Mercy

The ash had fallen for two weeks now, and those court astrologers who had survived the riots in the city were now locked away behind the palace’s earthen walls. At least that was the word that made it downriver to the village. There was no way to know for sure without walking all the way there, and Gura knew he would never make it that far. Too many bandits; too little food. He pressed on instead toward the beach, and Ajek followed behind.

“Keep up,” Gura said as the boy dawdled to pick at a fallen seashell. Looking to his father with longing in his eyes, his son turned once more to his plaything before leaving it for good.

Most of the bodies were still lying in the street as the pair passed by, with the most recent still visible under a thin layer of ash but the oldest now buried in it, undisturbed. It almost looked like some of them were crying, with something once liquid dried and crusted over their bloated faces. Above, the sunset was an orange splash across the veil of dust that clung to the horizon. Gura thought it was lighter than it had been yesterday, but he could not be sure. After the first week, it all started to look the same. Perhaps it was only hope that let him think that. He wondered how long it would last.

The little glass bottle that Tani had pressed into his hands last night sat in a pouch around his waist. With tears in her eyes, the sorceress promised it was the only way to save Ajek from what was to come. And what was to come, Gura had asked. Famine, Tani said. Death. The wrath of the gods. Nothing that a father would ever want his son to have to live through. But what father would ever want to do what Gura now must? He kept walking.

A weight in his belly grew with every step. If he let it, perhaps it would keep him from what he had already accepted was the only way to save his other children. Ralat, old enough to work if only as a slave for some river merchant, who could at least feed him or take him off to some island not yet despoiled. Bira, whose weavings would now profit them nothing but with hands nimble enough to harvest with a finger-knife, assuming the grain ever grew here again. Only the youngest, Ajek of three summers, could not labor to support the family. Either he would die now, or else they might all die from the hunger that would only worsen with time. Tani had said as much too, and she had never been wrong about omens before.

“Ba,” Ajek said behind him. “Dirty.” Gura turned to see his son had fallen, catching himself on his hands. He extended two sandy palms, chubby fingers stretched out as far as they could. The boy showed no sign of pain; he had always been a strong one, always bounding away from hurts that led other children to weep. Gura wished for his son’s strength now.

“Come,” he replied. “We must keep going.”

“Where?” the boy asked.

“The beach. Do you want to watch the sunset?”

“Yes!” A bright smile broke across Ajek’s face.

“Then you must come quickly.” Gura returned his eyes to the path that would take them through blighted gray fields and over the bridge that would lead them to the seashore.

Such was his plan. So often did the pair resort to the place after Gura finished his work in the forge that he could only assume Ajek would see nothing amiss with going there again. It disturbed him that the boy could still carry on playing with such death around him that Gura felt the need to repress his urge to vomit at short intervals. Not that the boy was callous as to walk by so many corpses without pause, but that he could still be so focused on the simple things that infinitely pleased a child. A seashell, a sunset, or the little crabs he always chased along the shoreline. Gura was tempted to wish for a similar outlook, but knew it would do more harm than good.

He wondered what Fira would think of him now. Ever since she left six months ago with their youngest child, too young yet even for a name, he wondered. Where had he failed her? Did he not provide well for them? Was it not better that he stay home and work his iron, instead of seeking out one of the merchant ships like so many others, to be away for months or years awaiting favorable winds in some distant land? Gura had thought so, and he had been wrong. Everyone had been wrong.

It all began with the thunder. Nearly the entire village had gathered out on the shore to listen to the great booms that rolled in from the southeast. Each of them thought they knew one cause or another; a great battle between the gods, or perhaps a collapsing of earth upriver. Only the merchants from distant Lewangwati suspected what happened the next day. The next sunrise saw a land obscured by thick clouds of smoke and ash that fell like the finest rain. Somewhere in the islands beyond the horizon, a mountain had given itself to flame.

Fear threatened to set in quickly, as the old songs spoke of such calamities. It was Yura, ever the opportunist, who sought to calm his fellows and reassure them that the ash was not a punishment or a plague, but rather a divine gift. Consume it in a draught of water and take in the dead mountain’s offered spirit, he said, and receive its strength. A week later, after all three of Tirai’s sons had perished of a flux brought on by drinking such a concoction, Yura was discovered in his home, beaten to death with an axe handle. No one went to the arbiter in search of justice, for it had already been found.

Meanwhile, the ash continued to fall. What was once a light dusting soon came on deeper than the water that stood in the fields. By the time it had reached knee-height, roofs began collapsing all over the village. Gura and his children managed to get out in time; Liha and his family up the hill had not been heard from since two nights ago. Sometimes Gura wondered if they had happened on a better escape than the rest of them.

He could not remember how many days ago he had dug up his grandfather’s remains for the gold jewelry that was supposed to have clad him in the afterlife. Five, may six? It could have been more or less, but with the noonday sun now barely brighter than the full moon at its height, each day felt either too long or too short. What was clear was that all the gold in every grave in the village could not buy food enough to keep each and every one of them alive, not when a single handful of grain had cost Rata three of his father’s heirloom bracelets.

Gura only watched at first. The grain his family had saved in pots under the house should have lasted the four of them a few days, but then he woke up the next morning to find it all gone. Another ship came to port, desperate for fresh word and water, only to discover that neither was in good supply here. When the merchants thought to trade what they had, a fight broke out with some of the men from the village. Something about one of them selling his daughter too, if only to sweeten the deal. Soon after, the strangers had left Hiyu dead on the beach and sailed off again, far away from the doom that had settled over Jutrave.

The path curved off to the right, past fields of gray mud and broken houses. One more hill to go and the beach would be in sight, and then it was off to Ajek’s favorite spot under the old, bent palm near where the sand turned into grass.

“Sleep,” his son said, as he passed one of the bodies, and Gura shivered as if at an unseen wind. He turned to see if it was someone he recognized, but he had already seen too many leave to tell anymore. At first, he thought the lucky ones had been those who had made their way onto boats or retreated into the dense forest beyond the edge of the village, but he wondered too just how far the devastation had spread. Was there a land in all the world not fallen under the dead mountain’s shadow? Someplace where grain was still standing in fields instead of choked and trampled? It was said the world was large, but how large was not something Gura knew. All he had needed to know before was that here was his home, with family and forge, and that the king’s tax collectors arrived every year with the shifting of the winds. Now he could not say what he knew anymore, except that food was scarce and mercy scarcer still.

Mercy. That was what Tani called it. Mercy to spare a child the pains of hunger and loss that threatened to take Gura as well. But where was the father’s mercy? Would the same grief be felt by her, the shriveled witch whose womb had long since dried up and whose sons had already won their glories? She could offer this gift to another, but she herself would never feel its bite.

Ajek ambled further up the path, cresting the hill before his father.

“Fast, fast!” he said. Gura wanted to do anything but go faster, and each step felt like raising an anchor that would only hold him faster to the shore.

It surprised him that the boy could still have so much energy after the last several days, until a rumbling in his stomach reminded him how long it had been since he had eaten. Two nights, maybe three. It was hard to tell. He had taken a piece of cloth and run a potful of ashen-gray water through it to remove the largest pieces, then boiled some greens with a few small tubers that Bira had found upstream. Under any other circumstances, it would have meant his little family was eating worse than the poorest in all of Jutrave, but on this night it was a banquet. He and Ralat managed to find a little more to eat the next day and the day after that as well, but their bounties only lessened as their neighbors all scrapped to do the same. By then, Gura himself had passed his portions over to the children, who would need the strength more.

He never wanted to feel that choosing to feed his youngest son over himself would have been a waste. He never wanted any of this. If things had been any different, he would have fought it with all his heart and strength. Gura had been a slave once; a rower on a chief’s warship. The fear and excitement and anger in the rush of battle was something that never left a man who had survived it, always nagging at him in the darkest hours of night or the faintest sound heard just around the corner. It was the only thing he hated as much as he loved, and even when all hope had seemed lost, at least he knew that across from him stood another man like himself. No matter their fierce tattoos or abundance of gold, here was a mortal in whom all the threatenings of the enemy could take a bodily form. He may not win, but he could fight.

But how could a man fight nature itself? There was no recourse, no appeal to language or culture or pity, that could stay the hand of fire and smoke. It only consumed until its strength or its fodder was spent, leaving behind who it would. And who it could not take, it left for men to do its work. All Gura’s prayers and offerings would never bring to him an enemy to defeat, or even one against whom he could test his will. He was metal under an invisible hammer, being bent into some unnatural shape only made worse by the hope that he could still save his family. Or what would be left of his family.

From the top of the hill, the beach spread out before him all the collected refuse of sea and land. The bay and the sand were equally choked with seaweed and pumice and heaps of rotting fish. As in the fields, the ash was here too, scattered across the tops of little waves that lapped at upturned trees. The shore curved off behind him on both sides, and in the center of it all perched an angry sun on the horizon. Blood-red light sprayed out from its swollen disc, playing across the dust that marked the great mountain’s demise. For a moment, it looked almost beautiful.

Ajek had found something washed up in the tide, and squealed at the sight. Gura turned from the falling eye of day and looked to his son. He was picking at a large strand of seaweed, with little crabs scuttling away from it at his approach.

“Be careful,” he said, and immediately thought again of what he must do. Even now, when there was so little he could do to save the child, he still thought to keep him from pain. That was what the sorceress had said: spare him. Let him sleep for a time, to be met again with vigor and innocence restored once more. In the end, all parting—and all pain—was but temporary. All Gura had to decide was if he would think more of his own pain than of Ajek’s.

He cursed the witch with all his heart. If not for her, the thought never would have been planted in him. Of course he could still refuse; there was always time. But here he was at the end of his path, knowing so little about what lay ahead but yet enough to see the truth in her words. If the boy survived the next few days, Gura may well find joy in it, but how long could he watch his own son suffer before one or both of them broke? How cold was his heart to draw out the inevitable beyond its own natural end?

What was it she said to him that night? Yes; that Gura was not so cruel as hunger. Those were her words. He knew it was true, and so he hated her even more for handing him the solution to his dilemma. Instinctively, his hand went to the pouch on his belt. The little vial was still there, wrapped in leaves to protect it. How he wished he could also wrap up Ajek, that nothing could ever harm him again.

It was that very thought last night that had brought him to the beach today. The dead were never gone forever, but only away for a moment, where they waited for the joyful reunion in a land of light and bounteous harvests. In such a place, there was no more pain except that of missing one’s friends who had not yet departed; no more hunger, no more sadness, no more death. There was not enough in the vial for Gura to follow his son, but there was enough to protect him.

He sat down on a rock and called to Ajek.

“Come here,” Gura said.

“What, ba?” The boy dropped the seaweed and walked over carefully on the shifting sand. Once he was close enough, Gura picked him up under his arms and set him down on his lap. He did not remember anymore if his son had always been this light.

“Come watch the sunset with me.”

“Pretty,” Ajek said.

“Yes,” Gura replied. “Pretty.”

It truly was.

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