Berry – 10,000 BCE, Banks of the Yellow River, Present-day North China – Berry renders the fusing
It was rain time, not that there wasn’t always rain. But now there was rain. The trampled earth between our caves bled red and pus-yellow. Chickens took to the lower boughs for shelter. Pigs rolled in mud ‘til they seemed blood-soaked and the forest exploded urgent green. The nights chittered and groaned and the days bore down, the sun burning orange through a hot damp blue-white haze. Things bit and crawled and we itched and bitched and ate. The river swelled as if angered by thunder grumbling from the sky. We watched the water at this time of year though I’d never seen it come too far up its red-yellow banks in all my moons and for all the elder’s tales of angry floods in generations past; dead maggots and wound-rot, the lot of them.
Sometimes I sneaked among the skulls atop the graves in their quiet patch past the main cave, ‘neath the rocks hanging from the cliff where it met the riverbank. There I’d listen to the rushing brown torrent and watch it turn rose-gold through the trees at sunset. After dark, I’d look up at the smudge of a moon in the clouds and listen to frogs singing from the riverbank and the trees. They could think I was disturbing the spirits of the ancestors all they liked. I knew I wasn’t because there weren’t any.
When the smell of charring pig and hot grain wafted over, I’d creep back among the living, who I liked less, in time to eat and be plagued by clouds of moths and mosquitos at our fires. The few spirits there were, were there if they were anywhere, not that anyone believed me.
The runt-sow, Flower, Tree’s woman’s dim-and-only daughter that lived, had been getting on my nerves forever. She was thin like an insect so would have choked a baby on its way out. Not like me, robust and more ready than that uptight little hen-finch would ever be. She could channel the Flow, so what? So could I. She had her basket of tricks with it, all copied by slow dull-eyed rote. But I already knew as much as the healers from my own experiments; more even, not that I could tell them given how I came by the knowledge.
I was better looking than Flower, smarter than her, quicker than her and everyone knew and nobody cared because she was a little butterfly flitting in the sunshine, working chores like a slave, licking clay off feet – and pus off wounds, probably – if it would make her a friend. Me, I was sensibly lazy, honest, said what I meant, meant what I said and didn’t mean to say very much that wasn’t worth saying. Apparently, that made me strange. That and the things I said I could see.
So Healer’s son Boar – who couldn’t channel the Flow – sniffed around Flower like one of his namesakes and never pointed his tusk in my direction. The healers and the elders and the family in general quietly encouraged the burgeoning match and I could see the catastrophe happening like a slowly collapsing cave on a sleeping baby, with me powerless to stop it.
When Healer died, Boar would take his place with goggling-carp-eyed roach-hips at his side to learn what she could from Bud until Bud died and passed the Stone down to them and they would never let me use it even though I’d be an elder too, by then. Then the river choke us all with yellow mud if we were ever sick or hurt or dying giving birth. There would be nobody left with the knowhow to use the Stone to fight, mine rock, haul or heal since neither of those two possessed a meal-grain of sense between them. One excuse to do what was right for the family was all I wanted. Just one. Too bad I got it.
The one thing I could do was practice with the Stone when I got the chance, even though I wasn’t allowed. The few times I’d channelled It had been enough to make me gasp for more. To the rest of the family, even the elder channelers, Healer, Bud and Tree, it was just a pot to trickle Flow into for later use. A good enough use of it, all right, I’m not saying it wasn’t. It sure held more than a person ever could and unlike our souls, it never leaked once you’d filled it up. A lake of Flow just sat there waiting, a dam ready to be burst and wash away wounds, obstacles and enemies.
But they didn’t know half what I knew, just from the few times I’d lurked in the shadows and done my tinkering. Their dullness set my head on fire sometimes, how they could just have the Stone all the time and never see what more could be done with it; what more it was! I could just look into it for hours. Even to just my eyes, it was a beauty, violet- black and shiny as ice, its many edges sharp as rock.
Not that I could tell them or they’d know what I’d been up to but I had learned the Flow could be shaped inside it to fit more in. And even more odd things besides. If I just could just have it to hold, to study more, I could… Well, I don’t know what I could do. That was the point.
Today, it turned out, I’d get another chance to fiddle and that fiddling would be the beginning of the end for me, not that I knew at the time. It was a hazy drowse of an afternoon and most of the family had fled into the caves to sleep away the heat.
The Stone was among us again after a few risky days away, I could tell, another thing nobody believed me about. Maybe that’s why I found myself lurking in the shade at the mouth of our gathering cave in the afternoon heat; following the light of the Stone in my soul’s eye like a moth into fire. I slopped my feet in a red puddle and idly hooked my foot under a worm so I could feel its cool body slither over my skin.
If the Stone was here then Healer must have come back in from his own cave, far upriver where he went sometimes with Bud to do who knew what. Sure enough his croaking drone rolled into my daydreams. Bud, who was as much a healer as Healer, was in there too, shut away with some other elders, planning some walk into the hills to get building-rocks or something. So that would be another few days we were without the Stone. I was more minded to follow the others to sleep, than lurk and listen to their drivel, but the Stone was calling to me and I needed every chance I could get.
I yawned and reached out to the world to gather a wisp of Flow to my soul, just enough to sharpen my ears and eyes – something else nobody believed me about. Tree was prattling. He was as old as Healer, fat as a full pig’s tick and about as fast. He’d not much to show for his age but the age itself. That and he could channel a wisp of Flow, not even as much as his skinny daughter. ‘Now, we won’t be gone for so long. Not likely anything will happen but what about leaving Flower in charge while we’re away hmm?’
No! Please no!
That would be a good way of me getting on the hardest chores the whole time the elders were away. I’d be out of sight and out of mind of the family and too busy to show her up if anything went wrong.
‘Well, Berry’s a sensible girl, maybe she could help? We’ll only be a day or two, it doesn’t really matter does it? She can channel the Flow.’ Bud, standing up for me.
‘Eh? More’s the peril to us she can channel the Flow! Would that she could skin pigs faster than it took them to die of old age and make pots that didn’t leak instead of being born with the gift. Your daughter is clumsy as a blind pig with a bone through its nose and mad as a snake, Woman! She’d have them digging up the ancestors to eat if you gave her a voice for a night! Her with all that wound-rot about seeing ghosts and the Flow! I swear she’s eaten a wrong mushroom when someone wasn’t watching her!’
Wild pigs can gore the lot of them. You can’t eat ash, anyway, idiot!
I sighed and channelled into the stone, didn’t pull from it, didn’t fill it, just sent a misty vine of the Flow into the cavemouth, questing like the ghost of a leech, for the violet-blue facets of our ancient treasure. It always felt like I was stretching my soul out, riding the stream of Flow. It was hard this far away but I was used to that. It always set me on edge, sneaking in so close to them but they said it, I was mad thinking anyone else could see Flow like I could, and sure enough as the vine of my presence drifted down the cave, they prattled on, apparently oblivious.
What can I try today?
I’d found the Stone, but today it was as if I hung in the air beside it and saw it in a new way. Maybe it was my fear of being caught that made me quest my tendril of Flow slowly through the air and see what I’d always been too hasty to notice before. Or maybe it was some flea-sized change in the way I channelled. Or who knows what. That’s how it always went when I stumbled on a new learning. I could never say how I’d come by it. Anyway, here I was, the Stone filling my soul’s eye, glittering dark violet in the dim light from the cave entrance, as if I was a heron gliding above a moonlit lake.
What if I dived in?
I couldn’t have had that new thought if it wasn’t for the other accidental one that got me here. But so it always went, and so I tried it, going in, not just sending in or drawing out. I couldn’t say how I did it. I never could other than I just bent the Flow to my purpose in a new way I’d just dreamt up. My soul rode the power down, diving through the crystalline surface, into its violet depths. And now I was inside the Stone but not just inside it, somehow, I was it! And then, seeing further beyond the horizon of my old knowhow, from atop the shoulders of the first two, I spied yet another new idea. Burning with my lust to learn, I could never have foreseen the woe it would later rain down like fiery rock from the sky.
Inside the Stone, I reached to the world and channelled the Flow and oh how it came! I gathered and gathered and gathered Flow to me, cramming it into the empty spaces I only now saw, lay between the strands of earthly substance that made up the Stone. Once there, the power lay locked in the glittering lattice of the stuff of the Stone, of me.
Until a soul touches the Stone and calls it forth!
Except I was a soul inside the Stone so maybe I could… But I couldn’t. I could gather such a rush of Flow to me as never before in my flesh but here I could do nothing with it.
I should probably leave in case one of them finds me outside.
And that’s when the trouble started. I tried to pull back, get back to myself the same way I always did only the Stone wouldn’t let me leave. It gripped me in its violet depths and try as I might, I couldn’t breach its surface. My fear rose up and I could feel my heart fluttering like a moth in a web though the core of me was still in the Stone, in the cave with the droning elders.
I panicked and struggled; if a soul can struggle. But the pretty violet crystal face that had lured me was now unyielding as rock from within. The voices of the elders came to me, then. Or had I been hearing them all the time and not paying attention? I couldn’t say. All I knew was that I sure as rotting fish, was paying attention now! For they were setting up to leave the cave and take the Stone with them.
With no skin to feel the hands lifting me or eyes to see the world tilt, I still somehow knew they had picked me up to take me out and I had to get away. It was my body that did it, in the end. I gave a strangled growl of anger and ran and suddenly I was free of the Stone, bolting through the trees for the place of the dead. Voices neared the cavemouth behind me but I was already hidden. Though the steaming heat had almost fought it away before I came properly back to myself, I still didn’t miss it; the ghost of a sinister chill like you’d never get that time of year, leaving my body as I ran.
The trees were dropping their load after the latest shower and frogs were making a din. It was some time before the elders finally appeared in the cavemouth so I was sure they hadn’t heard me, clumsy as I’d been in my fluster. I watched them from the forest as they walked up towards the smell of cooking meat, with the Stone tucked in Healer’s leathery old fist.
Will they see how strangely full it is?
I doubted it. Dumb crawling old grubs.
Spatters of red mud flecked me from head to foot as if I’d been in the way of a pigs throat at slaughter. Bugs whirred around my face as I stood hidden in the trees. It was a long while before my shivers subsided. I still wasn’t sure how I’d pulled free of the Stone and that made me scared of what other dark snares it could be hiding. But compared to the idea now turning in my mind like a star hanging low in the sky, the fear was nothing.
So much Flow, it would never need filling again.
For its brightness in my mind, the idea was only on the edge of my knowing, something I knew I understood but couldn’t put to words. Like the way I sent my soul out with the Flow, hung in the air and moved. Just a sort of knowing in my body and soul that couldn’t quite come clear in my thoughts. And I was out of time for any more of those too, because about then the crashing and screaming started. For the time being, I forgot the Stone and my idea and just about everything else and I ran for my family.
Healer and Bud always came around to us from their own distant cave, gliding over the water with Flow, skirting the rocks that stuck out over the river, always promising to fall in and never quite allowed by the tangle of roots binding them. Feet dry as cicada-shells, they would drift to ground in the trees on the riverbank and skirt the place of the dead to come to the gathering cave where someone would soon find them and call the family. Everyone would come and pay their respects and get hurts and hearts healed or most often, complain like children about some tick-picking thing or other.
The ground rose up steep, from the gathering cave to the rest of our caves which pocked the feet of the tree-covered cliff face. There the river was less tempted to gulp at us. The cliff veered away from the river so the forest spread wider and wider over the rising ground. We cooked outside when it was dry but at this time of year we cooked inside and ate outside if it wasn’t raining. Still there were a few hopefuls trying with their fires, even now more was the pity.
The afternoon sun had cleared the clifftop and burned down on me as I ran up towards the commotion. Were we being raided? I thought so at first but as I got nearer the shouting, I knew it was almost worse. A monster was among us. The family were in chaos when I arrived. The elders had beaten me there, that I’d made sure of, running behind and to the side of them through the trees so they wouldn’t suspect I’d come from the same place.
Roaring and grunting in and out of caves and trampling pots to shards was a black mountain of anger and tusk; an ancient demon of a boar come in from the forest. Everyone was both trying to drive it away and stay out of its path. They threw stones and broken pots and the watchers had come in from the forest and were trying to get it with their spears. It all just seemed to anger the beast more and I could see at least one person crawling across the ground, the scent of their blood mixing with the thickening smoke of scattered embers and smouldering wet loam.
The other elders had scattered and Healer was holding the Stone. I knew it wouldn’t be long before they put an end to the creature. I was almost excited to see them work. Would they set it alight? Use Flow to grind its bones mid-rage? If it was me, I’d just stop its heart, quick and clean. I was even thinking of doing it, more than thinking! I’d already reached with my soul to the Stone and as the Flow came into me, I saw they were indeed not channelling.
What were they doing dithering about? Even as I watched I saw Boar himself knocked aside as he tried to prick the beast with a spear. He staggered and went down and the thing would have been on him if a rock hadn’t flown from the smoke and thwacked it on the side the of the head. It turned in fury and charged in the direction the rock had come from, leaving Bear to struggle to his feet and stagger after it, picking up his spear as he went.
I looked back at the three elders. They still weren’t channelling! What was wrong with them? I gathered Flow from the Stone, filled up my soul ‘til my soul’s eye could see tendrils of it rising from my skin like steam. But then I was frightened. They didn’t know I’d channelled the Stone and even if they looked my way, according to their high and mighty shrivelled up ancient selves, they couldn’t tell I was dripping Flow into the forest around me. Even if they gathered their addled souls and started doing what they should, well, the Stone was extra full from my tinkering before so they wouldn’t even notice any Flow missing.
But I was still afraid and as I wavered the animal burst from the smoke and rammed full into Healer, tossing him into a Tree trunk like he was a dead twig. It turned mid-charge, terrifying quick for something so big and knocked Bud on her back then fell dead on top of her frail old legs, the sound of bones cracking loud across the clearing in my Flow-sharpened ears.
That was me. I’d come unstuck when I saw the elders were all about to be crushed and trampled. I’d flashed my soul across the clearing, reaching into the beast’s chest with a claw of Flow and squeezing its life out through its heart between one beat and the next. Another new learning for the day. A wisp of purple-black rose like mist from its body and quickly faded to nothing. Like babies, Animals didn’t have ghosts, not really.
I heard my mother’s croaky old moans as the beast’s dead weight crushed her broken legs. I watched through wisps of smoke as Tree retrieved the Stone from a puddle with shivering old hands. Healer lay still among the roots where he’d landed but I could tell he was still alive, the dark light of his ghost still firmly fastened to his rattly old bones.
Tree would fix them up, healing was even easier than moving things. You didn’t even need to know what to do. Spirits clung to the walls of their meaty caves, wanted them for shelter as long as they could give it. The spirit knew how to look after its house if only given half the chance. It was just that most of them couldn’t channel the Flow and so if help came from someone who could, well then, the ghost would use what it was given all too gladly. I knew. I’d practised on bugs and seen wings and legs uncrumple and even grow back. Not that I could tell anyone seeing as even Healer wasn’t that good. Questions would be asked about how I’d managed to channel so much Flow.
I didn’t go to the elders. I walked off into the smoke shrouding the clearing. Let them try and puzzle out what happened to the beast once they were fixed. I wasn’t afraid there was any fire to speak of. Everything was too wet. But the smoke was getting up my nose and making me mad so I got a mind to find out where it was coming from and snuff it out. I stumbled over things in the white gloom and that’s when I found Flower. I thought she was dead at first but my soul still held Flow so I changed my mind on that score soon enough.
I squatted beside her and turned her over. There was no blood. I felt up her twig of a body, none too gently, making her groan. Her eyelids fluttered open as my prodding fingers found the ruin of her ribcage.
‘Oh Flower.’ I gloated softly.
‘Berry. Help m….’ Her lips fought to part against sticky white strings of spit and a trickle of blood ran from the corner of her mouth.
A mixture of dread and elation thrilled through me and without thinking, I reached back through the smoke and filled myself to overflowing from the Stone, its lake of power even now barely a hair’s breadth emptier. I shook my head in mock sadness. ‘I don’t know how, Flower. Nobody’s taught me. You were always so much cleverer than me…’ I lied.
‘You know… I’ve seen y…’
Had she now? Sneaky little crotch-louse!
Her voice was a bubbling whisper and talking cost her a cough of dark blood. It burst from her mouth and spattered her face, causing me to flinch back. She was fading now. I could see her ghost, eager to slip its fleshly leash. I just had to let her go and pretend I was never there. It was just blind luck that made me find her anyway, could just as easily have not. But that’s when my thoughts from before came back to curse me.
‘There… There might be a way, Flower.’ I made my voice timid. ‘Can you channel the Flow? I know it hurts, just try. Reach out, the Stone is near, there, back behind me through the smoke. Just try Flower! I know we aren’t allowed but… it’s all I can think to do.’
And she did, the silly carp. I could see her feeble wisp of Flow twined with her soul, reaching, costing her, her final breaths, not that she knew. I reached alongside her, just so I’d know when she was there. When her soul touched the Stone, I said, ‘Now, take power from the Stone.’ And I snapped my own soul back.
She started to as well. Weakly. If she’d taken enough her soul would have done the rest. It’s why we channelers of the Flow lived oh so much longer than other people, see? Every time you channelled, you swatted away a moon or so of age. If I’d stopped to think I would have doubted she could draw enough to her, soon enough to save herself, but still, who knew? Not me.
Me, my limbs turned to water and terror and excitement burst in tingling numbness through my body as I channelled every curling wisp of Flow in me, spitting it out like a striking snake to make sure we never found out if she could save herself or not. Before she’d drawn a drop of Flow from the Stone, I’d pinched out her life the same way I had, the boar. Then I stopped channelling as the size of the thing I’d done struck me like a blow.
I goggled at the corpse, struck stupid as its owner for a few heartbeats. Its chest heaved and its back arched as the ghost whistled up from inside and out the nose and mouth with a wet cough of dying breath and a geyser of dark lifeblood. For half a breath she stood over me and she was the spit of her body, even to the colour of her skin. I’d never seen such a thing.
In that heartbeat, I felt the betrayal in her eyes raking my soul, that and its burning rage. I flinched back in spite of myself. Oh-ho! Yes! She would have haunted me to my grave, that one. I could already feel the new bond between us, reaching, forming, trying to twine around my soul. She knew what I’d done, all-right, I could see it in her vengeful scowl. The ghost put up its arms as if to reach for me and drag me from my body to share its death.
But my little trick had worked, for all that I would come to wish it hadn’t. No sooner than I’d traded looks with the most fearsome shade I’d ever seen, did it whistle away through the smoke, pulled into the Stone with no body left to save it. The haunting was torn from my soul and over the din of the family lumbering about in the haze of smoke, I could hear her anguished shriek. A haunting spirit cannot leave its haunt, see? It finishes its business and passes on – disappears actually but only I knew that – or it lingers and pesters. But there is no in between. Such a thing goes against earth and sky. Even the dumb elders knew that.
And yet this one had been torn from me, its haunt, even against earth and sky. And now I trembled like a leaf in the first buffeting coughs of storm-wind, afraid of what I’d done, of the rules I’d broken. Shivering with roaring thoughts I stumbled from the twitching body brushing off spatters of blood that weren’t there.
Just like fish-eyes not to know she was dead.
I tried to laugh at the thought but I was shaking so hard I could hardly walk. Panicking, I staggered through the smoke, bumping into this person and stumbling over that broken pot, going anywhere as long as it was away. But I was never much given to storms of the soul. My heart slowed before long and I could think again. Nobody had seen me. The smoke had been too thick. At least, that’s what I thought desperately, trying to make it so.
When I came even further back to myself, the smoke had at last started to thin. Whatever pile of wet leaves causing it had been found, I thought. But something else was happening. Voices came up in confusion and that’s when I noticed the smoke was getting brighter as if lit by midday sun. Except now the sun was cooling to an ember as it rolled towards the hills across the river.
I stopped walking and turned and saw the light behind me, growing brighter by the heartbeat. I shaded my eyes and walked towards it, emerging from the smoke to fall on my knees and curl up against the blinding blue-white that burned through my eyes to the back of my skull.
There were shouts and the glow dimmed a little. I raised my head slowly and looked sideways towards the light. Healer and Bud were standing by the dead boar and the light seemed to be coming from underneath it.
The Stone. Oh no! What have I done to the Stone?
A figure was crouched between them and Tree’s voice carried across the clearing to me. ‘I can’t channel! I can’t channel the Flow anymore! What’s happened to me, Healer? Bud? Help me!’
And it was then that I reached out to the Stone to see what had happened and knew that I would never again see the dark of the cave lit with the misty blue of swirling Flow rising from my skin as I held it in my soul, or the purple-black of the sleeping souls around me and the drifting trails of blues and violets like glowing mist on the air left by those that sleep-walked from their bodies in their dreams. Nor after today, would I watch a dying spirit rise like steam from its corpse after a hunting accident or birthing, a deep violet mist, flowing from the body, maybe taking the shape of the person for a breath, or just breaking apart and fading into earth and sky like mist burned away by the sun.
Now the world was only what my flesh could sense: reds, blues and greens and dull browns and the smells of water, earth, fire and flesh. It might as well have all been hues of grey and different kinds of rot to me from then to the end of my days. For I found in that moment that I had lost the only thing precious to me beyond my family to whom I would now be no more than a lazy useless girl, bad with her hands and wrong in the head. When I reached for the Flow it wouldn’t come. Like Tree, I could no more channel than the dead beast at the elders’ feet, or the corpse I’d made of Flower only moments ago.