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Once upon a time there was a woodcutter and her husband who lived in a small, dark house in the middle of a large, dark forest. Mariel and Theo were content with their lives, working hard during the day and sleeping soundly and dreamlessly at night. In time two children were born, raven haired girls with bright bird-like eyes. They could speak from an early age, sing-song voices that caused Theo to wince and feel uneasy. Theo confided in Mariel who admitted she felt the same. ‘What if they’re not really our children,’ she whispered. ‘Maybe they’re changelings?’
Neither could fully explain why the girls so unsettled them. Perhaps it was their refusal to accept their baptismal names. The girls insisted on being called Blackbird and Crow. They were obstinate about what they wore too. Nothing fussy or frilly. No ribbons or bows. Nothing shiny or sweet. Instead they chose the colours and textures of the forest at midnight. Velvets ink-black as the sky. Silks and cotton shot through with silver threads and embroidered with tiny silver stars.
Blackbird and Crow were happier at night than during the day. Aged seven they’d silently slip out of the house while their parents slept and run about the forest. They were sure footed as they raced between ancient oaks and elms, past sprawling banks of bramble and over twisted tangled roots that writhed like snakes on uneven ground. As the months passed the girls went further from home. By the time autumn rolled around and the forest floor was ankle deep in russet and gold leaves they’d go as far as the very edges of the forest. Beyond, for the first time, they saw a world where trees were sparser, where fields bordered by hedges were empty of everything but a single crop or were simply grassland, occupied by drowsy sheep or horses. Blackbird and Crow were curious to see a cluster of houses grouped around a carved stone cross. There must be dozens of people, they marvelled. What would they be like? Woodcutters like Mariel? Skilful at baking and tending the vegetable garden like Theo?
The girls grew bolder as autumn fell away into winter. Sharp frosts left the leaves brittle as old bones and dusted with white. They crackled underfoot as Blackbird and Crow silently, stealthily crept away from the safety of the forest and toward the houses. Standing on tip toes they rubbed ice from the windows, trying to see beyond slivers of gaps in curtains or through moth holes. Sometimes they caught glimpses of people huddled under heaped blankets and quilts, only their heads visible.
It was then Blackbird and Crow understood something they hadn’t known before. Something that hadn’t happened with either Mariel or Theo. The woodcutter’s daughters realised they could enter the minds of those sleeping people. They could ease themselves into their dreams and observe what was being imagined.
Blackbird discovered the fat, doughy skinned baker, who snuffled like a pig in its sty dreamt of swimming, dipping and gliding through river water sleek as an otter. His paper-thin wife, hair scraped up into a sparse bun, dreamt of turning her husband on a spit, basting him with goose fat as his skin browned and he took on the appearance of a roasting chicken. Crow sidled into the dreams of a young woman whose hair was twisted into dozens of tiny fish tail plaits. In her imagination the young woman became a young man, a gentil parfait knight in shining armour who recited poetry and fought a dragon with equal skill and grace. Crow felt sorry for the dragon, a splendid fire breathing creature with scarlet eyes and sulphurous yellow breath. It was then Blackbird and Crow understood something else. They couldn’t just observe dreams. They could influence them. They were able to change happy endings to sad ones, dreams into nightmares. This made the woodcutter’s daughters smile.
Crow caused the dragon to bite into the armour-clad knight, crunching on his metal carapace like it was a walnut shell. As blood shot out of the knight’s wounds the young woman awoke with a jolt, sitting upright, mouth open in a shocked ‘Oh!’. Blackbird froze over the river in which the baker swam. In her mind’s eye she watched him throw his body against the ice ceiling, flailing and gulping in water, desperately trying to break through and breathe air. Then she had him land like a hooked fish on the floor of the kitchen where his wife turned the roasting spit.
Blackbird and Crow took such pleasure in their meddling they grew to resent returning to their forest home before sunrise each day. It irritated and, after a while, angered them that Mariel and Theo never dreamed. ‘They sleep like the dead,’ Crow told her sister. ‘Maybe they should be,’ Blackbird said.
And so, once upon a night, the woodcutter’s daughters stole into their parents bedroom with Mariel’s freshly sharpened axe. Its blade gleamed like the moonlight that shone through the open window. With two perfectly judged strokes the heads of their mother and father were distanced from their bodies. Fingers twitched, eyelids fluttered, then all was still. Blood pooled sticky red on the flannelette sheets as Blackbird and Crow took what they could carry. Coins, rings, books, china tea cups and hat boxes. Possessions gathered, they left the house that was no longer their home, setting out without a backward glance or a sign of a troubled conscience.