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April 29, 2014

Writing Challenge: Week 16

by hmsnow1

The Weight of a Village

By H. M. Snow

 

Zuri pedaled his bike along the main street just before the evening shadows engulfed the eastern cliffs. The village lamplighter, Kiran, waved to him as they passed one another: Zuri toward the village square, Kiran toward the outskirts where the lamps were still dark. The flock of children who followed Kiran on his evening rounds also waved to Zuri. He checked their faces, but his sister was not among them. He was not surprised.

At the square, he found the company he sought. “Evening, Freddy. Evening, Dwyn.”

“Let’s see,” said Dwyn. Her pallid face stood out ghostly in the dusk, framed by her tangled black dreadlocks and the hood she wore regardless of the weather.

Zuri rolled up his sleeves to bare both arms.

“You’ve gotten stronger. Good.”

“You can’t see any change from one day to the next,” Zuri scoffed.

“But I can,” replied the ex-renegade. “Your right bicep is approximately one millimeter thicker in diameter than yesterday, your left half a millimeter. Moreover, you’ve lost three centimeters around the waist since I arrived. Are you eating enough?”

That made Zuri laugh. “This from the woman who hardly ever eats? How can you see these things?”

Her hollowed black eyes gazed at him with a suggestion of amusement. “I find I pay closer attention to life since I arrived here.”

“Yes,” Zuri retorted, “but do you ever plan to join it? You always sit to one side, watching. People wouldn’t be as nervous around you if they knew you better.”

“My magic is all about destruction,” Dwyn said. “If I cannot forget that, how can they?”

“That’s what you always say!”

Silent up to that point, the third member of the party cleared his throat. “I’ll be off, then.” The village peacekeeper, Freddy, rose to his feet from the stone bench where he had sat beside Dwyn the ex-renegade. He nodded to Zuri and turned to look down at Dwyn. After a lengthy wordless moment he strolled away toward the other end of the village.

“As talkative as ever,” said Dwyn wryly. She gazed after the peacekeeper. “He’s uneasy today.”

“How can you tell? He looks like he always does. No, don’t bother saying it again. ‘I pay closer attention to life,’ blah blah blah.” Zuri grinned. “You pay really close attention to Freddy, though.”

This brought a pale smile to Dwyn’s lips. “Of course I do. I wouldn’t be here but for him. I wouldn’t treasure life as I do now but for him.”

Zuri dropped down into Freddy’s abandoned spot on the bench. “You like him, right?”

“I love him… as far as one like I can.”

Her frankness took Zuri aback a little. He laughed, but his laugh faded quickly. “I don’t understand you. I know you used to be one of the renegades. I’m sure you did really terrible things for them, but you’re one of us now. Why do you hang onto what you were? You’ve got a chance at a new life here, if you’d just break free from the hold your past has on you. People would forget. They would,” he insisted. “If you gave them a chance to get to know you, they’d forget you were ever not one of us. You’re a good soul. You do everything manually, without resorting to your magic, no matter how inconvenient it is. Why does your past have to hold you back?”

Dwyn was silent after this rush of persuasion. When she spoke, it was to say, “How much can you lift now? Show me.”

Unfazed, Zuri reached out a hand toward one of the other stone benches several feet away from theirs. Without speech, he made it rise a foot above the ground, drift its full length to the left, and settle back into the grass with only a muted thud upon its landing.

“See? I told you that you’ve gotten stronger.” That same pale smile touched Dwyn’s lips again. “I asked Freddy what it was about you that makes me so glad to see you get stronger and more skilled. He said I was probably growing fond of you. You were one of the first to speak to me when I came, after all. You argue with me every day. You’re a good kid, Zuri. A very good kid. I hope I can see you come of age and do all the good things your people do. My past…” She stopped. “There are things in the world I hope you never have to face, Zuri. I’m glad to see you grow, but in a way I wish I could keep you as you are now. So pure-hearted… you have no way to know, no need to know what I have seen.” After a moment of dead silence, she said, “Your sister’s magic is developing in a strange way.”

Zuri accepted this new change of topic easily. “I’m not sure what to do about Kimi. She’s almost as bad as you are about hanging around the edges of things. A kid her age should have friends and run around and play, right?”

“Kimi is special. I didn’t mean that her magic was developing in a bad way. She passed this way not long before you came home from work.”

“Was she with Granny?”

“No,” said Dwyn, “she was alone. And she was not touching the ground.”

“At all?”

“At all. Not even a toe.”

“Everybody in our family has kinesthetic magic,” said Zuri, “but I don’t know of anybody in our family history who was able to use it to move themselves like she can.”

“It’s probable that her abilities in that area are connected to her habit of retreating into her mind the way she does. She’s lucky to have a big brother who takes such good care of her.”

Zuri shrugged off the praise. “Except for Granny and Papa, Kimi and I only have each other.”

“You should go find her and bring her home out of the night air.” Dwyn gazed at the darkening sky. “If Freddy is anxious, then it isn’t a good night to be out late.”

“Won’t you come for supper tonight?”

Dwyn declined. “Thank you, but I will stay and hear what Freddy has to tell after his rounds.”

“You can’t keep saying no forever,” said Zuri as he retrieved his bike from where he had propped it against a nearby tree trunk. “Granny and Papa would love to have you for a guest. No? Someday, Dwyn. Someday!” He swung his leg over the crossbar and pedaled out of the square in the direction the ex-renegade had indicated as his sister’s last known path.

The greengrocer Phin was taking down his awning as Zuri coasted past him. “Hold on, Zuri!”

Zuri slowed. “What is it?”

Phin picked up a lettuce. In the palm of his hand, the wilted green head firmed up into crisp freshness. “I promised your Granny salad greens, but I’ve been rushed off my feet all day. Take this to her with my compliments, will you?”

“Sure,” said Zuri. “Thanks!” He tucked the lettuce under his arm and continued on his way.

He nearly biked past his sister in the gloaming. Kimi was hardly hiding, but as she was floating at a level with the bird’s nest in the second branch of one of the birches that lined the side lane, Zuri coasted right beneath her before her presence registered in his awareness. “Kimi!”

His surprised exclamation made the eight-year-old flinch. She dropped like a rock with a shriek.

Zuri lifted a hand to slow her fall into a more controlled descent. Others from the nearby houses came running to catch her and set her on her feet. “What were you doing up so high?” Zuri asked.

She opened her hands like flower petals opening to reveal a fledgling bird nested on her palms.

“Kimi,” said her brother. He did not follow through with the rest of the rebuke in so many words, but his gaze made the little girl shrink into herself a little more.

“Now, Zuri.” This maternal tone came from An, the postmistress. “No harm done, right? We’ll call for Emlinne, and she’ll have a look at the little birdie. It’ll be all right, Kimi. She’ll see that it gets back to its nest without alarming the parents. See? There’s Emlinne now.”

Another woman from the growing crowd came forward to take the chick from Kimi’s hands. “He’s in good health,” she assured Kimi. “You picked him up before anything happened to him. I’ll put him back. Don’t worry about it.” She took from the basket carrier at her side a raccoon. Laying a fingertip atop the raccoon’s head, she said, “Jojo, you know what to do. I’ll give you other food, so leave the bird alone, right?”

The raccoon stared up at her with its bright black eyes. Then it took the chick between its clever little hands for an instant.

“Gently,” said Emlinne, “like your own babies.”

At this direction, the raccoon took the chick in delicate jaws and began the climb up the birch to the nest. Everyone watched as the omnivore deposited its natural prey safely in its nest and scampered back down to Emlinne again. She offered Jojo a treat from her hand and lifted it into the carrier. “See? I’ll wait here for the parents to come back and see they don’t reject the poor thing. It’ll be all right, Kimi.”

Zuri gave the lettuce to his little sister before lifting her onto the bike in front of him. “Time to go home for supper,” he told her. To the rest, he nodded his thanks.

Their paternal grandmother waited in the open door for them. “There you are,” she said as she took Kimi from Zuri’s hold. “I was starting to worry.”

As they sat together at the dinner table, Zuri told his grandparents the substance of his conversation with the ex-renegade Dwyn. His grandfather listened gravely. At the end of Zuri’s account, he spoke. “Her feelings toward Freddy are common knowledge. The day she came, I saw it in her face. She’s a hard woman to read, but I’ve come to trust her, regardless of her curious ways.”

“She never sets foot indoors,” offered Zuri’s granny. “Sleeps out of doors all weather, in a booth made of branches.”

“When the weather gets colder, that’ll need to change,” said Zuri.

Their conversation turned to family talk afterward, lasting longer than the food set before them. At last they cleared the table. Granny took down the tub. “It’s time for your bath, Kimi.” She shooed Papa and Zuri into the front yard. Papa settled into his customary rocking chair and took out his whittling. Zuri was restless. He looked upward at the gathering clouds that covered the stars. “Wind’s picking up,” he noted aloud after a while.

His grandfather grunted agreement.

“Tonight will be chilly for the time of year.”

The rocking chair creaked as Papa waited for Zuri to continue. Indoors, the faint splash of bathwater and muted conversation offered a comfortable homely backdrop.

“I’m going to take an extra blanket to Dwyn.”

“There’s a good one hanging on the line, fresh-washed and sun-dried today.”

Zuri took this as consent and fetched the quilt off the clothes line at the side of the house. His step was light as he strolled back toward the village square. As he had observed, the wind took on a gusty edge. It was a parched wind, despite the rain clouds overhead. Light spatters of rain blew across Zuri’s face and dried almost as suddenly as they had fallen. Dust swirled in sudden devils along the ground in and out of the light of the village lamps, casting twigs and dead leaves into the air. Trees groaned with each gust, and their lesser branches writhed.

“I told you it wasn’t a good night to be out late.” Dwyn’s voice in Zuri’s ear made the boy jump a full stride to the left.

“Where did you pop up from?” Zuri exclaimed.

“You are so trusting; you never look behind you. That is a dangerous habit in these times. Why are you out again? Is it your sister? Has she wandered again?”

“No,” said Zuri, composing himself again. “She’s home. I came out for you this time. Here.” He held out the quilt. “The wind is cold tonight.”

“I don’t feel the cold.”

“Just agree with me for once.” Zuri spread the blanket and, fighting the gusts of wind, draped it around Dwyn’s shoulders. “It’s yours, a gift from my family to you.”

“I wish you had not come out.” Dwyn drew the edges of the quilt around her. “I appreciate the gift, but I truly wish you had not come outdoors tonight. Freddy hasn’t returned.”

“Not yet? That’s strange.”

“Strange and ill-omened. Now that I have you in my sight, stay until he returns. I won’t worry as much if you’re where I can see you.” She sat down on the same stone bench as before.

Zuri sat beside her. “What makes you anxious? It’s just a storm, isn’t it?”

“Not this wind… this dry wind…” Dwyn’s hollow eyes were wide as they searched the darkness. “You know the feeling of another kinetic magic user in the neighborhood, right? In the same way, I know the feeling of a curse user when one comes near. This is a curse storm.”

Despite himself, Zuri shrank a little closer to the ex-renegade. “What does that mean?”

“Nothing good. I begin to feel the weight of this little village. You can feel the weight, if you’ve been through the training. That’s one of the first things they taught us: the weight of life. To take life, you need to know how much of its weight you can carry at one time. In the beginning, they taught us to practice curses on small lives, on insects and vermin. When you learn how to bear it, they teach you to bear heavier weights like the lives of large animals, infants and the elderly next, and then…” Dwyn uttered a soft groan. “One life, two lives, a family of lives, a village. Heavier and heavier, thicker and wetter, the smell of blood and the smell of soil… It’s too much. Freddy, come back…”

Zuri laid a shaky hand on her back. “He’ll come back. He’s been standing for ten years now as peacekeeper. He’s strong.” Though he trembled at each gust of the wind, he patted the ex-renegade’s back in awkward comfort.

“You are still so trusting,” said Dwyn. Her voice was strained. “You know enough now. Why do you stay by my side?”

“Why should I leave?” Zuri challenged her. “I never needed to know the details. What you were and what you are—those are two different things.” He had to raise his voice as the wind howled around them, but he never stopped patting her between the shoulder blades. “You’re one of the lives of the village now.”

“I can never be a life anywhere.” The wind tore Dwyn’s words away.

The ground beneath them convulsed. With a sweep of his hand, Zuri warded off a large branch that threatened to fall on them. The trees groaned and cracked as their foundations shifted. Then the ground collapsed. Zuri fell. Swallowed by darkness that seemed eternal, he fought to shift the rocks that fell with him so that he would not be crushed in the avalanche. One of the boulders rammed him from behind, knocked the breath from his lungs and bruised him all the way from skull to tailbone. He pushed away from it with all the magic he could muster, just before he hit the ground. Panting, he scrambled under the boulder’s shelter as smaller stones rained down. He shouted, but the thunder of rockfall buried his voice. All Zuri could do was to fend off the crushing rain with his magic until no more fell.

When he crawled out of his rough shelter, he rubbed his ringing ears. A white mist rose along the floor of the newly-formed ravine. “Dwyn!” he called. She was nowhere near him, so he clambered over the rubble. High overhead, the clouds dissipated with unnatural speed, allowing the moon to resume its glow. The farther he explored, the heavier his heart grew. Shattered fragments of familiar buildings lay among the rubble. A corner of the greengrocer’s awning fluttered from beneath a slab of mountainside. Nearly blinded by the mist, Zuri crawled over the corner of a house and touched warm, sticky flesh. His stomach heaved. There was hardly any light, but from the feel on his hands he knew there would be no way to identify the remains even in the broad light of noon. He retreated into another such corpse before he fought his way clear of the ruins of Phin’s place.

A long, low wail caught his attention. He turned in that direction by instinct. Even in the dim, misty depths of the massive crevice, the pallor of Dwyn’s face shone. Zuri scrambled toward her. “Dwyn!” Then he exhaled a sob, because the lower half of the ex-renegade was crushed beneath the mass of another stone slab.

She stretched out a hand. “You’re alive… alive…”

“Dwyn,” was all he could say in response.

“Don’t worry about me. I feel no pain.” Her hand was icy when it stroked his cheek. “It has been a long time since I felt cold or heat, pain or pleasure. Listen to me, Zuri. There’s no time. They won’t be far away. Do you see this mist? This is what they came to take, but I won’t let them take it. The weight of your village is in this mist. This is going to be hard for you to hear, but listen carefully. Your enemies prepare soldiers from their own numbers in order to destroy large quantities of lives and to steal the magic from their fresh bodies. There are always two of these soldiers together, one to kill and the other to steal. They will not be open to reason. They can’t reason. They can hardly think. They’re dead, reanimated by a complex curse, and only by releasing that curse on others can they themselves be released from living death. Zuri, Zuri— I am one of those soldiers. I have been dead a long time, but I can’t be free until I use the curse that’s stored inside me. No, don’t speak. I still feel the weight, but now I know what needs to be done. Stop up your ears. I won’t have you hear the words of the curse. But before that, promise me that you’ll run from here. Don’t let them catch you. If they catch you, they’ll twist your soul. They commit these atrocities because they want to create a second All-Mage, one they control. They steal the magic of innocent people and collect it inside one body. I don’t want them to take the magic of this village. It carries with it the memory of good people. It’s too good for them. I’ll give it to you instead.” Her eyes were black holes in her pallor. They never veered from Zuri’s face. “I’m sorry that my cursed magic will come with it, but if it’s you, it should do little harm. You were one of those who taught me the true weight of a life.” She took his hand and raised it to the side of his face. “Stop up your ears now. Don’t let the words inside.”

With shaking, numbed hands Zuri covered his ears. His own grip hurt the sides of his head. He watched Dwyn’s bloodless lips move. The mist began to revolve, slowly at first but gaining speed into a cyclone of white with Zuri at its center. At his knee, Dwyn’s face remained visible in the maelstrom. Her lips shaped strange syllables that Zuri did not recognize. With each syllable, her mouth moved more slowly, until Dwyn relaxed entirely. Her hand fell outstretched across Zuri’s knees.

The spinning mist contracted and encompassed Zuri like a skin. It burned as it sank deeper into his body. With it came flashes of vision, faces Zuri had known all his life connected with instincts wholly new to him. When the sizzling pain subsided, he held up his hand as if he had never seen it before that hour. He picked up a broken scrap of wood. It burst into flame. The lamplighter Kiran’s voice echoed in his memory: Time again to bring light into the dark, eh, Zuri? Zuri set the brand atop a flat rock near Dwyn’s face. The sight of her pinched bluish features brought to him an impulse to snap his fingers over her body. As soon as he did so, her body crumbled into ash.

“Cursed magic,” he breathed. A shudder ran up his back.

Stones clattered down from some height at his back. Dwyn’s warning returned to him. Extinguishing the small firebrand, Zuri made his way cautiously along the ravine. The enormity of the sinkhole struck him again and again as he climbed to level ground. Not only had his village fallen, but most of the land surrounding it was gone as well. He found no solid footing until he reached the upper road that led up the east cliff side toward the inland pass. From there he looked down at the gaping destruction of what had been his home. Night hid the worst of it from him, but in the distance the bobbing approach of lights suggested that Dwyn had been wise to warn him. Someone was coming, and Dwyn’s cursed magic told him that he was in real danger.

It wasn’t until he reached the ridge that Zuri noticed the tears streaming down his face. His shoulders bowed, as though the weight of his village had a tangible presence. He turned back one more time to look at the crevice, but he knew there was no reason. He could not return to the village of his birth, but in exchange his people would never leave him. He would carry the weight of their accumulated magic wherever he went.

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