7270 words, short story
Water in Springtime
I woke in the darkness. My mother was leaning over me.
“We have to leave,” she said. Her breath was warm on my face.
The scent of dried flowers and wood-smoke drifted after her. She had spent the night by the fire, singing for a young mother and her sickly child. The child had not survived. Few did, in winter. Its skin was veined with rust-dark lines, its eyes hot with fever. There was nothing my mother could do but ease its pain. It would not be wise for us to linger.
We wrapped ourselves in stolen furs and filled our packs with stolen food. It was not the first time we had slunk in the night.
The ground was frozen and uneven, treacherous beneath the snow. There were no stars. Low, dark clouds had been hanging over the valley for days. The trees were laced with ice, but in that hollow, at least, they were still alive. The dead infant with its rust-veined skin was the only sign the blight had reached this far, but scouts who ventured south, darting into the mountains like nervous birds, claimed it was overtaking the forests.
I did not speak until we were well away from the camp. “Where are we going?”
My mother stopped but did not look at me. She removed a glove from one hand and reached for the trunk of a tree. The swarm burst from her fingertips in a shower of blue, clinging to her hand as marsh flies to cattle.
We had traveled the length of the continent, from the sea in the north to these southern mountains, across deserts and swamps, through forests with trees so tall entire villages swayed in the branches, and everywhere we went, my mother’s swarm was a novelty. People called her a witch, but quietly, when they thought she would not hear. She always laughed. It was never a kind laugh. Some were awed; some were frightened. Children were always delighted. They tried to catch the bright specks in their hands, giggling at the cool tickle on their skin, begging my mother to show them what her magic could do.
My mother closed her hand. The swarm vanished.
“South,” she said. “Into the mountains.”
We followed a road so ancient it was a wound in the forest floor. The crumbling embankment was as high as my shoulder, and the exposed roots were tainted with red-orange rust. The scouts had not lied. The blight was spreading. In places sharp blades of metal and chunks of broken rock jutted from the black soil, mere suggestions of what the iron skeletons had been before they fell: wolves with teeth like daggers, birds with too many wings and too long claws, hulking bulls with curved horns. They might have been monstrous once, malformed nightmares raging in battle, but now they were sorry old things caught in root cages and rotting away to dust.
There were no doubt human bones in the ground as well, but I saw none. It had been a very long time since the invaders and their metal beasts had swept north over the mountains. They were little more than legends now, stories shared by old women around campfires while children huddled at their feet. In the best stories, the oldest and grandest adventures, the mountain clans had repelled the invaders with the help of mysterious sorcerers who cast spells of befuddlement on the armies. They had tricked the metal beasts into attacking themselves and forced the hidden invaders to reveal their true forms. Recreating those great battles was a favorite game among the clan children. Magic versus metal, mindless beast versus cunning hunter, masked enemy versus bold warrior. It was as much fun to play the invaders—lurching, ill-formed, insect-like in their awkwardness—as it was to play the defenders.
On the third day of our journey, I spotted delicate white flowers blooming from the eyes of an iron skull. Frosthands, the clansmen called them, for they had small, fat petals like a child’s fingers. In the stories, a single frosthand petal ground into tea was enough to poison any impostor from the south. The first sip, said the old women, would strip away the invader’s disguise, and the second would close his throat and stop his heart.
That was another favorite game of the clan children: to pluck a petal and place it on your tongue, to cough and gag and laugh as your friends raced away shrieking.
“Mother,” I said. She was, as always, several paces ahead. “Frosthands. It’s nearly spring.”
My mother did not look back. “It happens every year. Stop wasting time.”
I plucked a flower from the skull and rolled the soft green stem between my fingers. It was this way wherever we traveled, whatever the season. Long roads carried us from blight to plague to fever, whispered rumors leading us across the world, and always my mother was silent as a frozen lake when we were alone. She was formal but polite with strangers; they thought her stiff and strange and foreign. When asked about her homeland, she smiled thinly and agreed to whatever they chose to believe. Sometimes she changed her face to match their expectations, darkened her skin or made herself pale, became tall or short or fat or thin with a subtle twitch of her hand and a pass of the swarm. More often she didn’t bother. In truth nobody cared where she came from. The healing songs she traded for food and shelter were valuable and rare, and the quick blue swarm was a wonder.
“You needn’t worry,” the old women said to me, when they noticed me at all. There were old women everywhere we went, their faces lined with the same creases, their eyes lit with the same laughter, their gray hair twisted in the same plaits beneath the same scarves. As a child I had coveted their smiles, empty but still more than my mother offered, but I found no comfort in their tolerance as I grew. “You haven’t a bit of her strangeness in you,” said the old women, and they meant it kindly.
It was more true than the old women knew. I could not alter my face or the color of my skin. I could not make my hair curl or my arms lengthen. I was as pale as sand and slight as a child. I had small hands, small feet, no breasts, and my hair was a dirt-brown bird’s nest tangle. I could not sing or heal. I could not dress wounds and I did not know which herbs to mix into which medicines. Strangers mistook me for a boy. My mother rarely corrected them.
Worst of all, I could not draw a swarm from my fingertips, no matter how often I lay awake in the darkness, hidden beneath my blanket, rubbing my fingers together and yearning.
I dropped the frosthand blossom and ran to catch up.
We followed the battlefield road until dusk. Weak snow turned to rain, and the ground churned into a sticking, sucking mud. As the sun set behind the clouds, we scrambled up the embankment, using a cage of iron ribs as a ladder, and turned into a forest of sweet-scented pines and chalky aspens. There was no trail. My mother’s swarm, pale and restful, ringed her like a crown in the twilight. Without it I would have been lost.
Somewhere nearby, hidden by the towering trees, a river flowed. Its roar was muffled, but I felt it in my throat and the tips of my fingers.
We made camp in a cradle of blight-reddened roots. The pines were large but sickly, flecked with shards of metal and veins of rust, branches weakened and cracking. Aside from the rumble of the river, the forest was silent. There were more felled metal beasts beneath the soil than there were living creatures in the underbrush.
I dug into my pack to find a water skin, but my mother stopped me. “No. You stay here.”
“I was only going for water.”
My mother’s eyes were pale and unblinking. She flicked her tongue between her lips, snake-like and quick. Whatever she tasted in the air made her frown. “Your sisters were never this stupid. Stay away from the water. Tonight of all nights, Alis, do as you’re told.”
She left, boots kicking up the moldering remains of fallen needles.
I was too stunned to call after her. My mother used my name rarely and spoke of my sisters even less. They were dead, all of them. I didn’t even know their names.
My mother’s pack was lying at the base of the tree. I folded it open to find our food. We had been traveling too quickly to hunt, but our supply of stolen meat and bread would soon be gone. I set aside three knives tucked in leather sheaths, a twist of thin rope, a handful of metal arrowheads. The food was at the bottom, and with it a bundle of dirty cloth I had never seen before.
I pulled the odd bundle from the pack. It rattled and shifted as I unrolled it. I looked into the woods, into the shadows, but my mother was still away. I drew back the last folds.
On the threadbare cloth lay the skeleton of a human child. Its skull was the size of a fist, its bones as white as fresh-fallen snow but except the fine lines of rust. There was no clinging flesh, no shriveled skin. It had been scoured clean.
I had seen my mother strip the carcasses of rabbits and birds. When we had taken what we could eat and it was unwise to leave remains behind, she would loose the hungry swarm and watch as the specks crawled like maggots over the limp dead thing and gorged themselves, blue fading to purple, purple to red, swelling and finally popping like blood-fat mosquitoes as the last flesh fell away in charred curls.
My hands shook as I wrapped the bones into their shroud and hid it again. I retreated to the far side of the camp, hugged my knees to my chest and waited.
My mother returned only moments later, as though she had been watching from the forest. She said nothing. We did not speak for the rest of the night. After we ate, she sat by the fire and sharpened her knives one by one, a narrow shadow with flat pale eyes. The hiss of her blades on the whetstone drew shivers across my skin.
In the morning my mother gave me a knife. It was a sturdy blade on a wooden haft, too large for my hand, undecorated but stained with smudges that might have been oil, might have been blood. The blade was black, free of rust, sharp enough to sting my fingertips at the lightest touch.
I spread my fingers to match the stains, held it against my palm and tested its weight. It was the first gift my mother had ever given to me. I did not know if I should thank her.
“Stop wasting time,” said my mother, as I turned the blade. “We’re going to the river.”
The clouds had broken during the night. Above the imperfect cathedral of pines the sky was brightening, but the aching cold lingered. We followed a creek into a steep ravine. Sunlight touched the hilltops, but the river was in shadow and blanketed in mist. All of the color the snow and rain had leached from the world was returning: the deep green of the pine boughs, the white and pink rocks, the blue sky. Even the rich brown trees twisted with blight were beautiful in the rising morning, with streaks of red and orange lacing the wood like a caravan matriarch’s jewelry.
Beautiful, but frightening as well. As the weather warmed the infestation would spread, and by the end of the summer this hillside, this valley, this pretty green lean of pines and oaks crawling down to the river would be dead.
At the river, my mother led me onto a flat boulder. Water curled in eddies and gulped beneath rocks, and thin ice crackled along the banks.
My mother leaned close to speak over the river’s roar: “Your boots. Take them off.”
I obeyed. The cold granite burned, and edges of knobby white crystals bit into my bare feet.
My mother held out one arm and rolled up her sleeve. “Like this,” she said.
I did the same, shivering.
“Your knife,” said my mother, her lips moving against the shell of my ear. I looked at her, and she snapped, “Take out your knife.”
She jerked the knife from its sheath and pressed the hilt into my hand, closed my fingers over the stained wood. With her other hand she grabbed my free wrist. She was wrapped around me, pressed warm against my back. We had not been so close since we had slept together on cold nights when I was young.
“Like this,” she said. “Not too shallow. You have to bleed.”
She sliced the blade across my arm. Blood welled from the wound and slid over my skin. I tried to pull free, but my mother shoved me forward until I stepped into the water. The shock of cold made me gasp and kick, but my mother was immovable at my back.
“Not over the stone, stupid girl!”
The first drop struck the water.
There was a sickening lurch in my gut and a black flood engulfed me. I was upright still, on wobbling legs and knees, my feet going numb, but it made no difference to the mindless panic overtaking my mind. I coughed and choked and kicked. My mother’s arm was strong across my chest, her hand an iron cuff around my wrist. I fought until my strength failed and every breath filled my lungs with freezing water. The river stripped away my skin, my twitching muscles and pumping blood, scouring down to the bone, then took the bones as well.
The world beneath was slick, shifting and dark, and the current caught me. The surface above shimmered: trees and cliffs whipping by, boulders bending the water this way and that, logs and tangles of branches and sodden grass. I tumbled to the riverbed. Grit scraped my face, stones bruised my chin, my cheeks, my knees. A bridge flashed overhead, fish danced quick and silver, and still I flowed faster, faster, until a great weight overtook me, tugging me down and down and down, and the last sunlight winked away.
I opened my eyes.
I was lying on my back beside the river. For a moment, I felt nothing but the granite beneath me, then I choked and rolled onto my side. I coughed and retched and did not stop until my throat ached and my body shuddered. My hair was not wet, nor my clothes, nor any part of me save my feet, blue with cold.
My mother stood over me, a silhouette against the morning sky.
She said, “Did you feel that?”
I wiped my mouth and could not speak.
“Did it frighten you?”
A stiff nod.
“That’s what will happen if you don’t learn to control it.”
Her mouth was thin as a knife, but she was smiling.
The valley narrowed to a gash as we climbed into the mountains. There was rarely more than a faint deer trail to follow. The days lengthened as spring approached, but the nights were cold and snow fell often.
My mother did not make me bleed into the river itself again, but every time we crossed a spring or tributary stream, she stopped and said, “Your knife.”
And every time I returned, gasping and quaking, she asked me what I had discovered and told me what I had done wrong. She delivered each lesson like the lash of a whip: Sit down before you fall down. Don’t bleed on soil or stone. Don’t linger where people might see. Don’t stay away more than half a day. Don’t follow more than one route. Don’t forget what you are. Remember to eat. Remember to sleep. Clean and wrap the wounds. Find the cracks, find the seams, find the flaws. Everything is weak against water and patience.
My arms were soon crisscrossed with new red cuts and tender scabs. My mother refused to use the swarm to heal them. I kept the blade sharp and clean.
Ankle-deep in the water, eyes closed tight and blood dripping from my arm, I rode a dozen streams into the mountain river. I explored their turns and stones, their logjams and bending reeds. I tasted the water as it wound through overhanging roots and high grass, seeped into impossible cracks and worked stones loose in their muddy banks. I smelled elk and bears where they stopped to drink, the nests of birds in quiet ponds, the ash of human campfires.
I grew bolder. I let myself venture into the northern lowlands, where spring was giving way to summer. It did not matter how swiftly or how slowly the water moved; if it flowed to a place, I could go there. I tasted sweet fields freshly plowed and felt bridges thrumming with hooves and boots. I watched women burdened with baskets wading in the shallows, farmers leading mules and carts through fords, and barefoot children skipping rocks on quiet river bends.
Sometimes, if I lurked too long, comfortably nested in a lazy eddy or deep pool, I might catch a child studying the water so intently I was certain she could see me. I imagined myself as a shivering, bleeding specter, a reflection of a reflection, wavering and thin.
Sometimes I looked back before flowing away again.
“You are a coward,” said my mother.
She was whittling arrow shafts. The swarm followed her blade, smoothing the wood with every stroke. It was evening and the day had been dreary. High in the mountains, the few creeks we crossed were icy trickles, and the trees were gnarled, twisted knots so rusted with blight they rattled like chimes in the wind.
“I’m not,” I said. I dug my fingers into what little soft earth I could find and watched stars wake in the purple sky. I focused with every breath on pulling the thousand slippery pieces of myself back into the barrier of my skin.
That afternoon I had followed the river all the way to the coast. It was a journey of several months’ time by foot, but for me it had flashed by in moments. I had stopped before I entered the sea itself. It was endless and strange and dark, and I did not know if I could ever find my way back.
I had been to the city as a child and I remembered the smell of it, refuse and smoke and the green stink of low tide, but it was different in the water. In the water I could crawl along the canals and explore sunken boats and drowned ruins. I could creep through cracks in walls and see what was meant to be hidden. I saw a man cut a soldier’s throat in a cellar and seal the body in a barrel of wine. I saw a laughing woman lead a laughing man into a pantry and lift her skirts while he fumbled with his belt. I saw sickly blank-eyed children huddling in a garret with a locked door, sailors bartering colorful caged birds and black snakes on the docks, men in red robes with red-stained eyes boarding a ship with red sails. I saw mud-splattered masons building a wall of stone between the city and the sea, trowels in hand, warily watching the tide.
They never saw me, slipping as I did through the cracks and gutters, dripping down walls and draining through floors, testing the strength of every seam and wondering what would survive if the wall failed and the sea swallowed the city. It was so easy to slip through gaps unseen, to open paths where no water had flowed before, to weaken the mortar with a slow damp seep.
“I’m not,” I said again.
My mother whittled and was silent.
“They’re building a new seawall,” I said. We had walked the old one when I was a child, early in the morning to watch gulls diving and children with nets fishing at low tide. “The masons don’t think it will hold through next winter’s storms.”
“Find a beaver dam first,” said my mother. Her knife snicked cleanly as she sliced bark from wood. Her eyes were bright with silent laughter; her amusement made me uneasy. “They’re easier to take apart.”
“I’m not going to destroy the seawall,” I said, aghast.
My mother snorted. “As if you could. Don’t be stupid. Start with a beaver dam.”
The next morning, I bled into the same creek and explored the mountain waterways until I found a quiet beaver pond. I examined the dam and the lodge, flowing in circles through the grass at the bottom, surprising the sleepy creatures in their musk-scented den. I slipped into the piled branches and tested the bend of waterlogged wood. Fish darted around me, slick, nervous. Once or twice I felt a branch shift, but the dam was strong.
I tried for three days to topple the dam, and each time I opened my eyes my mother said, “You’ll do it tomorrow.”
“I don’t know what you want,” I said after my third failure. I was lying on my back and catching my breath. “They’re only animals.”
“You won’t learn if you’re too frightened,” said my mother, and her voice turned mocking. “Are you scared? What do you have to fear? They’re only animals.”
I rolled onto my side to look at her.
“Did you bring my sisters here?” I asked. The sisters I imagined were small and thin like me, but they had no faces. “Did you teach them too?”
My mother’s hands stilled. She was crouched by the fire, roasting a marmot she had caught during the day. We had left the trees behind two days ago; the shrubs that dotted the rocky slopes were squat and thorny. We had not seen another person since we had left the clan’s winter camp. I wondered how far away my mother had ventured to set the snare, if during the day she had left me here alone, insensible by the water, my body limp and useless.
“Were they better than me?” I asked. “Did they learn faster? Was it easy for them? Did they—”
My name, as always, a foreign word on her tongue.
“You’ll do it tomorrow,” she said. “Come to the fire. You have to eat.”
I didn’t ask her anything else that night. I decided, when our meal was finished and the fire burning low, I didn’t want to know if my sisters had been here before me, if they had bled into this same river, traced the same scars on their pale childlike arms. I didn’t want to know if they had cut too deep and bled too fast and been lost, one by one, swept away while my mother whittled by the empty shells of their bodies.
Two days later I found a weakness in the beaver dam. The logs collapsed and I rode the torrent down and down, out of the valley and onto a broad, sunny plain.
When I opened my eyes, the sun was still climbing toward noon.
“Well?” my mother asked.
“I destroyed it,” I said.
She was not whittling or shaping arrows or sharpening her knives. She was sitting very close to me; her shadow fell over my face. I did not want to look at her.
“That was well done,” she said. “You learn more quickly than they did.”
I could not recall if my mother had ever praised me before. The words were like the gift of the knife, ill-fitting and sharp.
We crested the mountains at a high pass of stone and snow. What little water we found was frozen in shallow tarns, useless to me, and I grew restless. Walking was so slow, so plodding, and the ache of my feet so tiresome. I scratched at my wounds in idle moments, dropped my hands when I caught my mother watching.
The south-flowing streams joined a silty river that tasted of iron and mud. The land was quiet, barren, infected with blight. The trees still struggled to grow, but the wood was laced with rust and leaves scraped and screeched in the wind.
I passed through towns as I explored the river, but they were all empty. Sand drifted through doorways and roofs gaped with holes. Buried on the muddy bottom of the river were countless skeletons: horses and cattle and oxen, mostly, but people too, their bones traced with rust, skulls sunk in the muck. The bridges were crumbling and weak with neglect, but they were still harder to tease apart than the beaver dam. Stone by stone, crack by crack, I pushed my way in and worked the blocks free.
The first time I brought a bridge down, I pulled out in shock, shaken, and my mother laughed. She laughed so rarely the sound was alien and startling.
“They won’t all be as easy as that,” my mother said. She was sitting on her scarf, holding the swarm in the palm of her hand. The blue specks weren’t doing anything, not even humming. “Go farther. You’ll see.”
I withdrew my feet from the water and sat up. I rubbed my hand over my face to remind myself of the shape of my body.
“Where are the people?”
“Who could live in such a place?” said my mother.
“The invaders,” I said, as much a question as an answer. I had never asked what they called themselves or what had happened to them after their invasion failed. The stories the old women shared never followed the iron armies back to where they had come from.
“There’s no one there to hurt, if that’s what worries you,” my mother said.
“Would you care if there were?”
I watched for the same spark of hunger I had seen when I told her how the seawall shivered before pounding waves. But she was not looking at me. She was watching the dark clouds gathering over the mountains.
“Go farther,” she said again.
“I have gone farther. There’s nothing. There’s barely anything alive at all.”
“Venom spreads from a single bite,” said my mother. She closed her fingers; the blue swarm blinked out. “Even if the snake is stupid enough to bite its own tail. We should keep going. I don’t want to be above timberline when that storm arrives.”
Late in the day the trail led us out of the spiny mountain shrubs and into a proper forest. The trees were no healthier than the high country snarls had been, but if I breathed deeply, I could smell pine sap beneath the sharp tang of iron. Thunder rumbled distantly and the sky was dark, but the only suggestion of rain was a smear blotting out the highest peaks.
My mother left to set snares, and I took my knife to a delicate stream. The water was shallow and choked by yellow grass. I sunk my feet into a tepid pool. I flicked away the scab and opened the same cut I had made that morning.
I raced along the creek, impatient with its playful course, and joined the river in an exhilarating rush. The forest fell away as a stutter of shadows, replaced by rusted fields and empty villages. I passed the wreckage of my bridge. It was still daylight on the plains. Sunlight danced in oily rings on the river’s surface.
Go farther, my mother had said. She knew what I would find across the wasteland.
The city erupted on the horizon like a cancer, and in a blink I was upon it. The river split into a stone maze, a drunken spider’s web of crisscrossing circles and spokes, and countless canals wound through the ruins of fine houses and market squares and palaces protected by high walls. The buildings had once been white, their slate roofs green and blue, but many were crooked and unfinished, angles skewed, dimensions distorted, windows broken and tiles fallen away. Armies of marble statues stood as silent sentries along every tree-lined road, every stagnant garden pond. The statues were as misshapen as the buildings: too many limbs or too few, knees bent backwards, faces twisted the wrong way around.
I had never seen a city so massive and so sprawling. Such places existed only in legends.
All of it, every broken building, every deformed bust, was cloaked in corroded vines and washed with the colors of late autumn, hints of red and orange now rotted away to brown, not a breath of green anywhere to be seen.
I believed the city dead, long abandoned. I disobeyed one of my mother’s sternest rules and divided myself to explore numerous stone channels. I spread through the city as an army of ants would cover a forest floor, pulling farther and farther apart.
The first living thing I saw startled me so much I nearly snapped out of the water.
It was at first glance only a shadow over the water. A barren tree, leafless branches, that was all I could see from my underwater vantage, but it moved. Long spindly legs unfolded and thin arms reached, and I saw its head, round as a seed, and two large unblinking eyes. It reminded me of the stick insects I had seen in distant forests, but it was as tall as a man, and when it rose to its feet, it ran upright on two legs, swift and surprisingly graceful.
Now that I knew what to look for, I saw others like it in every corner of the city. Odd crouching bodies and unblinking eyes perched atop stone walls, in blighted trees, in broken windows. Most did not react to my presence even when I studied them. The few who did startled and clattered away on long stick legs.
The fourth or fifth time this happened, I followed, and that was how I found the tower.
It stood at the center of the city, a crooked black slash of metal, slanted like a blade driven into the ground or an arrowhead punched from within. Around its base was a deep, dirty moat spanned by a dozen failing bridges. I gathered myself from all corners of the city and circled the tower curiously, slowly, skating just beneath the surface. The structure was crooked and split; it had been breaking apart for a very long time. It was marked all along its length by windows smeared with soot and oil to prevent those outside from seeing in, or those inside from looking out.
Around the lowest of those blacked-out windows, where the edges dipped into the filthy lapping water, a scattering of pale blue sparks clung to the frames, snaking through seams in the metal and circling each sunken bolt. They pulsed, those shimmering veins of light, and I felt it; they trembled, and I trembled with them. They pushed and squeezed into the cracks at the base of the tower, and I felt the same pressure and grind they felt.
I had never known before what I looked like from the outside.
One of the stick-creatures ran across a bridge and scrambled along the tower’s scarred surface. It climbed toward the top but changed its course midway and turned, scurried down the warped gray metal. It lowered its face to the water and I knew, knew it as surely as I felt the gritty water and the rough metal, as sharply as I tasted the blight-rust, that its flat pale eyes were looking right at me.
I flinched, and blinked, and retreated from the city.
I withdrew my feet from the stream. My heart slowed and my breath quieted. My skin felt bruised all over, tender to the touch. The dizziness passed, but my head was a heavy block on an aching neck.
“It’s nearly summer,” my mother said.
She was sitting on a stone on the other side of the water. She held the swarm in the palm of her hand; the blue dust danced around her fingers. Fragile pink flowers blossomed along the creek, and in the swaying grass green blades shone among the yellow and red. A breeze tugged at my hair and rustled the leaves in gentle chimes.
“Did it rain last night?” I asked. My voice was rough, grating as the drag of footsteps in mud. I licked my lips, but my tongue offered scant moisture. I wanted to soothe my throat but dared not touch the water.
“It rained four days ago. Did you go to the city?”
“Four days?” I had never stayed away so long. My stomach clenched with hunger.
“Did you go to the city?”
The questions I wanted to ask tangled and tumbled in my mind, like a knot of snakes after first thaw. “How long have they been there?”
“You know what the old women say,” said my mother. “Longer than memory. Longer than time. They’ve been invading the world since there was a world to invade, if the stories can be believed. They—”
“Not them,” I said. “Not those things.”
My mother’s fingers twitched. The swarm hummed.
“My sisters. How long have they been there?”
“Nearly as long,” said my mother. She would not meet my eyes. Her voice was fragile with hope. “I did not know if they had survived. You saw them?”
“I found a tower.”
“How does it look?”
“Old,” I said. “Weak. It’s falling over.”
“Ah.” My mother closed her eyes and I imagined, for a moment, that she had spent the past four days sitting exactly where she was now, never moving, never stirring, doing nothing but waiting. “That’s something, at least. At least they’ve managed that.”
We sat in silence for a time. I listened to the bell-like music of the blighted bushes.
“How do you know it will make any difference?” I asked.
There were men in the northern swamplands who would treat a snakebite by first killing the snake, then amputating the hand, then the forearm, the elbow, all the flesh up to the shoulder as the dying boy screamed around a leather strap. I had seen them do it. I had been hiding behind my hands, too horrified to watch, and mother had scowled at their blades and blood-splattered faces before telling them it was too late.
“Mother? How do you know?”
She stood slowly, unsteadily, joints snapping and legs unfolding beneath her as though she had forgotten how they worked. She said, “You must be hungry. I’ll check the traps.”
She disappeared into the forest. I laid down on the rock again, feet tucked safely away from the water. Wisps of clouds drifted overhead. I felt I was floating above the land, but at any moment I might fall and splash to the ground like a dropped bucket of water, scatter into rivulets before seeping into the earth.
My mother had taken my knife while I was in the city. She kept it as we descended into the rolling foothills. I settled into my body again, that frail prison of skin and bone, so clumsy and slow and hungry. The nights had lost their chill while I was away. Each day was hotter than the last, the hours of sunlight harder to endure.
After noon on the second day we came to a meadow. The river spilled from the trees and into broad open bowl. Without thinking I brushed my hand over the swaying grass and withdrew with a gasp of pain. The meadow grass was sharp enough to open a fan of tiny cuts across my fingers and palm.
I looked over my shoulder. My mother stood at the edge of the forest, safely in the shadows.
“I’m only going for water,” I said.
“Not here,” said my mother. She stepped forward, hesitated. “Come back to the shade. Please.”
I had never heard my mother plead before.
I turned away from the meadow and followed her into the forest again. A few paces from the trail she brushed orange leaves from a log and sat down. The sunlight dappled her shoulders and the crown of her head. I sat beside her.
“We’ll wait for evening,” my mother said.
I took the water skin from my pack and tilted the last drops into my mouth. Sunset seemed an age in the future. I imagined my lips and tongue drying like summer mud, pink flesh splitting along cracks, all the spit and blood evaporating away. I shifted into a firmer patch of shade, but it did nothing to alleviate the heat. My mother passed her water to me.
“What were their names?” I asked.
I expected her to tell me not to ask questions, not to be stupid. I did not expect an answer.
“I never gave them names,” said my mother. “I never named you either. You chose your name for yourself. Do you remember? We were in one of the desert forts. There was an old woman leading a caravan. You tried to run away with her. She said she wouldn’t take you unless you had a name. You made one up, and she brought you back to me.” My mother looked at me. “You don’t remember?”
I remembered hiding in a pile of blankets that stank of camel and falling asleep to the grind of cartwheels on sand.
“All old women are the same to me,” I said, and my mother laughed.
The sunlight deepened the lines around her eyes and sharpened the angles of her face. She would not pass for a mountain clanswoman now, nor a desert wanderer, nor an island adventuress. Should we cross the mountains again, my mother wearing that thin face and those golden eyes, she would be a stranger everywhere. Children would dare each other to slip frosthand blossoms into her tea and hide behind tent flaps to watch her choke.
“We still have a chance,” she said. My mother plucked a handful of grass from the ground near her feet, crushed the brittle blades in her palm. Blood rose in beads across her skin. The swarm flowed from her fingertips, ate through the grass and stitched the wounds closed. “If most of them are still hiding away in the ark, we still have a chance.”
She stood and strode into the forest. I listened until her footsteps faded, then slid to the ground and closed my eyes. There was nothing to hunt and we had not eaten in days. I drifted into a restless slumber.
When evening came and the heat released its choke-hold on the day, I returned to the meadow of knife-sharp grass. The mountains still shone with light, but the river was in shadow. I found my mother kneeling in a fresh clearing. The swarm hummed around her in, cutting the grass blade by blade. It slowed when I approached, quivered uncertainly, sped along.
There was a pile of dirt on the ground before her, oblong, the length of her forearm. She dribbled water from the skin and stirred it with her hands. Beside her lay the bundle she had carried from the nomad’s camp: clean white bones in a tattered shawl.
My mother drew my knife from its sheath and drove it into the ground, jerked it free and stabbed again, and again, churning up dirt, grass, sand. She mixed in more water and worked it with both hands until it she had a sticky, gritty mud. She unwrapped the bundle, and one by one she picked the bones from the pile. The skull first, the knobs of the spine, the shoulders and ribs, arms and legs, the twin curves of the pelvis, the impossibly tiny fingers and toes. The swarm gathered to watch. The last daylight vanished from the highest peaks and the first stars emerged.
With my knife, my mother opened a long cut down her forearm. She smeared blood onto every bone and scooped handfuls of mud to shape two legs, two stubby arms, a small head and a round body. She smoothed the shawl over the child-to-be.
“You have more water in you than your sisters did,” my mother said. She was looking at the lump on the ground. The swarm spiraled and danced, twining through her fingers, and disappeared beneath the bloody cloth. “I used to think it was a mistake. They never tried join a caravan or sneak aboard a trading ship.”
The shroud shifted as though caught in a breeze.
My mother held up my knife. I stepped forward to claim it.
“I won’t tell you what to do,” she said. “You can go back over the mountains if you want. You’ll have to decide. I’ll let you go now.”
Something like a laugh teased the back of my throat, but the sound I made was closer to a sob. She wanted me to decide. She had woken me from a warm sleep in the nomads’ camp, led me through the ancient battlefield and the winter forest, spilled my blood into a wild river. She had brought me over the mountains to this dying land, and she wanted me to decide. Here, where the grass cut like knives and trees rattled in the wind and we hadn’t spotted a bird or a squirrel for days. Here, beside this lonely river that tasted of iron and fed into the heart of a grotesque city, and there was nothing to see out to every horizon but what would become of the forests and farms and cities and swamps, to the entire world, if the blight spread unchecked.
Here, where she had made me from sand and bones and blood, she was letting me go.
“Will you give her a name?” I asked.
My mother tugged at a corner of the shawl, touched her hand to the round belly of mud. I turned away and pushed through the biting grass until I found the trail again.
“Alis,” said my mother.
I stopped, and my heart thudded with faint hope, but I did not turn.
“I’ll choose a good name for her,” she said.
Her voice was so low it breathed with the murmur of the river. When she fell silent the night swallowed her whole.
I walked to the edge of the river. Perhaps it was the same beach where my sisters had once stood, trusting and docile, before my mother asked for their knives and led them into the water. The river ran swift and smooth. I unlaced my boots. I waded into the water and squeezed the shifting sand between my toes. Beneath the stars, the meadow and the forest might almost be mistaken for alive.
I pressed my knife to the inside of my arm.
There was a chance, my mother had said.
The first drop fell. I ran with the current out of the foothills and onto the plain. The shifting riverbank beneath my feet, the water lapping my legs, the night air teasing the hair around my face, the burn of thirst and dull ache of hunger, the rattle of wind through dying grass, all of it slipped away, and there was nothing left but rust and silt and the cool dark river.