“Stone Dove” by Elizabeth Beechwood
The village of Holubica sat in a wide valley carved out by the Kamenec River, strategically placed for travel, trade, politics, and war. It had existed for so long that the villagers no longer remembered how it got its name; some said it was for the hundreds of grey doves that flew down from the mountains every winter, some said it was for the too-many stone doves carved on the headstones of their children. Our memories went back much further, however, back to the murmur of ocean tides and shifting tectonic plates. We remembered the first travelers who called our valley home, and why the town was named for doves.
We were surprised when people created trade routes over our slopes and through our valleys; their curiosity and industry intrigued us. We broadened our shoulders as best we could to accommodate their wagons, and shook clouds from our heads so their gardens could flourish. More people came. Many stayed.
It was the autumnal equinox when the soldiers converged on our valley from all compass points. They torched the few wooden buildings, overtook the homes, and conscripted most of the men and boys. Many women, children, and elders escaped into our forests and hid in our caves. We gladly sheltered them, turning our backs against the bullets and violence. From our caves, the people watched the plumes of war rise up. The women and children cried for their fathers, their friends, their lovers. We cried with them, large drops of slushy snow that prevented the soldiers from climbing our slopes.
Two months after the initial attack, Danica’s time came with no midwife in the camp. It was the women’s custom back then to return to their mothers’ homes or to travel to the nearby village of Zborov to deliver their children, but Danica had been caught up by the war before she could leave. She labored far longer than the other women thought necessary, but they did not know what to do. Danica, exhausted and certain that she and the baby would die, cried out to her virgin goddess for help.
We were touched with a deep sadness for this woman. We were tired of blood and muskets and death. These were our people. Surely we could aid in some manner? We bowed our heads together and conferred.
We heaved up a rock, grey and speckled, from our western slope. It tumbled, bounced, fell from a cliff and, half-way down, it transformed. It unfurled wings, a head, and a tail, and flew to the entrance of the cave where the woman, Danica, labored. When its feet touched the ground, our dove transformed again, into a young woman. Her eyes remained the color of granite and our mud matted her long silver hair.
Danica’s prayers turned to screams as another contraction struck and that was when our dove appeared in their doorway. Everyone stared at the stranger until the next contraction drew their attention back to Danica. Our dove laid her hands on the woman’s belly, pushed and poked. She formed words with difficulty, saying, “The baby, she is wrong.”
Danica raised herself up on one elbow. “You must save her. The Virgin sent you to save her.”
We did not refute the woman’s statement; we had many names.
Zlata, a traveling merchant’s levelheaded wife, stepped forward. “What is wrong with the baby?”
“No, no, not wrong – I mistake make! She is–” our dove pointed to her feet. “She is not being head down. Her feet come first.”
A wave of relief filled the room as the women understood the trouble. Then another wave, one of fear, followed. They all knew what needed to be done to shift the child.
Zlata hissed at Rézi, the goatherd. “You birth the goats, you must know how to fix this.”
Rézi shook her head and stepped away. “No, my husband took care of them. I do not know how to turn the child.”
The other women, huddled in the corner like hens, shook their heads, too.
Then one wrinkled foot appeared as another contraction pushed at the child.
Zlata whispered, “The other leg must be curled up, stuck inside.”
None of the women spoke and the only sound was Danica’s weak gasps and cries. No one stepped forward, willing to reach into Danica’s womb to shift the child.
We knew another way, however.
The sibilant sound of the wind through leafy lindens began to fill the birthing room. It turned to a soft cooing, soothing as a lullaby. The voice grew stronger in a language none of the women understood. It was our dove, kneeling at the foot of the bed, singing softly in our language, the language of water and rock and leaves and loam. Danica’s body relaxed and the tiny leg drew back up.
The women stared for a moment, then Rézi grabbed our dove’s shoulder and pulled her away. “She’s chanting in a heathen tongue. She is calling for Satan to come and take both of their souls!”
“No, no! I am singing her into these mountains,” our dove said, fighting Rézi’s hold. “I am singing for her to come, that we are waiting for her here, we welcome her.”
“Let her sing,” Danica whimpered as a contraction eased. “Let her sing.”
Our dove tore herself away from the others, and began to sing again. The other women grumbled that they would not be a part of this and left the room. Zlata remained.
The child rolled, stirred, rolled again like a rock inside of its mother, and another contraction took hold. The child felt our love, heard our words of welcome, and answered in her own way. Danica’s body swelled, hardened, pushed on its own accord, but the singing calmed Danica’s mind, and her labor turned productive. After three contractions, Zlata wiped Danica’s brow and said, “I can see the child’s head. She has dark hair like her mother.” After five contractions, our dove cradled the child, Angelica, cooing in our own language, “Welcome, sweet child. Welcome to the Tatra Mountains.”
After Angelica’s safe passage into the world, our dove was free to return to us. But our love for the people had been transmitted to her heart, and she chose to remain. She showed the people where an underground stream flowed all winter, led them to a stand of fallen alder dry enough to burn, directed them to partridges and hares willing to give their lives so our people would live.
In the spring, the wild crocus bloomed and the war officially ended. A new flag flew in the marketplace. The people crawled from their hiding places and rebuilt their homes. We were not surprised when our dove joined them. Because she had no name, the people called her Mária, after their virgin goddess. It was as good a name as any other they could have chosen.
Mária took up a simple cabin along the perimeter of the village that had belonged to Janos Zajacz, a bachelor, killed in the first week of the invasion. No one complained since we hovered over the yard, casting our shadow over the rocky ground. We were happy, however, to have our dove close.
Some of the soldiers and army followers decided that this valley, this spot beside the Kamenec River, was where they would stay and grow old, feeling fortunate to have lived through the war. The people who had survived in our mountains also felt fortunate. But they also wanted to forget. It was difficult for them, however, with Mária reminding them of their dark time of hiding. When she walked confidently though what was now becoming a village, her long silver braid swished back and forth, reminding them of the silver icicles hanging from the boughs of hemlocks. As she shopped in the new Centrum, they remember her uncanny knowledge of the forest and animals. And, after the small church was built from our granite and a priest installed, the women whispered about their midwife’s incomprehensible singing that eased a woman’s labor pains. They remembered that they would have died without her. But now they wanted to forget.
But Mária’s song – our song – continued to calm mothers-to-be and urged reluctant babies from their wombs. Soon, there were many children running through the streets and healthy mothers in the market, thanks to the skill of our dove. She – we – loved the people and hoped that one day the people would accept her. And some did.
But most did not.
We were afraid that our dove would be lonely and so we sent doves to her, hundreds of them, each winter to keep her company during the cold harsh days.
It only caused the others to whisper behind their hands, to whisper about doves and singing and Satan.
But, still, the women called out for Mária at their most vulnerable moments. They knew our dove would come and sing their children safely into the world. And our dove went time and time again, no matter how the women whispered.
Years later, Mária’s time approached. In the Centrum, Rézi, the goatherd, whispered to Zlata, the mayor’s wife, that our dove was too old, too unmarried, too closed-lipped about the identity of the father, to bear a child. We whispered through our valleys that nothing wrong had been done – why would the goddess give people such capacity for love and pleasure if she expected these gifts to be denied? Rumors swirled on the wind that Mária carried the child of Satan. We knew she carried a child of the mountains. We shivered with excitement for the new life blossoming inside of our dove.
Our dove’s labor was long and difficult. Danica tried to sing the child into the world, but could not get the words quite right. Zlata wiped Mária’s forehead and tried to sing, too. Rézi grumbled that this was Mária’s punishment and left the room. Mária tried to sing, but her contractions stole away her breath. Our babies rolled and clanked together inside of their mother. Mária’s body swelled, hardened, pushed on its own accord until the twins tumbled from their mother’s body, their silent grey bodies curled like stones.
Mária held our dead babies and told Zlata, “They must be returned to the mountains.”
And so Mária, our dove, began to sing again. Quietly at first like the sibilant sound of the wind through leafy linens, in a crackling voice more like a raven than a dove. Danica, who had heard Mária’s song more than any other woman, said, “Those are not the same words you use to sing children into the world.”
“I am singing them back to the mountains,” Mária said. “I must sing them away.”
Zlata demanded that the bodies of our innocent children be buried in the Church cemetery.
The priest refused to bury the bastards in consecrated ground.
The woman who polished the alter and trimmed the candle wicks (and had three healthy children, thanks to our dove) did not attend to her duties, claiming illness. The housekeeper (whose granddaughter was the light of her life) did not wash the priest’s vestments or cook his meals, claiming illness. Zlata did not bring fresh flowers to the Church before Mass. She made no excuse.
Two days later, Mária’s children were buried in a modest grave on the edge of the cemetery, in consecrated ground among the rocks and boulders. The stonemason carved our best granite for their headstone and adorned it with twin doves. At no charge, by his pregnant wife’s command.
We saw what the women did, how they helped our dove and our children. Although we wept cold tears that overflowed the Kamenec’s banks, although our shoulders sagged heavily under a shawl of clouds, we felt something of our love returned to us. And that made the sorrow easier to bear.
But our Mária never attended a laboring woman again.
Instead, she sat with other children, singing a new song.
She sat with the dying children.
She sang them to us.
Others began to adorn their children’s headstones with doves.
Decades passed and Mária’s eyesight clouded, her fingers crooked with arthritis. She walked the cemetery, leaving flowers or brushing snow off the headstones. She did not need her eyesight to read the stones; she remembered each child, recalled each of their passings. She sang her song in a crackling voice, more like a raven than a dove.
It was Angelica, the midwife, who found Mária’s body, crumpled in the melting snow beside her children’s headstone. Angelica knelt beside our dove’s body, and began to pray to the Virgin Mother, when the sibilant sound of the wind through the leafy lindens caught her attention. She stood and scanned the cemetery and, to her astonishment, discovered all of the children’s headstones bare. She looked up to find the trees filled with grey doves, cooing to each other.
The doves sang Mária’s song, and children’s voices joined in, voices that grew stronger in a language Angelica did not understand, the language of water and rock and leaves and loam.
The doves took flight, their wings whistling, returning to us.
Many thanks to Sholeh Wolpe, whose beautiful poetry inspired this story.
About the Author
Elizabeth Beechwood is your typical Subaru-driving, scarf-knitting, bird-feeding tree hugger who lives on the fringes of Portland, Oregon. She recently earned her MFA in Popular Fiction at the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Program, and doesn’t think that talking mountains are strange at all. You can visit her at www.elizabethbeechwood.com.