~4100 words, ~21 minutes reading time
The ten villages gather to witness Maarik’s ascension, all seven snaking roads to the central plinth pounded into mud and gravel. The downpours stopped last week, but the earth still absorbs months of rain, soft under hoof.
Each village brings their most beautiful horses, their silky geldings and spirited mares. Maarik wanders the camps and touches the many colored coats: bay and chestnut and gray, all soft with diligent brushing. Everyone stares and salutes her in the traditional three fingered way, an outdated formality reserved for solemn occasions.
She returns the gesture as she passes, though it makes her grit her teeth. She has seen it too many times in the past year, first at Zaahra’s funeral, then Birimin’s, and now at Mother’s.
The animus wants a particular girl, a perfect girl. It has never found her, so it settles for decent girls. It will rattle inside her ill-fitting casing for years, before it wrenches all the pieces of her soul apart.
It has been with their family for generations. A legend claims the animus gave them mystical powers in times of ancient war. Another claims it brought good fortune, fat vases of gold coins amidst the worst drought of the century.
Yet another says there was no reason at all. The spirit just liked the shape of their great-great-great maternal grandmother and decided to try her on.
They are fortunate Mother held the spirit for five decades. Long enough for them to become a pillar of the community, for Mother to continue the family line and see her girls to adulthood.
Mother housed it well. She told her daughters all the necessary stories, all the necessary cautions a proper vessel heeds: Don’t burn your fingers, when they cooked, for the animus does not like scars. Don’t appear too eager, when other young villagers winked, for the animus prefers his houses demure.
Zaahra and Birimin were made to inherit, kind and pleasant girls who grew into kind and pleasant women. They tied their braids with crisp golden ribbons. They raced their horses adeptly, but always took second or third place so not to seem greedy.
Their virtue did not save them. The animus deflected off of Zaahra’s very skin when she tried to receive it. She slumped to the ground as if struck by lightning, and never woke up again.
When Birimin was called to inherit, she sank into sadness and then into the bottle. The alcohol pressed the spirit out of her, but it pressed hers out, too. She only held the animus for four moons before she had to give it back to Mother, and she faded away soon after.
Maarik was comfortable in her role as the feral little sister who would teach her elder sisters patience. Her hair is always in tangles, and she always wins first place, no matter who else is racing. She was not meant to be the spare.
Maarik stands before the family plinth and her mother’s fresh grave. It is a neat pill of brown dirt between Grandmother and Maarik’s sisters, and will flatten against the earth in time.
Looking at the graves is better than looking at the plinth, which Maarik and her horse will be chained to by two padded cuffs. They are similar to the cuffs the villagers use to hobble uncooperative horses, but bright red, only meant to be used once. They look all the more menacing with their crisp gold stitching. The chain they link to is carefully perpendicular to the edge of the crowd, underneath a new saddle.
It is a racing saddle, sleek and smelling of fresh-pressed oils, which shimmer against the leather like sweat under sunshine. A lupine creature is embossed on the seat. It exhales a cloud with curling edges. Small embroidered figures flee from its breath.
Beside the saddle is a black urn. The void-like glaze is webbed with hundreds of hairline cracks. When Mother first started dying, she pulled it down from its shelf in the kitchen, handing it to Maarik before going to bed for the last time. Mother always liked the reminder of Zaahra and Birimin’s devotion, and the family’s responsibility. She often touched it fondly while she stirred the stew.
Maarik always feared the urn, even before she knew what it was for. It cast a constant pall of death over the house. Then she saw the animus’ mist swirl out of Zaahra’s mouth and curl up inside of it, waiting to inhabit its next host.
Today it seems to breathe, an occasional line of light pulsing where the lid meets the pot.
A friend, Yibaa, approaches the plinth. Yibaa is the only other girl Maarik’s age in the village. As they grow older, she loses patience for Maarik’s outbursts and half-feral pets. Pretending at war with sharp sticks begins to feel more like a tiresome duel. Yibaa would prefer to rub berries into her cheeks and build wells, as is appropriate for a girl almost twenty.
The crowd parts and Yibaa faces Maarik’s horse, Moon. Moon’s sour temperament is legend throughout the ten villages. She is a mean and scabby little dun, but she is brave, unafraid of the wolves that nip at the flocks. She often chases them off before the dogs can stir.
Maarik saddles Moon, relieved to have something to do. She swings into the seat and Moon dances slightly to the right, nickering and eyeing the crowd.
The padded cuff is an angry red mouth in Yibaa’s hands, set to engulf Maarik’s wrist. Yibaa will buckle it tight enough to crease flesh.
Mother instructed Maarik on how to bear the animus, with a smooth, motionless grace. She should not need the cuff.
But more stalwart girls than Maarik have run from the animus. The chain is scar tissue for every fleeing ancestor over the centuries, every self-preserving girl who fled from the light within the urn.
Yibaa approaches, clutching the cuff to her chest.
Moon pins back her ears. The mare has bitten nearly everyone once or twice, but Yibaa stops short. She was only eight when Moon first clamped wide teeth around her arm, bruising her for weeks. Yibaa wishes another girl could cuff Maarik, but she is the only one of age, and the ten villages are watching. She fears the shame worse than Moon.
While Yibaa hesitates, Maarik shivers. Her pulse floods her ears until she hears nothing else.
Zaahra would likely have focused on the pleasant temperature of the day, the smiling faces of her sisters, the warm presence of their ancestors. She always focused on such things in times of distress: when her seedlings didn’t sprout, when her beloved married a taller girl, or when she broke her ankle running from a wild boar. Zaahra was the lucky one, she never witnessed their family’s failure. Maarik runs furious into the blackberry thickets if she so much as burns her bread. She lacks Zaahra’s grace. When the spirit climbs into her soul, she will surely shatter. All of these eyes will watch the animus chew her to pieces, and she’ll forever be the girl who was not enough.
Her palms sweat, dampening the reins. Moon breathes beneath her, warm against her inner calves, oblivious and impatient. The villagers wear their best tunics and newest hats, embroidery still stark and clean. Someone is cooking nearby for the celebration that will follow. The smell of garlic and caramelizing sugar would normally entice Maarik, but her stomach turns at the thought of food.
The black urn rattles, threatening to topple like a boiling pot. Its thin ceramic and ancient magic only hold the animus for half a day, and time is running short. The reins slide through Maarik’s fingers, now slippery. She tries to get a better grip on them, pushes her heels down so hard her leg muscles ache, focuses on the villagers’ cheerful expressions. She wonders what Mother would say and looks for signs from beyond the pale, a reassurance that this is happening as it should.
No signs appear. The clouds move unhurried, Maarik’s hands keep shaking. The glow from the urn brightens, hungry to chill the spark inside of her.
Yibaa approaches with the cuff, drums up her courage—just as Maarik loses hers.
“Run,” Maarik tells Moon.
Moon is happy to oblige, and the crowd parts before she can clamp her teeth on anyone. She kicks out her back legs. Maarik lurches forward, yelping, her face slamming hard into Moon’s neck. Her nose throbs as she twines cold fingers into Moon’s mane. A jolt runs up Maarik’s spine as Moon careens into a gallop. On another day, the wind would thrill Maarik, taking her breath away as she sped across the plains. Today it is sharp, even for her, and she squints through tears. Her breath catches so she rides gasping, with her mouth open, the hollows of her cheeks dry.
People call her name. It rolls across the plains, too slow to draw her back.
Maarik’s legs burn. The saddle is stiff, ceremonial, not molded to her and Moon. She is lifted enough from the seat to see its metallic threads twinkle menacingly, flashing as her flying coat tails block the light.
Maarik expects to hear the thunder of pursuit. Instead, she hears a noise resembling the clap of a leather strap. She pulls Moon up and turns to look, pulse racing.
She thinks it’s dry lightning before it grows into a black cloud, stuttering out of the urn. A miasma that seems to expand and retreat, as if confused by linear time. Its edges glow acid green and begin to solidify. Two legs descend from the three-story mass, and then two more, and suddenly the spirit has a front and a back. Its great wolfish head forms last. It turns two green eyes towards Maarik.
In its wake the crowd scatters and shrieks, most rushing to their own horses.
Moon doesn’t wait for Maarik to come to her senses. The little mare rears, nearly unseating Maarik. She bolts the rest of the road, past the central village, into the mountains.
First the horses grow lanky and skeletal, and then the fields wither. None of the crop comes to head with its typical glimmering grain. The smart villagers move away, and their mounts plump up instantly, as if re-inflated.
The stubborn clans learn to grow potatoes and sunchokes, The sunflowers rise slowly, with black petals and a rasping dryness. Their horses lounge in fields and stables, and lie around like fur coats crumpled atop piles of legs.
Word spreads through all ten villages that Maarik fled the altar, so the villagers lock their doors when they see her. They perch in their front windows to glare at her, eager to witness her humiliation, but fearful she is cursed.
Since she will not apologize or beg, they click their teeth and retreat back into the dark of their homes.
Maarik is reduced to digging black root vegetables from gardens, stealing obsidian-like eggs from chicken coops, making murky stews and ominous roasts over desolate campfires.
Each night, Maarik closes her eyes and swears she will return to her ancestors’ graves, chain herself to the plinth and let the animus climb inside her. Every day she does not, the lands grow more monochrome.
Some days she feels going back is the only way to restore what fades. Others, it seems pointless to return, already too late. She cannot imagine that it will get worse.
But she wakes up each morning, and things are worse. There is not a dot of green in the entire ten villages. The birds cease to sing, even the wolf packs and deer move on to more fertile ground.
And then it has been two years, she has ridden far enough that no one recognizes her.
Moon resists the wasting, admirably. She kicks the air to drive it off, chomps the dark grass furiously though it contains little to fatten her body. When she finally withers away, no longer strong enough to huff an angry breath, Maarik is leagues and leagues from the crossroads, and the plinth seems like a distant nightmare.
Maarik buries Moon. Without the spirited mare, there is no real evidence that she was ever supposed to house the animus at all.
Maarik supposes she might go back on foot, and then she meets a man.
He entertains himself by growing all sorts of dark flowers in the inhospitable dirt. He does not find them ugly. He is not distraught that the very earth of his home turns sweet sprouts into soot-black stubble.
He is broad, handsome, and almost always smiling. Maarik decides she will stay until they tire of each other, and then she will go back home.
Instead, they have one child, then two, then three. A girl and two boys, who are ever covered in mud and scrapes. Maarik cannot bring herself to caution demureness, or keep them from thorns and puppy teeth. She is at a loss on how to properly instruct them without stern warnings, but they seem to grow regardless.
The house is always filled with laughter. It expands over the years, little rooms shooting off a central hearth in lovely, crooked ways. The family does not ask questions about where Maarik comes from. The husband learned quickly that the past made Maarik go silent, sent her out into the plains for hours. Thankfully for Maarik, there is little time to think of the plinth when there are seams to fix, soups to boil.
On Maarik’s sixty-third birthday, it starts to rain. It pours and pours, and the clan takes turns huddling around each others’ hearths, gossiping and sewing. It has been nearly fifty years since it has rained like this, they say. Perhaps the world will go green again after it all lets up.
Maarik knows it will not. She thinks of the plinth, of the angry red cuff. She thinks of her mother and sisters, of their graves.
She thinks of Moon’s black headstone at the foot of a great pine tree, which she has never drummed up the courage to visit.
Generations protest as Maarik packs her bags. Babies tug at her pant legs, her husband gives her pleading looks.
She chooses an old gelding from the paddock, a sweet natured roan with long knobby legs, slow like the rest of the blighted horses. She kisses her husband, who insists that he’ll go with her.
This is the only idea the family hates more than Maarik leaving at all.
While they argue about who will accompany their matriarch, Maarik gets on the gelding, and he changes before their very eyes. He becomes a sleek young hellion, snorting and stamping the earth. Maarik digs in her heels and the gelding punches away from the village before anyone else can prepare a saddle.
The family call to her. Their pleas roll across the plains, not enough to draw her back.
The relentless pace quakes her bones, turns her muscles useless. She remembers that she used to ride any chance she got before her escape, and that grief saturates worse than the rain. Speeding through the plains, she remembers how green the hills used to go in the winters, how the air felt electric with spring.
The rain stops as she arrives. The plinth is larger than she remembers, worn smooth by decades of wind.
All at once, her body gives out. Her elderly, comfortable exterior is now a poor house to her spirit, which remains as young and feral as when she fled. She barely swings her leg over the saddle before folding to the ground. The gelding seems exorcised of his foaming enthusiasm and bends down to lip the black grass.
Maarik gathers the fibrous grass into fists. The little steps to continuing on suddenly seem insurmountable. She must first catch her breath, and then she must somehow stand, and then she must secure the horse.
Footsteps rustle behind her.
Maarik turns and a man with acid green eyes smiles at her. He is beautiful in a haughty and frightening way, haloed in a cold light that doesn’t match the environment around him. He wears a black velvet cloak with golden ribbons that twitch in the wind.
Smoke trails out his nostrils.
“You’ve finally come,” he says.
“I’m ready for you,” Maarik says.
He laughs. “What would I want with your used up shell? It’s already been lived in, there’s nowhere to press a hair into. Besides, it is too late for you to fulfill the bargain. I have been free long enough. I never need rely on another girl again.”
“Surely there is something I can offer. Surely you can turn the land green again.”
“It makes me cringe that the best your ancestors could come up with is trapping me inside their young girls. Me, an infinite spirit, sharing a mortal coil with a child. Stuffed in like too many wads of cotton until it was on to the next one. I was your family’s constant companion, a little curl of smoke, but now I am free, a thing all of my own. It’s all thanks to you.”
Maarik staggers to her feet.
“What was I supposed to do?” she asks. “You would have eaten me up, burned me from the inside out.”
“I am only a deity. It is not my place to give your ancestors the answers you couldn’t find.”
Maarik grabs the gelding’s reins, though she is afraid she will not be able to climb into the saddle.
“Where are you going?” the wolf asks.
“Have you really changed your mind? Do you really want me to claim you, claim your kin? Shall I follow? Perhaps you have a daughter or a niece to tempt me.”
Maarik’s mother would have fought the animus, trapped it inside. She would have let the green mist shatter her bones and excise her spirit, even if just for a few years of plenty.
Maarik spent her life keeping to herself, hiding in the crooked house with her family. She tended scraped knees, read books, learned folk songs, stoked thousands of fires. She didn’t rise up as some leader, never learned good manners or how to please the other villagers.
Maarik lifts herself into the saddle and does what she knows best. She digs in her heels and she runs. The wind buffets her face and the silver hairs that have come loose whip her cheeks.
Only the shame burns worse.
Her neck is stiff and she can only catch glances of the animus behind her. She waits for the green miasma, for the glowing eyes, but it remains a man. It watches her ride away.
Maarik’s ride back to her family lights every joint on fire. By the time the gelding stumbles onto the compound, Maarik is wheezing and feverish.
Her family lowers her from the saddle with panicked cries, and they take her into the lovely crooked house. They sob when the healer tells them Maarik has pushed her body to the limits, that she may not recover. They ask Maarik why she left, where she went, and why she couldn’t have just stayed at home.
Maarik hovers between this world and the next. She refuses to tell them. If she stays silent, her wolf can never find them.
Maarik’s oldest daughter, Zaahra, leaves the house to catch her breath. Just for a moment, to clear her head.
Zaahra loves her mother fiercely, but over the years there have been signs. Sometimes she reaches for Maarik’s hand to find the fingers curled stiff, as if permanently holding reins. On late fireside nights, her mother’s face glints, irises neon-rimmed.
Zaahra won’t go far, just to a neighboring hill, to sit in the shade of an ancient tree.
As she swishes up the slope, she sees a man. Though he is dressed in black like everything else, he looks wrong in the shade of the forest: too pale, too sharp.
She blinks and he is gone.
“Hello?” she calls out, her heart rattling a quick beat.
No one replies. Nothing moves.
She gets the strange impression she will never see him again. It settles soft into her belly, but she looks for him, anyway.
Zaahra peers behind the trunk of the great tree, thumbing the rough bark. No one is there. She checks behind the mound of basalt, a monument with the carving of a rearing pony.
There, behind the headstone, a green blade of grass emerges from a blanket of black pine needles.
Ash Huang’s fiction appears in Orion’s Belt and Alien Magazine. In 2022, she won the Diverse Worlds Grant from the Speculative Literature Foundation for her novel-in-progress. She is an alum of the Roots. Wounds. Words. Workshop, the Tin House Workshop, and the Periplus Fellowship. You can find her knitting, making jewelry, exploring San Francisco on foot, or online at ashsmash.com.