Ulsa can tell during the twilight moments before fully waking that today will be a bad day. The dull ache she has grown accustomed to in her chest and stomach is sharp, piercing. Breath brings jagged shards of pain. Her mouth tastes coppery. She’d bled in the night. She composes a silent curse to the spirits.
Damn you. You know I need to be well. Not today. Please not today. I must heal today. Please let me heal one more time.
She attempts to collect her bedding around her as soon as she hears Heja’s quiet, slippered feet in the hall just outside her door. The girl is good. She will be a strong healer. So quiet, so aware. The latch lifts with an almost imperceptible click. Ulsa manages to prop herself up with a pillow and smother her grimacing response to the needle-like pain radiating from her chest. Heja holds the door a hand’s breadth for a few seconds as if to let the silence descend again. Ulsa smiles weakly. Heja is giving her time to compose herself.
Beautiful Heja. You play these games for me. You knew the moment I woke how bad I feel. Yet you play the game for me and my stubborn vanity.
Heja’s long, straight black hair brushes her outstretched hand as she leans into the room. Her teenage face is etched in a slight smile but her brow is knitted. She knows. The girl’s lean body follows the face and hand into the room. So recently have you grown a woman’s body, my dear Heja. So young. Too young. Heja clears her throat.
“The sunlight rises to greet you Healer. May I part the curtains?” She does not wait for the answer to the question. The heavy drapery gives way to a torrent of vibrant golden light.
She calls me Healer today. Good girl. Distance yourself from my pain. Heja, looking intently out the window, continues, “It is a warm morning. The Spirits are flirting with the arrival of spring. We should be thankful.”
Ulsa smiles and works her tongue a moment as she silently articulates what she wants to say. “Yes, Heja, it is. I think I need help getting ready.”
Heja’s nod slightly. Of course she knows that. Why doesn’t she mind the silence? Why must I fill it? Ulsa works her tongue silently again before speaking.
“First, sit.” She sees Heja’s pale arm reach for the jug of water next to the bed and murmurs a “thank you” that comes out as a “sank ewe.” Dammit. Don’t slur. Don’t let the pain win. Heja’s shoulders stiffen when she hears the stumbled language.
“Heja. I need help preparing today but so do you. Even though you will not be controlling Them today, you will be in more intimate contact with Their thoughts than ever before. Tell me truthfully, are you ready?”
Heja’s eyes mist even before the question is asked. She sits heavily on the bedside and looks straight into Ulsa’s eyes for the first time this morning.
“Mother. I’m scared. I’m so scared.”
Ulsa is holding her young daughter even before the girl starts crying. Me too, my darling. Me too. There is so much left to tell you, so much left to teach. We are both too young for me to die.
Pain stabs up from Ulsa’s bowels, straight through her chest and into the back of her neck. I didn’t forget you, you bastard. Give me this moment with my daughter. That is all I ask.
The pain does not obey.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Heja was right, the morning is beautiful. The village stretching out from the base of the hill sparkles in the morning sun. People are already out tending to the rural chores that have dictated the pace of their lives for generations uncounted. Ulsa can see some patches of snow still stubbornly clinging to the compost mounds at the forest edge and her breath still rises in wisps, but the sun is promising to disperse all signs of winter for at least a day. From their Healer’s Home on the hill, they can see all the way to the forest edge, several hours walk away. The sun is hanging directly over the forest canopy in a cloudless, crystal blue sky. Ulsa nods to hide a shudder of pain running down her legs. Heja, supporting her mother with one strong arm around her waist and Ulsa’s arm draped over her still bony shoulder, feels the shudder and looks quickly to her mother’s face. Just as quickly, she looks away. We both know the time for crying has passed.
No one has started to gather at the base of the hill near the Gate. The road down the hill, the only paved road in the village, leads to the serpentine arches some 200 paces away. It is a sharp descent and a laborious ascent. Ulsa must now do both.
Better to get to the bottom of this cursed hill before the others see the Healer stumble. Spirits, I hope I can get back up.
Ulsa nods again and Heja takes the cue without comment. They start to walk in small, deliberate steps. Painfully deliberate.
The first of the villagers to notice them is Gurek. He lives around the wide curving base of the hill but this morning he seems to be helping Elder Brother Gyrn with some fence mending. Gurek nods in the direction of the hill and old Gyrn, Ulsa and Heja’s closest neighbor, looks up to see the two blue-robed women making slow and steady progress down the hill. Both men straighten up from their mending and bow their heads down. They remain frozen in place until the women reach the gate — two snakes arching in an s-curve to meet a full two heights above the first stones of the road. The women stop and Ulsa muffles a cry into her daughter’s shoulder.
Hurts. Hurts so much. I can’t feel my feet any more. My legs, pain. Only pain.
The two men have done their job. They have shown the Healers the proper respect while also managing not to see their elder Healer barely walking under her own strength. Heja stands as straight as she can while supporting the shorter Ulsa.
“Healer,” both men mutter in unison.
“Brothers of the Field,” both women reply. My tongue was ready for that.
“Who needs healing today, Brothers?” The question, coming from Heja, sounds so strange to Ulsa’s ear that she actually looks over to her daughter with a furrowed brow. Both men, still looking at the freshly trampled ground, flinch visibly. Such a still-tender voice. That is the voice of a child. Not the voice of a Healer.
Old Gyrn speaks in a tight, hoarse whisper. “The eldest son of my eldest son, Healer. Young Gyl fell two days ago from three heights. At first we thought it was only a broken leg, but he is getting worse. We think it may be his back.”
Ulsa clenches her jaw until pain radiates from her teeth into her temples. She is working her tongue to speak when Heja says, “Bring him to the Healer’s House after performing the usual ablutions. Four shall accompany him. Meet at the Healer’s House at high sun.”
Both men nod, say nothing, and turn around. They walk quickly away without looking back and disappear within the doors of Gyrn’s rambling home before Ulsa has finished fighting her newest wave of pain.
“Don’t fool yourself mother. You need time to rest after we walk back. His back, mother. His injury is worse than the dreams told me.”
Ulsa nods tiredly. Much worse. I don’t have the dreams any more. I dream only of my own pain. You must be my dreamer now daughter. And yet you still have so much to learn.
“I am sorry, mother. I…” The tears are audible in Heja’s throat, trying to push past her words. Ulsa shakes her head quickly silencing Heja’s next words.
Me too, my sweet. Me too.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Ulsa is dreaming. She is dreaming of the days before the pain, the days when Heja was still young. She dreams of the long afternoons behind the Healer’s House watching her daughter chew her tongue as she works on her letters. There is no question in these dreams that Heja is a child. She is not the near-woman that Ulsa is aware of on the edges of her dreamstate. Ulsa tries to tell Heja that there is a sickness growing in her. She starts to tell Heja that there is something new in her dreams. Something small, radiant. In her dreams it lays deep in her innards twinkling like a distant star on a cold night. She is speaking her fears to her daughter but it is only her mouth that moves. Heja looks up from her work and sees Ulsa silent lips in motion. She drops her quill and rushes to her mother. She speaks, her voice the voice Ulsa remembers so fondly from those long, pain-free afternoons behind the house. “What is it, mother?”
I am dying, Heja. But there is no sound. Only the concerned face of her beautiful daughter floating before her dreamvision. She wakes.
“What is it, mother?” The voice is older, more tired. Heja hasn’t moved from Ulsa’s bedside. Has she moved at all? Feebly, her eyes again closed, Ulsa moves her hand out to find her daughter’s. Heja’s fingers are strong and her grip secure. Ulsa’s pain recedes for a moment. What a strong Healer you will be.
“I dreamed of you, my sweet.” Her eyes are still closed. “I dreamed of you working on your letters. It was afternoon. I tried to tell you about what was growing inside of me but my voice was silent. How long ago was that?”
“Four winters mother. I was ten. That spring I dreamed of the star in your belly as well. It was my first Healer’s Dream.”
Ulsa nods. “You started dreaming before you became a woman. You were strong from the start.” Imagine. Having your first Dream be that of your dying mother.
“Not strong enough mother. I had no idea about Gyl’s back. I only dreamed of the fall, the pain in his legs, and the ache in his left arm.”
“The back is a trickster. I always had trouble dreaming about the back, too, dear. And I have dreamt the Healer’s Dreams for twenty winters. Besides, you dream nightly of my pain, dear. My pain lights your dreams like a full moon on a clear night. I know.”
Ulsa feels Heja’s nod through her arm. My pain is not a star now is it, daughter? My pain is a spinning arm of stars stretched out across my body. Everywhere there are glittering stars. Everywhere.
“We must get ready again, mother. They will be here soon.”
Ulsa opens her eyes and sees Heja’s silent tears rolling into the collar of her dark blue robes. She is good. I had no idea she was crying. “Yes. They will be here soon.”
Ulsa manages to sit up unaided and swing her legs over the bedside. She is still wearing the simple, soft white underclothes that keep the heavy, itchy robes off her skin. Heja helps her rise and then holds her upper arm firmly as she takes the dark blue Healer’s robes off the back of a chair. Ulsa grimaces and wavers slightly as the pain adjusts to her standing. Just like when I used to dress you my sweet. Just like the days when you were too little to stand still long enough to bother getting all your clothes on. I would hold your arm firmly lest you run out into the yard only wearing pants. Yet now I couldn’t run if the fate of the village depended on it. Hold me up, daughter.
Together they manage to get the robes on. Heja guides Ulsa to the stool near the door. There is a small mirror on the wall, the only mirror in the village. Spirits. I wish now that I didn’t have this cursed device. How you seem to mock my vanity now. Why do you let me watch myself waste away?
Ulsa’s reflection is not that of a woman who has only endured thirty-nine winters. Her cheeks are sallow, her eyes dark-circled to the point of looking bruised. Her skin pale, her black hair limp and lifeless. I look like I’m already dead. She tucks her hair behind her ears and pulls her hood up. “Ready. Are you?” Heja’s reflection hovers over Ulsa’s shoulder. It nods curtly.
Heja. You are so good at so many things. So strong. But you cannot hide your fear and pain from your mother all of the time. Spirits, can I be the only one to feel the pain? Can you do that for me?
* * * * * * * * * * *
Gyl’s attendants are gathered solemnly in front of the Healer’s House, the usual offerings of food and drink resting by the door inside a rough hide bag, when the two women emerge into the beautiful afternoon. Ulsa slowly gazes at each attendant. Spirits, I thank you that they cannot see my face. Gyl lies on a makeshift stretcher in the grass: three sturdy branches covered in hide. He is sleeping or in a fever dream. His skin is slick with sweat, his breath short. He moans slightly. I know how you feel young Brother of the Field. Gyl doesn’t look his twelve winters today. Today he looks like a rag doll, an attempt at making a boy abandoned before the stuffing was finished.
This is much worse that we thought. Dear Heja, don’t blame yourself. Dreams are tricky.
Standing quietly behind Gyl’s stretcher is his grandfather, old Gyrn, bald pate shining brightly in the warm sun. Gyl’s father, Gelorn, stands next to his father. Three generations of men caught in the awkward situation of having the youngest suddenly become the weakest. Gyl’s aunt, Ungla, is crouched next to the boy with her mottled hand resting on Gyl’s limp arm. Interesting. Ungla’s been chosen as the Elder Sister for the Healing. Perhaps Ungla is ready to take over the Hearth from old Gyrn’s wife Una. Ulsa freezes. The fourth member of the Healing Attendants is Gyl’s younger sister, Hyva. Spirits! How could you bring a child of eight winters to a Healing?
Ulsa feels Heja take a breath and quickly she squeezes her daughter’s hand to silence her. She senses Heja’s head move within her robes but does not look at her daughter. The silence stretches. See daughter. I can handle silence too.
The attendants shift quietly and continue to look at the ground. Finally Ulsa speaks. Her tongue is ready, “Brothers of the Field and Sisters of the Hearth, the Spirits greet you.”
“The Spirits are with you, Healer.” A muttered response, said in unison.
“Are you ready?” The question, asked to everyone, is answered is only silence.
Spirits, am I ready? Can I really persuade Them to listen to me again? Am I strong enough anymore?
“Let us go then.”
Ulsa walks unaided with Heja a half-step back and to her left. Her daughter’s face, visible to only Ulsa, is rigid. She looks so much older that the crying girl at my bedside this morning. How you’ve had to grow up so fast. The rest follow, Gyrn and Gelorn carrying the stretcher between them. They hoist the boy up with little effort and bear him on the arms of men used to the daily toils of hard labor. Ungla walks behind the stretcher, one hand on Gyl’s fevered brow and the other holding young Hyva tight to her hip. Hyva is weeping silently.
Spirits, Ungla! A girl of eight winters! Had you no other choice? You, Gelorn and Una attended Gyrn’s Healing. You know what happens. How could you think a child so young was ready to attend? The child has good reason to weep.
The walk from the Healer’s House to the hilltop is mercifully short. The paved road ended another hundred paces from the House at another gate — matching serpents stretching s-shaped, two heights over the final stones. Beyond the gate is a flat stretch of land no more that thirty paces across encircled by a low, knee-high stonewall. Past the wall, the hill begins its descent down the north face. Directly in the center of the hilltop is a patch of mud twenty paces wide. There is nothing else here.
Heja takes a breath to speak and stops. Ulsa has stopped at the edge of the mud and turned. Her face is shockingly pale beneath her hood. Ulsa nods. Speak or we will be here until twilight waiting for me to catch my breath. Heja speaks.
“Brothers of the Field Gelorn and Gyrn, Sister of the Hearth Ungla, you have attended a Healing. You know what will happen. Young Sister of the Hearth Hyva, this is your first Healing. These are the rules. Learn well and never forget.
“The Attendants stand at the points of the Sun, the point of the fixed Guide Star, and with a back to the shifting Stars. The oldest stands where the Sun sets, the youngest where the Sun rises. The strongest stands like the fixed Guide Star and the bravest with their back to the shifting stars. This is clear.”
Good. Very good. You are strong, my dear. They believe you. They trust you. That is the first step.
Everyone moves at once. Clearly the roles were decided upon before the ascent to the Healer’s House, as each Attendant walks without hesitation around the circle of mud: Old Gyrn is the sunset, young Hyva the sunrise, Gelorn is the Guide Star, and Ungla stands under the arches of the Gate with her back to the shifting stars. Heja continues.
“The Healer…” She falters. “The Healers will move Brother of the Field Gyl into the circle. He is not to be touched by any other person until the Healing is complete. His pain will increase beyond the Spirits power to heal if you interfere.” She is looking directly at Hyva as she says this.
“Whatever happens, whatever you see, whatever you hear, whatever you feel, you must not enter the circle. Your life and that of Brother of the Field Gyl will be forfeit. Do you understand?”
“The Healer speaks clearly. The Spirits guides you,” is the answer, again in unison.
Heja walks over to Hyva, stepping on the muddy circle as she cuts across to the silently weeping child. Good girl! You’ve learned so much. Give your comfort to that poor child. Her life is about to be forever altered. Comfort her.
Heja kneels in front of the girl, her robes sinking slightly into the mud. “Young Sister of the Hearth, Hyva. Gyl is in pain but we” — she gestures with a sweeping hand to include Ulsa — “can help him. However, you have a very important job to do as well. You must not leave from this spot” — she points with two fingers at Hyva’s feet — “no matter what happens. You will be scared and they will sense your fear. Your fear will help Gyl. There is nothing more you can do. Do you understand?” Young Hyva hasn’t looked up during the lecture but does so now. Heja is kneeling so that she is at eye level with the child. Hyva stares into the hood for several seconds, takes a deep breath, and nods swiftly. Ulsa can easily imagine the still-girlish smile spread across Heja’s face. Heja reaches out and hugs the girl in a firm, two-armed embrace. She stands. My sweet. You look just like you did not so long ago when you’d come back from tromping in the fields, dirty knees and all. Yet now you wear the robes of a Healer ten winters before your time.
Ulsa nods and looks around the circle. “Then we are ready for Them.”
The first moments of a Healing are always deceptively quiet. Gyl lays directly in the center of the circle on his back, shirtless and half sunken into the mud. Ulsa sits on the edge of the circle with her back to Ungla, facing both Gelorn, standing in the position of the Guide Star, and Heja, seated in front of him. The sun is still high but the shadows are beginning to lengthen to Ulsa’s right.
I know you are here. Time to feed.
The ground near Gyl’s head ripples slightly and a mud bubble slowly erupts near his ear. Ulsa looks up and sees Heja looking back at her. Give me strength my sweet. The pain is a dull reminder now but we must be careful. Too much pain and I will lose control. Heja nods. Good. She can hear. During the silent seconds after her daughter’s nod, she first hears the murmur.
**TIME TO FEED**
Yes. You are hungry. You are always hungry. It is time to feed.
The mud around Gyl begins a slow deliberate bubbling like stew cooked all day over the hearth. Ulsa can see the Attendants shift slightly, fighting the desire to turn away. All except for young Hyva, who is craning her neck forward to get a better view. Surely they’ve warned her.
I was not mindspeaking to you. Your meal is ready. Feed.
Ulsa sees Them first. She always sees Them first because she knows where to look. They always rise up near the neck. The First slowly breaks the surface near Gyl’s throat and wavers a head that resembles nothing more than a pale amputation with bone white mandibles extending from the smooth, eyeless surface. The First turns a burrowing head up near the base of his jaw. Gyl gasps for a moment as the First breaks the skin at the jaw line with its jagged mandibles and starts to work with calm deliberation into the boy’s head. It looks like the boy’s skull has grown a muddy root into the earth. After several seconds, the First’s segmented, translucent bluish body, the length of a handspan and the width of a swollen thumb, has completely burrowed into Gyl’s head.
Yes. Feast carefully. The pain you seek is along the ridge of the back. The legs are also there for you. There is pain in the left arm. Feast on nothing else.
**YOU PERSIST IN TELLING US WHAT TO DO**
And I will refuse to bring you food if you do not obey.
There is a low rumble that everyone can feel. Gyrn, Gelorn, and Ungla are all weeping now but still watching. Hyva has a small hand over her mouth. Just you wait, my dear.
**WAIT FOR WHAT?**
The First begins to move. Gyl’s cheek ripples with its passing. The ripple continues across his forehead, stretching the skin of the boy’s face from jaw to brow, and disappears into his hairline. Gyl gasps loudly now, his face contorts, and his gasp turns to a small cry. Hyva starts at the sound of her brother’s suffering but remains firmly planted on the spot where Heja pointed.
Poor girl. You will not sleep well for some time to come.
**YES. POOR GIRL**
**HER FEAR IS STRONGER THAN THE OTHERS**
Hurry. The boy is in pain. Where is The Second? Where are the other voices?
** YOU’RE WEAK**
**WE ARE HERE**
**WE ARE SPEAKING**
The Second appears near Gyl’s right armpit, curls up and over the limp bicep, and begins to burrow into Gyl’s chest with the same deliberate pace of the First, mandibles making an incision cleaner than any blade could. The pale, bluish flesh momentarily parts the boy’s pale pink skin and, as it burrows, it sheds the mud covering it like a snake shedding scales. Ulsa sees the harsh whiteness of a rib through the mud as it works. Gyl’s chest rises out of the mud with a sucking sound and then collapses again. He moans loudly.
**SOON HIS PAIN WILL CEASE**
Good. Then you may feed. Carefully.
**YOU CANNOT EVEN HEAR ALL OF US**
**HOW CAN YOU TELL US WHAT TO DO?**
Ulsa feels a stab of pain like a knife blade from between her shoulder blades up into her head. You are right. She feels their elation. She is losing control.
Gyl’s body rolls to the right as if he is preparing to stand. The Second, burrowing deep into the boy’s side near his armpit, disappears into the boy’s chest. The First is visible again as a ripple of worm-shaped flesh trickling down Gyl’s throat making a path for his heart.
The thought makes Ulsa sway dangerously. She is sweating and her own pain is now building, charging like air before a lightning strike. If you take the boy, this meal will be your last!
The First stops and arches up. Gyl’s skin stretches, sunlight passing through the taut skins shows tiny bloodlines.
**YOU ARE WEAK**
But strong enough to tell you what to do.
**MAYBE WE CAN TAKE OUR TIME**
Gyl’s body settles again onto his back and visibly relaxes. The pain in Ulsa’s chest and shoulders subsides. She tries to take a deep breath and sputters out a cough.
Mother…I am tryi…
Ulsa looks up quickly at Heja. Heja is swaying gently as if listening to a relaxing tune but her eyes are fixed intently on her mother. Ulsa tastes copper from her cough. Damn.
**WHY ARE THERE TWO VOICES?**
I have help.
Gyl’s body spasms so fiercely that he looks for a moment like his curling wrists and ankles might snap.
**YOU HAVE BROKEN THE AGREEMENT**
And you are trying to break yours. You hear the voice of the next Healer. She knows of your insatiable appetite and she knows that I am weak. She is helping me. Listen to us or feed no more.
Mother. I can hear them. They sound…
Think of them later, my sweet. Mindspeak to me later. For now we must concentrate.
**YOU HAVE BROKEN THE AGREEMENT**
Again there is a low rumbling that everyone feels.
**WE WILL FEED ONLY AS YOU LET US**
**THOUGH YOU WILL BE PUNISHED**
I am already being punished.
Gyl’s body relaxes. Ulsa feels another bloody cough readying itself deep in her lungs. She tries to ignore it by focusing on the Healing. The Attendants are now staring curiously at the mud around Gyl. Hyva still has her mouth covered. In the span of a breath, everything changes.
The First and The Second have disappeared within Gyl’s body and the mud is still. Then, They arrive. The earth churns, riding a wave of slithering forms. They are as long as a man’s forearm and as thick as a thumb, the same corpselike blue as the First and Second but without the fierce mandibles. The first two of Them rise from the mud with disturbing quickness and disappear into Gyl’s ear and mouth. They burrow with a speed driven by famine. More of them rise out of the mud and pour into his mouth, ears, nose; any orifice they can find. Several veer suddenly and disappear into his muddy pants. Gyl’s body rolls in the mud from the force of their tumultuous entry. Within seconds his skin is rippling with the passage of countless forms scurrying purposefully across his body. His legs and left arm begin to appear swollen from the congregation of slithering forms in frenzied movement just beneath the skin.
Ulsa’s thoughts are ablaze with the sounds and sensations of gorging. She feels the pain from Gyl’s back and leg radiate through her and the newness of the pain is somewhat exhilarating. A quick glance to her daughter tells her that Heja feels the same pain; Heja is gripping her lower back, her face a mixture of shock and pain. Ulsa and Heja don’t have the benefit of the First and the Second numbing their pain, instead feeling every tearing, rending bite of the feeding frenzy engulfing the pain. The sharp pain of the injury slowly dissipates, leaving a lingering emptiness.
This, my daughter, is how it feels to be eaten from the inside out. Ulsa feels warmth on her lips and raises her hand to wipe away blood. Spirits, aren’t you finished?
**HE IS DELICIOUS.**
**HIS INJURY IS MAGNIFICENT.**
**WE ARE ALMOST SATED.**
Gyl is now laying on his side, eyes open and sightlessly staring at Ulsa. He continues to twitch to the tune of the chaos occurring under his skin. His mouth is also open yet his face is expressionless.
One of Them breaks the skin just above Gyl’s eye. Yellow ichors flow from the wound. Another of Them erupts from near the breastbone followed by a flow of the same yellow discharge. Hold on, young Hyva. This is the hardest part to watch.
**SHE IS SCARED**
**SHE WANTS TO HELP**
**HER FEAR IS A DELICIOUS DESSERT**
One by one, they break the skin at various points along young Gyl’s body, yellow pus mingling with mud. After the ichors pass, a trickle of blood follows. Then they disappear back into the frothy earth. Ulsa looks to Hyva. The girl is on her toes, fists clenched, face contorted in a tearful rage. She thinks she is watching her brother get torn apart. Hold on young Hyva.
Gyl’s body settles into the mud, pus, and blood with calmness that belies what has passed. The First and the Second emerge from the hole in his chest and begin to eat from the edge of the wound — by far the most serious of the injuries. Their steady, arching bodies and deliberate feeding continue without pause. Soon the wound has stopped bleeding and simply looks ragged and fresh. It is a puncture and not a cut. The First and the Second move to the boy’s head and begin to work on the wound over the eye. By the time They finish, the other wounds have stopped bleeding by themselves. The pain from Gyl’s wounds and the migraine pressure of Their thoughts disappear suddenly. Ulsa sways dangerously and puts a hand to the earth to steady herself. Now there is only her own constant stabbing pain radiating from her chest mixed with the familiar hollow, raw feeling of a post-feed throbbing throughout her arm and back. Gyl will awake with the same pain. They have fed well.
**YOU BROKE THE PROMISE**
**YOU WILL PAY HEALER**
Ulsa barely hears Them. She collapses softly to the grass at the edge of the circle, and her mouth opens as a steady trickle of blood comes out.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Ulsa is still in bed. The covers are pulled up to her neck so that only her head is visible- her face is sallow and the color of an old, yellowing bruise. Her lifeless hair is spread from restless dreams over the sweaty pillow. Heja changes the bedding daily to wash the specks of blood from the pillow, trying to rid the room of the sweaty, tangy odor, a smell underlined by something more sinister. Death. Spirits, it’s been two days. I thought she would have woken by now. Why won’t you wake, mother?
Heja is sitting in her mother’s favorite chair next to the bed, a position unchanged for two days. She is sore from sleeping in the hard rocking chair; sore from fitful dreams of her mother’s illness- the stars in Ulsa’s chest and bowels are growing brighter every night. Sore from so much sitting. Wake up!
A rattling breath stirs in Ulsa’s throat. Night has come and the only light is from the fire across the room and a single candle by which Heja does her mending. Ulsa’s lips move in a motion caught somewhere between a twitch and the start of a word. Heja drops her mending to her lap and gently rests a hand on her mother’s sweat-slicked brow.
“Can you hear me, mother? Time to wake up.” Spirits, it is past time to wake. Mother, these two days have been so lonely without you. Curse you, wake up!
A trickle of blood starts in the corner of Ulsa’s mouth followed by a sound in her chest like crumpling parchment. Heja reaches for the washbasin next to the bed in a well-practice motion and gently turns her mother’s head to the side. The coughing begins a second after Ulsa’s pale lips touch the cool earthenware. It lasts for several bloody minutes. Heja cried during the coughing on the first day; now there is fear holding back the tears.
When Ulsa finishes, Heja wipes her mouth and gets her to drink a few sips of water. Ulsa’s bony hands hold the glass unconsciously as she drinks. Heja supports the cup with one hand and her mother’s head with the other. Just like feeding a child. She rests her mother’s head on the pillow and smoothes her hair. There is silence once again. Heja rests her own head on the bedside, filling her eyes with the press of comforting darkness.
“Heja?” The voice is the creak of an old hinge. Heja is sitting in an instant.
“Mother?” Her mother’s hand feebly gropes on the edge of the bed and Heja takes it into her own. Your hands are so small, mother. So frail. “You need to rest, mother. I am here to care for you. No, don’t try to lift your head.”
“Heja? What day it is? Where is Gyl?”
“It is two nights after Gyl’s healing. He is home. He is fine. His cuts are healing well. I saw him briefly today. He came to offer thanks. He will be okay.”
A smile plays across Ulsa’s face for a moment and fades into the shifting shadows of candlelight. “Good. Good.”
No, it is not good! A foolish boy falls while playing and the Healer almost kills herself to save him. It is not good!
“And you my sweet. Have you slept?”
“Of course, mother. I slept here.”
Ulsa shifts her head in the direction of Heja’s voice but still does not open her eyes. “You should sleep in your quarters tonight my dear. I am feeling better.”
Liar. I know how you feel. I dream about it every night. I wake constantly. What good is sleeping in my bed when I only dream of you and your sickness? “I am comfortable here mother. Your quarters are warmer. The sun has slept behind a blanket of cloud since the Healing. Winter returned that night and is awaiting your awakening. My quarters have been cold for two days.”
Ulsa’s smile recedes again into shadow. “Yes, my sweet.”
“Would you like some food, mother?” The grimace on Ulsa’s face answers the question before her slow tongue starts to work. Heja rubs her hand as if to smother the idea and kill it. “No. I think it would be a waste,” murmurs Ulsa, her voices cracking softly.
Curse you. You will not make me cry. You will not give up. Eating is not a waste!
“Have you dreamt since the Healing?”
“No… Well, I dream of you and the stars growing inside you. They are bigger. Brighter. Do you dream of them?”
“I didn’t dream at all these two days,” the relief in Ulsa’s voice is audible. “I don’t think I’ve slept so soundly since I became a woman.”
Since the Healer’s Dreams started. Is this what I have to look forward to? A dreamstate full of pain?
“I am glad. You need your rest.”
“And you need your rest, daughter. You know what we must do when I can walk again.”
When you can walk? Ha. I must have a long time to prepare then. “I know, mother. I know.”
“They heard you the other day and They know you now. You can start mindspeaking to Them just as you communicated with me that day. You are ready.”
“I do not fear mindspeaking to you.” Thank the Spirits that you are too weak to hear me now. “I do fear Them.”
“You must not. There is enough fear among the Brothers of the Field and the Sisters of the Hearth to feed Them for ages to come. We must be the ones who show no fear. They are powerful but Their power is something that we can rein in.”
“Their thoughts were so…”
“Overwhelming?” Heja nods, a wasted gesture as Ulsa’s eyes remain closed. “They are powerful, but They are like a head. We are the neck. We control where They look, what They see.”
How much easier to break a neck than a skull. “I know this mother. You’ve said it all before…” You’re right. We are the neck. But I never thought the head would be so monstrous. “When I mindspoke to Them. Their thoughts were chaos. I feel like I can still hear Them somewhere far away… like the sound of distant waves that comes when the wind shifts.”
“Everything changes when you first mindspeak to Them. They sense your presence always now; you sense Theirs. There is a meddling that cannot be undone.”
“They are strong but They are without focus. The force of water is wasted when it floods the banks. Control makes power useable. Without control, you have chaos and destruction. You are that control now.” Ulsa opens her eyes. She is looking directly at Heja. Some of the color has returned to her face. Her face is calm, her eyes unwavering. Heja blinks. Why do you suddenly look so well? Where is the rag doll masquerading as my mother? You have some strength left in you. Save it.
“I don’t have much strength left.” Heja flinches. Did she hear me? “I do not have enough strength left to tell Them what to do anymore. That is now your task.”
“But I am too young. You said the Healers don’t control Them until they have a Birthing Dream.”
Ulsa’s voice is strong, firm. “Our situation demands differently. You must part with the old ways and, Spirits willing, you must forge a new path.”
I can’t. Not without you. “Then we should heal you. Heal you so that you can help me. Then I will have my Birthing Dream in ten winters and you can rest.” I sound so desperate. So naïve. Curse you, Spirits. Let me be as strong as her.
This time the smile does not fade from Ulsa’s lips. “Daughter. We should now talk of the future that will happen. Not the future we long for. I know you, my sweet. You’ve known for the last two days what must happen. What will happen.”
Yes. Curse you Spirits for letting this sickness happen.
“If only I could Heal myself. If only the Spirits would stop the growth inside of me. There is a power, unchecked, eating me from the inside. I am tired, Heja. I hurt and I am sorry that I cannot shield you from that pain.”
“I can help you with your pain mother.” Ulsa’s smile is gone and slow tears begin a long journey down her face.
“No parent wants to burden their child with pain.”
And no child is ever really ready to take the burden. “What do I do?”
“You must call the Elder Sisters of the Hearth to you after I am gone” — Heja flinches and Ulsa stops speaking for a moment. The two stare at each other, Heja’s face that of the hurt child and Ulsa’s face that of the determined parent. How can you say that? Have you already given up?
“You must call them and tell them that they will assist you until after your Birthing Dream, your Coupling, and the subsequent Birth of the next Healer. They will see that we Healers are not sorceresses. They will see that we feel sadness and pain; they will see that we tire and sometimes feel ill. You can show them that we are women, too. We bleed, we feel loss, we feel love. They will treat you with the reverence born of fear that has guided interactions between the Sisters and the Healers for ages untold. You must meet with them and choose a few, not too old and not too young, to attend to you thrice a week here at the Healer’s House until the next Healer is born. After that The Mother Dreams will guide you as they guided me. You will have a beautiful daughter of your own.”
Ulsa suddenly grips Heja’s hand firmly and pulls herself up so quick that Heja gasps. The gasps turns to a sob as Ulsa fiercely hugs her daughter in the candlelit corner of an otherwise darkened house.
* * * * * * * * * * *
We know she is dead.
The Healer died her first death two days ago. Her strength surged one final time and then snuffed out.
We were almost lost to the rage when we felt her die.
Now Ulsa lays in the center of the ring, dead in body but unwilling to relinquish her essence. She has not died the second death, the true death. She was strong. She is still strong enough to linger in a dreamstate from which no one wakes. That strength fades by the hour. Now They sense the insanity on the edge of thought; a reminder of what is outside, like wind howling through the chimney chute. The howling grows louder.
Heja is facing the fixed star, sitting on the edge of the ring. She is unfocused, distraught, confused. Her dreams visit Them in the deep moments of the night, probing, seeking. Resisting her keeps the rage away. For now.
The girl’s thoughts suddenly begin to gather, her mind sharpening. She senses that They are here, she knows that They are watching. We must ready ourselves. Can we hold off the rage and command her at the same time? Can we keep from insanity’s edge while keeping fear from our voice? She will not command us. Yet.
Ulsa is living inside a memory and the memory makes her cry. She is deep in the past, unaware of the moment, unaware that silent tears are disappearing into the soil.
The sadness tastes sweet.
Heja, still for so long now, stirs. Her perception sharpens and cuts like shafts of morning light through the ever-present buzz of the rage.
You are there.
Yes, we are. But we are afraid to speak.
Speak to me. Answer my summon.
They send a tremor through the ground. They tremble in fear… but she need not know that. Fear flashes in her thoughts for a moment. Just as quickly her mind is again a placid pool, reflecting Their fear back upon Them.
**YOU ARE NOT THE HEALER**
No. The Healer is before you. She is dying. Only her essence remains. She needs you. All this you know.
**SHE BROKE THE HEALER’S PROMISE**
**WE OWE HER NOTHING**
The rage. So strong, so close. So hard to think.. It is a gathering storm and Their thoughts turn electric, red, angry.
Who else is there? Where are you?
She senses the madness. She senses the rage. She must not find out.
**THERE IS NO ONE HERE BUT US**
**WE OWE THE HEALER RETRIBUTION**
**SHE WILL NOT BE HEALED**
**SHE WILL BE PUNISHED**
Heja rises in one fluid motion. She steps into the circle, mud oozing up from between the toes of her bare feet. She walks calmly over to the still form of Ulsa and drops suddenly to her knees. She reaches forward and takes Ulsa’s head into her lap, taking a moment to collect the muddy hair and rest it over her mother’s shoulder. She wipes her hands on her robes and shifts slightly so she is now sitting in the mud, her legs curled up at her side. She passes a hand over her mother’s cheeks, wiping away silent tears and mud. Heja leans over her mother and holds Ulsa’ head between her hands.
I only ask that you take her pain away. Heal the sickness eating her and then let her spirit go to the tranquil place. She broke her promise so that the Healing could continue through me. Let her have peace as a reward for her sacrifice.
Silence for several breaths. The mud, disturbed slightly by the Heja’s passage, settles again. The girl’s will is strong, her thoughts convincing. We must resist for as long as possible. We must keep her away. She mustn’t know the power she can wield through us. The rage howls on. So near. Hard to concentrate. Heja looks past her mother’s face and stares down into the mud.
I feel your conflict. You know that I am right. Obey.
**WE WILL DO AS WE PLEASE**
No. You will obey. Do not forget that my fear died with the Healer’s first death. I am without my mother. How can I fear anything else?
She is without fear. Too strong.
**WE WILL HEAL HER ONLY FOR THE RICH TASTE OF HER PAIN**
**AND THEN WE WILL KILL HER**
So be it.
They begin to rise. Ulsa’s ravaging sickness sings to Them over the din of the rage. Rising takes Them away from the madness, away from the foggy, unclear thoughts. Heja is there, inseparable from the sickness, holding her mother in her arms. Ulsa’s pain is intensified by the thought, the presence, of Heja. In the old Healer’s dreams, they are together right now. Images of a walk in the woods nearby, a young Heja is running ahead, eager to add to the collection of twigs and grasses held firmly in her hands. I remember that day mother. Ulsa is watching, not walking. She cries silent tears of love, pride, and amazement. I didn’t know you were crying. Why were you crying mother?
These are the tears that only a parent can cry, my daughter.
Heja sits up and smiles. I knew you were here mother. They are coming to feed. Soon your pain will cease. A bubble surfaces near Ulsa’s neck making it look like Ulsa has just nodded. Heja wipes the specks from her mother’s chin, her brow furrowing in thought. There is a clear moment that comes as They leave the crushing weight of madness, the din of jumbled thoughts dies away. Heja knows the rage is near but it remains nameless to her, nothing more than the incessant whisper of fear.
No Healer has come so close, so soon, to knowing our rage is there. She is strong. Ignore her.
**TIME TO FEED**
They rise near the surface, feeling the cool numbness of Ulsa’s skin. There is a glimmer of warmth deep within. The outside, though, is dead. She is little more than the ravenous sickness now; her bowels, her lungs, her innards are aromatic in their rot. Heja sees the First and Second before they break the surface, the mud taking the shape of Their forms slowly slithering below.
Spirits, ease her pain.
**HER PAIN IS DELICIOUS**
Take it from her. Finally, take it from her. Take if from me as well.
The ground trembles with Their shock. The howling din of madness crashes like a wave and for a moment They are drowning in rage. Heja is there, like the sun seen from under water. They swim.
Take my pain, as well. No parent can be without pain until their child is as well.
We cannot resist. The madness is suffocating. She is the air we need to breath.
The surface breaks as They find entry into Ulsa. Heja is unfazed, a pool without ripples. They rise in unison into the morning. The First curls over Ulsa’s neck and begins the slow process of burrowing into her head from just under the jaw. Heja holds Ulsa’s head from turning under the force of entry. She feels the muscle in Ulsa’s neck and jaw clench and then relax. Ulsa settles with her closed eyes facing Heja. The Second begins to climb up Heja’s back and find a spot along her neck just below the hairline. Heja feels the sharp tip of the mandible and the rubbery skin, as cold as the heart of the hill, brush her neck behind the ear. She does not move as the Second’s mandibles make a small incision at the base of her skull. It does not hurt. She is beyond physical pain. It burrows.
The rage is far below now, a darkness buried deep. The quiet is startling and disorienting after so much noise. They arrive with the usual suddenness and the old Healer admits three of Them- two through the mouth and one through the nose- with a soft moan. One crawls up Heja’s back. She feels the contracting muscles under clammy skin as one of Them slithers across her shoulder, heading for the mouth. They enter Ulsa. They enter Heja. The girl is strong, she does not choke. She does not flinch.
The pain in the Healer is a lingering scent now, the pain in the girl is raw and throbbing. The shock of dual pain — one old yet fecund, and the other intense and fresh — is almost overwhelming. The girl’s pain is deep. It is the most intoxicating kind of pain: purely emotional. The First and Second settle along the back of the skull and begin to feed on the pain radiating up the spine. More of Them enter Ulsa with such ferocity that the mud froths like whipped eggs. Only one of Them is in Heja, traveling from the mouth, through the back of her throat, and up into the brain. We rarely feed on emotional pain.
Heja feels the pain subside. The pain of her loss is not localized, it radiates from her chest and head in the form of images, sounds, tactile sensations. Herself buried in her mother’s chest, crying over a scrape. Feeling her hair being combed. Hearing her mother’s voice recite tales of old. The images flicker, the voices waver, the feelings numb. The pain lifts. Her eyes lose focus and she falls softly to the mud. Ulsa’s head rolls from Heja’s hands and settles into the mud as well. Heja’s numbness turns into a tingling that radiates up her arms and legs like a limb waking back up. She sees her mother sitting up and tries to rise but her limbs do not respond. Mother, are you okay? How are you able to rise?
Ulsa takes a moment to wipe the mud from the side of her face. She is strong again, her skin the beautiful pale color Heja remembers. Ulsa smiles at her daughter and Heja sees again the familiar laugh-lines. I am wonderful, my sweet. You have taken such good care of me. What more could a mother ask for? The numbness you feel is the absence of pain; the pain that you have grown so accustomed to feeling. I wish we could stay this way but you must return to the Healing and control Them.
Heja realizes that the scene she is witnessing has the same lack of clarity as a memory. The light is diffuse, the details are not clear. Only her mother is in sharp focus. The mud, the hill, the low wall, even her own body is hazy. Where are we mother?
Ulsa reaches out and takes her hand. We are away from the pain.
Heja feels her mother’s hand squeeze her own and opens her eyes. When did I close my eyes? She is lying in the mud, Ulsa is laying next to her. She tries to put her arm under herself and rise up. The effort makes her lightheaded.
Ulsa’s body moves slowly under the influence of Their feeding. A tranquility settles over the hill, the sun is lost behind clouds and the wind stills. For several long moments there is only the occasional sound of Ulsa’s limp body sloshing in the mud. Heja feels the steady gnawing as They feed. So much pain, so much illness.
Heja wipes the mud from her face and again rests Ulsa’s head in her lap. Yes, there is so much pain. Thank you for taking it from her. Thank you for taking it from me.
She is here! She is in our thoughts! The hill rumbles ominously and small waves in the muddy circle ripples outward. Yes. I am in your thoughts. My mother is in my thoughts. There are no barriers now.
Ulsa’s body convulses rapidly and contorts backward. She thrashes her head back and forth for a moment before her body finally settles into the mud, arms and legs splayed out, muddy face to the sky. Heja stares at Ulsa’s face, not the face she saw moments ago. This face is mud-streaked, sallow, and jaundiced. Heja smiles. This is not the face I will remember.
They begin to erupt from Ulsa’s skin, one from her neck, another from her chest. Yellow ichors merge with the earth. Heja feels a brief stab of pain as the one coiled around her mind breaks free from the back of her neck leaving from the incision made by the Second. Heja tries to rise and falls to her knees. They are quickly disappearing into the mud. The First and the Second are still inside and Heja’s pain — her memories — start coming like flickering images caught in candlelight. The pain is a haze in the back of her mind. Ulsa’s body is now still in the mud. The First begins to emerge from her jaw. The Second is releasing its grip on her pain. The memories begin to take on their former clarity. She puts her hand on her mother’s chest. There is no breath. There is no warmth.
Heja sense their confusion, senses their panic. The Second emerges from her neck and Heja reaches back with an explosive flash of her hand to grab it around its pale, bluish body, just below the mandibled head. The First, slowly moving over Ulsa’s chest toward the mud rises up and points its head at Heja. She grabs the First with the other hand.
There is a cacophony of voices ringing in her head. Both the First and the Second, both held firmly at the base of the head, coil and twist around her muddy arms in feeble protest, their mandibles clicking audibly.
**HOW DARE YO-**
The girl’s eyes are alight with rage, her lips curled in a snarl. Silence! How dare you. You took what you wanted from her. You have punished her in the ways you thought appropriate. But now listen carefully to me. I have heard you beyond mindspeaking. I know you and I do not fear you. If you ever again think that you can force me to do anything for you, you are wrong. I will abandon you to the madness, I will let your drown in the rage. Do not tempt me.
She begins to squeeze the First and the Second. I will teach you about pain. I will teach you about loss. Do not tempt me.
Pain. Stop the pain.
Suddenly, Heja throws the First and the Second to the mud with a loud sob. They quickly disappear into the earth. Heja leans over and cradles her mother’s muddy, bleeding body to her. Ulsa, released from her pain, quietly dies the true death. Heja feels the passing as a prickling chill down her back. Goodbye mother. I gave you a peaceful death. That is the best I could do.
It was all I could ask for daughter. The Spirits serve you now.
Yes, they do.
Yes, we do.