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Scraps of Ocean

Devan Barlow's fiction has appeared in Lackington's, Abyss & Apex, and Truancy. When not writing she reads voraciously, drinks tea, and thinks about fairy tales and sea monsters. Follow her @Devan_Barlow.

Portia's home didn't want her, unless she reshaped herself. As she preferred her sharp edges, she left, and sought a town she'd heard of. It was one of the few places where the stone magic lingered, powered by the fire lurking within the nearby mountains.
As she'd expected, it wasn't long before someone in the town found fault with her. Her lack of a smile was turned against her, reserve twisted into snobbishness. Snobbishness warranted harsh action, after all.
"You're lucky." One of the inhabitants told her, sneering. "We've just lost the last dusting girl." He gestured to the hall of statues, which lurked outside the town like a shamed animal ordered away from the hearth. "Maybe this'll teach you your place."
The town always needed someone to tend the statues.
Each statue stood atop a pedestal. Pedestals worked just as well for things resented as they did for things loved.
There were no names emblazoned on them, but their stories lingered, passed through the town like a hungry disease.
The one who said no.
The one who wouldn't smile.
The one who dared to not care what others thought.
They were reduced to characteristics and acts, their accomplishments redundant.
The stone crafters feared the power of these victim's names. It was better to remember instead the place each statue failed to take, and the warnings made of them.
Most days she was alone, but for the statues.
Portia didn't know what the building had been before the statues filled it. Like many of the structures near strongholds of stone magic, it was changeable, stretching to include as many statues as the stone crafters brought inside.
Some of those before her had taken their turns dusting the statues and altered their ways. Apologized, and smiled. Accepted the touches, and the commands, and the dismissals.
Most did not, and were turned to stone anyway.
Portia worked in the hall day after day, cleaning every line of the statues.
When visitors came to the hall she heard, over and over, of the responsibility which had hewed these statues.
It's their fault. They should have known better. They should have....
There was no end to the quantity of malice supporting the town's lies.
Portia didn't acknowledge the visitors. She continued her work, blowing away the dust where it gathered thick, and wept in the statues' shadows.
The town's inhabitants knew better than to cry. Tears were for hiding.
Tears were anathema to the stone crafters. The might of this place's magic was built on stone, but suffused by fire, as rocks are shaped by the earth's fury. And tears held a magic the stone crafters feared more than their victims' names.
To clean the statues, Portia was given a pile of rags, and two buckets. The first bucket was for stream water she had to collect herself. The other was for the solution, known only to the mages, a compound that kept the statues looking "nice".
Each morning she collected her supplies and walked to the hall. The walk was long, part of the penance. She sometimes stopped along the way, if a householder was kind enough to offer refreshment.
Many scorned her, fearing so much time spent among the statues might be catching.
But others welcomed her in, offering tea, or fruit, or flatbread. Often, also, conversation.
Portia heard them speak of her. How diligent the new dusting girl is!
She saw them nod knowingly. She'll figure out her place.
Good girl, they said to her face, as if she were a hound, or a hawk.
After she had been cleaning the statues for many days, a cry went up in the town, laced with familiar scorn.
Another had erred, and was condemned to stone. The sun was nearly high in the sky, and the stone casters worked best in heavy, burning light.
Portia stayed within the hall and worked faster. She wouldn't let anyone else join the statues.
A stone caster came to the hall's entrance, and invited her to join the crowd.
"I am where I should be." She said, and didn't let him see her face.
Water wears down everything, in time.
But tears are more than scraps of ocean. They hold shreds of memory and might, fragments of things unsaid, and midnight wishes for vengeance.
Fire fears the quenching as it fears little else, and even the oldest stone cannot resist rain.
Portia couldn't make enough tears on her own. But she was not the only one who wept.
Those rare individuals who'd never dusted the statues themselves remembered friends who had. Friends who, now, never left the hall.
Tears fell, in secret, in quiet corners. But sometimes they were shared.
Finally, after days of Portia drenching the statues in tears, they started cracking. The first was startlingly loud, yet still softer than the furor outside. Dust plumed and stone tumbled away, leaving behind a woman atop a worn pedestal. A maelstrom of anger and despair played across her face.
Portia's heart ached.
The newly freed woman reached for Portia. "Were you stone, too?" Her voice was uneven with disuse.
"No." Portia took her hand and helped her off the pedestal. "But there are other ways of being trapped." Where she came from, stone was not the preferred instrument of shame.
Their eyes met, and their hearts did too, and nothing more was needed.
Portia had been thorough. A course of destruction moved through the hall. Some who had been statues fell in the aftermath of their freeing, but there was always another near to catch them, to help as they relearned the feel of their feet.
Time had held fast within the stones, maintaining every curve and freckle. Every memory, and resolution.
Soon, all were free. Rubble filled the hall. They guided each other, as many had not walked for a long while.
Portia led the others out of the hall, toward the place of sacrifice, and their footfalls split the earth.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, May 15th, 2020
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