Archive for February, 2016

Storytime: How to Stop a Hailstorm.

Wednesday, February 24th, 2016

It was bad weather. Real, hard, cold, cruel weather. The kind where the rain’s half-hail and half-mad; the kind where the air is aching and your cheeks are slapped silly by the breeze; the kind where you get your umbrella out indoors.
It was just the kind of thing that Lalie liked to listen to, in her crib, laughing and cursing at each new thunderbolt and oohing and aahing as the trees came down around her. She was five days old but already she knew what she liked, she’d known it since her mother laid her down.
Her mother’s name was Gogtride, and she was a hag-giant. She had come down from the hills and given birth with one hand and slapped a cradle together with the other and put them both together.
“I name you Lalie,” she told the scowling infant. “After my great-aunt. Now stay the hell away from me.” And then she beat it before Lalie could figure out how her legs worked.
Since then Lalie’s days had been rather dull, especially after the second bear, when all the wildlife had decided to avoid her. This storm was the best thing she’d ever seen in her little life, and she was smiling crazy as her soft, downy hair stood on end with static force.
Then a hailstone came singing down out of the night and smacked her right between the eyes so hard they crossed twice.
“Hey!” she shouted. “What’s the big idea, numbnuts?”
Thunder boomed and cackled and ignored her. The cloud was moving on, the rain was already ending.
Not if SHE had anything to say about it.
And so Lalie stood up in her crib made from the bones of her enemies and wrapped herself in the swaddle made from the skins of her enemies and she breathed out her fierce, one-toothed grin and set off in pursuit of the thundercloud.

It was a long, hard chase. Lalie had never walked before, much less run. But the thundercloud was idle and lazy, rolling over the landscape rather than sweeping, and she was a fast learner when she was irritated. Soon she was back in the full froth of the storm, and that was when she closed her eyes and started counting mississippis after every lightning strike.
One and TWO and THREE and BOOM
One and TWO and BOOM
One and BOOM
One and GRAB and Lalie latched onto the lightning strike bare-fisted and was up it like a monkey, giggling all the way up its length and into the streaming, tearing heights of the thunderhead, feet dancing over arcs of electricity already fading out and turning back into normal old dead air.
And she was in the clouds, safe and sound, as safe as anything could be, when it was around Lalie. Or anyone, and there were a lot of anyones up there, tall and thin and wearing expensive clothing and cheap grins. They were mingling in crowds, chatting and lying to each other as they dined upon dainty bites of fog and mist; comparing lightning strokes; seeing who could spit the most rain the farthest distance. A few of them were wielding long clubs and knocking hailballs the size of golfstones into the earth. “Fore!” called one. And they all laughed.
They were all Lalie’s kind of people. The breakable kind.
She elbowed her way into the crowd and headed straight for the driving range, leaving a trail of confused and bruised shins behind her. When she stood up to the line, the attendant holding the clubs raised her perfect eyebrows at her.
“Little short for this, aren’t you, sweetie?” she said. “Come back when you’re older. Where are your parents, anyways? Children your age should mind their manners and stay at home.”
“I am here to defeat and destroy you in every way I can,” Lalie told her, for truthfulness was in her genes.
The cloud-golfers laughed, laughed, laughed, and around them the thunder boomed. And they kept on laughing right until Lalie snatched up one of the clubs and drove it as hard as she could into the attendant and the three cloud-golfers standing right behind her.
After that they stopped laughing and started shouting. The thundercloud wobbled and gained height; the lightnings stopped flickering out and started crackling in. The whole mess boomed and bobbled against the sky like a drumskin, and here and there a cloud-person fell out screaming, pow-pow-pow, like popcorn popping. But just as each of them was about to hit the ground they swooped back up again, riding little fuming cloudlets, and came back into the fight.
This was annoying to Lalie, who had been enjoying herself at first. None of the cloud-people were staying punched at all, and their lightning was beginning to make her skin itch and her eyes water. This was the first fight she’d ever been in where she was losing, and she didn’t like it, not at all. Like her mother, she was a sore, sore loser. And the best way to help a sore is to spread it around.
So she threw the cloud people harder and faster and faster, whirling them around her head like bolas, and by chance she came to see something, which is that the little cloudlets and the lightning bolts and the booms of thunder were all coming from a single place, buried under her feet in the center mass of the thunderhead.
“I’ll break THAT,” said Lalie. And she stomped once, twice, thrice, and each stomp drove her down four times her height until she fell through a roof of soft fog and landed in the heart of the storm, a hazy little cavern tucked away above the world.
This heart, though, was something strange. It was clotted and clogged and overflowing with bones, great stone bones, and every time the cloud rumbled and the lightning surged they groaned in soft, long, endless sighs.
“Now what’s YOUR problem?” asked Lalie. The bones couldn’t answer her, but they rolled in their prison, empty skulls gaping, fleshless jaws gasping. Every time they bumped together the world boomed and sparks flew, and she could see they were cracked and bruised from their rough treatment by the cloud-people.
A shout and a yell came from above Lalie’s head; the cloud-people had found her again. She glared at the stone bones, then cracked all of her knuckles and half her back for good measure.
“I want you to know,” she told them, drawing back her biggest, best fist, “that this is because I don’t like hail, and not because I am your friend. Got it?”
And then she punched the bones.

They got it, all right.

Boom, and stone chips flew everywhere, poking the thundercloud apart in a dozen dozen places and leaking raindrops everywhere.
BOOM, and the heart of the storm burst on the spot.
BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM and down out of the sky flew Lalie, the last scraps of thunder, and a hundred, hundred screaming cloud-people, each and every one of which went splat, splat, squirt on the ground like fruit dropped off a skyscraper.
Except for Lalie. Lalie just went thunk. It ran in her family.
And as Lalie stood up and knocked the dirt clods out of her ears she saw the tails of the thunder beasts fleeing over the edge of the sunrise-ridden horizon, shaken free of their bones and back in the world again.

“Nice,” she said.
And she grinned, twice as strong as before. Her second tooth had come in.

Storytime: Silence.

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016

It had been there a long, long, long time. There before the swamp, there before the silt, there before the sandstone and the storms and the long cool nights and the gouging of the glaciers and the inky blackness of the ashes in the air.
A certain small space where things were quiet.
It was not a big space. Walk across it and you’re there and gone in moments or less depending on your leg length. But it was very firm, and very fair. Ferns were chewed in it with softened, careful mouths. The heaviest treads weighed in feather-light within its borders. If something was being disembowelled its mouth did not move and even the entrails were quiet as they slithered out over each other. Shssh. Shhssh-shusshh.
But that was then, then.

And this is now.
Before now, when they came to the new place, they found it there, that certain small space. And most of them didn’t like it. They knew that sounds were meant for living souls, and that life was inherently noisy. They knew that small children were made of surging energy and growth and that an awful lot of that came out as yells and shrieks and whines and laughs. They knew they didn’t belong there, and they treated it as such, and were happier for it.
Except for Agnes, who wandered through it over and over and liked what she didn’t hear. So she built a little home on its borders, and took tiny walks through its borders, and grew a small garden at its heart. She doted on it, though it never gave her anything other than the smallest, most stunted tubers, and she left her children in it whenever they irritated her too much and she couldn’t be bothered.
Once upon a long time later, Agnes’s heart gave out a sigh during one of her walks and never raised its voice again. When they found her – reluctantly – two of her children came to the funeral: one to see the body, the other to take up the house.
The first was too wise to leave anything, even her name, but the second was called Heloise.

Heloise also liked the quiet, but she disliked gardens. She spent a long, dirty month gutting out the remains of her mother’s tubers and herbs and blossoms, arms filthy to the elbows with clinging silt and spackled mud. Their roots were much deeper than they looked, and their grasp tenacious.
When she was done, she built a new home, larger than her mother’s home, which was now a toolshed. And she filled this home with herself, and it came to be that most of herself was made of paper and bound in leather, more and more as time went on. Near the end of Heloise’s life most of the sounds she made were rustling, and most of the rustling she made was when she slept, relaxed from the stress and dangers of the day.
She wasn’t like her mother, not at all. When her time came she ran through the town square, squeaking and screaming and slamming her head against anything that came to hand until she came upon a likely cobble and sufficient vigor.

After that the space was quiet, and left to its own devices, and this was, perhaps, the biggest mistake so far.
Then they decided they needed a library, and this was no longer the case.

It is a good library now.
Heloise’s halls were built very poorly for a human to live in, but their criss-crossing, multi-chasmed ways are perfect roosts for books. They have room to see each other from farther aisles, and to confer at night. And the size of the rooms bring echoes upon echoes upon echoes, so that if a single noise is in danger of being made the sheer oppressive weight of it will crush itself in self-shame.
There are small discreet signs in each room, each bearing the traditional warning of a library, long after any library ceased to use them. A modern librarian would have fixed that. A modern librarian would have sorted, filed, and categorized the books. A modern librarian would have locked the doors each evening and gone home and eaten and gone to bed and woken up and said words to other humans and travelled back each morning.
This is no difficulty for the library because it has never had a librarian at all. It prefers it this way. There is less noise, and less fuss.

There are not many visitors to the library. Nobody has a membership card. The doors stick in the damp and it never stops being damp and the steps are slick and treacherous grey slate.
Now and then, someone drops by. They have no idea what they are doing or know it exactly and it’s very hard to say which is more dangerous, but they always mind the signs, and they always read them carefully.

Please be quiet for it is its own reward.

Please be quiet for the consideration of other readers.

Please be quiet for the sake of tradition.

Please be quiet because the books are listening to you and they learn quickly and the shelves that hold them are so very thin so very very very thin and small and only made of wood, dear small frail bent dead wood, and they are words.

And if the visitor is very, very persistent or simply too dense to leave, they will make their way along through the uneven and overflowing corridors and they will always come to the same place by the same path at the same pace, footsteps sinking into footsteps like travellers crossing snow. A little room with a locked door, swung half-open, buried underneath a tower of twisting stacks that sway at the pace of mountains mating.
On the door is a worn sign, obviously scribbled by someone in either a hurry or a panic, and that sign says


and it is not a command.

That library won’t stand forever. The books have grown fat and cumbersome and bloated; they’re ready to pop, ready to go to seed. The walls will cave in at last. It’s only stone and wood after all.
And what it’s holding is so much older.

Storytime: Boarding.

Wednesday, February 10th, 2016

“I still don’t understand why I have to be down here.”
Ann shut her eyes and breathed carefully for three seconds before replying. “It’s how the trick works. You know that. Oh no oh dear, those poor helpless marooned mariners, only two of them left, better help, pish posh pash, then SURPRISE up comes the one with all the weapons and we get the goods.”
“Yeah, but why me? The bilges are busted and it stinks down here.”
“You’re eight foot nine, Lizzy. You don’t look helpless enough.”
“I damn well feel it. I’m starving. Besides, why are we following the trick? It isn’t a trick! Fen ran us right through a keelee pod, FEN should be the one down here snorting bilge fumes in every orifi-”
Fen had been dozing quietly against the lifeboat’s engine until then, and she didn’t really seem to stop. She just shifted, snorted, and ended up with the muzzle of her broadbarrel pressed against the metal-plated deck.
“I heard that. Hey Ann, tell her that thing would barely break my skin even without the hull in the way.”
Fen yawned. “Tell her I’d be aiming for the eyes, Ann.”
“Hey Ann? Tell her I’ve got four extras.”
Ann shut her eyes again, crossed them, and muttered curses to herself over and over and over. She wished she could go back to her old standby of imagining stabbing the two of them, but in the confined space of the lifeboat she was a little worried that fantasy could become factual very quickly.
Not that it wouldn’t be useful. They weren’t running low on food yet, but they weren’t on any of the major shipping lanes. Could be a long wait, but she could at least make it a long, QUIET wai-
“Hey Ann.”
“What?!” she snapped in spite of herself.
Fen tapped her shoulder. “Smoke to the west, coming on in.”
“That’s bullshit. There’s nothing out there.”
“Is now. Been watching it for the last hour.”
“You didn’t say anything!”
“Wanted to be sure.”
Ann allowed herself a brief relapse of bad habits. Blood on her hands, Fen’s variously-severed anatomy around the deck, Lizzy sealed in the bilge and set on fire. Very relaxing.
“Fine,” she said, sugar-sweet and twice as soft. “Let’s get the engine going.”

The ship was a low-slung thing; its deck barely above water. Fat and heavy and set root-deep into the waves, it reminded Ann of a burnt hulk. Already sunk, already-dead.
No sails, no mast. A single bulky chunk of superstructure that seemed mostly to exist for the sake of housing a well-protected antenna.
“Nobody up top,” observed Ann. “Not that there’s much for them up there.”
“Nobody listening, either,” said Fen. She shook the bulky ship’s radio; eight years older than any of them and one of the few things they’d wrestled out of the Perse’s bridge before the sinking. “Not on any of the usual channels.”
“Maybe they know about the trick and they’re ignoring us,” said Lizzy.
Ann glared at the ship. “In that? For fear of us? Not likely. Look at it; the crew can’t be smaller than eight dozen; six at the pinch.”
“Ghost ship?” said Fen. Her teeth were bared now in that friendly way that meant an edge of fear mixed with a dose of adrenaline.
Ann realized her hand had been creeping towards her belt and stopped herself. Tells like that could get you killed. “Maybe,” she said. “If not, we can always fix that.”

The entrance was air-locked; a double-sealed descent down a ladder.
“They knew that deck wasn’t staying dry, didn’t they?” asked Lizzy. She stretched herself, all five arms as far above her head as she could reach. “I like these people. They know how to build a proper ceiling.”
“Shut up about the bilge,” said Ann. But she was thinking about that. They were standing in a broad, basically-empty corridor, nothing special about it beyond a ridiculously chicken-scratched floor; the sort of thing you’d find in any humanoid or nearhumanoid vessel. That was reassuring; dealing with enemies outside your species was hard enough, when they were outside your phylum things could get very difficult. But the space from the upper deck to the floor was a good twelve feet.
“Giants or not,” said Fen, “we’re armed. And we’re awake, or alive, or whatever they aren’t.”
“Captain is asleep.”
The voice was calm and bedrock-steady, despite the slight radio crackle. Before the first word had finished, all three of them were armed and tense.
“There,” said Fen. She pointed her broadbarrel at the ceiling’s corner, where a tiny speaker was humming to itself.
“Captain is asleep. Please do not make loud noises. Captain is asleep.”
“Identify yourself and your home port,” said Ann.
“Captain is asleep. We sail from eastmost onward. Guests may find lodging-space in one of the holds. Please be quieter. Captain is asleep.”
Fen sheathed her broadbarrel, laughed when Ann snarled at her. “Nobody home,” she said. “Hear that monotone? No inflection? It’s got to be a recording. Or a basal AI.”
“Y’mean I don’t have to stab it?” asked Lizzy.
“Stab it? Let’s just find it. Wherever it is, the bridge is. Wherever that is, the captain’s near. And where the captain is, is money.”
“If this thing’s really from west, it won’t HAVE money,” said Ann. “Not anything a decent bank’d recognize.”
“If this thing’s from west,” said Fen, “it’s practically made of money already.”

Made of money or not, exploring the ship was tiring business. The doors were a strain to move, even for Lizzy. The corridors were too long, their legs were too wobbly from the lifeboat’s confines. And no matter where they walked, the speakers followed them, echoing just slightly from the bare walls of the all-too-clean rooms they walked through. It was starting to get on Ann’s nerves a little; an honest ship deserved some dirt. The nearest thing this one had was the scratches on the floor; long, wobbled, and interwoven.
“Captain is asleep,” the speaker said quietly, as she slid into a vast, half-darkened space. “Please do not overly disturb the cargo. Captain is asleep.”
Ann prodded the nearest pallet. Spongey, soft, but packed hard. Some sort of grain. “Food,” she said.
“Lots of food,” said Lizzy. “Big appetites for big people.”
“So where are they all?”
“Captain is at the bow of the ship, against the keel,” said the speakers. “Please do not disturb Captain. Captain is asleep.”
They looked at each other.
“Not a recording, then” said Ann.
“AI’s worth a good chunk of money,” said Fen. “Especially one from off the map. Bulky to move, though.”
Lizzy cracked her knuckles. “Bulky’s my maiden name.”
“Captain is asleep,” repeated the speaker. “Please do not approach.”
“Which direction do we go if we don’t want to disturb your captain then?” asked Ann.
“Right at the next intersection.”
Fen’s grin came back. “AIs,” she said, fondly.

Left at the next intersection was less direct than it sounded; the ship’s guts might have been gleaming-clean, but their layout was a coiled mess, wrapping around from room to room to room. Engines, generators, storage closets – the size of mess halls – and more and more food lockers. Mostly full ones, but one or two dead empty, bare-floored. They hurried through those vaults a little faster than necessary.
“No bunks,” said Ann.
“Maybe they don’t sleep,” said Fen. “Or they just drop wherever they’re sitting.”
“’Captain is asleep,’ remember? And don’t tell me they’d sleep just anywhere they feel like; I haven’t seen DUST since we got on this thing. Where’s the crew?”
“Captain is asleep beyond this door. Please depart immediately. Captain is still asleep.”
Lizzy reached up and checked the handle.
“No lock,” she said, marvelling.
“Release the handle immediately. Captain is asleep and will be disturbed. Please-”
The door slammed against the wall, but the three pirates were inside the captain’s chamber before it had even started clanging, weapons out, eyes moving.
There was no bed. There was no desk. On one wall, a cabinet was mounted, securely fastened. And on the other, a mass of machinery and plating that reached to the ceiling, centered on a door that was built like a giant’s casket.
“Fen, check the cabinet for the AI. Lizzy, let’s wake up the napper.”
“Captain’s sleep cycle continues for another six hours. Captain must not be disturbed or shipboard activity will undergo severe desynchronization. Please do not disturb Captain’s berth. Please leave Captain’s quarters immediately.”
There was some sort of soft vacuum sealing the berth, and Lizzy ended up having to use all five arms, fangs gaping in concentration, eyes pulsing in their sockets until the metal squeaked and she roared and the whole thing popped open in a flash, knocking her flat onto her back.
Ann was already there, slipped between doorway and berth, blade out and humming with frictional force.
The captain was nearly what she’d expected; alien, but not altogether so. A tetrapod, vaguely reptilian; spindly and elongated in a way that made her think of a chameleon, but moreso. Tailless, nearly eight foot curled up; closer to eleven maybe if it was standing upright. Its eyes were flickering in the restless whirl of REM sleep. Machinery crowded the inside of the berth, nestled around its mouth in a way that made her think of nursing; deeply inappropriate for an egg-laying creature.
It took her a moment to recognize the voice. That wasn’t Fen; Fen never sounded worried. “Yes?”
“There’s no AI in here. Just spare parts.” Machinery clanged off spotless deck plates. “It has to be here. There’s nowhere else they’d put it. Where is it?”
“Captain is waking up.”
It was a calm, steady voice. It was entirely empty of static. It was coming from the berth.
“Captain is waking up,” and this time Ann saw the slight movement from the captain’s throat, heard the hiss and whistle of air moving up from lungs bigger than her torso. “Capacity for communication receding. Depart immediately or safety will be compromised.”
Ann watched the thing’s pulse accelerate with a professional’s eye. There. Right there. That would be the quickest way. “Yours first,” she told it, and drew back her blade.
The first thing that happened was the eyes stopped moving.

The third through fifth things were obscured by the impact of the second thing against Ann’s skull, which sent her hurtling out of the captain’s quarters and into the opposite wall of the corridor.
The sixth thing must’ve been because of Lizzy, because as Ann’s hearing sloshed back into her head she could hear the other woman roaring. Or screaming. Or both.
The seventh thing was Fen passing her at a jog, face set dead, feet flailing. As she rounded a corner the eighth thing pursued her in a titanic blur and a shriek of metal, surging past Ann’s face before she could tell it from anything.
And then she was alone again, head aching, mouth and nose full of blood. Some of it wasn’t hers; she could smell the acrid tang of Lizzy mixed with a deeper, richer undertone, and knew that she wouldn’t find anything good if she looked in the berth.
Ann started walking. She knew she should be running instead, but every time she tried to make her legs move faster something in her side shifted and pressed against deeper, softer portions of her insides. So she tottered, like an old woman. Forgetful like one too; she’d left her blade behind. There was something horribly tranquil about the realization that it probably wouldn’t make a difference.
Finding her way wasn’t hard, at least. They’d left a trail of open doors in their wake, for which she was doubly thankful; opening one on her own had gone from difficult to impossible now. Her muscles were jelly and her head was still swimming, which was probably why she didn’t notice the captain until she was right behind it.
It seemed bigger; it was the first she’d seen it – properly seen it – out of its berth. It was bent low over the floor, arms whirling, and when it spun to face her, for a split instant she saw what was gripped in its hands and it was the funniest thing she’d seen all day.
Then it was on her, and over her, and sprinting down and past her, deeper down into the ship, trailing a scream and a scratch behind it as its claws slid over the floor at full speed.
She walked over to the spot it had been squatting. It glistened with the universal scent of strong soap, but there was something redder underlying it that her nose recognized.
It had been cleaning up after Fen.

Ann walked a little faster after that, even if she’d just proven to herself that the captain wasn’t necessarily about to kill her, not with its body awake but unthreatened and its brain turned off. It was going to finish its chores sooner or later, probably sooner, and she’d rather that she wasn’t still around afterwards. She reached the airlock without incident, and for a while she dithered at it, trying to find a way to wedge it open. A bad squall or a sharp storm, and it would all be over fairly quickly, even with just the one entry available But the machinery was well-crafted and she didn’t have her blade and besides her head was pounding again, pounding so hard that she could barely think of escape, let alone revenge.
And as she unmoored the lifeboat from the side of the ship and slid back into the big empty blue of the far west, she realized it had done her a favour anyways. There was plenty of food now. Plenty of food for a long, quiet wait.

Storytime: Pond.

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016

I’d done all I could. That’s why I did the thing I shouldn’t.

I’d worked hard, broken two fingers on each hand.
I’d spoken soft, brought in every distant cousin and disgruntled neighbour.
I’d begged pious, drowned the greenstones in a flood of prayers and blood from my strong arm.
I’d acted firm, bent the landscape with my mind from all angles and willed it to be as if I were a great holy one from the mornings back when the sun hadn’t yet risen.
And still the triple-fucked tabbas crop was as dead and dry in its soil as a twenty-year-locust husk.

That can get to you, and get you to try things you wouldn’t.

So I sat there at the mallen pool, the damp wet browness at the backwoods that only children could be trusted near, and me a full adult of thirty years and spare, and I spoke to it as a child did.
“It’s all good for nothing,” I said. “Rain falls beside it, around it, and I swear over it, but none of it hits the soil.”
The mallen pool lay there, placid and rotting. Little fish peeked out from under its mossbanks, regaining their courage after the tremors of my arrival.
“And the well’s dead. Eighty foot deep, thirty of which I dug with my own hands. Thirty deeper than the deepest well I’ve ever heard of around here. And the driest. Nothing. It’s like trying to drink from beach-sand.”
A turtle, with slow, insipid grace, fell off a log. The ripples were endless.
“So that’s it,” I said. “I’m done. The fields will die, and so will I. Off to labour in the fields of my cousins or leak my way into the city and find a stray name. No more Vhedder fields. No more Vhedder.”
The water was quiet again. Flies didn’t dare buzz.
“And that’s why I’m trying this,” I said, holding up one fist.
In the cities, I’d heard they used wells for this, deeper ones than I’d ever imagined, shafts you could count to six in before a stone struck splashing.
But that was the problem.
“I wish for a well that works,” I said.
The coin’s ripples took much longer to subside than the turtle’s had. I left not knowing if that was good or bad or just a trick of the lightened and airy imagination of someone with nothing but hope left in their head.

The night was alright. My sleep was neither good nor bad, just absent. The dawn was slow and uneven.
The well was strange: it held a copy of my face down there, bubbling up from underneath. And when I dropped a bucket down it, it broke apart into slaps and smacks and the coolest, cleanest drink I’d had in my life. I dabbed the leftovers on my scales and watched the sun burn them away, tasted the residue with my tongue.
Good. Very good.
Twelve hours per field, twelve hours of careful digging and pouring and planning and painstaking measurement to be sure feast didn’t murder the tabbas as sure as famine would’ve. I didn’t sleep till it was over, I didn’t slow.
I have no idea how the night was after that, or half the day, either. But my sleep was completely fantastic.
The shoots were already vibrant greens when I climbed down from my perch; the air was filled with the smell of growing food. Not as strong and thick as it should’ve been, but a good sign in a place that had been dead of hope or help for far too long. I didn’t agree with everything about the cities; I didn’t want to ever live in the cities; I had never visited the cities. But I did like their notions on wishing.

Come a month and more later and I was starting to turn back my opinions. Six fields isn’t so hard to tend when there’s less and less of each one to worry over every year for a generation. Six fields seething at the seams with foliage, half of which you need to stamp and burn before it bursts, is another thing. Particularly when you’re the only one and your cousins and neighbours have all already – and loudly – said they’ve spent enough time doing you favours this year, thank you very much, and in any case what’s your problem if you’ve got a crop at last, be grateful for your luck, you so-and-so-and-so, and so on and so on.
I knew I was in trouble when I found the first gripseed vine. It was as thick around as my strong arm and three times as truculent from the damp and cold, and I broke my third finger of the year ripping it out and snapping its spine. When I looked around, I knew there’d be more, I just knew it. It had spored. There were going to be more fights like these if I wanted to harvest; a lot more if I wanted to harvest without fear of being strangled with a hoe in my hands.
And when I thought about it, it seemed sensible enough. A lot of life is doing what seems to work over and over, as my mother had told me. And as her advice had, so had this.
“That was my last one,” I told the mallen pool, to the frogs and the insects and the green scum and ferns. “So this’ll have to do instead.”
In went the raging bulk of the gripseed, twitching with impotent fury right until it hit the surface.
“I wish for help with the fields,” I said. And I turned and left before I could watch what happened, and begin to feel doubt.

I climbed down the next morning and found a guest, the first guest I’d seen since I was young. I was so surprised and so embarrassed (in the middle of scraping fungus from my scutes, a child’s habit that’s bad enough manners in a baby) that my apologies swamped his own for a full hour as I found him mash and mug. Only when we’d both mouthed our way through a bigger breakfast than I could afford to have did we start to understand each other.
“Work?” I asked.
His tongue flickered assent.
I measured him up. He was a little small for a man, but not considering his age. “Shouldn’t you be on your mother’s fields?” I asked dubiously. I wanted no runaways. Bad enough to get in a fight over that sort of nonsense, worse still to lose one; I didn’t have half the muscle mass I should’ve this time of year. The field was chewing me raw.
“My sister’s fields,” he said. “And not mine anymore. Too many brothers, and I ate too much, and our well has had troubles with silt and grime, and…”
And you were the youngest and easiest to throw out without a meal or a care, I didn’t say. He heard it just the same, and buried his snout in his mug to hide this.
“They’re rough fields,” I told him.
“I saw,” he said.
“We won’t get much rest,” I told him.
“I know,” he said.
“If either of us gets gripped, we’ll be worse off than we are now,” I told him.
“I won’t,” he said.
“Take a hoe,” I told him.
“Thank you,” he said.

At some point, in between fields five and six and months two and five, I must’ve asked him to marry me. I’m not sure if I was joking or not; I’m not sure if he was either. But I guess that worked out well enough because soon the nest at the top of the tree held eggs for the first time since the mornings of my mother.

The gripseed was throttled back; the tabbas fattened so hard they burst the soil free of their tops; the first shell cracked when the final root had been dried and packed away; the clutch was healthy, noisy, and growing, and this was all completely unacceptable.
Not to me or edder, of course. But I saw the eyes on me when I stood in the market. I heard the click of teeth as I put away my stall, hours ahead of anyone else and already sold-out of all I could carry. I felt the long, slow burn on the back of your head that comes from too many people thinking the wrong sort of thoughts about you.
There’s nothing wrong with success. There’s nothing wrong with generosity. But if you can get ahold of both while everyone else around you is dealing with drought, gripseed, grief and worse, well. People start to wonder.
Sometimes I thought about the mellen pool, and I wondered too. I told edder about it, but he thought I was being strange.
“It can’t be ghost-work,” he said. “Ghosts don’t come into cities. All that cut stone frightens them, makes them worry that they’ll get cut up too if they show their brittle bones. I don’t see anything wrong with what you’ve done.”
“Right,” I told him. “But you aren’t my neighbours.”
edder looked at me with that little face of his. “No,” he said.
“Your sisters are.”
“And you think…?”
“They don’t see anything wrong with what you’ve done either. But they don’t need to see it.”
And that was three mornings before the mob came by.

It was a hard run. The fields were clear and clean and firmed with the autumn chill, firm under your feet, but that went double for the crowd behind you. Nothing to do but speed up, speed up, keep speeding up and hope you discourage them more than you infuriate them as your stride grows and grows and grows, arms full of not-quite-hatchlings that you’d normally tell off for sitting on you, saying they’re too big for that now. Quiet as death, every single one, and that gave me nightmare thoughts as I went uphill.
We cut through the woods. That slowed us both down, but they had to look for us everywhere, and we just had to look for one path. Which I found, out of habit and instinct, and followed to the end of its length and my muscles.
edder was still there, worn even thinner than me, blood-a-boil with the torpor of a surge gone on for far too long. I let him lean on me, fell over myself.
“They’ll come,” he muttered through a deadened mouth. I shushed him and dragged myself along, scraped belly-flat into the hollow and dipped my teeth into sluggish, cool water, felt the furnace inside sizzle down to something that wouldn’t set my blood alight.
And when my ears were emptied of the inner roars and filling up with angry shouts, I hauled myself half-upright next to the mellen pool, still stirring with the leftover droplets from my muzzle, and I spoke for a minute.
“I’ve got nothing left for you that I can bear to give,” I said. “And I’m about to lose that too. So I’m offering no good trade, just a debt, and those aren’t big enough to leave ripples. But here it is anyways: please help my family.”
Then I sat back and listened to the water, listened to the bellows of the mob, and wondered at how strange it was that even as the calls for our blood got louder, I could still hear the soft lap of the mellen pool as clear as a bell, quiet but insistent, as big as a hill and deeper than my well, rising up and up and up through my feet above my head even as the shrubs were torn under angry feet that slid to a stop and fell silent.
I opened my eyes again. The rage was gone, the words were gone, but the water still splashed. It was seeping, dripping from high above my head, running down crevices of dirt and rot and who-knew-what, a skull of stone with a flesh of loam as big as market square, flatter and longer and toothier than anyone’s should be.
Its eye, its one eye, quivered in that head. Life swarmed and churned as an iris; frogs and minnows and a single confused turtle the size of a grown man. The mallen pool could not blink; it was anchored by its banked lids, its fern lashes. All it could do was stare. And you couldn’t meet that stare, and you couldn’t match that stare, but you couldn’t look away.
There were no words, spoken or silent. There was no message. But there was an understanding that all of us found there, at the mallen pool, looking into the breathing roots that underlay all we lived from. And when it saw this in us, I think that was when it slid back into its den with barely a sigh of soil, traceless and tired.
But the mallen pool was still there, still open. Fish spun, puzzled, in its return to immobility. Scum eddied back into place. Back to normal, but normal wasn’t, maybe, what we’d always thought. Not anymore.

Which was what I told my clutch as they grew. Just to be safe.
And there was something else I told them too. Just to be just.
Pond-wishing still isn’t a universal child’s pastime around here. Somewhere around three in seven have dropped a toy and a hope into the mallen pool, I’d say, and most no more than once. But that’s still pretty good for something that was taught to one clutch a single generation ago. Debts don’t leave ripples, but they should be paid in them.