December 2021 Contest Winner: Athymy
I had just returned unsuccessful from a hunt, my face numb against the biting chill of winter. Flurries of snowfall poured from an ashen-gray sky, pulling the landscape beneath a frantic sweep of snow and ice. The snow piled near my ankles. Flakes batted at my face.
But escape was just within reach, the hazy stretch of neighboring huts taking form on the horizon.
The wind broke; bitter gusts of air slipped into the slivers of jacket exposing skin. Shivering, I wrapped my arms around myself and trudged on.
It wasn’t long before the hazy shapes of people came into view. As I drew closer, I recognized faces: Mother, Ram, my eldest cousin, and my uncle. They stood in a circle, their petrified eyes cast downward.
I followed the look, and the air left me at once.
Amid that circle, my brother lay limp. An arrow stuck from his ribs, blood spreading across his chest, soaking through his woolen jacket and pooling beneath him A strangled scream clawed its way from my throat as I ran toward him. But Mother grabbed my hand.
“No, Feba, don’t go around him.” Her voice came out thick and strange. Her eyes were red-rimmed and swollen.“It isn’t safe.”
I froze. What was going on here, what did she mean? Surely, Sang couldn’t have been ill. . . He was fine when I left him at the riverbank a few hours earlier. He’d waved me off with a smile while his hair tangled in a breeze. The last thing he’d said to me: May our hunt be great, and our bellies be full.
I reiterated the scene in my head. Again and again, I recaptured the way my brother appeared those last few moments before our departure, trying to gauge anything about him that seemed off, but nothing came to me. Light brown skin and dark coils and everything else in between. My brother was the healthy boy I’d always known him as.
One last time, I echoed the memory, remembering how his eyes glinted silver beneath the wash of moonlight.
“To darkness with Etisha!” My Uncle's voice snapped me from my thoughts. My eyes swished toward him. He marched toward Sang, pride in every step, and pulled the arrow effortlessly from Sang’s ribs. Flecks of blood flicked free from the sharp tip as he raised it high and roared, “to another generation free of her curse!”
The ice melted from my thoughts. My attention drifted back to my brother. I forced my gaze to steady on his face. His skin was so pale. And his eyes—---
A dead chill slithered down my spine as I comprehended. Unbidden, the image of Sang’s eyes under moonlight flashed across my memory.
“The fire’s ready,” said Ram. His voice came muffled and far away, as if he’d spoken from underwater. Yet succumbing to the haze of my numbing thoughts, it was I who couldn’t breathe. I limped forward, reaching.
Mother grabbed me by the shoulders then, forced me around so that her intense gaze held mine. “No he’s gone,” she said, “there was nothing we could do.”
Despite the cold, despite her tears, my blood simmered. I snatched myself out of Mother’s bruising grip, glowering at her, my own eyes stinging.
I shifted to face Ram and my uncle as they hoisted Sang into a sling. “He didn’t do anything,” I said, my words trembling. But I could do nothing except watch while they carried Sang’s body toward the distant blaze of fire burning deep in the mountains.
There, they would burn him.
Etisha was an ordinary woman, with brown skin and a thick mane of curls, pitch dark. Her lips, crimson, matched perfectly with her red and black sari. There were only two things not ordinary about her: She had deep blue eyes that flashed pale, and she spoke to beasts.
For twenty-four years, she’d been the focus of superstitious gossip, so she'd kept to herself mostly. Animals were her only friends; no human dared to come near her.
Then on Etisha’s twenty-fifth birthday, she’d disappeared.
Weeks dwindled into months, months into years. But no one ever heard from her again, not even the slightest whisper.
The tribe concluded that it was a mercy from the gods that Etisha left their lives. And thus, they carried on as usual. Hunting. Cooking. Sewing.
Until one day, things changed. Permanently.
Swarms of shadow-beasts infested our territory, slaughtering everyone in sight, reducing huts to rubble.
At the eye of those storming beasts—Etisha, her eyes silver and bright. “Feba.” She used my name like a command, a dozen other distinct voices coming out of her and thundering in my ears.
She spoke again, more urgently this time. “Feba.”
The dream vanished and I woke up to Mother tapping on my shoulder. My eyes clenched against the radiant streams of sunlight pouring into my room. I slung an arm over my face, groaning. I didn’t want to get up—didn't want to see the empty bed beside me. If I had the choice, I would’ve slept for an eternity; I'd been dealing with more than enough of Mother’s feigned smiles and affections ever since Sang’s cremation. She breezed through life as if she’d never played part in her own son’s demise. Unless, of course, she treated the situation similarly to Etisha’s, and simply pushed the memory of Sang aside, believing it was but the mercy and doing of the gods that made exposing and taking Sang out of everyone’s life so easy. The thought made my stomach twist.
“It’s time to get up,” said Mother. “Eat before your breakfast gets cold.” I bit back a grimace. Yet another addition to the list of things I didn’t want to do. Eat. Just the thought of food served only to twist my guts into further knots.
Thankfully, Mother didn’t pester me long. She finished off with, “Now dress up, It’s going to be a chilly one today,” and disappeared around the corner.
I exhaled, my gaze fixed to my ecru ceiling. I couldn’t decide which was worse; this, or sharing a house with the person who would’ve discarded me just as easily had it been my eyes that were silver.
It wasn’t fair—Did Sang have time to understand what was happening, or did death come quickly?
Tears threatened my vision. But I couldn’t let Mother see me mourn for the boy she’d been so willing to cut from her life. I choked them back.
Pushing blankets, I stood to dress myself. I decided on a faded black sari with white lily print—draped over with a khasto—before setting my into a loose bun. Then, picking the tiny mirror off my nightstand, I glanced my reflection; my eyes were bleak and heavy from the insufficient sleep I’d gotten in a week’s span. Deep blue, they were only a shade lighter than what my brother’s had been. But in the coming months leading to his death, his irises had faded into something much grayer, even paler. He didn’t seem to notice that I’d noticed, and he’d kept it to himself. But he came back after more than a dozen hunts empty handed. I had to say something.
“Keep this between us,” he’d told me. He didn’t want anyone else to know that he was growing blind. If the tribe knew, they'd forbid him from hunting, he’d never be allowed to enter the forest again. While part of me understood it was only the tribe’s way of protecting their people, I understood also just how much Sang cherished hunting, how awful he’d feel if it were to be taken from him.
So I didn’t say anything. If I had, would’ve he lived to see another day? My eyes stung again. I tore my gaze from the mirror.
Slowly, I drew in a long, fortifying breath, and waited until the risk of tears was no longer before I made my way toward the kitchen.
Everything felt wrong about the empty chair across from me. It didn’t matter whether weeks or months or decades went by—for as long as I lived, I’d never be convinced Sang deserved what had happened to him.
I made sure not to linger on those thoughts, or rather, my brother’s chair for very much longer. But it was hard—hard for my eyes to not wander, for now It was only Mother and I, and what should’ve still been Sang’s spot only marked as a cruel reminder of his fate.
“Are you not going to finish breakfast?” Mother said next to me. It wasn’t until then I realized I’d been spacing. Chin in palm, I stared down at my stew, idly stirring floating chunks of deer meat. Am I going to finish eating? A simple question, yet I couldn’t even bring myself to look at her. I said nothing.
“Don’t tell me you’re still troubled about your brother’s funeral.”
Instantly, my teeth clenched, the muscles in my fingers drawing taut. It was hard, but still I said nothing.
But Mother only added to the ever growing fire. “I understand, but the time for mourning has passed. You must let go.”
I shut my eyes and inhaled deeply through my nose, trying to smother the venomous thoughts that ran through my head before they could become words— before I said something I’d regret. Still, it was impossible for me to hold my peace completely. I said, “he was my brother. . . . . ”
Truly, Mother acted as though Sang had been only a mere pet that died after only a few days with it. Those were times where you grieved a little and moved on, because there wasn’t really anything to miss.
But you mourn for your son. Regardless of how many hours or days you spent— you mourn for him.
I gritted my teeth further, my jaw aching. My hands shook.
Mother sighed, settling a palm atop one of mine. The touch sent an icy-chill down my body, and it was enough to make me still, my hands no longer shaking. “I know how hard it is, I do. It’s how I felt when I lost your father for the same reason. But eventually, you learn to let go.” She gave my hand a small squeeze, adding, “It helps when you’ve realized what you’ve been set free from.”
Repulsed, I shot from my chair and tore from Mother’s touch. Though my heart thundered, I kept my expression solid as ice, determined not to let my true feelings slip. “I’m going to go hunting,” I muttered.
“Now? It’s still early. You haven’t even finished your—”
I stood in the archway. Bright shades of pink and gold stretched across a cloudless sky, the sun climbing lazily over the Shadow-mountain bluffs. Looking at them, I remembered my dream.
“Please come back safely,” said Mother, her voice coming from far away. At that, my throat tightened.
I swallowed hard. “I will.”
Sang and I had always hunted in turns. He’d take the forest some days, and then the river others. Today, I was supposed to go fishing. But I was sick of reminders of my brother’s death.
I chose the forest instead.
Hardened snow crunched beneath me. My breaths came in frozen, billowing streams of frost that died in the chill.
I was halfway to the hunt when the wails of Shadow-beasts echoed in far away cliffs. Glancing beyond the mountain ridges was almost a matter of instinct; although attacks had been scarce in the last few decades, safety wasn’t promised. There was always a risk.
The tribe might’ve been precise at neutralizing potential threats, but Shadow-beasts weren’t tied just to silver-eyes. They attacked and slaughtered and destroyed who they wanted when they wanted.
Souls damned to roam a world they’d died hating, the mountain was their hell. I used to not believe in such tales, but it wasn’t long before I did, for as the slaughter of men and women with silver eyes grew, the howls did as well.
And with every death, I’d recognized the distinct voice of a different beast each time, as if the Shadows had been formed from the souls of those who had once been part of our own people.
Another howl, a desolate sound. Like a wolf separated from its pack.
I shivered, goosebumps spreading down my arms. “Safety isn’t promised,” I whispered to myself, reaching for my arrow. But I grabbed at air.
I reached again, both arms this time, but my back was empty as I patted it. I’d forgotten my arrow, I realized. I turned and looked back at my hut’s distant shape; wind caught in my hair. I’d been so eager to escape from that place I’d all but forgotten my things. Although I despised the idea of walking back, the distance was short enough that I could get from point A to point B in a matter of minutes.
Exhaling, I made my way back toward home. If memory served, I’d set my tools somewhere near the entrance.
Silently, I stepped inside and glanced. I found my things in seconds. I reached, then froze as Mother’s sobs filled my head.
My head snapped toward the kitchen. Mother’s trembling form lay crumpled over the table, a piece of my brother’s jacket squeezed in her tight, shaking fist. She cried fiercely, every sob tearing into me.
My chest tightened; I swallowed painfully. Somehow, seeing Mother grieve only made me angrier. She was part of the reason Sang was dead. It was far too late for her to regret her decision now.
My eyes stung as I hastened to grab my things. One more time, I glanced at Mother, who cried on.
I glowered, a tear of my own slipping down my cheek.
“It’s your fault.” I accidentally said my thoughts.
Mother startled, her head lifting. But before she could see me, I ran. As quickly as I could, I sprinted through the cold brisk air, and didn’t stop until I saw the distant shape of forest ahead.
I chose a large rock near the brook as my hideout. The ice had mostly melted, and the burbling streams of water came loud enough that no potential prey should’ve detected me. One set back was the sunlight clashing with the eternal stretch of snow ahead of me. It was so bright that I felt like I could’ve gone blind if I’d let my gaze stray there for too long. Probably it was because I wasn’t used to hunting at midday— Sang was usually given those shifts while I hunted at night.
A sigh escaped me. It sickened me knowing that Sang was but one victim among many. Even my father was one of them, but he’d died months before I was born.
It wasn’t fair. If only the cycle could be broken. For those with silver eyes to be treated for what they really were. Human—not etinities to carry out Etisha’s wickedness and thus must be killed, but human.
A sweep of black leaped out from behind a tree a few feet away.
Slowly, cautiously, I stood, drawing out my bow and arrow. One eye shut, I pulled back against the string, focusing, waiting.
Nose twitching, the hare bent its head to graze on a small patch of grass. What felt like minutes passed before it finally turned its back to me.