I was invited to join an anthology by Chris van Dyke based loosely around the idea of The Quiet Year – https://buriedwithoutceremony.com/the-quiet-year . Setting up the world in which our stories would take place was a wild trip. He explains it better over on the website then I ever could. A sci-fi fantasy dystopic world with elves and rat people and Godtree fruit. It’s worth the trip. The village is set up with the ribs of a long dead mega fauna and ant and turtles are used as riding mounts instead of horses, just as a quick explanation.
Here is my little contribution to the anthology. Watch for other stories. This is going to be fun!
“I’ll be back late. Hearirs will drop by to help with lunch and a bath. You sure you don’t need anything before I leave?” Mab calls from the door. The time it takes for me to shift my chin from left shoulder to right is the sound of the door clicking shut. It takes longer for me to turn back to watch the world from my window. Morning sun sparkles on golden dust motes drifting across the bone sill at my arm. Threadbare curtains cast nets across the blanket on my lap, leaving my fingers dappled in autumn and winter.
The market below is wrapping up, soon to move closer to the ribs for protection from the coming winds. Bright patterns and whirling prints flit about the street on this last sound day. Children dash in and out of the awnings and barrels of goods. Their chirping echoes in the morning above the clash of hawkers bartering their wares. They are heedless in their scrabbling pursuit of pleasure.
An undercurrent though runs through the market below my window. The anxiety of the biddies scampering from stall to stall permeates the fog of dust clinging to the underside of the ribs as a cancer. It is in the way they bob too and fro. The way their men curl their shoulders in. The way the squealing ankle biters escape to their houses well before the rising moons cast fingered shadows across the square.
In the morning calm, that noxious persistence settles at cafe chair feet. Warm cups and soft words tamp it into the sand. It is with the shift in shadows and the rotation of guards that the mood scuttles away. Reality shatters that bubble, sending shards hurtling to the ground. Downcast heads. Furtive eyes. Robes and capes clutched at the throat. Hands reaching for little wrists to pull questioning voices away.
Waxed carapaces flash bobbles of red sparks across the scrap walls. Insignias, charms, wards swirl across their mandibles in perpetual prayer that we will survive another day. Riders in uniform sit proudly behind swiveling heads, waving to the thinning crowd. Months ago, they would have been greeted with cheers and applause. Now, we watch from the corners and the doorframes.
The patrols leave the main thoroughfare. Anger and disappointment curl inside my unyielding fingers. Tension crackles in the void they leave behind as customers fill the empty lane.
A knock at the door and a rattle of keys tells me my day has spilled away from me like an upended mug once more. Hearirs is hurried and brisk. Impersonal. Her meals are simple and nutritious, if bland as always. She works for the guard. Cares for those of us who no longer serve. She doesn’t ask needless questions. Helps that she was there when my ant went rogue. When my world spun out of control. When I became a burden.
That moment, staring at a washed out sky, unable to communicate with my limbs slips through my fingers every time her soapy rag finds another patch of garbled nerves. Hearirs’s proximity rubs at me. An intrusion. She has helped me though. Months have sanded away at my composure, but she works with me to speak again. To chew. To hold a fork. To stand upright.
I want Mab. Hearirs’s attention drives thorns of loneliness into my flesh. Mab, their light brings me home. I want to be home. I want my space to feel correct. It’s never correct when they walk out in the morning. They work now, to keep us fed. They could have left, when everyone thought I was dead. They stayed, when I wanted to give up.
Hearirs leaves me back in my chair, where I can watch the world tick by. Where people gather, shuffling along in mobs, in droves. I slip into an afternoon nap with the cool shade of the sun passing it’s zenith.
Sitting on the edge of the falls. Laying in the cool opening of the caves, the curve of their back fitting into my hands. I watch Mab laugh, tucking their curls behind their long ears. Whispered sweetness is an anchor to the boggy depths that demand my return.
Evening sets in, shadows creeping across the canopies. Fires burst forth in alleys drawing me from my dreams. Giggling ricochets against tent poles. Calls for food, the smell of roasts waft through my sill. My hands go cold with the lengthening dark.
Musicians pull their instruments to their fingertips and cheers permeate the air in punctured hollows of the night. Chords drift over the raucous applause and a beat sets in as the door creaks open.
My brain settles, the twitch in my digits yield to the calm that walks across my floor. I look up to Mab who sets down parcels and packages in the little area we call a kitchen. They are tired, but their smile embraces me.
“Have a good day?” they ask, pulling their cape clasp from their throat and setting the garment on its hook.
Time seeps through ice as I grapple with my head to move my chin toward my chest.
“Did you see anything interesting?” They shift food stuffs through the pantry, placing a pan to the burner. The raffle of papers and chaffe of bone drains away the edges of my day.
Lifting a shoulder is moving a mountain, but their patience in waiting for my reply is a blanket around my heart. They are radiant in our little space, setting away shadows in their glow. I want to watch them move forever.
“What can I do?” Mab asks, worry creasing their brow. Some days I wonder if they can read my mind, how attuned they are to my melancholic whims.
My heart breaks with the question. I know what I wish I could do with them. I reach, my hands unwilling to obey. My voice catches between my brain and my throat, refusing to bow to my rule. I drop my gaze, frustration burning across the tips of my ears. Somewhere in the distance, between my skull and my chest, a far off sound begs for understanding. “Dance?”
Mab, deep brown eyes sparkling with tears, leans down to me, wrapping their arms under mine to take the weight of my back. Sensations shift and the world tilts, but their arms are warm and reassuring in the scuffle of nerve endings. I do the best I can to wrap my hands around their shoulders, resting my head against the top of their curls. Exhaustion screams, demanding it’s cruel expectations. My chair is five leagues away and I sway, my legs jittery as I fight to command them to stand.
The drums from the musicians reverberates through our little home. For a minute, for a time, for this one second in our lives, we are golden dust motes floating in the morning sun, twisting around our center of gravity. “Love you.” It’s garbled, and slurred, words crashing against my teeth as rain breaking against the ribs, but I mean it with every bone in my body.
“I love you too,” they whisper into my shoulder, their grip tightening against my back.
And we are floating. Dust motes on the wind.