4.1 – Ironseed spirit
Dawn fingers caress the village. They bathe Broader and Broadest in streams of red gold. They slowly grow longer, reaching the throne still standing on the painted centre stone. One of the rays of light sneak up towards the seat where a small fur-covered bundle is lying. As it gently touches the tiny shape, the fur clump emits a wail. Brood, their newest, is awake.
Brittle too. Sleep would not have her this night. After tossing and turning for ages, the tiny sliver of dawn’s light under their door made her finally give in to wakefulness’ demand. And here she is, come back to the settlement’s centre, its Deepheart, just as Brood cries her welcome to the sun. Another figure sits close to the throne, his back to the lantern pole, its frost nettle light extinguished hours ago. It’s Brooder, watching over his former mother while smoking his ironseed pipe.
„First light’s greeting to you, old man“ says Brittle, walking towards him over the tightly-packed snow dusted with ash from yesterday’s celebrations. When she reaches him, she follows up with: „Is that how you honour your Mirror?“ gesturing towards his curved, grey pipe. Brooder’s gaze is fixed on still-yammering Brood. „Don’t lecture me on the feelings of trees, little crow’s foot.“ Brooder taps the pipe. „The ironseed is not like us, its wood is all Deepheart from the inside out. A giant heartbone, if you will. Its leaves..“ He shows Brittle the pipe’s smoldering contents „..are like its flesh, dying every autumn and returning every spring. And of course…“ Brooder exhales a small cloud of smoke. „…underneath it all, unseen and fleeting…“ The smoke dissipates to nothing. „…is the spirit, its undying spark. So, yes, young sprig, this is how I honour my Mirror“.
„How is she?“ says Brittle, wanting to change the subject. Brooder smiles. „The night has agreed to let her live. Soon her mother, fraught with worry, will run out her door to check. And Brood’s new cycle will begin. Maybe this is partly why I have lived so long. To see her again and to bury my past in the future.“ Brood’s cries grow stronger. „Was she a good mother?“. Brooder chuckles softly „She was a Seer, Brittle. What do you think?“ Brooder empties his pipe and nudges Brittle to help him up. „I think part of me can relate. The first me…it seems Briar was my mother.“ Brooder’s face erupts in a sea of joyful skin waves. „Khe! Khe! Then…“ He shifts his attention towards the sound of running footsteps. Brade is half-stumbling across the grounds to fetch her child. „….then we are three. Though I suspect being children of a Briar has its own set of particular challenges.“
They watch as Brade, shaking and crying in tandem with Brood, huddle off towards her house. „What did you tell her?“ says Brooder. „Almost everything“ says Brittle and relates what happened, only being interrupted when she tells about striking the Seer across the face, which makes Brooder double over with breathless laughter for so long that Brittle almost fears she has killed him. „Hey!“ sounds a cranky disembodied voice from a nearby house. „Keep it down, you revellers. Us oldfolk need to sleep!“ Brooder’s eyes nearly pop out of his skull when he hears this. „Apologies! Us youngfolk will try to contain ourselves!!“ he shouts back. They walk towards the throne as Brittle tells the rest of the story, attempting to be as boring as possible to keep Brooder quiet.
„So she actually wants you to be our Seer, eh? Well, at least you won’t be able to traumatize your child.“ Brittle hits him lightly in the side. „Ow! Maybe my bones were wrong about Briar, but they are also old and frail, no matter how much I like to pretend that’s not the case. I don’t want to change my name to Broken at the end of my life.“ Brittle goes red with sudden shame. What is happening to her? „Forgive me. I didn’t mean it“. „Yes, you did. Khe! Khe! Khe! What a heroine, eh? Brittle, Striker of Crones and Puncher of Old Men. I’ll be glad to be on your side if the Scourge War returns. Khe! Khe!…“ „SHUT UP!“ The voice from the house is, if possible, even crankier. Brooder drops into a whisper. „Let’s continue our conversation elsewhere. I was ruminating over the question of the cave from my toddlerhood, and in my communion with my Mirror just now…“ Brooder looks down at his pipe. „…I had an idea. Grab your skis and join me by Broader and Broadest as quick as you can.“ Brooder moves to leave and stops. „Oh, by the way, if you wonder where Bridge is, I think Brand led him somewhere. Check at their house.“
She is left alone by the throne, the only sound soft grumbling from her offended sleep-deprived kinsman. She lets her fingers dance across the wood and she notices carvings she’s never seen before. She’s only been this close to it after nightfall. Along the side of one of the back posts from top to bottom she sees a wild flurry of scratches followed by what looks like a myriad of tiny snow flakes. Then a huge tree with a multitude of sticks or spears sticking out of it. And then a curious thing, a small stone has been inset where the back post intersects with the seat of the throne. A red stone with dark currents flowing. A tiny part of the schiil stone? Droplet-like carvings run down the rear leg as if dripping from the stone, retaining a bit of ochre paint from years ago. And at the bottom of the leg, some other carvings. Semi-circular shapes with many lines drawn out from the linear end. Wait? Are those….brittlefish? A door slams in the distance. That’s Brooder’s cabin. She better hurry.
Grabbing her skis from home, she runs over to where Brand and Brash live with their parents. Bridge is just outside under a small awning. A small house for the winter birds hangs on the wall next to Bridge who has been tied to a post. A couple of familiar milk gourds lie on the ground. The fawn bleats with delight when he sees her, and she loses no time untying him. Quickly, to not keep Brooder waiting, she puts on her skis, but before they are able to go, the door creaks open and Brand peeks out, dressed in his underclothes. „You are quite the morning bird!“ he grins. „You should be too, considering“ Brittle replies quickly. Brand’s Mirror is the dawnfire sparrow, whose red plumage rivals the sun and whose song can be heard before all other birds. „Going on another adventure? Do you want company?“ „I have all the company I need, thanks.“ „Another time, then. We could go to Middler’s Glen, where we used to play sometimes. I haven’t been there in ages.“ What is going on with this boy? „I am done with playing, Brand. Go back to dream. You have dark tracks under your eyes.“ „I just thought…well, never mind.“ He slams the door, and Brittle shakes her head. The last few moons, ever since wisps of hair started sprouting from his upper lip, he has started behaving strangely towards her. Was this how Brooder fawned over her great great grandmother? She shudders. Bridge whines. „It’s all right, Bridge“ she says, scratching his ear, „you can be as clingy as you want. I won’t mind.“ And off they go.
The three of them travel in silence. It’s a familiar route, the one Brook took her on all those years ago. She wants to ask where they’re headed, but Brooder has a certain concentrated look about him.
Don’t be impatient, child. You’re just like…
He stops by the huge stump of the War-Begone-Tree. She almost expects him to sniff the air and tell her to be quiet before leading her to the brittlefish clearing. But this seems to be the destination.
„Now“ he says, „This is what we will do“. Cursing his stiff fingers, Brooder starts fiddling with his bear coat. „Help me, will you?“ Nonplussed, Brittle starts to pull and drag the clothes off of him. „What are you trying to do?“ she asks. „Getting naked. Khe! Khe! Khe!“ Brittle stops. „In this cold? Why?“ With his fur coat partly over his head and his arms held high and to the side Brooder turns to her and says „Not to woo you, that’s for sure. Those days are far gone. I am a skeleton ornamented with saggy skin. Now pull this off me before my back snaps in two!“ After a brief battle, Brooder’s torso is exposed to the elements. His wrinkled and hanging skin is covered in spots and strange concentrations of small, dry hair strands. „I’ll keep my breeches on, for your sake.“
He turns around and Brittle whistles with surprise. His back, it’s entirely blue. Although…no, Brittle can see it. Fine dark lines, concentric circles, one around the other, covering his entire back. Like the growth rings of a tree, mirroring the remains of his Mirror sticking up out off the ground. „Every summer, another ring“ he grins „Longer and longer must I endure the skin painter’s sting. There’s no more room now, I guess I have to begin expanding to the front. So. I assume you have your heartbone, the one that didn’t want to see her mother?“ Brittle nods. „Let’s see. I think I was between my first and second year when we went there. So that’s where you’ll stab me.“ „Stab you?!“ „Prick me, then. Why the sudden change of heart? I thought violence against the elderly was one of your finest traits? Come on, Brittle. Find the ring, unfold the wrinkly skin, and pierce it. It won’t take much effort, I am more thin-skinned than you. And hurry before I freeze to death“.
Carefully Brittle walks over to Brooder and looks for the centre of the skin painting. There, the tiniest dot, the point of origin, the first circle. She pulls out the heartbone and tries to steady her hand as she aims for the almost non-existent space between the first and second ring. „Hurry, coneflake!“ She jabs him quickly, and a tiny trickle of blood starts to flow.
„So far, so good. Now, for the next part.“ „Have you done this before?“ „Hah, never! I told you, I got inspired from inhaling ironseed smoke this morning. Help me down“. She lowers him down with his back against the growth rings of the big stump. Lying down, he is just as tall as the stump is wide, the blood from his back near the centre. Ring to ring. „Now, this tree turned into a stump long before I was born, but its roots are ancient and go deeper and farther than you can imagine, connected to all the ironseeds in the forests around here. This is, in essence, the Grandfather Tree. And though it is dead, part of it still lives, kept alive through the love of its descendants. Come, join me.“ She lies down next to him and clasps his grasping hand. „The heartbone“ he says, shivering. Brittle is worried about him. How long are they going to lie here? „Put it in between our palms“. She does. Bridge muzzles her other hand, she pets him and smiles reassuringly, though she is anything but.
She looks at Brooder. He turns his head to face her. They are incredibly close, closer than she has been with anyone except her parents. His breath is sour, but she doesn’t mind. His eyes, though covered by infinite layers of drooping skin, are mesmerizingly alive.
„What will happen now?“ she asks. Brooder grins. „I don’t know. Now isn’t that beautiful?“