Women of the Whirlwind

Johnny Libenzon
17 min readMar 12, 2022
When you promised to love me, Mama, were you lyin’? [‘Ascent’ by Axel Sauerwald]

I am afraid.

The mornin’ chill in the Oikeiakó Valley sweeps all lazy-like across the mountain peaks, billowing past the ramshackle housing my people inhabit on this mortal soil. We are a culture that longs for the sky, but still our feet bind us o’er to the earth. We cannot hope to live up in the glorious wind forever, ‘fore our wings tire and we come crashing down as Ichiro or the Agryphimm did before us.

My feet are bare, and my dress, which Mama made for me from the prettiest blue-white silks and fabrics she could get down in the village below, is wrapping all around me crazy-like ’cause the winds can’t decide what direction they wanna go in. My arms are exposed, and I feel the hairs on my forearms tingle. I enjoy the wind on my arms.

The mountains have changed. Before, there would be little gentle-pecking birds circling the peaks, which were lush with vegetation and life and all the prettiest flowers you could imagine. There were lilacs, and daisies, and chrysanthemum, and wild brush, and hiccarium, and it was good. Now the peaks were stranger, more hostile. The plants were becoming weak and sickly, their roots shriveling before they could hope to drink the droplets of precious water they could find. The birds, which were gulls and swallows and what, had become bigger, deadlier, sharp-beaked fast-hunting things. They did not join us in the sky; they feared us, or when in number, hunted us as if we were prey. We survived, of course, for we are wise and speak in the tongues of this boreal valley. But we have our scars. Enough of those, collected over time and time again, and we are in pain.

I don’t deal well with pain. Last time it happened — last time it was real pain — was when Girnna scratched me. She cut her nails long, jagged, to hunt small-game across the lower reaches. She played, crazy giggling, pretendin’ she was a wolf. She even howled at the moon, once. Mama scolded us.

Well, wolves have claws. One time there was a game, and woof, she got me good. Not deep, but long, across my arm. I yowled and cried, and she grabbed my head and consoled me, saying ‘No, no, don’t tell Mama, I didn’t mean to,’ but I was younger then and I told Mama and she walped… walloped?… Girnna real good. Even scratched her across the face, big long red cuts, to remind her never to hurt a sister again. Never ever.

Yes, I remember. Even while Girnna was cryin’, Mama said, ‘Girnna, annun kish bva a’ram ikol ullon? Temmen, budisham sa terrl monyyrg!’ And back then I did not know what it meant because I did not speak Divine, but the way her face was angry-red and her eyes looked real scary-like I knew she was saying something that would get to Girnna’s head. Somethin’ nasty and Mama-like, to make Girnna all sulky for the rest of the day.

Then Mama had turned to me and asked why I didn’t get along well with my sister-friends, and I told her they teased at me that I had no ‘vestiges.’ Whatever they meant by that. And Mama said I was just a late bloomer. That conversation was two winters ago, back when the green still lined the peaks even after the late season snows.

Now the cold won over the green, and I still got no vestiges. So now even Mama was worried, too.

“What’re you doin’ all creepy-staring, Fyyrne?”

“What’s wrong Fyyrne, somethin’ got you all sulky tonight?”

I turn. Behind me are two other sister-friends, Atti and Prioria. Atti is tan of skin, with long hair, much longer than mine, that tosses when she skips around. Prioria is pale, older-not-smarter, her hair short. I grabbed it once when I was younger — how she cried!

“I’m fine. Go chase pigeons,” I mutter.

The two of them come closer. I notice, under the very hem of their beautiful grey cloak-dresses, the ruffle of hidden feathers. Jealousy wells up inside me, but I purse my lips and don’t say nothin’.

“Doesn’t sound fine. Sounds closer to bitchin’ to me,” said Atti. She is grinning, wide lips apart, but there is no mirth in her.

“Oi! No comparin’ sister-friends to wolves and what. Mama’s word,” said Prioria. The older harpy rolled her eyes disparagingly when Atti’s response was, like she had as an insolent brat-child, to stick her tongue out.

“Mama says lots of things. Can’t keep ’em all in line, you know. What about you, Fyyrne? You good at rememberin’?”

“Leave her alone, Atti. She’s just scared is all.”

I am scared.

Prioria steps in front of Atti and I. Her cloak is streaked with dirt, meaning she was flying earlier today, and maybe got caught in the rain earlier. Strange that she didn’t take a bath or a wash by now, but maybe she’s just showin’ her wings off to me. Making me feel all envy-like. And envy I feel; they are gorgeous, wide, strong wings that probably make eagles weep upon sight of them. Wings with long, flowing feathers resembling the back of a sparrow, all grey-turning-white, ruffling along and nudging each other as they spread out. Good wings, yeah.

Don’t have wings, myself. Nothing but myself. And that’s okay; I’m not supposed to have wings now, anyway. My wings are supposed to grow in tonight, when the Ama Naón, Great Goddess of the Sky, Mother Bird Whose Wings Beat Away the Tides of War, comes to give wings to we of the sisterhood, we harpies who dance with the source of all the gales of the world.

Yet… no, no, mustn’t think so darkly. Not yet.

“Ain’t scared,” I say, still starin’ at Prioria’s mighty-long wingspan. Atti don’t believe me, and Prioria don’t say nothing at all, but her saying nothing says everything anyway.

Oh, I can’t help but think darly, and I’m sure they must be too. They thinkin’, poor little Fyyrne, no signs, not a thing, not a single ‘vestige’ to show that she’ll become a full sister tonight. No lengthenin’ of nails into proper hunting-claws, no shifts in bone cartilage along the shoulderblades. No growth for her molars, no sudden blindin’ weakness to the sun shinin’ it’s rays right into her iris’. Ain’t none of the smaller signs either, such as increase in appetite, or slight drop in octave base, or more prominent arm an’ leg hair coloration. Ain’t nothin’.

And what happens if Ama Naón don’t show? What happens if the Goddess says no, this one is spoiled and rotten and ill, she has no place in my skies. She is not fit to wander among the gulls and swallows and what, nor even among the sharp-beaked things that hate and hate. Yes, this creature called Fyyrne is beneath even such things, for such things at least have purpose.

Oh, they must think, if Fyyrne is purposeless, she has no place in nature. And if Fyyrne has no place in nature, then she has no place at all.

“Come off her. Sister’s scared all the same without your jibber,” says a voice. I recognize it as Girnna, and cannot bring myself to face her. I feel her come close, with her taller posture and brown-grey wings and autumn-like cloak, looking dreamily close to autumn leaves in the drizzle, and do my best to avoid her eyes. Don’t wanna see her face, I don’t, else I’ll get teary-sorry about the scratches.

Girnna says she likes ’em now. Make her look tougher, more predatory. I can’t bring myself to believe her. Think she just says it to save face, else she be embaressed for being clawed due to a not-sister that don’t belong in the den.

“Can’t call her sister, Gir,” says Atti, though she was lookin’ real abashed now, “she ain’t got no wings. Can’t be a sister o’ mine without wings.”

“Only got wings one year ago yourself. Settle down, pup, before I take ’em away just as quick,” Girnna responded. Her voice was real quiet, quieter than I’ve ever seen. Don’t think Girnna’s ever defended me quite so honest before.

Atti said nothing for a few moments. Then she spoke, all sad-like.

“Sorry, Fyyrne. Just teasin’ around, tryin’ta get your mind off things…” She sounded like she meant it. Maybe she did, I didn’t care.

“Thanks,” I said to her, though not really meaning it.

Sun was getting low. Real low. Not long left now.

I am terrified.

“Girnna?” I say in low voice. Hard to hide the dread now, when it’s all so close. “Where’s Mama?”

“She’s comin’ soon. Wouldn’t miss this for anythin’, she wouldn’t. And I’m here for now while she flies up; ain’t as young as she used to be, you know.”

Girnna snaps for Prioria to close her wings, and the older sister does, but not before nodding at me all gently. Think she’s showing how nice it is to have wings, how gracious and giggly I’ll feel when I get ’em, but it ain’t no big help. If I don’t get ’em after all, then the fall will only be longer and harder.

“You really don’t hate me, Gir?” I ask the question I been meanin’ to ask for years. Ain’t gonna be no point soon, if I don’t get my wings. Gonna toss me off the mountain, I bet.

“Why would I hate you, Fyyrne?” Girnna laughs. It is musical.

“Your face.”

I look up. Three great, long gashes along her cheeks. Girnna dresses in nice fabrics, makes beaded necklaces and weaves windflower into her hair, but the cheek is on display all exposed-like: Long scars, long and grey and sickly. As if a plow had run through dirt and left the torn earth to freeze.

“What, this? Good reminder of how much I’ve grown, tha’s all,” Girnna shrugged, not caring. I noticed Atti tryin’ to peek in and listen, but I moved the two of us away.

“Mama got you good… ’cause I told her. I’m sorry,” I said.

“Why’s you talkin’ about this now, huh? Ain’t got bigger things in your head?” Girnna said. She seemed angry.

“Yeah. Keep my mind off them.”

Girnna rolled her eyes and smiled, the anger gone as soon as it had come. She seemed about to say somethin’, then jus’ as quickly snapped her jaw shut and straightened out. I heard Atti and Prioria shuffle awkwardly off towards me, standing with posture up. They looked statue-like, so tall and protective. Not like they were just earlier.

I don’t turn. I know who it is. I know when she wraps her big arms around me, skin a little weathery but still good. I know when she rests her chin gently on my hair, takin’ real care not to hurt my scalp because the skin’s soft there. I know when her wings spread out around me an’ for a brief moment, cut me off from the rest of the world. It’s just me and her, for a moment, and she smells of vanilla and honey. And she holds me good and tight. No words, but I know if I asked her, she’d never let me go.

Before she came, I was planning on stayin’ real strong. Keep my tone in check, keep standing tall with my sisters. Don’t show how I feel, don’t let it slip like water through no rock crevice.

“Mama.”

My voice cracks almost as soon as the word slips. There’s tears in my eyes, but I don’t feel the way I did before. They’re good tears, knowin’ she’ll not care what happens tonight. Knowing good that she’s my Mama, ain’t she, yes she is and that’s all that matters. I feel movement outside our embrace, and I know Prioria and Atti and Girnna have come in to hug both of us, holding us together.

I am warm. I am loved.

Nothing is impossible.

When I feel Mama’s grasp loosen, I turn to look at her, seeing how my sisters disperse quiet-like so us two can speak. Mama is dressed as she usually is; her wings are still strong, but smaller now, hidden under the royal blue cloak she wears. Her auburn hair is tied into a long knot, and there is a circlet upon her brow. Her face is gently worn, yet her eyes betray her age with more truth than anything else I’d say.

She knows I fear this. I can see it in those big blue eyes, filled with the wisdom of untold generations of my people, my sister-friends, who first entered the Oikeiakó Valley and roosted upon its mountaintops. Mama knows, but Mama does not speak to my eyes yet, so we stare at each other, all silent-like, and I wonder who’s gonna talk first.

I wanna speak, but I don’t want to lose everything before I’ve even had a chance to try. I wanna beg her to tell me it’s okay if I fail, and if I ain’t nothing but myself after all, that they won’t toss me out or think of me as little and weak and frail and —

“Daughter,” Mama said, breaking me out from my fear-inflicted loop of self-fulfilling prophecy, “You are mine, in whatever form you choose to take.”

Her smile was thin, her eyes kinder than they’d ever been before. Kind eyes… could she really have clawed Girnna so deadly, so fierce as to leave scars squirming to this day? And she talks about choice, as if I am the one to choose the wings. Ha! A fine thing, to believe one’s will takes precedence to the whims of a goddess.

I blink, unnerved at my own thoughts. I am becoming vile. This deep dread mixing with desire in my gut is turning me bitter.

“Do you mean that?” I ask without thinking. I am trying hard to look fierce-like, but Mama can see through it and I’d only make foolishness by doing so, so I drop it quickly. “Do you really mean that, honestly? Not just — just sayin’ niceties to keep me fat an’ giggly?”

“Oh, you children and your linguistic perversions. You’ve learned such euphemisms from the Korákeídos, have you? Or the Osprey-o’er-the-Low? Speak properly of your fears, Fyyrne.”

Mother was still all gentle-like, but her mood had shifted. Was she worried too?

“Do you think I will be a proper sister, Mama?” I ask, my voice barely above a whisper.

I wanted to say more, but Mama cupped my cheeks, and she had a face on like no, no don’t speak, I speak now. An’ behind me, I could hear my sisters shuffle uncomfortably, but I didn’t care. They had their time with Mama, and… and I needed more help than them, and that’s okay. That’s okay, I say.

“You are the youngest of my children. With every child I am blessed with, I feel Ama Naón’s grace filling me with new purpose. Every child comes with new challenges, but the work is nothing compared to the reward of seeing you happy. Yes, happy, and you will be happy.”

Her eyes are no longer kind. Now they are brimming with pride, with utter surety in who I am and who I am meant to be.

“None of you are weak, and all of you are worthy of love and joy. And all of you had fears when you came up to this summit, Fyyrne; yours are more pronounced, perhaps, but they are no less legitimate than those that came before you. Atti was shaking when she came up here, while Prioria nearly tore her own hair out. And Girnna? Well, Girnna was so ashamed at her own actions with you that she cut at her own face, thinking it would appease the Mother Bird.”

I gasp. Mama never mentioned that part before.

“I did not wish to worry you,” she continues, “but the truth of the matter is this: What will happen mere moments from now may well be the most important moment of your life. Not because you might fail, but because you might change. And in whatever direction your life may go, we will live through it, and we will love you with all the conviction we can muster. Is that not right, daughters?”

The others do not speak, but I can feel them shuffle close in acknowledgement. Girnna touches my shoulder from behind me, squeezing gently. I am imbued with purpose through her belief. Through all of them.

Above us, the wind shifts, growing louder and more powerful. Mama nods at me, indicating it is time, and steps back. I feel her touch loosen and eventually disconnect, and for a brief moment, I am lost. Then I look up. I see all of them waiting expectedly, confident in me, in me, and I am found.

The wind is groaning, louder and louder. Not angry, but insistent. It waits only for me.

I step away from them, moving closer to the edge of the peak. My hands are cold, and I can feel the breeze beginning to grow chilly around me. I cannot explain it anymore, but while I do not think of it as an antagonistic thing, like a monster lookin’ to snatch me away, I do think that it is hungry. It desires my flesh, my blood and bone, whether to devour or to mold into something new.

Part of me hopes that the Goddess does not show. Part of me thinks, oh, to put wings in a body without them is… oh, how painful it must be. What terrible rearrangements must occur to give those vestiges we all hold so dear. Oh, goddess, how I’ll scream and cry in the pain, an’ I won’t be able to depend on my sisters to help because it’ll be pain they once had and not something they remember, not anymore. That pain will be a dreary memory for them, but it’ll be real and present for me.

Pity has no place at a height as high as this, I think, where people can plummet down without a second thought. That which did not fly bird-like in a place like this would have to be heavy or small enough that the wind either gives up trying to pull it from the dirt, or deems it unworthy of its time. I am neither. I am stuck in that strange middle-place where things’re shaky, and improper, and the wind wouldn’t take kindly to that. No, not one bit, it wouldn’t.

My dress is fluttering now, movin’ around me, shaking in fear. My hair moves alongside it, an’ about now I’m happy I had Prioria cut it half-wise, just good and proper, about a week back. Makes this less scary, what with my hair not ticklin’ at my neck. Might’ve thought it were the Goddess herself mocking me if it was.

The wind is louder, louder now. It is screaming at me, and I cannot hear my sisters no more. Nothin’ but the wind, booming in my ears, shocking me to my core. A funnel wraps around my eardrums, and all around me I can see the wind growing louder and louder, my eardrums boomin’ crazy-like, and Goddess it hurts, it hurts, it hurts.

Stop it, I don’t want it. Keep your wings, your vestiges, your skies, just don’t hurt me. Are you listening? I don’t —

Mama, I don’t want to go. But I can’t stay. Unless… please. Tell me I can say, just one more time.

Oh, you can’t hear me either. Is anyone listenin’?

When you promised to love me, Mama, were you lyin’? But I guess no one ever really knows, do they. Everyone says what they think ahead of time an’ all, but words don’t actions make. Wish they did sometimes, ’cause I talk oh so much, but this… Goddess, the pain, they never told me it would hurt so.

And you, Goddess — why won’t you speak to me? Do you even care? Do you even exist?

Oh, or is the pain special-made, just for me? Am I the worst of the sister-friends, so you decided little Fyyrne needs to be taught a little lesson in humility? Is Fyyrne the black sheep, and you brought the riding crop out to whip and tan her hide till she’s sore an’ red all over, to teach her for doubtin’ you, doubtin’ her family?

Well… if that’s so, then all the hells to you too then, Goddess.

I reject your wings, your gift. Keep them.

Keep your skies. They can belong to the gulls and swallows, and hawks and ravens, and doves and ospreys, and what else of your beast children. They can belong to my sister-friends and Mama, and they can be happy up there.

But if you won’t talk to me, if you don’t show me a sign, then flutter off. Go on! They said they’ll love me even without your gifts, and I’ll choose to believe them.

Mama, I can’t hear you, and you can’t hear me, but I love you.

Girnna — I dunno why you didn’t tell me about where the scars came from, but thank you. I love you.

Atti, Prioria — you express yourselves odd-like, but you never hurt me. We ain’t got the best of friendships we don’t, an’ maybe part of that is me, an’ I’m sorry. I’ll do better. I love you.

So do your worst, Goddess. Strike me down if you dare, for if you do, my spirit will rise like a vengeful haunt and wreak havoc upon your divine flock. And that’s a promise, it is.

The wind stops. I can hear again.

Around me, the ruffling of fabric and dust alike whimpers to a halt. The whirlwind, the will of the Goddess, seems to have faded away. Ha, well, if one can imagine my sisters to be confused by the sudden change of the elements, it’s clear my response is ever more amplified by the knowledge of what it must mean.

I am shaking, but to my own credit, I don’t even make a whimper out.

For a few moments, there is nothing. It is as it was before, when I was scared. Behind me, Mama is silent, jus’ watching and probably wonderin’… thinkin’ about how to punish me, how to tell me I ain’t welcome around anymore.

Do I turn around? No, no. Don’t wanna face ’em. Don’t want to know what they’ll say. Just words, just… words. That’s all I have now, and I don’t know if it’ll be enough to convince them to let me stay.

Someone touches my hand from behind. I gulp, my throat dry. My eyes dry. My body is dry, like the husk of something that once loved existence and now feared that all the nesting it had grown accustomed to would soon crack and break under the pressure.

The hand squeezes mine, older and lined with withering flesh. Mama is reassuring me.

I wait to see if the others will step away, but I hear them come closer. They will not abandon me. They will not… why? I thought… no, don’t cry, there’s more yet to come.

I can feel it. When the wind picks up again, almost monstrous-like now, and my sisters step away. Mama gasps behind me when she sees that this new whirlwind is not coming down from the heavens, but rather from me.

And my heart is full, for I know they would not have abandoned me even if this did not happen. But it did, and my cup is nearly overflowing. They cannot see my face, but my lips are parted, mouth wide in the greatest, most wondrous grin of my life.

I can feel it. My arms flare out to the sides, spreading them wide even as my eyes close to feel the strength of the cold air blasting against my skin. I can hear my dress shudder violent-like in time with my breath, and yet I know that I am safe, for the wind is mine now.

Hush, little sob, do not surface. Ama Naón may not have given you the vestiges you so desired, but she gave somethin’ different, somethin’… more. Why, I cannot say, but I will not let her down. No, I will not.

I raise my arms up, slowly, and the whirlwind rises with me. I can feel my feet leaving the dirt, afloat on the will of the goddess. I need no wings to keep me flyin’, as my sisters do. I shall never need such things to bring me up to where the gulls and swallows and what make flight and tremble among the cloud cover.

Floating. Floating above the earth, high above the ground, up where the mountains touch the sky and scream out across the horizon. My sisters take flight to reach me, and they are slight darting shapes at first as they rise, but become bigger and more prominent. They reach me, and Girnna smiles as she sweeps past, lookin’ oh so beautiful even with that gash on her cheek. And Prioria looks impressed, for once, her eyebrows raised all bashful-like. Can’t see Atti quite yet, but she’ll come around.

And the wind is mine to command. Mine to command.

Somewhere, somewhere nearby, I can hear Mama laughing. Happy. Happy. And while she laughs so beautifully, I… I am… I am rising up, my dress hanging and twisting below like a wind chime. And oh, they will know me, they will, both those of the sister-friends and those beyond. To them, from now on and forever more, I am the Master of the Western Sky.

I am the Seeker of Eternal Flight.

I am the Dancer in the Oikeiakó Valley.

I am the Lady of the Gulls and Swallows.

I am the Whirlwind.

And I am not afraid.

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Johnny Libenzon

Toronto-based aspiring author writing a mix of sci-fi and 'rural fantasy' short stories