From the author: In the distant, decaying future--or one possible future, anyway--of the uncanny city of Boskrea, the trees that were once home to a decadent city have fallen into ruin. The descendants of today's city, surviving on what they can scavenge from the ruins, do what they can to leave a mark on their world and the dreams of the past.
a collective, cultic dream, as recorded by the Story Eaters of Fallen Crown
A single, obscene finger rising from the water, the other trees long since curled into an aqueous fist. A shard of a tree that pierces thin mists, tiny compared to its history but still hundreds of times the height of the two in their driftwood boat at its base. The dream kaleidoscopes inward to that boat.
Brother and sister, they usually take turns rowing, though his body hasn't allowed him to row for some days. They trawl the water for crayfish and debris. Some days the crayfish keep them alive, and some days they sell the rusted scraps of metal or the seaweed-covered bits of ceramic that they find. Anything could become useful, back in their floating village. This day, the day of the dream, they have found nothing.
“Well, where shall we try next?” Brother will ask/asks/asked. “The Moss Shallows?”
Sister leans into the oars and rests her body against their handles. Her arms are long and not quite human. “We were just there. Yesterday? Two days ago? I forget.”
“New stuff comes up all the time. And besides, who's to say anywhere else we pick didn't have some other scavenger boat there yesterday?”
“Then let's go somewhere we're sure no one was.” She starts rowing again, turning the small boat toward the tree's fire-blackened knuckle.
“Somewhere...” Brother turns to see where she is headed. His head has a hint of bird to it, as if his lips double as a beak. The boat sways with his movement. “I thought we'd decided...”
“That was last week.” Sister keeps rowing for the tree.
Ever since they've gone on their own scavenges, the dream narrative intrudes to inform us, these two have schemed and questioned and ultimately caved in to the taboo that keeps their people away from the remnant tree. Any time they find nothing or feel fed up with the usual haunts, one or the other suggests a trip to the base of the tree. They might start that way before the other sibling convinces the first not to. They might look at the tower of ancient wood and change their minds, shirking back to well-traveled waters. They might see another boat in the mists and become ashamed, afraid that someone will suspect them of daring the taboo, of flaunting it and bringing ruin on the Last Village.
This time Sister doesn't shy away from her course, and Brother doesn't argue. They row in a silence of mists and of the tooth-less sucking of little waves against the boat. A sea-bird shrieks, shrill and unlovely as it swoops for floating carrion, but made distant by the defiance of Sister's back and by the force of Brother's silence.
A wind blows cross-ways to them, shredding the mists without ever quite dispersing them. They nearly row straight into the Last Village before they see it. The wind shoves it across their path, though to them it looks like some underwater force must be dragging the buildings forward. They bob on the swell of a wake.
Someone calls to them from the village. “Done scavenging?”
Sister stops rowing, looks to Brother for his reaction. He shrugs, the motion made awkward by the shifting bones as his body changes.
“Just looking for a better place, is all.” She shakes her head sadly. “Wasn't much where we were.”
“That's the way of it,” the man calls before disappearing into a house. Great fungus pontoons surround the village, and wooden planks connect each house to the next. A ripple in the water shows where the village's broken tether tries to break the surface, a great and rotting stub of rope as big around as either sibling.
The man comes back out. “Oh, since you're here, I think Sekser said she needs a boat.” He ducks away again.
Brother groans while Sister pulls at the oars, bringing them around to what is currently the rear, though the village is rotating slowly away from the tree as the wind drives it. Sekser greets them as they dock. The head-woman is a ratite today, though her legs and claw-less feet still show hints of the human she was yesterday. Sister, a constant stuck somewhere between human and selichi, rests her long arms on bony knees. Slow-shifter Brother has been mostly ratite for some days now and has begun the painful change to something new. His wing-arms are perfectly capable of tying the boat to the dock.
“I need you to take me to Grave Water,” she says and climbs into the boat. “A quick trip, and then you can get back to your work.”
She settles herself into the stern seat while Brother unties the boat and pushes off. Sister has to face the head-woman as she rows. Sister looks over her shoulder at her brother and gives him a look that's easy to interpret--must we take her? and when will your arms shift to let you row again? and can't we just stop and rest? The meanings multiply until she turns away and focuses on rowing.
“I'm glad you came by. I wasn't expecting any boats at this time.” Sekser smooths her moss-fiber skirt over her knees. When neither of them say anything, she asks, “What were you doing back by the village so early?”
Sister lowers her head and spine into the rowing, so Brother answers. “No luck this morning. We'd just decided to trawl for what we might find.”
“And yet you didn't have your nets in the water.” She makes an exaggerated attempt to look around the stern of the boat. “And they don't look like they're even ready to go out.”
Brother licks his lips. “Like I said, we'd just decided.”
Sekser sits quietly after that, and the siblings say nothing either. The dream skips ahead to Grave Water. Centuries of the dead have built up the bottom into a reef of bones. Strange, inedible eels with what seem to be an extra pair of eyes on their foreheads twist through the ossuary--caring for the dead, so it's said. The boat scrapes on the bones, and Sister has to keep her strokes shallow so the oars don't get stuck.
The dream narrative intrudes again, lets us know of the rituals and restrictions on scavengers in these waters. They come, and they carry away much that is valued, from metals to dead-fed crustaceans to a particular seaweed that's long and fibrous and ideal for making rope. Custom, however, limits the frequency of such plunder. The siblings have yet to be granted a chance to scavenge Grave Water.
And Sesker won't let them today. She directs them across the bones to a patch of water that looks like any other. As they come scraping to a halt, she says, “I still wonder about finding you when I did. I know, though. Everyone gets tempted by the tree, now and then.”
Brother and Sister both straighten their posture. “What?” asks Brother.
“I do too. Nearest I got was as close as one width of the village before I turned back. Some get closer, most not as close. But here's the thing to remember...” She leans toward them as she takes out a large hook from an inner pocket on her official robe. “Everyone turns back. No matter how tempted, no matter how close, they turn away. They come back to the Last Village, and the Last Village welcomes them home.”
She ties the hook to a string and lowers it into the water. “I wouldn't want you to come back and not find yourselves welcome, you know.”
“Of course not, ma'am,” Brother mumbles, while Sister rubs the embryonic blisters on her palms. Sekser fishes around for some while, moving the hook about in the murk.
At last she pulls the rope up, and something flashes in the light as she hides it away in her cloak. Unperturbed by, or simply unaware of, her secretive demeanor, Brother asks, “What is it?”
“Nothing, just...” Sesker narrows her eyes at the two siblings. “Just a dream. I'd heard its call last night. A dream, a story, an aspiring lie, stuck among the bones.”
The dream narrative stutters at this, unable to translate the scene exactly, unable to convey the words. What can it mean that a dream carries a dream within it? What words does the head woman seek? And the answer can't help but come back from our liturgy, a solemn cry from every Fallen Crown: there are many realities, but only one dream, and we are its scribes. What dream can she find, but this very one, transcribed centuries before her birth. The dream dreams its own future.
Like a phonograph misaligned, the dream skips, showing brief snippets of sound-less action as Sister rows them back to the still-drifting Last Village. Here it resumes, with Sesker disembarking and the siblings pushing off.
With the Last Village out of hearing and sliding into the mist, Sister says, “Well?”
“Further around,” he answers. Sekser's threat has bound them, replaced uncertainty with iron resolve, un-rusted. They won't back down from such a challenge.
To play out their ruse, if needed, Brother pulls out the heavy trawling net and arranges it across the stern. Sister's breaths come in forced exhalations as she pulls and pulls and pulls. They circle the tree slowly, steer away from other scavenger boats, loop inwards, nearer and nearer.
Ancient carvings encircle the tree's base. Holy scripts and sacred art to the Last Villagers. The siblings drift, staring at the pictures they've only heard of, pictures meant for eyes made holy and indistinct by age, for minds made fuzzy by fungus. There is no sense to the carvings, no story, or at least the siblings do not seek anything so obvious among those lines. They open wide their eyes to absorb it all without trying to understand.
Brother moves first, taking the oars held loosely in Sister's hands. His arms are inefficient, but he drives the boat into the tree. The prow becomes stuck, held by rotting wood.
Sister jumps out, a fish-carving knife in hand, and climbs to a nearby blank space above the many carvings. The wood here is too firm to cut easily, but she slashes enough lines to suggest a boat, their boat. She sheathes the knife and hops down. Before she gets into the boat, Brother plunges his hand into the water and pulls out a handful of slime.
He takes her place beside the fresh carving and smears the rotting seaweed into the lines. Splinters cut open his palm, and blood mixes with the slime, adding its color to the image of a boat. Their artwork shrieking a bloody cry of decay and dissolution in the Last Village, they row away.
The dream pulls away from the siblings to circle the tree's moldering corpse. Other stains of blood and muck and long-rotted vegetation mark the carvings, fading with age until they blend with the earlier works, each one a cry out of the long, lingering years of the city's death.
The dream ends as all dreams do: into another.
This story originally appeared in Penumbra.