Listen to this story, narrated by Alec Sibbald
For twenty-three days, Mariska searched, trawling ruin and wreckage, sifting through bone and ash, picking apart carcass and corpse in case her daughter’s atoms had fused to others’ remains. Surely she’d recognize the girl, the shape of her existence, the weight of her presence — even if the child no longer resembled the daughter Mariska had borne.
Her search took her from city to dorpie, the tiny towns littered along desolate roads separated by scrubland dotted with pink-white cosmos flowers. She searched the faces of the flowers; she searched the wind and the space between the stars. She thought she caught a glimpse of her daughter in the knotted branches of a buffalo thorn. But the leaves rippled and contorted.
That was not the face of the daughter she’d woven in flesh through song and sigil.
Somewhere nearby, a string twanged. The sound was a hook, catching between Mariska’s ribs and reeling her through the wreckage of the dorp.
Eventually she found it. The piano teetered in a corner. Its lid sagged beneath the weight of crumbled bricks. Mariska stumbled through the rubble of broken glass; stools turned to kindling and tables reduced to toothpicks. Her steps disturbed the jackals gnawing on a carcass crushed by falling concrete. They fled on silent paws, black backs streaking through the landscape of gray.
She drew closer to the piano and Mariska’s fingers twitched. Melodies tangled in her mind. Choked by dust, they died at the back of her throat, never making it through her blistered lips. Once, it had been so easy — the power tangible and always within reach.
But after the world skidded sideways into silence, music and magic flitted beyond her grasp.
Desperate, she’d tried to draw from the rainbow-scummed puddles of magic decaying in ditches beside the road. The sigils she’d traced in the air hung limp and impotent. The magic was no longer hers to command. It belonged to the veld now, burnished blood and fire by the setting sun, dry grass blades rustling a symphony to the twilight, joined by a chorus of hyena laughter splitting the darkness with a cackling glissando.
That night, she thought she’d heard a girl’s voice — her daughter’s giggles echoed in hyena voices. But the night was its own music, its own magic. Wild and evasive.
Mariska missed the music of the familiar, of calm and content, of a mother bouncing her child on her knee, of little fingers caught in hair, of tears turning to smiles with raspberry kisses. Of sigils and spells, and a tomorrow that didn’t attack with venom-fangs and razor talons.
The piano twanged again, another string succumbing to tension. Something twanged within Mariska, a sinew-gristle snapping in her chest as she limped and lurched toward the instrument.
Its right front leg was splintered. Dust and ash clung to the lacquered wood. She traced a treble clef in the battered lid, then five lines and four sharps. Perhaps she was there, between the semi-tones. Her daughter’s memory scratched inside her skull, baby nails carving messy triplets into her thoughts. Mariska drew the notes across the stave.
A song of shadow and moonlight, of loss and hope and the void between.
An acrid gust blasted through the wound that had once been a wall and her stave vanished. Mariska’s eyes burned and blood dribbled from her nose. The wind carried bitter magic belched from the rifts that had torn apart her world. She felt its teeth tear into her insides, chewing on the soft parts of herself not yet hardened to grief.
Bracing her hip against the piano, Mariska dug her fingers beneath the lid. She pried it open, ignoring the splinters catching beneath her nails.
Tears washed grit from her lashes as she stroked gentle fingers across the mostly intact keys. Every shuddering note made her gasp and ache.
The piano sang with a broken voice as she moved down the octaves. The notes were out of tune. She searched for her daughter in the dissonance and caught sight of little curls twining around her fingers and her heart, cinching tighter, tighter, until she couldn’t breathe for fear she’d exhale her child gone for good.
But the dissonance faded and so did the suffocating band around her chest.
Grunting with the effort, Mariska dragged a chunk of debris toward the piano, then sat. She was too low, elbows and wrists at odd angles. It didn’t matter.
Gritting her teeth, she forced her leg into place on the pedal. Slowly she lowered her foot, biting down on the scream as agony tore up her calf and zipped white fire through her thigh. She swapped feet. It didn’t matter.
Mariska slammed her palms against black and white, pumping her left foot against the pedal. She conjured a storm and sent the chromatic hurricane hurtling through the city.
The ruins surrounding her quivered and sighed; a dead heart juddering with weak pulses. Here, an artery of power still simmered beneath the cracked skin of the earth. A ley line trembling, pure and waiting to be tapped.
Dust billowed in motes whisked up by Mariska’s disjunct melody. Brick and mortar shivered, returning the music in ever softening resounds. The dorp relayed the notes in bouncing beats from windows to doors to pockmarked walls as it woke from its silence.
Mariska continued to play, her fists unfurling to shape chords with long fingers. Her left hand coaxed harmony from the injured piano while her right wrung melodies from battered keys. Her tears splashed the keys in perfect counterpoint, a contrapuntal spell reaching through grit and ash, and deep, deeper into the earth’s blood clotted with magic beneath her feet.
Further away, the city’s wreckage stirred. A figure emerged, forged from a shifting thrum, all peal and echo.
• • •
C-sharp is the color of grief. Mariska’s, and his own. Entrained to her beat, he sees her in another time.
He sees the child in her arms and hears their laughter.
He feels the chasm widen between them, fingers grasping in the darkness, long before the earth split.
And on that night, he hears their cries, an augmented fourth of pain and rage and disbelief as arcane seams stitched into tectonic plates shift against the threads. Sutures snap and the ground gives way, swallowing mountains and cities, and a child reaching for his mother.
Twenty-three days ago, his mother wailed and wept. Ignoring her crushed leg, she reached over the precipice, searching the void. Above her, magic danced in skeins of purple and green across the face of the moon. Blinded by tears and blood, she crawled lento toward the precipice, calling out a name.
C-sharp tries to remember his name, his real one. He tries to remember what he was before he became a shrapnel scatter. He feels himself stretched thin and littered in forgotten places. He is hyena breath and the dust frenzy-whipped in the veld. He is cosmos petals limned in dew, a web spun in a dark corner, and the impossible distance between line and space on his mother’s stave.
He can never be who she thought he was.
He hears a name, the dead one, spelled out by her fingers.
He gathers the music in invisible hands, the notes quicksilver as he grasps for self.
But the melody changes and he splits in two, shifting to B-minor. She peels out of him, a slow coagulation of buzzing atoms. He takes B-minor’s hand, their fingers sliding together in flawless fit.
Their echoes curdle the air, minims and crotchets and a rare semi-quaver sweeping in relentless four-four toward a perfect end.
• • •
She woke to a rumbling, a gentle prelude then sudden crescendo as the bones of the world dislocated. She ran and the ground lurched beneath her feet. The ceiling collapsed. She fell and couldn’t get up. Instead, she crawled.
“Mamma, mamma!” her daughter’s screams drove nails through Mariska’s chest.
She was too late. The building tore in two, the other half crumpling like paper as it sheered away, taking her daughter with it.
The city writhed in bombastic death throes, a frisson of violent magic.
Mariska barely remembers what came after, only that she searched, joined by ash-stained others. Together they ripped their hands raw on the wreckage. They coughed and cried. They shook fists at the indifferent sky, at the taunting chasms opened at their feet.
The earth hemorrhaged magic, its veins sliced open. Human hands couldn’t staunch the flow. There was no tourniquet large enough to fit a noose around the world, nor the hearts of those sobbing in the ruins.
Mariska found nothing but disappointment.
She staggered away from the city, passed convoys with their Hekse promising spells of renewal. She’d endured their mumbled magic, their sigils burning her skin. The scars were promises — promises of reshaping a world flung from the potter’s wheel.
The scars were lies. There was nothing left of her daughter except the memories Mariska carried inside her head. But even those couldn’t be trusted. The herniated ley lines still leaked their slow pollution, warping, twisting, unmaking all she’d known.
Mariska wandered, aimless, trying to escape what she had undeservedly become.
Between then and now, there were swaths of shredded skin, blood and blisters, hunger and thirst, stretches of nothing nothing nothing but the gray-black sky curdled by vulture wings. And there was hope, deceptive and cruel, worse than the lies singed into her skin.
At the piano, tears cooled on Mariska’s cheeks as she played. Another string broke. The pedal stuck. Her finger tripped over a note. The melody warped and changed.
And between the notes, she felt it. The face of her daughter appeared in her mind, rendering in familiar shapes and contours, but it was wrong — different from how she wanted to remember; different from the song she’d threaded through her belly sculpting tiny hands and feet.
• • •
C-sharp shudders: a ripple through the echoes, a rise and fall of sweeping melody. New themes crawl and scramble from the ash at his feet. Diminished, double-sharp, they swarm like butterflies around a corpse.
B-minor smiles in gentle harmony, her presence a consonant relief.
Hand-in-hand, they wade toward the piano. The source of the thrum, calling out and pulling them in.
The notes smell of Mother, of home and unconditional love — but that’s wrong, different from the true memory fluttering in the liminal space between selves.
They can see her now, hunched at the keys. She trembles, her leg weeping, body oozing sweat and shame.
He feels the memories pricking against his shiver-skin. C-sharp gathers the echoes with a cadenza sweep of his phantom arms. They mesh, a tapestry of sound knitting the delicate fabric of his body. His shimmer-spine grows rigid, eyes shaped like semi-breves and his mouth a softly curving slur.
• • •
But first, she would finish the music. She would bring her world to a proper end.
Her daughter was gone. She knew it now, the taste of the truth bitter as old blood, a scab between her teeth torn from the wound in her heart. She would never be able to apologize. All she had now was jagged-edged regret.
• • •
C-sharp minor picks his way across the floor. His feet are heavier, his movements slower. The thrum between his atoms soften as, finally, he reaches the piano.
He knows this song. A memory flutters free from the cage of static in his mind. His body trills with the flash of imagery, of long fingers on a keyboard, of his own smaller ones pressed over them.
Mamma, he whispers in his phantom voice. The word flays flesh from bones as he remembers… playing together, they conjured magic and music. Moonlight danced across the piano, the world turned polished silver. He remembers how she cradled him and nuzzled mother’s love into his ear.
But that was before. Before his song modulated to a different key. The same melody only an octave lower, settling into perfect harmony with the chords he’d always known in his heart — notes so different from the ones his mother had chosen to spell the name of the daughter she’d never had.
Now, he rests ephemeral hands on his mamma’s shoulders. He kisses her hair and her tear-damp cheek. He laces his fingers over hers, shaping new chords and weaving the melody to spell his true name.
Note for note, he sifts through hot skin and sinew, through muscle and organ, to rest in the wet soul of his mother’s bones.
He diminishes, a minor death.
• • •
The susurrus turns to silence.
She breathes the caustic air, trying to fill the hollow spaces within her. The emptiness cleaving through her insides still vibrates with subtle pulsing.
Mariska presses her hand to her chest. She feels the throbbing of her heart. And something else. Beneath it — a ghost-flutter against her palm.
She listens, catching the faint reverberation. A snatch of song…
She never had a daughter. She knows that now. All this time, she’d been searching for something she thought she’d lost when he’d been there all along.
She hears it, a growl and rumble. She feels it through her feet, an approaching thunder.
Survivor, she thinks, this time with less shame.
Within her she carries his memory, his truth and his name. It’s etched into her bone.
The word echoes between her ears in a boy’s voice filled with hope.
Mariska stumbles from the piano.
In the distance, the convoy churns across the horizon and the power of the Hekse part the acid sky. Their sigils dance on the wind, drawing on the artery of magic beneath her.
Mariska waves as she staggers, onward… onward, her steps lighter now.
She shouts. She sings her son’s name. And the city walls echo her love, a chorus in C-sharp minor.
© 2020 Xan van Rooyen, all rights reserved