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Worm Blood

Gunnora kept her arms covered. Bare, they looked too much like farmland—or what farmland had come to look like. Burnt, pockmarked patches in corn, the dark smudges black as the circles under her eyes. The worms might burn themselves out for air, but the fields needed beating for all that, to keep the flames from spreading.

Better sleepless nights than harvest failing, but it was unsustainable. Gunnora hadn’t slept for three days, not properly, and her neighbours did no better. An entire community half-conscious in the fields, trying not to fall asleep lest fire burst out around them and the smoke send them into suffocation.

“I’d rather burn than send word we can’t make the harvest,” said Aldrich, who farmed on the other side of the valley.

Gunnora grunted her agreement. Burning seemed like the easy way out in comparison.

“We shouldn’t even be out here,” he continued. “Not at night. If there’s no-one to bring the worms . . . ”

Something’s bringing them,” Gunnora snapped. It was a new argument that had fallen into the patterns of old, repeated so often in the days since the worms came that she knew every beat and cadence of it. “Shouldn’t” no longer had any meaning. All sorts happened that shouldn’t, and no sense in pretending they didn’t.

Hell of it was that Aldrich was right. Human blood brought the worms, far as anyone knew, but it wasn’t an experiment people were willing to make twice. Gunnora had cut the throats of rabbits herself, of a number of small creatures, held them over earth with farmhands close pressed round her, their hands clutched onto buckets and damp sacking and scythes. None of those small struggling bodies had produced anything but red earth and stifled squealing. Gunnora had kept watch herself for a full day and night afterwards, not even turning away to piss, her grey hair scraped back from her head so it didn’t blow across her face and block the view, but there’d been nothing. In the end she’d given up. It was human blood brought the worms, and only human.

Which meant that if all Gunnora’s neighbours were tucked up into their own farmhouses at night, their blood soaked up by bedclothes or dish towels on the off-chance any were spilled, the fields should have been safe. Except they weren’t, and it had taken every single body to quell the blaze that worms had made of Elenor’s orchard when they’d slept on that supposition, and Elenor’s man dead two days later from the burns he got trying to put it out.

“Never thought I’d be glad to see him gone,” Elenor had said afterwards, not with six children to look after and her land all in ruins. But her orchards had been first to see the worms, them and the vineyard Matthias had given his labour to of a morning, and folk had begun to look at him unkindly. “As if he brought worms down on us all,” said Elenor, bitterly, but they’d kept coming after Matthias had died and that brought sympathy and thinking twice and her husband buried as an innocent, with no stones thrown at his wife and children after. Sympathy from most, anyway.

“Burns don’t bleed,” Aldrich muttered, and that was just the type of gossip Gunnora might have expected from someone who, at the sight of all that blackened skin, had turned pale and turned away.

“Of course they damn well bleed,” she said.

“Know from experience, do you?” From the marks she kept covered, that she’d not ever let anyone see.

“I was with Elenor when she put poultice and bandages on him,” said Gunnora, side-stepping what she wasn’t willing to admit. The woman was her second cousin, and even if she wasn’t family Gunnora would never have left her to do it alone. “I can assure you what I had to wash off my own hands after was real enough.”

“If he bled he would have brought the worms,” said Aldrich, and she’d sighed and given up. It wasn’t that Aldrich was a bad man, she thought, or one given to blame and canting. With a solid night’s sleep behind him he was the steadiest in the valley, but deprivation had turned them all on each other and snarling. They were all so quick to fall apart.

They’d thought it had been kids at first. She’d seen him in the field over, down on haunches and frowning, a small stream the boundary between them. Gunnora had waded over, her boots squelching, and seen amidst the grain a small stubbled patch.

“Bad place for a campfire,” she said. “Though they made a neat job of it.” The scorch was perfectly round, with edges like cut glass.

“Could have taken the whole field with them, the little shits,” Aldrich replied. “If I catch them I’ll tan their arses.”

“Have to beat the parents to it.” Even kids should know better. Harvest had places to go, and prices to meet. There were expectations, and if the valley had to send the food that would keep themselves from starving to make up numbers then that’s what they’d do, and be glad for starvation. Not glad enough to welcome it, but glad enough to seem so for cause.

Aldrich stood, knees creaking, and Gunnora winced in sympathy. Her own joints were a stiffening thing of late. They were the both of them getting old.

“Been hearing about it all over,” said Aldrich. “Not just here. You might want to check your own land.”

“I’ll do that,” said Gunnora, and she had, most carefully, but there was nothing burnt in her fields. Not that morning, but three days after there’d been half a dozen different little spots and she’d felt the chill of it deep in her belly. It had rained the night before, rained heavily and well—she could smell the drying grain like a slow, warm animal—and that meant two things. One, that without the rain her fields might have caught like a match in tinder, and left her with nothing to show for autumn reaping. And two, that no kid she knew, however adventurous, would have sat in thunder and mud to try and call a fire.

Such fires would have burned out, but they’d not have burned perfect . . . and, like the scorch in Aldrich’s field, these all looked as if they’d been stamped out by machine.

No fire Gunnora knew burned that way. No fire at all.

And then they were sprouting all through the valley—in orchards, in fields, in vegetable plots. Everywhere there was growing things meant for table. Mutterings at every corner, of sabotage and the unnatural. Gunnora didn’t know which she’d prefer. Strangers didn’t come often so if something were undermining the crops it was someone local, most likely. Someone she knew. The thought made her arms itch, the old scars.

She knew all too well what those close to her were capable of.

Sensible thing would have been to call for aid, to trust outsiders with the land that one of their own might have burnt. Generations lived here, and for long, and if the prospect of retribution wasn’t a slick one to swallow, it was better than the pronouncement of corruption, which would see all their land sterilised, the soil seared down to water table to burn out the stench of rot.

“It is corruption,” Elenor said, the oldest of her girls cuddled close, a whey-skinned creature with an orphan’s face. The child wasn’t eating, and Gunnora privately thought she’d been too young to stand at her father’s side, holding a bowl full of blood and sponges while her mother changed his bandages, but the child wasn’t hers and she’d kept her mouth shut. There was enough to worry about without adding another to the mix.

“It’s corruption, I said,” Elenor repeated, safe to do so now her husband was dead and suspicion turned away, become nebulous again with nothing to latch to. She said it through smoke, a nervous habit of tobacco that was more than ever common and confined to houses, lest ash fall in the fields and finish what the worms had started.

“Likely so,” said Gunnora, shaking her head when the other woman offered a cigar. The worms had put that beyond all doubt. She’d not believed it first time she’d heard; thought it some nightmare hallucination come from too much waking, thick white worms squirming in furrows and set alight in the evening air. More than one had taken bottles with them at night to ward off the chill, but drink had never been anything to her but a soporific and a threat so she’d declined herself, pinched instead of swallowed to keep sleep away. Hallucination, or drunken dreams.

Then she’d seen for herself.

It was only a matter of time. Land labour, the frenetic round of farm work, was something that lent itself to the spilling of blood. Not even the dramatic spills, like when Gunnora had been a young women and her father had been out chopping an old stump, swung his axe wrong and bled out in the field. But simple things—burst blisters and small cuts and scratches, the inevitable consequence of hard hand work. She’d been out with her workers, clearing little spaces around the burned patches lest they somehow light up again and spread, when one of those workers had cursed. Nicked his knuckle on the blade, and she’d seen the red run down his hand herself, drip down to ground. Seen what happened when that droplet hit dirt, and suddenly the tales heard around the ashes of old fires weren’t a product of drink and dreaming anymore.

The blood opened onto blackness. One moment there was earth, and the next there was nothing. Just a hole, a smooth perfect slice about the size of dinner plate that must have been the mouth of a tunnel which led to what Gunnora could only perceive as a creeping, ominous absence. Something so flat and devoid of depth that it might have been the thinnest scrape of skin over an empty and devouring chasm, one so deep and so dark she couldn’t see the bottom of it.

Out of that flat black piece of nothing, that portal to another place, came the worms: fat and white and silent, thick as her wrist around. At first, frozen in disgust, with a rising gorge of revulsion, Gunnora thought it was a single animal. Long, tangled, squirming against itself, but a closer look showed it was a mass of blunt heads and blind bodies, a maggot tangle . . . and one that burst into flame within her next breath.

“What the fuck was that?” she’d said, shoulders hunched and cringing back as though afraid of burning, but the fire had come so close behind the worms that her reaction only seemed to have started at it. In fact it was the worms themselves that caused her to yank herself back, and immediate response to horror. She wasn’t the only one. All of her hands had fallen back, all but the one who’d spilled blood in the first place. He was as silent as the worms, but the flame had caught his boots, the material of his trousers stretched over skin, yet when he started screaming Gunnora knew it wasn’t from pain so much as it was disgust.

Disgust. She thought that was what had kept them silent, had locked the community in on itself. Easy enough to argue for interception, for interference, but disgust was an emotion linked too hard to shame for anyone in the valley to want to draw attention down on themselves. Something foul was in their fields, something intrinsically repulsive, and there was nothing cleanly about it.

Nothing cleanly about anyone who produced it.

“It wasn’t me!” her farmhand shrieked, half of him afire and beating out, the flame searing shut his dripping knuckle. “You saw them. It wasn’t me!”

She’d known him twenty years. A good worker. Silent in himself but patient with it. Kind. She’d liked him well-enough, Gunnora had, but even so it took all the determination and duty that had ever coursed through her veins to throw him down and beat the flames off him.

“Better to have left him,” one of the other hands muttered, and got his mouth bloodied in turn by a friend of the man who’d drawn the worms with his veins. He’d clapped his hands to his mouth, the man who hit him cursing and wrenching off his own shirt to stop the flow from hitting the ground—“Strange,” Gunnora had thought later, “how quickly we all knew what caused it”—and the two of them had walked back to buildings, close as brothers.

“I couldn’t let him say that,” said the man who’d raised his fists. “I didn’t think. But he was my friend. It wasn’t his fault.” He’d believed that when he said it, Gunnora knew, but she’d heard later that he’d never visited the burned man, not even when the doctor made his decision to take both feet, blackened ruins that they were, and inside his house so that amputation called nothing but screaming.

As easy as it would have been to pin it on a single person, there’d been enough small accidents to convince even the most superstitious that anyone who lived in the valley and let their blood fall to earth could call the worms.

“Maybe it’s a family thing,” the doctor offered, but he didn’t say it loudly because families had married into each other for generations, on the farms, and everyone was a cousin to everyone else.

“If it’s a family thing we’ll all be burnt eventually,” said Gunnora, though whether that burning would come from carelessness in fields or the imposition of outsiders come to cleanse those fields was another question entirely. She didn’t want to burn. None of them did—but she’d heard the arguments in corners, the winnowing down of suspects against all conventions of kin and rationality.

“Sterilise the source and the rest of us will be safe.”

“Sterilise the source and the save the harvest.”

No surprise they blamed themselves, Gunnora thought. She’d seen that opening into emptiness herself. Small and cleanly cut as it was, there was immensity in it, something vast and unreachable. A simple solution, one encompassed by their own hands . . . it would be a relief.

“Why not test everyone, then,” she said to Aldrich. “Let them cut themselves open over good earth. Everyone who draws worms dies.”

He’d only shuddered and looked away. Truthfully she hadn’t been serious. It was a poor joke, one that played on the suspicion they were all infected—if infection it even was. If the doctor wasn’t right when he’d implied their blood was bad, the whole inbred lot of them. Gunnora didn’t make the suggestion again. None of them did. Instead they all wore gloves, and heavy boots, and tempers flared because of heat and the slick sour ever-presence of sweat.

It made her old scars ache. It made her remember how she got them and that in turn made her cross, angry on top of afraid, and she snapped at Elenor’s girl when she came stumbling round the workers, balancing water buckets in each hand for bottles. “Shit,” she said, as the girl flinched back and refused to meet her eyes, the little face drawn itself with grief and fear.

She’d have said more, if there was anything left in her for kindness to others. Instead she watched as Aldrich patted the girl on her back, watched her flinch again and scurry off. Such a little coward, she was. Didn’t get it from her father. Nor her mother, at that—Gunnora remembered the misery on Elenor’s face as she’d dressed her husband’s wounds, and remembered too how she’d kept her voice even and her touch light and her tears for later, when they wouldn’t be a bother. But then she knew well enough that blood didn’t always breed true—the relief she’d felt in her father’s field with his axe halfway through his own leg and the failing earth around him sticky from spurting was proof enough.

“It’s getting worse.”

“You say that like I’m supposed to be surprised.” An hour before dawn, and her eyes were so dry she felt it even when they were shut. There’d been two fires in her wheat that night, two incursions of worms, pale squirming shapes that set her gorge to rising. But for once there was something that overcame revulsion, that screaming sense of disgust, of the unnatural.

“It’s taking them longer to burn.”

At first, when the worms came from wherever they came from, that black pit of elsewhere opening up in corn and apples and grain, they’d ignited at near the first touch of air. It was anathema to them, a sensitivity that marked them out as alien, as not existing in the world. But now there was as much as a minute before the flames came, and the worms were getting bigger, and more numerous. “They’re adapting,” said Gunnora, flatly. “They’re learning to live here.” And what would happen when they did was unthinkable. “Who knows what size they’ll grow to be. What they’ll eat.”

The thought of sharing space with the worms had set her to vomiting deep in the corn where no-one could see.

“At least fire still works.” Aldrich stretched beside her, fatigue clear in the way he held himself, slumped over as if it were too much work to stand upright. “I’m having one of my hands start putting flamethrowers together in my barn. There’s a couple for you there, and another two for Elenor’s place.” He didn’t look at her when he spoke. It was an admission, of sorts, of what he’d not been able to take when the blackened, twitching body of Elenor’s husband had been brought in. Of the support he’d been too sick to offer, the stench of burnt meat too sticky-sweet to be borne.

“I’ll see that she gets them,” said Gunnora. Not that she wanted anything but bed, but the trip at least would mean movement, and that might keep her awake for another day, keep her fields from ruin. It was the consciousness of his kindness that blunted the edge of angry weariness when he started up again.

“I don’t understand it,” he said, but all the anger had fallen from him as well. Aldrich’s voice was tired, confused; he spoke with a sort of sweet befuddled incomprehension that affected her more deeply than his fury ever had. “There’s no blood spilt in those fields, Gunnora. None. Look at us. Covered from head to foot. If I could get a hand to my own belly and gut it I’m in so many layers not a drop would ever reach ground. You’re the same. So is everyone. But it’s coming from somewhere. It has to be. And that means it’s coming from someone.”

It was nothing she hadn’t thought herself. Over and over, in circles till she was sick of it. It was the only thing that made sense, except it made no sense. It would mean two types of blood, the one acting differently from the other. The common sort, in the fields, that called the worms, and the one that called them and kept away from fields. Impossible to tease out, and they coiled in her mind like the worms themselves, thought and impulse and instinct, pale and ugly and with corruption leaking from the thickness of their flesh.

“Sometimes I think I almost have it,” she said. “If only I could sleep.”

“No sleep for any of us yet, I think,” said Aldrich, patting her as he’d patted Elenor’s girl not long past, and instead of flinching Gunnora sank into him, grateful for the solid warmth of him and not able to show it for more than seconds. Any capacity she’d once had for that sort of thing had dried up and blown away long since.

She took the flamethrowers over to Elenor’s farm that morning. There were a group of farmhands in the fields closest to the house, and she gave them the equipment, demonstrated its use, and she was just at the door of the farmhouse when she heard the hands shrieking, saw the controlled burst of flame and the beating out of fire afterwards. Gunnora thought perhaps she should go and help, but they were grown men and seemed to have it well enough in hand.

It was the crying through the door that concerned her more. Elenor’s was a house of mourning, still, and Gunnora had never known what to do with tears, mostly, but it wasn’t neighbourly to turn away from another’s grief and so she didn’t. “I’m sorry to interrupt,” she said, pushing in without knocking, but what was inside was not the product of grief. Elenor’s whey-faced girl was snivelling as per usual, the back of her pinafore pulled down and her mother swabbing at her shoulder, at the small round mark of burning.

One of Elenor’s cigars was on the table, and it was warm and silent.

Later, Gunnora had the child in her own house, drinking tea and stripped to the waist. The time between was a soft still blank to her, one only interrupted by the return to her own threshold, the hand she’d sent for Aldrich and the rest.

The child’s back was covered in scars. Dozens of them, hundreds, and most of them fresh, crusted over and no longer bleeding. She was sleepy from the tea, dazed by it, almost giggly. “It’s good for pain,” Gunnora had told her. “I used to give it to my father when his head hurt him.”

“She doesn’t mean to,” said the child. Gunnora thought she actually believed it, at least on the surface of her, but she couldn’t forget the field-screaming that had come with the back-burning, the application of tip.

“Does she do this to your brothers and sisters as well?” she asked, but the child shook her head, a drugged smile on her face.

“Just me,” she said. “She’s always sorry after.”

Aldrich knocked on her door then, came in for the second time since she’d sent for him. “It’s done,” he said. And then “The mother’s here.”

“If you want to call her that.”

“It’s not our place to judge,” he said, but she knew him, knew the streak of iron that lived deep down in the marrow of him and knew, too, that he had already judged.

When Elenor was brought inside, scratches down her cheek and her hair disarranged, she was furious. When Gunnora handed her a cigar she refused to take it. “Please,” she said. “She’s only a child. I didn’t meant to. She doesn’t deserve it.”

“She doesn’t,” said Gunnora. “But you do. And you will.”

“You will,” said Aldrich. “If you want to see the rest of your children again.”

When Elenor set the lit tip, trembling, to her child’s back, Gunnora had to press down on her hand to get the burn to take. Even drugged, the poor little thing shrieked, and there was a stir outside the door. One of the hands came in. “A flare, down by the river,” he said. “Worms.”

They’d sent word, and sheets to act as signal flags.

“That’s twice now,” said Gunnora. “Here, and at Elenor’s. Twice.” She stroked the child’s hair, gave her another cup of tea and made her swallow it. “It’s her.”

Elenor sobbed. “I’m so sorry,” she wept. “It’s not her fault. But there’s so many of them. The children. And sometimes I just need, I need . . . ”

Needed to take her frustrations out on something small and innocent, Gunnora thought. What a pity that child was one who’d take the terror of her parent and use it call terror down on all of them, her little body linked to the land in a different way to the rest of them. And once that terror was woken to what blood could do, any blood would do.

(Sickly fields, an axe gone wrong, and the scars on her own arms a mirror for the scars left by the cigars Gunnora would no longer leave in the house.)

“It’s not what you need that matters, madam,” said Aldrich. He looked to Gunnora, mute appeal in his eyes. The appeal of a man who had turned away from burned flesh because he couldn’t bear the sight of pain. “It can’t be allowed to go on,” he said.

“I know,” Gunnora agreed. Hating herself, and what she was about to do. She fixed the child’s pinafore, laid the little body flat on her kitchen table. “Take the mother out,” she said.

Elenor cried and fought and screamed. It made no difference. The men around were stronger, and when Gunnora brought a pillow from her bedroom, the child looked up at her, sleepy, and smiled.

“I want to go home,” she said.

“I know,” said Gunnora. It only took a minute, and there was no blood.

Outside, Elenor was limp in the arms of her neighbours. Gunnora ignored her completely, afraid of the sympathy she might feel, and how it would undermine contempt. “Bring the rest of her children,” she said.

About the Author

Octavia Cade is a New Zealand writer. She’s sold around sixty stories to markets including Clarkesworld, F&SF, and Asimov’s. She’s a Bram Stoker nominee and four time Sir Julius Vogel award winner, and was the 2020 visiting writer in residence at Massey University. Her latest book, the climate fiction novella The Impossible Resurrection of Grief, came out recently from Stelliform.