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Collage by Catie O’Leary for Harper’s Magazine

Collage by Catie O’Leary for Harper’s Magazine


Ina had lost her vision when she was only seventeen. She suffered a high fever due to a malady that had torn through the fiefdom. The entire family fell ill very quickly, one by one, mother, father, and her two little sisters. Ina fell asleep, shivering and sweating, and when she awoke, she came to nothing but the black light of her blindness and the stench of her family’s dead bodies in the bed around her. Such stories were not unusual at the time—illness spread very easily in the region, as it was only a day and night away on horseback from the coast, where all the pestilence came in on ships crossing the sea. They said it was the rats to blame. When Ina was little, before Villiam’s grandfather installed guards around the bounds of his province in an effort to keep out the bandits, traders and pilgrims passed through the village on their way to Iskria and Bordijn, bringing with them rashes and pneumatic contagions. Travelers often stopped in Lapvona to trade work for food and shelter, or simply to see how other people lived. Lapvona was a special place, known for its good soil and fine weather. And the villagers were kind and generous people, often taking in visitors and giving freely of their stores of food. They could afford to do so as their lord was fair and God-fearing. Taxes were low. There were only a few dozen families in Lapvona when Ina was a child, and they all worked and lived together peacefully until the plague took half of them to heaven. That changed everything. The houses were burned down with the dead inside for fear that burying the bodies would infect the ground. The survivors became infected with fear and greed. Guilt was extinct in Lapvona thereafter. Perhaps this was what allowed the village to move on after so much loss. Even their dear lord, Villiam’s great-grandfather, had perished, leaving his twelve-year-old son, Villiam’s grandfather, to manage the village.

Ina was the only sick person to recover from the plague. When she staggered out of her home, the villagers were about to strike the flint. ‘God rest their souls,’ they said, then gasped at the sight of the sick teenager, her dress dark with sweat, her face bleached of color, roving blindly and calling out:

‘Where am I?’

A woman screamed. The men backed away, afraid of infection.

Ina spoke to the voices in the darkness. ‘Am I alive or dead?’

This question made the people of Lapvona very suspicious. Nobody would answer. They weren’t sure what to say, anyway. If she was alive, how had she miraculously survived the illness? Had she seen death? What devilish germ might she have brought back with her? Why did God spare her, only to leave her orphaned and blind? Wouldn’t death have been more merciful? Maybe blindness was penalty for some profane ill within her soul. And if she was dead, was she a ghost now, there to taunt and torture them? Was she an angel of evil? Only Jesus could rise, the priest, Father Vapnik, had told them. The people were perturbed. They told Ina to sit still on the dirt, then made a circle around her with small stones and proceeded to set the cottage on fire. The rest of the villagers came out to stare from a distance. In her weakness, Ina begged for water and food. ‘Should we give it to her?’ Nobody dared. They wordlessly agreed that it would be better for everyone if she were to succumb to her illness safely, within the circle of stones. They were afraid. A few people turned away, coughing in the smoke, not wanting to watch her die. But she wouldn’t die. She only begged for food more passionately.

‘She sounds like a howling sheep,’ someone said.

‘Yes, the kind with horns,’ another said.

It wasn’t until Father Vapnik heard of her situation that she was offered a cooked potato. A neighbor threw it at her, and she ate it. Eventually Father Vapnik directed the village carpenter to fashion a long pole by which Ina could be prodded this way and that, to get her safely away from the others. Nobody wanted to take her in. She was thought to have some kind of hex on her.

They closed her in the anteroom of the church, used in the past to incarcerate madmen when they were throwing fits. Nobody in Lapvona had gone mad in a century, but the room still held the charge of dread and insanity. Ina could feel it. Villiam’s grandfather, traumatized by the death of his father, took the priest’s advice and ordered Ina to be sent to the nunnery. No man would ever marry her anyway. She had been betrothed, but the boy and his family were ashes now. Father Vapnik arranged for a horse to take her up to the convent once she had recovered enough. She slept and ate, stuck in the anteroom, and touched her body with her hands to remind herself that she was real, she was alive. Emboldened by the church’s charity toward the blind girl, a few people left food and jugs of water for her, and eventually she regained her strength, but not her eyesight. Ina understood that nobody wanted to hear of her sorrow or her fear or loss or anything to indicate her passion or dispassion for life. And she knew that the nuns would make her do some menial work, the kind that a blind girl could do without mistake—probably scrubbing laundry or grinding wheat. She didn’t want to spend her life gripping dirty rags and plunging her arms into cold lye water or turning the handle of a crank for hours each day. She had indeed seen death and she was not afraid of it. What scared her were other people and their immovable selfishness.

The night before she was to make her journey to the convent, Ina couldn’t sleep. She stayed up eavesdropping on Father Vapnik discussing things with the vicar in the chapel.

‘We’ll need to bring in new families to offset the deaths,’ the priest said. ‘Maybe this is a blessing. The new lord is so young and pliable, he’ll do whatever I say. And we can build a more robust village. The Northerners are good-looking, aren’t they?’

The vicar agreed, adding that Northerners were more compliant in their disposition as well. ‘They are good farmers,’ the vicar said. ‘They don’t waste time praying and singing like ours do. Northerners are reasonable people. Sturdy.’

‘We could become quite rich in due time,’ the priest said. ‘There are churchmen in Kaprov with jewels in their crowns.’

‘Yes, Father.’

Ina coughed and they hushed. Then Father Vapnik said, ‘What do we have to hush for? She’s only a blind nun, if that.’

When the men had left and the church was quiet, Ina felt around for the door. They had not locked it, so low was their esteem of her will. So she ran out into the night. Better to live wild in the woods than to be enslaved by the nuns, she believed. A few people taking their midnight constitutionals saw her stumbling and feeling her way through the village, but they didn’t bother her. They simply got out of her way as she staggered with her arms out toward the woods. Nobody knew where she went. Or rather, nobody wanted to find her. Father Vapnik lied to his congregants the next Sunday, said that the horse had taken Ina up the mountain and left her safe and sound at the nunnery. Those who had seen Ina escape into the woods said nothing. They never gossiped about the priest. To do so was blasphemous. So Ina was soon forgotten.

After some time in the woods, crawling through the wet leaves and cold spring rain, attuning her ears to the slightest twitch in the air, the scattering of pollen, every noise and smell, young Ina began to develop an uncanny fluency in birdsong. She could interpret every peep and warble. It was this language that guided her toward shallow puddles of dew when she was thirsty or a slug when she needed food. Eventually, she understood the world through sounds and echoes, relying on the birds to tell her whether a man or animal was coming her way, where to hide, where to find berries, where to dig for truffles or wild carrots or potatoes, where to find shelter from a storm. It didn’t take long for her to forget what things looked like. In a way, the forgetting eased her grief. She forgot her parents’ faces. They became, in her mind, lost ideas. Her dead sisters, faded dreams. Thus, the darkness was a benefit to Ina’s heart.

One day she found a cave hidden by a willow, and this became her home for decades. During that time, Ina became an expert in survival, listening to the birds who loved her. She lived for years off mushrooms, wild apples, eggs, and rain. Comfortably, almost happily. She built fires, slept curled up with the darkness in heaps of willow leaves, steeling herself from anything outside but the birds, who sang her songs and picked the mites from her hair. She didn’t think about people or her past, only the movement of air and the shadow of sound it carried. Quite often, she heard the bleating cries of babes.

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When she was in her forties, something dripped from her nipple. She didn’t notice it at first. Having abandoned her vanity at such a young age, she had felt her breasts were relics of a past life; she would never need them. The substance weeping from her nipples was such a surprise at first, she thought they were misdirected tears and tasted the secretion. It was not salty, but sweet and creamy, but with the nuttiness of the scent of her own skin. Milk, she understood it to be, had filled her bosoms. Was she a victim of divine conception, she wondered, remembering for the first time in years the story of Jesus Christ the Lord and Savior? She remembered one image in particular, after the Crucifixion: Jesus, bloodied and dead, falls into the arms of Mary. Her nipples hardened thinking of that embrace, and her breasts ached. But she couldn’t remember whether Jesus embraced Mary who was His mother, or Mary who was His lover. Father Vapnik had told the story many times when she was little. She touched her breasts and let the milk squirt out into her cupped hand. She squeezed and squeezed until her palm was full and warm, and she drank it. And then she bent her neck and lifted her breast to her mouth—she was thin enough that her bosoms had no real integrity, were just bags of fluid. She nursed herself. She drank. It was a nourishing sup. She was not at all embarrassed to do it. And then, miraculously, the black light faded. She regained her vision, not perfectly, and only temporarily, but she could see enough to remember the world as it had appeared to her as a child, and to recall her longing for society. It lasted only a few minutes. This was what led her, eventually, to reenter Lapvona, however on the fringe she would stay. Day by day she nursed herself and ventured down bit by bit to the village, wondering all along if she now somehow held in her womb the Christ Child, though it never grew or came.

In the many years she had been away, everyone she’d known in Lapvona had died. New people filled the village and nobody recognized her. They only saw a nude, wiry woman with heavy bosoms, her hair matted and full of leaves and twigs, her skin covered in dirt. They assumed she was a refugee from a village ransacked by bandits.

‘How old are you?’ a young man asked her.

It hurt her throat to answer, she hadn’t talked in so long. ‘I don’t know.’

To Ina’s surprise, the people of Lapvona didn’t reject her. On the contrary, they treated her as an elder, and many villagers volunteered food and clothing. Ina accepted their hospitality and found herself soon well employed as the village wet nurse. She moved into a foxhunter’s cabin in the woods. People saw her arrival as prophetic. There had been a blight on the farms in recent years, and from the resulting malnutrition, the mothers could not produce milk to feed their babes. It was as though Ina’s bosoms had heard their cries. Many babies would have died that year had it not been for her milk. In the years that followed, she was very useful to the women, and in turn, the women became more useful to the men. A child could nurse on Ina while its mother worked in the field. Sometimes Ina resented this turn in her life and missed the freedom of her cave. At other times, she felt that her milk gave her life meaning, made her human again, and she enjoyed the villagers’ dependency on her gift, remembering the past generation that had abandoned her in her grief and suffering. She felt, in some small way, that she had recovered a sense of family. ‘Maybe some of me will get into these babes,’ she thought. ‘And so they will all be mine.’

Ina bounced the babes on her knees, fed two at a time in the gentle light through the trees. Nursing continued to have a miraculous effect: for a few minutes after her milk was drained, she regained her eyesight, and could see beyond shapes and colors to every cobweb and scuff of dirt. She used the minutes of vision to go outside and watch the wind in the trees and the birds fly overhead and the bright green moss and wild lettuce, everything. Sometimes, she would close the babes in the cabin and wander through the woods, looking for glimpses of herself in puddles or on a flat rock that she urinated on, anything to tell her what she looked like on the outside. She did this over and over with the babes, her breasts filling soon after they were emptied—she closed the babes inside; she went out. She picked herbs and listened to the lessons of the birds in how to identify the medicinal qualities of each flower and grass and shrub and fruit. She experimented on babies who had colic or rashes or fever or lameness. She also practiced eating certain plants—calendula and comfrey, catnip, fennel—to see how the infusions into her milk could affect the babes’ moods. She developed a tincture for herself that enhanced her vision. It was Euphrasia and mint. She ate valerian to keep the babes asleep longer.

The mothers brought her food and clothing, spoke kindly, offered her puppies from their litters, kittens, flowers. They thought her milk would be more nutritious if she was happy. Ina could have made friends with these women, but she was only comfortable with the babes. She had been hurt too badly to trust anyone grown-up. She didn’t like to go to town. The plot of land on which her family’s house had once stood had been split up and taken over, replotted. The old mulberry tree had burned and died and been cut down to a stump and was now used as a place to axe firewood. The village reminded Ina too much of what she’d lost, and there was no herb that could heal her loneliness. When she asked the birds what to do, they answered that they didn’t know anything about love, that love was a distinctly human defect which God had created to counterbalance the power of human greed.

Years passed like this—babes born and brought to her with varying regularity according to the success of the harvests. Another ten years gone. And then ten more. Lapvona grew. The Northerners had mixed with the Lapvonians. More cottages were built, with their small croft gardens, but otherwise every last bit of land was growing something to be exported for the lord’s profit—wheat, barley, oats, pulses, fruit, root vegetables, nuts, and rapeseed. The manor on the mountain doubled, then tripled in size. Guards protected the roads leading up there. No longer were travelers permitted to pass through. Only the guards were allowed to leave the province to haul the harvest and honey to the sea, where they were sold for a great fortune. A few more decades passed. The lord died and his son, Villiam, took over.

Now Ina was as old as a person could be, a wrinkle of waxy skin and a nest of white, brittle hair. Marek, aged thirteen, continued to visit her. He was a small boy and had grown crookedly, his spine twisted in the middle so that the right side of his rib cage protruded from his torso, which caused his arm to find its only comfort resting, half bent, across his belly. His left arm hung loose from its socket.

Ina felt sorry for Marek, for his wrenched body and strange mind. She felt somewhat responsible for his malformation, as she had been the one to counsel his mother when she was pregnant and wanted to destroy the baby. Ina had tried to abort the baby herself, even, a hand up the girl’s sheath, clawing at the tiny thing inside, but the baby had persisted. Ina thought maybe Marek was something like her, attuned to a different nature. So as a babe, and long after, he was allowed into her cabin to nurse. He had been the last babe to taste her milk. Now there was no milk left, and Marek was grown, but he still came to suck. Ina could smell his manhood stink up from his loins when they lay on the small bed, but it didn’t trouble her. The time they spent together was peaceful for both of them. With Marek sucking her nipple, they drifted off into a realm of quietude, like being adrift on the sea, although neither had ever seen the sea. Marek did some chores around the house in exchange for time at Ina’s breasts. His sucking did not restore her vision, but by now Ina was tired of looking at things anyway. She had seen it all.

‘Come in, Marek,’ Ina called out, detecting the strange rhythm of the boy’s feet on the path. She could hear his breathing was not quite right, and understood that the boy had taken a beating from his father, as was often the case. She was glad that Marek had come. She could soothe him and he could do her some favors.

‘Fetch some water from the well, Marek. I’m thirsty,’ she said, not moving from where she’d been perched on the floor, counting out her potatoes. She had reached sixteen potatoes, had them lined up in front of her, and then had lost track of her counting.

At her age, in her loneliness, her mind was like a memory of a mind, echoes of birdsong. She’d done everything so many times in her life, she drifted between now and then, often getting lost in between. Her need for food and water was almost trivial, but not quite. She liked to believe on some level that she was inhuman, that God had granted her life after death with one caveat: she might live forever. The slow hell. Marek’s visit broke up the monotony of this timelessness.

He fetched the water, set the small pail down next to Ina, and dunked a cup for her to drink. He held the brim of the cup against her lips.

‘What’s that smell?’ Ina asked.

‘I was sick at night,’ Marek said, unashamedly.

’No, I smell blood.’

‘Father beat me.’

Ina sipped and sighed and stretched her legs slowly out on the floor. Marek moved the potatoes out of the way.

‘Will you rub my feet, Marek?’

Marek rubbed her feet. It hurt to crouch down. He was sure a few of his ribs had been broken, and his busted jaw made it hard to move his mouth to speak clearly. His tongue was swollen so that when Ina asked, ‘Will you cut me a piece of the bread you brought, Marek?’ and he answered with a woeful lisp, ‘Sorry, I didn’t bring you any bread, Ina,’ she understood that he had been brutalized sufficiently to deserve her comfort. Of course, she already knew he’d brought no bread.

‘Bad boy,’ she said. ‘Help me up.’

Marek lifted Ina up off the floor as best he could. They shuffled together toward the bed.

‘Take off my dress,’ Ina said, standing before him. Marek lifted the scratchy brown fabric, revealing the old woman’s small, childlike legs, her swollen knees, her crumpled torso. ‘Tell me, Marek,’ she said. ‘Why did your father beat you this time?’

‘I made him angry.’

‘And why did you do that?’

‘So that Father would beat me.’

‘Child of pain, don’t you know the man is bent on cruelty? He used to suck me dry and then some, my nipples would bleed, and then he’d suck some more.’ This was true. Of all the babes Ina had nursed, his father, Jude, had been the greediest.

‘Is my father a good man?’

‘He’s good, yeah,’ Ina said flatly. ‘Why do you always do things to make him angry?’

‘So that I can come to you.’

‘You like my pity?’

‘Yes, Ina.’

‘Lie down on the bed.’

Marek lay down. Ina smiled and did a little dance. She was not without humor. Marek smiled and laughed at the absurdity of her body. It was something like the absurdity of his own. They were both small, Marek disfigured by birth, his spine hinged forward so that his little shoulder blades stuck out from his back like sharp wings. He looked like a bird. Ina was small from age, her spine bent and her chest caved in toward her pelvis. Her loose breasts were more like flaps than breasts. Her nipples hung like little pebbles. She lay down next to Marek, fitting easily into the space left by his body on the bed, her head above his on the hay pillow. Marek curled up, took her breast into his mouth, and sucked. His mouth had stopped bleeding, but the cuts in his gums and tongue were sore, and his jaw ached as he drew the nipple into his throat. But soon the sucking soothed him away from his pain and he was adrift, and so was Ina. They stayed like that, Marek’s saliva dripping from the corners of his mouth like Ina’s milk used to.

Marek knew every inch of Ina’s body by heart: her face like a desiccated apple, her large drooping ears, her pale and tender scalp, the billow of white hair fixed stiffly on top. He knew her breasts, of course, and her arms, and her wrinkled belly. Ina’s pubis was covered in thin white hairs as soft as fine grass. She looked like an angel to Marek. He sucked some more, softer with his mouth, and moved his tongue back and forth over the hard little nipple, hoping it would bring Ina some pleasure. If he did it right, Marek knew, her pubis would pulsate and emanate a smell that Marek could only identify as orange blossoms and pine. He had tasted it once, had asked Ina could he suck the milk from there as well, and Ina said yes. He had sucked enough then for Ina to lie shivering on the bed, drained in the black light of her blindness. Never again. She cared too much for the boy to so abuse him.

Now Ina thought of Agata, Marek’s mother, of her woe and petulance. Wordlessly, the girl had begged Ina to rid her of the babe inside her, as if there was some fantastic future for her if only she could stay flat-bellied and young. Ina resented Agata’s fear of motherhood. It had been Ina’s idea to tell Agata to go up to the nunnery when she showed up in the cold night, bleeding through her skirts. ‘They’ll suck the blood right out of you,’ Ina had said, and pointed up to the hill where the abbey was. Ina had not told Jude or Marek where Agata had gone.

A bird now sang through the open doorway. ‘Someone is coming down the hill,’ it sang, but Ina didn’t move. Marek lifted his head.

‘Hush and suck,’ she said. ‘It means nothing, just a pretty song.’

Marek nodded and hushed and sucked.

 is the author of seven books, including the novels Eileen and My Year of Rest and Relaxation. This story is adapted from her forthcoming novel Lapvona, which will be published this month by Penguin Press.

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