Holy tits, Brisdor, you are heavier than I could ever have imagined. I always thought of you as my scrawny little sister, but damn. My shoulders are aching.
It’s easier now we’re done skidding about on that glacier, but we’ve been trudging up this slope forever and the summit just doesn’t seem to get any gritting closer. Maybe if I looked over my shoulder, I’d be able to see how far we’ve come, but I just don’t want to get into it with Ma.
I wish you’d told her, you know. Told her you didn’t believe in any of this stuff anymore, didn’t care about the ancient trollish rites. Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference. I mean, let’s face it, this is for her. She would have insisted on bringing you here either way, I guess. I didn’t have the heart to say no. So here I am, carrying your stony arse up the side of a mountain, with Ma sniffling behind me.
It is pretty, though, I’ll give you that. Clear night, crispy air, butter-fat moon. The northern lights aren’t too showy, just a violet twinkle rather than the full fireworks. And the rock! The rock is gorgeous; the higher up we go, the more I feel it humming under my feet. You can see the patterns, the swirls and eddies, all black and shining. It makes me think of a tree—the rough stuff on the outside of the tree. What’s it called? You’d know.
Ma never understood why you liked that twitchy green business, and all those little hairy creatures scurrying around. But I get it. You always were a weirdo, for starters. But I remember what you said about watching them change, so fast it’s almost invisible. How you’d blink and all the trees changed colour, and there’d be two more generations of bears scratching their bums on the bark. Bark! That’s it.
I’m still angry though, Brisdor. What in broth’s name were you thinking? How could you get caught out like that? If I’d known that’s what you were doing, I would have stopped you. Sneaking out to see the sunrise, spying on the dayworld. When I woke up that evening, and I saw you at the mouth of the cave, and I called out and you didn’t answer, didn’t move at all. You know the first thing I felt? Pure rage.
How could you be so selfish? You weren’t just your own, you know. You were Ma’s. You were mine.
“Hodral—look,” Ma hisses from behind me. I slow my furious trudging to a stop and follow her outstretched hand.
Firetits. That’s the last thing we need: a camp of the bald, two-legged creatures. I can’t see them from here, but I recognise those portable stars they always carry around, and I can see a row of their little domes. They’ve planted them right on top of the Way. Even for an unbeliever like me, that seems pretty gritting disrespectful.
“We’ll have to go around.”
Ma looks shocked. “But that’s the Way! We can’t … Do we have enough time?”
She’s got a point there. I shift your considerable weight and look up to the summit, checking the patterns of the sky.
“We can do it, but we need to go faster. Do you think you can?”
She looks at me, fretful, then back at the camp. “Maybe we could sneak past?”
I gather my last grains of patience. “Ma. Us creeping past would be like a ground shake for them.” She looks crestfallen. “And you know how hard it is to get rid of them once they’re on you. I am not in the mood to be hunted. Not tonight.”
She nods, and we change track, climbing faster now. It’s a longer route, and the ground is less steady, but at last I feel like we’re getting somewhere. There’s sulphurous vapour in the air now, sweet and delicious, and the rock is warm and alive, rumbling its welcome below.
Finally, finally we make it to the edge of the Bowl. I look down into it and gasp like a fool. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. The crater is ashy grey and full of clouds which unfurl slowly and spiral up to the stars. And beneath: the Mother Broth, lit with earthlight, glowing scarlet.
I wish you could see it.
Ma is looking at me, eyes shining with triumph.
“Don’t. Not a word.”
“I wasn’t going to say anything!”
“Oh, you were saying plenty.” I start testing the ground inside the Bowl and find a fair footing. “Let’s get this lump down there, then.”
“Hodral! Don’t talk about her like that!”
I ignore her and pick a way through the slippery shale.
We make slow, scrambling progress down into the warmth of the Bowl, in silence. I’m mesmerised by the Mother Broth, the way it roils and swirls, waves cresting in fire-bright blossoms before sinking back, endlessly shaping and reshaping itself. I can’t help but feel a touch of wonder, in spite of myself, to think that this is where we were formed, Ma and you and I. The earthlight in us all.
I think of you, and what we’re about to do, and I feel a sob catch in my throat. I’m not ready to let you go.
But the next thing that happens is I hear Ma cry out and she’s sliding past me in a flurry of tiny rocks. I grab hold of her and overbalance so now we’re all three of us skidding and slipping down to a lip of rock jutting out below. Ma is screaming and I’m using my free arm to grab at nothing, tearing handfuls of black rock from the wall rushing past me. Then I feel a moment of awful weightlessness as both Ma and I plunge over the edge, followed by a wrench as I manage to grab a fistful of rock and hold us there. My arm, my shoulder, my whole side is blazing with pain as we dangle there, broth bubbling beneath us. Gritting titfires.
Ma is crying, hysterical. I experiment with heaving us up but it’s too much.
“Ma,” I say, “Ma!”
She looks up at me, suddenly calm.
“Let me go,” she says, quietly.
It goes through me like an earthshake.
“What? No. No!”
“Please, Hodral, I’m old. It’s all right.” She smiles at me and it’s the most ghoulish thing I’ve ever seen.
“No, Ma. We have to … we have to let her fall, Ma. Use your dagger to cut the straps.”
She looks at me in horror, haloed by the broth’s orange glow.
The conversation doesn’t go any further though, as the entire shelf gives way, and we are all three tumbling down in a thunderous cloud of rock, ash, fire, and fear.
Ma’s anxious face comes swimming into my vision and there’s a beat before I notice that everything hurts.
“Ow,” I croak and she throws her arms around me. “I’m ok, Ma.”
She kisses my forehead and releases me. Slowly, I sit up, and see you there at the edge of the seething red pool; a perfect statue, with that lightly surprised expression on your face as if you’d been caught in the rain rather than poisoned by the sun. After everything, I’m relieved that you’ve made it here in one piece.
I’m also relieved not to be lugging you up a mountain anymore. When I stand up and stretch, it feels glorious, despite the grazes and bruises from the rockfall. I find a comfortable seat of basalt and lean back against the smooth, warm rock.
“All right, Ma, take it away. Then let’s get out of here before anything else goes wrong.” I squint at the stars through the steam clouds and notice how far they’ve spun around us. Tits. “Or before we end up the same.”
Ma’s lip is trembling. “You’ve carried her all the way here and you won’t join the ceremony?”
“I told you, it’s just not for me. You go ahead, though.”
“What?! No, I’m not. What would I be scared of? That the Great Mother’s going to sup me up with her spoon? I stopped believing those old stories when I was a trollet, Ma.”
She draws herself up to her full height and I do feel like I’m just two thousand years old again even though I’m a full head taller than her these days.
“You’re scared to feel what you need to feel.”
I scoff, but I can feel my cheeks burning.
“That’s why you’ve been cracking jokes the whole time. I know you, Hodral. I know you’re angry. But you need to feel the rest too. That’s what the ceremony’s for; to pull out the rest. Please.”
“I…” Oh broth, now my voice is cracking. I cough. “I will, Ma. I will, I promise. But I need to do it my own way. This is your way.”
She looks sad, but nods and turns to you. I watch as she cups your frozen face in her hands and whispers, “I love you,” before kissing your cold, glittering forehead.
“Wait.” I stand and walk over to you both. “I won’t say the words, though.”
Ma smiles, and we place our hands on your shoulders.
“Great Mother Broth, we bring your daughter Brisdor home to you. She carried your light inside her, and shared it with all around. She was a dreamer, an independent spirit.” Ma shoots me A Look and I can’t help but grin. “Her curiosity about the world and all its creatures has brought her back to join you in the earthlight. And though we will always…” Her voice quakes and tears spill from her eyes. “We will always remember her, the form of Brisdor will be washed away and she will once more mingle with all of our mothers, all of our sisters, all of our daughters. One broth, in the earthlight.”
We lower you down to the ground, then slide you into the burning pool of liquid fire. Ma cries into my chest as I watch you disappear.
We stay like that for a little while, watching the red ripples together. Despite what Ma says, I don’t feel much of anything.
“It feels like yesterday I was stood here, shaping you from the broth as it cooled. My little trollet,” Ma says, and pats my bicep. “And now look at you!”
“It’s not too late you know. If you wanted to shape a trollet of your own…”
Life goes on, I guess.
There’s a flash at the rim of the Bowl and I look up to see a row of the two-legged creatures peering down at us. Broth knows how long they’ve been there. I suppose the rockfall brought them, or Ma’s screams. They probably saw the whole gritting thing.
What now? I don’t want to hurt them, because … because you wouldn’t want me to. And besides, what we need to do right now is to get underground. The sky’s edges are already starting to bleach as the sun sucks all the colour out of the night.
I look around the Bowl. “Ma, where’s the sheltering cave?”
“Over … oh.” She’s pointing at the fresh mound of black rock and pumice that we brought down with us when we fell. I put my face in my hands and laugh. Of course; why not?
I start digging. You always said my hands were like shovels, but not enough, it seems. For every fistful of shale and ash and rubble I manage to scoop out, another slides into its place in a cloud of dust which makes me hack and cough. All the while the dark is growing thinner. I growl and dig even harder, my arms racing against the slithering mass, but it makes no difference. I feel a chill draught of despair trouble my heart’s fire. Maybe we will be with you again today after all, sister.
Under the noise of the rock which rushes past me like a river, I hear Ma’s voice: “Hodral!”
I slow my digging and turn around. She’s looking up to the rim of the Bowl, to the row of two-legged creatures who are standing and pointing, all of them. Waving, and pointing their tiny twig-like arms towards their camp. What the tits?
“I think they’re trying to help us,” Ma says, her wrinkled face full of hope. Then she lifts her arm and waves back. This leads to a fresh frenzy of waving and pointing, and even some squeaks. She turns to me and takes my hand. “Let’s go.”
“It might be a trap.”
“Yes. But it might not be.”
My arms are aching. My shoulders, my back, my legs, everything hurts. I’m covered in black dust and I’m so, so tired. I nod, and Ma leads me along the Way out of the Bowl, a much easier path than the one we took into it. As we reach the crest, I see just how much of the night has already been eaten by the day, and I feel afraid.
We hurry down the path towards the camp and see the cluster of coloured domes bright as flowers against the grey rock: red, blue, purple. The little two-leggers are scurrying about in between them, picking things up and loading them onto a sort of metal wagon. As we approach, they pile into it and with a kind of grunting noise it trundles down the track, stopping a short way off.
We’re standing in among the domes now and I see they’re made of some kind of silk stretched taut over a frame. Well, what now? The sky is almost light. Ma and I look at each other, and then we look over at the little creatures and they get out and start jumping about again, waving their arms around and pointing at the domes.
“Inside!” She says suddenly. “They want us to go inside the little hills.”
“What?! We won’t fit!”
“We will if we curl up small like trollets.” She grabs my hand. “What choice do we have, Hodral?”
We start looking for how to get into the things, and I discover they are flimsy as grit. I flatten one before Ma finds the trick: a minute silver chain that opens them up. She has to open one for me, my hands are too big and too clumsy to do it, and I clamber inside, curling up in a ball.
“See you tonight,” she says and smiles as she seals up the dome again, and I hear her rustling into the dome next to me and sealing it up, thank broth, because the sun will rise at any moment. Whether this is a trap or not, there’s nothing to be done about it now. Relief melts through me, swiftly followed by complete exhaustion.
The dome smells of the creatures. It’s not nasty; just strange. And for now I’m comfy enough hugging my knees, though after a full day’s light I doubt that will be the case. Will we ever be able to straighten up? We’ll have to roll back down the mountain.
You’d love this. Getting so close to them.
But you’re gone.
I can’t stop seeing your face, dissolving. Surrounded by blossoms of orange fire.
You’re gone, and I don’t want you to be gone. I love you, but you’re not here to love. How does that make any sense?
I’m not angry now, I just … Oh, broth, Brisdor.
It hits me in the chest, knocks me back like a wave. I’m sobbing and I must be making a racket because I hear Ma saying faintly, “That’s right, darling, let it out, let it go.”
The sun comes up and the dome is full of light. The silk shimmers in pinks and purples, like the north lights but sharper, glittering like crystal all around me. It’s beautiful. Is this why they made them? Is this a holy place for them, too?
I guess I can understand why you wanted to see the sun so badly.
Doesn’t mean I won’t miss you like tits, though, you little weirdo.
Sarah Jackson writes gently unsettling stories. Her short fiction has been published by Wyldblood Magazine, Ghost Orchid Press, and Tales From Between. She lives in east London UK and has a green tricycle called Ivy. Her website is sarah-i-jackson.ghost.io and you can find her on Mastodon at @email@example.com