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Fiction

Mulberry Boys

This story also appears this month in TELLING TALES : The Clarion West 30th Anniversary Anthology, edited by Ellen Datlow.

This story also appears this month in TELLING TALES: The Clarion West 30th Anniversary Anthology, edited by Ellen Datlow.

So night comes on. I make my own fire, because why would I want to sit at Phillips’s, next to that pinned-down mulberry?

Pan-flaps, can you make pan-flaps? Phillips plopped down a bag of fine town flour and gave me a look that said, Bet you can’t. And I’m certainly too important to make them. So pan-flaps I make in his little pan, and some of them I put hot meat-slice on, and some cheese, and some jam, and that will fill us, for a bit. There’s been no time to hunt today, just as Ma said, while she packed and packed all sorts of these treats into a sack for me—to impress Phillips, perhaps, more than to show me favour, although that too. She doesn’t mind me being chosen to track and hunt with the fellow, now that I’m past the age where he can choose me for the other thing.

We are stuck out here the night, us and our catch. If I were alone I would go back; I can feel and smell my way, if no stars and moon will show me. But once we spread this mulberry wide on the ground and fixed him, and Phillips lit his fire and started his fiddling and feeding him leaves, I knew we were to camp. I did not ask; I dislike his sneering manner of replying to me. I only waited and saw.

He’s boiled the water I brought up from the torrent, and filled it with clanking, shining things—little tools, it looks like, as far as I can see out of the corner of my eye. I would not gratify him with looking directly. I stare into my own fire, the forest blank black beyond it and only fire-lit smoke above, no sky though the clouds were clearing last I looked. I get out my flask and have a pull of fire-bug, to settle my discontentments. It’s been a long day and a weird, and I wish I was home, instead of out here with a half-man, and the boss of us all watching my every step.

“Here, boy,” he says. He calls me boy the way you call a dog. He doesn’t even look up at me to say it.

I cross from my fire to his. I don’t like to look at those creatures, mulberries, so I fix instead on Phillips, his shining hair-waves and his sharp nose, the floret of silk in his pocket that I know is a green-blue bright as a stout-pigeon’s throat, but now is just a different orange in the fire’s glow. His white, weak hands, long-fingered, big-knuckled—oh, they give me a shudder, just as bad as a mulberry would.

“Do you know what a loblolly boy is?”

He knows I don’t. I hate him and his words. “Some kind of insulting thing, no doubt,” I say.

“No, no!” He looks up surprised from examining the brace, which is pulled tight to the mulberry’s puffed-up belly, just below the navel, when it should dangle on an end of silk. “It’s a perfectly legitimate thing. Boy on a ship, usually. Works for the surgeon.”

And what is a surgeon? I am not going to ask him. I stare down at him, wanting another pull from my flask.

“Never mind,” he says crossly. “Sit.” And he waves where; right by the mulberry, opposite himself.

Must I? I have already chased the creature five ways wild today; I’ve already treed him and climbed that tree and lowered him on a rope. I’m sick of the sight of him, his round stary face, his froggy body, his feeble conversation, trying to be friendly.

But I sit. I wonder sometimes if I’m weak-minded, that even one person makes such a difference to me, what I see, what I do. When I come to the forest alone, I can see the forest clear, and feel it, and everything in it. If I bring Tray or Connar, it becomes the ongoing game of us as big men in this world—with the real men left behind in the village, so they don’t show us up. When I come with Frida Birch it is all about the inside of her mysterious mind, what she can be thinking, what has she noticed that I haven’t about some person, some question she has that would never occur to me. It’s as if I cannot hold to my own self, to my own forest, if another person is with me.

“Feed him some more,” says Phillips, and points to the sack beside me. “As many as he can take. We might avoid a breakage yet if we can stuff enough into him.”

I untie the sack, and put aside the first layer, dark leaves that have been keeping the lower, paler ones moist. I roll a leaf-pill—the neater I make it, the less I risk being bitten, or having to touch lip or tongue. I wave it under his nose, touch it to his lips, and he opens and takes it in, good mulberry.

Phillips does this and that. Between us the mulberry’s stomach grumbles and tinkles with the foreign food he’s kept down. Between leaf-rollings, I have another pull. “God, the smell of that!” says Phillips, and spares a hand from his preparations to wave it away from his face.

“It’s good,” I say. “It’s the best. It’s Nat Culloden’s.”

“How old are you anyway?” He cannot read it off me. Perhaps he deals only with other men—I know people like that, impatient of the young. Does he have children? I’d hate to be his son.

“Coming up fifteen,” I say.

He mutters something. I can’t hear, but I’m sure it is not flattering to me.

Now there’s some bustle about him. He pulls on a pair of very thin-stretching gloves, paler even than his skin; now his hands are even more loathsome. “Right,” he says. “You will hold him down when I tell you. That is your job.”

“He’s down.” Look at the spread cross of him; he couldn’t be any flatter.

“You will hold him still,” says Phillips. “For the work. When I say.”

He pulls the brace gently; the skein comes forth as it should, but—“Hold him,” says Phillips, and I hook one leg over the mulberry’s thigh and spread a hand on his chest. He makes a kind of warning moan. Phillips pulls on, slowly and steadily like a mother. “Hold him,” as the moaning rises, buzzes under my hand. “Christ above, if he makes this much of a fuss now.”

He pulls and pulls, but in a little while no more silk will come. He winds what he has on a spindle and clamps it, tests the skein once more. “No? Well. Now I will cut. Boy, I have nothing for his pain.” He looks at me as if I forgot to bring it. “And I need him utterly still, so as not to cut the silk or his innards. Here.” He hands me a smooth white stick, of some kind of bone. “Put that crosswise between his teeth, give him something to bite on.”

I do so; the teeth are all clagged with leaf-scraps, black in this light. Mulberries’ faces are the worst thing about them, little round old-children’s faces, neither man nor woman. And everything they are thinking shows clear as water, and this one is afraid; he doesn’t know what’s happening, what’s about to be done to him. Well, I’m no wiser. I turn back to Phillips.

“Now get a good weight on him, both ends.”

Gingerly I arrange myself. He may be neither man nor woman, but still the creature is naked, and clammy as a frog in the night air.

“Come on,” says Phillips. He’s holding his white hands up, as if the mulberry is too hot to touch. “You’re plenty big enough. Spread yourself out there, above and below. You will need to press here, too, with your hand.” He points, and points again. “And this foot will have some work to do on this far leg. Whatever is loose will fight against what I’m doing, understand?”

So he says, to a boy who’s wrestled tree-snakes so long that his father near fainted to see them, who has jumped a shot stag and ridden it and killed it riding. Those are different, though; those are wild, they have some dignity. What’s to be gained subduing a mulberry, that is gelded and a fool already? Where’s the challenge in that, and the pride upon having done it?

“Shouldn’t you be down there?” I nod legs-wards.

“Whatever for, boy?”

“This is to let the food out, no?”

“It is to let the food out, yes.” He cannot speak without making me lesser.

“Well, down there is where food comes out, yours and mine.”

“Pity sake, boy, I am not undoing all that. I will take it out through his silk-hole, is the plan.”

Now I am curled around the belly, with nowhere else to look but at Phillips’s doings. All his tools and preparations are beyond him, next to the fire; from over there he magics up a paper packet. He tears it open, pulls from it a small wet cloth or paper, and paints the belly with that; the smell nips at my nostrils. Then he brings out a bright, light-as-a-feather-looking knife, the blade glinting at the end of a long handle.

“Be ready,” he says.

He holds the silk aside, and sinks the blade into the flesh beside it. The mulberry-boy turns to rock underneath me; he spits out the stick, and howls to the very treetops.

***

Mulberry boys we call them. I don’t know why, for some begin as girls, and they are neither one nor the other once they come out of Phillips’s hut by the creek. They all look the same, as chickens look all the same, or goats. Nonsense, says Alia the goat woman, I know my girls each one, by name and nature and her pretty face. And I guess the mothers, who tend the mulberries, might know them apart. This one is John Barn, or once was called that; none of them truly have names once they’ve been taken.

Once a year I notice them, when Phillips comes to choose the new ones and to make them useful, from the boys among us who are not yet sprouted towards men, and the girls just beginning to change shape. The rest of the year, the mulberries live in their box, and the leaves go in, and the silk comes out on its spindles, and that is all there is to it.

They grow restless when he comes. Simple as they are, they recognise him. They can smell their balls in his pocket, says James Pombo, and we hush him, but something like that is true; they remember.

Some have struggled or wandered before, and these are tied to chairs in the box, but you have to watch the others. Though they have not much equipment for it, they have a lot of time to think, and because their life is much the same each day and month and year, they see the pattern and the holes in it through which they might wangle their way.

Why the John Barn one should take it into his head after all these years, I don’t know. He was always mulberry, ever since I knew to know, always just one of the milling amiables in that warm box.

Oh, I remember him, says Pa. Little straw-haired runabout like all them Barns. Always up a tree. Climbed the top of Great Grandpa when he couldn’t have been—what, more than three years, Ma? Because his sister Gale did it, and she told him he was too little. That’ll send a boy up a tree.

Last year when I was about to sprout, it was the first year Phillips came instead of his father. When he walked in among us we were most uneasy at the size of him, for he is delicately made, hardly taller than a mulberry himself, and similar shaped to them except in lacking a paunch. Apart from the shrinkage, though, you would think him the same man as his father. He wore the same fine clothes, as neat on him as if sewn to his body directly, and the fabrics so fine you can hardly see their weave. He had the same wavy hair, but brown instead of silver, and a beard, though not a proper one, trimmed almost back to his chin.

The mothers were all behind us and some of the fathers too, putting their children forward. He barely looked at me, I remember, but moved straight on to the Thaw children; there are lots of them and they are very much of the mulberry type already, without you sewing a stitch on them. I remember being insulted. The man had not bothered with me; how could he know I was not what he wanted, from that quick glance? But also I was ashamed to be so obviously useless, so wrong for his purposes—because whatever those purposes were, he was from the town, and he was powerfuller in his slenderness and his city clothes than was any bulky man among us, and everyone was afraid of him. I wanted a man like that to recognize me as of consequence, and he had not.

But then Ma put her arm over my shoulder and clamped me to her, my back against her front. We both watched Phillips among the Thaws, turning them about, dividing some of them off for closer inspection. The chosen ones—Hinny and Dull Toomy, it was, that time, those twins—stood well apart, Pa Toomy next to them arms folded and face closed. They looked from one of us to another, not quite sure whether to arrange their faces proudly, or to cry.

Because it is the end of things, if you get chosen. It is the end of your line, of course—all your equipment for making children is taken off you and you are sewn up below. But it is also the end of any food but the leaves—fresh in the spring and summer, sometimes in an oiled mash through autumn if you are still awake then. And it is the end of play, because you become stupid; you forget the rules of all the games, and how to converse in any but a very simple way, observing about the weather and not much more. You just stay in your box, eating your leaves and having your stuff drawn off you, which we sell, through Phillips, in the town.

It is no kind of life, and I was glad, then, that I had not been taken up for it. And Ma was glad too, breathing relieved above me as we watched him sort and discard and at length choose Arvie Thaw. I could feel Ma’s gladness in the back of my head, her heart knocking hard in her chest, even though all she had done was stand there and seem to accept whatever came.

***

While we tracked John Barn today, I was all taken up impressing Phillips. The forest and paths presented me trace after trace, message after message, to relay to the town-man, so’s he could see what a good tracker I was. I felt proud of myself for knowing, and scornful of him for not—yet I was afraid, too, that I would put a foot wrong, that he would somehow catch me out, that he would see something I had missed and make me a nobody again, and worthy of his impatience.

So John Barn himself was not much more to me than he’d always been; he was even somewhat less than other animals I hunted, for he had not even the wit to cut off the path at any point, and he left tracks and clues almost as if he wanted us to catch him, things he had chewed, and spat out or brought up from his stomach, little piles of findings—stones, leaves, seed-pods—wet-bright in the light rain. He might as well have lit beacon-fires after himself.

Climbing up to him in the tree, I could see his froggy paunch pouching out either side of the branch, and his skinny white legs around it, and then of course his terrible face watching me.

“Which one are you?” he said in that high, curious way they have. They can never remember a name.

“I am George,” I said, “of the Treadlaws.”

“Evening’s coming on, George,” he said, watching as I readied the rope. This was why I had been brought, besides for my tracking. Mulberries won’t flee or resist anyone smaller than themselves (unless he is Phillips, of course, all-over foreign), but send a grown man after them and they will throw themselves off a cliff or into a torrent, or climb past pursuing up a tree like this. It is something about the smell of a grown man sets them off, which is why men cannot go into the box for the silk, but only mothers.

I busied myself with the practicalities, binding Barn and lowering him to Phillips, which was no small operation, so I distracted myself from my revulsion that way. And then, when I climbed down, Phillips took up all the air in the clearing and in my mind with his presence and purposefulness, which I occupied myself sulking at. Then when I had to press the creature down, to lie with him, lie on him, everything in me was squirming away from the touch but Phillips’s will was on me like an iron, pinning me as fast as we’d pinned the mulberry, and I was too angry and unhappy at being made as helpless as John Barn, to think how he himself might be finding it, crushed by the weight of me.

But when he stiffened and howled, it was as if I had been asleep to John Barn and he woke me, as if he had been motionless disguised in the forest’s dappled shadows, but then my eye had picked out his frame, distinct and live and sensible in there, never to be unseen again. All that he had said, that we had dismissed as so much noise, came back to me: I don’t like that man, George. Yes, tie me tight, for I will struggle when you put me near him. It’s getting dark. It hurts me to stretch flat like this. My stomach hurts. An apple and a radish, I have kept both down. I stole them through a window; there was meat there too; meat was what I mostly wanted. But I could not reach it. Oh, it hurts, George. I had done as Phillips did, and not met the mulberry’s eye and not answered, doing about him what I needed to do, but now all his mutterings sprang out at me as having been said by a person, a person like me and like Phillips; there were three of us here, not two and a creature, not two and a snared rabbit, or a shot and struggling deer.

And the howl was not animal noise but voice, with person and feeling behind it. It went through me the way the pain had gone through John Barn, freezing me as Phillips’s blade in his belly froze him, so that I was locked down there under the realising, with all my skin a-crawl.

I stare at Phillips’s hands, working within their false skins. The fire beyond him lights his work and throws the shadows across the gleaming-painted hill-round of Barn’s belly. Phillips cuts him like a cloth or like a cake, with just such swiftness and intent; he does not even do as you do when hunting, and speak to the creature you have snared or caught and are killing, and explain why it must die. The wound runs, and he catches the runnings with his wad of flock and cloth, absentmindedly and out of a long-practiced skill. He bends close and examines what his cutting has revealed to him, in the cleft, in the deeps, of the belly of John Barn.

“Good,” he says—to himself, not to me or Barn. “Perfect.”

He puts his knife in there, and what he does in there is done in me as well, I feel so strongly the tremor it makes, the fear it plays up out of Barn’s frame, plucking him, rubbing him, like a fiddle-string. His breath, behind me, halts and hops with the fear.

Phillips pierces something with a pop. Barn yelps, surprised. Phillips sits straighter, and waves his hand over the wound as he waved away the smell of my grog before. I catch a waft of shit-smell and then it’s gone, floated up warm away.

He goes to his instruments. “That’s probably the worst of it, for the moment,” he says to them. “You can sit up if you like. Stay by, though; you never know when he’ll panic.”

I sit up slowly, a different boy from the one who lay down. I half-expect my own insides to come pouring out of me. John Barn’s belly gapes open, the wound dark and glistening, filling with blood. Beyond it, his flesh slopes away smooth as a wooden doll between his weakling thighs, which tremble and tremble.

Phillips returns to the wound, another little tool in his hand—I don’t know what it is, only that it’s not made for cutting. I put my hand on Barn’s chest, trying to move as smoothly and bloodlessly as Phillips.

“George, what has he done to me?” John Barn makes to look down himself.

Quick as light, I put my hand to his sweated brow, and press his head to the ground. “He’s getting that food out,” I say. “If it stays in there, it’ll fester and kill you. He’s helping you.”

“Feed him some more,” says Phillips, and bends to his work. “Keep on that.”

So I lie, propped up on one elbow, rolling mulberry pills and feeding them to Barn. He chews, dutifully; he weeps, tears running back over his ears into his thin hair. He swallows the mulberry mush down his child-neck. Hush, I nearly say to him, but Phillips is there, so I only think it, and attend to the feeding, rolling the leaves, putting them one by one into Barn’s obedient mouth.

I can’t help but be aware, though, of what the man is doing there, down at the wound. For one thing, besides the two fires it is the only visible activity, the only movement besides my own. For another, for all that the sight of those blood-tipped white hands going about their work repels me, their skill and care, and the life they seem to have of their own, are something to see. It’s like watching Pa make damselfly flies in the firelight in the winter, each finger independently knowing where to be and go, and the face above all eyes and no expression, the mind taken up with this small complication.

The apple and the radish, all chewed and reduced and cooked smelly by John Barn’s body’s heat, are caught in the snarled silk. Phillips must draw them, with the skein, slowly lump by lump from Barn’s innards, up into the firelight where they dangle and shine like some unpleasant necklace. Sprawled beside John Barn, in his breathing and his bracing himself I feel the size of every bead of that necklace large and small, before I see it drawn up into the firelight on the shining strands. Phillips frowns above, fire-fuzz at his eyebrow, a long streak of orange light down his nose, his closed lips holding all his thoughts, all his knowledge, in his head—and any feelings he might have about this task. Is he pleased? Is he revolted? Angry? There is no way to tell.

“Do you have something for their pain, then,” I say, “when you make them into mulberries?”

“Oh yes,” he says to the skein, “they are fully anaesthetized then.” He hears my ignorance in my silence, or sees it in my stillness. “I put them to sleep.”

“Like a chicken,” I say, to show him that I know something.

“Not at all like that. With a chemical.”

All is quiet but for fire-crackle, and John Barn’s breath in his nose, and his teeth crushing the leaves.

“How do you learn that, about the chemicals, and mulberry-making? And mulberry-fixing, like this?”

“Long study,” says Phillips, peering into the depths to see how the skein is emerging. “Long observation at my father’s elbow. Careful practice under his tutelage. Years,” he finishes and looks at me, with something like a challenge, or perhaps already triumph.

“So could you unmake one?” I say, just to change that look on him.

“Could I? Why would I?”

I make myself ignore the contempt in that. “Supposing you had a reason.”

He draws out a slow length of silk, with only two small lumps in it. “Could I, now?” he says less scornfully. “I’ve never considered it. Let me think.” He examines the silk, both sides, several times. “I could perhaps restore their digestive functioning. The females’ reproductive system might re-establish its cycle, with a normal diet, though I cannot be sure. The males’, of course . . .” He shrugs. He has a little furnace in that hut of his by the creek. There he must burn whatever he cuts from the mulberries, and all his blood-soaked cloths and such. Once a year he goes in there with the chosen children, and all we know of what he does is the air wavering over the chimney. The men speak with strenuous cheer to each other; the mothers go about thin-lipped; the mothers of the chosen girls and boys close themselves up in their houses with their grief.

“But what about their . . . Can you undo their thinking, their talking, what you have done to that?”

“Ah, it is coming smoother now, look at that,” he says to himself. “What do you mean, boy, ‘undo’?” he says louder and more scornfully, as if I made up the word myself out of nothing, though I only repeated it from him.

I find I do not want to call John Barn a fool, not in his hearing as he struggles with his fear and his swallowing leaf after leaf, and with lying there belly open to the sky and Phillips’s attentions. “They . . . haven’t much to say for themselves,” I finally say. “Would they talk among us like ourselves, if you fed them right, and took them out of that box?”

“I don’t know what they would do.” He shrugs again. He goes on slowly drawing out silk, and I go on hating him.

“Probably not,” he says carelessly after a while. “All those years, you know, without social stimulus or education, would probably have impaired their development too greatly. But possibly they would regain something, from moving in society again.” He snorts. “Such society as you have here. And the diet, as you say. It might perk them up a bit.”

Silence again, the skein pulling out slowly, silently, smooth and clean white. Barn chews beside me, his breathing almost normal. Perhaps the talking soothes him.

“But then,” says Phillips to the skein, with a smile that I don’t like at all, “if you ‘undid’ them all, you would have no silk, would you? And without silk you would have no tea, or sugar, or tobacco, or wheat flour, or all the goods in tins and jars that I bring you. No cloth for the women, none of their threads and beads and such.”

Yes, plenty of people would be distressed at that. I am the wrong boy to threaten with such losses, for I hunt and forage; I like the old ways. I kept myself fed and healthy for a full four months, exploring up the glacier last spring—healthier than were most folk when I arrived home, with their toothaches and their coughs. But others, yes, they rely wholly on those stores that Phillips brings through the year. When he is due, and they have run short of tobacco, they go all grog and temper waiting, or hide at home until he should come. They will not hunt or snare with me and Tray and Pa and the others; take them a haunch of stewed rabbit, and if they will eat it at all they will sauce it well with complaints and wear a sulking face over every bite.

“And no food coming up, for all those extra mouths you’d have to feed,” says Phillips softly and still smiling, “that once were kept on mulberry leaves alone. Think of that.”

What was I imagining, all my talk of undoing? The man cannot make mulberries back into men, and if he could he would never teach someone like me, that he thought so stupid, and whose folk he despised. And even if he taught us, and worked alongside us in the unmaking, we would never get back the man John Barn was going to be when he was born John Barn, or any of the men and women that the others might have become.

“You were starving and in rags when my father found you,” says Phillips, sounding pleased. “Your people. You lived like animals.”

“We had some bad years, I heard.” And we are animals, I nearly add, and so are you. A bear meets you, you are just as much a meal to him as is a berry-bush or a fine fat salmon. What are you, if not animal?

But I have already lost this argument; he has already dismissed me. He draws on, as if I never spoke, as if he were alone. Good silk is coming out now; all the leaves we’ve been feeding into John Barn are coming out clean, white, strong-stranded; he is restored, apart from the great hole in him. Still I feed him, still he chews on, both of us playing our parts to fill Phillips’ hands with silk.

“Very well,” says Phillips, “I think we are done here. Time to close him up again.”

I’m relieved that he intends to. “Should I lie on him again?”

“In a little,” he says. “The inner parts are nerveless, and will not give him much pain. When I sew the dermal layers, perhaps.”

It is very much like watching someone wind a fly, the man-hands working such a small area and mysteriously, stitching inside the hole. The thread, which is black, and waxed, wags out in the light and then is drawn in to the task, then wags again, the man concentrating above. His fingers work exactly like a spider’s legs on its web, stepping delicately as he brings the curved needle out and takes it back in. I can feel from John Barn’s chest that there is not pain exactly, but there is sensation where there should not be, and the fear that comes from not understanding makes Phillips’s every movement alarming to him.

I didn’t quite believe that Phillips would restore John Barn and repair him. I lie across Barn again and watch the stitching-up of the outer skin. With each pull and drag of thread through flesh Barn exclaims in the dark behind me. “Oh. Oh, that is bad. Oh, that feels dreadful.” He jerks and cries out at every piercing by the needle.

“He’s nearly finished, John,” I say. “Maybe six stitches more.”

And Phillips works above, ignoring us, as unmoved as if he were sewing up a boot. A wave of his hair droops forward on his brow, and around his eyes is stained with tiredness. It feels as if he has kept us in this small cloud of firelight, helping him do his mad work, all the night. There is no danger of me sleeping; I am beyond exhaustion; Barn’s twitches wake me up brighter and brighter, and so does the fact that Phillips can ignore them so thoroughly, piercing and piercing the man. And though a few hours ago I would happily have left Barn to him, now I want to be awake and endure each stitch as well, even if there is no chance of the mulberry ever knowing or caring.

Then it is done. Phillips snips the thread with a pair of bright-gold scissors, inspects his work, draws a little silk out past all the layers of stitching. “Good, that’s good,” he says.

I lever myself up off Barn, lift my leg from his. “He’s done with you,” I tell him, and his eyes roll up into his head with relief, straight into sleep.

“We will leave him tied. We may as well,” says Phillips, casting his used tools into the pot on the fire. “We don’t want him running off again. Or getting infection in that wound.” He strips off his horrid gloves and throws them in the fire. They wince and shrivel and give off a few moments’ stink.

I feel as if I’m floating a little way off the ground; Phillips looks very small over there, his shining tools faraway. “There are others, then?” I say.

“Others?” He is coaxing his fire up to boil the tools again.

“‘Careful practice,’ you said, by your father’s side. Yet we never saw you here. So there are other folk like ours, with their mulberries, that you practiced on? In other places in the mountains, or in the town itself? I have never been there to know.”

“Oh,” he says, and right at me, his eyes bright at mine. “Yes,” he says. “Though there is a lot to be learned from . . . books, you know, and general anatomy and surgical practice.” He surveys the body before us, up and down. “But yes,” he says earnestly to me. “Many communities. Quite a widespread practice, and trade. Quite solidly established.”

I want to keep him talking like this, that he cares what he says to me. For the first time today he seems not to scorn me for what I am. I’m not as clear to him as John Barn has become to me, but I am more than I was this morning when he told Pa, I’ll take your boy, if you can spare him.

“Do you have a son, then,” I say, “that you are teaching in turn?”

“Ah,” he says, “not as yet. I’ve not been so blessed thus far as to achieve the state of matrimony.” He shows me his teeth, then sees that I don’t understand. Some of his old crossness comes back. “I have no wife. Therefore I have no children. That is the way it is done in the town, at least.”

“When you have a son, will you bring him here, to train him?” Even half-asleep I am enjoying this, having his attention, unsettling him. He looks as if he thought me a mulberry, and now is surprised to find that I can talk back and forth like any person.

“I dare say, I dare say.” He shakes his head. “Although I’m sure you understand, it is a great distance to come, much farther than other . . . communities. And a boy—their mothers are terribly attached to them, you know. My wife—my wife to be—might not consent to his travelling so far, from her. Until he is quite an age.”

He waits on my next word, and so do I, but after a time a yawn takes me instead, and when it is over he is up and crouched by his fire. “Yes, time we got some rest. Excellent work, boy. You’ve been most useful.” He seems quite a different man. Perhaps he is too tired to keep up his contempt of me? Certainly I am too tired to care very much. I climb to my feet and walk into the darkness, to relieve myself before sleep.

***

I wake, not with a start, but suddenly and completely, to the fire almost dead again and the forest all around me, aslant on the ridge. Dawn light is starting to creep up behind the trees, and stars are still snagged in the high branches, but here, close to me, masses of darkness go about their growing, roots fast in the ground around my head, thick trunks seeming to jostle each other, though nothing moves in the windless silence.

I am enormous myself, and wordless like the forest, yet full of burrows and niches and shadows where beasts lie curled—some newly gone to rest, others about to move out into the day—and birds roost with their breast-feathers fluffed over their claws. I am no fool, though that slip of a man with his tiny tools and his sneering took me for one. I see the story he spun me, and his earnest expectation that I would believe it. I see his whole plan and his father’s, laid out like paths through the woods, him and his town house and his tailor at one end there, us and our poor mulberries at the other, winding silk and waiting for him. A widespread trade? No, just this little pattern trodden through from below. Many communities? No, just us. Just me and my folk, and our children.

I sit up silently. I wait until the white cross of John Barn glimmers over there on the ground, until the smoke from my fire comes clear, a fine grey vine climbing the darkness without haste. I think through the different ways I can take; there are few enough of them, and all of them end in uncertainty, except for the first and simplest way that came to me as I slept—which is now, which is here, which is me. I spend a long time listening to folk in my head, but whenever I look to Barn, and think of holding him down, and his trembling, and his dutiful chewing of the leaves, they fall silent; they have nothing to say.

A red-throat tests its call against the morning silence. I get up and go to Barn, and take up the coil of leftover cord from beside him.

Phillips is on his side, curled around what is left of his fire. His hands are nicely placed for me. I slip the cord under them and pin his forearms down with my boot. As he wakes, grunts—“What are you at, boy?”—and begins to struggle, I loop and loop, and swiftly tie the cord. “How dare you! What do you think—”

“Up.” I stand back from him, all the forest behind me, and in me. We have no regard for this man’s thin voice, his tiny rage.

Staring, he pushes himself up with his bound hands, is on his knees, then staggers to his feet. He is equal the height of me, but slender, built for spider-work, while I am constructed to chop wood and haul water and bring down a running stag. I can do what I like with him.

“You are just a boy!” he says. “Have you no respect for your elders?”

“You are not my elders,” I say. I take his arm, and he tries to flinch away. “This way,” I say, and I make him go.

“Boy?” says John Barn from the ground. He has forgotten my name again.

“I’ll be back soon, John. Don’t you worry.”

And that is all the need I have of words. I force Phillips down towards the torrent path; he pours his words out, high-pitched, outraged, neat-cut as if he made them with that little knife of his. But I am forest vastness, and the birds in my branches have begun their morning’s shouting; I have no ears for him.

I push him down the narrow path; I don’t bully him or take any glee when he falls and complains, or scratches his face in the underbrush, but I drag him up and keep him going. The noise of the torrent grows towards us, becomes bigger than all but the closest, loudest birds. His words flow back at me, but they are only a kind of odd music now, carrying no meaning, only fear.

He rounds a bend and quickly turns, and is in my arms, banging my chest with his bound purple hands. “You will not! You will not!” I turn him around, and move him on with all my body and legs. The torrent shows between the trees—that’s what set him off, the water fighting white among the boulders.

Now he resists me with all that he has. His boots slip on the stones and he throws himself about. But there is simply not enough of him, and I am patient and determined; I pull him out of the brush again and again, and press him on. If he won’t walk, I’m happy for him to crawl. If he won’t crawl I’m prepared to push him along with my boot.

The path comes to a high lip over the water before cutting along and down to the flatter place where you can fill your pots, or splash your face. I bring him to the lip and push him straight off, glad to be rid of his flailing, embarrassed by his trying to fight me.

He disappears in the white. He comes up streaming, caught already by the flow, shouting at the cold. It tosses him about, gaping and kicking, for a few rocks, and then he turns to limp cloth, to rubbish, a dab of bright wet silk draggling across his chest. He slides up over a rock and drops the other side. He moves along, is carried away and down, over the little falls there, and across the pool, on his face and with blood running from his head, over again and on down.

I climb back up through the woods. It is very peaceful and straightforward to walk without him, out of the water-noise into the birdsong. The clearing when I reach it is quiet without him, pleased to be rid of his fussing and displeasure and only to stand about, head among the leaves while the two fires send up their smoke-tendrils and John Barn sleeps on.

I bend down and touch his shoulder. “Come, John,” I say, “Time to make for home. Do I need to bind you?”

He wakes. “You?” His eyes reflect my head, surrounded by branches on the sky.

“George. George Treadlaw, remember?”

He looks about as I untie his feet. “That man is gone,” he says. “Good. I don’t like that man.”

I reach across him to loosen his far hand. “Oh, George,” he says “You smell bad this morning. Perhaps you’d better bind me, and walk at a little distance. That’s a fearsome smell. It makes me want to run from you.”

I sniff at a pinch of my shirt. “I’m no worse than I was last night.”

“Yes, last night it started,” he says. “But I was tied down then and no trouble to you.”

I tether him to a tree-root and cook myself some pan-flaps.

“They smell nice,” he says, and eats another mulberry leaf, watching the pan.

“You must eat nothing but leaves today, John,” I tell him. “Anything foreign, you will die of it, for I can’t go into you like Phillips and fetch it out again.”

“You will have to watch me,” he says. “Everything is very pretty, and smells so adventurous.”

We set off home straight after. All day I lead him on a length of rope, letting him take his time. I am not impatient to get back. No one will be happy with me, that I lost Phillips. Oh, they will be angry, however much I say it was an accident, a slip of the man’s boot as he squatted by the torrent washing himself. No one will want to take the spindles down to the town, and find whoever he traded them to, and buy the goods he bought. I will have to do all that, because it was I who lost the man, and I will, though the idea scares me as much as it will scare them. No one will want to hunt again, in years to come as the mulberries die off and no new ones are made; no one will want to gather roots and berries, and make nut flour, just to keep us fed, for people are all spoilt with town goods, the ease of them and the strong tastes and their softness to the tooth. But what can they do, after all, but complain? Go down to the town yourselves, I’ll tell them. Take a mulberry with you and some spindles; tell what was done to us. Do you think they will start it again? No, they will come up here and examine everything and talk to us as fools; they might take away all our mulberries; they might take all of us away, and make us live down the town. And they will think we did worse than lose Phillips in the torrent; they will take me off to jail, maybe. I don’t know what will happen. I don’t know.

“It is a fine day, George of the Treadlaws,” John Barn says behind me. “I like to breathe, out here. I like to see the trees, and the sun, and the birds.”

He is following behind obedient, pale and careful, the stitches black in his paunch, the brace hanging off the silk-end. Step, step, step, he goes with his unaccustomed feet, on root and stone and ledge of earth, and he looks about when he can, at everything.

“You’re right, John.” I move on again so that he won’t catch up and be upset by the smell of me. “It’s a fine day for walking in the forest.”

© 2011 by Margo Lanagan.
Originally published in Blood and Other Cravings,
edited by Ellen Datlow.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

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Margo Lanagan

Margo Lasagna by Ellen Datlow

Margo Lanagan lives in Sydney, Australia. She is a four-time winner of the World Fantasy Award—in the short story, collection, novel and novella categories—and her short stories and novels have won and been shortlisted for many other awards. Her latest collections are Cracklescape, part of the Twelve Planets series from Twelfth Planet Press, stories from which are nominated in the Ditmar and Aurealis Awards, and Yellowcake, a collection of mostly previously published stories. Her latest novel is The Brides of Rollrock Island, which was longlisted for the Carnegie Medal in the UK, and shortlisted for the inaugural Stella Prize and the Norma K Hemming Award in Australia.