The Sockdolager

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from the Summer 2017 collection

Fire Rode the Cold Wind

by Aimee Ogden

The brown woman came to Vrau from the sky, without a name of her own.

Piarcu knew that she was nameless, even though the women of his family only whispered it when they thought no one else could hear. It was they who had cared for her when her metal cage crashed down into the ice, they who had peeled her out of her prison and stripped her out of her strange silver suit and dressed her wounds. It was they who had seen her flesh bare of fur or wool, and noted the lack of name marked there.

Not that they would have dared to read that name, if their eyes had fallen on it. They were practiced in the healing arts, and healers did not linger on their patients’ most intimate matters. They took from her empty cups of spineweed tea and used bandages, not her privacy. Piarcu’s mind lingered there, though. He found himself thinking of the stranger’s unmarked skin, more often than he should: found himself distracted at land, at sea, stripped down to his leggings in preparation for a shellstar dive and seized with the notion that he might be the one to press his needleknife to her flesh and offer her the gift of a true name.

For her part, she did not seem concerned about her lack of name. When Piarcu visited her shelter, erected with ice in the lee of her shattered cage and lined with furs and blankets offered by the generous Vrauam, she only ever laughed and said, “My name is Isro Bascardan! That’s name enough for anyone, don’t you think?” And he did not know how to make her see that a use-name was not enough to have, no more than a man could say he had a coat and so had no need of his skin.

She did not understand him, and he understood even less of her. From which pillar in the firmament had her metal cage hung? Why was her skin so dark, when skin should be as white as ice, as white as the deepwhale furs that the Vrauam wore? How did people live in the sky, where deepwhales did not swim and shellstars did not grow? Why did her words bend so strangely in her mouth, barely wrapped around the frames of the sounds familiar and comfortable to Piarcu? He huddled close by in the shelter the Vrauam had built her, and he watched as she went about her day.

Isro did not hunt or gather; her food came from silver-wrapped packages in the belly of her cage, from bottles of tiny white and brown and yellow pellets that she swallowed with a gulp of water and a grimace. The food had strange names, too: “Vitamin D,” she called one pellet, and “hydrolyzed protein” was another. Piarcu brought her deepwhale steaks and shellstars when he could, and continued even after he found a pile of unopened shellstars discarded a discreet distance from her shelter one day. He was too embarrassed to cease his deliveries, to acknowledge that tiny intrusion into her private thoughts.

* * *

Piarcu’s brother, Luadru, urged Piarcu to stop visiting Isro altogether. “She comes from nowhere, contributes nothing, is no one,” Luadru said. Luadru knew, too, that the woman from the sky had no true name, but the idea of offering her one did not seem to have occurred to him as it had to Piarcu. “She’s trouble, and while you listen to her madwoman stories, you grow thin enough to slip through a crack in the ice! Once we would have put people like her off on a boat and sent her off alone to keep her from infecting the whole village. And all you can think about are her fingers on your name!”

Luadru’s crude mention of Piarcu’s name made Piarcu flush. But his brother was right that Piarcu had not been out gathering as often since the cage crashed to the ice. Time spent in Isro’s shelter was time not spent diving. So he invited her to join him in his gatherwood boat, and she accepted, and with the way his heart thrashed inside its cage of ribs he wondered how long she had survived all alone in her silver sky-prison.

When they went out, she wrapped herself warmly in loaned furs and hunched close to the fire that Piarcu stoked in the cement pit at the heart of the gatherwood boat. Piarcu paddled with the wind in his face, and the wind carried Isro’s words to him. With her words, she shaped the world as she had seen it from her home in the sky. Like the accent that stretched her mouth, the world as she drew it was bent at right angles from what Piarcu knew. But the shape of it was fascinating even though it was askew, or because it was.

“I never knew that people lived this far south,” she said, with her arms wrapped around her knees. “I don’t know if anyone knew. The Vrauam live so small, there’s no footprint for us to see from the Habs.” A tiny shrug changed the shape of her deepwhale wrap. “There’s not many people between here and the Equator—not much warmer in the middlelands, and you don’t get the deepwhales up there like you do here. Hard living.” A puff of breath blows white and swirling from her lips. “The Equator’s a little warmer. There’s almost a summer there. The cities are packed full though. Or that’s what I hear, at least! I’ve never been planetside before.” And she squinted up into the gray cloudless sky, with the yellow light of the fire lighting the shifting planes of her face.

Piarcu didn’t know what so many of those words meant: Equator, planetside, middleland. He said, “We’re here,” and he pulled up the oars.

“We are?” She straightened up, looked at the frosty crust of shoreline that loomed just an arm’s-reach out from the boat, out and up over their heads. “The shellstars grow up there? How are you going to get all the way up?”

Piarcu shook his head, and found himself grinning. He stood up, making the boat rock gently; Isro yelped and grabbed tightly to both sides. He disrobed, down to his leggings, and felt the closeness of the fire on the insides of his calves. Not the only fire, either: inside his leggings, he felt the throb of his name, inscribed secretly on the inside of his thigh. Only his grandfather had ever seen his name, and his grandfather was gone now. How he wanted to Isro to see it, to touch it, to know its shape. He smiled at her, more shyly now, and shrugged his shoulders. “Not up. Down.”

“Down!” she echoed in dismay, and he braced one foot on the side of the boat before dropping down into the still cold waters.

The chill of the water drove the air out of his lungs as it always did. But he worked fast, carving shellstars free of their rocky perch beneath the water line with his knife as a lever. When he had filled his basket, he kicked his way to the surface, where the cold air broke over his face like a shattering ice floe.

Isro stifled a scream at the sight of him, and sat back as he scrambled back into the boat. “Down indeed,” she said, her voice breathless but more composed now, as he turned his back to shrug into his woven shirt and peel off his wet leggings. For a moment, beneath the hem of the shirt, his name was bare to the cold air. He caught his breath, then stepped into a dry pair of leggings and shrugged back into his coat. “You’re a madman.”

“Not so mad as to live in the sky.” He liked it when she told him of her sky home, but he liked showing her his world, too. Especially when he could surprise her. “Don’t you like it down here on the ground? If the gods wanted humans to live like birds in the sky, he would have given us wings.”

She broke her gaze when he settled back into his seat across from the fire. The licking flames felt good on his face and on his hands. “If they wanted us to live on the ice, why didn’t they give us fur?”

“They gave us the deepwhales,” said Piarcu, but still she stared out, unblinking, over the gray fathomless sea. He put his hands on the oars, adjusted them. Not quite willing to break up this moment yet with the splash of wood through water. He felt the pangs of her sadness on his face, as if they were buoyed up to him on the smoke rolling off the fire. He felt close to her, closer out here under the endless shell of the sky and the wide-open ocean, than he ever had in the small space of her shelter. Her lips parted, and he leaned in closer to the fire to hear what truth she held on her tongue.

“I can’t stay here forever,” she said. “You know that, don’t you? After I fix my escape pod, I have to get back to my Hab. Or at least to one of the Equator towns, someone who’s still got a radio good enough to talk to the habitats. I have to make them listen. If Beniron is desperate enough to cram me in a pod to shut me up, things must be even worse than I thought.”

He knew that she wanted to return, yes, but he didn’t understand it. Why go back to the people who locked her into her cage in the first place? “You don’t have to help them,” he said, and then it was his turn to duck his head, to stare down at the ashes that lined the bottom of the fire pit. “You could be Vrauam. I’d speak for you. Others would, too.” And I could give you your name, he didn’t add. He would like to give it, and that would be enough, just to know it once and hide it away in his heart forever. It would be better if it could be more than that, but that would be enough, yes.

“I do have to help them. The solar engines are dying, Piarcu, and no one but the Gov knows.” She reached across the small hot space between them, put her hand on his knee. “Imagine if something was coming that would kill all the Vrauam. A—a giant wave out of the ocean. An endless ice storm. You would do something, wouldn’t you?”

“Of course.” The Vrauam had given him life, given him a name. He was Vrauam, and they were him. “But they have never betrayed or abandoned me.”

Her hand tightened on his knee, then withdrew. “And when I abandon you,” she said, “what will you think of me then?” She folded her arms across her chest and leaned away from the wind.

The tiny bubble of the world that they had shared burst around them. Now Piarcu felt the vast emptiness of the sky and sea where before there had been only warm proximity. He closed his hands around the oars again, adjusted his grip. He bent his head low and began to paddle them homeward. When he next glanced up at Isro, silent tears had painted tracks on her face. He could not bear to see her sorrow, so he said, as if he had not seen, “Tell me again about the Hab. Tell me what it’s like to live in the sky.”

So she did, sang him the songs of the sky-people, painted him pictures of their strange lean food and their beautiful rainbows of skin and eyes and hair, their sunless days and moonless nights. He listened as he always did, but with each dip of the oars, he imagined her back in her silver cage, sinking slowly away from him beneath the sea’s surface.

* * *

Isro came to the last night of the Twelveday Festival, even though she told Piarcu privately that she did not particularly care for the idea of it.

The festival had stoked itself slowly over the past weeks: the Vrauam had little cause for frivolity and so the nearly two full weeks of daylight drew it from them slowly, like a leaking waterskin. For the first few days, there were small family gatherings under the midnight sunshine, where large meals were enjoyed and familiar stories unpacked and shared and put away again for the next year. On Sevennight it was customary to leave small gifts for the children of former lovers, but Piarcu had none of those—children nor lovers either. Quiet celebrations, these, to stoke the fire gently. It was only on the last three nights did the Vrauam come out of their caves and dance wild and carefree on the ice, only then did they drink enough sweetsap liquor to kiss the brightly-burning sun all night long.

And only on the last brightly-lit night did Isro creep out to join them. She did not dance to the frantic beat of the deepwhale strings and the hornfish pipes, and Piarcu did not ask her to. But she sipped the sweetsap that had fermented over crushed seeds the size of Piarcu’s fist all spring long, and she sat with him, arm against arm, to watch the Vrauam celebrate. They must not celebrate such festivals up in the stars, Piarcu thought, where it was never dark for only twelve days, but for all times, day and night alike. When she asked, he explained to her the meaning of a song, the symbolism in a turn of phrase or a particular dance-pattern.

The music grew only more frantic as the sun sank slowly toward the horizon, and the joy of it plucked at his heart and his feet alike. But Isro’s frown set deeper and deeper, and no touch could play the music in his heart like hers in any case. He knew there was no mischief he could offer that would make her smile now, though he did not know the cause for her sorrow. So instead he offered her the shelter of his arm, and she leaned into him gladly, and when at last the sun’s gleaming disk shattered on the horizon, she turned her face into his shoulder. “I don’t understand it,” she said, “how anyone would want to celebrate night coming back.”

“How can someone who lives up among the stars hate the darkness so?” Piarcu asked, and then felt the shabbiness of that question. He said, before she could answer. “Don’t worry. The sun won’t stray far tonight, and she’ll be back in only a few hours.”

“I know,” said Isro, but she leaned into his shoulder, and he could not see whether she smiled. He thought about telling her about how they would celebrate Twelvenights, come the autumn, but a force he could not name stilled his lips.

* * *

Luadru asked for his help clearing debris after a cave collapse—not a family’s residence, fortunately, but one that held the mouth of a freshwater melt. There were few enough of those, and Piarcu was glad to bend his back to help open the way. Luadru listened, while they worked; he was almost always silent while he worked. But Piarcu spilled words like he spilled sweat, unable to contain the stories of Isro’s cities in the sky, of places in the world where the ice melted during the sunny season.

Luadru absorbed all this without comment. He and Piarcu were name-brothers as well as blood-brothers, as their mother’s father had inscribed upon each of them their true names. With their lives so closely bound up together, Piarcu knew that if he could only find the right words, Luadru would understand the feelings lurking in the shelter of his soul. When they had levered away the last big rocks, Piarcu said, reaching for that understanding, “And she thinks she can go back there. That she should.”

And that made Luadru look up. “If she can,” he said, “why wouldn’t she? If the sky swallowed you up, wouldn’t you look back in longing at the ice?” He grunted, and bent for the deepwhale bone lever. “Or maybe you wouldn’t miss us at all. Your head’s in the sky as it is already. Why not have the rest of you there along with it?” Piarcu opened his mouth to protest, but Luadru cut him off with an order to go check the roof of the cave for further structural damage.

Unshed tears burned hotly in his eyes, but he examined the cave carefully through that blurry sheen, and reported its soundness back to Luadru.

* * *

For three days, Piarcu built a wall around himself. Its bricks were Isro’s betrayal, her ability to experience life on the ice and reject it; its mortar was Luadru’s cold dismissal. He scavenged, he hunted, he ate, he slept, but he did not leave the shelter of his cave to seek out other company.

On the fourth day, company came to him instead. Isro’s voice, echoing to him through a dream of broken wings and shattered spheres; but the voice came from the waking world and not the sleeping one, and it drew him slowly up and out from the nightmare. He sat up, shoulders heaving, in the warmth of his deepwhale-skin pallet and found her standing over him. “This is your home?” she asked, and cast her face upward. The light from the moss on the walls painted her face in shades of blue and green. “It’s lovely.”

His home was a hole in the ground with little more than a fire pit, a smoke hole, and a disheveled bed. But he muttered the ritual invitation for entry, albeit late, with her already inside.

“I didn’t mean to wake you,” she said, and sat beside him atop the bedroll. Beneath the fold of deepwhale skin, his naked name sang with the nearness of her. “But I needed to see you.”

He had needed to see her too. The days without her had dulled his senses, had invited in the cold. He asked her to turn aside so he could dress, though he hated to cover his name with rough leggings instead of her hand, and when he was properly attired he hurried to throw another load of chips on the fire. Then he could offer her the appropriate things that a host offered his guest: the place closest to the fire, a bone cup of hot spineweed tea that he fumbled to get brewing. Finally he dropped to sit across from her, and turned his face up toward hers like spineweed seeking the sun.

But there was no joy waiting there for him. Her hair had grown longer during her time in Vrau, but it was still not long enough for her to hide behind. She brushed it back from her brow and said, with the fire dancing in her eyes, “I’m leaving, Piarcu. My pod is ready and I need to go. Before the solar engines fail.”

“You came to tell me goodbye,” he said, and his hands fell open on his lap.

“No,” she said. “I’m asking you if you want to come with me.”

The ceiling blasted off of Piarcu’s cave. He spun, dizzy with greed for the unreachable skies. To touch a star. To fly like a bird.

To live a short sheltered life in the walls of a lovely silver cage. Or for that cage to fall once more from the sky, this time to shatter on the ice, or plunge unseen and unmissed beneath the waves. He swallowed, and his last meal—when was that?—lurched unevenly in his belly. He could not say no, and he could not ask her to stay, not with the fierce fire burning in her eyes, so he said instead, “Let me give you something before you go.”

When he asked her to take off her heavy outer garments, she did, and did not hesitate. No time now to marvel at the long lines of her legs, the curve of her breasts beneath their band. His duty here was a sacred one. She lay back on the deepwhale pallet, where he indicated, and he took a deep breath. “What is your name?” he asked.

“My name—?” Clarity chased confusion off her face. She lay her head back and stared at the softly glowing wall. A slow breath escaped her, and she drew her legs closer together, closer to her hips. “I don’t know. I don’t know, Piarcu. How do you choose? How did you choose?”

He thought back to his own naming day, felt again the sting of salt tears in his eyes, the thrill and fear of the needleknife against his flesh. A long name, many letters, a great deal of ink. “I chose what I wanted to be,” he said, and it was true, and it was the opposite of the choice he had made today. To be safe, instead of to be what he wanted to be: hers.

“Then,” she said, “I would like to be called Hero.”

He asked her where, and she paused, then rolled down the top of her leggings a few inches to bare the hollow of her hip. He found his needleknife, and filled it with spineweed ink, and tested its sharpness. When he looked at her, she jerked her head in affirmation. He put the needleknife to her skin.

Like a Vrauam youth, she did not cry out or flinch away from the press of the knife. He inscribed the letters as gently as he could, though he could see the tight cords in her neck, and the tendons stood out in her hands as she grasped at the bedcovers. When he was done, he sat back on his heels, and looked over his work. Fine even letters, a uniform color. Good. She deserved the best.

She started to sit up, for she must have wanted to see it too, but he caught her shoulder in one hand. “Wait,” he said, and his voice trembled. It didn’t matter; in that moment, in the nearness of her, he had forgotten how to be embarrassed. “I would like to … may I touch your name?”

She stared at him, her short dark hair sprayed against the white of the pallet. She jerked her head again. A nod. Piarcu closed his eyes against tears and brought his lips to the red tender flesh. A hiss of breath from her brought his head up, but her hands ran down along the line of his neck to his shoulders. “It’s all right,” she said, but she was crying. “It’s all right.” She pulled him down to her, rolled with him between the soft folds of the deepwhale pallet, guided his hands over her, drew him into her.

* * *

When he woke in the morning, she had nearly finished dressing. She turned to him with a brittle smile. “Good morning. I really should go—I meant to leave last night, but—” Her arms fell to her sides. “Thank you, Piarcu. For everything.”

Under the blanket, his hand went to his name. She never reached for it last night, never even asked what it was. He said, “I hope that cage can never hold you. I hope you save the people you want to save.” The people who did not care to save you, he did not add.

“Thank you,” she said again, and turned to go. She paused in the entry of the cave, and looked back. “And I meant to say last night, before—everything—that you should thank your brother for me.”

“Thank Luadru?” he echoed, and she smiled at him, a smile that made him ache from his name all the way through him.

“Yes, for the … what was it? Shellstar cement. He said it might patch the weak spots in the frame, and it’s holding beautifully. Just the thing.” Her brilliant smile faded. She must have remembered why she came here in the first place. “Well. Goodbye, Piarcu.”

“Goodbye, Hero,” he said, and that word shattered her smile into kindling for the fire in her face. She ducked her head, and disappeared from the cave.

When she had gone, Piarcu dressed, then moved out onto the roof of the cave. While he waited, he refilled the needleknife, and sharpened it afresh. Nothing but time now.

He saw the cage before he heard the boom, saw it buoyed skyward on a streak of fire that rode the cold wind. His chin lifted as he watched it arc overhead on a northerly bent. Headed for that Equator of hers, he supposed. Headed for the heavens, one stop at a time.

When he could not longer make out the tiny spark that settled over the horizon, he tugged at the hem of his overcoat and peeled up the hem of his leggings so that they rolled up, past his knee, up to the very edge of his name. He bit his tongue, and set to work with the needleknife, though his eyes prickled. This work would not be so fine as what he had offered to Isro, of course. He added letters here, added strokes to old ones that changed their meaning as well as their shape.

He admired his handiwork when he was finished. A nonsense word, an unintelligible syllable. Crookedly drawn, but in his eyes, perfect. Isro would never know his name now. Only fitting then, that his name should be one that no one else would ever have seen. He was not the same person now that he had been when his grandfather gave him his first name, after all. He would never be that man again, and did not want to be. Better to shed that name like an outgrown coat, like a dulled knife.

He pulled his leggings down, fixed the drape of his coat. His eyes were dry; the sky was clear. The larder was empty, and it was a good day for shellstar diving.

Aimee Ogden is a former science teacher and software tester. Now she writes stories about sad astronauts and angry princesses.