13.2 – Against the real
The taste of blood. It triggers a spasm in the muscles of her neck. Brittle’s head whips to the left. Whips to the left. Whips to the left. The involuntary movement unlocks a memory. A smell. Of burnt charcoal intermingled with something…other, a sickly sweet scent. The taste of blood. Whips to the left. Burnt charcoal. Sickly sweet. The taste of blood. Whips to the left. Burnt charcoal. Sickly sweet. The boy. The girl. The furry red creature with no head. The feeling of hopelessness-entangled anger. The pain in her right cheek. Whips to the left. Taste of blood. Taste of anger. Taste of rage.
Her tongue moves on its own accord, shaping words in tandem with her dispossessed lips. Her mind, her self, is both hers and not-hers.
„She was struck,“ she says.
„Fascinating,“ lilts the tale singer, „Do go on.“
Brittle inhales, and the story, no, the memory, overtakes her.
She was struck across the face. At Middler’s Glen. Her blood spattered across the brown grass, burned dry by the hot summer sun. She looked up at the girl, a horror her age, Brawn from Breaker’s Hold. She was biting the knuckles of her fist. Gleefully. Next to her stood her lover for the day, Brow from the hearthland of Breem’s folk. Brittle’s kin. In name only. „So you can bleed, mouse tail!“ Brawn slapped young Brow across the shoulders, sending him careening a few steps forward. „There’ve been all these whisperings about you, that you’re bone dry below. Not true for all of you, I see.”
Brow guffawed. „Shut up, tiny. It wasn’t that funny.“ Brow promptly shut his mouth, lower lip almost touching his nose. „Give us the scrawlie.“ From behind his back, the boy whose size was considerably smaller than Brawn, reminding Brittle of queen ants and their miniscule mates, produced a furry red creature, a tree-hopper.
„Not easy being different, right?“ said Brawn, her rock-fisted arms grabbing the squirrel, squeezing it like a washing cloth.
„Uh, Brawn?“ said Brow, visibly uncomfortable, „that’s my Mirror, don’t hurt it. That’s why I could fetch it, you know.“ Brawn gave him a sideways glance. „Do you want to root around in my fen tonight or not?“ The conflicting desires ravaging Brow’s face actually made a pimple pop. Returning her attention to Brittle, Brawn continued: „So I thought I’d help you out, I like helping folk.“ The tree-hopper’s screams had stilled now, probably because its windpipe was destroyed. Brow knelt down and threw up, his Deepheart still losing the battle with other parts of his anatomy.
Brawn smashed the poor creature against the trunk of a nearby tree, crushing its small skull into a pulp. Somewhere in the distance, Brow whimpered. „This will help you feel what it’s like to be a real Daughter. Brow!“ The little mite got up, defeat and self-loathing smeared all over his face. „Hold her down, love knob,“ Brawn leered, brandishing the dead rodent, dark blood spurting out of the mess that used to be its head. “We’ll stick this up her shrub.“ Up until now, Brittle had been frozen still, exactly what a tree-hopper would do if confronted with a much larger predator. Realizing, by way of cruel example, the futility of her strategy, her body snapped to attention and she made a run for it.
Brow, however, did his Mirror some justice today, by intercepting her with squirrel-like speed and tackled her to the ground. And even though he was a spindly boy, Brittle was still, frustratingly, too weak. Her feeble thrashing were no match even for the stick-like arms of her harasser. Brawn closed in. This close, Brittle noticed the black discoloration around her lips. Her breath smelled strange. Like burned charcoal mixed with something sweet. Sickly sweet.
„I’m doing you a favour, little Brittle. Just show off your soiled netherparts to your beast of a mother, and you’ll stop the jeers. We might not even tell, if you treat us well.“
Brittle wanted to scream, but her breath betrayed her. Hhhhh. Hhhhh. HHHHH!
„And what makes you think I’ll be that easily fooled?“
Something blocked the sun. The rough, hulking shape of Brunt, her graying mass of tangled hair inexpertly tied together in a frizzy fox tail, loomed over the trio of youngsters. A flutter of a bird’s wing later, Brawn and Brow were stumbling over each other, escaping into the surrounding woods. Such was the effect of her mother’s presence, she never needed to raise a hand, never had to imply a threat, not even in the slightest of ways. She was Brittle’s exact opposite, a true Daughter of Bray, and Brittle resented her for it. In secret Brunt probably harboured similar feelings for her, though no sign of such would ever be shown on that stoic stone face.
„I didn’t..hhhh…need your…hhhhelp,“ spat Brittle as she labouriously got back on her feet. „Evidently,“ said Brunt and picked up the sad squirrel husk. Never one to waste the gifts of the green, she strung the carcass to her belt. „Come. The great dance is nigh.“
Mother raised an eyebrow, one of her strongest displays of emotion. „You used to enjoy this part of the festivities.“ „I used to be a child. Now..hhh..I am a failed Daughter. And because someone’s tongue’s been…hhhh…wagging…by the Six Hardships, I’d wager it’s Brook, that perfect feather ball…hhhh…everyone and their pet gnat will..hhh…know…hhh…by…hhhnow.“
Uncorking a stoppered stoneware bottle, mother wafted its soothing scent under Brittle’s nose. Her breathing easened, and though Brittle knew down in her Deepheart that simple unspoken acts like these were Brunt’s strongest tokens of motherly love, this knowledge found itself unable to pass through the marshland of bitterness that filled her frail chest.
„It doesn’t matter that they know. What matters is how you carry yourself. You are what you are, as are we all. Do not let small minds whittle you down. Daughter.“
„Easy for you to say,“ grunted Brittle, pushing the bottle away. „If I had a frame like yours, I wouldn’t worry about the opinions of others, either.“
„The smallest insect can plague the fiercest war maiden, making her lose a night’s sleep and lose the battle on the morrow. The greatest bear can fear the light of day, and wither away in its cave.“
„Very wise, mother. I almost think I’ve heard that before somewhere. Ah. Yes. From you. Two days ago.“
„Will you come to the dance?“
„No. I want to be alone.“
„Suit yourself.“ Brunt put the bottle back in one of her many belt pouches, turned and went. Just like that. Brittle stood there, staring after her, words unsaid dying slow deaths at the precipice of her lips.
Later, she walked to the dance. She didn’t join it, of course. But she stood on the outskirts, looking in. Saw her kin swirl and hop and frolick. Heard the reed pipes play their pining melody. Saw how Brawn threw little Brow up in the air and caught him in a lustful grip. Saw all those…people…enjoy themselves carelessly without even wondering where she was, why she wouldn’t attend this year. Why would they? If she was not a real Daughter. If the river of life had decided to snub her and call her unworthy.
She understood something then. More clearly than ever before. She was alone. Completely and utterly alone. There was only one way to live like that. To survive. She had to out-Brunt Brunt. Turn that inner swamp of sorrow into an outer carapace. A hard shell against the real.
„If you don’t want me to care, mother, I won’t.“
The sun sank. Her kinsfolk cheered. She sneered.
„I really won’t.“