I stare in the cracked mirror on this day. Because I think the bleeding has stopped. I poke a hesitant finger at my cheek, and it comes away clean.
I sigh. I brave the bathtub. After I brush out my hair, pull out a bar of pink soap from the cabinet. After I hold the bucket, pouring water in fits and starts, into the tub. I poke a finger in, and it is cold. But warmer than ice, or snow, or the wind howling like a lost pup. So I get in. Clothes and all. I douse my face and rub the pink soap across my skin, lather it into my hair, cleanse my feet and hands.
I hesitate above my body. This body of mine. This body. I shut my eyes and pull my shirt off, the underclothes, thick leggings. And I rub the pink soap everywhere, with my eyes shut, pretend my hands are just holding somebody’s corpse, because that makes it easier. Touching a corpse is easier than touching my own skin.
I come up, gasping, toes yanking out the drain to the wooden pipes and hands reaching for the bucket of sea water. I pour it over myself, squeeze my eyes closed, until the soap’s sliminess is rinsed free. Body, some kinds of sliminess are beneath your skin. Between the ice cube of you and the raincloud you don’t fit in.
I have forgotten a towel. I limp, freezing, past the mirror where I glimpse arms hugging myself. The air is like fine needles of cold until I reach the cabinet of my clothes, which are not really my clothes, but I use the towel. The one jet black as Skeleton Cook’s eyes. I rub the towel over everything, and I don’t shut my eyes this time. My chest. Shoulders. Hips. I cover myself up, kneel beside the drawers beneath the bed, where I keep the clothes that are actually mine. And I wear ribbons today.
Remember how, brain, you tied ribbons in his hair while he couldn’t sleep? His hair was barely ever long enough, and he only kept it like that for you. Because as much as he pouted about how it tugged his scalp, he loved strutting around with every color of the auroras dangling from his hair.
Even in the graveyards. That one night with the mist, Kolariq sent you, him, and another boy to the yard full of decrepit rocks. The morning before, you decorated only with silver and black silk because you had both known it was coming. He said he almost felt like a deadly warrior boy twice that day. But he didn’t take them out.
And then he used them to wrap the skeleton. The other boy was vomiting from the smell, since the body wasn’t entirely gone yet, but you couldn’t stop laughing. Silk ribbons, tying the bottom jaw to the rib cage and the femurs to each other. None of you were quite good enough yet to pull the entire thing together. You nearly did, until you started laughing. Plus, you couldn’t quite get past the scent either.
I stand in front of the mirror, turning, studying the magenta and yellow cotton I have braided through my pale hair. Skeleton Cook will of course say it is lovely. I make him say that, on account that somebody needs to. If it were just me, I would keep staring at the three accidental tangles until they grew into four.
I try to be dainty going down the steps. I try to smile when I study the front door. I try to keep my hands from itching when I glimpse into the sitting room and see the magenta egg. I try to distract them with petting the sea cat instead, who jangles noisily and distinctly does not purr. I try to tell myself that is okay. A purring sea cat would hardly be heard over a roaring ocean. A jangling sea cat might.
Skeleton Cook presents the empty place at the table with the mushrooms I did not eat yesterday. I try not to let them remind me. I try not to worry about the blood, and how it is two days. I try not to squirm at the taste of crawling-fungi, since nothing else I grow is healthy enough after two days of leaking blood. I try not to think about the spring blizzards, and how when they end that means the summer traders will soon be here. I try not to think about counting steps, to the city, by the ocean. I try to eat beige mushrooms instead.
Skeleton Cook tells me my hair looks lovely. I thank him with a nod, and tell him his cooking is lovely. It was more lovely yesterday, but of course, we both knew that.
I do the washing by myself, in the sink by the stove that holds the old rock. I never found what lake this sink’s other half went to. Or maybe it is a river. But the water is clear enough to wash dishes with, and it stains nothing with salt after it dries. I still don’t drink it. Unless Skeleton Cook has it boiled first.
I barely stop myself from humming as I rub a blue cloth through white suds from pink soap across a black pan. Skeleton Cook would like to dance, but I don’t let him. I have him sit in the empty place at the table, in the chair that doesn’t wobble. His foot starts to tap anyway, the many bones of his toes sounding like a tinny drum.
I drain the sink of frothy white suds and dirty water. The knife and plate and pan I leave to dry close to the stove. And I run a hand through the spiraling water, pulling out scum of crawling-fungi and bits of mushroom, then toss it to the old, generous rock. It splats wetly on the rock’s surface, steaming faintly. I pretend that that means thank you.
He was a terrible singer, brain. Used to yodel sea shanties at the top of his lungs, and one of the other boys would wince and cover his ears at the sound. Talk about how awful the screaming was. He would shout back, “you couldn’t yodel if you tried!” and Kolariq would tell us to get back on our knees in the water. Concentrate on the blood underwater. Don’t let the blood escape into the water. You felt sweat forming from your forehead, held back a shudder at the grossness of it all, but kept both your hands as level with the choppy water as you could. Kept holding the odd, red blood in a thin circle.
Until the thought of salt distracted you, how an ocean could be salty, and blood could be salty, and so could your sweat. And then the circle faded like ink on a wet page, and he was already shouting again. You meant, singing. Another boy appeared, shoving him from behind. And then the other boys joined in. That was one day where Kolariq’s skirts were soaked before the sun hit noon.
I go out into the garden, again, trying not to count steps but ending up at one hundred and two anyway. I gather all the rocks I can, even the small ones. I gather all the mushrooms, and the seal’s-fur herbs, but I leave the crawling-fungi alone. They will just crawl away. I cut the stems of the howling mint, dig in the snow for snow witches, but do not find any. I do discover a five-petaled hemlock, immediately wishing I had a shovel to dig up the tubers.
I put one rock in my backpack with the rest of the food, and carry a smaller rock in my arms. I walk one hundred and fourteen steps to the door, put the backpack down, and leave the rock outside. And I walk to the garden twice more, holding two rocks each time, one hundred steps plus two, four, ten, eight. And I ask Skeleton Cook to help me carry them inside, to the belly of the cave.
This place is the coldest, and the darkest, which is why I store food here. I push the thought of summer merchants away, even though there is no other reason why I would do this. There are salted meats, dried up and old, on the shelves along the opaque ice walls. There are frozen fruits here, ice crystals like spikes through skins. There are metal cans, opened some way Skeleton Cook neglected to show me. Before he died. He didn’t show me anything before he died, other than mercy. And bloody snow.
I shake off the thought, push the dried, bloodless meat to a different shelf. I stack the mushrooms and the mint and the rocks here, as Skeleton Cook brings them into the cave. I should bring him out to the garden, to dig up the bear-bulbs and the five-petaled hemlock. I stare at him, his empty eyes, and decide I will. Decide I should.
Remember, heart, that panicked, drum-beat feeling of walking into a crowd and wondering what they would do to you? “Nobody knows what we can do,” he whispered, grabbing your hand. You thought he did that on purpose, so you could focus on the two kinds of skin you both were, instead of the way people look.
You thought people’s eyes were a curse all of their own. Or at the very least, a mouth that didn’t have to try and say anything. You already saw so many words there, get out of my way. Who do you think you are? Go somewhere else, boy with the death-magic. You told yourself it was not really there. Eyes were just eyes, for seeing.
Hands were just hands, for holding.
You and him went inside the store, which smelled of caramel and taffy. You did not see the taffy makers, but they must have been here.
The coins in the sack held in his hand jingled, and like a call the doors in the back swung open.
She was a small woman, round like a pearl, with eyes that screamed she would pull you apart like taffy if you crossed her. “We just need some candy,” you said quickly.
She stared at your held hands and you realized you forgot to unmelt them from each other. You heard him gulp loudly. But she broke into a grin and swept you both into a hug. You blinked in surprise; he grunted.
“Of course,” she said, smiling widely.
“Just taffy,” he said. “However much this will pay for,” he emptied the cloth bag of coins.
She stared at the ceiling, muttering numbers, and then dashed away after smiling at both of you again.
“I guess…the entire store-owner’s guild isn’t a follower of Alaruq?” he said.
“Alaruq?” you replied. “The wolf deity?”
He nodded, and then interpreted your confused face correctly. “They’re also the fertility one. Real big about having babies. Also real big on hunting and pack mentality.”
You blinked, certain your education of the Uqik-speaking people was entirely lacking. “That’s an odd combination,” you said. “I thought they all just hated us holding hands.”
He raised one quizzical eyebrow. “Us as in two boys, or us as in teenagers–”
“The first one, baft-face,” you bumped his hip with your own. “If they hated teenagers doing it, no one would be open for business.”
You both fell silent as the woman returned, bundles of wax paper held in front of her. “Here you go boys,” she nodded politely and slipped something to him, his eyes widening slightly.
“Thank you,” you said, unmelting your hand from his and taking half the taffy bundles. He took the others, and you both slipped out the sliding door.
“She gave me a coin back,” he whispered to you. “I think it’s at least what Kolariq gave us to spend.”
You glanced behind you, at the candy shop. “Really? All because we were holding hands?”
He shrugged. “Just don’t question it.”
“I’m questioning it,” you muttered, inhaling the sweetness of sticky candy.
I send Skeleton Cook to the garden, and then I busy myself with packing. There is not much packing to do. I can forage for food on the way, since the trail to the city extends through the frost orchards, ripe with ice berries and plum apples. The frost orchards, untamed except by magic–someone, long ago, was greedy enough to believe they could live forever, until they discovered on their deathbed that they could not live forever. Now anyone can wander through them, burn them, pick as much to fill their stomach and then some–and the fruit will still be there the next time you turn around. Of course, nothing survives past the borders.
I take a cloak, and ribbons, and the money hidden in the wardrobe, and the face paint, and the sack under my bed to hold it all in.
Skeleton Cook clangs at the door, and I walk down the stairs, anything but dainty. His arms are full of bear-bulbs, paper-thin skins shedding dirt. And a single, fat hemlock tuber, bright orange.
I throw the cloak over Skeleton Cook’s shoulders, snug it into place between his collarbones and shoulder blades. I pause, and then put my sack next to the door and take the cloak off. I should have Skeleton Cook store the vegetables first.
I hesitate, as he clanks to the fridge and walks into the mouth of the cave. I also need to move the backpack, with the diamond knife, where nobody can reach it. Robbers are rare, especially this far south, but it is too precious to risk losing.
I’m distracting myself. I walk to the sitting room, where the sea cat lies in the corner. I blow a dust ball off their paw, stir a faint cloud into the air. I cough, twice, even though I try not to. And stare at the egg. I can’t leave it here. I have no idea when it will hatch. I have no idea what the egg even contains, other than it certainly is not a fish. Kolariq…neglected certain areas of education. Not that he ever pretended that was his goal. Not that we didn’t learn more from him than we would have in our villages. Because we were all from little villages.
I pick up the magenta egg, fingers shaking. There are ribbons in my hair. There are ribbons in my hair. I walk out of the sitting room, promise myself that the sea cat will be alright here, in the dusty corner.