Leana liked to visit her mother in the autumn, when the falling leaves hid the worn, pale fragments protruding from the dirt. It was easier to face her mother if her skin wasn’t crawling at the things seen amid the roots, if she thought of the trees as receptacles for souls and not devourers of bodies.
“Hello, ma.” Leana bowed before the tree. “I brought you new ribbons.”
She took hold of one of her mother’s branches, to untie last year’s frayed decorations, and tried not to think of placing the acorn in her mother’s mouth, back before they filled the grave. Had her mother’s soul left her old body in that moment, travelled straight into the acorn, or had it waited until the tree grew strong?
The branches slowly parted, as much of a greeting as her mother ever made. Lively voices and rustling leaves came from elsewhere in the forest, but not here. Not from ma.
“Things are good at the bakery. Old Humbert sends his regards, says he misses your help with the dough.”
Humbert said a lot of things, and the ones to Leana weren’t usually so kind.
“Olaf sends his best regards.”
Best regards. Twenty years together, and that was the best he could think of when she went to the grave. Had there ever been any passion there? It didn’t matter. She couldn’t walk away now, any more than she could leave the bakery. What would she tell her mother? Best to focus on tying the ribbons, instead of dwelling on these things.
Smoke tickled Leana’s nose. She ignored that too, concentrated on the bows, on making her mother look good, as she had done every day near the end, when ma couldn’t do it for herself.
“I thought I might cut my hair. What do you think?”
The branches swayed from side to side. Ma had always said that Lanea’s hair was her best feature; not her wits, like the schoolmaster said, or her smile, as Timol used to swear, before she started walking out with Olaf.
“No? Perhaps I’ll get myself a green dress instead. I’ve been wearing blue since I was a child.”
Another shake, more vigorous than the first.
“Maybe not, then.”
Leana sighed, then coughed as the smoke scratched her throat. There was a flickering yellow glow between the boughs of the trees, and a dark cloud rising. Leana’s heart raced. She clutched her hands to her stomach.
She didn’t say the word out loud, didn’t want to alarm her mother or the other souls. Instead, she hitched up her skirts and ran, eyes streaming, into the smoke.
Sure enough, flames were advancing through the forest, reducing the trees to cracked pillars of ash. A wind blew down the valley, driving fiery destruction toward ma’s grave.
Sweat ran down Leana’s cheek as she jerked her head from side to side. There should be a bucket to fetch water, a broom to beat the flames, anything at all. There were only fallen leaves.
“Fire!” she yelled. “Fire!”
Perhaps they heard her in the village, but she only heard the crackle of flames.
Then came a voice behind her.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
Her old friend Timol stood beneath one of the trees, painting tar onto its trunk.
“What are you doing?” Leana asked in horror.
“Making sure they burn.”
There were scratches on his face. The tree swayed, slapped at him with its branches. He ducked and scurried out, still carrying a bucket of tar and a thick brush. A moment later, a cluster of burning leaves hit the sticky black stain, and the tree started to burn.
Leana ran at Timol, tackled him around the waist and brought him to the ground. His brush went flying. The bucket fell on its side and tar oozed, thick and dark, into the fallen leaves.
“What are you doing?” Timol screeched, his eyes wide.
“What are you doing?” Leana replied, pinning him to the ground. “You’re killing them!”
Smoke billowed. Flying cinders scorched her perfect hair. Tears streamed down Leana’s cheeks as she watched the generations burn.
“They’re already dead,” Timol said. “I’m freeing them to pass on to the next life.”
“You selfish swine!” Leana slapped him. “You’re taking her from me.”
“We’re the selfish ones, clinging to them forever. Or perhaps it’s them, binding us to dead routines.” Timol shook his head, and he too wept bitter tears. “All I know is that it has to change.”
Leana stared at him, then deeper into the forest, towards her mother’s tree. The wind was dying down. Perhaps some of the forest would survive. Perhaps they wouldn’t lose everything. Perhaps Leana’s world could be preserved, like a ghost in the trees, like a memory of her childhood, like blue dresses and long hair.
A heart-gouging grief gripped Leana, not for the lost past, but for the hollow space where her own future could have grown.
She let go of Timol, picked up his bucket and brush. He scurried after her as she strode between the trees, through the smoke and swirling sparks.
“Leana? Be careful, Leana, you could catch fire. What are you doing, Leana?”
Her mother’s branches parted in greeting. The one with the ribbons twitched disapprovingly, drawing her attention to a job half done. Even when the world was at its worst, ma wanted to look good.
Trembling, Leana dipped the brush in the last of the tar, then ran it down her mother’s trunk. Nearby, sparks landed on fallen leaves.
Her mother fell completely still.
“I never liked being a baker,” Leana said. “Goodbye ma. Rest in peace.”
Exciting news! I have a new novella coming out next year. Ashes of the Ancestors is a story about friendship, loss, and the tensions of tradition, set in a monastery full of ghosts. It’s going to be published as part of Luna Press’s novella series, and you can read more details here. Luna have put together a fantastic lineup for this round of novellas, and I’m incredibly excited to be part of it.
This week’s story was written in part to go with that announcement, by touching on tradition and care for the dead. If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook, updates on new releases, and a flash story straight to your inbox every month.
The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.
Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?
Silver and Gold, a novella about friendship, magic, is out now.