In the very heart of winter, the forest holds its breath. Frozen earth sleeps without dreaming; brittle sunlight breaks and scatters in gasps between the trees. The girl walks through the woods, boots crunching the crusted snow. There is always such a girl, walking alone. Little footprints point the way back to a clutch of hovels; she peers half-dazzled through shadow and snow-flash. A basket hangs dispiritedly from her arm. Sausage end. Hardened loaf. The creeping doubt in spring itself.
On the morning after my tenth birthday, spring sunlight dapples the stone slabs of the road in front of our house through the blooming branches of the pagoda tree. I climb out onto the thick bough pointing west like an immortal’s arm and reach for a strand of yellow flowers, anticipating the sweet taste tinged with a touch of bitterness. “Alms, young mistress?” I look down and see a bhikkhuni. I can’t tell how old she is—her face is unlined but there is a fortitude in her dark eyes that reminds me of my grandmother.
I woke early—or perhaps didn’t sleep. My body is still adjusting to the time zone hop from Southern California to the islands north of the Scottish mainland. Orkney. A series of islands, many of them uninhabited, in the cold North Atlantic Sea. To the east is Norway. To the West are Iceland and Greenland. In other words, it’s chilly even in the summer when there is endless light. It’s stunning, aside from the dead guy currently at my feet.
In winter, the snow comes down as softly as feathers. I have always loved to watch it. It’s different, of course, once it’s fallen: thick, heavy, difficult to walk through. In Boston, the snow plows come out almost as soon as the first flakes land on the sidewalk. They make narrow paths, and the snow piles up on either side, so when you walk to class, it’s between two mountain ridges, like a miniature Switzerland. That’s how Kay described it to me one morning, while we were sitting in my dorm room.
Forty-six minutes and a trickle of seconds remained before the end of the world—this world, anyway—and I was trying to evacuate the second-last client on my list. Some apocalypses come in with horns blaring and guns blazing and cascades of fire. Some apocalypses like to be obvious. This wasn’t one of them. The humans had various names for their world. My partner Rawk and I called it Seedworld 722.11.15, which was our superiors’ label. We’d seen a lot of Seedworlds perish, she and I.
Prince Aretas, son of the Ever-Hungry Queen, had gone into the forest. Yarchuse knew the truth even before ae coaxed the story from the prince’s bootprints bruising dry earth. Ae shivered, hand splayed above the trail. Dammit. Ae heard the prince’s naïve belief etched into his tracks: I can end this war without more death. I will speak to the Heart of the Forest and find peace. You foolish child, Yarchuse thought, clenching aer jaw against a spurt of panic. The forest would never relent.
Red slays the wolf, and another bursts through the kitchen window and bites her in the stomach. Glass gets in her hair. She smashes the chopping knife into its head, then runs out the back door, gulping for air. She doesn’t stumble. The wood must be at war with itself: Some trees let her pass, others scratch her. The howling recedes; the howling’s at her ear. Eventually her boots skid on marble and she falls, her heart a hammer against her ribs. She curls up to make herself small. At least I’m all bones. They won’t enjoy me.
The cavalcade forms up. In beats, without words, the drummers argue a bass line. While higher registers wait in silence, contraltos and bassos scat and moan, improvising the tune (the lyrics never change). The soulful melodies these deeper voices come up with are much too cool, and none capture the hot quiddity of their subject. “Make dat shit bump, y’all,” a counter-tenor exhorts. “Put some stank on it!” So the music picks up funk and swing. A girl bounces and stretches with the other dancers. They have black skin, or brown, or golden; hers is gray, waxen, and flyblown. What ails this girl, her bones slipping so weirdly in raddled tissues?
Once there was a prince of Ruyastan who was born in secret and hidden behind a false wall with a nurse to hush her and soothe and give suck. The prince and her nurse lived in narrowness for ten years, reading and watching the world through a crack no bigger than a needle. During those years, the dowager queen hunted down and killed, for jealousy, every one of the prince’s half-brothers and cousins, carelessly begotten in cities and villages and forgotten apart from notes in the royal genealogies.
Sené. Pregnant Sené. Sené of the tired skin. She whose face held a million wrinkles, each one etched deeply as if carved over the course of forty years. Sené whose blood was only twenty-four years young. [Faru, Faru running through the bush.] The shining eyes of her boys made her smile, but not much else touched her. Not a full-throated bird’s song, not the sun peeking pink at dawn, not her husband’s fleeting caresses.
[Faru leapt right, darted left. His hoof / slipped and his hind legs buckled.]