Leffah’s name was on everyone’s lips, whittled in black and purple like a bruise. None of us Shapesayers can speak it; hence she can’t be unmade. She glides into our clearing and only comes here for two reasons: to whittle words into our bodies and demand narratives from us.
Leaves rustle. Branches snap. The trees surrender to Leffah’s presence, slightly bending to her passing.
I mouth her name to the others. They whisper about the Whittler, tense sighs filling the air. In seconds, all laughter wanes and our ankle-wings cease their fluttering.
Leffah stops just before bumping into me. I don’t move aside. The other Shapesayers gather behind me in a tight group.
“Jasmya.” Leffah pats my nose with a pointy fingernail. She’s floating above the grass, toes pointed down as if standing on them. A swift, defiant dancer. She casts a look across the Shapesayers. “They flock around you, don’t they?”
I stay silent, breathing through my nose. And I don’t move, even though a turmoil churns in my belly.
Leffah is gorgeously beautiful like all Whittlers. Her burning bisque-brown pupils are carved above sylvan cheeks like ours. Her hair clouds behind her, a scrub of bougainvilleas, stems criss-crossing each other. The tiny geckos that inhabit Birthwood—animals we once narrated ourselves—encroach in the swirls of her flowers, brushing their scales on the thorns, but never risking Leffah’s forehead or neck. They know what awaits below…
“I require a narrative,” Leffah says. A sigh of relief runs through the Shapesayers behind me. She won’t whittle words into us to limit our vocabulary. Speaking is what makes us who we are and our voices make Birthwood what it is.
“Describe your narrative,” I say, as neutral as I can possibly be, which isn’t much.
Leffah fidgets with her hair. Someone moans behind me. She plucks out a gecko and rubs the back of a finger on its tiny head. It chirps, its eyes brown and slitted, at the Whittler. Even they must know what follows when Leffah is the one who leads Birthwood. She yanks out a bougainvillea from her hair and strangles the small lizard with its thorns. Blood runs through her fingers. More moans skitter among the Shapesayers behind me.
“What I want of your soothing prose today is a partner.” She discards the gecko by my feet. I don’t lower my head. “Like you make for yourselves. Make her slender. Give her red, mirrored eyes. Also, I don’t want her to shape with her voice. Make her destitute of words.”
The Shapesayers whisper with each other, and though I can’t distinguish their words, I know what they’re saying. It’s the first time someone has forced us to make a conscious creature. We make our lovers and our children, but never out of nowhere, never obliged. We only make consciousness out of love, out of a deep feeling that traverses our bodies and flutters our ankle-wings with an antique kind of anticipation.
I open my mouth but I have no courage to disagree.
Leffah floats away. The branches that hadn’t been broken before now yield.
We form a circle, standing underneath the shadows of the kapok trees. The beryl lights of our tresses and curls gleam in our eyes as we exchange looks, but the colors rapidly fade into the grey luminescence of doubt and fear. We have only silence to offer each other. The dead gecko at our feet is more than a lizard that annoyed the Whittler. We all know Leffah’s warnings. We all know what she’s capable of.
Treana, I mouth the name whittled on my wrist and rub a thumb over it. I trace the letters bulging out from the scar, as if I’m capable of erasing them, of pressing them down inside my skin to make it smooth and clean. It’s been years since Treana was unmade by my own narrative, her name expelled out of my voice soon after to prevent me from bringing her back. A burning shoots through my spine and my tresses go red. I imagine myself strangling the Whittler with her own thorny branches, shouting her name to the wind and narrating her evanescence. The anger rapidly dwindles to throbbing lips as I reveal Treana’s name from under my finger.
“We can’t do what Leffah wants,” Packa says, shaking her head. “We cannot make consciousness like we make a tree or a…” Her voice trails off. I read her lips. She means a ‘spear’, though we can’t speak of weapons anymore. Weapons’ names had been whittled on our backs, shoulder to shoulder like scabs from cut wings.
“We have to,” I say. “We’re hers.”
“We’re from Birthwood,” Packa says, glints underneath her eyes, her ankle-wings flapping and making her hover a few inches above me. “We’re daughters of creation.”
I raise my wrist and swivel it in front of Packa’s eyes.
“Do you remember when I tried to unmake the Whittler?” I flap up and level myself with Packa’s eyes. I pull her wrist and press a finger on it. “You have nothing here. She whittled—” Treana. My heart beats faster as if to untangle the word from my throat. “My lover’s name on my skin to make sure I’ll never narrate her back to life. Is that what you want for your lovers and children?”
I look down and around to all the Shapesayers gawking at our quarrel.
“We’re hers. Let’s make a partner for the Whittler.”
Our tresses illuminate the night.
Half the Shapesayers cry, half frown as we narrate the amorphous mass in the middle of the clearing. Not me. I squeal the words…
Pupils. Blood red gazes, deep, flared.
…shrill them out of me…
Vocal cords. Braided and tied with fleshy knots.
I alter what the others are saying, disturbing the narration, imbuing it with a bit of my derision. Some of the Shapesayers glare at me, but there’s no way I can shape a conscious being with something less than anger.
Legs, arms, face in our semblance, the Shapesayers say.
Thorns in her fingers, I say.
“What are you doing?” Packa floats to me, clenching her teeth. “You’re transforming her into a beast.”
“Doesn’t the Whittler like thorns?” I throw a sour grin, suddenly aware that tears course down my cheeks.
In the middle of our circle, the unison flutter of our ankle-wings is muffled by a gurgle. The smell of blood and flesh and wet soil rises from the increasing gob. Then, wafts of burning skin as the peeling around the bulk dissolves.
A puff of flames and ashes bursts and burns the grass all around Leffah’s newly born partner.
She’s alive. Narrated.
Some of the Shapesayers fall on their knees, exhausted. My legs tremble, but I don’t move. I wish Treana was there in the middle, reborn and remade, instead of that filthy monster spat out of our voices. I flit my gaze to my wrist. Treana, I mouth it. There’s always a moment when I think the words will come out and Leffah’s whittling will be undone. But it’s fleeting, like a dewdrop beading on a leaf.
Leffah’s partner arises with the features we narrated. She’s slender, taller than all of us. Her hair is deep black and falls onto her shoulders. Remainders of the soil glissade down from it. Red eyes peer at us as she swirls, confused, stretching her jaw and opening her mouth just to discover it makes no sound but a faint growl. She’s more feral than the Shapesayers had imagined thanks to my words of fury.
The creature raises a hand and runs it over her cheek. She slits it with the thorns that spiral through her fingers. She wails. The blood glistens with our tresses’ light and drips on the soil.
“Why, Jasmya?” Packa whispers at me.
“The Whittler is coming,” Andyra says. This time, the Shapesayers don’t move to gather around me. They’re afraid of the Whittler’s thoughts, but they don’t trust in what I did. Their eyes gleam with contempt, their hair shines in hues of orange. Fires.
The creature growls as Leffah approaches. The Whittler waves her arms to make us undo our circle. I’m at the other edge, so I don’t need to move. I wouldn’t anyway.
The Whittler stares fixedly at the creature’s eyes, who seems to fall under a mesmerizing spell because it silences her snarls and lowers its head. Its arms tilt like twigs about to break from a tree.
“I’ll call her Thistle,” Leffah says. “She’s beautiful.”
I look at my wrist.
You’re beautiful, Treana had said the first time we saw each other, the fog dispersing as it revealed my lover’s appearance in that same clearing, now with the grass burnt and bathed in disturbance. My heart beats with the same intensity as back then. But the reasons, the sparks, aren’t the same.
“You can see your lovers and children,” Leffah says, looking around to us. “You’ll have some days with them.”
The air becomes lighter with the Shapesayers’ sigh and their tresses glowing fades from red and grey to the saffron of relief. Not mine. I don’t move. I don’t breathe. The only part of my Treana I get to see is her name, whittled down on my wrist in black, stout letters.
Packa swirls in the air, embraced by both her lovers. Her three children leap around them, clapping their hands and pirouetting in the air. The clearing is bathed in the cerulean moonlight of the Shapesayers’ tresses. My own had shifted from the grey of doubt to that same hue of happiness when I first made love with Treana by the riverbank. Now, sitting on a stone and hidden by the edges of the clearing, I’m surrounded by a pooling grey again.
Leffah always allows the Shapesayers to see their relatives after a narration. It’s her way of showing how she’s benevolent, how she isn’t there to enslave us and control Birthwood. Our foremothers created the Whittlers aeons before we lost our freedom, but not with the purpose of domination. Creatures, flowers, woodwork, pottery, and all the things we provided for all the lands, now we bequeath only to Leffah. Since she sealed us in by forcing us to erect a wall around Birthwood, she’s our queen, our mistress, the shaper of our words. We can’t even narrate weapons to fight her. Even if we could, her tight grasp on us comes not only from whittling forbiddance into our bodies, but also of how we learned to fear her.
Andyra lights a stick and wags it around the place where Thistle was narrated. She does that to dispel the sharp tang and renew the grass with raw fire, unemotional, unattached to a creature bred out of anguish.
My eyes blur as I stare at the crackling flames, filtering out the Shapesayers’ voices and chants. Their dances and flutterings are awash in the certainty that a few days from now their families will be sent back to the old, crumbling villages beyond Birthwood’s walls.
I inhale all the air I can. Treana… I open my mouth and try to speak her name.
Only a wail comes out, my lips trembling.
Packa floats by, alone, and sits beside me. She knows I’m not comfortable with their families. I never intended to be the only one watching by the edges of the clearing.
“Why don’t you float to the river?” she says. “There is silence and peace for you there.”
“I prefer to watch you happy, to never forget how happy I once was.” I shrug. “The river is where we first made love. She and I.”
Packa puts a hand on my arm and looks at me. Her tresses darken from clear blue to cobalt. Andyra’s fire now burns high in the center of the clearing. Its lights gleam on Packa’s lips and the word there. Leffah. A pitch bruise contoured by purple, similar in the lips of all of us plus our partners and children. I breathe hard and loud. My ankle-wings flutter against the stone, scratching them.
“Let me fly,” I say among my teeth. My chest heaves. “Let me strangle the Whittler with her own thorns.”
Packa puts a hand over mine and hides Leffah’s name with her upper lip.
“What?” I glare at her, seizing her overly calm gaze into mine.
“Jasmya, I can still speak your name. If you surrender to anger, I may never speak it again.”
The children yell for Packa. Oblana and Sharda, her lovers, beckon her to come back to the clearing.
“Go.” I point at her family. “Time is always short. You gain nothing staying here with—”
“I want to stay with you right now.”
I try to force a smile. It hardly comes out.
“The girls are happy now,” Packa says. “But they’re upset with you. What you’ve done. We were supposed to narrate Thistle with contempt, perhaps even some kind of indifference. It was what we were feeling, what we feel most of the time since the Whittler took Birthwood. They wanted me to talk to you. About anger, about—”
“Yes.” I pinch my lips and stand, fluttering above Packa. “Indifference and contempt might be what you all feel. I’m anger, pain, damage. I’m what everyone becomes when you move aside and let others take part of you away. I’m the ending no one wants.”
“Your family,” I say between gritted teeth. “They’re waiting.”
I skim out to the river.
Bougainvillea grow around the wrecked stone huts by the riverside. The plants weren’t there when Treana and I made love for the first time. Abominations that came with the Whittler, wriggling up the old ruins of our foremothers, painting the past with thorny fuchsia.
I yank one of them out and squeeze the petals around my fingers. My tresses make them look like tiny sparking flames.
Hammer strums echo across the wood. I look to the trees. The sounds come from the waterfall where I swirled up and down with Treana, arguing and laughing about which one of us would come up with better words to narrate a child. Provocations by then, but ones we thought would bear fruits in our future.
We knew nothing.
The hammer strikes. Again and again, equally spaced, equally hard.
I flutter along the river until I reach the point where the waterfall splashes against rocks and disappears into the valley below. Its constant blast is loud, but no louder than the hammer . Thistle’s back is bent, and she raises the hammer far above her head before bringing it down with muscles and veins swelling out on her arm. The hammer thumps a stone slab. Around her, pebbles from her work merge with the thorns that have broken around her fingers. A tower for Leffah.
Leffah stares down at her lover—her slave— floating above three levels of circular stones already put in place.
I force the red of my tresses to fade to a dark green, which puts me in the shadows around the Whittler-shrunken trees. Leffah crosses her legs and sits in midair, her brows furrowing at Thistle. It’s the first time I see her this way. Impotent, eyes squinted and tired, shining with impatience. Her hands are on her chin. A tiny gecko puts a paw onto her forehead, but she doesn’t bother to pull it out.
“Not the goddess you want us to believe you are,” I whisper. Just a weak, powerless W hittler. Nothing more than the good-doing faeries of our foremothers lore, narrated with the purpose of whittling words of pain, violence, and death into the bodies of the first beings, to prevent them from drenching the newly born world into wickedness.
Leffah draws a deep breath and mutters a song.
“Leffah, Leffah, Leffah. Flaked bark, hollow heartwood.”
Dissolving sunny eyes and languishing flowers.
The Whittler’s bisque-brown eyes open and glare at us from the lake where she sleeps.
Treana and I clamp our mouths and cease the words we were singing to unmake the Whittler. We flee up Birthwood’s treetops, trying to resume the chanting but tangling our words. We aim for the bougainvillea-woven walls that surround the forest and the mountains beyond it. Our only hope now. The Whittler is faster, though, so she catches me by the elbow. She says something up there, unclouded skies above us, seas of green below us. Something about obedience, about permanence and pain.
I shudder. I know what she’ll ask of me.
And I do.
I’m afraid, desperate. All I want is to beg for the Whittler’s pardon. But I’m also speechless. A lump in my throat prevents me from speaking. With thorn rings wrapped around Treana’s wrists, Leffah pulls her down to the forest. I fling myself forward to catch my Treana back, but the Whittler throws her right in the middle of the Shapesayers’ clearing, where our foremothers said all things are born in words.
“Narrate her out”, the Whittler proclaims. “Or I’ll whittle all your Shapesayer bodies with every word of love and affection and nurture, and you will be only tools for my endeavors.”
I beg and swear silent servitude. I plead on my knees, blurring Treana among tears.
The Whittler doesn’t change her mind.
When I recite a poem of love and loss, evanescence and unmaking—Treana, Treana, Treana— all I see is Treana’s eyes glinting the red of my tresses. Vapor and air your skin shall become. Immobile. Not moving a muscle is protecting me. Void you are, my love. Her silence keeps me safe. She knows I’d never have proceeded if she’d beseeched or cried or even bowed her head.
She becomes a silent outline, a wordless nothing, dead where all things are born.
“Why do you sing these words?” I say, coming out of the shadows, my tresses pooling an almost indistinct grey around me.
Leffah stands upright, legs and arms unbent. Taut lines form around her cheeks. It’s not the first time I have surprised her. My ankle-wings flutter in anticipation of an attack.
Leffah doesn’t move.
Thistle stops her hammering and looks at me, head down, mouth gaping. Leffah gestures for her to continue, and she obeys.
“I sing them because I can’t forget what almost turned me into emptiness.”
“I also won’t forget what turned my life into emptiness.” I close my hands into fists.
“You are always angry, Jasmya.” Leffah flutters down from the base of the tower, plucking out a bougainvillea from her hair. Thistle flinches and shifts her position. Leffah points the stem at her. “When I was a young W hittler, in the times when your foremothers moved through this world, I whittled words of anger on the body of an overlord. I thought it would bridle him just by making him unable to utter the words that drove his actions. It didn’t. He killed his neighbors, his soldiers, sisters of mine…”
“And that’s why you came here? To rein us?” We’re eye to eye. I grasp my wrist and pass two fingers over Treana’s name. Useless. I won’t calm down.
“I came here to control what you give to the world. Your foremothers narrated men one day, and they gathered in clans, and these clans invented war and pain.”
“We don’t narrate evil, but sometimes things run out of control. Like you.”
Leffah approaches me, the red of my tresses reflecting off the gilt of her eyes. A gecko wriggles in her hair. A strip of its blood runs down Leffah’s forehead and beads on the tip of her nose.
“This world is out of control. Not me. That’s why Thistle is building this tower. It will be high. I want to observe the world around me. I want to go beyond my walls someday and educate everyone as I’m educating you.”
Thistle drops her hammer. She coughs, putting a hand onto her chest.
“Build!” Leffah screams, jabbing Thistle with the stem of bougainvillea in her hand.
I don’t move.
“Why are you even here, Jasmya? Your partner is not even a whisper on your lips.” Leffah laughs. “You’ll get nothing from me.”
My tresses go crimson.
Leffah jabs Thistle again, kneeling, pressing Thistle’s throat with both hands. Thistle’s teeth grit, tears brimming in her eyes.
“What’s happening?” Leffah floats back.
Thistle roars, coughing, twitching her arms. Her throat and cheeks swell out. She spits something into the grass, at Leffah’s feet. A wad of gnarled red meat, pulsing and bubbling with blood and saliva.
Braided and tied with fleshy knots.
I widen my eyes and flutter back.
“Let … me … go…” Thistle rasps , then bellows a roar. Blood and meat sprinkle out of her mouth, running down her chin and chest.
Leffah grimaces and yanks bougainvillea from her head. She hurtles toward Thistle and stuffs the flowers into her mouth. Geckos skitter out of the Whittler’s head and leave a shroud of blood across her arms and neck.
When Thistle squirms, Leffah knocks her down and presses her throat with a choker of thorns. Pulling it. Harder. Tearing her own hands.
I don’t move.
I can’t. My bones shackle and my ankle-wings’ flutter wanes out. My feet touch the soil, warm clump s of Thistle’s flesh wedging between my toes. I’d put it there in her throat when I narrated her. Not the Shapesayers’ conjoined narration, not Packa, not Andyra.
Anger makes all things fragile, bound to break.
Thistle writhes on the soil, squawking, snatching the thorns from her mouth.
Leffah swivels and floats at me.
Even before the first tree of Birthwood had sprouted, our foremothers said that we are sentences shrilled out from nothing; hence our bodies encompass the universe of all known words. Leffah knows it as she wrenches bougainvillea from her hair and whittles me. I linger on the soil, paralyzed, staring up at the sky, my tresses the only light on the Whittler’s cheekbones. Purple, though never clear and never dark. She etches my forehead, sculpts into my cheeks. River. Love. Me. You. Night drips into a petrichor day. Leffah spends thorns around my neck, dawdling, precise. Damage. Pain. Anger. The stem severs. She plucks out another bougainvillea. Descends into my breasts, belly, legs, wasting entire narratives there. Family. Birthwood. When night plods into another day, Leffah floats away.
Rain trickles down on the words on my back, pooling in the black scars. I’m with my face to the floor, surrounded by the split-thorn, withered bougainvillea that swim on the puddles. Adrift petals stick onto my cheeks.
I’m completely whittled. Bare of words. But I finally move. I writhe. Thistle gapes at me. I stretch a hand and touch her lips. Then I touch mine, hoping the deep crimson of my tresses is enough for her to see. In her anger, Leffah remembered to punish me, but not to whittle her own name on Thistle’s body.
I crawl closer and pull down my lower lip so Thistle can read the word in there.
“Leffah…” Thistle mumbles.
I fiddle quivering fingers down my whittled belly and find the tiny word there. I know where each of them are. Hollow. I turn my body so she can read it.
“Hollow,” Thistle groans and widens her eyes. “Flaked bark, hollow heartwood.” From this close, her voice is like a pounding hammer.
Leffah flies before us. Swirls of bougainvillea stems cascade down from her head and curl around her arms and legs. Tresses of thorns. Having lost control over me and seeing Thistle out of her grasp, Leffah has no fight remaining in her. She widens her eyes.
I kneel. My body is stifled, as if I’m not in control.
Thistle stands right next to me. I grasp her hand. I was the main voice narrating her after all; I imbued her with all that makes her who she is. We’re one.
“Leffah, Leffah, Leffah,” Thistle grunts, dissonant, muffling even the sounds of the waterfall. “Flaked bark, hollow heartwood.”
Leffah grits her teeth but, when she moves, Thistle steps forward and stands right in front of Leffah, sneering down.
“Leffah, Leffah, Leffah. Dissolving sunny eyes and languishing flowers.”
“Void you are, Leffah.”
The Whittler becomes a contour. Her yellow eyes hollow out as she screams.
I grasp Thistle’s hand. The Shapesayers flock around us, gaping, tresses of ashen doubt.
The Whittler’s despair fades out into a low whistling that mixes with the waterfall gurgles. It lingers, becoming part of it.
A dead gecko falls by my feet.
“Void you are, Whittler,” I mouth.
Renan Bernardo is a SFF writer from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His fiction appeared or is forthcoming in Apex Magazine, Dark Matter Magazine, Simultaneous Times, Imagine 2200 and others. He’s also published in Portuguese, Italian, and soon in Chinese. He can be found at Twitter (@RenanBernardo) and his website: www.renanbernardo.com.
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