Authors: Ananda Braxton-Smith
We found my brother in the skybog.
It was me that found him.
Boson Quirk is dead, face-up in a bog of stars.
Almost everyone in Carrick said that the boy
was a monster, and now Fermion is sure that
the townspeople are looking sideways at her,
wondering if she’ll go the way of her cursed,
mad twin. When a new voice rises inside her,
Fermion begins to wonder the same thing.
The voice tells her that the answer to Boson’s
affliction lies on the other island, the one that
everyone says is bristling with gods and monsters.
But what waits for her there? Surely it is madness
to pursue the answer?
WE FOUND MY BROTHER in the skybog.
It was me that found him.
His body upright in the black water of a boghole and his white face upturned to the dawn-pearl sky, like one moon watching another.
Skybog ground is dabbled with sinks of standing water as flat and shining as looking-glasses. When the bog mists curl away the pools show only white cloud or silver moonrays, lightning or stars, like bits of the sky have fallen right into the black earth. Those sinks fill with falling rain or rising groundwater. Some are tiny, hardly big enough to hold even one star; some are deep as two men laid down end-to-end.
If you step off the paths there’s no firm ground to walk on, no ropes to hold to, no bodge to hold you up. If you step off you’ll start churning in the slough, sure as mud. If you step off you’ll fall into one of the deep bogholes and you can stop there like a pillar until the end of days. Nobody will find you. Whether you are taking the Waterward or the Woodward, the Homeward or the Upward, Pa says to step off the bodge-ways means death.
You never step off the paths.
And really it’s not so hard to remember. Once you know what to look for, there are safe paths tramped all over. There’s bodge laid through the dark swamp-thickets, and rope-grips to keep you upright. There are alder bridges over hidden streams, and whitestones around the quaking-mires, all laid out by previous Quirks and well-tended by the generations.
But on that morning, there was Boson, off the path and in the boghole, his face uplifted and the morning star winking in both his dead eyes. He’d forgotten what we all know. What all Quirks are born knowing.
You never step off the paths
Pa says the bodge-ways are the only right ways to move through the mires — unless we can learn to walk on water. When we go alone into the bog, we each cut our mark into the earth by the path and that’s how we know to find the others. My mark is a circle and Pa’s mark is his hand. Moo’s is a sickle. At least she says it’s a sickle; it looks more like a worm to me. She can be very careless. Pa and me have had to talk to her about it a few times.
Boson’s mark was an egg.
Anyway, in spite of knowing as well as I do about the bodge-ways my brother had forgotten it all. He’d stepped off the path. To follow his talking birds and singing water, no doubt. To hear the news from the Otherworld, probably. And now here he was, soggy as a sponge and dead as a body can be. I stood over his lifted face and I wanted to slap it.
We should have known.
We should have known when those bees swarmed our chimney. They filled our place right up with their hum-din. Pa said to leave them, they’d find their own way out. And they did, but we still found dead bees in everything for weeks.
We should have known when that owl bluthered over our threshold. It flapped around the hearth until Moo had to drop her shawl over its head to make it quiet. She put it out by the greenplots so it could pay us for its life by eating the longtails, but it just kept coming back. So then she carried it out into the moaney and left it there in her shawl. She said by the time it worked itself out of all that wool, it would’ve forgotten all about us.
And then there was that magpie, all alone and pealing.
We should have known.
I should have known.
THE BOG TURNS UP SOME UNEXPECTED things. Pa and me are always digging something up. It’s just old stuff and mostly in pieces but sometimes we find a marvel. Like the time we dug up the book or what was left of it. Most of the outside pages were rotted but the middle was full of gold and scarlet wrigglework. Its little pictures gleamed by turf-light, but when I took it into the sun its glowing parts disappeared. None of us could read what the book said, but it didn’t matter. The pictures had a talk of their own, and they talked about beasts and monsters.
Some of the monsters in that book are headless. They look at you out of eyes in their bellies. Or they have only one leg, and on the end of that leg a foot like a toadstool. They lie on their backs and their foot shelters them from sun or rain. There’s a bird with a man’s head, and a man with a bird’s head. Probably the words tell exactly what the monsters do and eat, where they live and so forth, but we only had the pictures to go on and so we stayed mostly astonished.
That book and its beasts was the best thing we ever dug out of the mire.
The worst thing we ever dug out was my brother.
The thing is, we’d been too busy to look out for the signs of a coming death, even if they came in threes and sevens. Even if an archangel had trumpeted them right into our ears, we wouldn’t have noticed. Boson had been moony for years and we had all sorts of regular trouble upon us.
We had thieving up the cut, and down at the yard. I was watching for signs of real folk. I forgot to watch for Other signs.
Anyhow, signs are not such simple things to read. Owls and magpies and bees are just part of the world, in spite of how they act around chimneys and thresholds. They will turn up and hoot and buzz and build nests. They can’t all be here just so folk can see who’s to die, who’s to be born, and what-all. If I said the chantments I’m supposed to say every time I saw a snail-on-the-stone, there’d be no time for anything else.
But then the sign of signs came, and still we were blind.
The other island appeared off Redcliff again. Overnight, it punted into place like a giant’s own coracle. There’s meant to be one of those islands for every sort of Dead folk, though you can’t tell from looking which island is for who. Anyway, whatever its way of coming, it came. The Dead-isle rose from the sea-bed, or fell from the sky-towers or dropped its mist-veil, and in the morning it was just there. The chapel did a bustling trade in masses and candles. Folk hung about the shore and cliffs, just looking. It was quite the thing.
It shames me to remember it now. That island had so plainly come for my brother.
I should have known.
I was the oldest.
I came first.
I was in a hurry even to be born. They had to wait another whole day before Boson came. That’s just how he was. Pa says I carried him everywhere in spite of us being the same size. Moo told me we talked to each other before we talked to her or Pa. They said we always went about together and that we held secrets.
Well I didn’t remember any of that. I couldn’t remember a time when he wasn’t sick and blithering.
As he sickened, he dwindled to useless for any real work. Pa said the ground needed more than Boson’s good intentions to give up its turf and he said I had to go instead. That’s when I started up the cuts.
It was midwinter when I first went up. Pa said I had a strong arm, and a sharp eye for the sweet turf that doesn’t take your throat out with its smoke. He said we made a good team in spite of me being a girl.
Boson stayed home with Moo. She said he was useless there too, even for fires and she’d never known a boy who didn’t care for fires. While Pa and me were working the cuts, Boson was at home spooking Moo. He was telling her to watch her step in the icy yard, it was fairly breaking out in ghosts. He was asking her plain, as if he did it every day, who all the Dead-ones were.
‘I don’t see any Dead ’uns,’ Moo was answering him. She was feeling his brow with her palm and tipping his head back by the chin to look at him eye-straight. He was smiling like her face was a blossoming meadow and he had all day to spend in it.
She gripped him by the arms like he might float away and shook him.
‘Stop it,’ she said, sharp and loving both.
Before that first distempered winter Boson never had any trouble eating but then he started up picky with his food. He wouldn’t eat flesh any longer; he said he couldn’t eat his
brothers and sisters
. He wouldn’t eat greens that had even touched flesh; the death in the meat was
he said, and then he started up about eggs and milk as if they were some filth we were forcing on him. At meals he picked and made faces until Moo sent him outside to eat.
Then he stopped eating with us altogether and started eating with the birds.
My brother was my parents’ favourite, their tantony, their cosset. He seemed made for bringing out the tenderness in my mother and the laughter in my father. I was the regular one. I seemed made only for good sense and work, and my parents left me to it. Whatever it was he had in him that made them croon or laugh, I didn’t have it. I knew I didn’t have it, but I always said they may have loved my brother but they couldn’t trust him.
They could always trust me.
I think maybe together we made one full person; him with his fiery mind and me with my cool one, him with his lofty mind-eye and earth-bound me, him making Pa laugh and me making him proud. Plainly, there’s no room for two flapping, excitable folk in any family. Pa said we were lucky I was such a practical sort of person.