The Stork and the Crone

Barbara A. Barnett



Deifilia’s feathers ruffled in surprise; the half-eaten frog fell from her beak. It was custom for humans to leave her undisturbed in her nest on top of the belfry — a custom she did not discourage — yet there was the groan-creak of someone climbing the rickety bell tower stairs.

“Stork!” A woman’s head popped through the archway that framed the rusty, scat-covered bell. “There you are, stork.”

The woman hauled her plump body through the archway, her jumble of ratty skirts clutched in one hand. She edged toward Deifilia’s nest, sparing glances for the precipitous drop to the Piazza della Dea below.

Deifilia hissed.

Heedless, the woman grasped the nest and gawked at the tangle of moss-lined twigs. “It’s bigger than my cauldron!” She offered Deifilia the most dreadful smile, full of crooked yellow teeth black-tipped with rot. But the smile quickly faded. A dark, desperate twitch crossed the woman’s olive-hued face; her knotty hands tightened on the nest until twigs snapped. “We need a child, stork.”

Deifilia nipped at the woman’s hands, forcing her to let go of the nest. Such brazenness. Deifilia had toiled for years out of her reverence for the Goddess, hoping quietly she would be rewarded with a clutch of her own. But to demand a child as this woman did — only a human could be so disrespectful.

“We’ve left sweets for you on the windowsill, stork, just like the others do, yet still you never bring us a child.” The woman eyed Deifilia’s half-eaten breakfast. “Is that what you prefer? Frogs? I can leave those for you.”

Deifilia clacked her bill angrily. Frogs were much tastier than sweets, but this woman showed no regard for the proper order of things: humans performed the summoning ritual, and if the Goddess deemed them suitable Deifilia would be called upon to deliver a child. If this woman hadn’t received a child, it was probably because she wanted the infant for some unsavory purpose. Perhaps to boil into a stew. Her appearance suggested something of the sort.

“Frogs then.” The woman heaved herself through the archway, back into the belfry. “I’ll leave you frogs, and you’ll bring us a baby.” The woman departed, taking the groan-creak of the bell tower stairs with her.

Deifilia clacked her bill again. She would deliver nothing to this crone. She turned back to her meal. But before she could eat, the wind whispered across the nest and tugged at her feathers. The call of the Goddess. The frog would have to wait.

She took to the sky, gliding along the wind currents — the breath of the Goddess. She swooped low to snatch one of the cloths the villagers left out for her on their clotheslines, then continued on. Below, red-tiled rooftops gave way to olive groves and rolling stretches of green hillside, then to the rocky cliffs overlooking the sea. High on a precarious ledge no climber could reach stood the opening to the Goddess’s cave.

Deifilia flew in. The air grew damp; a steady, chime-like drip of water echoed from deep within. She alighted beside a pool of shimmering, copper-colored liquid.

Beside the pool stood the Goddess. She was human in form except for large shining wings and a mane of white feathers cascading over her shoulders and down her back. In her right hand, she held a ladle, bronze and weathered.

“It is good to see you, Deifilia.”

Deifilia lowered her head in deference, then laid down the cloth. The Goddess dipped her ladle into the pool and poured a stream of liquid onto the cloth. While the shining mass swirled and rippled, Deifilia rested on one leg and preened her plumage.

“My loyal Deifilia,” the Goddess said, her voice as luminous as her skin. “I could not ask for a more faithful servant. I wonder though . . . are you ready to raise a clutch of your own?”

The feathers Deifilia had so carefully smoothed bristled. Of course she was ready. How could the Goddess doubt that?

“You show only tolerance toward the charges I place in your care and disdain for those who would offer them love. Do you truly think my human subjects so unworthy of your compassion?”

Deifilia gave a defiant clack of her bill. To show compassion to any human, let alone that yellow-toothed crone who had damaged her nest — what did that have to do with her fitness for motherhood? What use did she have for anyone but the Goddess and her own kind?

The Goddess smiled sadly. “Well, you have work to do.”

The form on the cloth had solidified into a sleeping human child. Deifilia snapped up the corners of the cloth and flew from the cave, graceful despite the heavy bundle.

I am ready, she thought as she soared along the wind currents, letting the breath of the Goddess guide her. She soon reached a sprawling villa she recognized from two previous deliveries. She alighted beside an open window to ensure that all was in order: sweets on the sill, no fire in the chimney.

“That crazed mother of hers went to the stork,” she overheard a woman in the house say. “Can you believe it?”

A cacophony of scornful laughter followed.

Was the crazed mother they spoke of her morning belfry visitor? Deifilia seldom paid attention to the humans’ tedious affairs, but this made her curious enough to peer inside. A woman lounged on a red cushioned settee, surrounded by other women seated on high-backed chairs. They sipped from pewter cups filled with a steaming liquid. As much as Deifilia prized appearance, there was a falseness about these women, with their necks bundled up in ruffled collars.

“You are a wicked woman, Giovanna,” one of them said. “Driving poor Antonia and her mother to such desperation.”

“It’s only fair,” Giovanna said, in a soft, singsong voice. “Perhaps when Claudio realizes Antonia cannot summon a child, he’ll regret choosing her over me.”

“I imagine he’ll regret it all the more knowing you are so finely married now.”

The women erupted into a fit of malicious snickering.

Why humans insisted on such complex mating systems mystified Deifilia. All it seemed to do was complicate their lives, especially when they employed hex-casters to take revenge on rivals and unfaithful lovers.

Deifilia’s bundle squirmed and mewled. The infant’s eyes seemed ready to open. She spread her wings and pushed upward. As she reached the villa’s chimney, a great gust caught her and lifted her away. The winds pushed and pulled her in all directions. It took all her strength just to hover in place. Was this some hex-caster’s work?

The wind settled suddenly. Deifilia quickly flew over the roof and dropped her bundle down the chimney. The wind wrapped itself around the sleeping child and cushioned its passage to the hearth.

Let humans cast all the hexes they like, she thought. No child would be delivered except as the Goddess intended.

Though as she flew home, a breeze-like doubt ruffled her feathers. Hadn’t it been less than the customary nine months since she last delivered to that villa?





Deifilia looked up at the sound of the crone’s voice. She had been waiting at the stream, hoping to snap up the next fish that swam by. Would this woman never let her eat in peace?

The woman did not bother to raise her skirt as she splashed across the stream. “I left frogs out for you.”

Deifilia spread her wings to fly away, then paused. The woman would just intrude upon her belfry nest again if she left now. What a nuisance!

The woman plopped down beside the stream. The damp grass squelched beneath her. “I don’t know what you’re waiting for, stork. My daughter and her husband have been performing the child-summoning ritual most diligently.”

This was indeed the “crazed mother” she had overheard the women speaking about.

“Giovanna de Moranza just summoned her third child in less than a year,” the crone said. “It hardly seems fair for you to deliver so many to her and none at all to my Antonia.”

Deifilia’s feathers bristled: she had delivered to that villa more than was customary. Had the wind become so twisted and tangled because she was delivering to the wrong home? Preposterous. Not even the strongest hex could misdirect the breath of the Goddess.

Or perhaps that was why the Goddess doubted her suitability for motherhood. Because she had delivered to the wrong home.

With her beak, she gave the crone a gentle nudge on the arm — the best gesture of reassurance she could offer. The woman smiled and reached out to touch her feathers. She hissed and took to the air; she would not have grubby human hands touching her. And she had more important matters to attend to. If Giovanna de Moranza had interfered with the will of the Goddess, Deifilia needed to find out.




Deifilia perched on the villa’s windowsill. Inside, Giovanna lounged on her settee, bouncing an infant on her knee; two others tumbled about at her feet. A stream of visitors came and went. They brought gift baskets overflowing with fruit, bread, and tiny clothes knitted in a sunset’s worth of colors.

Deifilia’s stomach rumbled. She would have to give up and go in search of food soon. These humans did nothing but coo over the children and prattle about Giovanna’s good fortune. They offered nothing useful in their gossip — only tales of Antonia weeping at the Goddess’s shrine.

After all others had left, and as the deep reds and blues of dusk settled around the village, a final visitor arrived: a hooded man carrying a wooden, rune-carved block in his scar-twisted hands. A hex-caster, servant to the Dark God who ruled the netherworld.

“I appreciate your continued patronage, but I should warn you that the Goddess has grown angry with you.”

He spoke in a voice so deep that all three children squeaked and cried and flapped their arms in alarm. Giovanna calmed them and turned her attention to the hex-caster, her gaze as sharp as her voice. “You said this curse would bind the Goddess.”

“And so it has. Even she cannot overpower my master. But if you felt the winds last night, you would know that she tries.”

Of course. Deifilia shuddered. A hex cast by the Dark God himself could bind the Goddess.

“You told me neither Goddess nor human can break such a curse,” Giovanna said. “So I suggest you leave the new hex and go. My maidservant will pay you on your way out.”

“As you wish.”

The hex-caster set the wooden block at Giovanna’s feet. One of the infants grabbed it and bit at its corners.

“Perhaps this one will bring you a sister,” Giovanna said to the child in her singsong voice.

If it were not so unseemly for a stork to enter a human’s home, Deifilia would have flown in and pecked apart that smug woman’s neatly done-up hairdo. With an indignant flap she took to the sky. Neither Goddess nor human could break this curse, but perhaps a stork could.

As the hex-caster stepped out of the villa, Deifilia dove. He staggered back against the doorway, arms raised protectively before his face. No matter which direction he turned she darted in front of him with a hiss.

Something smacked hard against her, landing her on the cobblestones with a flare of pain and a snap of bone. Her left wing throbbed and hung at a crooked angle.

Giovanna loomed over her, broom held high. Deifilia lurched into the air, but made it only a few feet before careening back to the ground. She fled from the next broom swing on foot. She ran off through the town until she collided into a pair of muddy human feet.

“Stork! What has happened to you?” a familiar voice exclaimed.

Deifilia looked up and clattered her beak weakly. The crone’s features were even more hideous in the fading daylight. She tried to rise, but the pain in her wing grew so intense her vision swam.

“Let’s get you back to your nest,” the woman said, gathering Deifilia into her arms.

It was an indignity being carried by a human. But Deifilia was too weak to resist.




When the crone set her down in the nest Deifilia pulled her neck tight against her body. She ached all over.

“I could help you, stork. I could set your wing straight. Make a poultice for the pain.”

Deifilia snapped at her. This foolish woman had no idea what she was up against.

“I’ll get my supplies,” the crone said, shimmying her bulbous form back into the bell tower. “And some frogs. You must be starving.”

Deifilia’s stomach rumbled. But to accept more aid from a human — how much humiliation must she endure? No, she told herself. She spread her wings. But with the first flap, the injured wing exploded into hot, throbbing agony. She collapsed into the nest.

So be it, she thought, quivering. The humiliation of accepting a human’s charity was nothing weighed against the prospect of never flying again.




A month later, when the Goddess summoned her for a delivery, Deifilia was ready. Her left wing still hung at a slightly unnatural angle, and it twinged when she flew. But fly she could, if with less grace than before. She had nipped the poor crone more than once during her ministrations, but the woman possessed surprising skill at healing. She had kept her fed too, bringing frogs and bowls of insects until Deifilia was strong enough to find food on her own. But was she strong enough to break a curse?

“It is good to see you mended,” the Goddess said as Deifilia swooped into her cliff-side cave.

Deifilia bowed her head and laid down a cloth. The Goddess ladled a gobbet of liquid upon it. But this time, Deifilia did not patiently preen her plumage as the infant-to-be took form. Instead, she studied her Goddess. The Goddess’s feathered mane was tangled in spots, and her normally luminous skin had taken on an opaque cast.

“It is true,” the Goddess said, gazing into her eyes. “I am bound by a curse. And it is weakening me.”

Deifilia clattered her beak in protest.

The Goddess gestured to the rippling liquid, where the infant was beginning to form. “If this child were delivered to the proper home, the Dark God’s curse might be broken. But . . .” she said sadly, “…it would take great strength to fly against the winds of this curse, and I would not see you risk yourself further for my sake. You are healed, but not completely.”

Deifilia clattered her beak again. True, but she had to set things right — for her Goddess, and to repay the old crone’s kindness.

As soon as the infant finished forming, Deifilia snapped up the corners of the cloth and took flight. The load put more strain than expected on her left wing. She wobbled as she flew, barely gaining altitude. But with a slight shift of her weight to favor her left wing, her flight evened out and she flew high enough to coast along on the wind currents, toward the village rooftops.

Her destination soon became clear: the villa of Giovanna de Moranza. Deifilia changed direction. The wind shoved against her with a horrible howl. She beat her wings madly, propelling herself away from the villa only to be blown back twice as close. Another mad dash away and a gust sent her tumbling legs over feathers. The twinge in her left wing sharpened. The infant inside her bundle wailed.

Exhausted, Deifilia allowed the hex currents to take her. But just before she reached the villa, she made a sudden dive. The air wasn’t the only way to reach her destination.

She alighted on the road. The wind was not so strong between the tight-packed homes. Deifilia tottered along the uneven cobblestones. She flew in short bursts to check the high windows she passed. But she was unaccustomed to such graceless, pain-ridden movement. Her legs quivered more with every landing. On her next push into the air, a spasm racked her left wing. She barely managed to land on her feet.

She set the bundle down and collapsed trembling on the cobblestones. The Goddess was right; she didn’t have the strength to do this. Her eyes turned up toward the sky. Wait. Several houses down, a high windowsill was lined with large, lumpish objects. Frogs!

She picked up her bundle and forced herself into the air, fighting the wind. Her muscles burned with every flap; a convulsion in her left wing sent her careening against a wall. But she pushed on, rising just high enough to fall exhausted upon the sill.

Inside, she spied the old crone sitting in a twisted knot of a chair, stroking the hair of a young woman curled up at her feet.

“But we so want a child, Mother!” Antonia said, her eyes filled with tears. “What if we can never summon one?”

A gust of wind whipped down the alley, threatening to pluck Deifilia from the sill. She had no choice but to do the unthinkable: fly inside a human’s home.

They jumped to their feet — Antonia with a frightened yelp, the crone with a laugh and a clap of her hands.


Deifilia set the bundle down on a cushioned chair, then sank to the floor. Her feathers moved in time with her quick, short breaths.

The humans rushed to the bundle, their voices high-pitched sounds of delight. Antonia scooped the infant into her arms and cradled it close, laughing through tears.

“Thank you,” she whispered joyfully to Deifilia.

Deifilia ducked her head in acknowledgement. She had been missing out on such gratitude by dropping children down chimneys all these years.

“I knew you’d come this time,” the crone said, crouching beside Deifilia. “I thought you’d never be able to resist frogs as plump as those.'”

This time, Deifilia let the woman stroke her feathers, dirty and ruffled as they were. The sensation lacked the grace of a breeze’s caress, but was strangely pleasant nonetheless.

After a time, she heard a faint scream born on the wind. Ah. If the curse was broken, the Goddess would now be taking her revenge on one Giovanna de Moranza.

She rose, flapped her aching wings, and departed through the window. She glided along the wind currents, once again able to trust the direction in which they carried her. Below, she spied Giovanna shooing three stork-footed, half feathered children from her home.

Deifilia swooped to the ground and gathered them protectively beneath her wings. What was she to do? She had assumed the Goddess would ask her to deliver Giovanna’s stolen infants to a more deserving human. But in this state, the children would only elicit screams. She supposed she would have to care for the strange little creatures herself.

There was a burst of light, radiant and white, and the Goddess stood before them. Her feathered mane and luminous skin were restored to unearthly resplendence, no longer tarnished by the Dark God’s curse.

She looked down upon Giovanna, who trembled and ran in fear back to her home. Her door slammed and locked.

“The de Moranzas will wait long before they hear from me,” the Goddess whispered, then turned to Deifilia. “My loyal Deifilia.” The Goddess’ voice shimmered. “You would raise these children, even in their half-human state?”

Deifilia bowed her head. If a human could care for her, ill temper and all, she could care for these poor creatures.

“You are indeed ready, Deifilia.” The Goddess waved her hand, sending a cascade of light over the children. Wings, beaks, and soft down feathers grew. Their forms shifted, and when the light faded, they were fully stork.

“Here is the form they were meant to have,” the Goddess said, “for you, Deifilia. A clutch of your own.”

Deifilia clattered in delight. The storklings flapped their own little wings in imitation. She regarded the children — her children — with pride. They had to be hungry. And so after the Goddess departed, Deifilia shooed her clutch toward the old crone’s home, where she had no doubt they would be treated to a feast of frogs.




∼    THE END   



“The Stork and the Crone” © Barbara A. Barnett
Barbara A. Barnett is a writer, musician, orchestra librarian, Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate, coffee addict, wine lover, and all-around geek. Her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction, and Flash Fiction Online. She lurks about the Philadelphia area, where she lives with her husband and a stuffed monkey named Super Great. You can find her online at


stork and crone illustration by Fran Eisemann. Stock used:
oriental white stork” by firenze-design
old woman — Pixabay
Stork on chimney nest” by steppelandstock
“hands on keyboard — Pixabay

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