Science Fiction & Fantasy

Transcendent Annual Series

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Fiction

The Harvest of a Half-Known Life

I’ll never forget the taste of my mother’s marrow.

I think of it now, as I rub oil into the stiff, cracking heels of my shoes: how I scooped it still warm from the bone, like pale butter. How it lingered in my teeth for days after the harvesting. And I think further back, as I often do lately, to the way her hands jerked and fluttered close to her bony chest before she passed. She was too weak to shape her signs properly so I can only guess their meaning. Perhaps I’ve guessed wrong—Aefha thinks so—but I can’t forget.

Follow the ghosts.

She’d always told me to avoid them, but her dying words haunt me. So here I am, chasing the ghosts’ blue glimmer through the ruins I call home. They’re leading me northwest, but for now I’m stuck: A sunsear has trapped me halfway up a sagging tower block that fractures and pops with every passing hour.

It’s the worst sunsear I’ve known. If a living person could boil in their own blood and juices, this would be the time. No crevice, shadowed or otherwise, is spared. The metal of the ruins is hot enough to blister. I’ve spent six days tucked in the coolest corner of the room with my headscarf covering my eyes, and six unbearably warm nights perched on the exposed face of the tower block, slapping gnats out of midair. A better person would use the time to write their book. I can only stare at the view, doubt chasing its tail in my head. Fresh paper is too scarce to waste on just anything.

But the heat’s waning today. When the leather of my shoes is good and supple, I peer over the edge of the floor and spot a snake twining through the dried grass below: the first living thing I’ve seen in days. I pack away the oil and climb twenty feet down the broken side of the tower block. The rope’s woven from my mother’s hair, among other things, and it sees me safely to the ground before the building gives way.

She’s with me, then. That’s a sign I can’t mistake.

• • • •

Follow the ghosts.

A year had passed since she’d died. How I hate myself for it now, but I’d almost put those words from my mind. Aefha knew my mother since they were young townsfolk together and had translated her final, feeble signs differently, so I’d started to put them behind me at last; until the day I found Yba’s body.

Yba and my mother were two of a kind, mappers and wanderers, neither content to stay in one place too long. Shunned by the townsfolk for choosing to live in the ruins, they’d grown close, and when my mother died I took up the duty of care. I visited Yba every third day. She lived in a den by the canal, near the crumbled arch of a bridge. I used to play there as a small child, while Yba and my mother swapped stories of the ruins and the cracked salt flats beyond.

That day, just like today, I’d been delayed by a sunsear. As I hauled myself out onto the bank, a fetid tang brought me up short. I knew it well, and it tightened my chest. I ran to Yba’s den, batting away the flies that buzzed there, and threw aside the animal hide that covered the entrance.

The stench made me cry out. I pulled my headscarf across my mouth and squinted inside. Yba lay in her cot, marbled and engorged, leaking ichor from her nose and ears.

The sunsear’s heat had quickened the decay, putrefying Yba’s soft parts beyond use. Her skin, which might’ve been tanned and turned to leather, or stretched over a drum; her sinew, for bowstring and lacing; her bladder, for holding precious water; her yellowish fat, for rendering as lard, or oil, or soap—all of it was lost. Yba’s coarse grey hair was still attached to her scalp, though the scalp itself was peeling away from the skull, and the bones and teeth were intact, of course; but little else.

It took time to work myself up to the harvesting. Simple grief kept me by her side, listless, for an hour or more; and fear kept me from my task after that—fear that I’d somehow do it wrong. I’d never performed a harvesting before, only witnessed one. My mother’s.

The memory, which I’d tried very hard to bury, made my chest hitch.

My finger-bone necklace clacked with the sudden movement. I silenced it with my palm. Yba’s would be a poor yield, but I had to do my best. It was my fault she’d lost out on a proper harvesting. I couldn’t disrespect her by letting the rest of her body go to waste.

It’s all meat, I told myself. I’d butchered meat before.

Once the midday heat had passed, I hauled the dripping cot outside where there was fresh air and room to work. I cut Yba’s hair and braided it to keep it tidy, then opened her mouth and pried the few good teeth from their beds. Squirming maggots lined her soft palate. For a while I watched them, their lives little wonders in a hard world, then I closed her jaw and left them to their work.

After that, it was harder. Sloughing the flesh from her bones reminded me of Aefha doing the same for my mother. Each swipe with the machete, each cut . . . Harvesting is a sacred thing, but I’d had to turn away from my mother’s: The back of her poor, shorn head had bounced against the slab with every chop. I had to turn away from Yba, too, because she seemed to watch me with eyes too swollen for their lids. When I scooped out her spoiled entrails for the waiting birds to eat, I saw Aefha raise a bloody kidney to her mouth in the dark of my mind.

I scrubbed Yba’s bones clean with sand. They were nicked and chipped, their edges softened by new growth: the signs of a hard life. As I scoured my forearms and fingernails clean of gore, I wondered if my bones would show such scars, when my harvesting came.

A rustle turned my head. I straightened, eyes scanning the edge of the canal. Thin chirps, unfamiliar in their cadence, echoed quietly nearby.

“Hello?”

There was no answer—just a flicker of blue light like the eyes of a beast in the dark; quick, but enough. My mother’s fingers danced in my head, flowing from one form to another: Follow the ghosts. And such timing, with Yba’s blood still on my hands! I darted up the slope to look, unnerved, but the ghost had gone.

Shaken and sore, I sorted through Yba’s things. Her tools were in good repair. I found a few pelts, a meal of dried meat and nuts, and a small bladder of dandelion wine. I also found her book, which was not as I expected for such an old, wise woman: a single scrap of paper covered with scribbles and Ruined script.

I sat back on my haunches in bitter bewilderment.

When we die, our bodies are harvested and used to benefit our people, but our minds are also left behind, as books. Without them, any skill or knowledge gained over the course of one’s life is lost forever. The dandelion wine that only Yba could make: She’d long promised to teach me the recipe. Now she never would.

Instead, she’d left this tiny fragment. The Ruined script is said how it’s written so I traced it with a fingertip, doing my best to sound out the words. Yba had only taught me the basics. My mother could’ve read them, could’ve shaped the words even though she couldn’t hear them. They’d always shared much more with each other than with me. They were shutting me out, still.

I’d had a mind to stay the night, to wrap myself in one of Yba’s pelts and nibble on the last of her food. She wouldn’t have begrudged me that. But her book disturbed me. My mother’s belongings had been the same: I’d found notes from old lovers, one of them likely my father, and other tokens of her life from before me, before the ruins. It was as if I was in the home of a stranger, looting a stranger’s things. Perhaps I hadn’t known them so well after all.

(Is that my fault, too?)

I couldn’t stay. I packed up and left, clutching my necklace quiet. The glint of starlight guided me away.

• • • •

It’s our custom to share a harvest, no matter how small. Rolfshall is the nearest settlement to the ruins, a morning’s walk east from the rim. It’s where Aefha lives, and where my mother died.

I passed northern traders on the way. They greeted me in their strange, fascinating dialect, laughing when I fumbled a few sounds back at them. (Growing up with a deaf mother, and otherwise alone, I myself don’t speak much. Sometimes, I think my throat forgets how.) I traded two pelts for breakfast from a trembling man tending a stewpot. He bowed his head as he ladled pottage into my skullcap bowl.

The soil up north is poor, sat as they are on the edge of the salt flats, so northerners need trade to survive. People say starvation drives them to break taboo when times are hard, that they consume the flesh of shakers—to be sure, tales of shaking sickness are more common in the north. I licked the broth from my fingers, but threw away the meat, just in case.

Rolfshall hadn’t changed since my last visit. Cattle pens flanked the gate. As I passed the heifers, their thunderous lowing thrumming in my chest, I noticed something new: a small potato crop, watered by a clever network of channels. The townsfolk bustled about—there’s little time in a life like this for idleness—but some of them recognized me and scowled. One father pulled his curious child inside.

I tugged my headscarf lower over my forehead and took a deep, shaky breath.

The elders’ house was my first stop. There, I spread Yba’s harvest before them and told them of her death. The parts I’d salvaged should by rights go to Yba’s relatives, but I knew of none.

A sinewy elder, brown as a varnished fruit pit, grimaced. “No meat? No skin? Nehk!” Her voice landed like a slap. “Has your time in the ruins made you as wasteful as the Ruined ones?”

“Her soft parts had rotted by the time I found her.”

“Have a care, or that may be your end as well.” The elder turned and spat into a pail.

Another elder sighed. “We have no memory of her. If you had some bond with the woman, take what you need from her harvest. The rest should go to the usual people.” As I rose to leave, she took my hand. “You look tired. Stay a while in town, child.” They asked me every time, for the same reason we wanderers are permitted back at all: in the hope we’ll return for good and so be saved.

The weavers were delighted with Yba’s plait. The brittle hairs glittered like silver thread, fit to embroider a bridal headscarf, and would soon soften in oil.

Malnutrition had stunted her bones, so the bone-workers handled them like the bones of a child. They would make fine things: combs and needles and flutes.

The tinkers would’ve liked more teeth, but the few I offered them were strong.

Thus unburdened, though not untroubled, for Yba’s meager contribution to the book-keepers was sure to cause a fuss, I wandered past the tannery, drawing the smell deep into my lungs. The tanners were busy. Skins both human and animal soaked in barrels while a boy mashed brains into gray slush, to be added later, but their work was winding down now that the sun had reached its peak. It was too hot for hard labor and the herd needed to be brought in.

“Gwinaelle!”

The cry made me jump—it’s strange to hear my name aloud when I know it better by sign—but it was only Rann, Aefha’s son and my betrothed, beckoning me inside. He’d just finished fleshing a skin, scraping away the fatty tissue to make it ready for the vats, and it was a beautiful one. Its owner must have travelled far to find such tattoo ink, as bright as plumage.

The armpits and neckline of his top were black with sweat. “I didn’t know you were in town.”

“I just got here,” I said. And faltered. Our betrothal, settled by our mothers before we could walk, has always made me shy of him. The expectation for us to marry, for me to leave the ruins and settle in the town, grows heavier each year. He’s strong, and good; his harvesting promises to be bountiful. Nevertheless, the thought of sharing my solitary life chafes like a yoke about my neck.

But it was my mother’s wish, so I must bear it. “Someone died in the ruins. I had to bring the harvest back.”

Rann nodded slowly. “I’m glad you’ve come. Your mother’s book’s been bound. I handled her skin myself. I took good care of it,” he added.

My throat burned. Her book. More words I’d tried to forget. “Thank you.”

He passed his fleshing knife to another tanner and waved for me to follow him out of the tannery and into the sting of the midday sun. The streets of Rolfshall were quiet, like ruins themselves. I breathed easier.

The book-house was the largest building in town. Inside, the air was cool and dry, and the hides that formed the canopy had been worked so sheer as to filter the sunlight and transform it into something ambient, gentle. Hooded book-keepers drifted around the shelves of books whose precious paper, made from woven reeds, wood-pulp, and skin, held the words of a hundred thousand dead townsfolk. Somewhere amongst them were the instructions for sign language my mother had found in her youth, and which she later showed me: People had added their own signs over the years, filling the margins with illicit hand studies.

“I asked them to keep your mother’s book aside,” said Rann, running his fingers along the soft spines. “Here,” he said suddenly, and handed me a small tome. The front cover bore a long, knotted scar.

The skin for my mother’s book was taken from her stomach. That scar marked the cut I was born from, when the natural way grew too difficult. As a child, I’d told her it was ugly. Now I was a young woman with scars of my own, I wished I could tell her (that I’m sorry) that it shimmered like nacre. Inside were my mother’s drawings, mapping the entirety of the metal ruins where we lived—even parts I’d never seen. So much work over so many years, so much sacrificed, and such a thin little book to show for it.

I cried until my head hurt.

Rann held me, his hands ripe with the smell of his work. Like the elder, he begged me to stay. I let him take me to his mother’s house. When Aefha drew aside her door and took my hands without a word, kissing me on both cheeks, I cried harder. She coaxed me out of my filthy clothes. She let down my hair and brushed it until it was clean enough to braid. It was she who’d woven the rope from my mother’s hair; her fingers are famously nimble. It was she who’d given sound to the name my mother chose for me. She knew to work in silence now. Her young grandson, Bedda, played on the floor nearby, one slobbery fist lodged in his mouth.

The rest of Rann’s family were not so welcoming.

“Still playing around in those ruins?” said Rann’s sister, Wexen.

I had to grip my hands, the impulse to sign was so strong. “I don’t play.”

“I can’t see what else there is to do out there. Let us know when you get bored. We need all the help we can get.”

She spoke fast and hard. I blinked. “It can’t be so bad. I saw the potato crop.”

“Which takes water away from the livestock,” Wexen snapped. She hauled little Bedda onto her lap. “If the sunsears get any worse, the herd won’t bear it. They’re already wont to wander about unlatching gates with their teeth, or else they stand out in the open, the stupid things. I’ve always said our water’s wasted on them.”

Once Rann, his father, and Wexen’s husband got home, we ate a cold spread of salted jerky, calf’s tongue, clotted milk from Aefha’s goat, and mashed tubers with swirls of marrow jam. I gave up Yba’s dandelion wine, for sweetness. It was all delicious, despite there being hardly enough to go around. In the ruins, I live on whatever I can trap or forage. Food is how they keep me here, and how they lure me back.

The richness soon got the better of me. I tucked myself away from the boisterous family, massaging my bloated stomach. With their backs turned to me like a wall, I thought I understood a little of how my mother must’ve felt as a girl before she learned to sign, cut off from such word games, squabbles and banter that made up a house like this one. (Often, I imagine her in so much detail that I can near believe I was there.) It was her curious nature that drove her into the ruins. What a relief to have no lips to read and no need to use any voice except the one she could shape with her hands! I could hear them, yet I too longed to leave. The noise was grating. I was glad of my little corner and the chance to examine my mother’s book.

Seeing the ruins from above confused me at first, but as I flipped through the pages I started to recognize places we’d been. Here, the seven-forked hub with the clogged fountain at its center; there, the drain near Yba’s den. My mother recorded the ruins like no one before her, in perfect detail. She always climbed the tallest towers, leaving me crying on the ground until I was brave enough to join her. I’d assumed she just had a taste for danger, but it was the view she was after. Towards the end of the book, though, the drawings were unfinished. Sections of the ruins faded like buildings in fog, the strokes of ink uncertain where she’d grown too sick to hold a pen.

I frowned and placed Yba’s page alongside these last few diagrams, glancing between them. Shapes aligned. One seemed to complete the other.

“What does it mean?” asked Rann, pointing at Yba’s markings. He folded his bulk in beside me; he and his father had finished clearing dinner away, and now his father idled over his tea, watching us.

“I . . . I think these are the ruins to the northwest.” I bit my bottom lip. The structures there were unsound, the pathways choked with litter that wouldn’t decompose—and worst, it crawled with ghosts. I’d dared it once, only for the ghosts to turn on me in their dozens like starving dogs on meat. They’d followed me for miles, gabbling madly. When my mother found out, she couldn’t sign fiercely enough: The northwest was out of bounds.

And yet, her last words: Follow the ghosts.

Why the change of heart?

Rann looked blank. I regretted saying anything. “Don’t tell Aefha, she’ll just worry,” I muttered. “I’d like to keep this, though.”

He nodded. Townsfolk were free to borrow books as long as they liked. And this book wouldn’t be missed anyway. Then he pointed to Yba’s page. “Did this one fall out? Wasn’t it bound properly?”

“It’s not that.” I swallowed. “The person I harvested . . . I looked everywhere, through all her things, but I only found this one page.”

Rann recoiled. Of course he did, he was townsfolk. He’d been taught to distrust the Ruined who broke the world and turned it fallow. Centuries later, their selfishness still permeates the paths they walked, the things they touched. Those of us who live in the ruins are said to have been poisoned by their ancient, lingering apathy. Yba’s lack of a real book, which shows such disregard for her people, is proof of that.

I saw in his face a difficult question: Will I come to show such disregard too?

“Maybe you just missed the rest,” he said.

“Maybe.”

Aefha was watching us. Bedda wandered close, gurgling, to be called away by Wexen.

“Have you started your book?” I asked.

“Yes,” Rann said, glad to change the subject. “Want to see?” He took me through to the sleeping area, which turned every head in the house.

“Stay where we can see you,” Rann’s father growled. Suspicion never left his eyes. Aefha and Wexen smirked, their minds turning to sex. It was a different kind of corruption Rann’s father worried about.

Rolling his eyes, Rann handed me some drawings bound with a loop of sinew.

He’d sketched the everyday, the early mornings, the baskets full of horn and bone. One side showed Aefha tickling Bedda, her hair loose and trailing about her feet. Another, drawn some time ago and rougher for it, showed both our mothers together, laughing at some long-lost joke. They grew up close as sisters, until life led them their separate ways. My eyes lingered on the bandolier I’d taken for my own, the hair that held my weight when I needed it. The fingers whose bones adorned my neck, clacking with my every movement like a tiny, private applause.

“I’m not much of a tanner,” he shrugged. “Everything I could write about it, someone else has written first. But I can draw. One day I’ll show these to my grandchildren so they’ll know where they came from, and what our lives were like, and how we lived. Maybe they can learn from it.”

“Good,” I said. “Great.”

Rann smiled and took the sketches back. “What about you?”

I thought of the book-house, its mountain of words. What could I write that hadn’t already been written? I knew how to live in the ruins—where to sleep, what to eat—but Yba and my mother were the only people who’d find that useful and they were dead; it wouldn’t help Rann, or Aefha, or little Bedda. These are the thoughts that plague me, whenever I try putting pen to paper.

“I haven’t started yet.” I caught Rann’s expression. “But I will.”

• • • •

That was the longest I’ve ever stayed in town. It was the food, yes, and the relative ease of living—and because Aefha wouldn’t give me my own clothes back. She would clean and repair them tomorrow, she’d promise every night, stroking my hair until I fell asleep. I stayed so long my monthly bleed came around. I joined in the collection and drying of it to make bloodmeal for the new crops. That felt good; I’d found no use for blood in the ruins.

My hands were dexterous and picked up new things fast, so Aefha taught me how to weave ropes and baskets. We worked side by side for hours until our fingers ached and welts shined our palms. This was what it would be like to marry Rann, I thought; it wasn’t so terrible.

But small reminders seeped in through the quiet moments. The harvesting slab was near the well where we drew our water ration each morning; some of the hair that passed through Aefha’s hands for weaving was grey like Yba’s; the spare pallet I slept on had a rip in the seam. I remembered it well. It was the pallet my mother had died upon. Her odor lingered in the stuffing I drew out, snapping her into focus so suddenly it made me sick.

She’d done plenty to tie me to Rolfshall—she’d betrothed me to a townsman when I could have taken a lover unwed, like she did. Was I living the life she wanted for me?

Or, asked my necklace with a rattle, was it the life Aefha wanted for me?

One night, I got up and looked for my clothes. I found them buried in the garden with my bandolier; the raised earth gave it away. That settled it. Aefha’s goat bleated as I shook them out and pulled them on, welcoming the grit against my skin. I crept back to my pallet and gathered up my bag, checking my mother’s book and Yba’s map were inside.

Rann’s father’s an irritatingly light sleeper. Halfway to the door, he came after me and said, “You’re beyond saving if you’re going where I think you are, girl. Your damn mother has ruined you.” He jabbed a meaty finger my way. “No daughter of mine runs wild in the ruins. If you leave now, I’ll die before I let you marry my son.”

I pressed my lips shut and signed something rude. He’d never had the patience for signing, but he got the gist. “You dare disrespect me?” he hissed. “When I’ve tolerated you under my roof?”

We’d woken Aefha. “My love, please,” she said, joining him, “what’s this about?” And then she saw me. “Gwinaelle, you’re leaving?”

I’d wanted to avoid her most of all. She was always tender to me, but she’d hidden my clothes. I couldn’t trust her. It was too dark to read the anger in my eyes, so I plucked at my bandolier pointedly before stepping outside.

She followed me into the street. “You’ll stay here and live a good life, or so help me. Gwinaelle, you know you must. Look at me when I’m talking to you!”

I whirled on her, signing. I wasn’t saying anything important, just the first words that came to mind, but they didn’t have to make sense: Her eyes flicked from shape to shape, desperately trying to keep up and understand. I knew then that whatever fluency she’d had was gone. My hands stilled.

“You told me I got her signs wrong.”

She came close and cupped my cheeks. Her breath was sleep-sour. “The elders know I loved her.”

“Those were her dying wishes.”

“People say nonsense things when they’re dying,” she said firmly. “Gella was so far gone—maybe she did sign as you say, but she was not in her right mind. These ghosts—what if they lead you into danger? Death? Who’s to harvest you if you fall and break your neck?” I struggled but Aefha shook me. “I promised her I’d care for you, when she came here to die—and she came here, remember. She chose Rolfshall in the end, for both of you.”

Gella—that had been my mother’s spoken name. It felt wrong, hearing it. I shoved Aefha away and ran. She called me back with the name she’d given me, a name to bind me to her.

Like my mother’s, my true name has no sound.

• • • •

Water, the blood chants in my ears; I need water. I drank the last of it on the fourth day, expecting the sunsear to break, and managed with my own urine since. I lurch towards the canal and find it evaporated to a trickle. I climb in shakily to slurp at the dregs until my tongue stops rasping against my palate, then I find somewhere cool where I can skim my mother’s map.

My head’s much clearer. I quickly find where I am. My fingertip works northwest, from first page to last. As I suspected, Yba’s page is a match. If I had to guess—I close my eyes and lean my head back, picturing them conspiring—if I had to, I’d say Yba went northwest a long time ago, and my mother had attempted to retrace her steps.

They must’ve found something.

Birds caw overhead. I shield my eyes and watch them circling nearby. They do that when there’s a carcass, and though the ghosts are calling me, my mouth waters at the thought of food. I follow them, my head full of fox meat and lizard tails, but it’s not an animal.

It’s Rann. He’s been following me all this time, and he’s alive.

I shoo away the scavengers and roll him over. His eyes are sunken, his skin blistered and torn. He must’ve followed me into the ruins like a lost dog, the fool, and got caught in the sunsear. At least he collapsed in the shade.

Common sense sends me running back to the canal for a handful of water. I drip some onto his cracked lips until he responds. He vomits right away, but he’s conscious and soon suckling my fingers. Eventually, he’s alert enough to crawl the short distance to the canal where I can dig into the silt for more.

I mutter darkly while I work. It’s easier to be angry.

He waves to catch my attention. I glance at him. I’ve soaked his clothes as best I can; the wet cloth clings to his groin. My cheeks redden. He holds my gaze and raises his left forearm. Then he forms an arch behind it with his right index and thumb like the rising sun. My name.

He hasn’t signed since we were little. I reach for his hand, my fingers caked in mud, and we sit like that for a while as night creeps in and the cicadas start up their racket. The damp silt in the canal cools. We bury our feet in it.

“Why did you come?” I ask. “You could’ve died.”

“My mother sent me.”

“Begging me to stay? And what about you?” I pull my hand away, my top lip curling into a snarl. “If you’re wanting me to come back as your wife, to give you those grandchildren you want so much, you’ll be waiting a long time.”

But my anger barely touches him. He wiggles his toes, letting the clumps of sediment fall. “She said she knows it must hurt, your mother not telling you about the ghosts sooner. But living in the ruins is hard, and maybe Gella just wanted you to have an easy life.”

“How does Aefha know what my mother wanted? She can’t even sign.”

“No, but as a mother herself, she can guess.” Rann kneads his palm. “She only sent me as far as the ruins’ edge, though. I . . . carried on for myself. I know we didn’t exactly choose each other.” Now it’s his turn to blush. “I want to help.”

He’s come so far, and not just in distance. I can’t imagine what it took to brush aside his bias. “You might not like it,” I say, thinking of the ghosts to come. Sometimes I don’t like it, this life, but to leave it would be a betrayal of my mother, or my childhood, or some intangible mixture of both.

He nods. “I might not, but I’ll try.”

For two days we head northwest, and for two nights we sleep back to back like we did as children, our bellies growling. I do what I can to feed us. The ruins may be parched and mean, but life struggles on. Dandelions and fungus grow wherever there’s water, crawlies infest every cranny, and lizards bask at dawn, dopey from the cold and dark, easy to snatch.

On the third morning, we reach the edge of a burial ground that stretches to the horizon. Stone markers and debris are scattered out of place, choked by weeds. Crumbling bone peeks out of the churned soil. I’ve passed Ruined graves before, but never so many at once; the thought of all the bodies left to rot sends a shiver up even my spine.

Maybe this is where the ghosts come from.

“I don’t think I can go any farther,” Rann whispers. He’s not the boy he was. Hunger has pinched his face. But his eyes are clear, and his voice doesn’t shake; it’s firm. He just knows his limits.

This burial ground marks the end of my mother’s maps, and the beginning of Yba’s. “We can’t stop now. We’re so close.”

He scans ahead as if summoning up courage. Then his eyes widen. I follow his gaze. There, beyond the graves: a strange blue light. It distorts and reforms again like a swarm of flies.

“I can’t,” he says.

A musty wind stirs my finger-bone necklace.

My mother was brave to come this far, and Yba braver still. I was a child to them, ever underfoot and coddled, but I am grown now. My mother knew I could match them, or she would never have told me to come.

I cross the burial ground alone. I have to crawl because my legs are shaking too much to carry me. I’m scared to hook my fingers into the ground in case I stir the dead. Occasionally I pass fallen signposts amongst the debris, covered with the same words from Yba’s map—I try them again; arch-ivy. I’ve picked up where my mother had to stop. My eyes burn with tears.

Soon, I can see the ghosts in their dozens. They move aimlessly. My breath catches whenever they stop, which is often, because they keep getting stuck mid-stride, doing the same steps over and over. They flicker and warp, sometimes disappearing completely.

I’m halfway across before they realize I’m there.

I don’t know what gives me away—a crackle of dried scrub, a huff of effort—but no matter where they are, they all turn their heads in unison to stare at me. Those facing the other way turn their heads fully backwards. I squeeze handfuls of sod to steady myself. After a moment, just like before, they come. The ghosts with backwards heads don’t turn their bodies; they ripple and reform the right way around. They step as one, like a single reflection in fractured metal, and they hiss quietly. I press my forehead into the ground, unable to move. My own hot breath wets my face.

The hissing’s inside my head, and then it’s gone. I look up. The ghosts crowd me, but they don’t touch me. They wink out of existence until one remains. It sweeps its arm, gesturing beyond the burial ground to a stone building half-buried in rubble and dislodged earth, then it walks towards it, beckoning me to follow. When we reach the entrance, it too disappears. I go inside.

The floor has fallen through. I unwind the rope of my mother’s hair and secure it round a pillar. Inch by inch, hand over hand, I descend into the lower level. Once, the pillar groans, shifts, and I drop five feet; but the rope holds, and I press my forehead to it for a moment, giving thanks to my mother for protecting me and, though it pains me, Aefha for her handiwork.

I slide down the rest of the way until my feet touch the floor of a dark room. The slabs were once smooth marble but heat has buckled them against one another, and the remains of animals have stained them green and brown. Metal compartments line the walls.

The ghost suddenly appears right in front of me. I cry out. Sound doesn’t echo down here like it should. I peek between my fingers. The light that forms the ghost’s face shifts. It speaks in a language I don’t understand.

I let go my breath. “What?”

The ghost sticks, resets, speaks again. It tries many languages. I still don’t understand. It pauses, unsure how to proceed. Suddenly, to my shock—and my delight—it brings a hand to its temple. Hello.

I gawp. The sign is not exactly as I know it, but it’s close enough to communicate. Like an accent. Hello.

The ghost sweeps its open palm into its torso. Welcome to the—I can’t make it out. It looks like our sign for book-house.

I pull out Yba’s map and hold it up for the ghost to see, tapping the markings urgently. My hand’s shaking. Is this here? Is this—I speak aloud, “‘arch-ivy’?

The ghost tilts its head as it processes my tone. It reads the word I’m pointing to and gestures all around. “Archive,” it says. It beckons me over to the nearest wall, sliding the metal compartments out. Tiny ghosts come to life inside them, strange floating papers made of light. They’re covered with more markings that slowly change.

The Ruined must have encased their books in the metal they so valued, like we do with our skins. Did Yba know what she’d found all those years ago?

I close my eyes and imagine I’m there as their equal: I conjure a night in the den, sitting thigh-to-thigh with my mother as Yba recounts a hazy memory about blue ghosts and a buried hall, myself as a child curled up asleep at our feet. By my age, I judge I’ve not long had my own encounter with the ghosts, and my mother is afraid for me. She places a hand on my arm. The firm line of her mouth says I must stay ignorant while she investigates, in case it’s dangerous. What knowledge she finally found, and in her fear for me almost let slip away! The Ruined’s book-house is vast—surely someone wrote about the sunsears, or a cure for the northern traders’ shaking sickness, or even the warning signs of the tumor that sent my mother running back to Rolfshall to die. Aefha pulled it from her belly during the harvesting and burned it.

Well, I’m here now, but the book-house is failing. The papers made of light sputter like tallow candles, and the ghost grows desperate, showing me more things than I can possibly look at. Some of the compartments stay dark, their power long dead.

I hear a clatter behind me. Rubble falls beside the dangling rope, breaking apart on impact with the marble floor. I look up to see Rann’s outline blocking out the light.

“Gwinaelle, are you down there?” His voice is thin. “Are you all right?”

“Yes,” I call up to him. “I’m fine!”

I can imagine all I like, but I’ll never truly know my mother’s mind. Her book, my fading memories, the taste of her marrow are half-truths and they’re all I have, all I’ll ever have—without her, I can only interpret them as best I can. Even follow the ghosts came at the last, from a feverish and fickle mind. Regardless, I vow to finish what she started. I can’t settle in Rolfshall. Aefha will hate me for it, but I’ll be in service to them all. The words the Ruined left behind have been going to waste like Yba’s soft parts, and there’s been no one to perform a harvesting until now.

Well, I have a book to write. I’m ready to learn, and the ghost is waiting.

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G.V. Anderson

G. V. Anderson

G.V. Anderson is a British writer whose professional debut, “Das Steingeschöpf”, won the World Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction in 2017. Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lightspeed, Nightmare, and Interzone. She is currently working on her first novel and tweets regularly about it at @luna_luminarium.