7.1 – Through a thousand forms
Hummmmmm. The light fades. She loosens the tip of the white heartbone and picks it up from the outermost ring. No more memories. „That was a brittlefish“ she says, her voice expanding in a strange, sonorous way. Like how voices would sound when your head is underwater, but…somehow opposite. „The throne…“ She keeps speaking aloud. It becomes more real that way, as if space itself is her witness. „…that’s what those markings mean. The pierced tree. The drops of blood. The brittlefish rising from…Cutting’s sacrifice.“ She stops for a brief moment. „But the carvings depict more than one….why….did I make them….did I make the throne?“ On an impulse she pushes the tip of the heartbone against her own translucent sternum.
She was old. Her locks were white and braided. Her tails dressed in patches of moss. She sat in the middle of the hold, watching silver-haired Brook work her knife on the throne leg. „What do you think, wood crone?“ she said with a smile. The carvings were crude, but the story was clear. It brought back a small trickle of memories of her beloved. „Yesh“. She smacked her toothless mouth. „Thash perfect, dear“. A slight tug on her hair. Her blood-tressed Braid looked up at her with starry eyes. Briefly caressing the face of her youngling, she looked beyond. Even though her eyes were milky with fog, she saw the two saplings. They were taller than her. Now.
Brittle pushes the heartbone again. „Why did Brook carve several brittlefish?“
The forest was covered in silence. Except for the swish-swish-swish of their skis through the heavy snow. „Where are we going, Brittle?“ asked young Brook, „Back to see Cutting again?“ „Yes…“ she said as they approached the gigantic stump adorned with colourful garlands and gifts, „…and no. We are here to test something.“ „What?“ „A dream. Of sorts. A premonition, vision. I don’t know.“ She looked at the sun. It was almost in the center of the sky. „Hurry now“. They went further, to the clearing. Of his first death. Unlatching their skis, they stepped hand in hand into the middle of the circle. „Do you remember?“ she said. „How could I forget?“ Brook replied. She looked down at the open-faced girl, the closest she would ever get to have a daughter of her own, even if she had to share her with Breeze. „If I am right, and I hope I am, something wonderful will happen just about…“ She squinted up at the ball of fire overhead „…now“.
She was. Brook laughed like her namesake. „Just like…and so many! Of course, his sap was spilt here too. No?“ „Indeed. So it would seem“ said Brittle, her very essence overflowing with joy. Her Deepheart sang. And so did they. A Mirror of a Mirror. „How do they sing without mouths?“ asked Brook, spinning around her axis, arms spread wide. An echo of an echo of an echo reached her then, and she replied with a voice that was hers and not-hers:
„It’s the strings, child“
When the midwinter sun had moved on, and the floating singers had blended back into the snow, they sat across from eachother on their haunches. „Now, Brook, my love of loves. As this proved true, I will trust the rest as well. Since the very day we fought back Scourge, my mind has been wading through memories that do not belong to me. At least, not yet.“ „Not yet?“ „Everyone returns, Brook. This you will be told when Breeze has passed, which, dream willing, won’t be for a long long time still.“ „So even when we die, we will meet again?“ „Yes. And this is what I need to talk to you about. The memories of times to come have for the most part been short and fleeting, like pebbles bouncing off my skull. But this last one drowned me like an avalanche.“ Brook grimaced. „That sounds painful“ She smiled „Well. What matters is this. I need you to promise me something. When your firstborn daughter is old enough…“ „How do you even know I will have a daughter? Or a child at all?“ „You will. When she is old enough, you take her here, when the midwinter sun is in the middle of the sky, and show her the wondrous choir. And tell her to do the same with her firstborn girl, when the time comes.“ „For how long will we do this? Forever?“ „Until I return. As the last of your bloodline“. Brook laughed and rolled over in the snow. „Does that mean you’ll become my grand-grand-grand-daughter?“ „Something like that.“ She playfully tickled Brook with her heart tail. „Now remember. Tell noone else. And when a Brittle is…“ Brook giggled. „….listen, now…when a Brittle is born, her mother must tell her…“ she closed her eyes „…that these beings are her Mirror. Her Deepheart’s Mirror“.
„What was this overwhelming memory of the future? What did I see?“
Breeze stretched out her leg and curled her long toes around a small log from the pile. With a swift twist of her ankle she tossed it to the flames. Brittle watched how it was slowly and diligently consumed, wood transforming into charcoal. Constant transformation, from one state to the next, was that was life was all about? „Do you ever feel its presence?“ she asked. „No,“ said Breeze, Keeper of Fire, „But there is power in these sparks“. A few glowing embers was all that had remained of Scourge. Breeze had found them in between two of the metal plates of her son’s black suit as she and Brook had ritually undressed and bathed him to bring him back to life. The oldfolk had renamed him as if he was a newborn babe. Fitting, as he and all the other swordsmen had lost all recollection of who they once were, their minds completely blank. Extinguished. The embers that fuelled this fire in the great dream tent were, like he who once was Brute, stripped of all malevolence. The fire felt pure. Precise. Clear. Which was why they chose to repurpose it as the hearth of the Keeper of the Second Hardship. If the Frostfall were ever to return, the essence of the Third Hardship would be the centerpoint for the cure. Different strands of plants and fungi were growing in pots of earth around the fires. Further back, where it was colder, the frost nettles grew, the ones Breeze was trying to recombine and make hardier versions of. And all this she did with her feet, as her cloth-strapped hands were locked in a permanent embrace.
Leaving the flames she walked along the inner walls of the dream tent. Its size still confounded her. How could it be that they had never known of its existence before they were led here? Like this entire valley had been hidden from sight up till now. Maybe their ancestors did know of it once, long ago, before the Great Forgetting, if some of them did indeed live in these lands back then. Maybe there were more of these tents, in far off places of the world. Ah. There was so much they did not know. She wondered if the dream tents they had built outside their holds were like an echo of a memory of this structure. Like the blurred recollection of a story from a dream. But she had, of course, no answers. Only questions piling up in every corner of her mind.
There it was. Her hearth. Where she had been reborn, though her name was still the same. They had split a good many of the sword blades into smaller pieces and made axes. Weirdly shaped, though better than the ones they had of stone. The iron, its curse discharged into the earth, was, like the fires, pure. It had taken them the better part of a month to hew the great tree, and longer still to cut it into transportable pieces. And here it was – recreated, like a cross section of a trunk, a roofed circular hut of wood. Strengthened by the energies of this gargantuan dream tent, she had sung the pieces together, imagining what she wanted it to look like in her mind. The entrance to the interior was a curved, smooth opening, and above it the largest intact piece of the tree was affixed. Cutting’s blind face and open torso. She briefly stroked her fingers across the side of the aperture as she went inside.
Serenity. You could not help but feel calm here. She touched the walls surrounding her with her three tails. In the centre was a small wooden elevation, and on top of it two small, grey seeds. She picked them up, one in each hand. She still remembered the sensation when she touched them for the first time. When they had painstakingly cut the lifeless form of Cutting out from the great tree, these two had toppled out of the cavity left in his chest after Brute’s sword. Truly a wonder. „In how many ways are you planning to come back, my dearest?“ Transformation through a thousand forms. The dance of life and death. Brook, who was present when the seeds were found, had instinctively called them ’ironseeds’. Not a bad name, all in all. Maybe she should plant them. Someday.
Returning the seeds to their platform, she exited and walked towards the centre of the tent. The blood stone with its swirling currents. The inverted tree above of shining anther-like strings and glittering heartbones. Branch was there, looking up in silence, as was her custom. Probably repeating their shared history to herself. „Keeper of Memory“ said Brittle. „Keeper of Peace“ said Branch. „I…“ began Brittle, but never got further, as she managed to stumble, her feet caught in her own heart tail. How did…? Her hands slammed into the ground on each side of the stone, her eyelashes brushing against its surface. She stared straight into an abyss of blood.
With a gasp she pulled herself away from the vision flood. The giant dream tent shook around her, a wave of sound spiralling along its inner circumference from the bottom to the top
She collapsed on the floor. Heartbones clattering. Two of them fell into her hands. One with a yellowish tint. One wholly unassuming. Branch and Breeze were looming over her. But Branch looked so old. And Breeze so young. The pair were connected through a common braid.
„What happened? What happened?“ said Branch in a voice much too young for such a time-worn face. „A discharge“ said Breeze, with a certainty incongruent with her girlish features. „Just like with the swords and the tree. But this one dissipated into the air. Or…“ For the briefest of moments, her eyes turned the hue of the night sky. „It’s happened again“ said Breeze. „Isn’t this the first time?“ said Branch. „Who can tell?“ said Breeze. Brittle reached out for the braid hanging in front of her like a rope bridge, but when she grasped it, all she could feel was the bark of her heart tail. And Branch looked so young. And Breeze was a woman grown. And why did her hands look like that?
„What a peculiar sound“ said Breeze. „How are you feeling, Brittle?“ asked Branch.
„Which one of us?“ said Brittle, looking queringly at her two empty hands.
Brittle returns to herself, whatever that means. Her red-veined spirit form seated on the memory rings of the War-Begone-Tree. Like she said back then, or says, or will say, she is far from sure, which one of us? Who is the true her? All of them? Combined or separately? Forms in constant transformation, just like parts of Cutting turned, or seemed to turn, into brittlefish, the branches of the Tree of Memory, the ironseeds. Like how a butchered stag can turn into meat for the belly, headdress for the Seer, instruments for the children, glue for the working tools, decoration for the feasting grounds, and so much more. But if he could turn into all these things, could part of him, his deepest Deepheart, the core of his being, return as something more recognizable to her? She suddenly feels desperate to know such a connection in this life too. Truly, right now, it does not feel like there is a gap between the two lives. They are connected by a hanging braid.
Pushing again, she says „Did Cutting ever return as a…person? Can he…will he return, like Branch promised?“
Nothing. No memory from within, from either life.
Then, from all around her, a soft and earthy voice, tinged with bemusement:
„Do you want the short answer, or the long one?“