While the men were stitching the mourning-flags, the leading women of the village gathered on the hillside, the same hillside where Arrani had always sworn that in summer nip-berries could be found growing in the shade of the sliver-barked whistling trees. None of the other women had ever discovered any nip-berries there, but each summer Arrani would come to Deeby’s bread-circles, at which the women met to eat, settle matters of importance, and conduct trade, with a handful or so—never enough to overindulge on, never enough to dry and preserve for winter, yet always enough to exchange for whatever she wanted. The others hadn’t quite decided whether Arrani had a special gift for finding nip-berries (everybody knew that the berries were timid and hid from covetous eyes) or whether she was lying through her smile about their true location.
Summer was on the wane; that day nobody checked the shadows within the grove of whistling trees. From the hillside, the women had a good view of the men sitting around the fire in Ays’s courtyard. It was too warm for a fire, but fires were traditional when stitching mourning flags. Silence was traditional as well—except for the song the children were meant to sing—but given the way they were gesturing, throwing their heads back, and jumping up to go face-to-face and toe-to-toe with each another, the men appeared to be doing quite a lot of talking.
“We should have stopped this before it started,” Gralli said.
“They wouldn’t have listened. They are already upset that we wouldn’t allow the children to sing.” Lulli cocked her head. “Who can hear the trees whistling?”
Some women muttered that they could, while others shook their heads. Under her breath, Lulli hummed the tune they all had sung many times when they were young.
The men are stitching the mourning flags
With green thread and with gold
The men are stitching the mourning flags
With new thread and old
Before Shayrri had lost her patience and told her mother to move her old bones, collect the other elder women who still had a few wits left, and herd the children to the river—“Take nets, maybe you’ll actually manage to catch a fish or two”—some of the older children had begun to sing it.
With green thread, with gold
The mourning flags, each stitched with sorrow
With green thread, with gold
Must all be ready by the morrow
“I’ve always hated that song,” Gralli said.
“They’re using too much cloth,” Lulli said.
“They shouldn’t be using any at all.”
“I think they raided Jum’s storehouse.”
“Who is with Arrani?” Deeby asked.
“Have you forgotten already?” Gralli snapped. “Barro is with her. He wouldn’t go with the other men.”
“Please,” Lulli said. “This is a bread-circle. Are we going to behave like the men, or will we conduct ourselves like women?”
“I don’t see any bread.”
Lulli glanced at Gralli, then unslung the satchel on her back. “Will seed-cakes do?” She handed out two small ones, and the women broke the small cakes into pieces, so that each could have a bite. As they watched the men, they nibbled, slowly, making the morsels last.
“What do the trees say?” Lulli asked.
One of the women who’d said she could hear the whistling answered, “They are greeting the dawn.”
Another woman said, “No, they are thanking the rain.”
“Odd,” Lulli said, “as it is afternoon, and it hasn’t rained for five days.”
Shayrri moved forward, her eyes narrow. Deliberately, she threw a crumb of seed-cake to the ground. “We can put her here, but we’ll have to deal with the men first. Let’s prepare a meal for them, with slow-weed simmered in the stew and soothe-leaves steeped in the beer. It would be best to do it now, before the children return from the river.”
“She’s not dead,” Deeby said.
“She’s certainly not going to live. At least, not a true life.”
“You don’t know that,” Lulli said. “None of us knows anything. Even the trees are confused.”
Gralli said, “We know how it began.”
“Do we?” Shayrri shot back. “We only have Borro’s word for it. Men lie.”
“And women don’t?”
“We shouldn’t be this far from the village,” Borro said. It was the third time he had tried to make her turn back. The first time, she had smiled. The second time, she had laughed. The third time, she’d slapped him lightly on the shoulder and dashed farther up the path.
“There are mountain cats in these woods!” he shouted.
“How can there be mountain cats when there’s no mountain here? Come on. It isn’t far now. Don’t you want to see what I found?”
“Why won’t you tell me what it is? And you know that mountain cat is just the beast’s name!” People gave stupid names to a lot of things, he wanted to add. But she was gone, around a turning in the path, and he was shouting at nothing. Borro hurried to catch up with her. Mountain cats had been seen in the forest. At least their tracks had. Ays, who hunted nearly every day, had told him so.
Then again, Ays had also told him that spirits haunted the hillside where Arrani gathered nip-berries. Arrani had laughed and laughed when Borro asked her about that. It’s only the trees, she said, those trees with the silvery bark. They whistle sometimes. Not everybody can hear them, but that’s all it is. Come with me and I’ll show you.
Won’t the women be angry if you take me there?
Why should they be? The hillside doesn’t belong to the women. The hillside belongs to itself.
They’d gone, one night, early in the summer, and lain on the still-warm grass; she’d told him to hold his breath and listen. He hadn’t heard the trees whistling, only the rustle of leaves and the occasional scurry of an animal in the brush. But she’d kissed him, and they’d watched the stars for a while, and she’d kissed him again, so that was an outing Borro did not regret.
This one, however . . .
She’d come to him just after sunrise, smiled at his mother, ignored his brothers, and grabbed both his hands. Pulling him close to her, she whispered, “I’ve found something wonderful in the woods.”
“You have to see for yourself.” Her eyes had specks of fire in them, like those of someone who had eaten too many nip-berries. The season for nip-berries had passed, but he suspected she had kept a few in reserve.
“Are you all right?”
She laughed. “When we are married,” she said, “our children will be wildflowers.”
“Married?” He tried to look around to see if any of his brothers (or his mother) was close enough to have overheard, but Arrani was holding him too tightly.
“Wildflowers,” she said, more softly. “I will sleep in the autumn, but awaken again in the spring. And you will be the father of millions.”
He did not understand what she was talking about, but he’d agreed to go with her to the forest. What Arrani wanted, Arrani usually got. They left without telling his mother; later, when he brought her back to the village, staggering under her weight—he had carried her a long way, resting only twice—his mother had looked at him, but not said a word. When he wouldn’t go with the rest of the men to sew mourning flags, insisting on staying next to the pallet on which he’d laid Arrani’s body, his brothers mocked him. “What need is there for a death-bed vigil, you idiot? She is already dead.”
“Are you touched in the head?”
But when the women came, he grew terribly afraid. He would have fought his brothers if they had put their hands on him, but these were the chief women of the village, and he could do nothing but sit and take whatever punishment they chose to mete out. He had no sisters, and had never learned any women-secrets, as his friends with sisters claimed they had. Arrani had told him one secret. He still wasn’t sure if he believed it.
It was the mothers of the village who came, having sent the older ones to mind the children. His own mother stood slightly aside from the others, as if she, too, feared what they would say.
They made him tell them the story, how Arrani had come soon after daybreak, how they had gone into the woods, and what had happened there.
“Hurry,” she called, still hidden by the bend in the path. “It is just ahead.”
“I am hurrying,” he said. They had not brought water with them, or food. He had not expected to have to walk so far. In his head, the words married and children rang over and over again.
“I love you,” he shouted, and from far ahead there came back a cheerful laugh.
When Borro finally found her, Arrani was standing beneath a lone sourbark tree, so tall he could not see the top of it. All around it, the earth was bare—no grass, no flowers. A bit out of breath, he waited in silence. Arrani touched the tree with her ten fingertips, and inclined her head.
“Now what?” he said, once she had stepped back.
“Don’t you see it?”
“No. Show me where to look.”
“Right here, silly.”
Arrani crouched on the bare earth and waved at him to join her. Tentatively, Borro approached. She was gazing down at what seemed to be a patch of dirt no different from any other patch. She took his hand and pulled him down next to her. It couldn’t be nip-berries, he thought. Their effect didn’t last this long. Arrani began to hum softly. She placed his hand on the ground.
“I don’t see anything.”
“Don’t look with your eyes. What do you feel?”
Dirt. He didn’t say it.
Afraid. He didn’t say that, either.
“Will you be the father of wildflowers?” she asked. She leaned in and kissed his lips.
Borro drew back. “You have to tell me what you mean. Arrani, you’re frightening me a little.”
“First you’re afraid of mountain cats, and now you’re afraid of me?” She smiled. “Oh, Borro, don’t you feel the wonderful wildness here?”
The wonderful wildness? He shook his head. He and Arrani had been courting since last winter; it had been the streak of wildness in her that had first caught his eye and then his heart. Nip-berries and women’s hillsides were one thing, though. Even coming to his house and embracing him in front of his mother was one thing, wild, yes, but exciting. This, however, this trek to a patch of bare earth and the look in her eyes, was another. He had thought of marriage, especially since that time on the hillside. But a marriage took time to arrange, and a wedding even longer to prepare for; as far as Borro knew, Arrani hadn’t even brought his mother the first of the three intention-gifts. And children—children were not wildflowers, except in a poem. He did not want to be the father of wildflowers; he wanted to be the father of girls and boys, who would grow up to be women and men, as people were meant to do.
“I feel only the ground,” he said. “You said you found something wonderful, and maybe you have. I can’t feel what you feel. But I can see wildness in your eyes. Too much wildness. I think we should go back.”
“But I love you,” she said.
“If you love me, then please, let’s return to the village.”
Arrani grasped his shoulders. He thought she would pull him close to her again, but instead she shoved him hard. “You’re supposed to say you love me, too.”
“I do,” he said. I did, he thought. I said it first, and you only laughed.
“Then be the father of my wildflowers.”
“Arrani, you are talking of dark things. People should keep to the light.”
“Wildflowers are bright things.”
“Wildflowers are not people.”
“No, they’re not. They are better.”
He grew angry then, because after the shove, she started smiling again, and the specks of gold in her eyes glowed like fire. “How am I to be the father of wildflowers and remain a man? How can we be married without our mothers’ consent and a wedding for all the village to attend? Arrani, we must keep to our place in the world, if we do not want to be lost.”
“Lost? Do you really understand nothing? I haven’t lost anything. I found something.”
“No, I don’t understand. Please, let’s go home.”
“But we are home.”
Borro’s temper flared. He stood up. “We? This is not my home. I’m leaving. Come with me or not, as you wish.”
“Tell me you love me.”
“Tell me again.”
“I love you,” he said.
“Then watch me, watch over me. Afterwards, do whatever you think best.” She looked away. “I see I made a mistake. I wanted to share this with you, do it with you. But I will tell you a women-secret. We do not need men to have children, not when the children will be wildflowers. I’m sorry you won’t be their father.”
“You’ll not well,” Borro said. It must be an illness, he thought, a fever that was making her eyes glow and her words mad. “Please, let me take you home.”
“I am home,” she said again, and threw herself on the ground.
Later, when the women asked him what had happened next, he hesitated for so long that his mother raised her hand to slap him; it was Shayrri who had stopped her. “Give him time. These things are difficult to speak of, even for us.” Her words had made Borro wonder, in the midst of his grief, how many secrets the women truly had.
They were in his mother’s house, and Arrani lay as if dead. His brothers had already gone to fetch the men to dig a grave and prepare mourning flags. He kept his gaze on Arrani’s face, and said, “She stretched out on the ground, and spread her arms and legs wide. She said that if I did not want to be the father of wildflowers, she would be the mother of wildflowers by herself. I went to stand next to the tree so I could watch over her. She asked me to do that, to watch her. I thought she was ill, that in a while she would stop her mad talk and let me bring her back to the village. But it wasn’t mad talk, was it?”
“No, it wasn’t,” one of the women said, after a moment. He thought it was Gralli.
These women with their grim faces and knowing looks—he could not meet their eyes. Arrani, though she was young, had taken part in their gatherings, their bread-circles. His mother didn’t. He’d heard her say once that she had no time for such things, not with so many sons to take care of. Perhaps when she’d been younger, before she’d married, his mother had been one of the bread-circle women, too. But that was not something a son could ask his mother.
“I shouldn’t have stood under the tree,” Borro whispered.
“Did the tree become the father?” Shayrri asked.
Borro nodded. Then he shook his head. Then he nodded again. “The roots,” he said. Arrani’s face was so pale, she lay so still—no wonder they all—the men, at any rate—thought she was dead. But she had been alive the whole time he was carrying her; he had felt her heart. Why had none of the men thought to put his ear to her chest and listen to it beat? “She screamed,” he said.
“She would,” one of the women muttered.
“Hush,” someone else scolded her.
“Watch over her,” Shayrri told him, “as you did in the forest. “We will go discuss what is to be done.”
“But the men . . . ”
“We know.” She came to stand next to Borro. For a moment he thought she was going to put her hand on his head, but instead she leaned down and lifted the sheet his mother had thrown over Arrani after he had placed her on the pallet.
“Close your eyes,” his mother said, but Shayrri did touch him then, lightly on the arm, and said, “No, there is no need. He has seen the beginning. Let him see the growing.”
Borro had noticed already that the sheet had not lain evenly; he had hoped it was a trick of the light and the creases in the cloth, for his mother had covered Arrani hastily. He saw now that Arrani’s belly had swollen. He had not felt that while he carried her. All he had paid attention to was the slow thump of her heart.
Shayrri pulled up Arrani’s shift. Borro’s mother clicked her tongue, but spoke no word.
The skin stretched over Arrani’s enlarged abdomen was green, light green, the color of first shoots.
“Can you do anything for her?” Borro asked.
“Such things belong to the old days,” Borro’s mother objected. “They cannot happen now.”
“But you see that they can.” Shayrri patted Borro’s arm again. “It is hard to lose a love. But always know that she is not dead. We will not bury her. We will plant her, and from her will grow the wildflowers she desired. Who knows, perhaps the flowers will possess a healing quality, or a pleasant fragrance, or the power to draw luck, or to kindle love. You never know with new things.”
“Right. You never know,” said another mutterer.
“Will you watch her until we are ready? We need to gather the rest of the women of the bread-circles, and prepare.”
“What if the men come to take her?”
Shayrri looked at him, and Borro nodded. Shayrri looked at Borro’s mother, and she nodded, too. “It will not come to that,” Shayrri said. “But it is best to be on your guard.”
On the hillside where the nip-berries might or might not grow in the shadow of the whistling trees, watching the men arguing as they sewed the mourning flags, the women of Deeby’s bread-circle also argued.
“We saw her belly,” Gralli said. “And Borro was too upset to lie.”
Shayrri sighed. “Yes. Oh, the stupid girl.”
“But you said that the flowers may be lovely, or useful, or—or wonderful. Did you lie?”
Lulli said, “Gralli, no one knows. Borro’s mother was right. This is a thing of the old times, not of ours. Arrani thought it was wonderful. But let’s be honest. Arrani might not have been the best judge of that. She loved wildness a little too much.”
“Nip-berries,” someone muttered.
Shayrri spun on her heel and shouted at the less senior members of Deeby’s bread-circle, “Will you please, please, please stop with this eternal muttering? You’re driving me crazy.”
Lulli said, more gently, “Listen to the whistling trees. Perhaps their song will become clearer.” To Shayrri, she said, “They’re nervous. We’re all nervous, because we know what we are going to do, but we do not know if we are right to do it.”
Deeby said, “Someone will have to keep vigil on the—well, not grave. The plot? The garden?”
“We’ll take it in turns,” Shayrri said.
“Summer is ending,” Gralli said. “It is likely the full growing will not come until spring.”
“Still, we must watch.”
“Look,” Deeby cried. “The men are fighting.”
One of the women who was supposed to be listening to the trees said, “Now that’s a surprise.”
“Let them fight,” Shayrri said. “It gives us more time. Slow-weed and soothe-leaves. Those of you who are married to any of the fools down there, go prepare food and drink. Take enough for all to gorge and guzzle their fill. Meanwhile, Lulli, go back to Borro’s mother’s house. Tell the boy to carry Arrani here, if he is strong enough.”
“If he is not, I will help him,” Lulli said.
“And the rest of us?” Deeby asked.
“The rest of us will dig.” Shayrri paused. “Unless the whistling trees warn us not to.”
All the women fell silent, listening.
“Anything?” Lulli asked.
The women who could hear the song of the whistling trees shook their heads.
“Very well, then,” Shayrri said. “We dig here. Blast it, we should have brought shovels.”
“I’ll get them,” Deeby said.
“And Borro?” Lulli said. “Once he comes, do we let him stay? And when she is planted and the watching time begins, do we let him take his turns?”
“Of course not,” Gralli said.
“Yes,” said Shayrri.
“But he is a man.”
“He is a man who did not go with the other men.” She waved at the brawl in Ays’s courtyard. “He didn’t join those idiots. And he is already keeping watch. He was with Arrani when she relinquished her human life for another. Let him be with us when we discover what will grow from our planting.”
“But he is a man,” Gralli repeated.
“He is. But we are not living in the old times.”
Gralli shook her head. “It would be like allowing him to join a bread-circle.”
Yes, it would, Shayrri thought.
“The father of wildflowers. What would have happened to him if he had agreed?” Lulli asked.
“I don’t know,” Shayrri said. A joining, a melding? Two bodies to plant? She shook her head.
Lulli gestured at the men in Ays’s courtyard. “Old times or new, the boy does not belong there. I will go fetch him now. Both of them.” She wiped her eyes. “It has already been a long day, and there is much more to do.”
“The long days are only just beginning,” Shayrri said.
“When the men wake tomorrow, they will storm and rage.”
“Let them. They’ve done it before. Their storms are only squalls.”
“It might be different this time.”
“If it is different, so be it.”
Deeby said, “I’m off. I’ll be back with a pair of shovels soon.”
The women tasked with preparing the men’s evening meal also took their leave. Gralli remained, along with several others who were still listening to the trees. “She was always impulsive. Unpredictable,” said Shayrri.
Shayrri nodded. Perhaps they should not have allowed her to join the bread-circle. So young. And too wild. But it was the wild ones who changed things. And without change, where would they be?
“If flowers grow, they might not be kindly ones.”
“Aren’t you afraid?” Gralli asked.
Shayrri said, “Naturally. There is no way to know what the future holds. But this is what we will do. If you disagree, go to the men and sew mourning flags.”
“You know I will not.” She paused. “But if the flowers are malevolent, I will collect my own bread-circle, and eradicate them.”
Shayrri did not cluck her tongue. She did not even raise an eyebrow. “First let us plant, then let us watch. After that we will decide. Agreed?”
“Yes,” Gralli said, in the flat voice of someone giving in against her better judgment.
One of the women listening to the trees said, “They are whistling again. It is a song of spring.”
Another woman said, “I think I see Deeby with the shovels. She must have run the whole way.”
“New things, old things,” Shayrri said softly. A boy in a bread-circle was a very new thing. “No one knows what will come of either. Gralli, I’d like you to chose the place we will plant her.”
“If I must.”
The rest waited and watched, knowing there would be much more waiting and watching for them all in the weeks and months ahead. Deeby arrived, panting and sweating, and laid the shovels on the ground. A short time later, Shayrri spotted Borro and Lulli approaching, moving slowly with their burden—they had wrapped her head to toe in a sheet, and carried her with great care. Behind them, Borro’s mother walked, her head down.
In Ays’s courtyard, the men were eating and drinking, the mourning flags laid aside, but the fire still burning. Sleep, Shayrri thought. And when you awake in the morning, crawl back to your homes and nurse your headaches, and give Jum back the bolts of cloth you took. She saw that some of the married women, in addition to stew and beer, had brought water to douse the fire once the men sank into sleep. That was good thinking.
Men lied. Women lied. The women in the courtyard had lied to their husbands. Shayrri did not think that Arrani had lied.
She did not think that Borro, that terrified, brave boy, had lied, either.
And wildness could sprout in any soul, even that of a elder woman of a bread-circle.
“Dig here,” Gralli said, and two of the listening women took the shovels from Deeby, and cut open the skin of the world, on the hillside where nip-berries may or may not have ever grown, but where, come spring, wildflowers might.