In the whickering fields the thought came to Lily, seeming to sift up through the long grass, like a breeze.
I don’t want to go back.
Lily stood upright from her work and mopped a shimmer of moisture from her forehead.
Where had that thought come from? That urgency to stay, so sudden, so strong, and with it the desperate need to leave.
Lily had never been anywhere much, scarcely further than the road beyond the farm. Her family had no wanderlust to speak of since the old days, having toiled so bitterly for their lot that they were loathe to give it up, even for a day. Thus, there was nowhere for Lily to go back to, and yet those words still pushed at her, insistent, fearful.
I don’t want to go back…
Lily didn’t like it. There was something she had forgotten, pushed to the back the back of her mind, gathering dust, insistent, unpleasant.
She felt cold under the low sun. Her mouth was dry, and her hands, as she wiped them on her dress, were briny with sweat, under the dirt.
A wind picked up, bounding a red spiral of fallen leaves across the sky. As Lily watched them she was struck by such an inexplicable sense of terror that she turned about in all directions, half-expecting some nameless creature to rise up from the fields, or from the scrub of forest beyond.
Bears rarely came this far out of the woods, and cayotes were few and far between, having been chased out so often by rifle shots that they’d moved on to scavenge from the townsfolk, instead. Why, then, did Lily feel so hunted, herded towards some trap she couldn’t see?
Maybe it was only the summer ending, a panicked nostalgia for wasted time. Or maybe it was that Lily’s birthday had come, and nearly gone, forgotten, as it always was in the muddle of nine siblings and assorted cousins living on the farm. Lily was eighteen, this year, which was supposed to count for something, but didn’t.
How surreal it was to be grown, and yet still know all the terrors and squirming discomforts of a child.
Shaking her head, Lily began to wade through the field towards the farm house, watching her various aunts and uncles teem like weevils over the crops ahead of her. Abruptly they all seemed to straighten up from their work at once to stare in Lily’s direction, their pale faces rendered smooth and featureless by distance.
Another thought came to Lily: they all know something I don’t. They’ve known it for a long time.
Again came that penned-in sense of horror, a breathless, reckless thing. The farmland seemed to stretch too widely before Lily, now, obscene in its yellows and greens, the spoiled hue of an old bruise.
She found herself muttering a prayer to the Brother, the Winter God, that He might rush forth to smother the crops with an early snowfall this year. But the Sister Goddess was approaching Her summit of plenty and harvest; perhaps a few words should be said to Her, also, so that Lily wouldn’t be blamed if the yield was sparse and pestilent.
The Sister could be vengeful, the preacher- Lily’s uncle Samuel -had always said, and as the strongest of the four Gods it served to be cautious of Her wrath. Yet how could he be sure that such superstitions were true?
Some of Lily’s siblings- the older ones, considered sage enough travel without being seduced by Outlands ways- had whispered that the Four weren’t worshipped or even heard of in the neighbouring towns, that people prayed, instead, to a dying man on a cross. It seemed a sinister practice, gothic and primitive, yet the townsfolk apparently saw the Family as the lesser people for their faith.
Perhaps they’re right, Lily thought, with a flash of daring.
She hadn’t yet been given chance to decide anything for herself, religious or otherwise, and had begun to suspect that she never would be. Few of the Family ever turned their back on the Four Gods, or migrated to those mythical towns. Those that did never came back, were not allowed to, having lived too long in that foreign other-world.
Suddenly Lily would have rather been out there, with the outcasts, amongst the Outland people. In the shade of crowded storefronts, under lights like iron stalks, one could pretend the seasons never changed.
The thought struck Lily with an unhappy yearning, which unsettled her almost as much as the fear. She ran down to the fencing at the bottom of the field and clambered over it, and glanced up at the sky as she did so, as if anticipating rain.
Perhaps her nerves would settle when she was home, kneeling under the painting of the Four at her bedside that Lily’s mother had nailed to the wall. The Gods heard you better when you looked upon their image, or so the preacher said, at least. Uncle-Father-Sammy was always saying something, it seemed, and only now had Lily thought to doubt him. She wished that she knew why.
Lily found herself turning, unbidden, to the faraway trees, transfixed by their bristling darkness. Forests had covered the land here, once, until Lily’s ancestors had cut them down to clear room for crops and livestock. What was left of the woods jutted over the sloping hills like charred bones, naked, now, as the wind stole their leaves.
Again, that jarring thought occured to Lily, an urgency: I don’t want to go back, but I have to…
She ran so hard that she twisted her ankle on a knot of weeds, and staggered on, her limp barely felt through the numb rush of fear. Again she prayed to the Sister, begged that her mind be clear, that she might accept the message of the Gods without the impediment of questioning.
Perhaps there was no message.
Lily couldn’t recall having having ever really heard the voices of the Four, not as some in the Family had. Her grandfather claimed to have glimpsed the Sister in the mountains, once, wearing the damp leaves and dirt and marrow vines of her natural form. But Grandpappy was full of stories about the Gods, few of them true.
Vadonn, the Father.
Modera, the Mother.
Broabb, the Brother.
Blodzus, the Sister.
These were the Four Gods, and of all of them it was the Sister Lily had always turned to. She was the youngest, and thus the one that felt closest to her.
Oh Four, protect me, guide me, ensure my good health, make flesh and field and womb bear fruit…
The All-Prayer ran from Lily’s mouth as she bowled down to the farmhouse, so many times that the words might well have been in another language for what sense they made, all run together as one.
The farmhouse, at last, hurtled into sight, a many-storeyed colossus of wood and nail, hideous, but functional, all through the providence of the Four. Vadonn had strengthened the hands of its builders, the menfolk, and Modera the hearts of the women that maintained it. Lily had never much identified with either group, but there were no rightful words for such a feeling, and so she spoke of it only in her heart.
The front door swung inwards, and Lily bolted into the farmhouse kitchen, shutting her many questions outside, where- she hoped-they could not pester her.
“Child,” Lily’s mother said, her lined hands sodden with dishwater. “You’re late to eat. Where have you been?”
She spoke, as they all did, in Godspeak, that was something like Dutch, and English, and known only by the Family, who had devised it through the Word of the Four.
“I’ve been walking, Mama,” said Lily, at last, her pulse still strung, fast and frantic, through her temples. “Walking in the fields, that’s all. The weather is strange. I’ve prayed for rain, Four Be.”
Snow; it was snow that she had prayed for, although Broabb would not yet be awake to hear such a call. It was a sin to lie so, another weight on her conscience.
“We have had too much rain, as of late,” said Lily’s mother, sternly. “Pray that our crops be rich, and that your sister, Clover, take with child.”
Lily fidgeted. She didn’t much like children, and there were already so many on the farm, all relations by some twig of the family tree.
“We do ask so much of the Four,” she said, at last.
At this her mother turned, her haggard cheeks indignantly ablaze.
“This year we have right to our demands, of the Sister, at least. How many times must I tell you? The festival is her time.”
Of course it would be on Lily’s birthday that Blodzus, the thirsting daughter of plant and earth, demanded such attentions of the Family. She was youth, and beauty, and drank full wherever She could sink Her verdant teeth, and would reward them all for sating her appetite.
Nerves had seized hold of all on the farm in preparation for this night. All except Lily, until now.
She’d always been given her leisure, rarely bidden to toil at even the simplest task. Lily had assumed herself simply to be the favourite, the pet of her mother, the doll of her father. Now she sensed herself as something other, and again she whirled desperately for some avenue to flee from that purpose, finding none.
What was coming? What cruel, inevitable thing?
“Have you prayed?” asked Lily’s mother.
Lily, devout, a liar, said, “I asked that I may be more obedient to the Family.”
This, as always, softened the maternal hawk’s stare to molten gold.
“My sweet one,” sighed Lily’s mother. “Through the Sister may you prosper.”
Uncomfortable with the blessing, Lily forced a smile.
“I pray that it is so.”
Again she took to her heels, mounting suits of stairs and passing rooms that smelled of mothballs, and nightsweat, and too many children housed in one space. As Lily came to the dormitory she shared with the other girls she stared, agog, at the portrait of the Four, which she had been so sure would comfort her.
It was the same it had always been, yet somehow she did not recognise it.
The Four were painted badly, too pretty, too human to be Gods. The Sister especially was all wrong, the nasty little face simpering. Lily recoiled from the canvas, her mind running through that repetition of words.
I have to go back, and take back what is mine.
Where had they come from? An old song, a poem?
Still she couldn’t source them, her memories woefully blank.
What was really wrong with the portrait, Lily concluded, as she stared at in dislike, was that it did not encompass immortal terror, nor could any illustration by human hands. Modera should have been corpulent, fertile as the Spring, Vadonn a sensuous beast, all teeth and carnal desire. The Brother, Broabb, was too soft by far, giving nothing of the frozen prince, and Blodzus-
Lily rocked back and forth, and moaned, her armpits soaked. She couldn’t look at the Sister, although she’d done so a thousand times. But then it seemed that she must. She felt the importance of it, an instinct.
Again Lily raised her head, took in the hideous daubing of the Sister, the closest she would ever come to seeing Her face. The vision trembled at Lily’s peripheral vision, almost beckoning. She felt its will, Her will, Blodzus, Her Holy Need.
Suddenly it was as if she was beginning to understand
Lily took to the stairs again, six at a time, almost falling headlong, only swinging herself upright at the last minute by aid of a bannister. A memory came to her, so old that it wasn’t old at all, but ancient: men coming with picks, and scythes, and primitive guns, tearing her out of sallow bramble. Her, but not her- The Sister.
Why did Lily remember that she had once been the Sister?
“Lily,” called her mother, in bland irritation, “go back up to that room and bathe and dress for the festival. I see you have not even washed your hands.”
Did she know, this mother, what the Family had done to Blodzus, and repeated every eighteen years? Even as she made this accusation Lily didn’t know exactly what it meant, where it had sprung from.
She blew about the house in a sodden fever, dragging her pale dress down over her head with senseless fingers. Meanwhile the ochre death of flowers and forests and roots in the ground seemed to have seeped through the walls, ushering in the thoughts from the fields, inescapable. It was in this madness of senses that Lily realised what had frightened her.
Those thoughts, denser than daydreams, were the voice of another. The voice of the Sister, attempting to warn Lily of some dread thing.
The God thrust images at Lily, recollections as vivid as art, realler than living. She saw how the settling Family had caught Blodzus out in the mountains, caught Her over and over, year after year. How, the first time, they had bound Her to the earth with promise of worship, and bred Her amongst their men to make strong children, sewing their oats in the fertile soil of Her womb.
Lily saw, too, what the Family did every year henceforth, to one of their women, a sacrifice to the God they’d put to slaughter. They split the limbs of the mortal Daughter to broker warmth in their hearths, to warm their dinners, all through an effigy of generational power.
In this way, year upon year, the Sister was slowly reborn, crawling, agonised on charred bones until she was supple and ready to bless the land again.
Not this year. It could not happen again.
Lily whirled about the room, giddy with distress. It couldn’t be true, any of this. It must be some fantasy, a vision drummed up by overexcitement. After all, it would have been known to her before, this violent festival, had it been real. Her mother, who loved her, would surely have prepared Lily for its brutality, as was her duty in all things.
But Lily remembered when her first blood had broken, remaining a horrid mystery until a giggling assembly of sisters had set her right. The nature of sex, likewise, had been almost a myth, demonstrated only by the farm’s livestock, in their union.
Lily had been kept in the dark in many such things. Of course she had; she must be, to save her from running from the men she had loved, who would make her womb their idol.
Daughter after daughter after daughter, seeded like mares, their offspring the glory of harvest-
Enraged, Lily flung out her arms and tore the foolish painting of the Four down from the wall. A wicked joy seized her to see it done, viciously, rightfully. She kicked at the picture, the toe of her boot knocking a great dent into the canvas. How dare the Family paint the Gods with their filthy hands.
Blodzus had given Lily the blunt gift of Sight to prepare herself, and to run from what had been planned. That was the fear that had chased her over the field like a crow, a blessing on oily wings.
Why deny it, now, when the preacher had always commanded her to listen to the voices of the Four, after all?
Lily crouched low on the floor, her brow cooled by the chill boards. No more proof would she demand of the Sister; she could almost feel the packed dirt and autumn blossoms of the Goddess in her heart, knew that if anyone were to cut her open she would bleed the same red of the soil.
Yet it frightened her, still, the suddenness of understanding. She felt as new in her own body as a fawn, still wet from the caul.
Suddenly the bedroom door opened, and a dozen assorted sisters and cousins suffocated the small space, all giddy and loud in anticipation of the festival. Someone picked up the ruined painting from the floor- was Lily mad, to anger the Four like that, stupid girl? -and someone else seized the back of Lily’s dress, hauling her upright.
They were, in turns, cruel and coquetish; did they know, these siblings and cousins, what was to be done to Lily, or were they, too, kept from such secrets?
Sometimes it seemed that they were aware, staring with vicious, avid eyes. At other times they seemed only silly and foolish, merely playing at being grown.
The boys, however. All of them knew, Lily felt, even the youngest, little adults with their wet smirks and serpentine laughter.
Later, when she sat amongst them, at dinner, she could not eat- would not, fearing that everything from bread to water was laced with some drug, so that she wouldn’t mind when they despoiled her. She pretended a stomachache, some mild heatstroke; the sweat on her brow served her well.
The mother who was no true mother stared, rather coldly, nearly envious. The father smiled through the beard Lily recalled as a coarse and scratching thing, buried in the pollen and the warm of his daughters’ suffering.
Lily wanted to stand up from the table and run, but she only picked her dinner to pieces with her fingers and made dull conversation, keen to the dangers of unwanted attention.
“You forgot my birthday again,” she muttered.
“No,” said her father, through that coarse grin. “Of course not, love. But the festival comes first. And the Four.”
“What will happen?” asked Lily. “No one has told me.”
Many wild eyes turned to her, merry faces ruddy with drink. Lily hated them. So many had the blood of the Sister in them, at least a drop of it, but only Lily had enough of her own mind to channel the Goddess, to defy what they would do.
“The Sister will look down upon us,” said Lily’s mother, and the chorus went up around the room. “Amen.”
They all rose from the table, sated, and noisy with laughter, and Lily rose with them, repeating their false prayers.
Something was to happen, to stop this, and Lily was to do it. Anticipation crackled through her hair and across her skin like residual magic, and she sought that knowingness in her mind for another answer, another sign.
It did not come.
The Sister had exhausted Her strength, it seemed, too greatly to reach out across the fields again.
As the revelling Family filed out into the night Lily slipped a knife across the tablecloth and tucked it into a pocket of her dress. She knew that so small a weapon would be little defence against so many enemies, its edges rather blunt from years of use. Still, she kept the blade, suspecting she’d find some purpose for it.
Out they all went, amongst the crops, their faces luminous with crimson sunset. The bountiful rows were alive with chants, and song, and prayer, three hundred voices in praise of the Four. Children ran about with banners and ribbons, and their mothers soothed their hands over their bellies and loins under their dresses, hoping to be fertile again.
The boys and men were grinning jackals, all vicious lechery to think what lush meat they would pick clean. How had Lily not seen it in their faces before? She couldn’t bear it, the boldness of their cruelty. Her thin body wrung with the sweat of indignation.
Pausing at the crest of a hill she felt, once more, the tug of the Goddess’ power, Her voiceless words a gale of rising panic.
Now. Now I must move before they do.
In a near stupor Lily gazed down at her pale arms, at the knife bundled in her skirts. Before she could think herself out of the action she pulled free the blade and slashed it across her wrists, left to right, releasing a hoarse bellow of pain into the dawning night.
Better to die now, before they killed her. Better to deliver her soul to whatever purgatory existence the Outland people went to than struggle as the Sister had, the cruel loop of life eternal.
Yet as Lily stared, bewildered, at the slits in her arms she saw that they spilled not blood, but scarlet leaves.
She staggered over a knot of grass, trying with ineffectual hands to press the sheer wounds shut. They resisted her, skin tearing up to her elbows to make way for the spill of vegetation.
The pain was dizzying, splitting black and white sparks across her vision. Yet it wasn’t the agony that it should have been; Lily had known worse, the cramps of her monthly course, the sudden daggers of growing pains.
It had been harder to become a woman than to die, if dying this truly was.
Each leaf that bled from her latched onto the wind and spilled out in a crazed mass across the rows, the forests, the distant mountains, consuming the distance as easily as swallows. The air was filled with their mutter of their damp filaments against everything they touched.
In the pastures the Family paused their joyous celebrations to observe the spectacle, arms braced over their eyes against the dying sun. Leaves caught in their hair, on their clothes, in the long grass, filling the valley with their red opulence.
When the first scream went up from below Lily didn’t understand it. Then she saw, beneath her, that as each leaf brushed a human face or hand it tore a strip of skin away with it, or a moist gobbet of hair. She had let loose from her own body a forest of gossamer teeth, tearing things bent on retribution.
Lily knew that she should feel some sort of fear, a revulsion, objection. But instead there was only the leaden relief of a captive unchained from a prison wall, the levity of knowing that she’d been born for this end.
But it was no end at all, she thought, but something else, an eye opening within a nightmare.
Sister. Daughter. Self.
Across the rows umber leaves covered the land like hungry flame, burying the Family under its whispering tide. Even the daughters, cousins, and sisters likely innocent in this festival were sucked down into the heaving mass, their flesh dissolved into the remains of the Sister God.
There was no comprehension in their eyes as they died, nothing but stupid, animal terror. But what matter? Why should Blodzus bear loyalty to them, the children of Her enemies, a brood thrust upon Her? Let them all die and return to the land, to feed Her long-bridled hunger. Let them fall to pieces, mulch in the trodden mud.
No, thought Lily. No. This isn’t what I want…
Was it herself she spoke to, now, or was the Sister Her own entity, still, merely channelled through a conduit of blood? Lily feared the thought of being taken over by Her, feared, too, that she, Lily, was responsible for this slaughter alone.
She was the last of the Family to keep her physical body, after all, as each of her kin eroded away. They were one and the same, now, Lily and the Sister, if they had not always been.
Lily could not stop the ghastly flood of leaves, arrested by their murderous rhythm. They poured over the side of the farmhouse in a rapturous cyclone, eating at the barns, the stables, anything man-made that staked its claim on the land. Each structure was pulled down under the deluge as if crushed beneath a giant’s palm, forced back into the soil, where perhaps they’d grow again, as trees.
The few ancient trucks the Family had kept for rare trips to the Outlands were smashed to pieces, gutted of glass and their leather innards by the thrusting leaves until they were but metal skeletons. Nothing remained of the farm but what had been before, the grass and the dirt and the forests.
Not even the bones of the dead outlasted the storm, eaten away by the blood of the Sister.
At last the leaves shifted on over the skyline, the flow dried by their waning purpose. Lily examined her arms again, the seams she had opened with the knife no more now than pallid scars. She touched them with her fingertips, marvelling, tiredly, that she had healed in so little time, that such wounds would not kill her.
Was this what it what it was, to be the Sister, when She’d been at Her full power? That had been so very long ago that even Blodzus Herself could not recall it, the impermanence of all lost things.
The night was closing in over the valley, the sun gone out like a match behind the mountains. There was no-one left alive there but Lily, and she had never been alone a day of her life, not this one, at least. The prospect of it daunted her.
Turning to the West, towards the Outlands, Lily wondered how long she would have to walk to find the first road to civilisation. She’d been here too long, in this remote territory, imprisoned from one incarnation to the next. Why not take to the towns now, which she- Lily, the Sister -had never seen?
Slowly she picked her way down over the lush hills and through the rows that would soon become meadows again.