Prized, p.21Caragh M. O'Brien
“We got talking down at the prison. Those nomads were from a tribe that picked Jack up out of the wasteland.”
“That means he’s alive,” she said, amazed. “Are you sure?”
“As sure as I can be. They heard I was from the Enclave and wondered if I knew him.”
“Did they know anything about Old Meg?”
“I asked. They’d never heard of her,” Leon said.
It was hard for her to believe the old woman had perished, even though that was most likely. Old Meg was a tough old bird, she thought. Conversely, she was happy to know her brother was alive, even if she never had a chance to be with him. “Did you ever know a boy named Martin Chiaro back in the Enclave?”
“He was in the grade ahead of me at school,” he said. “Kind of a skinny loner. His family makes the fireworks. He got in trouble once for starting a fire in the school playground, but that’s all I really know. Why?”
“He’s my other brother, Arthur.”
“Really?” He pondered a moment, looking at her closely. Then he shook his head. “I’m sorry I don’t remember any more. We were never friends.”
What she really wanted to know was if Arthur had grown up happy, if his family had been good to him, but she’d probably never know. “It’s still something,” she said. Gaia turned the map again and wondered where Peter had captured her. “The trail south doesn’t go farther than the oasis,” she said. “Did you go there?”
“No,” he said. “It’s odd that people here have never explored south, considering your grandmother obviously told them about the Enclave.”
“They haven’t been able to leave because of the gateway sickness,” Gaia reminded him. “A hundred kilometers of wasteland is no small barrier, either. It’s like we know there’s a moon, but we don’t try to go there.” She reached for the book Bachsdatter had given her. “I don’t even really know why my grandmother left Wharfton in the first place. Why would she abandon her family?”
“Maybe she wanted to find somewhere better. When did she leave?”
“When I was one or two. I remembered her monocle, actually, the one the Matrarc wears, but I don’t remember her at all.”
“After you were scarred, then, right?” he asked.
She glanced up at him. People rarely mentioned her scar here, almost like they didn’t even see it. In Wharfton, it had defined her so completely as an ugly outcast that she’d hardly ever been able to forget it. Now, it struck her that Leon saw her clearly, flaws and all, but in balance.
“Yes,” she said.
“Why don’t you wear your locket watch anymore?” he asked.
She instinctively touched the bare place on her chest. “It doesn’t feel right to. I can’t describe it better than that.”
“When did you take it off?” he asked.
“When I told the Matrarc about Peony.”
“When you capitulated.”
She shifted in her chair, resting her elbow on the armrest, and let herself look up at him directly. “Sometimes I feel like you understand me so clearly.”
He tilted his face slightly, his dark eyebrows lifting. “I was just thinking what a complex mess you are.”
He shook his head. “I don’t want to get drawn into this with you. Not again. We’re getting along fine for once. Let’s leave it at that.”
She stared down at the book in her fingers, feeling color warm her cheeks. “You started it, asking about my necklace.”
“I just wanted to be sure you hadn’t lost it.”
“I didn’t. It’s with my midwifery things in my satchel.”
She hunched back in her chair, taking the little book Bachsdatter had given her. She forced herself to focus on the pages before her, finding lists of dates, temperatures, and weather records for the swamp. They went on for four years predating her grandmother’s death, daily, with obsessive precision. Then, ten years ago, Bachsdatter’s handwriting continued less frequently, and finally tapered off altogether two years ago.
She peered closely, flipping the pages slowly, wondering why little brackets had been marked in the margins around some of the dates, with more in the winter months. Then she remembered Bachsdatter commenting on the storm, and checked the weather comments again.
“It looks like she was keeping track of the overcast days,” she said.
“Let me see,” Leon said, and she shifted so he could look over her arm.
“Why would she do that?” she asked.
He flipped a few of the pages. “There are dots here, too, by the evaporation numbers. It would make sense that there’s less evaporation from the marsh on overcast days.”
“But why go to all this trouble to confirm that? Was she trying to connect the evaporation to something else? To health problems?”
“What’s in the sketchbook?” she asked.
Leon passed it over, and as she opened it, a sheaf of folded papers fell out from under the cover, tied with a red string. The outer sheet was clearly addressed in black ink.
To Bonnie and Jasper Stone
“It’s to my parents,” Gaia said, astounded. “How can this be here?”
“Your grandmother must have written to them, hoping they’d find this here,” he said.
She unfolded the letter, and a white card slipped out onto the table. The letter had no normal writing, but several pages of symbols.
It made absolutely no sense to her.
“Not again,” she said. “What is with the people in my family? Why can’t they ever write anything normal?”
Leon reached for the card and flipped it over. “This is normal,” he said. “Better than normal.”
She leaned nearer to see. There, painstakingly rendered, was a pencil drawing of a sleeping child, hardly more than a baby, her eyes closed, her little hand bunched under her chin. Each finger was carefully, perfectly drawn, down to the tiny fingernails. The artist had gazed closely at the child for a long time, and with unflinching skill, had also rendered the raw, burned skin that marred the baby’s left cheek.
Gaia touched the card wonderingly. “It’s me,” she murmured.
“It hurts to look at it,” Leon said quietly. “It must have killed her to draw it.”
Gaia had never seen such a lifelike drawing, and it fascinated her. She wished the baby would open her eyes and look back at her.
“Are there any more?” she asked. “Are there pictures of my parents?”
She shook the leaves of the book, hoping for others to fall out, and a small black feather drifted to the table. The two white, squarish dots in the black made her think it was from a loon like the one she’d seen in the marsh. Gaia lifted it, turning it in the light to see its sheen, then held it over the drawing to hide the scar. How different, how untroubled the baby seemed then, with the evidence of her agony concealed. She shifted the feather away again to see the face complete with its scar.
Leon’s chair creaked slightly, and she glanced up to see he was watching her closely, his eyes pensive. “You had people who loved you,” he said.
She nodded slowly. It was an amazing, profound heritage to have, she realized. Her grandmother wasn’t just some record keeper or political figure; she wasn’t some elusive old woman with no personality or motivations. Gaia felt like she was tapping into something much deeper, something that was alive in her, just as it had been alive in her parents, too. For a moment, holding something as ephemeral as a feather, she felt like she and her mother and grandmother were the same person, sharing the same pain and love, just repeating in different generations.
“I don’t know what this letter says yet,” Gaia said, “or why she wrote it in code, but I bet it has to do with survival. She came to Sylum for a reason, and she believed my parents would follow, but I also can’t think she’d go to all that trouble to lead them to a dead end. She must have been trying to find a solution, some way
“How did she die?”
Gaia shook her head. “I don’t even know that.” But she would find out.
She set the feather aside to lift up the letter, turning it different ways. She examined the negative space between the symbols, but that didn’t work. She shifted her foot out from under her, curling her knee up before her on the chair. “Why do you suppose Old Meg and my mother both told me to go to the Dead Forest? Mabrother Iris told me this place was a fairy tale.”
He reached for the little black feather and stroked it idly over the table. “In the Enclave, we knew other communities must exist. How could they not? But I never heard of Sylum, specifically, until I came here. The Dead Forest figured as a magical, evil place in many of our children’s fairy tales, full of witches and spells and fire, like a Land of the Dead. The Unknown. Mabrother Iris probably thought you were talking about that.”
His voice trailed away, and she studied his profile, surprised to see that his focus had shifted to her hands. She held them still while a faint shiver crossed her skin.
“We had the same fairy stories outside the wall,” she said. “But my mother was so certain, sending me to look for my grandmother. Like she’d heard of Sylum. I can’t help thinking some nomads gave my mother a message or something, or just told her my grandmother was here. Will said the nomads call this place the Dead Forest.”
“It makes sense that your mother knew something Mabrother Iris didn’t,” Leon said.
“You didn’t believe in the Dead Forest, either,” she reminded him.
“But you did. That was enough for me.”
She looked across at him, watching him with the feather. There had been something in his voice that was different, almost tender. A faint ruddiness rose in his cheeks, though he wasn’t looking at her.
She sat back, smoothing the fabric of her skirt close around her knee. “What’s going on?” she asked quietly.
A shifting noise came from a log in the fire, and Gaia knew without looking that Josephine was starting to stir. She kept her gaze on Leon, who set down the feather and started to rise. A flash of lightning lit up the valley.
“Good luck with this,” he said.
“You’re giving up? I thought you were going to help me.” She spread her fingers over the code. You said we were getting along.
“Aren’t you curious?”
“I am. But this isn’t a good idea, working with you.”
The delayed roll of distant thunder came up the bluff and rattled one of the window panes.
“Because of this.” Very deliberately, he leaned forward to where her hand rested on the code, and brushed his knuckles across the back of her fingers, just once. Invisible electric particles hovered over her skin where he’d touched her, and she didn’t dare move. Wide-eyed, she lifted her gaze to his face, and still he wouldn’t meet her eyes.
He tightened his fingers in a fist and examined his hand, as if questioning the sensitivity of his own skin. “You see, that’s a little problem,” he said calmly. “At least for me.”
She couldn’t even move. For me, too.
He turned, strode up the steps, and headed out the door. Moments later, she heard the unmistakable thwok of wood being split, and the noise kept up with tireless regularity for the next hour.
OVER THE NEXT FEW DAYS, Gaia was careful not to be alone with Leon again, and where before she’d been watching him, she now had the sense that he was watching her, and not with any particular pleasure, either. He unsettled her in a way that touched everything. If he was in the same room, she was aware of him. If he wasn’t, she kept expecting him to return. Worst of all was when he went down into the valley for supplies and more water, because he could be gone for half an hour or half a day. The only thing that gave her relief was when she was inside and could see him out on the deck, where he sometimes took Maya or Junie and paced slowly, looking out over the valley. Then she knew where he was and what he was doing, and that he wasn’t looking at her.
“You’re so fidgety,” Josephine said one night. “I’d say to smoke some rice flower, but you don’t do that, do you?”
Josephine sighed. “It’s the darkness getting to you. Everyone always smokes more as the days get shorter. It would make you feel better.”
Gaia was alarmed. “You’re not smoking while you nurse, are you?”
“No,” Josephine said. “But honestly? I’d be tempted to if I weren’t. Jezebel smokes all the time, whenever her headache starts, and she’s much more mellow when she does.” She laughed, waving a hand to indicate the living room. “This sure beats having Bill around. Are you still working on that code?”
“Yes,” Gaia said.
Josephine was changing Junie’s diaper, but when she finished, she came to look over Gaia’s shoulder. Gaia leaned back to let her see. In the new sling Gaia had made, Maya was awake, looking around placidly, but her little eyes focused on Gaia, and after a concentrated look, Maya gave her baby smile, all gums and pure joy. Gaia couldn’t help grinning back.
“It could just be nonsense, you know,” Josephine said. “Your grandmother was crazy.”
“I beg your pardon?” Gaia said.
Josephine sat in one of the armchairs by the table. “Nobody wants to tell you, but she was crazy by the end. She started wading in the marsh at night. Did you know that?”
“What are you talking about?”
Josephine nodded. “Ask Mx. Dinah or Norris. Or the Matrarc. They’ll tell you.”
“Why don’t you tell me? What else do you know?”
“I was just a kid, but I’m pretty sure that’s why the cuzines voted her out.”
“What?” Gaia had thought her grandmother died as the Matrarc.
Josephine raised a hand to her mouth. “I’m sorry. I thought you knew. She was a great Matrarc until near the end. Then she got crazy ideas. She tried to make the expools leave Sylum. I don’t know what all else because that’s about when the cuzines voted her out.”
“Then what happened?”
“Mlady Olivia moved in with her and took care of her, up here in her place on the bluff, and then she ran away that time and Norris found her. You know, dying.”
Gaia didn’t want to believe her. Josephine did not strike her as the most accurate source for information, but at least a little of what she said must be true.
“I didn’t know,” Gaia said. She rested a hand around Maya and looked again at the sketchbook.
“I just don’t want you to pull your brains out,” Josephine said. “That’s all I meant. It might not make any sense.” She switched Junie to her other shoulder. “What else is in her sketchbook?”
“Tons of drawings, of water towers and pipes, mostly.”
There was a thumping noise out on the porch, and both of them started.
“That must be Vlatir,” Josephine said, and went to get the door.
Gaia scrutinized the code again. If her grandmother had indeed been mad, she’d had a very precise, tidy madness. Gaia didn’t buy it. She remembered putting pencils between the lines of the last code she solved, and reached for a wooden spoon, trying it this way and that. With the spoon in a vertical position, she paused.
She peered more closely, fiddling the spoon along the edges of the letters. They didn’t quite line up, but then she thought she saw something.
Josephine’s laughter came from outside.
Gaia peered again at the symbols, wishing she had a pencil and some clean paper. She rose and went to the bookshelf where some supplies were stored and dug around until she found a quill, a bottle of ink, and some scraps of paper.
Josephine was laughing again, and Gaia looked up as she and Leon came in. He had his hands carefully clasped together before him. As he looked at Gaia, his eyes were warm, and a smile hovered at th
“I’ve brought something for Maya,” he said.
Gaia’s heart turned over. She pulled her sister out of her sling, propping her upward in the nook of her elbow so she could see, and Leon came nearer.
“Ready?” he gently asked the baby.
He slowly opened his hands. On his calloused palm was a long black bug, completely unremarkable until it glowed green for a steady instant. Gaia gasped, delighted, and then it went black again. The baby, unimpressed with the bug, was staring at Leon’s face with her intent concentration, and then she smiled again.
Leon laughed. “The meadow’s full of them.” He closed his hands again before the lightning bug could fly away. “Come see.”
“What are they doing out in November?” Gaia asked. She’d never seen lightning bugs this late.
“It makes no sense at all,” he said, “but you have to see them.”
Gaia left her things on the table, slipped the sling off over her head, and carried Maya out to the porch. Leon held the door for Josephine to follow, but Josephine, smiling, shook her head.
“I saw,” Josephine said. “They’re beautiful. Junie’s asleep, though. I’m going to sleep while I can, too. Maya ought to be able to go for a few hours, but call me if she needs to nurse.”
Gaia paused on the porch beside Leon and stared in wonder. It seemed all the stars that had been missing from the sky for the last two weeks had come down to delicately gleam in the meadow. Tiny moving lines of light blinked on and off, overlapping and skimming with no noise of their own, while crickets kept up a persistent chirping that filled the night air with vibrating sound. She’d never seen anything so lovely. She walked barefoot down the stone steps, drawn to the ineffable beauty. Even the night air smelled soft. Dry grass prickled between her toes as she stepped gingerly into the meadow, where soon the tiny lights were all around her.
“It’s amazing,” Gaia said.
“I thought you’d like it.”
She looked back, just able to make him out by the faint light from the cabin. He leaned a shoulder into one of the pillar beams of the porch and slid his hands in his pockets, lounging and relaxed. She wished she could see his eyes. She held up her hand in the darkness, wondering if one of the lightning bugs would land on her, but they came no nearer to her dark fingers. The whole thing made her laugh with pleasure.
Prized by Caragh M. O'Brien / Young Adult / Romance & Love / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes