Amid the Green Corn: Part Seventeen

There was a someone at his bedside–Loops in the Knot could feel it even before he opened his eyes and stared up at the deformed, waxen mask that was the face of Fire in the Field.  Knowing someone was there  didn’t help the shock of waking up to that, but it helped him stifle his reaction. It helped him fight the scream. He stared at the cords of melted flesh that veiled the man’s left eye, but he always did that. There was no helping it,  it was less rude than he could have been, and he could hope it would be interpreted as an attempt at eye contact.

“Get the dogs.”

“The dogs?”

“We have a beast to hunt.”

“Mercury’s job. Sir,” he added.

“Not anymore. From now on, it’s your job.”

“It’s my job to hunt with his dogs?”

The big man grabbed the edge of the rough-carved cot in both claws and flipped it. The inferno that had ruined his flesh had spared his frame, and even now he could make up in raw strength what he lacked in flexibility. Loops managed to get a hand to the back of his head in time to protect it, but the frame left his knuckles bleeding and his knees hit the floor hard. He lay still, hiding. “Still alive?” Fire asked, panting.

“Yes, sir. ”

“Go get your dogs.”

“Yes, sir.” His dogs, then, he thought as he waited for the door to close. He pushed the bed off himself, glad he’d too lazy to carve anything heavier or more ornate, and found clothes. If they were his dogs it meant the apprentice had replaced the master.  What that meant he couldn’t fathom; he would swear he’d seen Mercury as they were riding home. Lately life for the old man had been bad enough to worry him, and Loops hurried out of his hut and into the dawn more eager to find out what had happened than to avoid another encounter with Fire.

He didn’t confront him, though.  He’d ask what was going on only if he couldn’t figure it out himself. Mercury’s hut was on the far side of the village, past the crowd gathering near the edge of the woods, and he went there first.  At least one person in the hunting party called his name; he ignored him. First-hand information would be worthless at this point, and he was in the unusual position of being one of two members of the Men of March with access to secondary information.

Once inside he shut the door. The bed was unmade. That wasn’t good. The old man’s cloak was still hanging on the back of the door. That was worse. He reached up to feel the top of the lintel, found nothing, and then checked under the mattress. The base of the lamp. The woven cushion of the chair. No note. Nothing for him personally and nothing for him to deliver. He checked the lintel again. That was the odd thing–nothing for him to deliver, and he knew nothing had come from the Rilikan in weeks. No communication.

No information. He’d have to do things the hard way. He went to fetch the dogs.

The animals in question–a pack of coonhounds–technically belonged to the clan, not to Mercury. The were kenneled near Fire’s hut, a fact which both Loops and his master had found irritating. Regardless of any official claim they were Mercury’s hounds. He had found and saved their ancestors after the bond; he had bred them, fed them,  and taught them to hunt. They would listen to Loops if he tried, but he had never dared think of them as his dogs, even in the sense of possessing them as a member of the clan. He hoped he wouldn’t have to start doing so now.

When he called them now they came easily enough, but he could sense a wariness in them, a mild confusion. “I don’t know,” he said, feeling their question. “Let’s go find out, shall we?”

He led them toward the gang at the edge of the village, who parted to allow Fire in the Field to meet him. “What are we after?” he asked. The others around him kept talking.

Fire’s face twisted into a lopsided sneer, the closest he could come to a grin.  “A black stag.”

“The same one as before?”

“You listened to your master, then.” Fire’s smile wilted. “I suppose you’re not the only one. No. The first taunted your father and escaped him; I’ll catch him eventually. He did far worse to me, and I’ll have revenge. Not today, though. Today we’ll hunt a lesser prize. How well do those dogs know you?”

“Well enough. They’ll learn.”

“Will they come back to you?”

“Since Mercury isn’t here, yeah.”

“But they’d prefer to run to him?” Loops nodded. “Return them, then.”

“Sorry?”

“Tell them to go to their master.”

“Where is he?” Fire swept one arm to indicate the woods in front of them. Loops shut his eyes for a moment, trying to process. “You’re going to hunt him with his own dogs. You want me to hunt him with his own dogs.”

“Yes. And you will.” The others had fallen silent. He opened his eyes to a revolver barrel. “Because I’ve had just about enough back-talk out of this goddamn clan, and I don’t intend to take any more.”

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When he woke there was an eight-year-old boy sitting by the ashes of the campfire. He stared at him for a moment, unable to believe he was real. “Who are you?”

“Lord in Battle. My mother sent me. Triumph.”

“Thief-Queen of the Rilikan.” He was still half asleep, but he could tell the child took offense.

“We stole for one summer. One. Just like you’ll do, now that the Volupi took your lands.”

“We’ll get them back.”

“Not without help.”

Third Watch sat up. The others were still asleep. “Where’s my brother?”

“Your watchman? Drugged in the woods. You’ll have him back when we’re done. Do you want our help or not?”

“At your mother’s price? Never.”

“She’s not asking for your kingdom. She’s offering you a place in her empire.”

“Never. I’m not banding together with a bunch of thieves–you heard me–and assassins. I’m not submitting to Triumph. I still have some dignity, thanks.”

“Dignity tastes awful in midwinter,” the boy said, standing. “Well, you go ahead and get killed alone if you want to.  Don’t say she didn’t try.” He headed for the edge of the camp.

“We’re not alone. We have the Greys and the Walkers on our side.”

The boy stopped, pivoted, and returned smirking. “You should’ve told me. I’d have left sooner. If you’re with them, you don’t need to submit to her.”

“Damn right. We’re fine without her.”

“Not what I meant.” He turned to leave again. “They’re ours already. As their ally, you are our ally. Welcome to the empire.”

“You can’t just assimilate us like that.” He kept walking. “I don’t like this,” Third Watch added, trying to fight his sense of helplessness. “I don’t trust a woman who’d send her child into my camp alone and unarmed. Unpredictable.”

Battle shook his head. “And you said this one was the smart one.” A chill went up Third Watch’s spine at the sound of laughter in the trees.

 

A note: Written for Trifecta: Week Eighty-eight, and also intended to be a standalone prequel to Amid the Green Corn.

Amid the Green Corn- Part Sixteen

“The Men of March go hungry because they don’t know what to eat. Not because they don’t know now; because they’ve never known. We’re thirty years past the Bond and they’re still letting it kill them. Kill their children. Kill their parents, because their parents don’t know either. They’d have taught them if they knew.

Mine didn’t teach me. I was raised like the others, sure that as long as I had the skills to make money–as long as I did work equal to the work I would have done to find or grow or catch food–I’d eat. But I wanted to be able to eat if something happened, so I tried to learn to garden. It was terrible. I was terrible. I’d been raised in an a cinderblock tower. I didn’t know the earth. No one did, really, no one who didn’t farm for a living. We’d been raised so far from the earth that all plants were either grass, weeds, flowers, or food someone else grew. There was nothing in between. No gray plants.

You don’t remember the first house, the house before the Bond. We just had Alastair, your dad and me, and we lived in this little–well, you wouldn’t know what that means. It was a house. It had a patch of garden in the front that the landlady had decorated, and a patch of garden in back of it that was mine to do with as I pleased. Half of it was meant for vegetables, half for a lawn–a grass field. She seeded the grass, and I watered it like I was told. I tried to put in corn and onions and peppers and…something else in the vegetable patch.

You couldn’t make dinner with everything it gave me the first year. I boiled it all regardless and called it soup. There wasn’t enough for even just me and it was awful, but I ate it. I had grown those things, and most people in the world who grew things to feed themselves had only those things to eat. I wanted to understand that–the hunger.  The lack.

I wanted to show myself how lucky I was to be able to fail.

That was at the end of the droughts that came before the Bond. We had one last good rainy summer before everything went to hell, and so the potatoes I’d planted did reasonably well. Not spectacular, but better. That summer I didn’t water the lawn at all. Things kept catching on fire, and it felt greedy to take the water for something so unnecessary as grass. My landlady kept telling me to water, and I kept saying I’d done it and that the seeds must’ve just died in the heat the previous year. I felt a moral obligation to not water–not that, anyway; I watered the potatoes if they needed it. The potatoes were food. They counted. Weeds took over the lawn. The landlady said she would have them sprayed with herbicide, but she got around to doing what she said about as much as I did.

So one day I was leaving the house with your dad and he says to me ‘I like that. It’s green, but it’s not a lawn’. He’d always been a real wilderness-loving man, and he’d hated the idea of lawns since before he met me. The whole thing was just covered in pretty much a single type of plant, and he said he wanted to know what it was. I looked it up; turned out to be lambsquarters.”

“Lambsquarters?”

“Yeah.”

“And your landlady was going to just poison them all?”

“Mhm. Whole field of lambsquarters.”

“That’s…” Hunts by Night shook his head. “I grew up on lambsquarters.”

“Why do you think? Nobody around there thought of it as food back then, though. They thought of it as a weed. You were supposed to pull them up and throw them away.”

“Why?”

“Messed up the grass.”

“The inedible grass.”

“Mhm. Just like dandelions. Purslane.” Triumphed Justly Warring laughed. “I love when you look like you want to punch your ancestors. So, I realized that if I was going to grow things, I’d be better off growing things that wanted to be grown there. I kept watering those potatoes, but I ate a hell of a lot more lambsquarters than I did potatoes that year. I started reading about ‘weeds’ in the area. I learned where the secret foods were, the foods that wanted to come up out of the dry, barren clay and feed me. The things that wanted to be there.

The Bond came that winter, and come spring the weeds were back. Nobody could get their saved peach pits and their pepper seeds to grow, and people starved. Me and your dad and Alastair didn’t. Neither did anyone who asked how we managed it, because while I’m a fan of protecting my own  above others I consider making it so you don’t have to inbreed part of doing so. Anyone who asked me I taught. They looked at me like some kind of shaman for knowing there was food to save their babies under their feet–food they were pulling out of their shriveled tomato beds. Over and over: ‘where’d you learn this stuff?’ ‘How do you know?’

I read. I read, you asses. I asked. I was taught because I asked to be. I learned because there was something left to learn, and if you stop listening before you run out of things to hear you may as well die right then. You’ll die because of what you don’t know in the end anyway. Shut your ears hard enough and it’ll kill the things you’d die to save, too. ”

“Lay down, Ma.” He reached out to take the bottle of dandelion wine and held it as though he intended to drink without ever doing so. “You look tired.”

“I am tired.” She laid down by the fire, resting her head on a tight-wrapped bundle of bleached felt, and watched the stars creeping along above their camp. “I’m so goddamn tired. I’m tired of being angry. I’m tired of watching this hell we build. I’m tired of people who make me say ‘there but for the grace’ getting mad at me for not going with them.”

“Can I ask you something? Why didn’t you teach the Men of March? If they knew they had food, wouldn’t they leave ours alone?”

“They never asked. I swear, Bridei, in twenty years not one soul ever asked and I can’t fathom why. I’d have told them if I knew they were listening. They…I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s killed their children for twenty years. Now it’s killing mine.”

He poked at the fire with a stick, pretending to notice how she pawed mutely at her eyes. “You should get some sleep, Ma. We’ll keep watch for a bit, me and Al. You get some sleep. We made good time today.”

 

Day

There was light. She reached out her hands to touch the white line. The wood was rough and half rotten but she pressed her fingertips against it, wanting to somehow push the first ray of dawn back through the crack, make time stop, make it night again. Other beams came through other splits in the wood; she closed her eyes and saw the sun rising over the trees, burning and watchful. There was no hiding now.

After today he would watch them a little less each day. His light would grow dim. The world would grow lean, and they must have enough to last through the cold until the Winter Maiden called him back.  Things must be done–as they had always been done–to ensure the Life-Giver blessed them with enough to survive. She understood this.

But in the dark of the old hut she wondered how many long mornings like this the sun had seen, how many Summer Maidens had waited for him here, how many had tried hard to be brave. How many had blocked the light and shut their eyes, hating him. How many had been this afraid.

Through the cracks, distant, came the sound of a spear being sharpened on a stone. She did not open her eyes.

 

A Note: Written for Trifecta: Week Eighty-Six.

Amid the Green Corn- Part Fifteen

Mercury Rising wasn’t sure what woke him that night, but he could hear danger in the silence that followed. He could hear no animals. Not the mice that had lived in the walls of his hut since his wife died and there was no one left who cared enough to chase them out. Not the owl that lived in the dead tree at the edge of the village and that usually took care of most of them. That was the thing that struck him most. He could always hear that owl.

That night had been filled with dangerous noises. He hadn’t taken part in the spectacle around the bonfire, but he could hear enough through the walls of his hut to hope for the first time in his life that his only child would never come home. Fire in the Field’s ranting had taken on a new, terrifying tone. His exhortations were more dire and his propaganda more extravagant. His voice sounded higher, almost hoarse with rage.

Mercury Rising understood. What he couldn’t fathom was why no one else saw it. By any tactical standard the death of Lord in Battle was a triumph. That bonfire should have been a celebration. Fire had no reason to be upset, unless there was far more going on between him and the Rilikan than he let on.

Mercury had figured it out years ago–or thought he had, at least. He hadn’t realized until that night how much he’d taken his suspicions for granted. It had started as just a theory–what if the mysterious man with all the burn scars was really Clive Brastas? What if he had survived and was using the Men of March’s well-known hatred for his wife’s new husband as a weapon? How ironic would that be?–but he had fallen slowly into believing it. He believed it so firmly that he was startled to discover this was the first real proof he’d ever had. Still, the rest of them were bright enough. He’d done his best to hint at what he knew. They should be able to think for themselves.

By the sound of the crowd around the bonfire, though, no one intended to do so.

He lay still in bed, listening. They’d extinguished the fire when they were done; he’d heard the hissing. Probably didn’t want to scare Michael off if he came back. He’d heard the village go quiet after that.

Something, though, had woken him. Something had chased away the animals. Some noise had tread on the edge of his dreams and tumbled back into them, disappearing as it kicked him awake. He tried to remember. He couldn’t.

Without lighting a lamp he rose, dressed, and crept out his front door. The moonlight on the overhang of the roof made a long pool of shadow near the corner of the hut, and he slipped into it, watching.

Slowly, the door to Michael’s hut opened. A man emerged; he couldn’t tell who it was and he didn’t care. The moon was bright and the revolver in his hand was well-polished. Well-loved. Mercury watched as he crossed the square, unhurried and purposeful, and entered his own door.

When it closed, he turned to the woods and ran. He followed the same path his brother had taken twenty years before.

Upstairs

There was no sign on, over, or around the door–a door you’d never notice if you weren’t looking for it. It looked like a back entrance to either the french bakery or the tax office. It wasn’t hidden, but you’d never care enough to notice it was there. It wasn’t the sort of door that registered.

Unless, of course, you already knew about it. Unless you were expected.

“You’re early,” Sergei said, sliding the wine list in front of me. “Your little club. I thought they come at nine.”

“I am. We do. Conundrum Red.” He took the list back.

He brought the wine himself this time instead of sending the odd-aged-for-a-waitress, overdressed woman who usually serves me. His daughter, maybe. “The papers say someone tried to throw a body off the bridge.”

“Are you sure he didn’t jump? People jump all the time.”

“Strangled first.”

“They’re sure?”

“Sure they’re sure. They’re the police.”

“Was there a rope around his neck?”

“No.”

“A rope mark?”

“No.”

“Then how do they know?”

He shrugged. “Didn’t say. Maybe the bone.”

“What bone?”

“My brother was a mortuary assistant. He told me once that there’s a bone just here,” Sergei said, pointing to the upper part of his throat, “that snaps when you choke a man. Broken bone, strangled man. Easy enough.”

“Maybe so.” Cold like the river, like the rain yesterday, washes over me. The hyoid. That’s what he means. The goddamn hyoid bone. I couldn’t remember it existed last night. Why can I remember what it’s called now? It’s just one thing after another today. Irony after irony.

“Everyone coming early?”

“Just me. I needed to think about some things before the meeting starts.”

He took the hint and stepped back. “What is it all about?” he asked before he left.

“Sorry?”

“Your little club.”

I shook my head, watching cars go by in the street below us. “Just a little social group. People with a common interest. Nothing special.”

A Note: Written for Trifecta: Week Eighty-two.

Disaster Trance

That’s what I’ve always called it. Those times when something’s going on–something bad, something close, something you’re on the edges of–and you just lock down and stare at the news for hours or days or weeks. You may call it something else. There’s probably a technical term for it, but part of me feels like it’d be ruined for me if I knew what it was. Not to say that I enjoy it, of course.

It’s a little like being high, if you’re someone who isn’t high often. You go numb and limp. You can’t focus. You get pissed at anyone who tries to make the it–the news–go away. Hours go by in the blink of an eye.

I think it’s happened to me more times in my life than I’ve actually been high, so take my similes with a grain of salt. I don’t know drugs. I just know the trance.

Last year was bad. The Waldo Canyon fire was just outside town, and the original command post was twelve blocks from my house. The first night my husband and I stayed up until four or five in the morning watching the live feed from the local news and the TweetDeck column I’d devoted to the official hashtag (there were a couple of unofficial ones that didn’t have good info). It was coming right toward us, pushing southeast through the night. By morning it had slowed and begun to burn the opposite direction. It burned in a spiral over three days before an outflow wind from a storm in Denver sent it rocketing into the northwest edge of the city, destroying 350 homes and a seventy-year-old married couple. From the first report to total containment it lasted ten days.

For ten days I was glued to my computer. As glued as a newborn baby and a part-time job will let you be, anyway, which is surprisingly glued. I didn’t clean. I didn’t cook anything more complex than a grilled cheese sandwich. We ordered dinner almost every night. I didn’t write a word.

That’s disaster trance.

Five months later, I was in Pennsylvania for my uncle’s wedding when Hurricane Sandy hit. I ended up pinned down in an EconoLodge near Harrisburg for three days with my mother and daughters, unable to get a flight out. I had limited internet access, but unlike at home I had cable. The internet ended up being a portal to Facebook games for my older girl.

“Shh. Mommy and Grandmom are watching the news. Swap the jelly bean and the butterscotch and you’ll be fine. Older PopPop brought mufffins; they’re on the table if you’re hungry. Shh.”

The flight out on the fourth day broke the trance. I don’t know if it was the info deprivation or my removal from the area but I was functional once I got home. But for those three days, I shut down like I did during the fire.

It’s not about massive death-tolls. It doesn’t happen to me after shootings or bombings. It didn’t happen to me after the Boxing Day Tsunami in ’04, despite the fact that three of my close friends had not only been in Thailand at the time but were missing for a full week after. I want to know about those things, yeah, but I don’t feel the need to know everything about them as it unfolds over days on end. I don’t need to see the story as it’s written.

Now, if it’s something that’s preceded by or coincides with massive evacuations, that’s a different story. That’s what I’m watching. That’s where I lock down, can’t function, can’t live. Why?

Two things. First, from Don DeLillo’s White Noise:

“Look at us in this place. We are quarantined. We are like lepers in medieval times. They won’t let us out of here. They leave food at the foot of the stairs and tiptoe away to safety. This is the most terrifying time of our lives. Everything we love and have worked for is under serious threat. But we look around and see no response from the official organs of the media. The airborne toxic event is a horrifying thing. Our fear is enormous. Even if there hasn’t been great loss of life, don’t we deserve some attention for our suffering, our human worry, our terror? Isn’t fear news?”

And second:

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That’s the gym of the high school on Osan Air Base, South Korea and the exceptionally frumpy young woman in the white shirt is me, age thirteen. A nervous-looking MP (crazy to think of, but the guy was probably younger than I am now) had come to our door that morning to tell us to evacuate. Events in the last twelve hours had suddenly made the higher-ups realize that our apartment complex, which was host nation owned and located off-base, couldn’t actually be secured. We were allowed two bags each and any pets we could carry. Nothing else. We had half an hour.

We underwent NEO (Non-combatant Evacuation Operation) processing at the high school, with one major difference: the usual goal of a NEO is to get the non-combatants out of the country as quickly as possible, but they didn’t dare put us on a plane. There was some talk of putting us on a boat to Japan, but until they figured things out they decided to stuff us in the gym with some cots and a television. Around noon they took us to the mess hall and fed everyone the meal the airmen usually got on their birthdays. At four thirty they handed out keys to apartments on base and told us to haul our stuff up the hill and wait for the cot truck to come around. A week later, we were told that was now our home. We were allowed to go get our stuff about three weeks after that.

That was it. A little anti-climactic, to be honest. Yeah, we never saw that apartment again, but it’s not like we lost all our possessions. We were never in any real danger, either. Nobody died, and the only “injury” was the weird girl’s mom complaining that her new, larger apartment had too many stairs and that simply wouldn’t do for her knee, which was in TERRIBLE shape regardless of what those hack doctors at the med group thought. It’s easy to look back and say it was no big deal.

It was a lot harder to say that during that week. As DeLillo put it, our fear was enormous. My mother told me years later that one of my brothers had nightmares about it for a long time afterward. Last year, during the fires, the evacuation zone got close enough that I ended up packing. I kept thinking I shouldn’t have to do this. I should get a pass, dammit. I’ve done this. Once should be enough. Most nights I couldn’t sleep. And yet, I still think I was more afraid during what we called the Air Force Village Evacuation.

But DeLillo was talking about people whose evacuation was ignored by the news, right? And in the background of that picture you can see a whole bunch of people huddled around a television watching…

The aftermath of a terrorist attack thousands of miles away. We were evacuated on the twelfth of September, 2001 because there was fear that the North Koreans would take advantage of the confusion. It would still have been the night of the eleventh in New York. We never made the news, not national, not theater-wide, and certainly not local. And don’t for a second misunderstand me–That’s exactly how it should have been. What was going on back home was far, far more tragic and more important. Our evacuation was nothing by comparison.

I think that’s where the trance comes from, though–from that humbling moment of feeling scared and uncertain and abandoned and homesick and then coming to the realization that absolutely nobody who wasn’t in the room with me would ever, ever give a damn. That they absolutely shouldn’t give a damn. It’s not a flashback. It’s a desire to watch the fear of others because nobody watched mine. It’s an acknowledgement that fear is news. It was right for my fear to be ignored, but that shouldn’t be the norm.

So here I am, watching the city burn again, dropping what I’m doing for every press conference, locked in the disaster trance. Staying up ’til all hours reading the tweets as they go by. Watching people be afraid. Watching others offer prayers. Watching people speak honestly about what hurts. Watching strangers listen.

That’s the thing I’m entranced by: watching people listen.

 

Amid the Green Corn: Part Fourteen

Shick. Shick. Shick.

“I’m not asking what you’d like. I’m telling you what’s going to happen. Is that clear?” The man pursed his lips, but nodded. “I understand your desire for vengeance. I’d venture I feel it more deeply than you.”

“Of course, sir. I never meant…”

“And neither of us can hold a candle to what my mother feels. If I were the Men of March, I’d be grateful that she’s decided to express her grief this way. The farm is a long way from here. She’ll have time to calm down.”

Hunts by Night’s sister snorted. “She’ll have time to wind herself back up, you mean.” Heads nodded around the circle of people gathered inside the home of the Vondergast family. Seven daughters. One daughter-in-law. One remaining son. The three men Triumph Justly Warring referred to as her generals– Eyes to the North, Third Watch, and Knotted Words.

“There is going to be a war, then,” said Third Watch.

“Probably. It wasn’t discussed.”

“And what exactly was?”

“What I told you. She wants to take him back to the farm so he’ll be with Max. She wants me to go with her, no one else. We leave as soon as she finishes certain preparations; I wasn’t told what. That was literally it.”

“Why can’t we come? I always wanted to see the farm.” He tried to silence Sweeter Spring with a glare. “It’s not fair. He was our brother too. You can’t just take him away from us like this.”

“It’s not my decision.”

“Because you’re a push-over! You’re…”

“Do you think I like this? I…”

He swallowed the rest of his sentence as Triumph Justly Warring stepped through the door. He and the generals stood, and Knotted Words offered to take the large bundle of bleached felt she carried. She shook her head with unnecessary violence, her neck muscles missing the weight of her hair. Sometime during her vigil she’d taken a razor to her scalp.

The room was silent as she approached the pot of boiling water that hung over the central fire. Beside the pit she laid the package down and unfolded the white cloth, revealing a pile of still smoking bones. Lumps of charred meat still clung to them in places. Out of respect, they endured the overpowering smell of burnt human flesh and  watched rapt as Triumph slid the pieces one by one into the water.

Shick. Shick. Shick.

“You look relieved,” she said to her son when she had finished.

“I wasn’t sure how you intended to transport him.”

“Brother or not, riding that far in the company of a rotting corpse would have been too much for you.” He looked away. “It’s not something to feel guilty about. Putrefaction is an awful thing to watch. This way is clean. Fire is clean. Water is clean. Bones are enough.

“I take it that you think I’m doing wrong,” she continued, addressing the generals. “You won’t say it because you can’t bring yourselves to say a mother shouldn’t bury her son, but you feel frustrated. You think I’m quitting. You girls feel abandoned and excluded. Don’t look at me like I’m psychic. I can hear you out there. These walls are wool for godsakes.” A wave of visible embarrassment swept around the circle.

Shick. Shick. Shhick.

“The only person I’ve yet to hear from on the matter is you.”

At the very back of the room, Mercy Speaking Softly shook his head. He stopped sharpening the knife she had dulled in the hours prior, tested it against his thumb, and then resumed his strokes against the whetstone. “I have nothing to say.”

“Nothing?”

“When I first came to this clan I often disagreed with your orders. I was never once correct. Sometimes your plans have gone wrong, but I’ve never been able to say ‘if we’d only done this, things would’ve worked’. You know by instinct what should be done, and any problems that arise out of your plans are problems that couldn’t possibly have been predicted. So when you ask me what –after twenty years of being beaten on the head by fate with your inherent correctness–I have to say against you, my answer is ‘nothing’.”

The assembled crowd, none of whom dared to speak, watched his wife stare at him for several long moments. “There’s an armory,” she said at last, speaking to them again, “buried under the old farm house. It was a subterranean missile silo in the wars pre-Bond, and then during the event itself the local government used the facility to stockpile arms they never used. That’s where your grenades came from, and that’s where the things that’ll end this war will come from. Things,” she added, directing a hard look at Sweeter Spring, “which only practiced hands should handle. I had intended to explain that once I was done with this.” She nodded toward the pot. “Do you all feel better now?”

“Yes’m.”

“Sorry.”

Shick. Shick. Shhhick.

“What are we to do in the meantime?” asked Third Watch, still unsatisfied.

“You obey your king as he’s obeyed me. Learning how should keep you more than busy.”

140, or Why I decided to wear a bikini to my brother-in-law’s wedding

When I was fourteen years old, I was chubby. Five foot even, a hundred and forty pounds. About dead-center of the overweight BMI range. Oh, and I lived in South Korea, so  everyone around me was, you know, Asian. Trust me, in that scenario you aren’t chubby. You’re fat.

I weighed about the same for most of high school. I lost about five pounds by senior year, and I swung back and forth through that five pound range through most of college. Vertically I only ever gained an inch and a half, so it’s not like I ever grew into it. I was never really comfortable with my body, but I didn’t go to great lengths to hide it either. If I was going to be the fat girl, I was going to be the fat girl stuffed into the cute clothes. I was going to be the hottest little sausage I could, dammit. A college friend of mine once said “It must be spring! V’s dressed like a hooker.” It was hookeresque, really. Fat thighs in fishnets. I told myself I didn’t care.

But I never, ever went swimming if I could help it.

There’s no hiding anything there. There’s no faking being cute. You can’t be a hot little sausage when the required casings turn you into just a lumpy, awkward meat pile with weird grainy jiggly bits. Needless to say, I haven’t worn a two-piece that showed even a little stomach since I was twelve. I would go to the base pool with my brothers in the summer, but there were two and I’d go to the one where all the families with small, shrieking children would go, the one with no diving board and a small deep end–the one where no high school kid would be caught dead. I don’t think I went swimming once in college. In fact, I don’t think anyone I know in this state who isn’t family has ever seen me in a bathing suit. That was where I drew the line.

I had my first kid at twenty. A hundred and eighty, then back down to one-forty-five. Her dad was eighteen. We moved in together when I was twenty-one, and I tried to raise a baby while doing twenty-one credit hours a semester and planning a wedding. A hundred and sixty. We got married. I graduated college, finished the first draft of my first novel, and then promptly slipped into depression when no employers or agents wanted anything to do with me. A hundred and sixty eight. At twenty-three I tried a diet that had worked well for my mother years before. I’m not talking “eat only this and loose a bunch of weight stupid fast and then quit”, I’m talking “stop eating X, Y, and Z forever because they’re freaking awful for you; shit, honey, what were you thinking”. A hundred and forty eight.

That right there should illustrate something to you: if I remember every single one of those numbers off the top of my head, I was pretty damn well obsessed. More obsessed than I maybe ought to have been. Obsessed for a very long time. If someone is that obsessed for that long it doesn’t matter how they dress or what they tell you, they’re not ok with how they look. I wasn’t. Even during my hot little sausage days I was trying ridiculous things to lose weight. None of them worked, mostly because I love sweets, but that didn’t stop me from constantly trying.

I got pregnant again after only six weeks on said diet. A hundred and eighty, then a hundred and fifty-seven after about a year. Back to that diet, the good one. The things I was eating made me feel more sane. I realized that my once-violent mood swings were tied heavily to my blood sugar.  I started to feel like myself again for the first time in five years. I felt…healthy.

Healthy, at a hundred and forty.

My brother-in-law is getting married at a nearby hot spring next week. I have a toddler and a preschooler and we’re staying at the resort by the pools, so swimming is pretty much mandatory. I have a suit I liked, but as I’ve lost close to thirty pounds since I bought it it’s no longer really usable. I went shopping today, and the cheapest thing I could find was a $12 black bikini. I tried it on. My stomach is a little poochy and my legs aren’t the best and good golly, the stretch marks, but I decided to get it regardless. Wanna know why?

Because I’m twenty-five years old, I’ve had two kids, and I weigh what I weighed when I was fourteen.  I spent years weighing myself twice a day (yes, I know that more than once a week is a bad idea and more than once a day is sheer madness. I know that on a logical level. Many hoarders know on a logical level that they should be able to find their pets and not have to poop in places that aren’t toilets.) and never ended up any thinner–but I ended up older and wiser. The weight that I once felt ashamed of is now something of which I’m a little bit proud. This isn’t really that bad after all.

I’m a mother of two who weighs what she did at menarche. I’ve been playing this game for too long. I’ve been obsessed for too long. I’ve been ashamed for too long. I’m too tired, too old, and too filled with new perspective for this.

Guess how many fucks I have left to give.

This many.

This many.

Words

“Immature.

Cliche.

Pedantic.

Thought-snot. Your brain is running, so you keep wiping it on the page and thinking that’ll cure it. It doesn’t, and what ends up on paper is no good to anyone.

Why do you keep trying at this? Your life is good enough. Leave it alone. Leave it to me.

I’ll read it, but I can tell you right now you’re not getting any better.

Clumsy. Awkward.

You could steer a ship through this without any danger of hitting a plot.

Crude.

Do you think anyone actually speaks that way?”

 

It went on. He tried to hold the page still enough to read, but his hand shook too badly to go on. He found his eyes creeping back toward the figure in the murky pink water of the tub. There was no need to read it anyway. He knew those words. They were his–if not always precisely, then at least paraphrased.

Good God, he thought, leaning heavily against the bathroom door, could you not even write an original note?

 

A note: Written in response to Trifecta: Week Seventy-Eight