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18

↤ HUSK ↦

II

(that is, the hollowing out of a body entire)


The sweat ran as rain from Eles’s face, eyes red and tired, exhausted breaths fuming into the air, condensing into gossamer clouds. She struggled and strained, bearing down as the midwife called for yet more pushing.


She was told to breathe.


In-out, In-out.


No, she had to slow down, she said.


In-in.


Out-out.


And push!


Fiery specters haunted the center of her body, voiding out joy and thought. Her breathing, the pushing, was all she could do to stay present. If she didn’t focus, she felt her mind would be wiped away as dust on old furniture.


In-out.


In-out.


And push!


All of life chasmed into that moment, a burgeoning shadow wrestling with her consciousness, careening into some black abyss whose walls were made of her tearing and ache. She envisioned a great wave rushing through her body, forcing itself out between her legs, trapped by the restrictions of anatomy. Yet it pressed on, gripping for purchase to escape into the light again. It was an ocean trying to claw its way from her, and she was doing everything to let it.


IN


OUT


IN


OUT


PUSH!


A cry, singular and spectacular. She almost didn’t realize the pain was gone, so divorced from it had her mind become, until the cry of her newborn baby came to her ears. She opened her eyes to the sticky, huddled mess held by the midwife, burbling and cawing with endless reservoirs of need.


The midwife grabbed one of the cloths from the warm water and wiped away the refuse. The warmth soothed the baby, but it needed more. She was given to Eles, and quickly began nursing from her mother’s breast. It was all done without word, spoken without tongue. She knew what was needed and did it.


“What’s the name, then?” asked the old woman.


“Jel,” she replied softly, named for her mother.


“Fine enough,” the midwife said. She stood and unfurled the bundled cuffs of her britches, turning to the man and his wife for compensation.


“Are you certain everything is as it should be?” the man asked as he fumbled for coin.


“Mother and child breathing and so on. What more did you want?” she responded tersely. With that, she was paid and departed.


The child was alive, healthy even. But mother Eles was not spared, as the tearing during delivery had damaged her in ways that she didn’t know then, but would soon. It was not long after that she was struck ill, feverish and tormented by pains whenever she tried to relieve herself. Peeing was painful, but defecation was an enormity. The first time she tried to use the outhouse after the birth, she fainted from the strain of trying to pass it.


She lived, things worked themselves out — as they do if the mother survives yet suffers on — but Eles was now hobbled by her bladder and bowels. Incontinence was a daily problem, and the pains of passing stool meant she could only eat the blandest and most unappetizing of foods. The old man and his wife had to take much of the responsibility of raising Jel, as Eles was unable to walk for long periods of time or be away from somewhere to release her bowels at a moment’s notice.


She began sewing, repairing clothes and knitting new outfits. It was the only work she could stand to do, and eventually came into a rhythm of it. Jel grew up in this awkward household of her mother and surrogate grandparents, raised in resentment.


It’s quite a bit of awfulness to associate chronic pain with your child. It wasn’t Jel’s fault, of course, and Eles knew that. But it was every day that she had to worry about wetting herself or the agony of passing stool or some other vexation, and no amount of thoughtful consideration would erase the misery that giving birth had inflicted upon her.


And so despite herself, Eles became cold and cruel. Too sickly to physically impose her dissatisfaction with life, she turned her words to lances and stabbed at the hearts of all around her, especially her daughter.


At some point, the old man died and his wife became very sick thereafter. They’d been together too long to be separated now, and her body refused to live its life without him beside it. From the time the frost came to when it retreated, the couple were dead and buried, leaving Eles and Jel to whatever fate would have it.


Jel was old enough then that she could work, and work she did. She helped her mother with stitching clothes and fashioning new outfits, but the need for freshly woven wear outshone their ability to produce them. There were loyal customers, but no new patrons forthcoming. So they labored at the fringes of existence for many years.


When she was sixteen summers, Jel began working the mill, dutifully grinding and sorting the wheat dust to bag and sell. It was toilsome and endless and she hated every moment in that hot, sweaty mess of a place. But she had nowhere to go, and no alternatives to make her way in the world. Her life felt as stifled and suffocated as the processing room of the mill, only to go home and be smothered with her mother’s woes of the past.


Wake, bathe, grind, hurt, home, cook, bed. Rise and do again.


Scarcely a day would go by without some mention of the sacking, the soldier, the market, the blood, or her birth. It would rarely be direct when it came from Eles, instead tucked in her words like pitfall traps.


“Mother,” Jel would say, “this work is so hard. My fingers are blistered and my feet are sore.” Her mother would huff and turn a cynical eye towards her.


“I didn’t ask for you, Jel,” or something like that. “I could have stopped it from happening, but I carried you full and forth. You know how much I’ve suffered just to keep you alive.”


“I know, Momma,” Jel would reply.


And then there would be, “I was never ungrateful for the things I had, not like you. I survived and made a home for us. You should be thankful instead of complaining — all the time complaining.”


So it went. This was their pattern, their loop. Her frail mother, seemingly kept alive by spite, would putter about their ramshackle home during the day, wincing from the pain that never quire went away, until her daughter came home from working to cook and be chastised for merely existing.


The bitterness of generations had implanted itself into Jel, sanding her down to a shadow of herself. She was as thistle to a tree, existing as subsistence, but aching with all the pains of an older, angrier person.


Except for that day, the day which tore open her life.


She’d been tasked with delivering the flour sacs alongside one of the older women that worked the mill. It was a welcome change, if similarly uninspiring. She was happy to be out of the hot room processing the grist and instead seeing daylight as she hoisted the heavy sacs on her shoulders for the mill’s clientele. Bakers and marketpeople and all sorts needed their flour, and she enjoyed the piecemeal conversations she had with them. At least it wasn’t grumbling in a humid room while running grinders over dried husks.


As she hopped off the cart that spring morning, she spied a pamphlet in the mud. Jel, like all citizens of Ingyen, was given rudimentary schooling — the Ihaal found it better to have a literate population, so much simpler to indoctrinate to the new normal. Print on paper was a rare thing indeed, saved only for the books the wealthy read and pronouncements from the Ihaal leadership.


Yet stained by wet earth, the gray page made itself known to her. She lifted it from the mess and examined its words.


Crust of earth tremble

In sullen mind mend

Beat back wisp of sorrow

Regarded whim of men


She was perplexed by it. The words were mostly familiar, but strangely placed. Altogether like this, in this way, was some new thing to her.


Just as quickly as it was read, the page was snatched from her by hands much older. Bony, dotted with age spots, they belonged to a woman who had been through much. A shawl overhung her face, shadowing it from the harsh daylight. Even in the shade of her clothes, Jel could see the woman was hunched, withered, with dark creases lining her face — yet somehow she seemed powerful, otherworldly.


“Not for your eyes,” she snapped at Jel, and turned to move off. Jel had but a moment to run ahead of her.


“Those words, what are they?” she asked.


“Did you not hear me speak, girl?” croned the woman, her accent was glottal, dense. “Go back to your frivolities.”


“No, tell me what these words mean. I must know!” she nearly shouted, drawing eyes to them.


“Quiet, damn you!” the old woman hissed. Jel realized that not only were the words special and secret, but maybe they were unlawful as well? She huddled next to the woman.


“You tell me what this means,” Jel hushed up to her, “or I’ll scream it out for everyone to hear.”


The old woman’s scowl could have melted glass. With a seething rage kept at bay only through decades of practice, she motioned for Jel to follow her. And follow she did, into an alley tucked between two hovels, shaded from the pernicious sun.


In that place, the morning crowds were a distant grumble. The maid who drove the cart hadn’t seen her slip away, and was then furious at not having hands to help her, but Jel was unconcerned with anything else but that note.


“What is it?” she asked. “Is it some form of sorcery?”


“Pfft, you silly cow,” the old woman muddled. “If you have no eyes for this, then why not let me be on my way?”


“No,” Jel was firm, “I’ve never seen words like that. If I don’t know what they mean, they’ll haunt me.” The old woman cocked an eyebrow.


“You feel power in this?”


“Immense!” she nearly cried.


“Hush, stupid girl,” the lady bade. Jel didn’t argue, she didn’t want trouble to rouse them from this. It was like they were tucked in their own little corner of the world, sharing secrets. It was like nothing she’d ever felt.


The old woman regarded her with skeptical eyes. Jel could almost feel her gaze trace lines over her body, a specimen for a jar.


“Who are you, girl?”


“I’m… I’m Jel. I’m a millmaid, that’s all,” was what she summoned.


“No, I see what you are,” the aged figured cawed as she began to circle Jel. “You are a misery child.”


“A what?”


“A burden,” she continued as she hobbled around back of Jel. “You came into this world unwanted and are still there. Still unwanted.”


“That’s not—”


“Ha! Even as you begin to say it, I can see the lie,” she nearly cackled, the beads on the edges of her faded blue robe clicking together as she tussled about the young woman. “Everyone tells themselves lies — ‘I’m not so fat,’ ‘everything’s going to be okay,’ ‘he still loves me’ — and other such nonsense.”


She straightened up to stare in Jel’s eyes — green and cloudy from age, clashing like ancient shores.


“But the lies we tell ourselves are the easiest to see, and yours are bright as the morning sun.”


“What lie? What do you mean?” Jel snapped, though her bite was diminishing with every pass of the old woman’s glare.


“The lie of being loved in this world,” she said sourly. The words felt as acrid as wood ash, sluicing through the cracks of her to the runnels deep down inside.


“I don’t… My mother—” she tried to retort, but the straight spine she’d possessed moments before had wilted.


“She despises you,” the crone struck. “Every day she tells you the same. Different words, but the melody is one note.”


Jel felt a grip of ice in her chest, the last ember of hope she had for her mother’s affection crushed below a thunderous hail. It was really a lie she was telling herself, wasn’t it? That if she would just work hard enough, be good enough, do enough for her —


“— then she would love me,” Jel spoke to the air. The old woman barked a laugh, pressing her back up against the uneven sandstone wall.


“Now you see,” she said, the words floating like burning paper.


Jel was destroyed, but what the old woman didn’t expect was the anger that followed so swiftly. The curdling rage had been building for years, suppressed by the heavy blanket of guilt and regret. But now it was all gone, torn away and thrown into the sky, a cinder exploding to flame.


“You take this from me and give me nothing?!” she shouted, teeth clenched and eyes alight. The old woman’s shocked face quickly turned to a sly smile.


“I show you something.”


She reached inside her robes and removed a phial no larger than a forefinger and held it up. Inside a purplish liquid sparkled as she waggled it.


“And what am I do to with this?” Jel asked.


“Drink it.”


Jel scoffed. “Why? So you can poison me?”


“Why would I poison you?” The old woman shrugged. “You want to know what this little note means, you need the key to unlock it. This is the key.” Jel’s eyes narrowed at the miniscule bit of fluid, taunting her.


To ask her after, she couldn’t say why she swallowed it. There was only everything to lose, and her being poisoned and robbed in a backalley was far more likely than finding some new sense of purpose. But the desperate will cling to anything that floats, or seems to anyway.


She swallowed it in one gulp, holding back a retch as the vile taste filled the back of her throat. While not knowing why, she would describe the taste as “corpse water,” viscous and unpleasant in all the worst ways. For all its visual shimmer, it landed hard inside.


The woman grinned and handed her the paper.


“Read them,” the woman said.


Jel looked at the four lines of text, but they refused to cooperate. The words began to judder and pattern in crossings and uncrossings — ink slithered to silvery tendrils that dripped up and down and every which way. The paper was painting and window at once.


Jel felt confused, but calm. Around her the alley seemed to stretch to some absurd length away, yet slowly, and beneath her the stone tiles vibrated with unbidden energy. She could see the space between the cracks, then the space between those cracks, then the holes in the all way down. The world wobbled and tilted at odd angles, smearing as her eyes darted about. She couldn’t find balance, or her balance, or balance at all. She still stood, but didn’t know how she could. The paper fluttered in her hand, as if slapped by a strong wind, carried on echoing laughter. Colors were no longer what they should be, and size was a matter of opinion. Was she floating or falling or standing or crawling? No answers and yet everything felt like it told the truth. The cobblestones prayed for rain and the wood slat windows sighed with effort. Tunneling up and down and down and around until she was everywhere and right back where she started again. The page in her hand was alive, it was alive! It could sing and see her as it crowed, but fell into a chasm before she could look. She still held it though — she still held it dammit! The words the words the words the words, crawling, aching, spinning, turning, yearning, clutch clutch clutch, up her spine and into the back of her eyes and finally she could see them. She spoke them aloud, her voice was thunder as she bellowed, boomed, vexed the unpronounceable words that she was speaking nonetheless. As she read, a rising tide of amber glow rose up up up surrounding her she wasn’t afraid she was strong she kept reading she was everything and in the sky she saw a bird larger than the sun blot it out and scream some magnificent sound that shook the earth and all inside her and below and above and beyond. Her mother was there now Jel opened her mouth but she didn’t speak she just kept opening it wider and wider until she ate her mother up and swallowed her whole laughing while she did. Finally she could be free! Free! FREE


Then the crash. Reality came back like a flash of lightning, all the sordid became mundane and the strange beyond slipped back where it was before. The alley resumed itself, in all its usual dimensions and ways of being, and Jel gasped, grabbing onto the wall by the old woman, trying to breathe, remembering to breathe. Her grip faltered and she tumbled into a heap with the stones on the ground. It hurt, but she didn’t feel it. She clenched and released her hands over and again, seeking some dominion over her own body. The air seemed insufficient with how her lungs tugged at it, ceaseless gasps for a drifting soul.


The old woman, defying her years, crouched next to her and ran her overlong nails through her hair.


“Now you see what a bit of power is, yes?”


“What— What happened?” she managed as her breath slowly returned, hard fought though.


“Maybe you have the potential to be a witching woman, yes?” she sneered, her yellowed teeth glimmering in the midday glow.


“A what? What did I just do?” she said, hearing the words but not feeling like they were entirely from her own mouth. Her body still felt rubbery and imbalanced, like it wasn’t hers to command just yet.


“You came upon someone with vengeance is what happened.” Her face seemed tugged at the corners to make its grinning rictus. She found it deeply unsettling.


“I don’t understand,” Jel said as her words drifted from elsewhere and found her again.


“You tapped into the strange energies, yes? You called them for companionship and they came to make an enemy suffer,” she continued as she put away the empty phial and stood straight up.


“That’s not what happened,” she spoke with more confidence and sat up. She knew her legs were not yet friendly with her, but soon they would be and she could leave this pocket of the city that had wrapped itself around her and squeezed.


“Oh no? I see you read the words and focus on someone. Who? I don’t know,” she giggles awfully as she dotters off. “Maybe your mother.”


Jel is stopped in all things. Her mind cascades to the awful incredibleness of the experience and how she consumed her mother in her mouth like a sagged ghoul. She couldn’t imagine it had —


But yet she ran. She ran past the street vendors and cartwheelers, tumbling step over step through the undulating throngs of people buying and selling and living lives that weren’t hers. She ran without air in her lungs or thought in her head. The millwoman who drove their cart that morn saw her galloping forwards, frenzied and impenetrable. She cussed her out, but Jel didn’t even notice she was there.


Eventually she reached the front door of the shop, the windows dusty and unremarked by the day. It took only a moment for her to get inside and run up the stairs, legs tumbling over themselves.


Red was the first thing she saw. A splatter on the edge of the door, haloed by an indifferent sun. When she finally reached her mother’s room, she cried out. Everything was stilled, rain frozen in midair.


Eles was slumped back on her usual sewing chair, golden sundress captured by the dance of light from the haze through the window drapes. In her right hand was the needle, in her left the ongoing quilt commissioned by one of her few remaining customers. But at the top of her dress, right at the nape of the neck, her head simply wasn’t there. By the shocks of blood on the walls, it was almost as if it simply swelled and erupted outward, an explosion of viscera and sticky bodily fluids. The only remnant was the unfurled flower of her neck, peeled open in crimson agony over her décolletage.


Jel couldn’t understand what she was looking at. Her mind refused to collect all that was in front of her and make merry with her thoughts. The grisly scene was so horrific as to be incomprehensible. And there was no other explanation for the travesty, no neat escape from responsibility. Whatever muddled terror she’d spoken not long before had found its path as laid by her and bit down on the target she envisioned. Harrowing thoughts came to her of her mother busying herself with the knitting and sewing, going about her day, until some unimaginable nightmare infiltrated her body and burst her head to paint splatters on the wall. Jel wondered if there was even time to recognize what was happening before it arrived. Did she suffer much? Was she unaware at all that she was to be ejected from existence at that moment?


Then there was laughter. A cawing, insane laughter that filled the room and echoed in the lonely shop. Jel couldn’t control it, the guffaws bubbling up from some deep inner well of irony and sorrow finally loosed.


She had drunk a strange purple something and caused her mother’s head to explode. It was so absurd, so ridiculous, so outside of what she understood as the real and true, that all she could do was laugh. The comedy of this madness was writ in the blots of brain and jelly offal in magma bursts on the walls.

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