Shadows Among the Jewels
By Sarah Hendrix
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
Today the wind is not a screaming wild creature, pushing and pulling at what rises above the ground but a steady breath like a hand along my back. It gives me confidence as I shuffle away from the dome. My boots kick up dry soil and motes of dust float into my eyes. Tears stream down my cheeks but I do not need to see. My feet know the way.
I stand at the grove a few feet from the water. Tall mubar trees stretch out twisted, dark limbs, their nakedness covered by dry leaves and the shredded remains of silken webs. The calming breeze hisses at me with the voices of my ancestors reminding me of what I have done. I ignore them, searching for new life among the limbs. My vision blurs as I scan the branches for the jewels that move on tiny legs. Nothing moves except for the remains of silk near the trunk. It flutters reminding me of my mother's skirts as she danced. I look closer, her bones still embraced by thick sheets of webbing. Her dancing stilled by her own choice-by my choice.
My lips move in the patterns of familiar prayers but my voice will not give them sound. The words have become too heavy for me. Words meant to greet the day and lift my heart do nothing but heave stones upon my loss. The blue sun rises in the golden sky and I turn back home.
Duran, my oldest son, ladles out thin porridge into bowls for the other children to eat as he sings one of his mother's songs. He scrapes the bottom of the pot, trying to scoop up the thicker gruel and he pours it into the youngest's cup.
She looks up at him with dark eyes so much like her mother's and says, "Can we have something else?"
Duran doesn't even look at me as he answers. "We'll have soup tonight."
He knows our pantry is nearly empty, being the one to cook for us now. The dry times between harvests were never predictable, and even though we had prepared, the drought had gone on much longer than expected. Soup would stretch what little we had, but the children were so thin. My own gut rumbled, greedy for a full belly. A good meal would pull us through another few days. Maybe long enough for the natarn to begin spinning their webs and end the dry time. I almost protest, but at my son's pleading look, I nod before I turn away.
At night I sit awake at the table looking at the two empty chairs. My mother's and my wife's. My hand shakes as I wipe the dust from the ornately carved backs. I wonder if Duran has instructed the younger two not to sit in them or perhaps the ghosts of our ancestors tell them not to.
My fingers follow the curves of flowers and birds in Anan's seat. My wife had been filled with joy and light. Her songs filled the days with hope. I had loved her so very much. She was carrying our fourth child. But once the natarn called, her dark eyes wandered to the trees along the edge of the water.
Our family had held true to our ancestors beliefs. We bought no slaves for the sacrifice and tended the trees with our own hands. Our harvests were always large and brought much honor to the family.
But times change. Our family grew smaller as the cities pushed outward. Sisters and brothers left the farms to escape the demand of flesh and soul. The mubar and the natarn were no longer needed, replaced by medicines and technology. Bu there was still large profits to be made from the trees. Mostly the old and infirm were taken, I never expected my wife Anan to hear the lures of the natarn. When she began to watch the trees, I begged and pleaded with her. I told my wife that we would leave; make a new life far from the lakes and trees. She would not change her mind.
Seeing my heartache, my mother whispered instructions into my ear. After I locked Anan in our room, I walked with my mother out to the grove. She stood beneath the trees, singing her arms outstretched. Taking a knife, she slashed at her body. Blood sprayed on the new silk before she embraced the tree. The natarn swarmed, encasing her in webbing before they started to feed.
Once my mother's sacrifice was made, Anan's songs died. The light in her eyes dimmed as she wandered the dome like a lost child. When the labor started, she bore a stillborn daughter, and even the application of mubar fruit could not stop the bleeding. I buried my wife and my daughter at the feet of the trees, among the bloated corpses of the natarn—their feeding and mating cycle finished--hoping I would be forgiven for what I had done.
Although the dead natarn fed the trees, the harvest was light. It wasn't long before the ground grew dry and brittle. Other crops, planted to feed my family, wilted in the dry air no matter how much water we gave them. Now dust crawls through every crevice in the dome, covering every surface with grit. My children cough dark phlem in the mornings. Food and water tastes like dirt.
The quiet settles around me. The children sleep as I strain to hear the natarn sing. My heart earns to atone for my mistake but I hear nothing but the slow beat of my heart and the wind outside.
Every morning I go out to the trees where the remains of my mother still hang. In last night's windstorm, part of the silken shroud has pulled away revealing the white skull. I want to rip it away and free her, burry her remains with my wife and daughter, but I do not. Instead I stare into the sky.
"Pappa?" Duran's voice doesn't startle me, but the branch in his hand does. Fine gossamer threads crisscross the dead stick.
Duran points to the one to the left. In the morning haze the tree seems to stand taller, as though pride has lifted the spindly branches high. Some of the leaves seem to shiver before I see the tiny creatures racing across them. In their wake, they leave behind a trail of bright silk.
"Go fix the others breakfast," I tell my oldest. He hums under his breath as he walks back to the dome.
Once he is gone I step closer. Thousands of tiny feet rattle across the dry leaves of the mubar like droplets of fine rain. Even in the pale morning light I can see flashes of colors, tiny bright stars against the dark wood.
"Take me," I whisper as I touch the trunk. My breath burns in my chest as the natarn consider my request. I hope they will swarm, take my life and soul to feed my land and children, but the tiny creatures retreat and disappear into the pale shadows.
Days pass as the natarn cover the mubar trees along the lake with fresh silk. In the dusk the limbs seem to float like mist. I keep the children inside watching them to see who will be taken, wondering who else I would lose. After Anan died, I promised myself that I would take the children away, far from the ghostly trees and the tiny creatures that demanded our lives. There were excuses at first, the harvest, and then the crops, but my ears hear my lies. I was never going to leave.
Duran sings to the younger two, keeping them occupied. Together we clean the dirt from the floors and cabinets and this time, it does not sneak back in. The winds die and I realize the only sound I hear is my oldest's bright voice.
I look into the room where he sits on the floor singing his sister and brother a story. They snuggle into his sides as he turns the pages; their voices mingle with his song. My heart clenches as he turns to look at me, the fire of calling in his eyes.
Slowly he puts the book down. "It is time." His voice seems to echo in the tiny room leaving no doubt that he is called.
His confidence pulls me with him as we walk to the tree where he first found the branch. Duran kisses the younger two and bends down to whispering in their ears. They giggle and step back to reach out to hold my left hand. There is no argument as they bump into each other and reach a silent agreement of two fingers each.
Duran smiles and wraps his arms around me. "Things will be fine now," he whispers into my ear. I cannot move as I watch him.
Stepping back he leans against the trunk and his voice spirals upward into the branches. The leaves rustle in response as tiny jewels scurry down. Thunder rumbles over head.
We watch as the natar swarm, covering him with silk. He continues to sing as the rains begin to fall. The drought is over, we will have food and mubar fruit again. But I have one more stone upon my soul and this time it is more than I can bear. I cannot save myself, but I can save the last of my family. When we return to the house, I will call my brother. The children will be safe, but there will be one more harvest. Just one more.
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