By Helen Keeble
7 April 2008
From the time my twin brother and I were four, our mother only gave us raw food. Before then I can remember sometimes eating cold, cooked things—porridge congealed onto the bottom of my bowl, soups with a white floating scum of fats—but that stopped after our fourth birthday, when my brother laughed and said "Hot!" as he tasted the cake that my mother had spent an hour baking and three days cooling. She whipped him for that, while I howled and hung onto her arm, and sent us both to our beds in the cowshed. Later she came out with two handfuls of dried apricots and hugged us in the dark, her great rough hands pressing our faces against her chest—but the next day there was only raw food for dinner, withered apples and sliced turnip, and the day after that, and the day after that.
The next time our birthday came round, I whined for a cake, but she said we could only have one if my brother would blow out a candle. For me, he tried, drawing in huge breath after huge breath while I gripped his crippled hand under the table, squeezing encouragement; but each lungful of air trickled out unused as he stared rapt at the flickering light. My mother sat opposite us, expressionless and still, the flame reflected in her eyes. The candle burned down to a melted pool of wax and went out. My mother never made another cake. I never saw her cook anything ever again.>
I tried to run away with my brother back to our father's house, once. I knew the way; our mother had often taken me there, always locking my brother in the root cellar at home first. She never came all the way up to the door of the farm, being divorced from my father, but one of my big sisters would be idling by the end of the lane, as though just enjoying the air, and would nod to us as we approached. "On the way to market, Ma?" the sister would say, and my mother would nod. "Why don't I just take Jessa back to see Pa for a bit, then?" And she'd lead me away down the road to the big, low building, where there might be pear pie steaming on the table, and thyme-roasted chicken with hot juices leaking out from under crisp golden skin, and potatoes cooked in goose fat, and my father sitting at the end of the table waiting for me with a plate heaped high.
The first time I remember going to my father's farm, it was winter. The last meal I had eaten had been carrots frozen hard, frost covering the skins like ground glass. Walking into the warm smells of my father's kitchen was like stepping into a story, with princes and rubies. I burned my mouth, eating so fast; but I saved half of everything on my plate, and asked for a cloth to wrap it up in. There was a little silence after my words. My sisters looked at my father with their forks frozen halfway to their mouths. He put his own fork down, and said, very gently, "You can't take it back with you, lovie. Eat it here." Then I understood, and I pushed my plate away. On every subsequent visit I went hungry, the food cooling before me while my sisters cajoled and my father sat in silence.
I thought that maybe if our father saw my brother, he'd love him. My brother was reluctant, when I first proposed the plan. He shook his head, dulled black eyes wide in his thin, frozen face, and I knew that he was thinking of our mother's words—that if anyone ever saw him, anyone, even for a moment, they'd take him away, and he'd never see any of us again. But I made up a story about a wicked queen who hid her newborn baby under a pillow and showed the king a monstrous bloated toad instead, so that the king recoiled and said he never wanted to see his son again, and the wicked queen locked the baby in a hole and fed him on rats, until one day. . . . So I persuaded and we planned, and one day when we were meant to be collecting walnuts for winter we took each other's hands and ran and ran, down the track and down the road and over the hill and up the lane to the whitewashed door—
Our eldest sister screamed when she saw my brother standing there, which brought my father to the door. When he saw us, he doubled over as though rifle-shot in the gut, his face white behind his beard. I nudged my brother—we'd rehearsed this, he was to step forward and hold up his hand—not the twisted hand, just the good hand—and say "Papa!" in his clearest, happiest voice—but he had frozen in place, his whole body canted forward like a hunting cat, and his eyes fixed on the smouldering embers in the fireplace just visible behind our father's folded form. It was the first fire he'd seen for years.
They took my brother back to our mother's cottage, of course. He never set foot in our father's house. They tried to keep me there, my sisters holding down my flailing body until I choked on my tears, then stroking my hair and promising me dresses, ribbons, a pet lamb—but they put me to bed in a room with a window, and I broke the glass and ran back to my brother, without a pause, through the briars and the night back to the homely stink of the cows, and my brother's hot fingers clutching at mine.
After that I didn't go back to our father, and our mother kept us close as tethered goats. Even at night, when she could have stayed in the cottage next to the warm, wide iron range that my brother was forbidden to ever see, she was more often than not under the bearskins in the cowshed with us, passing out nuts dipped in honey and telling us stories. She told marvellous stories. When she was there, a voice in the dark, even I had to love her, as passionately as I hated her in the light. Her favourite story was about the boy who was too curious, and kept putting his hand in the fire, until the Red Men who lived up the chimney reached down and grabbed him. I remember that the first few times she told us this the Red Men burned the boy up into a cinder, but then after my brother had asked for the same story three nights in a row, it changed so that the Red Men drowned the boy in the icy well. After that my brother didn't ask for that story anymore, but she still told it to us.
When she wasn't there—on the nights with no moon, when we weren't supposed to know that our father stole through the woods to tap at her door—my brother and I made up our own stories, trading sentences back and forth. When it was my turn to add something, I'd put in princes and manticores, talking cats and feral unicorns, all copied from our mother's tales; but I liked best to listen to my brother. I would hang onto his words in the dark, listening to his soft voice breathing life into dragons, and phoenixes, and creatures with burning eyes that left scorched air in their wake. I never understood, back then, how he could conjure such things from his own mind, our narrow life; I knew they didn't come from our mother's stories. All her tales were of water, or ice.
The stream that ran behind our cottage ran through many of her stories, as a place of silver wonder and bright, clever fish. In reality it was always bitterly cold, and stained murky brown with peat. She tried to entice us to play in it, with gifts of paper boats and red fishing nets—but although I would have gladly splashed around with these toys, my brother scorned them, and the stream, so I had to as well. The only time he would go into the water was when our mother made him, for washing. She only made me wash in it once a week, and I always yelled and fought under the freezing, rasping washcloth, while she swore at me and shouted that I could always just run back to my father if I didn't like it; but she washed my brother every night, and he never fought her like I did. He stood still, still as a mouse in the hawk's shadow, his eyes glassy and his breath coming in shallow, desperate pants as the water ran over his skin, and she touched him gently, as though he were hollow, and might crumble into ash.
She was bathing him that night—the two of them thigh-deep in the stream, me on the bank trying to distract him from the water's icy trickle with prattle about our new kittens—the night the raiders came. The first my mother and I knew of it was when my brother's breath stopped, and his head twisted like an owl's to stare down the road. Then, "Fire," he said.
I gasped as though slapped—that was the most forbidden word of all—and my mother raised her hand. A sharp crack split the air, and I thought at first she'd hit him; but her hand was still poised in the darkening air when the crackle of rifle-fire came again, echoing from the hills.
"Jessa," our mother said to me, her eyes fixed on the horizon. She thrust my brother out of the water and at me—gently, she was always gentle with him, when she wasn't beating him. "Come and help me, now." Though my brother and I were the same age, it was always understood that I was the older, and he was the baby. "Come, hurry!" Her long skirt came down from its knots and tangled against her long wet legs as she strode to the cottage.
My brother's skin was cold and damp, but I could feel his usual warmth starting to rise as I helped him into his clothes. Hand-in-hand, we stumbled towards the cottage. We both hesitated at the threshhold, glancing wide-eyed at each other. He was not allowed in the cottage, not ever, not since the day our mother had found him curled in the unlit fireplace, his hands pressed to the ash-covered stone. "Mama—" I started, bewildered.
"Take this." She thrust a sack of apples at me, throwing in nuts and honey and some air-dried meat. "And this, and one for you too." These were the two sharpest cleavers from the kitchen. My brother fumbled with his, dropped it from his shaking hand, and nearly took off my toes. "Pick it up!" our mother snarled. "If someone comes at you, I want you to aim for their throat, understand? Practise, Jessa, show me." I swung the bright edge of steel, hesitant. "Good. Jennet, pick it up!"
"I don't want it," he said. His hand burned in mine. "I don't need it."
She backhanded him as she passed, snapping his head back, the same vicious slap she used when he rubbed his thumb over his burned palm, or stared too long at the sun, or shied away from the stream. "Do as I say!" She had taken the key out from its chain around her neck, and was unlocking the forbidden trunk, the one that even I had never dared to lay a finger on. From it—casting a sideways glance at my brother—she took out the lantern, two flasks of oil, and a folded book of matches, immediately tucking them all away out of sight in another sack. "Listen to me now," she said, turning to take down the shrivebow from its hooks above the door. "We're going to go hide in the woods. You'll have to be quick, and quiet, and do exactly what I say." The crank of the weapon creaked as she wound it, fumbling in her haste. Her hands shook as she thumbed off the safety.
"They have guns," my brother said.
"I can hear that!" she snapped back, herding us out the door. "Now be sil—"
"I can see them," he interrupted.
"Where?" I spun, dragging him round with me, preparing to fling us both to the ground and cover his body—
He turned his head to meet my wild gaze. His own eyes, usually dull, were fever-bright. "I'm there, Jessa," he whispered. "I'm in the guns, when they fire, and in their hands. I'm crawling over the roofs." Our mother whirled on him, hand raised, face white with terror—but before the blow could land, my brother cried out, his hand clenching on mine, grinding the bones together so that I cried out too. "Eating the beams!" he said, his voice gone cracking and strange. He let go of my hand, flinging up his arms as though blocking a blow. "Down, rushing, weight, burning, the hair, their skin, it catches—Papa, Jaini, Seria! Mama!"
At the sound of our sisters' names, our mother had jerked like a hooked fish. She stared at my brother for a moment, whites showing all round her eyes; looked down the road; looked back at us. Then, "Jessa," she said, dropping everything but the shrivebow, cradling the weapon in suddenly steady hands, "look after your brother." And she was gone, her long legs devouring the road as she ran towards the orange glow in the distance, and our father's farm.
My brother's hands were clenched on empty air, half-raised. He stared through me into some other place. "Ice," he said. "Must be ice. Stay cold, don't burn them." His breath came in shallow, quick gasps. "Stop it. Ice!"
I looked down at the sack she had dropped, spilling open in the road. Oil, and matches. I thought of our mother's repeated warnings, of the utter deadliness of fire; I thought of my sisters' soft hands, and my father's eyes, dark as my brother's. I thought of oil hitting an invader in the face, and the arc of a burning match.
I snatched up the sack and my brother's hand, dragging him after our mother. He stumbled in my wake, still mumbling broken words about water and snow. Gunshots cracked in the distance, and again; I found myself holding my breath, trying to hear the shrivebow's near-silent thrum. My brother's hand slipped and slid in my grip, oddly cool and clammy, but I held tight, and ran, until we finally rounded the last bend and saw the blaze of the thatch, and the heat-distorted silhouettes before it.
I later found out that they were deserters from an enemy unit, men who'd fled their unit when confronted by our own Fourth Fire Division. Understandable—they were riflemen, armed to face only ordinary soldiers, and for them to have continued to press the assault as ordered by their commanders would only have meant their deaths. But their empty stomachs must have been sour with shame at having cut and run. They could have slipped around our remote hamlet, continuing to run for the border—but easier for shame to turn to anger, and hatred, and desire for revenge. And they were hungry. They were just men.
But to my nine-year-old eyes they were demons from my mother's tales, huge and terrible in front of the flames of my father's house. Four limp forms lay sprawled in the dirt, blood pooling around them; the discarded shrivebow lay on the ground, all of its sharp steel discs spent. They had our mother on her knees, a bayonet at her throat, silhouetted in the fierce orange light. The men seemed curiously uneasy, uncertain; like a pack of excited dogs unexpectedly confronted with a tortoise. Their lit torches hung low from their hands, their guns slung over their shoulders, forgotten. Every now and then one would start forward, then quickly draw back again as though losing courage. One of the men bent down to seize our mother's hair, drawing her head back, and over his stooped form I saw what the men were watching, what was in the front room of the farmhouse, exposed by the half-fallen wall.
Flames haloed my father's slumped form, eating the timber inches away from his skin but coming no closer. He was pinned to the far wall by two bayonet blades, through shoulder and hip. My sisters clung to his sides, cutting their hands on the blades as they tried frantically to free him. The ends of their hair waved in the heat, untouched by the fire. A chunk of burning thatch fell onto their heads, and went out as though it had fallen into water.
"Ice," hissed my brother, through gritted teeth. "Be ice, be water, be cold."
The man holding my mother's hair was shouting at her now, his body one tight line of fear and anger. He wrenched her head around, forcing her to look into the burning room, and shook her as though demanding an explanation. If she said anything, it wasn't the right answer; he dragged her head back further, exposing the long line of her neck to the blade. I grabbed for one of my oil flasks, winding back my arm—but he was far too far away; my range was even shorter than the shrivebow's. I started to dash forward, but stumbled as my brother dug in his heels. I whirled on him in fury, my fingers clenched too hard with terror to let go. "Jennet!"
"I can't!" His face was white as snow, and the fire reflected in his eyes. "I can't go closer, I'll melt, I'll lose it, I can't!"
I looked at the flames dancing in his black eyes, and understood what he was doing. "Move the flames," I whispered. My hand crushed his. "Burn them!"
He shook his head, his hand shaking in my own. "I tried, I can't, I'm too cold! I can only stop it, Jessa, I'm ice, I'm so cold—"
I smashed the oil flask into my brother's shoulder. As the fluid started to trickle down his shoulder, I dropped his hand. As he turned to me, mouth opening in bewilderment, I took out the book of matches.
I wish, and will wish until my last breath, that our mother hadn't turned round then, or that I hadn't looked back at her. But she did, and I did, and so I will forever bear the memory of her face as I dropped the lit match onto my brother's oil-soaked skin.
He made a single, soft sound as the fire caught in his flesh—a tiny indrawn breath. With that sound, every torch the men were holding stopped for a moment, the flames perfectly still; then, smooth as thought, they slipped backwards down the wood, onto the men's hands, up their sleeves, down their sides and—just as the men started to open their hands, to shout, to panic—crept into their ammunition pouches.
The flames went up beautifully, luminous clear orange flares against the darker, roiling reds of the burning house, and I felt an answering bright, fierce joy as they surged. I'd expected the riflemen to catch like dry leaves and be nothing more than sparks on the night—but the black powder just leaped high into flame and was gone, leaving the men behind; scorched and bloodied and panicked, but still there. Some rolled on the ground, trying to put out their clothing, but most were fleeing, scattering in all directions, no threat now. And my brother was burning.
"More!" I shouted, hungry as the fire. "Get them, Jennet!"
His eyes were bright through the flames eating his arm. He stretched his spine upwards, rolling his shoulders, and the fire of the burning house rolled upwards too, like a waking cat sitting up on a cushion. The fire shook itself, bits of burning material flinging outwards in all directions, unerringly hitting each and every rifleman. Now they burned as I'd imagined, like my brother's stories, like my brother himself, glorious flame-figures trailing brightness and smoke across the dark until they collapsed, spent, into piles of blackened sticks.
And then our mother was there, knocking me aside and bearing my brother to the ground, rolling him over and over to smother his flames with her own flesh.
The house-fire, the corpses, the trees, my brother—everything went out all at once, instantly, as if the night had solidified into black ice. I froze where I lay, vision still filled with afterimages of fire. Next to me, I heard our mother's harsh breathing, and the soft, broken sound of my brother sobbing. He'd never cried before.
It took hours for his tears and shaking to cease, though to me it felt like years; nine years worth of weeping, all at once. "Go, now," he said, when he found his voice again. "Jessa, we have to go. Run. They're coming now, they know, they're coming to take me away!"
I thought he meant the raiders, and I stroked his back and told him that they were all gone, that he'd burned up every last one, that he was brave and good and fierce and I loved him. Our mother would have understood him. But she was busy tending to my father and sisters, and didn't hear. So we were still there when the sun rose, and the Fourth Fire Division rode in.
I felt my brother jerk and tremble by my side long before they arrived. He knew, of course, just as they must have known—even miles away—the instant I dropped that match. They must have saddled up that moment, and ridden hard through the night to find us.
All I knew at the time was that the yard was suddenly full of towering, sweating, stinking beasts, lather flecking the edges of their bits, red-coated riders so high in the air I could only see the bottoms of their boots. Terror surged me to my feet, my hand clamping tight on my brother's, drawing him closer—though whether to protect, or for protection, I didn't know. Then our mother's shadow fell across us, as she poised herself between us and the horsemen. Looking at her straight back and shoulders, I was reminded of her kneeling in the dirt, the bayonet blade at her neck.
"They've come for me," my brother said into my ear. "They're going to take me away, like Mama said they would."
Our mother was speaking to the red-uniformed captain, her tone never changing as she went from describing the attackers to outright lies about driving them away. I don't remember what she said. All I can remember is a strange roaring sound in my ears, an emptiness, and the feel of my brother's hot fingers under mine.
I remember the sound the captain's boots made as they hit the scorched ground, quite clearly—the puff of ash, and the flash of his spurs. Ignoring our mother, he crouched down to put himself on eye level with us. He had a kind face. "Hello," he said, looking first at my brother, then at me. "I'm Captain Thale."
I glowered at him; my brother never raised his eyes from the ash.
"They're just children," our mother said, from behind the captain. She had her shrivebow in her hands, despite the fact that the cartridge was spent; a number of the soldiers were watching her very closely. "They're still scared half to death."
Captain Thale's gaze moved over the raw, blistered flesh of my brother's shoulder. "And he was injured in the attack, hm?"
"Yes," said our mother, clipped, precise.
The captain reached out and took my brother's other hand. My brother didn't react, letting the man turn the hand over to display the twisted fingers and old, knotted scar tissue. "And what about this?"
"I burned it," whispered my brother.
"An accident as a baby," our mother said. "He put his hand on the fire-grate."
Captain Thale looked back at her, his eyes cool. "And he didn't take it off again, did he?"
She met his stare, and didn't answer.
From the midst of the throng of soldiers came a dry, harsh sound, like the rush of wind through flames. It took me a moment to recognise that it was a voice, speaking; words nearly destroyed, but just understandable. "Is. No doubt."
Thale raised his voice a little, though his eyes didn't leave my mother's. "Lieutenant Keniar, if you and your sister would be so kind . . . ?"
A young man slid off his horse, then turned to lift something down from the saddlebow. The horses danced aside from him as he came forward, laying their ears back and shying despite their riders' efforts to control them. The man was carrying a girl, her body shrouded in sackcloth, her arms wrapped around his neck. Her face was half-turned away, so all I could see was her profile, but she looked to be only a few years older than myself, though as slight as a child half that age.
Then she turned her head, and I saw the other side of her face: black, soot-covered bone; black, empty socket; white, grinning teeth.
"Brother," she said, to my brother. Skin and muscles twisted unnaturally when she spoke. The line between ruin and whole ran sharp down forehead and nose and chin, precisely bisecting her face. "Am Fuel, brother. Know you." She unwrapped one arm from around her bearer's neck—a blackened arm, burnt down to twisted scraps of flesh, though her other was whole, perfect—and held out a skeletal hand to my brother. "Come now."
I thrust myself in front of my brother, blocking the horror from him. "You stay away!" I cried at her, my hands clenched into fists. "Go away! I'll—we'll burn you all up, if you come closer!"
The young man carrying the thing looked at me; the blue eye and the empty socket looked at me. He shook his head slightly, and looked away; but Fuel let out a delighted crackle of laughter. "Fire's sister!" she said to me approvingly, and then, to my brother, "Won't douse you, that one."
I could feel my brother hot at my back, as though I stood once more in front of the burning house. His arms closed around me as fiercely as if he were drowning. "Ice," he said, into my hair, his voice shaking. "I'm ice, I'm ice, Jessa—"
"Can't you see he's terrified of it?" Our mother took a step forward, her own hands clenched like mine, her body as rigid as mine. She stopped at the soft, subtle movement of dozens of hands tightening on shrivebows or spears, but fury still lanced from her. "He's not what you think, look!"
"I won't let you take him away from me!" I shrieked, at Fuel, at Thale, at the soldiers, everyone.
Captain Thale looked at me in surprise. "You'll come with us too, of course."
My brother's breath stilled on the back of my neck.
"No!" our mother shouted.
Fuel looked at her, half-face drawing back into a twisted snarl of revulsion. Embers flared along the sackcloth robes, hissing. The young man carrying her said something into her ear, and she subsided again, embers dying down.
My brother came forward to my side, his hand slipping into mine. "Jessa will be with me? Always?"
"Always," the burned girl said, with a strange half-twist to her half-mouth, as though the words had a bitter aftertaste.
"They need us," the man holding her said to me. I remember how quiet his voice was, how soft. He sounded like my mother telling stories in the dark. "They need someone, just one person, someone to love them. To keep them human."
A tongue of flame ran over Fuel's burned hand, with a harsh, spitting sound. "To keep us small," she said to my brother, bitterly. The young man—her brother—put his hand on hers, and the fire went out.
"No," my mother said again, as Captain Thale said, "Well, lad?"
My brother's eyes went from Fuel to our mother to me and back to Fuel again. She held out her hand to him, leaning down. For a moment, I felt him hesitate against me—and then he put his hand out, the burned hand, over the top of hers, not quite touching, and I saw the heat-haze begin to shimmer between their palms.
"I'm Jennet," he said to her, his voice soft as smoke.
"Not," Fuel said in return, simply, just stating a fact. "Are Fuel. All of us, always, Fuel."
Captain Thale let out his breath, getting to his feet again. "Jia Cormick," he said formally, over our heads to our mother, "you are hereby found guilty of high treason on two counts; firstly, knowingly concealing a fire elementalist from the State, and secondly, knowingly and deliberately keeping an elementalist from their element." He paused, his gaze flicking to where my older sisters huddled around the limp form of our father, their faces white.
"They didn't know," my mother said, catching his gaze. "Ask anyone, any of the neighbouring families. They'll tell you that I separated from my husband and family years ago, that we haven't seen each other since. Ask anyone."
I thought of my father slipping through the woods to knock on my mother's door, and said nothing.
Captain Thale tilted his head to one side, regarding her closely. He looked again at my sisters, and back at our mother. Whatever he saw in her eyes made his face soften a little. "Very well." He cleared his throat. "The sentence—"
Sparks cracked from Fuel's robes, leaping bright into the air like laughter. She turned her head from my brother, her one eye staring hungrily at my mother.
"Please," my mother said. I don't think I'd ever heard her say that word before. She stood very straight, very tall. "Just not in front of the children."
"Of course," Captain Thale said, sounding tired.
I did understand what was happening. I knew what it meant, when they roped my mother's wrists behind her back, when the men surrounded her, when the fire elementalist made that little hungry, gloating sound deep in her burned throat. I did understand. And I watched it all happen, and I met my mother's eyes fiercely, without pity, and thought: Now you will never be able to hurt him again.
"Wait," said my brother. They were already up on the horses, my mother small and leashed between them. "Wait! Sister!"
I thought he was talking to me, and looked at him; but Fuel looked down at him also, meeting his eyes.
"Don't," I whispered harsh in his ear, thinking that he meant to plead, or ask to say goodbye—but he ignored me, and our mother, intent on the firekin. She raised her eyebrow at him.
"Do you love your brother?" he asked her.
She looked taken aback at the question. "Love?" she said, her dry voice breaking like a burned branch on the word. She laughed, smoke spiralling up from the hollow of her throat. "Love? Love is fire, brother, love is burning!" Behind her on the horse, her brother flinched, the briefest motion; but I saw it. My brother saw it.
"Then," he took a deep breath, and stopped. He looked at me for a moment—and if I have to bear the memory of my mother's eyes when I dropped the match, I also have the memory of my brother, looking at me then—and dropped my hand, stepping forward. "If I'm allowed someone with me, I don't want my sister. I choose my mama!"
"You can only take one person—" Captain Thale started to say, a look of dismay starting across his face.
"I know," my brother cut across him, voice rising, near-invisible flames starting to leap from the hems of his clothes. "I know! Give me my mama!" He flicked his fingers, and the ropes holding her fell away with charred ends—but his fingers still burned.
"Jennet!" I caught his elbow, digging in my fingers, but the flames leaped higher.
In one movement, before the guards could stop her, our mother was there at his side, her square, rough hand closing over his. The fire went out.
I never saw him again. The last I saw of them was my mother's straight back, my brother hidden in front of her, riding away, leaving me behind. I ran after them until my feet bled; later, I joined the army and ran after them that way, always chasing that elusive post in the Fifth Fire Division, that coveted opal on the collar; but no matter how well I did, how many commendations my superiors sent, the transfers always came back refused. I saw my mother's signature on the papers, again and again and again.
When my transfer request to the Fifth Fire Division came back accepted, with someone else's signature at the bottom, I quit the army. Fire elementalists burn fast, and young. Hatred lasts longer.
All things burn to nothing in time.
Now, when my husband comes into the room stamping his feet and complaining about the cold, I stir up my small fire, but don't add any more logs. I keep the fire low, and I watch my small daughter watching the flames.