This is the first few pages of the as-yet-untitled literary fantasy novel on which I’ve been working sporadically for several years, for anyone who’s interested in what my writing sounds like. It totals 120 pp thus far, so yes, I am a paralytically perfectionist procrastinator, lazy bum, frequently uninspired, and all-around naughty girl. At this rate, I’ll have finished it in only about 12 more years.
In my village, we buried our own dead. With each shovelful of earth laid over our kin, tradition held that the survivors laid claim, for better or worse, to whatever was left behind. For the fortunate, this might be land or money, but just as likely it might be a trade, an obligation, or a secret. As in any other plateau town, death visited us frequently and swiftly, but it plays more than just a passing role in the story of any child of Onigsvie. The groves of graves that grew behind our gardens did more than tally our losses; they defined who and what we would become.
I am no exception. I have stood alone on the edge of wilderness, a stark silhouette against an empty sky, and still I could not escape the shadow of those graves. Like an understory tree, stretching my limbs toward the sun, my roots are still set in the humus of my forbears. As I search for a beginning of my story, the more I step back, seeking a point from where I can see the whole of it, the more I see myself subsumed by the blue forests that march into the horizons of my memory.
As a child, I was known chiefly as a something of a daydreamer, and also particularly stubborn. In all fairness, the first claim, at least, was not true. My mind did not tend to be guided by imagination, but just the opposite, to focus to a fault on the task at hand. I could become so involved in walking that I forgot where I had set out to, or lose myself in the rhythm of hoeing a row until I ran myself into the hedge that bordered our croft. At such times, I tended not to disobey commands or ignore questions, but simply not to hear them. I suppose there was merit in the accusation of stubbornness, though, because I cannot deny that there were occasional instances in which it was more convenient to not hear than to heed.
It must be because of this nature that most of my earliest memories are of incidental things: the knocking and sighing of storms against the shutters, or the number of stubby-legged steps across our yard. Of the people who nurtured me, I can say very little, most of which is common knowledge. At the time, they seemed desperately tiresome, as if their only purpose was to get in my way. I always felt I would deal with them later, when there was not so much worth doing, but that time never came. One by one, they fell away, until one day there was no one left not to hear.
The first burial I was privy to was that of my father’s mother, though this is only a technicality, since I attended in the comfort of my mother’s womb. Like both of my grandfathers, who died before Pidr and I were even a flutter in our mother’s belly, she was not buried at our croft. Instead, she rests at the old home, out on the plateau. My father, then a childless widower, had lived there with her for years, farming two sections to the north of town. Their cob hut huddled on the back quarter of the land beneath a stand of birches, the only windbreak to be found. Despite having, obviously, no memory of her, I can somehow see her more clearly than the others. Word holds she worked her own fields until the day she died, and in my mind’s eye, she exists as a compact silhouette against the dawning sun, steadily harrowing the naked ground. She is out of sight of both house and town, but she works quickly and without pause, undaunted, at home beneath the lonely sky.
When my father married my mother, a slip of a girl just ambling up to womanhood, they bought our sooty little house in town. They had agreed to rent parcels of the family property to various landless townsfolk, while my father hired himself out as a carpenter. One morning, when they were preparing for the move, my father’s mother didn’t wake up. They buried her beneath the birches before they went their way.
My parents did not get to enjoy their new life in town for long. After Pidr and I were born, our mother failed to heal inside, and was confined to her bed. Her own long-widowed mother moved in and took charge of our care, while our father worked long days developing a reputation as a highly skilled carpenter. My brother and I had begun our second year of life before our mother finally regained her strength. It was early spring, and she ventured first onto the thawing ground of the croft; then eventually undertook the hundred yard walk to the well.
On the same day, our father was starting construction on a large new home down the street, since this was in the time when Onigsvie still saw, on rare occasion, new homes, and even new faces. He had been to the forest splitting crucks– the massive end pieces of the frame, each split from the trunk and branch of a single ancient tree. Ordinarily, half a dozen men cooperated to move a cruck and set it place, but reluctant to rely on hired help, my father had decided to take the job in his own hands. He constructed a monstrosity of ropes, stops, rollers, and no one knows what else, the like of which was never seen in Onigsvie before or after, which allowed him to coax the cruck onto the top of his rig. He lashed it in place before mounting the seat in front for the jolting ride back to the build site.
As my mother took her first hesitant step into the street, she turned to see my father with his overencumbered rig bearing down on her. Unsteady as she was, she lost her footing and fell with a shout. My father saw her with enough time to stop his oxen, but with the sudden halt, some lashes snapped, the load shifted, and my father was flung beneath the full weight of cruck and wagon as they toppled together. The alarmed beasts bolted, trampling his young wife where she lay.
It was nearly as common to lose a parent as to lose a child in Onigsvie, but to lose both parents at once, in such a gruesome accident, drew the pity– or at least fascination– of our neighbors. For years afterward, I heard the story of our parents’ demise on the lips of everyone around me. They always watched me as though they expected some reaction, then shook their heads with a frown, muttering “Such a shame,” as though Pidr and I were straw stacks left in the fields to mold. But to us, the story was no more shocking than our grandmother’s tales about children stolen away by the folk of the forest. It was just something that happened to someone else, strangers, a long time ago.
Although our grandmother stayed on to look after us for about seventeen years, she never felt like more than a stranger, either. As early as I can remember, I had taken over the work of the household, and Pidr had begun to manage our properties and to show promise in our father’s trade, which kept him away from the house most of the time. Our grandmother’s contribution comprised criticizing me and complaining about her gout. I kept the pot boiling and the garden weeded, silently, as if grandmother had already used up all the words.
One night when we were all but grown and midsummer lay like a quilt over the drowsing village, grandmother took a fever. Her complaints turned to murmurs, then to groans, and finally only rasps of breath that heaved in her birdlike chest. All that week, I moistened her lips and forehead with cool water and rubbed her legs until she went to sleep. At night I lit a tallow lamp and worked in the garden until I heard Pidr come home. One day at dusk a wind was rising, and I rose from grandmother’s side to close the shutters. Her fingers clamped on my wrist, and I looked down into her gaunt face. Her eyes had opened and her breath came quieter. “Zofe,” she said in a distant echo of a voice, “I have to say something. You damned well listen.”
I sat back down. “Grandmother, you don’t need to thank me.”
Her grip didn’t relax. “Thank you? Why should I? I want to tell you, you should know, you have been the ruin of this family.”
“Please, don’t,” I said, trying to extricate myself. “You’re not thinking clearly. You need to rest.”
“I said listen!” she hissed. Beads of thick saliva flecked my cheek. I didn’t dare to wipe them off.
“All right, grandmother. What have I done wrong?” The wind whipped the shutters against the wall, but neither of us moved.
“It doesn’t matter what you do. You shouldn’t even be here. I told that girl, it was no good marrying that stubborn fool.”
“What? You mean our mother and father?”
“She could have had any man in a hundred miles if she’d only waited. But instead she had to have a roll in the fields with that lout. Her apron was damn near tied around her knees by the time she decided she’d better get him to marry her. I knew it would end bad. I told her there were other ways. I told her how to brew a tea of lumene, to be rid of her mistake. I begged her, but she would have none of it. At least she had the sense to make him move to town, but that was no use in the end. She was no older than you are now, and such a tiny little thing, not a wide hipped brute like you. How could she bear two babes? The two of you tore her poor body to shreds.”
Tears streamed down my grandmother’s face. She quavered as though buffeted by the rising wind.
“She bled so much I thought her body must be drained dry. And that father of yours, he just stood there, just stood like a stone holding the two of you. I told him it wasn’t too late, that we had to take one of you to the forest, that the devaus might spare her if we only gave you up. ‘Let me take the girl one,’ I told him. I said, ‘Then you’ll still have a son, and your wife besides. Just give her to me, I’ll do it.’ But he wouldn’t say a word. I beat on him, tried to pry you from his arms, but he held you so tight that you squealed, and he wouldn’t let go, even though I clawed his arms until he bled. I ran to the forest and laid on the ground and cried out to the devaus, told them to take me instead. But they had no use for an old hag. I went back prepared to bury my girl. Instead, I had to watch her struggle for life for a year, while you two got fat and babbled and toddled around her bed with no idea what you’d done. Then, just when I thought she was going to be spared, I watched with my own eyes when that maniac ran her down.” The knuckles of her free hand dug into her eyes as if she wanted to tear them out.
“So why me?” I asked softly. “Why are you telling this to me, and not Pidr?”
“Can’t you see the difference between the two of you? When I see your brother, I see that daft cheekiness of your father’s, but your mother is in him too. He can go anywhere he wants and be loved, just like she could have. But you? You look more like the daughter of a horse. If I hadn’t watched you come from her body, I would have spat in the face of anyone who suggested the idea.”
“Then why care for me? You could have taken me to the forest after they were gone.”
“No. I couldn’t. I buried my girl, and her husband beside her. Their burdens are mine. Now–” She paused to lick her lips. “Now they are yours.”
Her eyelids fluttered closed, and her grip finally relaxed. My hand was white.
I rose and went to the window. I was not shocked by my grandmother’s anger. She had spoken little more harshly than ever. Still, something about her words lingered like the echo of a whisper. It was the first time my parents seemed real to me. Though I could not remember his face, when I closed my eyes, I kept seeing the bulk of my father clinging to the two of us with his carpenter’s arms, holding us fast against grandmother’s desperation, telling her “No” without a word.
I saw that the storm had already blown over, and the moon was rising. I closed the shutters and latched them, anyhow. When I turned, grandmother was lying quiet, and I thought she had gone to sleep, but as I approached to pull up her covers, I saw that her chest was still. I waited in the dark until Pidr came in carrying the familiar smell of ale and sawdust. As he dug the hole, I smoothed her face and tied a scarf over her matted hair. When I lifted her body in my arms, Pidr reached out to take her, but I shook my head. She weighed almost nothing, less even than a babe in arms.
As he walked ahead of me to open the door, I found myself looking at Pidr, in the light of the moon and the shadow of grandmother’s words. I had seen my own image only in the ripples of a pail of water, but I knew we looked alike: not tall, but big, with broad, dark hands and faces and thick earth-colored hair. But she was right. There was something about how his sideways smile snuck up his left cheek; the way the hair curled around his ears. There was a difference between us, as fleeting but vital as a spark that breathes fire into rough, stolid wood.
“Is something the matter?” he asked, noticing my gaze.
I shook my head.
“After you, sister,” he said gently. I walked ahead of him past the star-dappled garden, and we laid her down beside our parents’ graves.
The next time I went to that place, I was alone. It took me half the night to dig a grave for the limp shell of my brother, and the struggle to drag him there on a sheet seemed almost as long. As I took a last look at his dark face that no crooked smile would light again, it occurred to me that I finally understood what emotion had been expected of me when people spoke of our parents’ death. Pidr’s bucksaw, sharpened days earlier, rested against a stump in a corner of the yard. I spent several minutes seriously contemplating sawing my legs off and throwing them into the grave, partly, I suppose, in the same mad hope of grandmother’s that I could make a trade for his life, but also because it would simply have hurt less.
Instead, I laid the saw on his chest and folded his hands over it. I filled the grave without looking down, and tamped the dirt flat. Pidr had carved a wooden marker for our grandmother, and it still stood, worn gray by the seven years since her death. I had no skill to do the same for him. As dawn blushed over the rim of the valley, I walked to a pile of large stones that had amassed at the edge of the garden, and tested the heft of some of the larger ones. Once I had chosen some of the largest I could manage, I hauled them to the head of the fresh grave, the stamina of sleeplessness drowning out the protestations of my back. By the time the sounds of day began outside our hedgerow, the cairn stood waist high.