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Fragile

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THE FIRST DAY:

 

You’ve been digging for an hour. Cracking the earth. Turning the soil.

It’s just after midday, sun high.

“We need to do this so the water can get in,” the Dag had told you, showing you how to hold the shovel, where to pile the dirt you remove. But she's left now, gone back up to tend the hydroponic gardens, and it’s just you and the Wretched and a few Mill Rats, working in the slowly lengthening shadow of the Citadel’s tallest tower. Your shovels chime as you split the sullen ground.

You look at your hands. They're red-palmed and starting to burn.

“They hurt,” you say aloud. The Mill Rat nearest you looks up but says nothing. He has never not hurt, never not felt pain. His hands are not soft enough to blister— and if they once were, he has long forgotten.

You see that one of the Wretched women has wrapped her hands in cloth. You have nothing but the little that covers you, and you are shy of these strangers and the harsh sting of sand. You could go up to the tower, strip one of the pillows or your old clothes, but the Dag would see you and frown in soft confusion, and Capable would chastise you for leaving, cupping the side of your head and looking right into your face. You could ask some cloth of the Wretched around you, but they are ugly and gap-toothed and strange, and you are scared of them. The others would be so disappointed in you. You swallow as if to speak, but your words are caught bubbling in your throat; you cannot help your unkindness.

You grit your teeth. You heft your shovel again.

 

--

 

THE FIRST NIGHT:

 

You’re sitting on the top of one of the Citadel’s towers. The stars are shining strangely bright above you, so white and hot you can almost feel them. Angharad is sitting on the edge of the tower facing away from you, legs dangling, looking down at the desert far below.

“They’re all gone,” she says. “Everybody that loved us and held us as babies. Our mothers. Our mothers’ mothers. One day we will be gone too.” Angharad looks out to the horizon, the dark earth scarcely distinguishable from the dark sky. “It’s so beautiful,” she says. “But sometimes I feel like we are completely alone.”

There’s a long silence. You don’t say anything. You look up at the stars.

The tower beneath you is quiet and still and empty. No one weeps or laughs or speaks or breathes down there.

 “I’m so glad this isn’t real,” she says. There is a flutter of something above her, some bird or bat flitting through the night air.

“This isn’t real?” you echo.

“No,” she says, “just a dream.”

She smiles at you and tips backwards off the edge of the tower. Quicker than you can comprehend, she’s gone, and all you can do is stare at the empty space where she had been. You stand, and as you stand the stars follow her one by one, tipping over the edge of the tower. Then the tower follows after them, tipping over the edge of the world. The world follows, too.

“Oh,” you say.

You drift, alone, for a little while. Everything is cold here. You think you feel sad.

 

--

 

THE SECOND DAY:

 

When you eat dinner today, it feels like dirt in your mouth. You bite into it dry and grit, and you spit it out mud and loam. You have been digging all day.

The food is mostly the same as before. A few cooked tubers, snake stew. No mother’s milk now, but water, which is close enough. And you eat in the biodome, still, with the other wives, with the Vuvalini. Soon, Capable says, that will change.

“We need more healers,” Toast is saying as she scrapes out the last bits of her stew with her hands. “The Organic Mechanic is probably dead. At least, he’s gone.”

“He wasn’t a healer,” says the Dag, spitting. “He was a chopper, a slicer, a bleeder.”

Elpis leans back in her chair, resting her head against one propped hand. “I will teach others,” she says, her old and clever fingers twining in her hair.

“Good,” Toast says, and smiles. There is food in her teeth.

“How is the digging coming, Fragile?” Capable asks, turning to you.

You don’t answer her, chewing, chewing, chewing. Your mouth is full of the clay-mud of your food. If you stop chewing, you think, your lips will bake together and you will never speak again. Around your spoon, your blistered hands hurt silently.

 

--

 

THE SECOND NIGHT:

 

You are alone, surrounded by dark and empty space.

Slowly, the nothingness resolves itself into somethingness. Soft ground, sky, lakewater. Everything is green.

They stand a little distance away, and a little distance up, floating.

“Don’t leave me,” the War Boy says to the others.

“Don’t leave me,” Miss Giddy says to them, blue-eyed.

“Don’t leave me,” the child says, sighing.

“Don’t love me,” says the Splendid Angharad.

The four of them are smiling and holding hands. In the greenness of this world, they circle each other in endless fascination. You think that they will continue forever, but suddenly Miss Giddy turns and sees you watching. With a hiss, she disperses into a burst of wind, leaving only her words behind. The War Boy runs past you and away, too fast to see, so fast that he leaves burning footprints in the grass. The child curls into itself and blinks out of existence. Only Angharad remains, and she walks towards you over the clear water.

She’s a little girl with pale hair. She’s a woman, belly swollen. She’s an illumination. She’s a pair of goddesses, splitting down the middle. She pours the sunlight out of her eyes. She’s the sun itself.

“Hello,” you say.

She says, “You came.”

The world tilts, and you realize suddenly that the sky is half of everything you see. Angharad is shining, pink and white and made of clouds. She smiles, and reaches into the lake to grasp her reflection’s watery hands.

“Is this the Green Place?” you ask. Angharad opens her mouth as if to speak, but no noise comes out, and suddenly gravity seizes you. You fall sideways into the water, everything rushing around you, until you are dark and deep. You’ve never seen or felt so much water before.

You float, again, for a little while. This dreaming is like traveling in the war rig, you think. Short encounters with those you used to know. Periods of nothingness in between.

 

--

 

THE THIRD DAY:

 

You don’t get up this morning. You’d fallen asleep in the book room, in the corner against the shelves, wrapped up in one of Miss Giddy’s abandoned dresses. This is where Furiosa sleeps now, too, lying quiet in Miss Giddy’s bed. She slept a lot yesterday, and the day before, and it looks like she will sleep most today. She is still pale and sweaty. You wonder if she will survive.

You lie there all morning, watching her.

Eventually, the Dag comes in and leans over you, softly touching your hair, your shoulder. You don’t reach up to her. She curls around you and you are curled around your blistered and hardening hands

“I’m tired,” you say into her ear, stirring her with the warmth of your breath. “Leave me here.”

After a minute, a soft kiss to your forehead, your cheek, your lips, she does. After another few minutes, Capable comes in. She squats in front of you. Her eyes pierce.

“You need to get up,” she says.

“I used to sleep all day,” you say, voice thick and slow, “all wrapped up in Splendid.”

“I know,” says Capable. “But things have changed.”

You close your eyes and say nothing in reply.

“Please get up,” she says. “You’re making us worried.”

You are silent. Your cheek is pressed against the hard ground. You hear soft sounds as Capable leaves, and then nothing, and then soft sounds again.

When you open your eyes, Toast is leaning over you.

“What’s wrong?” she says.

“Nothing,” you say.

“You’re lying,” she says. You curl tighter around your hands. She reaches in, and unfolds them.

“They hurt, don’t they?” she says. She shows you, and her own hands are blistering.

“I—“ you say, and your voice hitches.

“What’s wrong?” Toast asks again.

“I can’t get up,” you say. Your face pinches up. You miss Angharad. You can’t breathe. “I can’t— I can’t— Toast, I—”

After a second, Toast hooks her arms under yours and hoists you up. You are weeping and listless against her, She takes you, stumbling, into the main room of the biodome. The Dag looks on, worried, and Capable reaches out for you half-heartedly. Toast drags you out into the hydroponic gardens. Your legs stop working. Toast carries you down the tower to ever-widening patch of fresh-turned earth.

“Come on,” she says, and she stands you up and is your strength behind you. You’re sagging against her, knees buckling, cheeks wet with tears. “Come on,” she says.

“I can’t,” you say.

She wraps your hands around the shovel handle, wraps her hands around yours.

“Come on,” she says again, and the two of you—swaying, crying, hurting—dig.

 

--

 

THE THIRD NIGHT:

 

Again you’re floating in darkness. This time the dark winks with the lights of distant stars. They’re different stars from the ones you know.

“Look,” says Max. You turn, and he’s there in front of you, floating with you between the stars. Behind him, an unfamiliar earth.

“Where is she?” you ask.

“She went under the wheels,” Max says, over the clang and rumble of the war rig, his voice falling into the wives’ ears and piercing their hearts, Furiosa stone-faced, Capable wailing.

You float with him in silence, watching the strange blue world.

He looks out over it, something warm in his face. “We lost this,” he says.

The forests burn, the oceans rise and then fall away to nothing, the people kill and bleed and live and weep and smile. The earth turns, steadfast.

“We lost this,” he says again, “but we’re not lost.”

There’s a roaring in your ears, and Max is gone, and the earth’s gone, and the stars shimmer into darkness and tilt over the edge of things, and the roaring grows and grows to a crescendo.

It breaks.

You wake up.

 

--

 

THE FOURTH DAY:

 

The sun is rising, and you are rising, and you have callouses on the palms of your hands.