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The Diamond Run

We live — and die — by our Runners.

They say it wasn’t always this way. They say all of us used to be free to Run, but I’ve never known a life like that. I was born after. After the sky went dark. After the Diamonds came through the clouds down to earth.

And ruined us all.

Meema says it was our fault. They were so beautiful — the Diamonds — that we didn’t ask the right questions. Not until it was already over.

Papi always tells her to hush it up. He thinks if we call them by name, out loud, too often, then they will find us. I think he’s right.

I wanted to be one of the Runners for our enclave. I begged and begged, but I was born too late. They’d already given my brother Beau the honor, and no family was allowed to have two Runners. No enclave had more than five. Couldn’t afford it.

“Don’t wish it,” Beau would say. “It’s not like you think. Don’t wish you were a Runner.”

Then I’d tell him that it was easy for him to say.

I’d try to quiz him: Did the Process hurt? What was it like? Did he know what they did to him to make him invisible to the Diamonds?

Did he ever get scared?

He never answered. Except sometimes, late at night when I was almost asleep, I’d hear him whisper, “Yes, Izza. I’m scared.”

One day, Meema got sick. Bad-sick, but not a death-sick. Doc said there was a medicine that could fix her right up, but we were out. We needed a Runner to go up onto the streets, to cross the city and trade with the Northeast River Enclave. It was a dangerous Run, one that took a path right through Diamond-heavy districts. Beau hated it; he told me it smelled like blood and corpses, that he saw more bodies in the allies, worked to death in the Diamond factories, than any other Run.

But Beau was the only Runner in the enclave that day. The others were already out.

Papi said no. I heard him yelling at the Chief that it couldn’t be Beau, he was too old, the Process was wearing off and he’d fully outgrow it soon.

But Meema was sick. And it was spreading.

So Beau put on a pack, hugged Papi, hugged me, and then he went for a Run.

I waited by the tunnel door every day for seven days.

Beau never came home.

One night, Papi took me topside. We sat under a scout shanty where the Diamonds wouldn’t see us and stared northeast. He held me and cried. I’d never seen him cry before.

“Izza,” he said. “Do you know why a family can’t contribute more than one Runner to the enclave?”

I looked up at him. “Because it’s not fair to the others. To hog all the honor.”

“No, Izza.” There was starlight in Papi’s eyes. “Because it’s too much to ask them to lose more than one child.”

Forbidden Biomaterials Will Be Removed

We gathered around the strange thing poking up through the cracks in the pavement in our alley.

“What is it?” Billy asked. Being the youngest, he could ask the question the rest of us were too proud to voice.

“Maybe it’s a wire?” Sam suggested, the ends of her hair dangling into her face like some automata with broken cables.

“Nah…” Chris leaned back against the brick walls, all nonchalant like he always does. Towering over the rest of us gives him power. The fact his dad is the Boss has nothing to do with it.

I peered closer while I waited for Chris to come to an authoritative decision The thing was green like a power button, but darker, with two larger bits sticking out on thin filaments, and two smaller bits coming from the center of those filaments. It didn’t smell right. None of us were brave enough to touch it, but I leaned closest, trying to figure out what it could possibly be.

An alien? Nah, aliens would move more than that. Maybe some sort of new spy equipment? Nah, it looked too fragile for that.

“I think we should wait and see what it does,” Chris finally pronounced. It was as close to admitting he had no better clue than the rest of us as he would get.

Wait and see.

A week went by and the thing made 2 more of those wide green bits. They looked different than the others, more rounded and a little bigger. More bits like that came, and they started to smell. It was a strange smell, one we had no name for. We needed a name to call it, so we called it the Thing and said we smelled like the Thing, but we didn’t know what it was. We didn’t ask, not the teacher bots or our parents. It was our secret, and ours alone.

Only it didn’t stay that way.

It was on my way to school, so I saw it every day. I saw them, the Cleaners with bright orange metal skins warning of danger, cover the Thing with a dome. As they rolled out of the alley, they went right past me, blocking it so I couldn’t see at first what they’d done.

The Thing was gone.

There was the smallest dark spot where it had been, but nothing else.

The news spread in whispers and gasps, but Chris merely leaned back against the playground wall and sighed. “I know what it was now. They were called plants. It’s the only thing that gets the orange ones out.”

I felt the word on my tongue, strange with the newness, stinging like hot sauce. Plants. The others tripped over the usual questions, hows and whys and where’d it come froms, the word sounding just as crazy coming from them as it felt on my mouth. Plants.

He just shrugged and kept leaning as if he had to hold the wall up.

We never told a soul.

But when school let out and started again, I kept my eyes peeled.

I knew, I just knew. If it was there once, it could happen again. And this time, I’d find a way to hide it and discover what secrets it held.

When the Dragons Woke

Fucking tourists.

Shel leaned hard into the bow of the ship, the heavy wooden edge cutting across his back, digging into his spine. Brael was at the gangplank in her best jacket, hands on hips, smile on her face as the sweat-shined, squishy-limbed stream of people climbed onto the Rainhawk. They gawked and tripped over one another as they gawked, and Shel scowled at his hands as he tried to dig dirt out of his nailbeds.

Someone kicked at his booted foot, and he looked up at Harp’s broad, grinning face.

“Better shape your shit up,” she said. “Knock a smile on or Cap’n will dump you over for the brikeet to tear apart.”

“No, she won’t,” he said. “Cap’n needs me too bad.” But he straightened his posture a little and shoved his hands deep into his pockets.

“Sure,” said Harp. “Because it takes such a big crew to navigate this glorified ferry.”

Shel scowled and turned a shoulder to Harp’s ornery smile, glaring down at the diamond-clear water below them. Hundreds of feet deep, zigzagging across the planet surface in narrow, curving paths, perched on the tops of dark green mountain ranges; the surface a sheen of indigo and coral and all of the other gradient hues that painted Epson’s perpetual-sunset sky. Hard-edged, glinting cities sat upright on platforms here and there along the waterpaths. They looked made of gold. Then again, everything looked half-gold on Epson.

A flock of birds – silver on their wings – dove as one and glanced off the water ahead of them, scattering droplets like jewels. Harp made a little gasp of awe behind him, and he snorted.

She knocked a fist between his shoulder blades – a little harder than necessary. “You can’t seriously be jaded to all of this.”

Shel turned back to her and leaned against the edge again. “Twelve years working the waterpaths… It’s not like there’s anything new to see anymore. But them…” He jerked his chin at the tourists gathered around Brael at the mast while she gave a safety speech. “Richies who probably paid their weight in off-world minerals just to piss their pants at the fact that the sky is always this color.”

If Harp had a response, Shel didn’t get to hear it. Brael strode over to them with the same hard, sweeping gait that carried her everywhere, shedding her official jacket as she went. “I’d truly love to get this little boat rolling, but it seems my crew is standing around with their asses hanging out. Shel…darling…peaches…get the fuck on the wheel or you don’t get paid. Harp, one of our passengers is already getting altitude sickness — see to that, would you?”

Harp gave a sharp nod and went wading into the sweaty knot of people with a cheerful, “I hear someone’s not feeling well?” But Shel kept close to the outside, skirting around the mass of too-warm bodies to get to the helm on the back platform. Brael herself handled the rigging, loosing the bone-ribbed sails as Shel tugged the mooring line free.

The breeze billowed into the canvas, and the Rainhawk eased forward, gliding deftly down a rippling pool of light. The tourists cooed and spread to the edges, right hands tapping at their temples to activate the memory captures embedded in their eyes. Tap. Tap. Tap.

Seen one eternal sunset, seen ’em all, thought Shel.

He tipped the wheel just a touch to guide them around a turn without even scraping either edge or some of the shallower rock shelves that lurked just below the surface. Still, the wood of the helm vibrated beneath his fingers. Not from an impact, though. From something else…

Brael appeared at his side, her arms behind her back, her eyes steadily forward. “How are you holding up?”

Shel shifted, his fingers tightening on the helm. “I’m fine, boss. Sorry for before.”

She snorted. “If I minded you gettin’ attitude, Shel, you wouldn’t still be on this ship. I just want to make sure it’s not anything else.”

“It’s not. I just…” He shrugged. “Just a little worn out by all the…” He waved a vague hand that encompassed the tourists, the ship, the glistening water and the multicolored sky.

Brael shot him a quick look. She didn’t even turn her head, but he could feel it, sharp on his skin. “When’s the last time you were off-planet?”

“I don’t need a vacation, Cap’n.”

“Don’t you?” She raised an eyebrow. “You’re an excellent helmsman, Shel. But you do me no good if you go half-mad with some constancy disorder, ya mind?”

Shel exhaled, tried to let all his irritation out with the breath. He needed the wages too bad to be put on forced leave. “Aye, I mind.”

Brael nodded. “Good.”

She strode off, and he was left to stare half-vacant at the familiar waterpath that rolled out before them, adjusting the Rainhawk as needed by memory and instinct. Twice along their route he felt a thrum in the hull – like scraping a rock shelf but not quite – but there was nothing to see. Nothing but the quiet rippling of the water and the steady murmur from the tourists as they captured a rock, a plant, a bird.

They were drawing up to the far dock to let off their charges when they heard it.

A great groan that echoed through the canyons between the waterpaths. Then, sharp cracks and booms, like the sound of the planet’s bones breaking.

Someone on the port side cried out, and everyone rushed over. Shel pressed himself against the edge and strained his neck to see through the misty air below.

Across the valley, the craggy wall of another waterpath burst open, spewing liquid that glinted liquid gold in the always-fading light. And from the hole crawled an enormous shape. Winged and scaled, long neck, long tail, flashing teeth. It let out a roar that shook loose boulders, and then it took flight, arching up into the sky, catching coral rays on the hard edges of its spines and skin.

Shel’s heart beat against his ribcage, pushing the blood through his veins at a manic pace. He found Harp in the crowd and put an arm around her shoulders.

“That,” he told her. “Now that was something new.”

Refuge

When the alarm blares over the ancient megaphone system, I stop what I’m doing and hold my breath to count the sirens. After the third shuddering beep, my gaze drifts to the water and its winding path that swings toward us and our little city. Our overflowing city.

Like all of them along this river, we perch high above the wastelands. We’re all that’s left now. It’s only safe here because the pestilence can’t eat away at the rock base of the waterway.

On a bad day though, like yesterday, the stench still reaches us. It’s on those days the air reeks like the rotting flesh of the beasts left behind on the earth below; of the rotting vegetation left to die like everything that couldn’t make the trek to this altitude.

The sails of Refuge are visible over the horizon and the excitement causes my stomach to clench and flip flop. I welcome the nausea though, because this time there’s an added tingle down through my finger tips. This time – it’s different.

In the teachings, the books with their fading pages, we’re told that nature always finds a way, she always survives. And that’s where we are now – singled out by our nature to live.

Today, like every time Refuge pulls into port, some of us will get to move onto the next stage, to the next area. Not everyone can go at once, after all. They need to make sure they can accommodate all of us. Once a month they call a few of us out and send the lucky ones from each town on their way to a better place. It’s the chance to escape the close quarters here in the city and head toward the future our leaders promised mankind.

I can see the reflection of the sun, her bright yellow fingers dipping into the water and turning her shades of purple and pink before the gold swallows it whole. Sails whisper in the slight breeze as the hull groans a little while the vessel navigates the twists and turns of the river.

Our bags are packed, they’re always packed and with us no matter what we’re doing during the day. No one dares throw away their future on something so trivial. My mother clutches my hand like she has since I was a child and we weave through people to stand on our assigned dock awaiting the arm that may lead us to the ship.

Only in this light can I see the next city over, just a glimpse in the distance. A shiver runs down my spine. It could be the chill of the air ushered in from the water, but I know it’s excitement.

The metallic clang of the megaphone system whirrs to life again and three names drone over the speakers.

Isaac Davis
Michael Jones
Sarah King

My stomach churns at the pause after the last, and I can barely believe my ears when a final name is intoned.

Isabel Merrick

My heart skips a beat, thudding in my chest. I’m too young to remember before the rising, I wasn’t even born. My entire life has been about this, about getting called to move on. Even though it means leaving my mother behind, I can’t help be happy. I’ve been chosen for the next stage.

My time is short. There’s only a moment to embrace my mother and wave to my friends before I start the walk down the arm the Refuge extends for us to board. The footing is unsure, so I can’t run toward the ship like my brain tells me to. Instead, I pull my suitcase behind me and board with the others.

I huddle on the deck with the others from my city and those before us. There’s a sad smile on my mother’s face and I think I spy a tear. I know it’s not for me, but for herself and yet again being left behind. She’ll follow me soon though, she has to.

Two stops later and the people are sandwiched together. Claustrophobia threatens to engulf me, but I can see the splendor of gold on the horizon and I know it’s waiting for us. Refuge groans beneath the weight of all her passengers, fighting her way up stream and for a moment I wish she were bigger and stronger.

The excited buzz in the air is contagious and though I vaguely know the other people from my city, I stand proudly with them, eagerly awaiting our ascension to a new life.

Refuge slows, and a few of us elbow to the bow, eager to see our new home. I’m confused. The river appears to stop here, and no matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to see where the water flows to.

I crane my neck and suddenly the excitement vanishes from my stomach, replaced by true nausea as it clenches up in fear. The drop off in front of us is endless and black. I try to backpedal, but hands push at me from behind. Murmurs of surprise and confusion surround me and as the girl a few over from me falls we realize the sides of Refuge are falling away. The screaming starts.

There’s nothing to hold onto, only those around me. The wooden bow is suddenly slick and everyone reaches for each other, trying to find a way to hold onto the suddenly tilting floor.

My belongings dive before me and as my fingers lose hold of the other’s, I realize the G on the hull is newer, painted over another. Over an S.

Refuse.

Tagged

Mecurial

The mist parted slowly, drifting away as Jessalyn flew. She didn’t know where she was flying to, only that she must fly. Her wings grew tired, but still she flew on. Finally, enough of the mist had drifted away she could make out shapes. Spiraling mountains of green. A river shimmering with all the colors of the rainbow. A boat that looked like a dragon.

-A firebird landed forever ago, and set to readying for a journey-

Her wings trembled as she landed, her claws skidding into pebbled ground just as varied in hue as the water before it.

“It’s about time.” A human looking figure wrapped in a cloak of fire pulled at ropes attached to a strange boat. No, not ropes. Tendons. The boat had wings in place of sails and a thin, hollow body riding low to the waves. The head of the ship blinked at her with iridescent eyes.

-he had waited for a lifetime and for a moment and for eternity for her-

Jessalyn felt her body shift, her bones crack and feathers burn away until all that was left was skin and a landbound human. She put a wing-no, now it’s a hand- to her face, then shook her head. “Oh,” she whispered, memories flooding back. The girls. The birds. The knife.

She looked up at the cloaked figure, and knew in a moment who he was, though he hadn’t been this age when she’d seen him last. “Alex?” She doubted herself for a moment, certain it must be someone else preparing the strange dragon boat.

-he smiled at the sound, her voice soaking into him like water in the desert-

“Who else?” He turned to look at her, and his eyes removed any doubt she might have had. She’d know those eyes anywhere. His lips too.

“How… “ she hesitated, uncertain how to ask what she burned to know, unsure if she wanted to know. “Where are we?” she asked instead.

“Let’s find out, shall we?”

-he missed that smile, so unsure and yet unafraid-
They stepped into the dragon boat. It didn’t give beneath them, but drew back the tendons holding it to the land and gently flapped the wings overhead. A soft breeze washed over them and the boat began to follow the rainbow river.

-to take her hand but no, not yet-

The river twisted and turned and rose and fell, and the dragon flew through the water without a drop flying up. Jessalyn stared in silence at the mercurial river, at the fog swept buildings lurking in the distance, anywhere but at the man dressed in flames.

– he was afraid to touch her for fear she’d shatter-

Finally, the silence between them felt thicker than the strange water beneath them, thicker than the fog she’d flown through, thicker than her thoughts. “Where does it go?”

-it wasn’t the question he expected her to ask-

He shrugged. “I’ve never done this before. I just knew when I reached the beach what I needed to do. I knew how to call this ship and what to do to tame it. And I knew to wait for you.”

“Why me?”

-might as well ask why the sky is grey or the river is molten rainbows or why he breathes-

She waited for his answer, but the ship bumped to a stop at the foot of a long series of stairs leading up into the mists before it came. She wavered as she looked at the daunting climb, wishing she knew how to call back her bird’s wings.

-she used to be so much braver-

He held his hand out to her, already standing on the first step. Their eyes met and she could see fire swirling through blue eyes, eyes she could almost lose herself in. Eyes that saw through to her soul.

-He stared into her eyes, eyes full of ice and doubt and memories and fear-

She took his hand and they began to climb, smiles on their faces. The mists thickened around them, the raven girl and the phoenix boy, hand in hand at last.

-he would climb with her forever, just to hold her hand-

Administrative note: Stories moved to Friday from now on, for the aliteration of Free Fiction Fridays!

The Dance of the Crow Mother

When they tell me I will dance the Crow Mother, I cannot breathe.

I have practiced in the dark, in the wild grass of the hills, far from the glows of our fires. I have crushed the stalks beneath my feet, the bruised-green smell rising into the sky. I have held out my arms just-so and arced my body in circles. I have raised my voice to Her in song.

Since I was a small child, I have done this. For as long as I could remember the dance from one day to the next, from season to season, I have done this.

And now I will dance it in the circle.

I am not as light as I thought I would be, not as joyous. My heart is as tight as it is glowing.

I am afraid. Afraid I will fail. That my practiced feet will stumble. That She will not accept me as her dancer and will rain her displeasure down on my people.

I sit very still while they prepare me. My skin is dark, but the paint is darker. It runs in soft, curving lines across all of my body. My arms and legs. My breasts and stomach. Ne’hma paints my face, draws the patterns down my forehead and cheekbones, covers my eyelids in black. It is her honor to bestow because she holds the village to her bosom. She holds the village up to the gods. When she was younger, she was the Crow Mother.

They lay the shawl of feathers across my shoulders. I take a breath that shudders up my body. I step out into the glow of our fires.

The circle is clear, the faces of my peoples no more than shadows at the edges, lit in pieces by the moving flames. The air smells sharp and cold. It prickles against my naked skin. The silence presses against my ears. I am not sure I remember how to dance at all.

I raise my shaking arms to the night sky.

Hear me, Crow Mother, and welcome me into your dance.

My first steps are tentative. The ground feels foreign beneath my feet, though I have walked it all my life. The wind springs up hard enough to burn me with its cold, and I tremble. If She rejects me, we will have no new growth. I will doom everyone.

I close my eyes and pretend I am not in the circle. I am in the hills. I am standing on the wild grasses. I am in the dark, far from sight.

And my feet remember.

I stomp on the earth of the circle. I hold out my arms just-so. I arc my body in circles.

I raise my voice in Her song, and it does not sound like my voice. It is strong and clear and wild.

It is Her voice.

I open my eyes, and the fires leap up, stretch for the sky. I sing and I whirl, and my joy bursts out of me, catches all of my people in its embrace.

I am the Crow Mother. And the Crow Mother is me.

Tagged ,

Thirteen

Every night since the fire, Jessayln dreamt of wings. They pursued her through the halls of school, through the stop signs in town. They pursued her through the lectures as her parents tried to weave a cage of love and to the city with nests made of glass instead of clapboard. No one could catch her heart, for it flew faster than any bird.

Modeling made ends meet, and it was just another gig. Just another shoot. Just another elevator to a nondescript reception lobby. Down a narrow hall to a nondescript door, into a garden paradise on the 67th floor.

Nymphish girls ran from hair to makeup and Jessalyn was caught in their whirlwind. Tape measures swirled around her almost by themselves, chased after by dark clad assistants with clipboards and sharp voices. Her hair pulled up at an unseen hand, coiffed carefully into a ponytail on top of her head, then stuffed and spiraled into a bun-like nest. Earrings jabbed by deft hands dangled from her ears. Makeup applied with a hasty brush made her sneeze, but before she could ask questions, she was ushered with the others past plants she didn’t recognize and into a gown of black feathers that trailed to the floor behind her. Others were clad like peacocks, others like swans, but twelve of the other girls were decked in black dresses identical to hers.

The brightly colored girls fluttered off, but one of the assistants held up a hand when Jessalyn tried to follow. “The Corvid is not to follow. Wait here.”

When the voices of the others faded, the Corvid girls looked at Jessalyn, and she stared back into faces she previously knew only from the mirror and photographs. Jessalyn walked towards them, her steps hesitant but the pull irresistible.

“One for sorrow, for we have lost much for your flightiness” the first girl said, stepping aside.

“Two for joy, for we have been happy at times, though you never cared” the second girl said, standing beside the first girl.

“Three for a girl who saw too much that night.” The third girl stepped slightly further away from the others, her eyes never leaving Jessalyn.

“Four for a boy, who accepted his fate.” Another self faded into the group, lining up like paper dolls.

“What are you talking about?” Jessalyn shouted at them, trying to back away, only to find there was nowhere left to run. The wings had caught her, after so long.

“Five for silver, like your ethereal eyes.” Her voice, her own voice, spitting back the compliment she’d heard for so long, turning it into an insult.

“Six for gold like the firebird so long ago.”

It can’t be. It was a nightmare, a mass hallucination, a fantasy.

“Seven for a secret never to be told. Do you know it?” The girl leered as she stepped aside to join the others in their half formed circle around Jessalyn.

Jessalyn shook her head, earrings bouncing. “Please stop! I don’t know what’s going on here, but this isn’t funny.”

“Eight for a wish you didn’t remember, and still don’t.”

“Is this some sort of hazing the new girl thing? Because it’s seriously creeping me out!” The circle was almost entirely formed around her now, and her heart fluttered in her chest like a bird trying to escape.

“Nine for a kiss stolen under a mountain laurel longer ago.”

She’d almost forgotten. She’d kissed Alex once in the spring, playing truth or dare with the others. She’d promised not to kiss anyone else until they had a chance to try it again, alone. They’d never had the chance. She’d gone to her grandmother’s for the summer. When she returned in the fall, things weren’t the same, and then there was the bonfire…

“Ten’s a surprise you cannot miss!” The tenth Corvid reached out in a blur of motion and a flash of wings.

A sharp, burning pain filled Jessalyn’s gut. She looked down to see a knife, half gold, half silver, piercing deep into her. She stumbled, but none of the girls so much as reached out a hand to help her. They just kept staring at her with their doll like, bird like faces.

“Eleven for health, health you wasted. Are your wrists thin enough yet?”

Jessalyn fell to the floor, gasping.

“Twelve for wealth,” the last girl said, throwing a pair of coins at Jessalyn’s head.

Each girl merged and swirled and divided until there were seven, four, twelve again, an infinity of Corvids. No. Corvidae. Crows. A murder of crows.

“Thirteen, rise. Thirteen take your place with your sisters. Thirteen, beware.” But it was too late for warnings, too late for apologies, too late for the crow now fluttering wings above what used to be her body.

She left it behind too. No point in taking it with her, it would only hold her to the earth, and she’d always been too flighty for that.

We All Fall Down

Death has sounds. Coughing, spluttering, a strange sort of gurgle… I can’t help but notice them as I walk down the cobblestone street, scarf pulled across my face hoping to fend off some of the illness in the air. Though it’s not illness, we all know this, we’ve known it for some time.

It’s a plague.

We’re not sure how it reached our shores, and I don’t think anyone actually cares. What we care about is surviving, and the odds are slim at best. It besets and clings to people indiscriminately. Perhaps we can take solace in the fact that no one group is at more risk. Technically. I daresay the rich aren’t quite as prone.

The children play in the street, oblivious to their potential futures, to the plight of friends who can no longer come out and play with them. Their song sends shivers down my spine, and I’m not sure why.

Ring-a-ring o’ roses,
A pocket full of posies,
A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
We all fall down.

The edges of my shawl are threadbare, but I pull them around me to stave off the sudden chill. I’m not sure my mother will still be with us when I get back. And I can’t afford to think of how long it might be before I’m no longer here. I’ll turn into a blubbering mess like Dulcia did. We’re still not sure what got her first – the plague or the madness.

The stench of rot and decay assaults me as soon as I open our door. I gag at the smell, a stark reminder that not only does Death have sounds, but she has odors too. Horrible ones. My mother has passed. I was gone too long.

My heart hurts, I think, or maybe it’s my chest. They say that’s how it can start – a tightening of the chest, a hitch in your breath. Please let it only be my sorrow at her passing. I don’t want to die.

But who does?

“Edith?”

I turn, surprised to find tears blurring my vision as I try to figure out who’s calling my name. Though the sunlight is dulled by the clouds, there’s still enough light that only the silhouette is visible at first. Does Death work this quickly? Is she paying me a visit too?

“Edith? Has she passed?” There’s urgency about the voice that only matches one person – Alma.

I nod, suddenly unable to speak around the lump in my throat.

“Let us collect her, love.” Though her words are kind, I can hear the urgency, the need to retrieve the body and burn it. Burn them all.

I nod again and let them pass to retrieve my mother’s husk, their own selves covered as much as possible to avoid contact, to avoid breathing in whatever the dead flesh is secreting. And I wonder when it will stop, or if, in the end, there’ll be piles and piles of us with no one left to burn them.

Days blur into one another, weeks and far too much time, just like those tears blurred my vision. It’s lonely in my house, and as much as I scrub it, I always feel like mother is still there, still about to die and leave that smell. Maybe it’s embedded in my nostrils.

Our town has dwindled to barely a village. The Baker died three days ago, a few weeks after my mother. It’s a shame, I loved his breadrolls.

But this morning feels different, and I’m not sure why at first and go about my obsessive routine. I clean the house, and myself and leave to sit outside on the porch and watch the comings and goings.

Today there is sunshine, the first true blue sky in a long time. It illuminates the mostly empty streets, deserted houses and hopeless faces. As I undertake my routine nail inspection for signs of my own Black Death, I realize the children’s singing has taken on a different tone.

“Edith!” Alma comes running. I’m glad she survived this long too.

“What?” I ask, and even I can hear the despondency in my voice.

“It’s over.”

I blink up at her, and need to shade my eyes to see her face. The earnestness shines in it, her eyes afire with something I haven’t felt in a long time. “It’s really over?” I whisper.

She nods and pulls me up, close to her in a rare display of affection for both of us. She’s gone as soon as she arrived, probably to take word to everyone else. All of our depleted population.

And still, the sun beats down, improving my mood and I listen to them, truly listen to the song again as I shade my eyes to watch the children spinning in the circle. For the first time I notice they’re dressed the same as they’ve always been. I swear I’ve seen the same children spin and sing for however… long this nightmare has lasted.

Ring-a-round the rosie,
A pocket full of posies,
Ashes! Ashes!
We all fall down

And as they fall to the ground, laughing and giggling at and with each other, I realize what it is they’re making me feel. As if it’s rising up from between them, heralding a new beginning for us all.

Hope.

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