No more babies ever? No pregnant women in the whole world? I wonder, does the hardworking woman who delivered the last child know yet that she can put up her feet, drink hard, and sleep as long as she likes?
I worry most about why the goddesses are calling me. What aid can I give? Do they have a problem only good hygiene can solve? Snort.
It's downhill the whole way, a steep slope, harp jolting against my lower back out of time with the food and clothing swinging from my shoulders. Hillfoot below Vidwell, Confluence on the plains, the mesa south from there. So when I stop for lunch, the ache in my knees ratcheting up to match that from the goddesses, the blue-green view gives way to butter yellows, lemons, fading to blue again. Most of a moon and those blues will be rust, russet, thick blurs of orange, sunset in stone---or so I assume, never having really been south of Confluence, home to generations of Blud women before me.
The cheese and the bread help, but I don't stand up until the goddesses agitate. Again Hisra's fires. Again, Fre's cold stone temple filled with disembodied weeping.
Twilight settles without the afternoon's autumn rain, without reaching Hillfoot. Yawning tears from my eyes, the southern sky looks washed out. I blink but nothing changes. Sitting up, I see what must be Hillfoot, in flames. It looks nearer; so much light. But even that much fire can't make clear my way from here to there over steep, uneven ground in the dark.
My eyes close before the light fades but my dreams are pinks and ash.
Just past dawn, I come to Hillfoot, half of it burnt, half of it keening. On the high street I come across a crowd and tense up, but they are working together to pull bodies from the buildings.
A man turns as I walk toward them, shouts, "Who are you?" He spreads his arms to block the road but I am stopped by the snarl on his face. Dark-haired and tall; the width of his shoulders says he works with his body.
"I'm the midwife from Vidwell---" and stop as he recoils. I know I look more like a sweaty, overburdened peddler than a mousy, middle-aged midwife, but still.
"Midwife? We've no need for you---"
"I know, but you could use more hands---" and I point because I cannot speak it.
Others turn. "She can help, Swift." "Maybe she wasn't up all night, like me."
"How have you heard the news, midwife?" I turn to face my questioner. Pale hair of the mountain folk but skin that took a tan and held it. "We've had no time to send word to Vidwell and we're the closest."
Technically I haven't heard anything from another human so I shake my head.
The woman goes into the next building and begins carefully moving planks and furniture. I leave my harp and bags outside the door, enter. She continues talking: "They sent word from Confluence: all the priests walking out from the temples at the same time, all with the same word: we are to live out the lives we have, there will be no more---" She swallows audibly. "The priests say the gods mean to start again. Without us. And now---"she waves her hand limply, "riots, deaths. That poor messenger."
She leans against a chair and it falls to pieces beneath her palm. I catch her arm so she doesn't go over. She doesn't see me. I don't know what she does see. From here, I can see the whole building's interior is ash.
I pull her gently out the door, touch a neighbor, hand her off. I turn to find the angry man at my elbow. I point. "You can't get to the upper floors, the stairs are out. But down here it's empty."
He gestures. "Try the next." He stomps in himself. Hoping he'll call for a rope and help, I go on, one body after another, so large, so silent, so unlike the work to which I usually put my hands.
Sun overhead doesn't come too soon but it does come with a kind soul carrying a bowl of stew who thanks me for taking care of Sud earlier. I thank them back, take a bite, and the goddesses start up again: hot flashes, sorrow of lost babes and mothers.
The angry man stops me at the south end of the high street. "Not going home."
"No," shaking my head. "There is something else I am supposed to be doing."
"What else could you be doing? People have gone mad with fear. Half of Hillfoot is---"
I carefully shrug. "I'm not sure, but the Mothers have made plain I am not to stay here."
The heat in his face shifts. He whispers, "I hear them. One of them is so very angry."
"Yes." I look closer at his strain, the planes of his face, the depths of his brown eyes.
"You shouldn't go alone."
I frown. I cannot quite dispute this. There are the remains around me to rebuff any words I might say. And there are only more people and more fear where I am to go. The goddesses press on me. I respond to the other side of his question. "I think you're needed here, if they aren't telling you to leave."
He protests. "There's so little left---"
"There's your whole life left."
"You don't believe that."
There are many things I could do now that there are no babies. The harp hangs heavy on my back, for a moment balancing out the Mothers' bleakness. There are the dye combinations I have always wanted to try. I could learn to cook instead of reheat. I could travel.
I am traveling.
The tree root paths of possibilities spread out before me. There is a lot of the me who has no desire to midwife that could come out. The tune to Merry Widow lodges itself in my head. Simple chord progression but it's been so long since my fingertips plucked gut to arpeggiate.
I look up at the man. "I do believe. You have a whole life left and you should live it. I would."
Different fire behind the brown eyes this time. He nods, no words, walks off.
I turn the opposite direction and do the same.
Scrub expands into meters of grass, up into bushes, everything greening, the air taking on the smell of stagnant water. I debate a fire as the sun sinks, stretching out the kinks in my back to unpack, lay tinder, empty out the contents of the bag in search of another wool layer and, despite Hillfoot, desire a hot dinner. The bark against my back is almost comfortable as I lean into it, none of me chilled, starlight beginning to fall down into the cook pot.
I unwrap the harp, laying it on my lap. I slowly begin to twist a peg, tightening a string. Deep and low, there's no way it would have weathered all those years unplayed with patience and I find it hasn't, as I hum and bring it into tune.
I stay with the one note for a while, until I admit to myself I'm afraid.
"When I set you down, and ran away, I told myself I could never really lose music. Who can lose music? I tap my toe. I sing at the festivals. So many dances. Surely my fingers will remember the spacing for chords, surely my biceps won't ache with the angle required for playing. Surely my neck will remember to stay out of it. Surely something inside me still sings."
The night does not answer but the goddesses do. The campfire roars up and I panic for my food. The weeping lodges in my throat, squeezes my eyes shut and into tears.
I put the harp down, feel the pressure ease, check the cook pot from my knees. Not burnt. But cooked, and so I eat, then clean.
I pull the harp into my lap and tune the rest, the high E refusing with a melodic tone and then a snap. Well, easy enough to play around that.
Arpeggios, stiff fingers, sore fingers, callouses building, but a harp sounds beautiful no matter whose hand goes to it. Even in scales, in slipped fingers and fumbled pulls, I feel lighter, the goddesses at a distance. Instead of epiphany, I fall asleep, curled around lacquered wood and gut.
Everything aches, skull to tailbone, and I am amazed I don't damage the harp when I jerk awake. Hunting horns. I hurry packing, eat dried fruit while I walk. I smell it before I see it: someone's day old battlefield. I cannot help but check, all bodies. Two horses. My tears do nothing for them.
When the walls of Mallows Cross become a smudge against the southern horizon, the sun has sunk to my shoulder. I push on. More evening than afternoon.
Across the bridge, there are two young women with pikes outside the walls. From the left: "Business, please."
I say I'm headed south.
The speaker tips her head. "You're in luck, there's a messenger carriage here, heading out in the morning. Maybe you can hitch a ride." She so clearly doubts I can walk the whole way. I did once, I should be able to do it again.
I am looking for an inn in the growing darkness when I hear my name.
"Is that really you, Enarra?"
I turn and there in the twilight is Ekhert, mother's sister's son, dressed in some official livery as light-colored as his skin. The years have turned his blond hair grey at the temples, spreading like a river delta from the creases at the corners of his eyes. Above the beard, his smile is still that of my best friend.
"Enarra? What are you doing here?"
"I'm heading south."
"I thought you were up in the foothills, one of those little sheep towns the Mamas would never bother with."
"I was." I emphasize the past. "What about you? Since when do you do government work?"
"Since you left. The Mamas banished music from both houses."
"But the Mamas always let boys---" and I stop. Did he get punished for association? Certainly there were plenty of things they could do to keep him from music, even if traditionally boys got the career they wanted.
"Most of the time I'm in a bright room surrounded by ink and paper. No one looks twice if I jot down notes or lyrics." He looks me straight in the eye. "It wasn't so bad."
"Well, now I'm mostly out riding." He waves behind his shoulder. "With escorts, because no one wants to hear about law and order even as they panic about the lack of law and order." The two escorts are night and day: tall dark woman, short blonde man, southern folk, northern folk. At least that much cooperation is still happening.
"Mallows Cross is much better than the last place I came through."
Ekhert glances at me, doesn't ask. "How about dinner?" Pointing. Turns out there's an inn just behind me.
"Please. And." I pause. He checks mid-stride, waits. "And a ride to Confluence?"
"You and the harp?"
He noticed. "Please."
He smiles like I have seen no one smile in a week. "Only if you'll play in the evenings. It's a couple of days of travel."
I hold out both palms. "Deal." He slaps them and we go in to dinner. I fall asleep before we're finished eating.
Mid-day, we lurch as the carriage suddenly slows and the guards call out arcane defensive jargon to each other. I can smell it before Ekhert sticks his head out of the window. I don't think this fire belongs to the goddesses.
He shakes his head. "It was fine three days ago. We came through then and talked to people and they were calm. Mystified but calm."
"We're going to have to go around, sir." The driver.
"That bad, Krista?"
"There's a blockage, sir."
"Raiders," I contribute.
"Won't they recognize us, Krista?"
"Don't know, sir. They may not care."
Ekhert gets down and looks over the whole plain, back how we came, forward to Meander's buildings, the thread of a dirt road that skirts the town.
The goddess' urgency presses down, but also south, like a strong wind.
"What are you planning to do, Ekhert?"
He turns to look inside at me. "I was thinking I might talk to them."
"Sir---" begins one of the guards.
"Technically I've done what I was supposed to, but how can I not help them?"
"What could one---or three---of you do?" He doesn't like my question. I slide myself along the length of the seat toward the carriage door. "I'll have to walk then."
"Enarra, you can't go alone."
"I was until Mallows Cross. I have to."
I rub my neck. "Ah, well, the goddesses have told me to. I don't really seem to have a choice." I press my hand against my forehead. "They're upset."
"They are upset? It's their fault in the first place---"
I grimace with the hammer-stroke of a new headache. "Doesn't matter. I'm going."
"Not alone. Krista, get us moving." He climbs back in and the horses start off.
"Circle round, sir?"
Ekhert sighs. "Yes, yes."
That evening, Ekhert asks for a song. Headache, finger cramps---he waves these things off and presses. But when the campfire leaps at me, he admits the hand of a deity.
He asks, "What do you mean you haven't played in all this time? When you left we all thought you'd gone so you could play music like you wanted."
"Oh, no, Mother only let me go because I went out to old Mulara's place and she forced me through the end of my training and then carted me off, accompanied by a trio of traveling midwives---"
"There's a song there, for certain."
"The only songs in Vidwell were about sheep. Or about getting stuff done quickly before the sheep wandered off too far."
Ekhert snorts. "No dogs."
"Let's not go there. It's over now."
"No more babies, Ekhert, ever. So I'm out of a job. And once I finish whatever this quest is---"
"I told you, the Mothers are demanding I go south."
"No idea. Just south."
"Enarra? Why did you leave then? You could have stayed if you'd decided to do what your mother wanted and be a midwife."
I look down at the flames. Even to Ekhert it's difficult to admit how little I want to walk back into Confluence and my younger self's entanglements. I sigh. "Dix."
"I never liked him much, then."
"Well, I didn't either, but apparently that didn't matter to Mother." The anger creeps in.
"He would have turned out okay. He does well by his wife now." Ekhert pokes at the fire.
"An orphan who ended up running errands for Mom for a while."
"Better her than me."
Ekhert asks, "Wasn't it worth trying? Surely Aunt would have reconsidered the music had you stayed longer to press her?"
"Ekhert, I wasn't interested. I'm not interested. Those kind of relationships are not what I'm looking for."
Ekhert surprises me, but still sends my heart into my mouth when he speaks. "What are you looking for?"
I swallow. "Someone to laugh with, to sing with. Someone to lie down with on a summer night and look up at the stars. Someone who listens."
"You sure? The world's ending. Last chance to change your mind."
"I know my mind. And it's ending slowly."
"The fires at Hillfoot say differently."
I can't disagree. I can't unsee the bodies there or unfeel their skin against my skin.
"The gods made us to live, right?" Ekhert gives me a reluctant nod. "Well, then, I'm going to live what time I have left. Maybe now is the time for my music." The goddesses howl. The flames sear me, choke my throat, the weeping so loud I close my eyes. I barely feel Ekhert touch me before I curl into a tight ball and black out.
Confluence looks dingy, but I realize from this distance it's just smoke. Why does the end of the world bring out the arsonists? Perhaps they were all hoping to be mothers and fathers, their fate irrevocably changed. I can't have this cradle, this schoolroom, this clerk house, why should you?
No problems at the gate. I don't bother to lean out and trouble the guards with my presence. I should walk the high street straight through without stopping.
"Ekhert, let me out here. The gate's gone from sight and there shouldn't be an issue."
"But, Enarra, I thought I'd drop you---"
"At home? That place hasn't been my home in over two decades." I can see the hope for reconciliation all over his face.
"I've missed you. I was hoping you would stay. It's the end of the world, I mean. Good to have a friend nearby."
I throw up my hands. "It's the end of babies! It's not the end of the world! There's no pestilence, no lightning, no cause for war because no one's got a magic uterus unaffected by the gods' decision. No messenger is going to arrive from some distant land and say, We're having babies just fine."
I rap my fist against the ceiling of the carriage and it begins to slow.
"Believe me, I have done all the arguments in my head for years. I don't need to see Mother in person." Deep breath. "It's lovely to have seen you again, Ekhert, and to know I still have you as a friend. But while the goddesses are pounding in my head, I'm out of choices." I think of the harp.
I open the door, jump down, regret it as everything jars against the cobbles. I see Willow's Apothecary hasn't moved. Irony, of course, that across from it still stands the music hall.
"Krista, could I have my bags, please?" The driver drops one down, lowers the harp until I grasp it firmly. "Thank you." I scramble for coin, pick one by size inside my pocket, toss it up in a long arc, and watch her catch it, smiling.
Ekhert stands next to me. "What do I tell them?"
"Do you have to tell them anything?"
"Well, Enarra." He blushes. "I think they'll know. Seeing you has made me uncharacteristically happy."
I hug him, our shoulders at the same level, sink into him for comfort.
"I'll come back if I can."
His arms are still around me when we hear the first yell: "Fire!" Back, near the north gate. More voices take up the warning.
I break from Ekhert with one last "Goodbye!" Before I can take a step, the goddesses lean on me and I am washed in Hisra's fire. I drop to my knees.
"Enarra?" He crouches down next to me.
I growl. "Give me a chance to get my ass out of here before you pitch a fit."
"Enarra?" He helps me up.
I look past him toward the road. "Sorry, Ekhert, I wasn't speaking to you."
He points to the burn on my left hand. "When did this happen?"
"Just now I think. I've got to go."
"You start, I've got some aloe in my bag and I'll catch up."
The burn doesn't hurt anymore. And I manage a good pace past the city square and into the artsy neighborhoods of the high road where it begins to wind although does not narrow. Here the crowd is unfocused, perhaps just getting the news of the fire, and much harder to slip through.
My calves begin to remark that we're moving uphill, the gate coming into view above buildings, on some of the road's tos and fros, only the market between me and the exit. Slow-moving morass but perhaps I can get through it before the flames---or their news---spread.
The cries for fruit and cheese, for flowers even now as the cooler weather comes into the city, cannot turn my head. It's the quartet tucked between the perfumer and the poets' guild---fine allegorical choice that---that steals my breath. Harpist, bassist, percussionist, singer.
One second, I promise the goddesses. One second, I promise myself. The old thrill still rises up my back and I become all their threading sounds separate and simultaneous. I am the alto's broken heart, the harp's hummingbird high notes, the deep thrum of the bass cut into pieces inside my sternum by the strike of the small snare.
But it is not Ekhert when I turn to the hand on my sleeve, it's my mother.
"Now is the wrong time to come back to the city. What were you thinking?"
I'm eight and have dropped glassware in the herb room, my hands shaking more with the yelling than the shock and shards. I'm eighteen and have said I'm leaving to go make music and she threatens to drug me and marry me, trap me in the city. What I am doing is running.
I muster all my bravado. I unlock those twenty years of unreconciled anger. "I'm going where the goddesses send me, Mother. There's no more babies left to bring into the world."
She raises her hand. I recognize the slap as her wrist comes up but I catch it, stop it, feel my mother's strength is not what it used to be.
She struggles but her words are sharp. "We need healers here, now. Look around."
I look, for a minute, holding her hand. Crow's feet, cold eyes, my younger mother still there but blurred at her edges by white hair and sunken cheeks.
She could try to drug me still, contact poison in the palm of her hand, but for once I am truly happy about the heat and pressure from the goddesses. She's no match for them. With patience, perhaps I can outwit each of them in turn.
"Goodbye, Mother. I'm questing."
"And the harp?" She tightens her hand on my hand, different emotion.
"Yes." I release her fingers and she stands spine straight to watch me go.
I take in the new tune by the quartet, the yellow stone of the gate, the unpolished metal on the left guard's chest. The air outside the city is cooler; I can nearly feel an inferno behind me. I don't look back but my hands don't stop shaking for a good long while.
Finally the last up of the mesa, the dramatic winding trail, a copse of a type of tree that doesn't belong in the desert. As I climb closer, I feel the humidity in the air, hear the song of a lowland bird answered by the notes of a mountain bird.
Two women sit on a blanket, waterfall behind them thick with spray but nearly silent, playing with a baby. Brown eyes look up to meet mine and I am surrounded by sandstorm and furnace. She looks younger than me, petulant teen with dusky skin, brown maid's braids down her back, but nothing about her smiles nor aches of youth.
"Oh, His, stop," says the redhead, playfully pushing Hisra over. Hisra lifts the baby over her head and makes bird-wing noises.
Even from here I can feel that Hisra must be smiling; the heat and pressure subside.
Fre stands. She's taller and broader, looks older, her green eyes dancing with mischief. Her pale skin and soprano voice make her appear delicate. "Oh, Enarra, what took you so long?"
Fire. Panic. Death. The end of the world. I cannot even open my mouth to let the fury out.
Hisra speaks as I stand shocked still. "And the harp. I had fits you would give us away." She tickles the child.
I can feel my eyes widen. I cannot take in the pastoral scene, the goddesses, their light but patronizing voices. The child has wings. And blue skin. Scales, not skin. A stump of a tail. The noises it sings are as normal as any human---except the growling. It shivers me. I don't need it to turn my way to know I have never seen a baby like this before.
Fre comes closer to me. "You're tired. Sit."
But I don't move. "Give you away?"
Fre laughs a little self-consciously and looks back at Hisra and the baby. Hisra laughs full out without looking at us.
"We're supposed to wait, Enarra," Hisra says, continuing to help the baby dance and step. "The Council of the Gods decided to give the humans, the sea folk, the bird folk, the remainder of their days---"
"And then tear it all down. Fre and I didn't want them to tear anything down. We said we should just add more."
More fire, more wind, more weeping. A month of pain and grief. Much like everyone else, when I put it that way. "Couldn't you have just asked me to wait to play?"
Fre shakes her head, "Oh, no, that's much too specific for a sending. And your harping, once you'd practiced, well, any god would notice that." She sighs. "And if they noticed you, and noticed you coming here, well that would be unacceptable."
Hisra agrees. "We said we would wait, but we don't want to. So we built a little space here, where the other gods won't look."
"We hope. And we looked out and remembered you and how you liked breaking rules---"
Hisra continues, "And so we insisted you come here. This beautiful babe is only the first. There are so many ideas Fre and I have been storing up for a chance."
Fre whispers, "And I've heard some of the others are planning to poison the air. And set fires. We are not the only impatient ones."
Hisra looks up. "Which others?" But Fre ignores her. And the baby wails. And habit kicks in. I set down harp and bag and hold out my thumbs and the blue child turns violet eyes, snout, and incisors to me. I hum as it grabs hold. Down on my knees, it dances to the song under my breath.
"You might think we called you for the wailing---"
"Well, I think she'll have some ideas, His, so why not try?"
"Nap time first," and Hisra whisks the baby away to a padded cradle.
"Let's do another, His. Enarra's here now and she can help."
"I'm a midwife not a child minder." Both goddesses look at me.
Hisra looks slightly uncomfortable. "Well, yes, but we'll need a midwife, too, of course."
"And if I leave?"
Fre gasps. "You can't leave. The people out there are dying."
"Not all of them."
Fre looks about to cry. "They will be."
Hisra asks her again, "Who?" But Fre just shakes her head, eyes closed.
"You wouldn't rather stay with us?" Hisra looks down on me but her face says she genuinely wants to know.
"His!" But Fre stops when Hisra's hand comes up.
"No," I say, sighing. "But if one of you needs birthing help, I will help. I took that oath. But---" I wave at their bodies vaguely.
"We should let her rest first, His. Feed her. She'll need her strength."
So the blanket becomes a picnic. And I eat like it is my last meal on earth. And I nap after the strong cider.
When I open my eyes, Fre at my elbow to help me stand, I see a shimmering portal in the shade of the fir trees. Hisra hands me a cloth to tie about my face, tightens it in back herself. "You can't breathe in there without this."
Through the portal there is sunshine, there is lava curving between imperturbable arches of stone, there is what appears to be a pregnant woman, blue-scaled with wings taller than me. Her rumbles reach me through the doorway, against my breastbone. She paces, alone, a picture I am well familiar with.
To either side, I see Hisra and Fre shifting shape to match that of the woman I see through the portal. They gently walk me through. The heat immediately reminds me of Hisra's sendings.
The poor woman sees me, wingless and pink, and faints. My arms free of the goddesses, I do what I can to make her comfortable until she comes round---and shies away from my body to take Fre's hand.
Fre's voice quavers. "His, we have to tell her."
Hisra shrugs. "Sometimes, Enarra, omnipotence isn't very good at problem solving. There is knowing and there is, well, doing."
I stare at the goddess. "Has the baby not turned, or something like that?"
Hisra nods very slowly. "Something like that."
"You're going to have to tell me about her anatomy. I mean, she looks a bit like a human---" I check, no breasts---"and obviously she does live birth or I wouldn't be here but---"
Hisra sighs. "It's close enough."
"Close enough cuts cords too soon."
Hisra touches my temple and I just know how this woman works on the inside, probably better than I do my own body. Movements and groans, things I'd understood only from the outside become muscles contracting, directed by the rushing of liquid emotions through the body. When I turn back to look at the pregnant woman, there is something familiar about the way she is rigid, it is too static. Like a human, this is the time when the baby should begin to descend, to travel down the birth canal. I gently separate her legs and look. Fine there. I begin to sing, under my breath, Springtime Shadow, and I count the chorus every time it comes round.
I turn to Hisra. "Has she given birth before?" The goddess nods. "Were there problems then?" She shakes her head.
I sing through another five verses, throwing in made-up flowers for each, my hands on the woman's bulging abdomen. The baby should have moved by now.
Dropping the song and dropping into her labored breathing, I lighten my touch and try to feel for the ebb and flow of the muscles trying to give birth. I can barely tell. But is it her species or her body?
I look up at the goddesses. "My best guess is that her body can't push hard enough right now to get the baby out. I'm not sure how to help it do that."
Fre rushes in, "I will tell her to push---"
"No!" I interrupt. Appalled at myself, I go ahead anyway. "It's not a problem with her, well, conscious body. When she's supposed to push, she'll know. But there's some, well, instinctive pushing that happens first. And that's the problem. It's not strong enough."
Hisra laughs deprecatingly. "As the goddess of childbirth---"
Fre clears her throat.
Hisra begins again. "As the goddesses of childbirth, we can fix this." Hisra claps her hands and my harp falls into them.
"Enarra," she commands, handing over wood and strings. "Strum us a sturdy beat."
Which has got to be the last thing the harp's good for, but I do my best. After a few repetitions of a one chord across my lowest strings, I begin to hum The Soldier's Journey. It is perhaps too martial an omen for a new baby of a new species coming into a world of heat and flame, birthed just as my blue and russet one is being left to dwindle into dust. But I see that Fre, then Hisra, begin to pulse, a halo of light about each of them. Then the light begins to drift like fog, first falling to the ground, then swirling up over the woman's body like a swarm of fireflies. The light flares in time to my hands. My hands threaten to syncopate in time with the lights but I bring my whole focus to the down beat. The woman's body too begins to pulse, first her newly-acquired aura and then the pulses of a body giving birth. I set the harp down carefully but quickly, and put my hands on the woman. I keep the beat flicking tongue against teeth, counting. Yes. The baby moves.
From there, there is blood and screams and I have been here so many times I could do this in my sleep. But my whole body is awake and watching, thrumming, as the baby's head, small stubs of horns, then the tips of its wings, come out into the world. I check the relevant areas but can make no guess as to sex. I check the relevant parts of the mother, see the exhaustion in the bones of her face, but also see that she's healing.
I pat the newborn lightly and it squalls. Just like any other baby.
Hisra cuts the cords with fire between her hands. I pass it over to Fre. In turning my head, I glance back toward the portal. Above it, the sky is blue with a heavy infusion of green.
Fre conjures water and we all drink. The heat from the lava is relentless. I smell nothing but the sterility of the cloth and yet my nose itches. I have no idea how much time passes, the goddesses fussing over the sleeping mother and child.
I pick up my harp and stagger back to the portal, pass through, fall to my knees near the blanket. Hisra follows me. I rip the protective cloth from my face.
Lying on the dirt looking up at the sky, I demand, "How many of these people have you made?"
"Not many." Hisra busies her hands with the baby still asleep in the cradle.
"You must know I don't really like babies all that much."
"But the joy, you feel that. And you are a person who keeps her word."
"But will you let me go? You don't really need me here." I challenge the goddess.
"You truly want the destruction? Rather than creation?"
"I want to make music with whatever time I have left." I wave my hand backward toward the portal, which is actually stretching my fingers out to the sky. I close my fist. "That place is not for me, whether I can breathe there or not."
"You're already a part of their mythology."
"Then I wish I had played real music, not just strumming a beat. And that I hadn't frightened her with my different looks."
"You saved her life. And the child's." Hisra watches me, then her eyes flick to the portal. She nods. "Alright. Their music will probably not be stringed and soprano anyway. Write yourself differently into their tale."
I sit up, pick up the harp, loosen fingers and tighten strings. I shake out my hands, too much adrenaline, too much arguing with goddesses. Hisra's right, though, birth is a joyous thing, especially something so new and unknown.
I have my own new and unknown waiting for me. A path full of improvisation and tempo changes, the anticipation of which turns easily into melody between my hands.
©November 2017 Mary Alexandra Agner
Mary Alexandra Agner writes of dead women, telescopes, and secrets. Her poetry, stories, and nonfiction have appeared in The Cascadia Subduction Zone, The Journal of Unlikely Cryptography, and Sky&Telescope, respectively. She can be found online at http://www.pantoum.org.