If Tilly dies, my tribe dies with her.
I understand the thought behind putting her in foal. A chance for new blood, a beast that’s young and strong enough to till the fields we rely on to grow our crops. The arthritis in Tilly’s aging bones means we need a replacement, and fast.
This risk is a practical hedging of bets. We’ll face the same problem when she dies of old age, a moment to which she is getting dangerously close. But that age makes this pregnancy a bad idea. It makes it a last-ditch effort, one that will likely put Tilly to rest even earlier. It falls to me bring her through it safely or, at the very least, her foal.
I sit on the straw by Tilly’s side, one palm flat against her heaving flank. Memories filter past of her as a foal, malnourished and abandoned, a runty thing I nurtured into a keystone of our changing Farms. She’s always worked hard, far harder than anyone expected she could. Now, she’s old, and this is what her years of service have earned her.
Every time she whinnies, I cringe. She’s asking why we did this to her.
And what of the baby, when it’s born? If the Chirals come for it, this will all come to nothing.
If it’s born.
“Shh, shh, shh,” I coo. None of the tech cluttering this barn can help me. I need things I haven’t had access to in years, like retrazine, a blood kit. I could run some tests, see if there’s anything I could do to make her more comfortable. But retrazine is even sparser than food. Without it, the only treatment I can offer is my company.
But I can do this, because I have to. Or so the thinking goes.
I hear the latch click open, and then my dad is standing in the stall doorway with soft eyes and empty hands.
“I don’t know what to do,” I confess, my hand on Tilly’s side curling into a claw. My nails, dirty and rough-edged, disappear between the coarse brown hairs. “She’s just too old. This was a bad idea.”
His sad gaze reminds me we had little choice. Tilly will be at the end of her years soon, and then we really will be out of options. I accept his silent plea for me to take a break. To accept the things I cannot change. He’s right: I can’t do it all.
But I can usually do at least something. I press my bruised knuckles into my calves trying to calm my frustration.
Back at our one-room, mud-and-brick cabin, my pinch-faced mother pushes a scalding bowl of soup into my hands. I droop.
“Sit,” she orders. She passes another bowl to my father and continues to bustle, her starched skirts brushing against the wooden cupboard below the sink, where she stands scrubbing. She pauses every few seconds and frowns back at us.
It makes sense that the stress has lined itself on her face more than my father’s, has made her blunt and sour. My father’s silence is sweet and soothing, and it’s a blessing to him. My theory is that his inability to voice the fear prevents it from setting in. My mother—negotiator, businesswoman—bears that burden on her own. I’ve never been able to parse out how much anger is hidden under her exhaustion.
“Here,” she finally says, clanking two thick wooden spoons onto the center of the table, damp and freshly washed in water she brought from the river yesterday. I try not to look too close at the utensil, dubiously clean at best. I know better than to ask why she hasn’t gotten fresh water. She can only do so much.
Guilt pours in through my downcast eyes. If I weren’t spending so much time with Tilly, I could have helped her in the water.
And if she hadn’t brokered the Chiral deal to get Tilly pregnant, we wouldn’t be in this situation at all.
She joins us, a family of three sitting cross-legged on the floor before a low table. Our cabin, larger than most in Barnab, lets in a few shy rays of sunlight through the screened window. My mother watches her soup bowl as she raises it to her lips. She avoids looking at either of us, not wanting to share how tired she is. A mean part of me wishes she were like this more often. Her anxious states are far more common, and they’re a lot to handle.
“Good soup,” I say after I take a sip from the edge of the bowl. I mean it. She’s added parsnips, a rare treat. I almost ask how many are left, but she definitely considered that before taking them. I imagine her waffling in the dark of the storehouse, cradling a parsnip in both hands and wondering if it would be more valuable later, a few months in, when the fields have been empty for weeks.
She flashes the briefest of smiles before refocusing on her bowl, which now sits motionless on the table under her gaze. “Tilly is hard for you, Darga. I’m sorry.”
My father reaches out, gently, and brushes a strand of hair from her face. She squeezes her eyes shut and leans ever so slightly into his hand. I look away. There’s nothing I can say to that that isn’t either bitter or a lie.
My mother takes a deep, steely breath. “The Chirals won’t take the foal. It’s not in the contract.”
Like that’s any guarantee.
I feel my father’s eyes on me, imploring me to talk to my mother. To repeat her own assurances back at her, help her stave off the impending mania. But it’ll come eventually, regardless of how kindly I handle her in this instant. I stir my soup wordlessly.
“Everything will be okay. It will,” she says, then nods assuredly to herself before shuddering. “It will. Barnab will be okay.”
My father’s gaze turns into a slow, disappointed frown. I stand abruptly and take my bowl outside to finish my dinner alone.
The moon’s reflection ripples in my soup as I stir. We’ll see what happens with Tilly. Then maybe I’ll be able to make peace with my mother. Depends how it goes.
I stab the spoon against the bottom of the bowl, frustrated at my bitterness. Everyone is doing their best to keep the Farms afloat. If Tilly dies from this, it will be because it was our only choice, and one only my mother would make. She’s the one who does what needs doing, even when it’s ugly. It’s not fair of me to be angry.
Yet here I am, eating her soup alone because I can’t handle the fact she’s killing my horse, a horse who means a hell of a lot more to me than she does.
A distant mumbling carries to me on the breeze. I set my bowl on the dirt and squint at the silver tracks ahead. A figure shuffles back and forth, indistinguishable in the darkness. I glance at the cluster of homes on my left, candlelight flickering in the windows. Any kids out playing would do so closer to home, and certainly nowhere near the tracks. Cross them and it’s only desert.
“Hey,” I call, getting to my feet. Rarely do people pass by anymore, and almost never do they loiter at night. Is it a thief, wandering in from the empty expanses, hoping for a meal from the last farm in Carnigai? “Who’s there?” Tension rolls through my body and curls my hands into ready fists. The figure doesn’t seem to notice me so I start forward at a jog. “Hey!”
Anticipation builds in my arms, a perverse hope that this person is someone bad, someone I can take care of. For all my training, I so rarely get to put my fists to use.
When I’m close enough to make out the mumbled words, I sigh and my arms droop. Should have known. It’s just Old Man Wells.
“Bad thing,” he says as he stares around. His gaze passes over me, but he doesn’t seem to register my presence. His hair is much longer than it was when he was all here. It pangs me to know he would be ashamed of himself now, if he could see how far he’d deteriorated. “We did a bad thing, a horrible, awful thing.”
“All right, old man,” I say, taking his arm to lead him back along the tracks towards the hut he shares with his son. His meaningless, paranoid ramblings hang in the cool night air. “Let’s get you home.”
“And you know it, don’t you? This is us. Our fault, all of it. Good, before. It was good before.” He digs his heels into the dirt. “Darga.”
His sudden focus startles me. The intensity with which he stares into my face prompts me to stretch my arm out, to hold him at more of a distance. “Yes, it’s me,” I say. “It’s time to go home now.”
“It’s always been small for you. But we did that. Smaller, Darga, smaller. Too small to survive. We starve because of the thing we did, the bad thing, the terrible, horrible thing.”
He may have recognized me, but that doesn’t mean he’s lucid. I try to hurry him along the tracks, the night air beginning to coax goosebumps from my skin.
I should knock, but I’m antsy to get away from Wells as soon as possible, so I just push open the door. His son glances up, confused for a moment. He looks from his father, hunched in the doorway, to the cot where the old man sleeps. He swears and pushes his chair back, then grabs a fistful of his hair and holds it on top of his head, exasperated.
“Come on, Dad. In we go. That’s it.” He leads his father inside and settles him on the cot.
“Trains made us bigger,” Old Man Wells says, seated on its edge. He looks calmly from between Mudo and I. “Niroek still has it. It’s Carnigai that’s small.”
Mudo turns back to me with a grimace, bracing his hands on either side of the door frame. “I’m sorry, Darga. I didn’t even realize he was outside.” He gestures back at his desk and frowns, the face of a man with a headache earned over countless hours. “Been crunching numbers.”
He looks so haggard it’s hard to believe we’re the same age. Though I suspect I look no better after my marathon nights in the barn. “Not going well?”
Mudo shakes his head. “Not going well at all. Derissa’s notes are nonsense to me. I’ve been trying, Darga, believe me, but I just can’t make sense of them. I don’t know how she stretched things as far as she did.”
“You’ll figure it out.” In truth, I’m not confident he will. Derissa’s death was a blow to the Farms. In the years she spent managing rations, nobody else learned her secrets. Not that anyone to blame for that. We all have our jobs, and nobody had time to spare to double up on a job only one person needed to do.
I’m sure there are those of her who blame me for her death. But I work with animals, not humans. Derissa’s malnutrition was far beyond my capacity to help. By the time it finally became evident, I don’t think anyone could have helped.
The real chill comes from the fact that Derissa had all the numbers. She knew somebody was going to starve. She probably thought she was being selfless, but really, the value she took from us was irreplaceable. The burden Mudo’s taken on isn’t one I’d wish on my worst enemy.
I step back. “Take care of yourself.”
He smiles a little and closes the door, the conversation gone as far as either of us is willing to take it. I grudgingly accept the perspective. I’m not the only one with all our lives in their hands.
The bowl of soup is still waiting for me. The fantasy of dumping it onto the parched ground plays out in my head as I force myself to finish.
Back inside, my parents have already gone to bed. I wash my bowl, blow out the candle left lit for me, and lie down, promising myself I’ll be stronger tomorrow. Not one of us is in this alone.
The waking world drifts in while it’s still dark outside. I tense up listen, trying to identify what’s woken me up at an unusual hour, but there’s nothing to hear. Only the soft wind, the little rushes of air that pass the sand back and forth outside, a muted rustling that rarely rises to the forefront. I try to clear my head but find myself staring at the straw ceiling, hands clammy, pulse racing. There’s nausea in the pit of my stomach, my insides roiling and threatening to come up. The soup?
No. The thought of being sick—of throwing up our food—makes my abdomen clench. It will not happen.
This wakefulness, devoid of any trigger, disturbs me. I work hard and I sleep well, if not often enough. Deep and dreamless. Stress can’t reach me in that place. I am not my mother.
But then, I haven’t been working lately, not the way my body’s used to. I’ve been worrying.
The unfamiliar anxiety, an awareness that won’t recede, pulses in my stomach and throat and behind my eyes. I sit up and ball my fists, hold them close to my core. I shouldn’t have skipped my training today. That’s all this is, pent-up energy because I’ve been too busy watching Tilly to pay attention to my body. I’ll go outside, I’ll punch some things, and then I’ll come back and sleep. It will clear my head and in the morning, I’ll have a better idea of what to do about Tilly. My straw mattress rustles when I reach under it for my wraps, neglected for the past week.
My parents sleep, undisturbed, at the other end of the cabin. My mother murmurs and shifts every so often, but she doesn’t speak, doesn’t stand. No nightmares tonight, at least not the kind that make her move. My father, silent in sleep beside her, doesn’t stir.
My scratchy sweater is unnecessary during the day but a boon at night, when winter warns it’s on its way. I slip out the door, the only sound the rustle of straw that’s blown up against it. I’ll check briefly on Tilly, and then go down to the river.
I mean to go calmly, but as soon as I start for the barn, the rhythmic thudding inside of me speeds up. I am hyper-aware of the night, cool and dry and silent, and I run through it, my feet in tandem with every dip in the path. I have learned every inch of this ground.
I burst into the barn with a clatter that startles the animals. The hogs in the front squeal, and the hens chatter at each other through their network of cubbies. The sheep sway against the wooden side of their stall, but otherwise make no sound. The only animals truly undisturbed are the cows, immovable beasts like boulders in a dust storm.
And Tilly, sweet Tilly, has stood herself up and is asleep on her feet. My knuckles on the edge of her stall relax as I count her breaths. She is fine and sleeping soundly. I want to lay my cheek against her neck in gratitude, but her peaceful moments come so seldom anymore that I don’t dare disturb her. She is fine and that’s all that matters.
I check on each of the other animals on my way out, waiting for the tension to leave my body. Tilly’s fine, everything’s fine. The light of the moon through the massive barn doors shows me the starkness of the mess in here, the moon edging everything in white. A few now-useless metal machines, the moonlight competing with the glow from their sparse runes, are stored in the stall that used to house our second sow. She was my fault, my very first veterinary casualty. I spare an extra moment to check in on Badger, her throaty oinks still riling up the piglets that stumble around her feet. I bite a knuckle. I’m sorry I couldn’t save your mother.
I latch the door behind me, hoping to lock my fear inside. Compartmentalize. Tilly is okay, and so are you.
But the fear follows me out, a shiver that has me looking over my shoulder. Looks like I’ll finally get some use out of those wraps.
I look forward to the solitude of a fight on this loneliest, most silent of nights. I want to break the still air with my body, to feel myself grounded and existing. If the physical exhaustion of a night spent training can’t put a reset on this anxiety, nothing can.
The old river runs two miles southwest of our cabin, the barrier that puts residential on one side and work on the other. The houses are dark now, every candle snuffed out, but the moonlight bounces off their straw roofs, stretching out along this side of the river. On the other side are the fields, vast and mostly empty.
It’s no oasis, but there is water, a thin stream that trickles at the very bottom of a ditch hollowed out by a much stronger waterway many years ago. It feeds our crops, though less and less of them every year. The sides of the river rise high above the water level, dry, steep, and cracked.
I like the riverbed for the machines that line its bottom. Flat, wide plates sit at even intervals just above the trickling water, the white light from their runes casting rippling reflections on the water that runs below. I have vague memories of a time when the water level was high enough to run above them, but those days are long past. The platforms were once used to spray the river water out over the fields, according to Old Man Wells. Those days, too, are past.
I hop down from the bank and land in a crouch on one of the platforms, the metal cool on the soles of my feet. I can barely see the punching bag, but it’s there, illuminated by the moonlight and the faint glow from the platforms. I reach out, nearly blind, to lay my palm flat against the leather. A smile quirks my lips, and I pull my hand back, wrap it. The other one, too. I dance to the left and to the right, reminding my feet where the platforms drop off, and then thwack. The bag shudders, swinging back and forth on its line, stretched across the river and mounted firmly in the dirt on either side. Again: thwack, thwack. My breathing grows slow and deep, and I feel connected to the metal beneath me. The tip of my bare foot connects with the leather, and I leave it there, perfectly balanced. Another kick, the promise of a blooming bruise.
I work to exhaustion, until my legs are jelly and I can’t feel my hands. I jump to catch the rope it hangs on, and I summon the last of my strength into my arms. I haul myself up until my midsection hangs over it and shimmy to the side so I can pull myself ashore.
I lay on my back in the dirt, eyes closed. I focus on my breathing. The clarity that fighting brings, the place my body goes where my mind can’t follow, slowly recedes, leaving the inside of my head clear and sure and grounded. I sigh and close my eyes.
As the adrenaline drains away, it reveals the anxiety still lurking below. I thought I’d punched it out, but all I’d really done was boxed it in for a time. The fading high sets me back inside the twisting of my stomach, the pounding that was waiting to crawl back up my throat.
I groan. I don’t do anxiety. I don’t know what’s wrong.
I lie on the ground all night, awake.