I wait until Rattle-bones is dead asleep before rooting around in my sack. I pull out the razor I wrapped with ribbons, follow the sound of babbling water through the sparse brush until my left boot splashes quietly in water. I step back onto the bank.
I shiver at the gurgling water, but there is no avoiding it. I could feel it the entire walk. I managed to get us to the fringe of the frost orchards before we stopped. That meant we could at least eat before night fell.
I could feel it the entire walk, but I avoided the thought until halfway after noon, when it got so irritating I could barely keep Skeleton Cook moving. I traded him the sack for the egg, just in case. Not because Rattle-bones pointed out the egg might need warmth. The egg had been left in a pile of rocks. Left in the snow. I doubt it needs warmth.
I could feel it the entire walk, like itches in my skin, like insect legs were sprouting out of me. So I strip off my boots, my socks, my leggings made for getting wet, but only rain wet. Not river wet. I bite the inside of both cheeks as I slip my legs into the ice water.
I slide the razor quickly, before my legs go numb and I have no idea what I am doing in the darkness. I chop every hair from the thighs down, go over it twice because I can’t stand the thought of insect legs sprouting out of me, no matter how much I remind myself the same stuff is coming out of my head. It’s not the same. Somehow, it’s not the same.
I am shivering by the time I slide back into the leggings, socks, boots; and my legs are definitely numb from the ice water. I walk unsteadily back to our camp anyway, curl up in the cloak on the frost-packed ground and try to sleep.
We avoid other travelers. It is not hard, because there are none. The summer city-migrants are mostly still there–in the city.
The frost orchards spook some people. Probably the sensation of eating your fill, stepping outside the boundary, and suddenly discovering your stomach to be completely empty. But some bits of it don’t make sense. Surely, if everything you ate within the orchards suddenly disappeared, it would be as if you hadn’t eaten for days. Sapped of energy. Only it’s not. I’ve decided the magic lands don’t exist in a real place, so the distance you walked never really happened.
We are definitely walking though, and the sun is definitely rising in the sky. Rattle-bones has completely given up the illusion of needing his walking stick, and carries it across his shoulders. He hums, sometimes, studying the trees and bushes and warbling birds. I don’t make a sound.
Until curiosity gets the better of me as he stops beside the road and overturns a rock, humming loudly. A winged creature jets away, quickly enough I can only tell it is black. And must have wings, since it is flying.
“How old are you?” I ask, bluntly. Skeleton Cook stops a few paces behind me, sack hugged in his bone arms.
He seems not to hear me, putting the rock back while still humming. Several things pop loudly as he rises to his feet.
He resumes walking, and Skeleton Cook and I join him. “Do you mean that in the literal sense,” he says loudly, “as in, how many winters have I seen? Or in the visual sense, as in, how old is my body?”
I wasn’t aware there was a difference. “Both,” I say.
“I have lived through two hundred and thirty eight winters. Plus a spring. I reckon that makes this body seventy nine years old, plus a winter and a fourth.”
“What sort of magic is that?” I ask, plucking a golden fruit and biting into it.
“The genetic kind,” he grunts.
This makes me pause, cheek full of juicy fruit. I swallow. “What?”
He has resumed humming.
“What does that mean?” I repeat, fairly certain the answer should be obvious. I’ve never heard of “genetic” magic.
“It means it was passed down to me by my parents.”
I nod like I understand, tossing the seed pit from the plum-apple behind me and it doesn’t even clatter to the ground. I am positive this is something Kolariq neglected to teach us.
The first thing, brain, Kolariq taught you after that awful wagon ride from the mountains was not how to speak Uqik. The language of the people in this southern, permafrost place. No, the first thing he taught you was how to speak death curses. There were only two other boys in the caves that day, and they both glared at you from across the red-furnished room. This was when you couldn’t get over the constant swelling of the waves; it drove you crazy wondering if the water would ever reach far enough to flood this cave you were suddenly living in.
The first curse Kolariq taught you was how to wither skin. He had dead fish arranged on a table by the fireplace, and he spoke in the mountain tongue you knew as the other boys demonstrated. You watched their lips move, their throats tense, but no sounds were uttered. The silver-scaled fish in front of them wilted, scales deflating like old pillows, silver fading into a dim gray.
They smiled up at Kolariq while you grimaced. He spoke to them in Uqik, and they nodded in delight. He turned to you then, and explained how this magic was greedy enough it stole the syllables right from your mouth as you spoke them. And then he explained that if you could learn this language, unheard, consisting of syllables you could only read on someone else’s lips, you could learn any language.
You doubted him.
“Why are you turning over so many rocks?” I ask later that day. We’ve been walking in silence since the morning, minus the plucking of berries and shaking of leaves. And the constant humming.
He continues staring at the dirt under the near-boulder he’s overturned. “Many scientists are eager to make big discoveries,” he says. “They don’t realize small ones are simpler. And many small ones add up to something big.”
I regret asking. Skeleton Cook and I keep walking, but Rattle-bones doesn’t move.
“Come look at this,” he calls a moment later. I turn around, readjusting the magenta speckled egg under one arm. I ask Skeleton Cook to stay, and return to Rattle-bones’s side.
Brain, it was only from high tide to low tide before you managed to shrivel up scales on a fish. You had no idea what you were saying. You were merely moving your mouth the same way the other boys did, and after so many tries there were only so many possible things you could have said. Oddly, even if you got it wrong there still wasn’t any sound. Kolariq said this was because of your frame of mind. Only a death mage could go into a place in their thoughts where words became simple power, collapsing on themselves in their haste to leave marks on the world.
You asked what would happen if you said the words outside that place in your mind. Kolariq and both boys laughed. You asked what would happen if you said the wrong syllables. They didn’t laugh about that one.
You found out the answer to the first question when Kolariq finally let you rest. He only let you rest after you actually cursed the dead, faintly smelly fish. You tried to tell him what you’d said, but not to curse him, and found that door in your mind was locked shut. You opened it, not realizing opening doors in your mind was a thing you could do, and said the words again. To one of the boy’s faces.
That’s how you found out the answer to the second question. Indirectly, at least. At least, indirectly, you weren’t very good then. And the patch of skin on his left cheek healed the next day.
In time for cyan-eyes to arrive.
I squat in the dirt next to Rattle-bones, peering at the pale white not-rock he’s uncovered.
“What is it?” he asks, staring at the ground.
I squint at him. “A bone, obviously.” I am about to rise to my feet and take the bone with me.
“I meant, what creature was this bone a part of?” he prods the edge of the unconcealed bone.
I shrug. “Are we on an archeological dig, or are we trying to get to my house so we can then return this egg?”
He twists to look up at me, eyes unblinking. “Both.”
I sigh. Lean past him. I prod the bone with my hand, flick it with my nails. “It’s part of a leg, or part of an arm. The rest of the skeleton’s nowhere nearby.” I raise an eyebrow. “That good enough for you?” He doesn’t reply, so I grab the visible edge of the bone and tug it from the dark dirt. It’s fairly old, but I hand it to Skeleton Cook to carry anyway.
Rattle-bones mutters something, but lets the rock he was supporting thump to the dirt. “I suppose there’s nothing else to do,” he dusts off his hands and grabs the discarded walking stick.
All three of us resume walking.
“How long did it take you to learn that?” he asks, minutes later.
“I never learned how to do that specifically. It’s just part of putting together a skeleton. You can’t put together the skeleton if there’s no skeleton to put together.”
So…” he hesitates. Glances at me, and quickly away again. “Is that all you death mages do?”
Dear brain: you and cyan-eyes couldn’t even understand each other at first. You got that he arrived on a boat, along with an older boy who was apparently sent to fetch him. Maybe, your bond came from days of sitting at the table in the cave entrance, trying to make your mouths make the same syllables as the silent boys across from you. Maybe it was from eating dead fish every night–this was before you decided you were against that. Eating fish. Maybe it was the color of his eyes, staring into yours.
Either way, it wasn’t that many days before you called yourselves friends.
See, brain, you were eight then. Eight and eating dead fish and having no real knowledge of a difference between friendship and fuzzy love. Friendship is love too. You could’ve kept it like that, maybe, except for the years of learning a language neither of you could hear so you learned to hear the language of the beating of each other’s hearts. Learned to adore the moments you were allowed to laugh at the stone table of dead fish, dying flowers, rotting wood.
Your first kiss was at thirteen. Two weeks after Tulimaq arrived. Neither of you said a word. Because you and cyan-eyes had stopped speaking. You said plenty to Tulimaq. Your last kiss, with Tulimaq, was at fourteen. A day before Tulimaq…left. Neither of you said a word then either.
You said so many words to the ocean that took him. You knew you were right to be terrified of those waves, pounding at the cave, swelling with the rain.
Dear brain: it was not the one person you’d ever kissed who whispered to you, the crying mess you were, that night on the hilltop. It was not the dead boy who brought you a blanket when he realized you were not coming down, let you sleep on his shoulder, and you felt so bad about it but Tulimaq wasn’t there anymore. And you needed someone to keep you from walking into the water too. And the thought that chased you in circles all that night on the hilltop was that maybe if you weren’t there, letting someone else hold you, Tulimaq might still be there.
See, brain, this was after the taffy skeleton before the graveyard before the blood in the water after we both knew four languages. It was the one we didn’t share.
Let me start over. In the middle. You kissed Tulimaq because two weeks after he arrived he fell in love with you. You kissed Tulimaq because you didn’t know you were already in love. Cyan-eyes didn’t share a room with you, on purpose, because Kolariq was observant enough to know you were in love. Cyan-eyes shared a room with the blond boy, who didn’t speak Uqik yet, because Kolariq wasn’t that observant.
And it was you who sat across the table mouthing silent syllables while Tulimaq and the blond boy learned how to wither fish scales. This made you uncomfortable, but you did it because Tulimaq was there, eyes dancing, speaking to you in Uqik about how smelly the fish were.
Oh brain, what a mess. But you discovered, on the hilltop that night, that you could love two people. You could love somebody who was dead, and love somebody who was there, as close as his arm wrapped around you. And you felt so bad about it.