Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams

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Fiction

Braid Me a Howling Tongue

When I was young, I used to fray apart my mother’s tales, seeking the threads of their structure. They were journeys, always, and marked by transition-places: doorway, gate, river. On the other side, someone offered the rules of this new environment. I liked the stories where these interpreters were animals or hags, though in my least favorite, it was a child with ragged clothes that admonished, that’s not the way things work here.

I understand. Understand that people bore easily, that stories must be pragmatic. No time to waste on the heroine, bumbling her way through years of figuring out the rules.

But this isn’t a story. There’s no interpreter for me when I arrive, and no quest to speak of.

1

I’m thrown through a doorway into a room full of girls.

I use this word loosely. Most are past bleeding age, some with bellies that round like rising moons. They sit at a large table in the middle of the room, dressed in matching gray smocks, identical white sashes tied around their waists. To my people, white is for funerals; the color seems fitting.

They watch as I hit the ground. Like me, they wear hobbles of strong, light chain.

The squat man that brought me stinks of poppy-smoke. He gestures to a woman in the back, twice as old as anyone here. She doesn’t wear a hobble, and I hate her already.

Besides the door, there are no exits, just a number of square windows too small to crawl out. Each wall is lined with identical beds, all topped with lumpy mattresses.

The woman nods at a spinning wheel near the right wall. The man pushes me forward, saying something I don’t understand, and again I’m struck by the flow of their language, the way it rises and falls like a raptor gliding on currents.

He pinches his fingers in front of him, miming. He wants me to make thread.

The girls have already turned back to their work—carding, weaving, sewing—as if bored by my presence. I almost refuse, but I’m afraid, sure that in another room there are women performing other, less desirable jobs.

I examine the wheel. It’s different from the ones I know, but the pieces are all there—treadle, wheel, maidens, a horseshoe-shaped flyer that holds the bobbin. I test the treadle with my foot, get a sense of the drive wheel’s rhythm, and start to spin.

• • • •

I spin wool until the backs of my legs go numb from the chair. Until my ankle aches and my fingers cramp from holding the same pinched positions for hours. The man has long left. The woman never looks directly at me, which means she’s watching me closely. I do the same when I hunt deer.

I count the girls as I weave. There are twenty-nine, their complexions all like mine. I can’t tell which are from here and which are stolen like me.

I wave at the girl carding wool and ask to trade via gestures. Her brown eyes flash amber as they widen. She glances at my waist and turns away so violently the length of her braid whips over her shoulder.

Maybe she didn’t understand, I think, but I know this isn’t the case.

• • • •

I approach a girl to indicate I need to relieve myself. She, too, glances at my waist before addressing the woman instead.

I conspire to get a sash. I could steal it, maybe, but I think the sashes are just symbols of something else.

I go back to weaving. Any color but white, I think, as the wool runs harsh between my fingers. With so many of my people dead, maybe I should get used to the color.

• • • •

Some hours after night falls, everyone finally puts up their handicrafts. The woman approaches me and touches herself on the chest twice while enunciating slowly: Alena, Aaaaa-leeee-naaa.

I nod.

Alena taps my chest, her finger as imperious as a woodpecker’s beak. I knew this was coming, but I shake my head. Her expression turns sour, and she repeats her ritual: tap-tap, Alena, tap-tap.

I open my mouth. Alena’s gapes in response.

Three months ago, my closest kin fled a plague that ravaged our summer grounds. Asleep in the back of the wagon, I didn’t see the raiders until I woke to a blade at my throat. Their leader cut out my tongue before I could weave a defensive spell—perhaps as punishment for spitting at him.

I will forever feel his knife. It cuts me as Alena studies his work, so sharp I taste copper where words should be.

My people are steppes herders, but I was a word-worker, the strongest of the tribes. Now, I’m left with only two spells. Calming a terrified animal is woven from a combination of ah and bah and mah. The spell that energizes an exhausted horse is mouthed silently.

I would give up either to say my own name.

Alena recovers, finally. She gestures at a bed near the back-right corner. The straw-tick shifts under my thighs as I sit. She pulls a wooden box from underneath and flips the lid. Its contents are cloth, stacked and folded like layers of the earth—two gray dresses, one white, an extra blanket. She shoves them at me, and I understand this is my place now, everything I own represented by this box.

I’m used to traveling light—but that is our freedom. This, here, is deprivation. I long for the howl of the fresh wind over the steppes. Since my capture, everything has been cages, each smaller than the last.

Alena leaves me and calls out. The girls hush and sit on their beds. None are empty. I wonder whose bed I’ve just taken, and what happened to its previous occupant.

• • • •

Despite my exhaustion, I can’t sleep. I’m torn between crying and not crying, unshed tears twitching at my eyelids like ants.

I lie facing the room and trace shadows in the dark. The girls sleep in all positions, and the varying curves of their hips and heads and shoulders, feels like bedding down beside the sheep. Their combined breath rushes like wind through long grass.

A few snore, but I close my eyes and pretend I’m with my herd.

My mind drifts. I wonder if they’ll be allies or enemies. If they were born into this life, or if some were captured like me. A rabbit claws in my throat.

I open my eyes and turn over.

Now, there’s only the carding girl’s bed between me and the back wall. She faces away, lying so still my skin prickles—but then her side drops and raises, too quickly for sleep. She was holding her breath. Her elbows twitch—slight movements, but fast and regular. She keeps her arms tight to her sides, her forearms in front. I can’t see her hands.

I blush, but then I’m angry. My mother often lectured that my tragedies don’t affect the world around me—and still, I reject the idea that this girl is pleasuring herself in front of me when I’ve just been dragged to this room as a captive.

She stills and slides closer to the wall, before looking over her shoulder. I feign sleep until I hear her move again, and then I open my eyes just enough to sense her form through my lashes.

She pushes her fist under the corner of her mattress. When she pulls her hand back out, it’s open, as if she’s stowed something away.

2

The first three days are the same. We wake early and eat. We wash our faces, our teeth, our hands. We clean the room, our bedding, our clothes, the chamber-pots.

Then, we’re led single-file to a kitchen that accommodates us all at once. The grounds here aren’t open like the steppes. There’s just a small clearing for the buildings, ringed by a thick forest of trees unlike any I’ve ever seen. The trees are massive, their leaves bright yellow and shaped like flower petals, their branches heavy with fist-sized golden fruits. Nobody ever tries to eat one.

I imagine sprinting for the tree-line. Were I not hobbled, I’d take my chances—but there’s always a guard, leaning against a wall, a bow slung over his shoulder.

We spend our mornings cooking horrendous volumes of bland food. I crave my herd’s meat and milk, but here, the diet is starches—tubers, flour, nuts. Filling, but not satisfying. At midday, women with hoods take away the food we’ve made. There are at least twenty buildings, and my group of girls is the only one ever in the kitchen, so it must go to feed the encampment.

Then, we return and switch to our handicrafts. My mother’s ancestral home was not the steppes, but a sea village to the south. Like us, the women there weave with spinning wheels, instead of the hand spindles of my tribe.

Our work here is frantic. We produce cloth, cord, and rope until our evening meal. Only then are we allowed a few short hours to do as we wish.

I am in awe of their craft. It has all the components of good spell-work: intention, repetition, beauty that elicits emotion. Every time the carding girl outpaces me and switches to weaving rope instead, I imagine it thrumming under my hand—but thread-work is so rare, I’ve only met two practitioners. They crafted garments that allowed the wearer simple illusions. Our best hunter once paid thirty sheep for a jacket that temporarily banished the wrinkles around her eyes.

The girls ignore me, gossiping in that sweet, light language. As the days go by, fragments emerge, like bits of flotsam washed ashore. I comb for these words, eager to feel less alone. So far, I have three names, the word for relieving myself, a word I think means do, and an exclamation; I don’t know if it’s good or bad.

I am proud of my vocabulary, because nobody speaks to me, or at a speed I could hope to follow. The only exception is Alena, who gives me the same word over and over.

Do, she says, pointing to the weaving, the cooking, the cleaning. Do, do, do.

• • • •

The morning of the fifth day, she points at the white dress in the box. Do.

I swallow hard. The funereal dress makes my skin crawl.

Do, she says, the pitch of her voice dropping, and I’m forced to comply.

We complete the morning chores and the cooking, but that is all—no handicrafts. When we get back, the girls all sit on their beds. There’s an electricity to their whispers, an odd energy in the way their gazes connect across the room.

Alena locks the door. She removes our hobbles, one by one, and tears come to my eyes. A few of the girls rub their ankles, but they don’t seem to share my relief.

Someone knocks at the door. Alena clears her throat and adjusts her smock before opening it.

A man stands on the other side, a slip of paper in hand. She takes it, and he steps away.

She steps inside. “Marali.” Her eyes search the room. “Awen. Terzanne.” She pauses between each word. “Ronata. Kalen. Mea.” When she finishes, the named girls walk to the front of the room. It is strange, seeing them take long strides. They stand, single-file, like a slim line of cat-tails edging the bank of a river. The man says something, and they all leave.

Alena locks the door. It feels like the moments before a loosed arrow, one kind of nervous hush converted to another. Some of the girls look relieved. Others, disappointed.

The girls open the boxes under their beds and pull out belongings while making conversation—a deck of colored wooden squares, a drawing, a small comb. The girl with the bed on the other side of the carding girl pulls out a wooden hook with a small bit of weaving on it. I don’t know how she could choose to weave after being forced to all day, but I say nothing.

• • • •

The sun sets. Alena lights a lantern that spills a golden glow over our faces.

Finally, there’s another knock at the door. Alena opens it, and girls tiptoe in like a line of deer. They go straight for their beds without looking up.

I catch a whiff as a girl passes—sweat, and something more acrid, but I could be imagining it.

I don’t think I’m imagining it.

A short time goes by—a quarter-hour at most. My stomach gurgles, for we haven’t eaten yet, but the girls all perch on the edge of their beds and whisper. I realize all their little bits and bobs have been put away.

Even in the dim light, I can see it. They’re afraid. None cry, although some have wet eyes. And there’s a cloying miasma in the room, one that makes my skin prickle and all the hair on my body stand on end. Something’s going to happen.

And then we hear it: a long, drawn out note, like the baying of a wolf, and that’s when a few of the girls start openly weeping.

• • • •

This next part, I’m not sure if I am telling right. I worry fear has re-written my memories. But I will try.

• • • •

Alena floats to the door and opens it. There’s nobody there, save the dark.

A piercing horn blast fills the air, and the girls all jump up at once. They fly out of the room, a great school of fish that swirls around and past me, streaming like bats into the dark.

I don’t move. I don’t know what’s happening—but Alena comes running. She points at the door and shouts things I can’t understand, but then she says, do, do, and her voice is so frantic, I catch her fear like a disease. I sprint out the door, not sure if I am running to or from something—but I hear the thunder of feet, and when my eyes adapt to the dark, I’m shocked by what I see.

There are hundreds of girls, running in all directions, fighting and snarling and pushing and shoving, their shadows shifting like a herd. A few climb into trees, as nimble as squirrels. One girl kicks another in the face, trying to keep her down. Most, though, just run.

Less than a minute passes while I watch the chaos—and then I realize I can’t see any of them anymore. The sound of their steps has faded.

The air fills with a low, keening howl, like the baying from earlier, but throatier and louder.

An enticing shiver climbs down my back. I was one of three word-workers in my village, the strongest for a hundred miles in any direction. During wolf-hunts, I often laid in wait for hours, spinning the spell of confusion under my breath. I’d loose it when the wolf appeared, and the animal would stumble to its belly as our hunters rushed in to slit its throat.

But I have no tongue anymore. No magic at my disposal.

My breath catches as I sprint away from the sound. My body stirs awake after a week of being confined, the terror pumping through my arteries somehow glorious. Dangerous or not, this is far better than endlessly spinning thread in a room made stuffy with the fear of thirty girls.

My legs eat up the distance. Clouds roll over the moon. I can barely see, but I sprint through the trees, trusting my heart to guide me in the dark.

• • • •

I don’t hide. This is my mistake.

One moment, I run with a vicious joy in my heart. In the next, the thing is upon me, so fast that by the time I catch the sound of its paws, it has reached out and thrown me to the ground.

I land on my belly and roll to face it. Fear fills me, so complete that my bladder voids and piss runs down my legs. I try to scream, but it’s as if there’s a nightmare sitting on my chest, crushing any sound. This, this creature—it’s not a wolf. It’s at least as big as a bear, and although it has a long muzzle and pointed ears, its eyes and paws are feline, and it has whiskers.

It approaches with that languid, yet focused way all cats have, its maw open and the end of its nose twitching. I lie still as it sniffs me—my feet, my legs, my stomach, my neck. Its breath is hot on my belly and smells like rot.

I remember my mother’s smile. My father’s soft voice. The way the light looks when the sunset catches on the woolly backs of our herd.

But the monster lifts its head and scents the air. It springs into motion and melts into the trees with a bay like the rumbling of an avalanche.

I let out a long, shaking breath. I think the creature spared me because I have no sash, but I’m not sure, so I climb to my hands and knees, to my feet. My leg is wet, and swiftly turning cold, but I don’t care. I run, even faster than I did before, because I now know what I’m running from.

• • • •

Too soon, I sense something looming before me—a sharpness to the black, as if the trees have pressed together so tight, they’ve cut off all hope of escape. There’s a flat plane that makes my vision dance in the dark, the shape too straight to be natural.

A wall. It’s three times taller than me, the sheer face slick and vaguely reflective in the moonlight, but I don’t care. I will claw my way to the top.

The moment my hands touch its surface, they burn as if they’re on fire. It hurts so much that despite my fear, I scream—but the sound is lost again, in the long blast of another horn.

I fall backwards, but the pain barely fades. My palms are covered in a sticky substance that smells like fat and burning twine. My eyes sting from the vapors.

Three blasts of a whistle echoes through the forest—heeeee, heeeee, heeeee. The trees around me burst into light, the globes of fruit all turning into small yellow suns, bright as day. I blink until I can make out the wooden wall. A dark-green pitch coats its lower half.

My hands look ruined: bloody, as if I’ve skinned them.

The air fills with the thumping of hooves. I sprint away, seeking some place to hide, my hands held out in front so I don’t accidentally touch myself with the poisoned pitch.

Before the wall leaves my sight, I am brought down by a heavy net.

• • • •

A man brings me back to the room. Alena rubs a salve on my hands that snuffs out the sting. There is no meal, but I don’t care. I couldn’t force myself to eat.

We all lie in our beds, me in my piss-soaked dress. Alena blows out the candle.

I fight sleep, but once the fear leaves my body, I’m dragged underneath its surface. In my dreams, the hunt continues, the creature baying behind.

Once, it seems like I hear someone scuffling in the box under my bed. I surface, but I don’t stay. Soon, they’re gone, leaving only the silence that swallows me.

In the morning, when I open the box for a clean dress, I find a white sash-belt inside.

3

I wake shortly before dawn, the sky barely graying, my hands burning. It feels like I’ll suffocate if I lie flat any longer. I quietly sit up.

In the chaos of being dragged back to the room, I didn’t notice that the bed on the other side of the corner from the carding girl’s is empty. Did someone slip out during the night? Or was it empty all along, my mind playing tricks on me?

But I remember the wan face of its former occupant.

I look out a window and imagine crushing my body through its small surface, extruding out like milk through an udder, and running for the wall. I should be screaming, we should all be screaming—but it’s like this body isn’t mine, like this place isn’t real.

I turn at a rustle behind me. The carding girl is awake. She reaches her fingers for the empty bed and strokes them through the air, as if searching for a warmth that has long faded.

I remember, then, that first night, the way her elbows twitched in the dark. I wonder what it was that she pushed under the mattress.

• • • •

I wash and change, but I can’t shake the long fingers of the night. Before we start our morning chores, the door swings open, and the man that brought the slip with the girls’ names steps in. He holds a box, a twin to the ones under our beds.

He gives an impassioned speech. There is something primal about the resolute set of his jaw, his commanding voice, something that tries to claw its way into my head. I can tell from the faces of the girls that his words have an effect—jawlines tightening, cheeks reddening. It makes me grateful that I don’t understand, but my reprieve is like a candle, already burning lower, the wax dripping onto my flesh.

After a few minutes, he opens the box and pulls out a thin scarf of undyed wool, crocheted so finely it looks like lace. There’s an odd ripple to the weave, one that makes me feel like I’m bouncing on the back of a fast horse when I look at it.

He takes out a match.

Once, a girl from our tribe fell asleep while sitting in front of the fire. She leaned forward, and her pigtail caught—crack-whoomph—before it disappeared, right down to her scalp. It’s that same sound I hear now.

When it’s over, nothing remains of the scarf but a sulfur-smell. He intones a final sentence that can only be a warning, and then he is gone.

• • • •

My hands are too burned to weave thread. I’m moved to carding. When the girl gives me the handles, I realize her palms are covered in a mat of scars.

• • • •

I could tell you now, of the moments that pass after that—day after day, week after week, grinding me away like an old tooth. The way the group slowly peels back its hard shell. The softening of Alena’s glances, except for the night of the second hunt, when I came in without my sash, and she caned me so hard I couldn’t sit for ten days. The next hunt, she fastened it to me with some kind of lock behind my back. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t tear the sash off.

I frantically learn vocabulary, adding each word to my repertoire like a weapon on a rack, as if sounds I can’t produce can still somehow protect me. I want and fear understanding of their speech in equal measure.

I learn that the cycle of our lives will always have five days. The first day is marked by the man’s short speech. The next days are all the same—work—until the fifth day, when we run for our lives.

I’m not caught by the creature, although there are many times it comes close. Times where I climb trees, or hide in bushes, or press myself to the earth in a shallow depression as its stench approaches. More than once, I am saved by a sneeze or the cracking of a branch—some other girl that has betrayed herself.

I should hate the creature, but I cannot. It is like the wolves that plagued our flock—an animal driven by natures it doesn’t control and can’t hope to change.

But the man I call the fifth-day man in my mind, even after I learn his name is Euolen? The more I know of their language, the more I hate him.

• • • •

I study Kalen, the carding girl, who reclaimed her position once my hands healed. It happened quickly, Alena’s ointment working some magic.

Kalen rarely looks at me. Ten hunts have passed since the morning she reached for the empty bed. I stay up at night, watching her elbows twitch, although I always fall asleep early the night before the hunt, some survival instinct dragging me to ground the way the creature did. On fourth-nights, I can barely keep my eyes open long enough to finish the meal.

Sometimes, the empty bed is in one of the other buildings. During our excursions to the kitchen, I’ve counted at least ten houses like ours, each probably full of girls. The fifth-day man always comes to give his speech, but he only burns an object when the girl is from our house.

By now, I know enough words to occasionally guess the topic of conversation—the weather, the weaving, the cooking—but the girls still treat me like furniture. I rub my fingers against a candle-wick and write a single word, charged with longing—hello—but it’s clear none understand. When Alena sees, she grabs it and berates me, a long combination of sounds that ends in not do, not do, not do.

After, that’s what they all call me. Not Do. I’m driven mad a thousand times a day when those sounds prick at my ears, unsure if they’re talking about me, or merely giving instructions.

When I was first captured, taken from my tribe and family—the loneliness ached, but fear kept my mind occupied. Now, during the four days I know we’re safe, there’s nothing to stop my heart from being ground like seeds under a pestle.

• • • •

I feed my loneliness by watching Kalen. I pretend she’s my friend, that I know her thoughts. I invent stories of how she came here. She’s a tribal princess, banished for being in the wrong inheriting clan. She’s a criminal charged with assassinating a village elder. She’s a sheep-spirit whose woolly pelt was stolen by these people, and she cannot leave until she reclaims it.

I learn that Kalen likes sweet foods. That she fidgets often with her sash, as if it refuses to sit right on her hips. That she avoids Wen. Wen always smiles, and her voice is always soft, but more than once, I see her light and cheery speech sends girls running away with tears in their eyes, which is how I know she’s a snake.

If Kalen notices me watching, she doesn’t confront me. This kindles boldness in my chest, until one day, I resolve to communicate with her. I draw my eyebrows together and mime a series of actions—striking a match, setting fire to something from the bottom, my fingers wiggling like spiders as they crawl up. Why, I mouth, taking care not to show her my missing tongue.

I tilt my head, as if lying on my side. I close my eyes and reach forward, the way I saw her do. When I open them again, she looks stricken, as if I’ve just slapped her. She presses her hands to her face before running away, her braid swinging.

I’m devastated, but I deserved this. Kalen didn’t consent to being my friend, to having me invent her entire history. I stand, steeping in my shame and the rapid knocking in my chest.

When I turn away, someone grabs my wrist from behind. My heart sings. I turn, sure that it’s Kalen—but then my hope deflates like a bad bread. It’s Wen.

I stiffen. I don’t know if I should flee or fight, but I can feel that Wen is dangerous.

She shakes her head and speaks in small, broken phrases, as if addressing a child. Not Do. You want knowing?

My skin crawls to get away, but it’s like a spell, hearing someone address me directly with anything other than do or not do. I feel like one of the wolves I used to hunt. I swallow and nod, and Wen lets me go.

Riotta. She bad.

I blink, and Wen repeats my gesture, spider-fingers climbing up a scarf. She points at the ceiling.

Always watching. Do bad, and creature happens.

She smiles, so sweetly I almost relax, but there is flint in her eyes, as sharp and bright as a new metal knife.

I nod. She goes back to her weaving, leaving me with the feeling that I have done Kalen some great, unknowable wrong.

4

Perhaps I was wrong about lacking an interpreter. I step through Wen’s words and arrive at an understanding of this place.

My parents’ tribes both believe that those who make mistakes should be given an opportunity to correct them. Someone who cannot be redeemed reflects a failure of the whole tribe. While we don’t uphold these teachings perfectly, this ideal endows us with responsibility and compassion and dispels fear, because a wrong can both be created and righted by our own hands. This is the way I was raised.

I study the girls as we cook, as we weave, as we flee from the creature, as we disappear. I hold Wen’s words up to my eyes like a navigator’s lenses, and I learn that these beliefs aren’t universal.

Samma drops a dish on the floor. She casts a fearful glance, not at us or Alena, but at the door. Her eyes slide skyward, as if she can see through the ceiling.

Menta and Deo converse in giggling whispers, until Wen walks too close. From then on, they are silent, although one glances furtively upward.

Kalen alone never looks up, and that makes me like her more. I watch her elbows twitch in the night and burn to know what she hides under the corner of her mattress—but it feels wrong to pry. We have no privacy and own nothing except the boxes, full of gray and white dresses and whatever small trinkets we put together.

• • • •

Half a year passes, the warm weather sliding into cool. By now, I’ve cobbled together an understanding of the underpinnings of this world. The girls all believe—or purport to believe—that the creature can smell sin. When a girl is taken—and we’ve lost ten already from this house, ten boxes opened and shown to us—the fifth-day man’s speech gives us the reason, evidence of sin in retrospective.

I don’t always understand the speech, but I don’t need to. Common threads connect all these crimes. We aren’t allowed to want or seek truth. We aren’t allowed to be angry, only afraid.

Samma is taken for gossiping about the fertility ceremony, about what happens to the girls that line up before the hunts. Deo for harboring rage against Wen in her heart.

I come to believe that it doesn’t matter what the fifth-day man finds in our boxes. There will always be some way for it to confess our sin.

• • • •

The days shorten as we enter winter. It’s colder than what I’m used to, and before long, I find an addition in my under-bed box—a thick wool cloak.

The snow is wondrous for the change it brings. I volunteer with a raised hand for each task that sends me outside, just to hear it crunch under my hobbled feet. By the end of the first day, my nose, hands, and feet are all burnt, and still, I revel in the way it renders the world still and peaceful.

That night, I hear Kalen’s new neighbor whispering about how much harder the hunt will be with the snow. Then, I hate it the same as the other girls.

• • • •

Two days before the hunt, I’m stirring a massive pot of porridge. I’ve taken care since my disastrous encounter with Kalen to stay away, even though I cannot keep her out of my thoughts.

She’s kneading some bread dough on the other side of the kitchen. She grabs the ball and turns—and trips on Wen’s outstretched ankle.

The dough sails through the air and lands on the floor. Wen says something I cannot hear, but Kalen stiffens. Tears glisten in her eyes as she sets the dough on the table, and then she turns and shuffles out the door, the hobble jingling furiously.

Wen’s smile climbs her cheeks like vines.

I beg Alena for permission with my gaze. To my surprise, she nods. I exit and bow to the helmeted guard as I pass, before searching the clearing for Kalen.

A small gray triangle of cloth peeks from behind a tree-trunk, before bobbing up and down. How fitting that Kalen’s elbow gives her away.

The snow crunches underfoot as I approach. I’m grateful that it’s saved me from having to call out, from her hearing my voice of only vowels—but I wouldn’t want to scare her.

I circle around the tree. She is bent double and silently sobbing into her hands, her body shaking. I wonder, not for the first time, if she was born into this life.

I lay a hand on her shoulder. After a moment, she straightens and brushes her eyes.

She turns, and something comes over her face—some boldness I cannot fathom. She leans forward and kisses me lightly on the mouth.

At first, there’s a noisy rush of thoughts, but they’re overwhelmed by the chalky scent of flour, the softness of her lips. I feel shot through with heat, like I can’t draw breath. When she pulls away, air whispers from my mouth like the sighing of the girls in their sleep, and my whole body fills with longing.

She stomps away. I’m too stunned to follow.

When I look up, she’s gone, and Wen is outside, talking to the guard. His helmet is off, and when I see his face my heart stops—the fifth-day man—but then I capture the differences. He’s younger, his jaw sharper, his hair cropped shorter. He must be a close relative—a nephew, a son.

He catches my gaze, and it reminds me of the creature that first night, the whiskered nose snuffling at my waist.

• • • •

Kalen avoids me for the rest of the day, dancing away when I approach. I feel like I’ve fallen through a thick crust of lake ice, only to find hot water underneath. It cools every moment she ignores me.

• • • •

That night, I stare at her back and will her to turn over. For her elbows to start their dance. She’s too still to be asleep.

Kalen. I mouth her name, the base of my lost tongue twitching. Something dark and made of longing thrums between us, something like the magic I once had. I almost cry with loneliness, for it and for her. Kalen.

She stiffens as if she can hear me, then shuffles around in the bed until she faces me. Despite the dark, her eyes are as round as the moon.

I reach for her. The gap between our beds is too large for my arm to bridge, but if she reached back, we could touch in the middle.

She doesn’t. After a few moments, I let my arm fall and turn away. When sleep calls for me, I embrace it, if only to avoid my broken heart.

5

On the morning of the fifth day, the hunt hangs over us like an impending storm; tall, dense clouds of dread that threaten to drive us mad with the crush of their weight. Each week, I’ve felt it bearing down, but today, it’s coupled with the rawness in my chest.

Worse, despite my fear, I’m drowsy, as if my longing has spent all night undoing the work of my sleep. I tell my heart that this silliness will get me killed, but it refuses to listen.

I spend the day in a fog. Perhaps the belief of these people in the punishing sentience of the world has some merit, because that night, Alena finds Not Do on the roster.

• • • •

You want these details. I know it—understand it, even. But I can’t bear telling you what happened in the space from when I left to when I returned.

If it matters to you, I recognized the man waiting for me. His face was burned into my memory after Kalen’s kiss—a face like the fifth-day man’s.

• • • •

The hunt starts. My body doesn’t run as fast as it can. It no longer fears the creature.

Within minutes, the girls are gone, and I’m alone with the trees and the snow.

At first, I’m aimless, but this changes. I’ve split my hunt-nights between hiding and investigating the wall that encircles the clearing. Tonight, I will throw myself at its poison, will clear it or die trying.

Before I’m halfway there, something grabs me around the waist and drags me to the ground. I have no time to scream before my face is driven into the muffling blanket of the snow.

“Be quiet, Not Do.”

I still under Kalen’s voice, so close to my ear. I would’ve guessed my heart couldn’t beat any faster, but it does.

She helps me to my feet. “We have to hurry.”

The weakest candle lights the dark; when Kalen takes me by the hand, my heart sings bright, despite the cold and the ever-louder baying of the creature.

She leads up a hill, down another, before pulling me behind a trunk. I blush as she lifts her skirt, but there is something thin and gray tied around her waist.

My mind fills, crack-whoomph, as I recognize it—a crocheted scarf, the fabric woven with a clever ripple. She removes it before holding me tight and wrapping it around our necks.

She murmurs warmly into my ear. “Be quiet, Not Do. It can’t see us as long as we’re wearing these, but it can hear us, and it will smell us if it comes close.”

We stand, the contours of our bodies pressing together. I can’t bring myself to breathe. There is much I want to tell her.

I kiss her lightly on the lips and turn away—but then her hands find my hair. She kisses me fiercely, and before I remember myself, my lips part.

Her tongue enters, soft with curiosity. I stiffen as she probes that empty space—but then she sighs, and I close my eyes and melt into her.

The horn sounds, startling me. She pulls away, and I realize the scarf is gone. I pat at my chest, my neck.

“A few minutes,” she says. “Then gone. Have to always make more.”

She walks away without looking back.

• • • •

Kalen and I have conversations, time-delayed messages that are more like letters. When her eyes find me across the room, I mime my questions. Later, in the dead of night, she mumbles the answers, secrets only I hear.

We are only close during the hunts. There, her scarf around our necks, I have the chance to ask her anything I want—but in those moments, I can think of nothing but the feel of her hands and her soft tongue.

• • • •

Three hunts pass before I dare to ask about the girl she reached for after my first hunt.

That night, she lies facing the wall and ignores me. It feels like thorns are being pushed into my heart.

• • • •

The night after that, I’m the one that turns away.

• • • •

On the third night, we lie facing each other. She holds up a hand before rolling over and pulling up the corner of her mattress.

The half-finished gray scarf hangs on the weaving hook like a flag of surrender. She rolls back over and puts it away, and my world is bright again.

6

The next hunt, I long to explore her with my hands, but she holds me too tightly, her head resting on my shoulder.

Her breath warms my ear. “I don’t think the creature killed her.”

I pull back enough to see her face. It’s easier for me to understand their language when I can watch mouths move and see expressions.

Who killed? I mouth.

She presses her lips together. “I mean . . . I think they saw. They saw put on scarf. Scarf not allowed. So creature killed her.”

I shake my head. I’ve already decided the deaths are random. If sinners were being struck down, we would’ve both died long ago.

Kalen pulls away. She cannot go far, not with the scarf around our necks, but the space between us feels unending.

I study her face. She looks sure—and she’s been here much longer than I have, so who am I to doubt?

I write a story in my mind. Over and over, Kalen makes the missing girl a scarf. Kalen never knows if it’s the scarf or luck that saves the girl from the creature. One day, the girl disappears. The next, the fifth-day man comes and burns the scarf.

If Kalen is right, they must mark us somehow. Mark us so the creature finds us.

My heart is so painful, I feel like its fibers are being pulled apart.

I’m dying, I think. We’re all dying.

Forgive me, forgive me, forgive me.

I nod and reach for her. My hands travel her body, hungry to explore in ways I haven’t dared before. I’m desperate to consume her.

We must be silent, and yet, she cannot, not always, not when she is shuddering against me.

When the horns call, I can’t make my legs work, not until she kisses me on the forehead.

• • • •

The next fifth-day, Euolen looks at Kalen for a long moment before giving Alena the list. It’s a hungry look. I know she’ll be called.

We lock eyes as she leaves. I think again: I’m dying, we’re all dying, forgive me, forgive me, forgive me.

I was so wrong, to ever call us girls.

• • • •

When she returns, her eyes find mine. There’s something dead to them, something raw and hollow. I wonder if that’s what the inside of my mouth looks like.

I shouldn’t stare, but I can’t look away. Not until I hear an odd sniff next to me.

I turn to Wen’s stare, as hard and black as obsidian. She spins away as fear slides down my back, cold and sticky like spiderwebs.

• • • •

That night, as the creature howls, I draw Kalen close. Our first kisses, Kalen explored my missing pieces delicately, with care. Now that she’s the one with something cut out of her, I will do the same.

• • • •

Something has changed. Alena and Wen watch us, so closely that I don’t dare to glance in Kalen’s direction. More than once, I look at Alena, only to see that Wen has already locked eyes with her, as if to say, see?

Days pass in which I cannot reach for Kalen, cannot sign to Kalen, cannot smile at Kalen. Days in which I hold my breath and wait for the hunt.

At night, Kalen faces the wall, strong and smart where I’m weak and desperate.

• • • •

Two nights before the hunt, the dark pulls me down, my body pleading for rest, but I’m afraid that Kalen will acknowledge me, that I’ll miss my only chance to see it. I reach for anything to keep me awake. I make fists and press my fingernails into my palms, small fires like sharp stones. I bite my lips. I mouth the silent spell that energizes an exhausted horse—and my mind clears, as if I’ve been blasted by cold wind.

Word-working spells only affect animals. They have turned me into an animal.

I mourn, bitter, but when I feel sleep coming, I mouth the spell, over and over.

The next day, I’m like a toddler sick with fever: running into walls, dropping things.

• • • •

The night before the fifth-day, we have stew for dinner, but I can’t eat. It feels like spiders crawl through my insides.

Alena presses me. When I shake my head, she grabs my jaw and forces spoonfuls down my throat.

It’s not until I’m sitting on the bed, my head swimming, my body swaying, that I realize how suspicious this is. Alena circulates around the room, making sure we’re all tucked in, and then she leaves.

I try to sit up, but my arms and legs refuse. My body feels impossibly heavy. I barely manage to mouth the spell before sleep rolls in—and then, I feel a slight reprieve. Over and over, I shape the words, slowly dragging myself aboard their raft.

When I’m sure I’ll stay awake, I look for Kalen. Her side rises and falls in a rhythm impossible to fake—and this, more than anything, is evidence we’ve been drugged. Kalen never falls asleep before I do.

Something is going to happen. I’m sure of it. I mouth the words until my lips hurt, and my alertness solidifies like fat exposed to cold.

The door creaks open. I close my eyes. Fatigue swarms at me like a cloud of flies, making me almost sick with its force, but I keep my lips still.

Soft steps pad across the room, unfettered by a hobble—Alena. She approaches, and my pulse drums like hooves. She knows, she knows, she knows.

She passes me. I watch through my eyelashes as she opens the box under Kalen’s bed—Kalen, who doesn’t stir, not even when Alena drops the lid with a thump. Nobody does.

I risk a glance at Alena. In her hand is a white sash.

I wait until she leaves, and then I creep out of bed, mouthing the spell like a ward against evil. I open Kalen’s box and pull out the sash. It looks the same, but when I bring it to my nose, there is something soft and bitter in its scent, and nothing of Kalen.

I quickly trade the sash with the one in Wen’s box. I take care to leave it exactly as Wen’s was, rolled into a neat bundle, nestled next to her weaving hook.

• • • •

During the hunt, cloaked by the magic of Kalen’s scarf, I try to mime what happened. It’s clear Kalen doesn’t understand. I sneer and mouth the word Wen.

“Wen?”

I nod and wait for the whistle, the horn.

• • • •

That night, when we return, Kalen’s eyes find mine. They are round with fear, with suspicion. Although this hurts me, I’m glad. Glad it’s Wen’s bed that lies empty and not Kalen’s.

7

After the fifth-day man pronounces Wen’s sins—envy and vanity—he produces the proof: a small pot of dye for reddening the lips, one that wasn’t in her box when I switched her scarf with Kalen’s. The oils in the makeup easily catch flame.

Alena watches us even more closely. She must suspect I had something to do with Wen. I can’t get close enough to Kalen to warn her. At night, Alena has taken to sleeping in our room.

Kalen avoids looking at me. I hope this is because of Alena. Other reasons reach up with bony fingers, as if from a dark pit. I occupy myself thinking of a way to save us, of some way over the wall.

The first and second days pass. It’s not until the second night I formulate a plan, one so ridiculous it fills me with terror, but we’re running out of time.

The next morning, I wait until Alena turns away. I go into Wen’s box—still unoccupied, for she hasn’t yet been replaced—and take the weaving hook I saw when I switched the scarves.

Later, I steal some yarn. That night, I keep my ears open for Alena’s approach. I work as fast as I can without moving my arms, although I cannot stop my elbows from twitching.

• • • •

The night before the hunt, I long to avoid the soup, but Alena watches me carefully. I don’t want her to spoon it down my throat again. As soon as I eat, she looks away, long enough for me to palm the fork of the girl next to me.

The drug is already taking effect by the time our leisure hours start. Usually, I spend it playing with cards, or drawing on my mattress with my finger—but tonight, I sit back at my spinning wheel. Kalen gives me a sharp glance, which makes my heart flutter. She’s been aware of me, even if I haven’t seen her watching.

I look at Alena. Her eyebrows go up, as if she’s waiting for an explanation.

I fidget and look at the door, which is a lie—although I’m nervous, this place has taught me nothing if not to be still. After having the weight of creatures upon me, it’s impossible for me to be afraid of Alena the same way.

Her forehead wrinkles and her jaw twitches, as if she’s biting down on something. She turns away. I’m glad for this. I hope she feels guilty, because my list of monsters grows ever longer. A relief to imagine Alena’s hand is forced.

I pump the treadle, weave thread, and wait. When I’m sure nobody is watching, I jam the fork into the machine, near the ends of the horseshoe-shaped flyer. The fork snaps.

Before Alena can come near, I pull the flyer and the bobbin off the maidens. She calls for me—Not Do, Not Do—but I pretend I don’t hear. By the time she’s at my side, I’ve taken half the machine apart.

I meet her gaze and shake my head quickly, mouthing, sorry, sorry, sorry.

Alena sighs and turns away. “Fix it tomorrow, Not Do. It’s time for bed.”

I take the flyer to bed with me, as if it’s a stuffed animal, and wait for her to put out the candle.

• • • •

The dose is subtler, but sleep will claim me soon. I slip the wooden flyer under my pillow and mouth my spell.

An hour goes by. Alena enters. I lay still as she switches the sash in her hand with the one in Kalen’s box, and then she takes a seat on the edge of my bed and waits.

I don’t dare move my mouth. Before long, I lose the spell and fall asleep.

• • • •

The next morning, I awaken with a headache, although if that’s from the drug or the sleep, I can’t tell. I try to get Kalen’s attention, but she refuses to meet my eyes.

Does she feel some guilt? Does she blame me?

Forgive me, forgive me, forgive me.

Alena stays close and orders me to help her with the cooking.

I chop. I peel. I wonder why she doesn’t have us killed outright. In the end, I go back to my first explanation—that she, too, is a captive.

• • • •

When the hunt starts, I run out the room first, tearing away so quickly I leave Kalen behind. I can’t get stopped and questioned by Alena about why my dress doesn’t sit right. I look back just long enough to see Kalen’s stricken face—forgive me, forgive me, forgive me—and then the stampede of girls is behind me, so many bodies, there’s no way Alena can follow.

I pull to one side and wait. Kalen emerges dead last. I sprint for her, grab her hand, and drag her toward the trees, despite the many eyes upon us.

She pulls back as if to fight me, but I’m strong, and terrified, and when she finally throws my hand down, it’s only so she can match my pace.

We hide and don her scarf. My mind already ticks away the time. I rip her sash off and throw it on the ground. She responds eagerly, her fingers snaking into my hair, but I grab her hands and hold them flat to the sides of my head.

I try as hard as I can to tell her my thoughts. Follow me, Kalen. We have to do this.

She doesn’t understand. She reaches for her sash, but when I grab her hand and pull, she follows, leaving it behind. We sprint together, a single body, the scarf stretching between us like a harness.

When we come to the wall, Kalen stops and turns toward me. Her expression is furious, and she points to her palms before backing up.

I fall to my knees and beg her, mouthing please, please, please, but she shakes her head.

I pull up my dress and show her the rope I’ve built at night. The horseshoe-shaped flyer is fastened to one end. Perhaps not strong enough to hold our weight, and yet we’ll try, we have to try, but still, she shakes her head.

“Please,” I say. It comes out as mush.

She recoils, her lip curling in fear or disgust. It’s the first time that she’s ever heard my voice, and her reaction is a blow, but not enough to stop the clamoring of my heart. The sash’s scent could still be on her. And if the creature doesn’t kill her, Alena will.

I can’t explain the feeling that comes over me. It can’t be love: I don’t know where she’s from, and she doesn’t know my name. We’ve never had time to do more than explore each other’s bodies, no way to separate our passion from the boiling of our hurts.

But I think again—I’m dying, we’re all dying, forgive me, forgive me, forgive me—and it’s like I catch flame, crack-whoomph! If I’m going to die, I won’t die scared. I’ll die with a voice.

I open my mouth and breathe out the spell to calm a spooked animal. “Aaaaa-maaa-baaa.”

It can’t work. I know this now, know the spell keeping me awake at night was only my own fear, because we’re not animals. I’m not an animal.

But something changes in her expression. She takes my hand.

I run for the wall. I hurl the rope and flyer with all my might. It sails over, and I pull hard, jamming the flyer against the wall. I yank to test the rope, and it holds fast.

I give it to her first. She shakes her head, but I kiss her, fiercely, as if I could pour my resolve into her—and when I pull away, there are tears in her eyes, and her brows have knitted together.

It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

A bay echoes as she grabs the rope and starts to ascend. I don’t care that it has tracked us, that it draws ever closer. I wait, my heart soaring, as she crests over the top.

She pauses, then, for she has not thought of this part, but I have. When she takes the rope and descends, it’ll be on the wrong side, and I won’t be able to climb up.

I hear another bay and look back. In the distance, I see the creature, a black form massive against the snow, weaving between the trees.

• • • •

If this was a story, this is how it would end. I would sacrifice myself to the creature to buy Kalen time, and somehow, that would make everything worthwhile.

But this isn’t a story. She throws the end of the rope at me, followed by a slim gray banner—the scarf. “Hurry!”

I look back. The creature has crossed half the distance between us.

I wrap the scarf around my neck and grab the rope.

As soon as the leather of my soles touches the wall, the poison starts to eat them away. I smell it first, a scent like mint and meat cooking, but I ascend, hand over hand.

Below me, the creature has slowed. My arms scream as I climb. Halfway up, I pass the end of the poison. A moment later, the scarf unravels into nothing, its magic spent. By then, I’m out of reach of the creature. It sees me and howls in rage.

As if in reply, a horn sounds. When the whistle comes, the fruits on the trees will all glow, and I’ll be seen.

I crest the top, and the creature roars again. Kalen pushes me down and rips off my shoes. The poison has eaten through my left sole.

She drops the rope, and we climb down, together this time, because it doesn’t matter if the flyer breaks, if we go hurtling toward the ground and shatter every bone in our bodies, as long as we are free.

As soon as we both reach the earth, light blooms on the other side of the wall, like a sudden sunrise.

Kalen gives the rope a strong pull, twisting her fingers as she does. Like the scarf, it unravels into nothing. We run, barefoot through the snow, away from the wall.

• • • •

We find a road, but we avoid it. We focus on finding water, on building a small lean-to. Kalen doesn’t seem to understand surviving outside like this, but I have my training to guide me, and she learns quickly. I’m too afraid, still, to build a fire. At night, we curl into each other for warmth.

We travel four days, and on the fifth, we hear the faint call of a distant horn. I almost think I’m imagining it, except that I can tell from Kalen’s face she hears it, too.

• • • •

That night, we finally have a fire. I dig a deep pit to shield the light and fan it constantly to disperse the smoke. We roast two fish Kalen caught in a freezing river with her bare hands. Even burnt, they’re perfect.

When we’re done, I put out the fire. We lie next to the warm stones. She touches her forehead to mine, and I stroke her hair.

I still haven’t figured out how to tell her my name, to ask where she is from.

“I want to go back,” she says.

I freeze like a statue, horror growing in my breast. I’ve heard of this, of captives being so broken they refuse to leave, even when the gate is open—but I would’ve never believed it true of Kalen.

She turns toward me, her gaze hard. “I think there are oils in the poison in the wall, like the makeup. I think if we tried, we could burn it down.”

I imagine it catching fire like the scarf, crack-whoomph. My heart sings as I take her in my arms.

• • • •

It takes us four days to travel back. On the fifth, we wait for the horn, for the night the girls will be running without hobbles.

“Are you ready?” asks Kalen.

My heart beats, faster than a galloping horse. A dozen images flit in and out of my mind—Kalen’s elbows, Alena’s open mouth, the fifth-day man’s sneer, the soft light of camp diffusing into the tent where I once slept, my mother telling a story to a group outside.

I nod and strike a spark. Fire roars up the wall like a braid.

Kalen and I don’t stay to watch. We slip back into the night, two animals again made human.

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Maria Dong

A prolific writer of short fiction, articles, essays, and poetry, Maria’s work is published or forthcoming in over a dozen publications, including The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, Apex, Apparition, Augur, Fantasy, Fusion Fragment, Kaleidotrope, khōréō, Lightspeed, and Nightmare Magazine. Her debut novel, Liar, Dreamer, Thief, comes out from Grand Central Publishing on January 10th, 2023. Although she’s currently a computer programmer, in her previous lives, Maria’s held a variety of diverse careers, including property manager, English teacher, and occupational therapist. She lives with her partner and a potato-dog in southwest Michigan, in a centenarian saltbox house that is almost certainly haunted, watching K-dramas and drinking Bell’s beer. She is represented by Amy Bishop at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret. She can also be reached via Twitter @mariadongwrites or on her website, MariaDong.com.