The day would officially begin with the unearthing of an elbow, an ear, a foot; a group of children would stumble across one of these prized possessions and begin to dig, peeling the mud away in hopes that the elbow would become an arm, the ear a head, the foot a leg. With increased effort, the body parts would lead to a body. This dazed being, usually a child, would be coaxed out of the mud by its proud saviors, who would giggle and whisper to each other in glee; the newcomer would then be escorted to the bathhouse by an adult.
It was always the little ones who were first to run onto the field, feet struggling against the mud’s sucking pull, eyes searching for the rare individuals who already protruded from the ground. They loved the game of it, the fun of discovering new playmates in the mud. The adults had a different mindset as they methodically followed, one eye watching the children running out ahead of them and the other nervously scanning the sky for the winged specters. To them, digging the fields was an act of duty and necessity.
Just at the perimeter of the field, Marie Goodwin began her patrol. There was hardly ever anything that she needed to watch over — crime was low in a village where there wasn’t much to steal, where everyone knew everyone and would not consider hurting anyone unless it was a foreigner — but watch she did, day in and day out, her baton safely tucked into the folds of her cotton blue dress just in case. It was her duty as Sheriff.
And there was the business of watching the specters. Their lithe, ghostly bodies gave the semblance of a small human but had the wings of a bat, diaphanous but strong and powerful, with raking talons, and razor-sharp teeth jutting from their snarls. Gliding lazily over the field of mud, they glowed an ethereal blue even in the daylight. The beasts thought they owned the place — and perhaps they did, in a way. Several circled overhead right now, flexing their talons, a constant reminder that an attack could occur at any given moment against these innocent humans residing in the village.
But they remained in the sky, which was just where Marie would rather. And so she returned her gaze to the field, that lot of mud in which the Southern Village’s diggers so avidly worked, spanning nearly a quarter of a mile. They scooped handful after handful of the thick, clumpy, slippery mess and tossed it into piles behind them, watching the mud sink back into the hole they had just created — but a little progress was still made. The diggers averaged about five rescues a month, though they saw plenty more under the mud than that… the field, however sacred the villagers considered it, acted like a petulant child: it was jealous of its captives, and liked to give the diggers glimpses of them, revealing a foot or a shoulder but, as soon as more help came, sucking it back down into its depths, teasing the diggers in an ever-so-coy (but ever-so-irritating) way. And so the whole village would rejoice when they finally managed to unearth a newcomer from its grasp.
Marie swallowed the sigh that inevitably came to her lips during her daily patrol. Truth be told, she couldn’t stand the sight of the field; it sometimes struck her that this community of beautiful people wasted their days living in servitude to the needs of the field. Day after day they returned, breaking their backs and risking their lives to pry others from its grasp… they didn’t have to, but Marie saw the guilty conscience of the collective people, saw that they could not just sit back and let others lie unconscious underneath the mud, unable to open their eyes to the sunshine and stretch their legs on solid ground. No one with the same origins would wish that on anyone else… after all, what if the village had given up before they, themselves, were pulled from the mud? No, it was good that they fulfilled their duty; but still, Marie found herself secretly wishing the field wasn’t there – that they could live in peace without knowledge of it. Or better yet, that it could be destroyed.
She gave a little shudder, amazed that the thought had even crossed her mind. Those thoughts were sacrilege. And besides, destruction was exactly what this village didn’t need more of.
Marie caught a glimpse of Cecilia out on the field, gleefully helping the diggers, and a smile slowly edged its way back onto her face. Cecilia had been begging her to let her dig since she was four years old. “Mama, it’s just mud! Mama, all the other kids got a chance. Mama, I know how to dig.” Of course, initially Marie had refused – there would be too many whispers from the villagers about a flesh-born child running loose on the field. There was only so much Marie could do to shield her daughters from the spite of the villagers — defying the very act of creation that the field itself performed and being born of another womb was a direct violation of the village’s stasis, and was why some villagers even referred to these children as bastards — but she could at least curb the spark of controversy by not sending them onto holy ground. Even the field seemed to agree; it was too dangerous for flesh-borns to try their hand at digging, especially with the specters watching so closely. While everyone felt the inherent risk of falling back under the mud, it was rare for a flesh-born child to make it past three years old without being knocked under, no matter what pains the parents took to prevent it.
Marie shuddered at the memory of the last flesh-born child to fall, two years ago: a specter had swooped down out of the sky and snatched little Sandy from the safety of his own front yard, flown to the center of the field, and simply dropped him. The field had devoured him within seconds, though the diggers spent hours trying to get him back. The villagers had eventually made their peace with the incident – after all, though the child had not come from the field, he was finally able to connect with the village’s collective Womb on some level – but the thought of it still made Marie instinctively want to scoop Cecilia up in her arms and hold her tight.
But Cecilia was a tough child. The first time, only just a month ago, she had snuck onto the field against her mother’s wishes. And of course Marie found out, scrounging up enough of her silent fury — not only at Cecilia for disobeying her, but also at Mukisa, Cecilia’s older sister by twelve years, who was supposed to have been watching her. But by the time she had run out to Cecilia’s spot on the field to give her a talking to, Cecilia had pulled up a little girl. You had to give it to her… she seemed to have a natural knack for digging, regardless of the heightened bounty that the specters sought for her kind. It brought a swell of pride to Marie’s chest – her daughter, a digger.
A good number of villagers had to admit that, the stigma of illegitimate birth aside, the Goodwin family had a knack for everything they put their minds to. Mukisa was the finest hunter the village had seen for years; and Cecilia clearly would be a fine digger when Marie ascertained that she should dig full time. The jobs they had so deftly picked up certainly held the skeptics at bay; their greatest defense from their neighbors’ spite was to earn their respect. Marie’s position perhaps helped heighten that respect to some extent: she had hesitantly taken her position as sheriff when the previous sheriff, Lucas Clarke, had passed on; now here she was, twenty years later, and she could barely have a conversation about taking another vote for the position without people getting upset. Marie smiled at the thought of what one of the elders, Mama Nina, had said just a few days ago: “Marie, you are a stronghold, born to mother whatever lost soul came across your path. You didn’t have kids, so you figured you’d mother an entire village. And then Mukisa and Cecilia came along, and you just kept on doing a good job with the rest of us.”
Out on the field, Cecilia hunched over a section of mud intently, her gaze fixed on something. With a muddied hand, she pushed the tight curls out of her face, uncompromising in her scrutiny of the ground before her. Marie shielded her eyes from the sun to get a better look as Cecilia’s hand shot forward, reaching for something just under the surface of the mud; she looked up at the diggers around her, a smile spreading across her face. Shouting and motioning to those closest to her, she returned to her work with new vigor: she had excavated a hand.
The diggers around her smiled, nodding in approval at Cecilia, though they stuck to their own sections, hoping that they, too, could find a body part. Already Cecilia was showing up some of the most experienced diggers today… Marie could understand why they did not rush to her side to assist. Nobody wanted to be beaten by a seven-year-old, let alone a flesh-born seven-year-old. But Cecilia kept at it, and in a moment’s time, Marie saw a head peeking out of the mud: a young boy’s head, she could see. Now they would help her… getting the head to surface was half the battle, and the field would now be putting up a real fight.
But before Cecilia could even announce her victory, the head jerked back down into the mud. Cecilia stared in shock as the boy disappeared before her eyes, and plunged her hands into the mud around her, trying to find him.
Marie squinted, trying to make sense of the scene. Suddenly she saw a muddy hand shoot out of the space in front of Cecilia, and desperately grab hold of her arm — and then Cecilia lurched forward, screaming, yanked headfirst into the mud.
“Cecilia!” Marie bolted onto the field, making a beeline to the spot where her daughter had been. Other diggers who had seen the incident shouted and began reaching down, struggling to find her receding body in the mud. Marie shoved past them and reached her own arm down, into the slimy mess, into the heart of the field. Her fingers frantically clawed at the mud, grasping at nothing, over and over, and her heart began to climb into her throat.
After a while, Marie felt strong arms around her waist, pulling her away from the mud. It was possible that she kicked a man square in the jaw — she wasn’t sure, but she didn’t care — and the next thing she knew, she was on the edge of the field, seated on a tree stump and surrounded by people, a sea of comforting hands and a tangle of hushed words and everything was spinning and it was getting hot and the front of her dress was caked in mud and I’m sorry, Marie, but Cecilia is gone.
Mukisa peeked through the the trees and smiled at the man before her, perched on a rock and minding his own business. Paul liked to have some time to himself, and she didn’t usually like to disturb him… well, sometimes she liked to disturb him, but after her mother had lectured the two of them that their responsibilities should come before their personal lives, it was now more often than not that the disturbance was due to inevitability: she would be tracking a deer, or maybe a pheasant, and follow it right into his path, and suddenly she would see him there, off in his own little world. Not that he wasn’t hunting — Mukisa knew that Paul was a great hunter — he just liked being alone sometimes.
Today must be one of those times. A particularly clever shaft of sunlight navigated past the shade of the oak trees and fell in Paul’s general vicinity, allowing the man enough light with which to sharpen his spear. Mukisa frowned. She knew for a fact that Paul made it a habit of checking his weapons every night when they went back to the village, but perhaps he had been distracted last night. Very well. The entire village’s next meal depended on what they and the rest of the hunters brought back, and she knew Paul wouldn’t slack at his job.
He looked so content sitting there, scraping away at the slate with his whetstone, and Mukisa felt this same contentedness spread through her as she watched. He had told her once, she remembered, that sharpening his weapons was calming to him. She had laughed at him — Paul was not one to find pleasure in violence, and it was common knowledge that the only reason he had become a hunter was because it meant he could find some spare time to himself. He would even risk the dangers of the forest for it. So to her, it was funny that he found it a soothing practice.
She saw Paul suddenly freeze in his place on the rock, and grimaced; perhaps he had heard her breathing. Not that it mattered — Mukisa was one of the few people by whom Paul didn’t mind being interrupted. But she liked seeing him so relaxed, and now that moment was gone.
She silently crept forward, an idea sprouting in her mind, and unsheathed the knife at her belt, reaching him before he even turned around and holding the weapon mere inches from his head. He turned, and nearly ran his nose straight into the tip of the knife. Mukisa let out a peal of laughter as he gasped and fell backwards off the rock, startled.
Paul jumped to his feet, fuming. Mukisa poised the knife in her hand nonchalantly, a mischievous grin splayed across her face. She shoved the knife back into its holster and gave Paul a coy look.
“Damn it, Mukisa, I told you to stop doing that!” Paul sputtered, picking up the spear that he had tossed inadvertently on the forest floor.
She smirked. “You’re a hunter. You’re supposed to hear me coming. Nice job dropping your weapon at the slightest surprise, by the way—”
“I didn’t want to hurt you,” Paul grumbled, sitting back down on the rock. But it was a goodnatured grumble. Mukisa laughed and leaned in, trying to steal a kiss, and he pulled back, a scowl on his face. But the scowl didn’t last long — that slow smile of his crept right onto his face like it always did.
She continued the game. “Fine, mope. I’m going hunting,” she said, starting to move away. “Feel free to join me, whenever you’ve tended to your pride.”
“Come here,” he said, reaching to pull her in, but she laughed, pulling away.
“I’m sorry, you just killed the mood. So…”
She sauntered away, and heard him jump up, chasing after her. They ran through the forest, laughing, their feet expertly finding their way through the brush. “Slow down!” he called out, “I want to show you something!”
Mukisa ran for another second, then abruptly stopped and turned to Paul, still laughing. He nearly ran into her — he had been preoccupied with getting something out of his pocket.
Mukisa suddenly realized what he was holding and took a step back impulsively. It was a thin, threaded chain, with a bead in the center. It looked so meticulously made, the thin strips of leather woven together with such precision, the hole in the bead so painstakingly carved and threaded onto the chain.
Mukisa glanced up at Paul with wide eyes, her heart suddenly wreaking havoc in her chest. He seemed to be having his own little panic attack as well; his eyes nervously searched her face, begging for some sort of answer. She stared back down at the chain in shock, like it was a bomb, a fragile bomb, and she didn’t know how to detonate it without blowing herself to bits. “What… what is that?”
“I think you know what it is,” he said breathlessly, and she knew it wasn’t from the running.
Mukisa silently ordered her chest to maintain a steady rise and fall. He was right… she did know what it was. In fact, her mother used to have one of these. That didn’t make it any less frightening that he was holding it out to her. Exhilarating, but frightening. “That’s a wedding link, Paul.”
“I know.” His voice cracked, betraying him.
Her eyes flitted to his. “Paul, this isn’t something to joke around with—”
“I’m not joking, Mukisa.”
He looked so scared. Mukisa did a quick check, evaluating her reaction: perhaps her face was exhibiting the wrong emotions. She reached out and touched the bead gingerly. Not a bomb. Just a symbol of love and adoration. She smiled suddenly and lunged at Paul, hugging and kissing him as together they fell to the forest floor.
That warmth stayed with her all throughout the day as they hunted; the spinning in her head didn’t stop until they emerged from the woods with the other hunters, the carcasses of game slung over their shoulders, and hopped the fence surrounding the Southern Village. It stayed with her up until the moment that she realized that the village was unusually quiet, unbearably quiet; and the villagers greeting them when they arrived were not smiling, were only staring at her, saying, “I’m so sorry, child.” The moment that she narrowed her eyes, saw her mother standing in the village green, and dropped her game before running to her.
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