.”

“Magic has consequences, Catherine Alexandrovna,” her mother said. “Both for him and for us. It will take a lot of tap-dancing and work to explain why we found him here and what happened to him. And now you know why your father and grandmother and I never try to use magic ourselves. It is one thing to understand and try to counter it. It is another to wield it, especially old-world magic in a new land.” She tipped Catherine Theodora’s face up and met her daughter’s eyes. “While Tolstoy brought his death onto himself, you did play a role. And you will have to live with that in your heart for the rest of your life, princess. I’m sorry. Your father and I tried to protect you and your brothers.”

“You cannot shelter her forever,” Morena said. “My parents thought they could hide me, sell my embroidery without anyone noticing, even though it glowed and brought joy beyond just the joy of beautiful things. Koschai found me anyway. Babushka came here to get away from evil, men and spirits both. They found.” Morena shrugged, rubbing her arms against the cold. “Catherine Theodora, magic is real, it has consequences, and evil is real. Now you see, understand?”

“Yes, Aunt Morena. I’m, I’m sorry.” She sniffed, tears starting again.

“Mrooo.”

She picked up wet Gatta and hugged her.

Catherine Mary planted her hands on her hips, after pulling her jacket closed to hide the pistol. “Right. We get ourselves back to Golden, you get back to your dorm, and make darn certain you have a solid story for security about why you were in the closet.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

 

As it turned out, Little Catherine did not have to come up with a story. Campus security put her being locked in the closet, her bags and other things being found in Tolstoy’s car, and his death in the grove together and came up with enough of a story that she just nodded, said, “Yes, sir. Yes, sir. I was very lucky. Thank you, sir, I’m sure it will never happen again to a student,” and did her best to forget what she’d seen.

But she couldn’t.

The department chair read over her amended paper, muttered under his breath in Polish, and gave her a B+, meaning she got an A- for the semester. “Excessive use of dialect, Miss Zolnerovich. Use academic Russian if you choose to write in that language, just as we use formal English for papers.”

“Yes, sir.”

When she got back to Babushka’s, her grandmother introduced her to the Little Humpbacked Horse. “You help him. Curry, feed, whenever he want. That your summer job. He help save you.”

Little Catherine was not entirely certain about spending her summer with the world’s most egotistical pony, but kept such things to herself. Her mother was generally pleased, Stavros George had signed up for summer camp in New Mexico as a junior counselor, and Morena had a very nice new modeling contract in Denver, so she would not have to brave summer airlines.

“Um, have you told Dad?” Little Catherine asked over supper that night. Aunt M had joined them, since Babushka was in one of her “Pickle all the things!” moods.

Her mother gave her one of those looks. “Not unless you think I need to.”

Rapid head shaking. “No, ma’am. You and Aunt M discovered how to break the last of the magic and get rid of the bad-luck feathers, she’s using the pearls that are left for church and other stuff, and Gatta and Ivan will keep their muzzles shut. Right?”

“More or less. Your father won’t know unless he asks directly or you tell him.”

After a few more bites, Little Catherine ventured, “What did happen with the feathers?”

The older women both shook their heads. “Magic calls to magic. As best we can tell, as long as feathers existed, spell remained on me in part. When feathers touched, spell finished and cancelled. I could feel happen but not explain.” Morena made a funny gesture with the hand not wielding a fork. “Not worry. Magic gone.”

“And we all live happily ever after!” Catherine Theodora smiled, leaned over, and low-fived Gatta under the table.

“Until Ivan get phone back,” Morena sighed. “Two kilo sack of catnip arrived yesterday, pay on delivery.”

(C) 2016 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved.

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11 thoughts on “Friday Fiction: The Firebird’s Feather

    • Yes, it is. It will be the new story in the Alexi’s Tale omnibus I’m releasing in early September. There will also be a novella to follow.

      • I’ll have to check it out. I’ve only read your Cats Among Dragons and Colpatchski stories before but this looks interesting.

      • If you go over to the Non-Series Works page, at the bottom there are links to the individual stories, in order. Or you can wait for the omnibus.

        I’m glad you enjoyed it. 🙂

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