It was Mother who had filled my head with stories.
|It was Mother who had filled my head with stories.
Stories of the Great Glass Desert at the world's end, the barren and beautiful landscape that stretched on to infinity, with nothing above it but the wide open sky. The sky, so blue you might expect to drown in it, that loomed so large overhead that you could not possibly conceive anything beyond. And it was she too who told me of the hungry ghosts that roamed the lands, shadows and whispers of the War That Came Before.
Once, people had lived under the sky, had felt the rain fall upon their skin and breathed in all kinds of sweetnesses, Mother said. Imagine! The rain, an unending cycle of water from the sky, that drenched the land and brought forth life! It seems impossible, she'd tell us, but it really was true. And it might still be, but nobody had seen the rain for years. Decades, even. Nobody even knew if it was still there. My brother and sister and I were born in the Under, a sprawling city hewn from rusted metal and chiselled stone. Great brass lamps lit every pathway, guiding us through the darkness as we carved out a life, deep in the bowels of the earth. My brother and sister, both older than I, both worked at a smithy with our father, a haggard and bristled man with a face that looked like it had never been young, tempered in the forges he had built with his own hands and slaved over his entire life. When I came of age it was time to join them, making the shovels and pickaxes, hammers and chisels that the masons used daily, to carve more of the city out from the walls of earth that surrounded us.
For some, this was enough. The eldest of my siblings, my brother Joseph, would tell us that we were 'helping to shape the future', and how proud he was to be a part of it. Father and Joseph had worked together the longest, and by now there was nothing Father could have taught him that he didn't already know. Besides the manual skill he had learned on the job, Joseph had the mercantile mind that had never come naturally to Father, and naturally stood as his eventual successor; he was responsible for keeping business flowing in and out of the smithy, and charmed the guilds whenever it came time to renegotiate. Sula was the next born, and we often called her the Metalweaver. In terms of sheer finesse, nobody could match Sula. Though our primary output was labouring tools, she almost singlehandedly kept a lucrative side trade in decorative pieces running. She could see shapes in the raw metals that I couldn't even imagine, and worked tirelessly to bring them out. There was no doubt in my mind that Sula would have a bright future ahead of her alongside Father and Joseph, and there were days I wished that I shared their talent and passion for the work we did together, but the joy in my day was not to be found working the forges. I was happiest when I could crawl home, exhausted, and Mother would tell us stories until I fell asleep, dreaming of the world above. When the others got older and stopped paying so much attention, I would lie there, hanging on every word. As a child, I was convinced that my mother knew every story ever told. Something in her voice was almost ageless, as old as the rocks themselves, and as I lay in the darkness listening to the words, I could picture it all; the bright sunlight, warmer and more radiant than the biggest brass lamp, and the dark night, which bathed the land in stillness, bringing with it all manner of strange creatures that lived as we did in the Under, lit only by the wandering stars.
And I could picture the desert. A terrible, beautiful thing, left irrevocably scarred by the War That Came Before. Mountains of sand burned into glass by the heat of their weapons, an endless landscape frozen perfectly in time. It was, Mother said, the record of our sins, etched indelibly into the world. The proof that, no matter how we could live together in peace, we would always be capable of unspeakable evil. The desert had once been a vibrant ecosystem – filled with lush oases and teeming with life, inside great stone cities and out – but the weapons had ended that in moments, laid waste to anything within reach. The reasons were long lost to the ravages of time, Mother said, but their scars remained. It was this war that had lead our forefathers to build the Under, and gradually turn it into the place I called home.
Though her voice remained ageless, Mother did not. She began to fade as we grew older, her periods of illness longer and longer as the days passed. Soon, she was unable to leave the house at all; I would stay and look after her when Father could not, and try and tell her some of the stories she had shared with me across my lifetime. Somehow, they never felt quite right in my voice – I tripped over words I had had memorised for years, and no matter how I tried to perfect my delivery, I could never make her magic my own. Rachael, the neighbour's daughter, would often bring Mother fresh fruit when they could spare it – and she would sit in and listen when I tried, laughing to herself as I stumbled. Though it felt mean at the time, she and I had been friends for years, and on the nights where Mother's coughing sent her into paroxysms, Rachael would help ease her back into sleep when all I could do was watch. Her mother was a doctor, and Rachael had been learning from her for almost as long as I had been learning from mine. It was on these nights, when (as Mother would say) the wolves were howling at our door, that I cherished my friend most. And as much as she may have laughed at my stuttering and stumbling, she had loved and listened to those stories for as long as I had. With her father frequently away working to expand the boundaries of the Under, and her mother tending the sick and injured, Rachael had nestled right into our family as one of our own. When her father had been crushed by a load-bearing beam collapse in some distant tunnel, it had been Mother who had comforted the crying girl, and wiped away her tears. And when her breathing slowed, it had been Mother who had lulled her to sleep with stories of the stars, and the gentle rain.
So it went in the Under, endlessly. Life perpetuated for the sake of perpetuating life, a people scraping at their prison walls, forgetting there was anything outside the cell to begin with – until the day that Mother died.