1.3 – The Keepers
It takes them a few hours to reach the bottom of the valley. Brittle squints at the sun. It’s in the center of the sky. Looking ahead, a number of fiery after images of the burning orb mars her vision. They seem to swarm around the tent-like structure, now quite close and impossibly huge. Really. Brittle has never seen a building this big. „How did anyone manage to make this?“ „Daughter lore“ replies Breath, „Maybe they will tell you if you ask“ „They, they, they. Who are these ’they’?“ „See for yourself“ says Breath, inclining his head towards a few small hovels outside what looks like the main entrance of the sky tent (a name that Brittle decides will do for now). A small group of women, Brittle counts seven of them, are grouping together, presumably to greet them. Golden orbs of light fly around them in a mesmerizing manner which amazes Brittle until she realizes that she is still seeing echoes of the sun. She blinks her eyes and looks away until her sight is clear once more. As she does, she sees that they are not seven, they are nine. Two of the women, both of them old and silver-haired, are accompanied by two girls, both of them a few years younger than Brittle. Everyone wears their hair in a long braid, and in the case of the two girls, their hair is braided together with the older woman next to them.
As they ride closer, Brother slows down and stops on his own accord. Breath dismounts and helps her down. Still holding onto little, frail Bridge and Brook’s heartbone she sees one of the women with a girl companion break off from the group. The odd pair approaches them silently. The woman is thin and tall, taller than anyone Brittle has ever seen. Her cheek bones are sharp and pronounced but her eyes seem soft and friendly. The black-haired girl connected to the willowy woman looks at Brittle with a bright, cheery smile. The tall woman speaks.
„Welcome, Daughter, to…“ „Hrrf! What in the Seven Hardships are you doing here!?“ Surprised at her father’s outburst, Brittle turns to face him, but she quickly realizes he is not referring to the pair greeting them, nor to any of the other women, but to someone he has just noticed off to the side. She follows his gaze and sets her eyes on a slightly rotund man in colourful and many-layered clothing walking towards them with a waddling gait she would recognize anywhere. „Uncle Broth!“ Completely forgetting the sense of solemnity she was feeling, she rushes over to her uncle to hug him, only stopping herself when she realizes that she doesn’t want to crush Bridge. Instead, Broth leans in to kiss her cheek. „Little Brittle“ he says in a tone of amazement. „How you have grown. Last time I saw you, I could lift you up. Now I fear it would break my back! You’re almost taller than me!“ Brittle smiles from ear to ear.
Her father, however, does not share her joy. „Why are you here, brother?“ Broth returns Breath’s steely stare. „I missed Brook’s firewalk. I did not want to miss this. Apart from you, brother, I’m all the family she has.“ „All the descendants of Bray are her kin, brother, not only you. Hrrnn. Or have you forgotten?“ „It seems there are some things you have not forgotten, brother“ says Broth, cocking his head. „Or am I to believe that your new…garment acquisition is completely coincidental and has nothing to do with your warm familial feelings towards me? It’s almost as if you suspected I’d be here.“ Father’s furs, that’s what Broth is talking about. Of course. Her uncle’s Deepheart’s Mirror – the great badger that goes to sleep when the first snows fall. „It attacked me last summer“ replies Breath. „It was moon-addled and foaming at the mouth, couldn’t separate friend from foe, so I…grrff…put it out of its misery. And saw no need to waste its coat. Wasting is not a luxury that some can afford. What foul nightmare did you pay someone to kill to dress like that?“ „Have you ever heard of tailors?“ Broth shoots back snarkily.
That’s it, thinks Brittle. „Stop, the both of you! Have some respect. This is a sacred site and if you both truly want to be here for my sake, please behave“ The two brothers both look down, their cheeks suddenly flushed with at least a tinge of shame. It truly is a wonder, thinks Brittle. They were born into the world in the same moment from the same womb but have spent every living moment since trying to become as different from each other as possible. The only obvious commonality between them the blue eyes and earthy skin of their father. Brittle turns to the braided pair to apologize. „Forgive my kin, they…“ „No need,“ says the tall woman with a bemused look in her glittering eyes „Your kin and you are all welcome here. Your uncle has been waiting for you here for three days already. We know him and his Deepheart. As we know you, Breath, son of Brew. You have been here once before with your beloved Brook to deliver the heartbone of her mother Brunt. And now you have returned with Brook’s daughter. We welcome you all. But pray tell, who is this?“ Brittle realizes she is referring to the fawn in her hands. „This is Bridge.“ A hnraff from Breath. “Or…well…I call him Bridge. His mother died, just before giving birth. We cut him out.“ „We?“ says the woman. „Yes…we“ says Brittle, looking briefly down at the blood-spattered heartbone before hurrying on: „Do you have any milk for him? Please?“ A cloud of concern passes over the tall one’s face. „I’m afraid not. Many does of the forest come to us at this time to labour in the shade of our schiil (so that’s what the sky tent is called, thinks Brittle). This one’s mother was probably on her way here. We provide for the does and in return they offer us some of their milk to store for the coming seasons. But we have yet to collect any. None have yet given birth.“ Brittle’s face falls. „But…he has to feed“.
A sloshing sound to her right. She turns and sees a brown and white-striped gourd in her uncle’s hand. „Luckily for you, my lovely niece, your uncle Broth has a penchant for doe’s milk. I carry it, I drink it, I trade it. It’s from skerry does, but I think the little crustling won’t complain about the vintage. May I?“ She nods, unable to speak for a second, and lets Broth pick up Bridge and start to feed him with the milk gourd. „Skerry does. Khrf. Pen does, more like.“ Breath is clearly not done taking out his anger on his brother. „The way you people cage them up to bleed them dry“ „It’s called domestication, Breath“ Broth retorts calmly. „You should try it sometime, it might do you some good. And, incidentally, by rule of the blood that we share, the Rukar are your people too.“ That shared blood starts to flush Breath’s cheeks, but before he can speak, Brittle interrupts him. „Now, you two. Promise me not to gouge each other’s eyes out before I return. And take care of Bridge for me. Will you?“ They both murmur something that seems to be an agreement. „Good“ She turns to the woman and the girl. „So, what now?“ „Walk with us, Daughter“ smiles the tall one. She follows them towards the…schiil. The other women have left, probably returned to their hovels. Looking over her shoulder, she sees Broth and Breath standing side by side, watching her. Brother is somewhat behind, Bridge is in Broth’s arms. This far away, it looks like the white fawn is breastfeeding on her uncle’s teat. The thought almost makes her laugh out loud, but she controls herself. Whatever comes next is important, a turning point in any Daughter’s life. She turns away from the past and faces the future.
Up close, the schiil is even more impressive. It’s completely white and its surface is unmarred, uniform, smooth. Brittle really can’t comprehend it, it’s not like anything she’s ever seen. „Beautiful, no?“ The black-braided girl has noticed her gawping. „It reminds me of a tent that tries to reach the heavens. I sometimes like to think of it as a…sky tent“. Brittle decides she likes this girl. They approach the opening she noticed before. It is shaped like a narrow triangle slightly taller than the woman. A curtain consisting of thin strings with small bones attached along its length at regular intervals covers the entrance. Brittle notices the bones are singular vertebrae, making each string of the curtain look like a weirdly elongated spine. The woman and the girl pass through the bone curtain without using their hands to brush it aside, and they invite her to do the same. „Close your eyes, Daughter“ says the woman. She does. Walking through the barrier is a peculiar feeling. As if the bones are caressing her and probing her at the same time. Keeping her eyes closed, she lets the pair lead her on. The sound of their foot steps echo in what must be a gigantic open space. It reminds her of the cavern Brook took her to once, just a few months before she died. They spent an entire evening just shouting and laughing into the dark vastness. The memory produces a single tear that runs down her cheek and hangs at the edge of her jawline for several seconds. The moment they stop, it drops and falls onto the floor, producing a soft and almost imperceptible sound. It echoes in her Deepheart.
They stand for awhile, before she is guided through another barrier. This particular curtain feels like it consists of thick cables of rope. They feel coarse against her skin and she barely resists the urge to sneeze. When they stop again, she is helped down in a sitting position and told to open her eyes. „Where are we?“ she says. „In the centre of things“ says the woman. They sit around a reddish…stone? It has a slightly squashed globular shape and is as smooth as the exterior of the schiil, as smooth as the floor she is sitting on. Currents of darker and lighter nuances of red swirl constantly right underneath the stone’s surface, giving off a dim and uneven light. The floor gives off a soft light too, enabling her to see that the curtain of ropes that they just passed through surrounds them like a vast circle. And this stone is, indeed, the centre. „I…“ The woman stops her with a gentle gesture. „I am sure you have as many questions as there are snowflakes in a winter storm, but first things first. Why did you come to us now?“ „Why? I mean..because Briar said it was time.“ „Ah. Briar. How is that old pine needle?“ Brittle doesn’t know how to reply. „She is….herself.“ The woman smiles. Quite broadly. „That does sound like her. But that Briar sent you does not answer my question. Why did she send you now? Your frame is small, but you are clearly older than Braid“ So that’s the girl’s name, thinks Brittle. The woman leans in, her scrutinizing eyes suddenly reminding Brittle of Briar in a way that makes her shudder. „How old are you, Daughter?“ She replies quickly. „I have seen seventeen winters.“ „And when was your first blood?“. Unsure what to say, Brittle holds up the heartbone. „Yesterday?“ Sniffing the dried blood, the woman says „This does not belong to you.“ „Eh..no? It belongs to Bridge’s mother. What..should I have cut myself?“ Suddenly feeling desperate at having done something wrong she follows up with „I can do it now, if need be“ „No, no!“ interrupts Braid, the black-haired girl, before touching the bridge of hair connecting the pair and looking up at her companion. „Branch. Maybe…?“ The woman whose name seems to be Branch turns back to Brittle and asks „What is your name?“ She finds herself unable to reply. Branch repeats her question. „What is your name?“ Are you a Daughter or a gnat?! „Brittle“ whispers Brittle. The silence that follows feels dense and Brittle trembles inwardly, certain that she has done something terribly wrong.
The quiet is finally broken by Braid with the simplest of statements. „She’s a Brittle“. „Yes“ affirms Branch, „That explains it“. Explains what? But she dare not ask. „Do not worry, Brittle“ Branch continues. „All is as it should be“. Braid smiles reasurringly to her, and Brittle realizes suddenly that her trembling is not purely internal. Holding herself, she nods, still afraid to say anything else. „Now, my dear“ says Branch, reaching out her long, slim hands to unfurl Brittle’s arms and take Brook’s heartbone in a slow and caring way that seems to purposefully say ’I am not Briar’, „Please tell us about your mother’s life, so we can commit it to Memory“. Branch puts the heartbone on top of the red stone and looks at her expectantly, but not unkindly. And Brittle remembers.
The memories are like a river. Like a bubbling stream. Like Brook. She is so used to reliving them, every single one. She has just never spoken them aloud to other people before. The only thing she leaves out, is that day when mother showed her the brittlefish. She doesn’t know why, it just feels right not to mention it. As she speaks, it really feels like Brook is coming alive again. And a low Hummmm emanates from the heartbone anew.
Running together through the cool shade of the ironseed canopies in the heat of summer. The way she speared fish by the waterfall. When she outsung old man Brooder in a game of taunts. Shouting their throats raw to laugh at their echoed voices in the great cavern. And that time. And that time. And that time.
„Thank you, Brittle“ says Branch. „And now, if you please, tell us of her death.“ Hummmmm.
„Brittle! Shake off your winter sleep, child! You’re lagging behind“ „I…hhh…can’t, mother! My….hhhh…breath’s ragged again“ Brook stood at the top of the snow-covered slope, leaning on her ski pole. „You need to try, Brittle mine! You can’t let your weakness define you!“ „Easy for you…hhh…to say. You…hhh…don’t know what it’s…hhh…like“ „Look, my love. I am not helping you this time. I’ll wait for you at the bottom on the other side.“ And just like that she was gone. But Brittle refused to budge. She just lay down on her back, looking up at the clouds and the early spring sun. Any time now, the ice would break and the snow would melt and she would no longer need to use stupid skis to get around. Any time now, mother would realize her mistake and come back to get her. Any time now.
„Brook?!“ No reply. Inwardly cursing her stubborn mother, Brittle got to her feet. Well, her breathing had improved a bit. She started to climb the slope, but as she neared the top, she began pretending to wheeze and cough just to make Brook feel guilty. As she got there, she looked down the other side. And….and…..and…..
„Just take your time“ says Braid. „It is not easy“ adds Branch. But Brittle looks at them both with confusion in her eyes. „No, you…you don’t understand. It’s not that I can’t or won’t tell. I just don’t…remember. I don’t remember how she died.“ Brittle feels dizzy all of a sudden. „And I remember everything.“ Panic grips her throat, her breathing becomes shallow. Branch and Braid get up as one and go close to her to hold her and support her from each side, their common braid landing in her lap. She touches it, and this calms her somewhat. Keeping her hand there, she looks up at Branch. „Why can’t I remember?“ „Is there anything else you have forgotten?“ „No, I don’t think so“ Branch ponders for a while, then says „What about the doe, from last night? You told us it was dead, but not how it had died.“ „Well“ says Brittle „It..the stag, Brother’s brother, also died, because it was protecting her from….“ Blank. Completely blank. „It was…“ A word popped into her head that she couldn’t place. „…fearrows?“ „What’s a fearrow?“ asks Branch. „I don’t know“ replies Brittle. „I hoped that you could tell me.“
Another silence. But this feels different. Finally Branch speaks. „We are seven Keepers here, and two of us have become so old that we have taken Braids to pass our knowledge on. Do you know what we are Keepers of, Daughter?“ „No…“ „Do you know what the Seven Hardships actually are? The ones we so often swear about?“ Brittle shakes her head. „They happened forever and an age ago, and we Keepers are committed to preserve the wisdom needed to be their antidote should they ever occur again. The Keeper of Peace is the counter-weight to the Third Hardship – the Scourge War. The Keeper of Health knows the medicinal properties of every plant, rock and grain of sand to be of use if the Fourth Hardship would ever return. The Hardship known as the Blood Plague. I, myself, am the Keeper of Memory. I am the Keeper bound to the worst Hardship of them all. The first one. The Great Forgetting. When everything we knew was lost in the blink of an eye, and we had to start again, like mewling babes without a guiding mother’s hand. Hearing this from you, Brittle…some people hide memories they can not face in the darkest crevasses of their Deephearts, but I don’t think that’s the case with you. Your mother and the doe, the details you can’t recollect, it’s like the faintest remnants of a dream, correct? You know you lived the story in your sleep, but as you wake then all the details fade to nothing?“ „Yes. Yes, just like that.“
Branch sighs. „Perhaps it’s nothing. Perhaps I make too much of this. Yet it is my calling to ensure that something like The Great Forgetting never happens again, so this is not lost“ „What is not lost?“ asks Brittle, then she sees that Branch is looking upwards. She does the same.
And there, hanging from the very top of the schiil, reaching far below and filling up the space above their heads within the rope circle, is a structure Brittle can’t believe she did not notice before. It is shaped like an enormous tree with its roots in the sky, extending a myriad of branches downwards in all directions. It glitters slightly. Suddenly it dawns on her. The wondrous tree, it’s made up of heartbones. Hundreds upon hundreds upon countless heartbones.
„Our history“ says Branch.