KIRILOW GROUNDSEL // GRIST VILLAGE
Node: Grain in Beard
I sit at the darkest part of the circle and watch my fifty-two sisters celebrate through a haze of grief. In the sandy soil that surrounds the firepit, I draw a long row of eyes with a stick. I should have said no to Auntie Radix a surgery ago. I don’t care what we eat or drink. I don’t care how high the fire goes. If the New Origins Archive could return Peristrophe Halliana to me, that would be a gift worth having. Otherwise, I don’t care about much.
“She’s with you all the time,” says my mother double. “Look around you, Kirilow.”
All around the fire my sisters gather, their beautiful faces lit by orange light. Each is the slightest variation of the next. Give or take a scar here, a wrinkle there, the length of hair, the choice of dress, any of them could be Peristrophe Halliana. If Auntie Radix were still with us, her partho breasts would mark her variation from the rest of us. As would the wrinkles in her face.
“They look like Peristrophe, but they are not Peristrophe,” I tell Glorybind Groundsel. “She is gone and Auntie Radix is gone, and soon it will be as if Grandma Chan Ling never escaped Saltwater City and Grist Village never existed at all. We’ll be remembered as captive mutants without honour, who all died in the first wave of tiger flu in the crowded scale factories of Saltwater City.”
“Not all city sisters died. That Salty’s new hand is proof,” says Mother Glory. “Grandma Chan Ling used to talk about a Grist commune in Saltwater City. Maybe it still exists. Maybe it’s time for a journey.”
“Don’t look at me,” I say. “Whatever I had is burning on that pyre. Ask someone else to go.”
But Old Glorybind does look at me. “You’ve also got duty, Kirilow. Don’t forget duty.”
“Please, Mother Glory,” I beg. “Don’t talk to me about duty today.” If I had courage, I’d jump into the fire. Instead, I move away from my sisters to the edge of the forest and lurk there like the creepy creep I’m bound to become.
I’m leaning against a tree, smoking a pipe of pot and sage with a pinch of forget-me-do, when someone tugs at my arm. The smoke has sent me elsewhere. It takes me a long moment to realize who it is. Auntie Radix’s young groom.
“My name is Bombyx Mori,” the groom says. “In case you everwondered.”
“I know,” I lie.
“I’m sorry I was such a jerk the day my Radix died,” she says.
“It was more than I could bear.”
“It was more than I could bear too.”
“I’m sorry about Cousin Peristrophe,” she says.
“I’m sorry about Auntie Radix.” She gazes at me to see if I’m sincere. “I’ve got something I think you should see,” Bombyx Mori says.
Chang hangs close tonight, in sinister sympathy with the Grist sisterhood and our double loss. “Maybe another time,” I say. “I have to get back to the fire. It’s my Peristrophe Halliana they are burning.” A small family of bats zigzags out from their nest, a hole high in the body of a tall Tecate cypress.
“It’s my Radix Bupleuri,” she says. “Peristrophe Halliana would want you to see what I’ve got to show you.” Her eyes shine clear and brown as earth. A shadow moves across the open face of Chang, large and oblong. The pipe I’ve smoked helps me see it as a floating whale, turning the sky to water as it moves.
“By Our Mother’s stinky hole,” Bombyx Mori curses. “It’s a batterkite.”
“Batter … who?”
“The latest invention of Isabelle Chow. Don’t you know?”
Smugness. I trust it more than her seeming honesty, though I have no idea where the young ones get their knowledge. “It’s a ship that works as its own battery. Isabelle engineered it from seal bladder and oyster material. It’s a hydrogen cell and a transport vehicle both.”
It pulses across the sky, horrible, gorgeous, and shimmering. I shiver. I’ve got to find Old Glorybind.
But we are both mesmerized by the sheer size of the bio-ship. It glides above us, smooth and slow, covers two-thirds of Chang’s face. Figures begin to drop from its underbelly. My stoned eyes see the sky bloom with airborne jellyfish, militia men dangling from their spindly tentacles. My senses turn inside, feel for cell-knowledge of my relation to the awful life forms coming at us.
“Come on, come on, Kirilow, they saw our fire. We’re under siege. You have to come with me! No choice now, hurry!”
“I’ve got to find Mother Glory—”
But the young groom has got my arm and drags me through pinyon and succulent so fast my feet don’t touch the ground.
“Kirilow, come on, snap out of it. There’s no time.”
I am stoned and writhing inside. The outside world turns on a giant wheel so slow. She pulls me jarringly fast. How can anyone move so quick against this slow horror?
“My duty—I can’t leave Mother Glorybind—I’m the only daughter double she has—” I groan.
Oily jellyfish swarm through drifting ash above us. Each grows larger, like the pupil of a giant eye trying to see in the dark. I tug away from Bombyx. There’s screaming now from the bonfire.
“Mother Glory!” I try to cry with them, but my cry creaks from my throat as an unearthly groan. I don’t see the jellyfish directly above us until it crashes through the treetops. I surrender to Bombyx Mori’s pull, and we fly through the trees in a furious, woozy stupor, zigzagging wild as the little bats I saw. Could it have been just seconds earlier? A cold wind rushes at us and the wails of the sisters at the fire reverberate in my drug-addled ears as though the sisters themselves flail in my auditory canals. Their pain knifes my eardrums and I wail-howl with them, “No, no, no, get away from me, you monster, you Mother-cursèd Saltwater beast, you animal, you human, you scum of the sky, not Our Mother, you heaven and hell demons who destroy everything dear and warm and earthy and good.”
“Shut up, shut up, shut up, Kirilow!” Bombyx Mori yell-whispers.
“It’s following us.”
“Our Mother of milk and mildew, Our Mother of dirt,” I chant, soft now, both here in the murderous present and there in the genocidal past. The wind sears my skin cold and sharp, and the branches of trees whip my face. We run through the terrified forest all curls and whorls, run until there is no breath left in our lungs, run until our legs threaten to collapse beneath our furiously pumping hearts. Run so fast and long we don’t notice we’re no longer being followed. Praise be to our generous Mother, surely she is kind. We slow to a walk, search for our bearings. The wind keeps coming. It reeks of bonfire smoke, but there’s also a cold
dampness in it.
I recognize a secret wild olive patch, the one that hides the abandoned magic bus. I mean, the tour bus that Grandma Chan Ling pirated to take the first Grist sisters from Saltwater City eighty years ago. It lies on its side now, rusted and rotting. We have to climb up its underside to go in the broken door, once at its side, now open at its top. We climb into the dark. It reeks of shit and decay. And something else, animal and sweet. I hear a soft mewling.
Bombyx Mori pulls a small jar of fireflies from her vest.
At the back of the crumbling bus, hunkered down in a bed of ancient seat cushions, leaves, and dry grass, lies a young girl I recognize as one of this year’s initiates.
How did I not notice until now the partho marks, three pale yellow moles in the cup of the clavicle? Her belly is swollen so huge it seems twice the size of the rest of her. She moans and heaves with a squirming strength no one so young should have.
“Please,” says Bombyx. “I’m sorry I was such an asshole before. Please help Corydalis Ambigua pop her puppies.”
“I’m trained to groom starfish, not parthos,” I tell her, my drugged eyes bugging wide.
Corydalis wails. Her womb contracts visibly.
“Did your mother double not teach you?”
“Theory, yes. Practice, no.”
Bombyx bursts into panicked tears.
“Okay, by Our Mother’s teats, don’t cry!”
Through the waves of my own terror, I find a soldier’s calm. I go to Corydalis. Her legs are open and drawn up by the wisdom of instinct. I squat between them. Bombyx holds her hand, mops her sweating forehead with a cleanish rag from inside the folds of her tunic.
“You need to breathe,” I tell Corydalis. “Inhale deep.”
She does, eyes wide.
“Okay. Now exhale and push. Scream if you want, no one’s listening.” For all I know that batterkite has the ears of a bobcat, but it can’t be helped.
She bawls like a demon from the other side.
Again, she does.
“Exhale and push.”
“I can’t,” she howls, gripping Bombyx’s hand so hard that Bombyx howls too.
“You have to.”
She screams. She pushes.
“One more. Inhale.”
She draws the air in, thinner than I’d like.
She breathes out, and gives a steady, controlled heave.
“One more time.”
They both bawl and scream like the animals they are. I guess we are all animals.
By the grace of Our Mother’s loving heart, the downy head of a sister puppy appears between Corydalis’s damp legs.
“One more. Inhale.” I nod encouragingly. “Exhale. Push.”
She groans and pushes. The little sister slips out of her holy hole covered in blood and womb snot. One section of umbilical cord attaches to the belly button, but another section branches back into Corydalis. I know what that branch means. Mother Glory taught me that a young partho can birth as many as ten.
“First is worst,” I tell Corydalis, as her womb contracts again.
The howling hours pass in a bath of blood and mucus. Finally, all the sister puppies are out.
There’s more new grooming to do. May Our Mother guide me. I snip the umbilical cord at each of seven branches and tie the knots for their little belly buttons. We wipe them off with rags that Bombyx had the foresight to gather and put two of them on Corydalis to suckle. I swab up blood. I suture the dark place below where she’s torn. She’s so young, her extra breasts are barely developed, though when I place two more puppies at them, the youngsters seem to latch and find milk.
“Were you given the nursing surge?” I ask Bombyx.
She lifts her tunic. “Your own mother double did it for me at my groom initiate ceremony when I was thirteen.” She lifts her right breast to show me the small scar.
“Good,” I say. I pass her two more puppies.
The seventh, I pull to my own right breast. Glorybind Groundsel gave me the nursing surgery when I declared my intention to become a groom at age ten. But I’ve never done this before either. Our Mother of bread and roses, the surge works. I’m squirting sister juice like a regular heifer. For a minute I’m disgusted, but
soon I relax into the sensation. I’m washed in family love as the
three of us nurse together.
Excerpt taken from The Tiger Flu by Larissa Lai (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018). Find the rest of the book here or at your local library.