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art by Jonathan Westbrook

This Place From Which All Roads Go

I'm not sure if I sent you a bio or not--if I didn't would it be possible to add the following: Jennifer Mason-Black lives in the woods of Massachusetts, surrounded by her human family and a menagerie of elderly animals. Her fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Giganotosaurus, and The Sun, among others. Additional information about her work can be found at cosmicdriftwood.worpress.com.

They come to study us. Not to help. They watch my father struggle his way through his chores and make notes in their notebooks, too busy charting our future to join our present. In any case, I've no reason to believe their help would be of use. Their essence smells different--arid, dusty--and it blisters the leaves it touches.
"It has no life, Mari," my grandmother says. At least she used to, before the day she took to her bed, lay there in her mended sheets, her face crumpling in on itself like an apple gone soft with decay, the threat of losing the land not aging her, merely bringing her years to rest heavy upon her shoulders.
The student with us then tried to hide from my grandmother's coming death, as if it might find her as well. She'd rush down the hall past the open door, clutching her notebook to her chest, casting her words toward the kitchen like a lifeline to pull her past danger. Once, just once, she paused at the door. It was my turn to sit by the bed, and I held my grandmother's hand and sang to her, songs she'd sung to me long ago. She no longer spoke, but I knew she heard me because her essence shone through the pale folds of her skin, lit her like the memory of a lantern flame.
"Her talent… it's stronger," the student said. Wonder creased her words, as if my dying grandmother were unlike any other dying woman, what lit her somehow different because it shone in this tiny room, from a woman who'd spent her talent keeping a few acres open, a few children fed.
"Of course," I said. "Have you no sense? What else is left when the body burns away?"
The student darkened to a miserable shade of red. Another might have found compassion in their heart for her, but I had no time for her foolishness. The students, their gaping mouths, their notebooks and questions and airs, I had no time for any of them.
My grandmother died, and that left the four of us--my mother, my father, my younger brother, me. Earth, fire, water, air, we've done our best to hold this place. My brother though, his essence grew differently, traversing channels not easily controlled. In the night I'd wake to see fairy light above his bed, his eyes shining with its glow. Or I'd find a trail of roses forced into bloom in deep winter, their petals dying instantly beneath the frost, his cheeks dotted with frozen tears. He simply was, and we could expect no help from him. Instead, we tended him as a family does. It's not what they'd do in the city, but theirs is not the life we lead.
My parents, though, are no longer young. They rise every morning and do what they must, their bodies as weathered as the shingles on the barn, their skin showing the burn marks of lifetimes of essence traveling from heart to hand. Stooped and furrowed, they sit at the table for dinner too tired to do more than thank me with their smiles for being there.
For the choice to stay is one few children have made. Opportunity gathers in the essencework taught in cities, not what grows through us like bittersweet through a copse of trees, wrapped thorn tight into our flesh. Quaint, the idea of remaining, of working land when one could be creating, changing, shaping the world instead.
I see it in the eyes of the students, though the line between quaint and exotic wavers for them. Some revere my father for things as slight as knowing the name of the wren that nests in the bush by the pasture gate, never thinking to listen and learn it for themselves. They buy my mother's patchwork dresses, the long-legged women wearing them with a tangle of necklaces they've collected from other primitives like us. They talk of my parents as coming from heartier stock then they, as if the ability to labor belonged to us and the ability to think to them.
And me? They don't know what to make of me.
Adelia is the latest student. She stays in my grandmother's old room, keeps it tidy, the curtains pulled back. The sun leaves splotches on her pale skin if she forgets to shield her face, and her fair hair grows colorless as straw in the light.
"Why did you choose to stay?" she asks me.
She does this, follows me as I work, her questions bobbing in the space between us. Today, I hold my hands to the dirt, my essence reaching deep below, searching for the channels of growth within. I used to love the feel of this, of being absorbed into the smell and the substance of the rich black soil, the boundless life it held. I don't know whether the soil has aged or me, but now it feels only of work and exhausts me.
"Why wouldn't I?" I say, unwilling to give her the rest. Because if the land dies, so do we. Because you're wrong to believe the only essence of importance is the kind made in classrooms and on stages, not the kind that happens day in and day out, with no one watching, no one cheering. Because this place knows me, and I, it.
"Mari, you have such strength. If you were to come to university, even now, and learn to hone your talent… you could have so much more."
My eyes sting as the sweat rolls into them. What I need to reach hides deeper than I expected, and my sinews twinge in protest as I stretch myself further in. Then... it resonates within me, a cello string vibrating in time with my heart. I bind it to me, begin to pull back, feeling the strain as the earth resists, then gives, slowly, regretfully.
"Is that you, or the Commission on Rural Talent speaking?"
Sun is not the only thing capable of coloring her skin. It takes no essence to wound these fragile students.
"I've nothing to do with the CRT."
"Aside from providing them with what they need to take our land."
She is a bird, trapped in my fist, resignation chasing panic. "That's not why I'm here. I want to help. I don't want to destroy your farm."
"How would this farm exist were I not here?"
A rich scent hits the air. I straighten up and flex my fingers, touch the tender area along my forearm where my essence has surged out of channel. It's happened more and more recently. This spot has an eroded edge to it, purpled with blood blisters. It needs tending, but so do a thousand other things, most of them far more necessary.
"What if your parents moved as well? They could live in a care center, not have to worry about anything anymore. You have so many things you could do with your life. And it looks--"
"It looks as though the choice will be taken from us. The city has more thirst than we have power, Adelia. The reservoir will come." I turn my back on her and walk to the house to ice my swelling arm.
Most of the students have bothered me far more than Adelia has. The one before her, Lilith--by the end she barely even watched. Instead she'd sit at the table and write long screeds, her essence blue green as she etched the letters.
"It's a terrible waste," she insisted. "Rural talent should be preserved. Why, the way you are able to bring life out of this emptiness."
Emptiness. The tangle of briars that held nests in the spring and blackberries in the summer. The trees my grandmother had nurtured. The dens and marshes and streams, the wild creatures that bedded down in all of them. Emptiness. One can fill emptiness, a glass to hold the water for a million greedy mouths. The essence spun between the land and the living means so much less than the essence forced into stone and concrete.
Lilith wrote endlessly about our life, and yet took no part in it. She avoided the things that could have helped, never even adding a log to the fire when it burned low. My parents would never have complained, would have left her to work at the table, fed her every night until her allotted time ended. Me, I was not so patient.
"I admire the way you manage this farm," she said one day. I'd taken a break from binding stone for fence. My skin felt abraded, raw in the cool spring breeze, and I lay down in the grass with care, avoiding the rub of the blades. "You're a remarkable woman."
"I work," I said. "I see what must be done and I do it. There's no more to it than that."
"But there is. I could never do what you do."
"Lilith." The anger rose so quickly I could barely draw enough breath for voice. "You've chosen not to. It's a luxury I do not have."
She spoke before my words could sink in, deflecting them like skipping stones bouncing across a pond's surface. "I cannot do this work. My talent is more carefully shaped than yours. Your work requires brute force; mine is like a scalpel."
I could feel the grass retreat beneath me, my anger wilting it. "Essence is essence, whether you call it essence or not, no matter how you categorize it. Mine grows the crops and ripens the soils. Another woman's powers the lights of a theater at night. Another's is the show within that theater. You treat them as though they are all different."
"Only one calls forth something from nothing," she said, and pursing her lips into a cold hard space, she left.
Something from nothing. That line divides me from the students, the country from the city. City essence--taught, sculpted--creates. Rural essence augments. Rudimentary, my talent, full of simplistic charm. The students seek to learn history from us, and in exchange they document what they see for the CRT. The CRT turns their words into proof of our backward ways, which will allow them to take our land and force us into the city, for our own good.
When I was young, before my brother's essence cut through him like wayward roots through soil, I thought of nothing but leaving. My best friend did too; we plotted together about how we would learn to create things of such brilliance that we'd be known the world over. After chores we would hide in the hay fields together, burrowed under the tall grasses, our skins thrilled with our own essence, with the brush of each other's. We took turns tracing the channels that ran within us, rewarded with a flicker of sparks wherever one coursed close to the surface.
I hadn't known what I desired until the day I rolled closer to her, touched my lips to hers and felt the sear of heat, the pull of magnet to metal. She pushed back against my shoulder, stared at me. "Tanja," I said, but she spoke nothing, simply left, her feet racing along the path from my house to hers.
The following day, I returned alone and studied the grass, the green and brown woven together. There, reading our story written on the land, the sting worse than a thousand wasps loosed upon my skin, I told myself such things weren't for me.
She left. I didn't. I wrote her from time to time, when the loneliness grew. She wrote to me occasionally, all details, teachers, class discoveries. Eventually her letters dwindled, little more than "Mari, you should leave and come here."
But before I could, I woke one night to a house full of acorns, my brother crying in the midst, and the doors to the city closed for me.
The students avoided my brother for the most part, aside from the few who, courtesy of a class or two, considered themselves specialists in such things. They studied him with avid eyes, waited for his legs to tremble, his mouth to droop, wonder to spring from him.
"Such a tragedy," one said, shaking his head. "Such a waste."
It was and it wasn't. It cost him, left him with sores on his skin, ulcers in his mouth, an inability to manage anything beyond the most basic of tasks. He'd be awake when I got up in the morning, no sign that he'd slept at all, and I'd bandage his charred fingertips, clean the feathers from the floor, ears of corn from the walkway. The tears in his eyes glistened green, and they stung my fingers when I wiped them away. I cried my own for him when no one was around, in the shadow of my grandmother's maple trees where the rush of the river covered all sound.
But a waste? I had only to look into his eyes when we stood together under a sky full of stars, or clouds, or empty of anything but blue, and the question instead became: can any life containing joy be considered a waste?
The report from the CRT comes on thick cream paper, twenty-seven pages of it, but only the first is of any importance. It is the considered opinion of this commission, the bolded font reads, that it is no longer in the interest of the state, nor of the rural families themselves, to continue their tenure on the farms now remaining in the area designated suitable for Reservoir 212. We are recommending that the Public Safety Commission take immediate steps to begin resettlement of these families. With regard to the issue of Rural Talent, we are prepared to thoroughly document these primitive skills, though observation suggests there is little to be gained beyond nurturing a certain historical romanticism.
The bonds that hold our house together were placed four hundred years ago. Every year, joined by our neighbors, we renew them, and assist in the renewal of theirs in return. It is what neighbors do here. There is no Commission for Architectural Talent for us; no anonymous teams to handle such things. Should our combined essence dip too low, our homes would begin to decay around us.
Not just our homes. The Great Hall was built to harbor a thriving community in times of joy and grief. When my grandparents were young, the windows would shine with light once a week, when dances brought everyone into its warmth. Now it sits cold for much of the year, and even if every family here were to enter its doors, bringing with them all their livestock, the space would still echo with loneliness.
This is what I think of as I stand with my father while he inspects the beams of the Great Hall in preparation for the fall renewal. Once we flourished. Once this hall would have sounded with the laughter of children and the bass notes of their elders, with the shy cracking voices of newly awkward boys and the singsong tones of new mothers. When we join for the bonds at the end of this year, there will be just nineteen left to speak. My brother will be the youngest, and he was grown to manhood twelve years ago.
I'm not given to tears, but they come nonetheless. I blink against them, take out my notebook to take down my father's notes.
"The center…" My father's voice has always held the steady confidence of a river within its banks. Today, it falters. "I don't know, Mari. That bond has always strained. I don't know we have strength enough to renew it. I don't know… don't know if it matters."
He looks back at me, and I see the same tears in his eyes. His essence has always steadied me, the feel of a gentle hand on my shoulder. Now, it lurks beneath his skin, the faintest glow coloring him. My life, I can reshape it if I must, but what of his, spent entirely in this place, this land? How quickly will he burn away if forced from his home?
Neither of us speak. He just takes my hand and we stand together, not crying, under beams set in place by our ancestors, meant to last into a future far longer than the limited span of our lives.
My brother waits for me on an island. It was not an island this morning; it was the center of a fallow field. Shaping water channels is exhausting work. Water has a muscular energy, twisting and turning like a restless fish. It takes me hours to return the first stream to its home underground. The sore on my arm worsens, but it is nothing compared to his state.
"Oh, Tris," I say. The skin of his arms and fingers feels papery, dry, cracked, the blood oozing through. "Come home. I'll treat you there."
His silence fills us both. The other river he's opened still needs to be dealt with, and he should be seen by a doctor, and I've all my own work yet to do.
My brother's eyes are like my father's--brown, deep, generous. He was beautiful as a child, he is beautiful now. He holds no more harm in him than a tree, but in the city, how will it be? Out here, he calls forth two rivers and we lose crops, lose time, yes, but no one else suffers.
It's disingenuous of me to even pretend to question. I know exactly how it will be. He will be a ward of the Public Safety Commission. The PSC will house and feed him, will milk his essence from him, filling in the channels with inert substances, until he becomes inert himself, safe as a nail without a hammer.
There are so many ways to be broken in this world. I would prefer to spare him that one.
Adelia's essence smells of something other than dust. Not delicate, almost rich as loam. It warns me of her presence as I soak my forearms in the rain barrel next to the barn.
"What happened?" She leans close to look in, the end of her braid falling forward, her shirt opening to expose the swell of one pale breast. I'm the one that feels exposed though, who pulls her arms from the water and tugs her sleeves down.
"Water work," I say. "Draws forth the blood, you know."
Even now, it continues to seep, pink serum dotting the fabric. "Let me see," she says.
Her hands are cool on mine, turning my palms up, the dark of my skin paler along the veins. Her essence sparks against mine, not burning, just tingling until the fine hairs there stand upright.
"You're making yourself old before your time." She looks at me with pale eyes, blue like a morning sky streaked with cloud.
"It is my time. This is my life. I'm meant to age in this way. Decay is as much a truth of bodies as growth is."
She is fifteen years younger than me. She can call parchment from the air, write her words with an inked feather that appears at the snap of her fingers. She cannot reach into the ground to coax the water up for a well, nor keep a patch of land fertile. She's a student, I'm a primitive, a relic of interest only to romantics. There is nothing more.
Her face tells me otherwise. It's not anger there, not fear, not disdain. I cannot name it, will not, and I've no time to spare her, and yet I do.
"It is just a body, after all. Have you heard the tale of the body that wanted a mind of its own?"
She eyes me warily, but shakes her head no.
"Come, have a seat." I lead her into the barn, take her hand and direct her onto a hay bale. "You're a lucky woman, Adelia. This was one of my grandmother's favorites."
It's been too long since I've told a story. I've forgotten the pleasure of it, how the essence washes into tiny channels all over my body, dances from my fingertips and lips into the air until I'm completely caught up in its light. I remember my grandmother's laughter, and it colors my tones. I fill the space before Adelia, the story full of the words of others, but still with room for mine.
I offer her a sweeping bow at the end, and she claps for me. Between us the residue of my images dissolves into indigo mist. The ache in my arms returns, but the pain matters less, overtaken, as it is, by the sudden light of Adelia's face.
"I've never seen anything… well, I've seen lots of stories told. On stage though, and I was in the audience. It's different."
"It's because I told it for you." Said like that, it's different than what I meant. What I meant was that a story told to a single listener, chosen for them, or told 'round a family table after a hard day's work, will always be different than a tale told to the anonymous hundreds, thousands. That teller and listener become intimate, and essence grows from intimacy like acorns from deep rich soil.
Or perhaps it's exactly what I meant. Somehow she's standing, the hay left behind, and I'm putting my hand out to keep her away, only my hand closes around her wrist, her thin smooth wrist instead, and her lips meet mine like a seed swelling at the touch of heat and rain, and there is no question of the channels for this essence for I can feel them all.
Only this time I'm the one to break away and leave.
The next morning I take a shovel to the barn floor, turning over the patch of oats that sprouted there before anyone can see it and question me. I find Tris sleeping amid the bales of hay, his hair tangled around his flushed face. I don't mean to wake him, but wake he does, a moment of confusion before he smiles.
"Why?" I ask.
He shrugs. He's not utterly without sound. I've heard him sometimes, singing to himself, tunes without words, or the shapes of words without their substance. He uses only his body to speak to us though, and much as I long for his voice, I know it is not necessary.
"You'll not hurt us. You can stay out while it's warm, but come the cold you must sleep in your own bed."
He closes his eyes and the light within him surges, until I can see the outline of a stack of paper on the corner of a table. I wish him dumb, without mind to understand what it all means, a beast, not my brother.
"There'll be an appeal. We've not got the boot yet, Tris."
His sorrow comes as snow, impossible flakes that vanish midair, dissolve on eyelashes and run down the creases of his face.
I'll not talk with Adelia. It's simple enough to keep her at bay. My age and my silence and my ease in this place where she is but a guest serve as stoppers to her hesitant tongue. Instead, she follows me, her notebook left on the table as we tromp through the fields.
She comes unstoppered as we eat lunch in the shade of my grandmother's trees. It's not the kiss she speaks of though; hers is a subtler path.
"Teach me how to help you."
I take a bite of my apple, chew it with deliberation. I'm tired, and the sore on my arm seeps and throbs. Part of me wants nothing more than to submit, to return home and help my parents pack and leave the land without a backward glance. And part of me wants to pull her to me and hold her until the oats grow tall and thick and green around us.
Neither part wins. "Thought this work was too archaic for students."
"I want to learn. I want to help. That report, that's not me. You can't judge me by what they say."
"They've taken the liberty of judging us on the basis of what all you students have said."
She looks down, pulls at the grass with one hand. "Teach me."
So I do. She's clumsy and slow, and I nearly send her away, thinking only of how much faster I can work alone. The fault rests between us though, in her lack of understanding, in my lack of patience. I come to see the youngness of her, the need, and I lay a hand on her wrist and bid her stop.
"This work must come from your body," I say. "You draw on mind alone. It has not the strength for what you must do. You must feel."
"I do feel." She all but stomps her foot at me. "I feel that it's not working."
"You want to give up, it's fine with me."
She does, almost. I see it in the line of her jaw and the way her lower lip trembles. Just a little, just enough to tell me how much it means.
"Here." I step close to her, behind her, my arms round her waist. "Follow what I do."
A fallow field is far from dead. The life within it grows up into the cover crops, and then must be pulled back down again. To do so mechanically is crude work, and risks the loss of the vitality that must be maintained for the land to flourish. Little by little life can leave a place, and no essence can draw it back in again. A true farmer knows this, uses their life as the tool to maintain the life of the earth.
I don't know how to put it into words for her, how to teach that balance to someone who's used essence only for those things my grandmother would have called parlor tricks. So I use my body to show her, open the channels within as much as I can, ignore the pain and pray she follows. The field teems with life. To pull it back down, deep into the soil, is to fight the flow, reverse it.
It takes some time. It takes a lot of time, and I've almost forgotten she's with me, the sweat of her back against me become my own, when I feel her tendrils travel along mine. The strain of my body lessens, like shifting downhill after a long upwards climb, and I laugh, she laughs, as I step away from her.
"You did it," I say, and I kiss her, a quick touch full not of desire but of gratitude for her stubbornness and the sun and the thrill of life within me.
"I did. It's magic," she says.
I laugh again. "Even us primitives do understand what essence is, you know."
"I didn't mean it like that. It just feels… I don't know how to explain it."
I remember now how it feels, at least how it felt when I first learned. It was as if the line between my body and the world had been erased, myself, the soil, the trees, the wren in the bush, the rain that fell on us, all the same and different, growing in places and dying in others, the meadowlark and the song of the meadowlark and the hawk with its bloodied talons sunk within the meadowlark's breast all part of what beat within me.
Magic, indeed.
I wake before my parents. At first, I think it the early light of the sun that shines through the window, and I curse the night for being too short.
It takes only a moment more to understand that it is fire, that it is the barn, that… I run from the house, hearing nothing but the hungry roar of the flames. It rises from holes in the roof, travels the beams and walls. The horses within are screaming, a terrible sound, and I want to block my ears and turn away, for I cannot reach them. It's not for them that I throw open the door, the heat driving me to my knees.
"Tris!" The wail rises and ravages me, as the fire singes me from without. I force my hands to the ground, taking short panting breaths as my lungs crackle and protest. The fire I cannot hold, and the water is so deep here, so hard to call up, my skin sizzling as the blood oozes from it and dries instantly. I feel my father beside me, his essence joining mine, and we both pull, pull, pull, until the water begins to come, puddle grown to stream, the steam rising fast from it. My mother, Adelia, we all force it upward, a geyser, as the fire devours, hisses, the timber groans, my heart insisting that Tris will walk from the flames, he will be there, he will not leave this way, he will not leave me.
By daybreak we are surrounded. Our neighbors have come, all of them, and have spent themselves cooling the charred remains of wood, of flesh and bone, for they are one and the same now. The horses, the first-cut hay, the tools and harnesses, all gone.
Tris we find curled amid the remains of the loft. Stripped of life, of skin and hair and smile, a body becomes a small thing, and yet his is the weightiest object I've ever held. Earth, fire, water, air--they made him their battleground.
It hurts to breath. It hurts to move. Tanja's mother bandages my arms for me, my hands, gently dabs at my face. "Oh, love," she says. Her cloth goes black with soot as she wipes. Pain is the sole marker that I am still alive.
Between waking and now my parents have become old. The light shines out from my father's eyes, from his skin, so close that I fear he will fall before me. My mother too, her breath more ragged than mine, her eyes gone redder than the flames.
Ulcerations dot Adelia's arms, her skin almost as dark as mine from the soot. The vacancy in her eyes, I cannot face it. This is not her life. Not her brother.
I cannot think of Tris. I can mourn the horses, their soft muzzles and warm breath, the way they sought out apples in my pockets. But I cannot think of Tris, exiled for fear of harming us. Had he been in the house I would have known. Had I insisted he stay, had I been more careful.
Had I been more careful.
Adelia leaves. We tell her to, tell her she must spend time with her family, let them care for her. She looks to me to bid her stay. I do not. She says she'll return. I do not believe her. This is the place which everyone leaves, one way or another.
We do not want for food. Our cupboards are bursting as families stop daily to look in on us and do what they can. My parents grew up with these people. They played in the fields together, told each other secrets, shared bashful first kisses, attended weddings, tended one another's children. And now they grieve together, for the children who have left, for Tris, for the land. They talk about fighting the CRT, but in every conversation waits the unanswerable question: For whom? For me? For the handful of adult children who have remained, and who cannot continue to work the land alone?
Let the water come. Let it rise, cover the fields, cover the remains of the barn, cover the house. Let the fish swim in and out of the empty windows, from fireplace up through the chimney, lay their eggs in the bed in which I was born. Let every trace of us vanish, swallowed up by the unceasing thirst of the majority.
Just let it cover me.
Those are the thoughts swimming in my head, half drowned in lethargy, when my mother rises to answer yet another knock at the door. I sit in my chair, bandages off to allow the sun and air access to my arms, eyes closed. If I am still enough, no one will bother me, for fear of disturbing my peace.
"Mari." I could hear something akin to delight in my mother's voice, the kind that surfaces even through loss, potent and pure.
Before I can stand, turn, a woman comes to me. Her straight black hair cut short at chin, her dark eyes uncertain as she shifts before me, fingers working the pocket of her skirt. "Mari?"
"Tanja." It seems there should be so much to say, not just "Tris," in a voice like pebbles thrown into a pond. She goes on her knees before me and I put my face on her shoulder and weep.
She helps bandage my arms, rolling the gauze with care. "Oh, Mari," she says, studying the broken flesh. "Some of these are so old. You should have had them treated long ago."
I don't respond, just wait for her to open the door for me so I can lead her down the path that crosses the fields. Over the years I've thought of so many things to say to her. As I walk beside her, all those things--angry, hurtful, cruel--they all flee. The solace of being known conquers so many things.
"Thank you for coming."
"How could I not?" She looks at me as though expecting an answer.
We are the girls in the hay field and the women walking past them. Time does not break us, even when I think it must, it simply reshapes us and sets us in the same places to speak our new lines.
"I missed you." The sun makes me squint, makes my eyes run.
"I missed you, too. I even missed this. I never thought I would, you know, I never imagined wanting to be here again. There are times though, when I feel like nothing will ever feel as right as this place, me and you, twelve years old."
"And now it will be gone."
Her turn to squint. She catches a stalk of grass in her hand, breaks it free and raises it to her mouth. I want her to tell me it will never be gone. I want her to say that she is here to stay, that the CRT can be defeated, that time turns backward as well as forward.
"And now it will be gone." She takes my hand in hers, the pressure painful even with the bandages. "I can help you. I can introduce you to people, help you find a place to work. This," she gestures at my arms, "You won't have to work so hard."
I say nothing. She smiles an awkward smile, lets go of me. "I know. It's a horrible thing. I tell myself it will be better for our parents, that they need to be part of the rest of the world, but they don't. It's just the sort of stupid thing you say to make yourself feel better."
Below me the water stirs in the ground, content with its channels. My father's wren flicks his tail on the fencepost. The sky stretches spotless blue above us, eternal.
"What can I do, Mari?"
You can travel back and love my clumsy teenage self. You can stay here with me. You can save Tris. You can save this farm. I close my eyes for a moment, the possibilities flooding me.
"You can help with the renewal of the bonds."
The fight to preserve our farms takes place without us, our lives argued for by strangers whose talents rest in law and persuasion, and come dear to us in terms of cost. At some point, they say, they will bring us in, line us up in rows for bystanders to gawk at. For now, we continue on here. My body heals. I am scarred. I am told it would be best to limit my essence, advice I take for only as long as it takes the doctor to say it.
Tanja promises to return for the renewal of the bonds. That vow sustains me through harvest, the knowledge that we will be strong enough to do what must be done. We've no hay, but we've no horses either, and we give away all but one of our cows. We've space enough for her, and the feed she needs, and there is no reason to think beyond next spring.
I'm tucking turnips into the root cellar when Adelia returns. I'd convinced myself that she would not come, that I'd prefer it that way. When I see her my lies become flimsy, dry leaves on the wind. She's gone thin, looks small and frail in her long dress, and I realize I've been a fool.
"It's good to see you," I say.
Her hands flutter like fledglings unsure of their wings. Silver-dappled scars mar her arms. I do not want to think of the fire, so I think of holding her against me as I taught her to work the soil. "Have you--"she says, and she steps forward, half-tripping, and I catch her arm in my hand to keep her from falling, or to draw her near, for that is where she ends up, close to me. A moment, a pause, the time to let her go, but I don't. This time I mean to kiss her, to feel all of it, and it's as if I've stumbled against a door I thought locked and found it open, sunlight and gardens on the other side. I hold her and she holds me back, and by the time the kiss is through the grass has grown thick and green around our legs.
One day for each house, for all of them, not only the ones lived in still. Empty rooms, silence and dust, our essence the mortar to hold them together. At each one, a story, a history woven into the bonds we repair.
Now only the Great Hall is left. My father was right. The center ceiling of the Great Hall is made of seven beams hewn of complete trees, one for each of the original seven farms. Over time they have sought escape from their bonds. If one moves free, they all will collapse. The essence needed to strengthen this bond to last an eternity, not just a year, humbles me, in truth, frightens me a little.
But this is what we do, have always done. We try, we always try, striving for things out of our reach, because it is the nature of essence to bring our grasp beyond our physical substance, and because it is our nature to try.
We join hands beneath the great beams. I stand between my parents, Adelia's hand in my mother's, Tanja between her own parents. I look from face to face, my own thirst quenched by what I see in each.
"Earth, fire, water, air," I begin.
Between us the channels open, our heartbeats steadying to one another's. All of it is here--past, present, Tris, my grandmother, the wren, Tanja and me running through the fields at dusk--missing only a future. For this is no longer ours. We will disperse, blown like thistle seed over the fields, carried far away. We can do no more than hope to land on good soil, hope our roots will grow, that our children's roots will grow deeper still. Our lungs will draw air, but they will also hold the water that will wash over our homes, our paths, our dreams.
One breath deeper. No line left between us and the dreaming earth and the endless sky. Our blood, our lives, our minds--we offer them now. As long as our hearts shall beat, the pulse of this land will continue. Within our veins will circulate memory, not blood. A wren's song, Tris's roses, my grandmother's trees, my footsteps, a thousand stories we promise, hands linked together, to tell forever, no matter where the winds will carry us.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, November 9th, 2012
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