7.3 – Behind the forest grape

The boy, the old man and the fawn. All in different states of helplessness. Trying to ignore her bewildering accusations, Brand asks „What…is wrong with him?“ Lowering her ski pole and taking a step back, Brittle sighs „Frostridden.“ He comes closer, noticing Brooder’s state of dress. „And why…was he lying here with his chest…exposed?“ She looks straight at him. And in that moment she suddenly understands the convenience and the origin of the most well-peddled concept of her people. How else to cope with the narrow single-mindedness of men? „Daughter Lore,“ she says in a flat tone of voice, „now do something. I…hhh…am in no state to…“ She has to sit down. She wants to cry, but doesn’t. She needs him focused. Luckily, Brand is cowed enough by their age-old traditions to stop his own curiosity. „A sleigh, we must make a sleigh,“ he says. She nods.

Brand continues talking to himself, something he always does in pressed situations, a trait she used to find endearing. Now, memories of Brute, his mannerisms, his crudeness, have put their claws in her impression of the boy like parasites from an ancient past. Like midwife wasps, those frightening insects that lay their eggs in the ear canals of hibernating rodents. Poor, unsuspecting, innocent creatures whose heads would suddenly burst with concealed brutality. For all she knew, that could happen to sweet, annoying, harmless Brand as well.

„His skis, they will do as a foundation.“

Brittle doesn’t even look at him. She knows he will do his utmost. Loyal to a fault. Never prone to real anger, only peevish sulking and the occasional door-slamming.

„But we need more wood. And we don’t have axes. But I brought rope in my pack, right? That’s what I thought when you came back to the house all distraught, Bridge. That Brittle had fallen down Bray’s Wound.“

Of course he is talking to her, harping on about his noble intentions, wanting to be her saviour. At least Brute wouldn’t be this circumspect. And why does everyone have this perverse desire for her to meet her end at the bottom of that ravine?

„Let’s go, maybe we can find some fallen branches.“

Brand and Bridge hurry off. She looks down at Brooder, gently unfolding layers of saggy skin around his throat to feel his pulse. Still there. What will she do if he survives? This old, rickety hovel housing a spark that she loves, that she remembers loving more than anything. „What would you do?“ she asks her first heartbone, picking it up from his stiff, cold hand. No reply. That silence again. As if to say: „I had my run. This is your life. Your decisions.“

„You won’t believe this, Brittle!“ Brand and her four-legged friend returns, dragging several branches along. „The tree! It just…“ „Tell me your story later!“ interrupts Brittle, „Let’s get him home before it’s too late.“

„So you found him like this?“ Breach dips another cloth in hot forest grape broth and puts it on Brooder’s forehead. His naked frame looks like a skeletal bird, with patches of purple where Breach has draped her grape-infused fabrics, on his forehead, between his ribs, and around his genitals, hands, knees and feet. A low fire is burning underneath the raised stone bed. Sweat is trickling down. All over.

„Yes,“ says Brittle, casting a quick glance at Brand. His eyes betray no emotion. He looks at the midwife and nods. „What were you up to, old man?“ says Breach, stroking her finger along an ancient cheek bone. „It’s strange,“ she continues, turning back to the two youngsters, „I have a sense that…he does not want to return.“ „What do you mean?“ blurts Brittle, voice cracking with concern. „Well,“ Breach picks up a healing needle from a small, wooden box and warms it over the hearth fire, „his body is cold, and his heart is slow, and he is older than the trees, but…,“ she sticks the needle just above his left ear, „…this treatment should still be enough to warrant a reaction. A twitch in the limbs, a murmur, a moan, something.“ She sighs. „Anything.“

„Well. Not to worry, I am sure he will be fine in the morning. You leave me be, now.“ They exit the life hut without a word. The sky is clear. The stars are bright. Broader and Broadest loom over them like protective giants. „Did I really plant you?“ thinks Brittle. „Yes,“ says Brand. Brittle looks at him. „What?“ „What what?“ „You said ’yes’ just now.“ „Eh…yes?“ „Why?“ „I…I…just got a sense of…yesness?“ „What does that even mean? Did you hear my question? Did I speak it out loud?“ „No? What was your question?“ „I’m not telling you that! Why did you say ’yes’?“ „Why are you all over me like a boar in heat?“ „I am most definitely not in heat, and especially not over you!“ „Like a mauling cave cat, then, and you have been ever since you came home from whatever happened when you laid Brook to rest, and even more so after I found you two doing whatever in the Seven Hardships you were doing, or I don’t know, maybe that’s why he is so poorly, he probably couldn’t take it!“ „Take what?“ Brittle pushes her face extremely close to his in a decidedly unromantic way. „Well, I don’t know, you tell me!“ Even in the soft star light, his birth mark screams. She remembers it as if it happened yesterday. Her tail lashing out of the net. The impact. His head whipping back. She loses it and kicks him to the ground. He just lies there with a hurt expression on his stupid, branded face. „Grraahhh…“ Brittle stomps the snow. „I don’t have time for this. I don’t have time for you. I need to find…“ „…the cave,“ finishes Brand. Brittle doesn’t understand. „How…?“ „The trees,“ says Brand, looking over at Broader and Broadest, „the trees told me. Or gave me a sense. Or, I don’t know, just like earlier today.“ „What do you mean, earlier today?“ „Well, I tried to tell you, but you wouldn’t listen. I was desperate to find some branches for a sleigh, I couldn’t find any, and we were losing time, and I came by this ironseed, and it felt like, like, it somehow picked up on my feelings, and it responded.“ „Responded how?“ „It just dropped some branches, exactly the amount and lengths that I would need.“ Brittle shakes her head, trying to make sense of all this. „And now they are telling you how to find the cave?“ „Well,“ says Brand, looking over at the twin trees. For a moment, nothing happens. Then they clearly see one of Broader’s longer branches move of its own volition, pointing away from the settlement, towards the mountains.

„I guess so.“

They ski from ironseed to ironseed. From one moving branch to another. Small frost nettle lanterns around their necks. Bridge trotting next to them. For some frustrating reason she can’t quite fathom, the trees do not react to her at all, only Brand. He seems to find it amusing, which makes her fume even more. But she tries to calm the raging storm within, she needs him after all. „I wonder why this is happening?“ says Brand as they reach another ironseed on top of a hill, crippled ages ago by a lightning strike. This one decides to pop a root from the ground, showing the way. „But I guess it’s far beyond my understanding. Daughter Lore, no doubt.“ He smiles playfully at her and slides down the hillside. Growling under her breath, she follows him. Through a thicket of pine trees. Along a meandering stream. The mountains looming ever closer.

„Look here!“ shouts Brand, excited as if this was some children’s game. In the light of his lantern Brittle can see a tiny, barely visible sprig of an ironseed, probably less than a year old. It is straining all of its being to indicate their next waypoint, a gargantuan tangle of prickly forest grape bushes. „What a find,“ says Brand, „Imagine how many grapes you could pick here at the end of summer. We have to remember this place.“ Remember. Something nags at the back of Brittle’s mind.

„Don’t eat them all at once, Brittle mine.“

„Cliffs and rocks on both sides, maybe there’s a passage here, through these bushes. Well. This time I brought an axe. Let’s see.“

„Hey! Brittle. Where did you go?“

Brand grunts. Bridge bleats. „Yes! Come see, Brittle!“

„Mother! Come on through. There’s a secret place here!“

She pushes through the brambles. Brand has hung his lantern on the last pointing branch of the final ironseed growing in this secluded spot. The rubble strewn ground. The mountain side. The yawning maw. Just like in Brave’s memory. But that’s not all. Brittle remembers.

An early layer of autumn leaves covered the ground. She stepped on red and gold. Her mouth was sticky with forest grape juice. Brook burst out of the thick mess of shrubbery behind her with a laugh-song on her lips. „What place have you found, dear one?“ she trilled, with wonder in her eyes. „Look at that, mother,“ said Brittle, „it looks like the mountain’s mouth.“ „Indeed it does,“ said Brook, „let’s go see what the mountain had for breakfast, shall we?“ They entered the dark, hand in hand. In a little while, they could hear how the sound of their footsteps changed. „Listen to that echo…echo…echo,“ Brook said, „The cavern must be vast here…here…here.“ „Let’s try, dear,“ she whispered. Brook inhaled deeply, and then, with all her strength, she shouted:

„Hello! Hello! Hello!“

„Hello! Hello! Hello!“

They laughed. The cave did too. „Join me, Brittle.“

„Hello! Hello! Hello!“

„Hello! Hello! Hello!“

„Hello! Hello! Hello!“

„Hello! Hello! Hello!“

And they did it again. And again.

And again.

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