“One and Two” by Emma Osborne
The gods meet at dusk.
Celia finds Brin in her rose garden, his tattooed belly bare, ploughing his cupped hands deep into the loam.
“Brin? What are you doing here?”
“It’s the earth, Ce,” he whispers. Brin has always been comforted by warm dirt. He’s up on one knee now, but he keeps looking down, keeps scraping aside the soil.
Brin is crook-knuckled and windswept, his hair salt-sculpted tufts, with leaf-green eyes and cheeks below that would’ve been red like hibiscus flowers had he been a man in his youth.
Ce would know him anywhere, chained to a bulldozer or eating a mango with his hands and teeth, or planting his twentieth tree of the day, his stumpy fingers thick with earth. Even up on stage in a rare suit accepting a shiny award for his years of volunteering. The two of them have history.
She barely knows him now, missing his shirt and with both knees of his jeans torn.
Besides, he’s crying.
Brin never cries.
“Brin, come here,” she says, pulling him up, hoping that by saying his name he’ll remember who he is. The leafless tree tattooed on his side sways as if wrenched by a gale. Being on his feet breaks some kind of spell, because he looks at her as if he’s seeing her for the first time in years.
“Celia, I can’t—”
“Come on, come inside. It’s been months!” She herds him brusquely, to cover her worry, toward her tumbledown sea cottage and out of the iodine air. They weave past a thicket of lavender that hums with bees and past her crooked driftwood sculptures. She pushes him into a shower and lays out clean clothes on the spare bed.
Though he’s usually the one to cook for them when they meet, she gathers up a feast whilst he’s finding himself in hot water and steam and, afterward, sleeping off his terror. She pushes aside the gull-feathers and sea glass that dot her table and brings out tokens to calm him: a spray of eucalyptus cut from the sapling in her front yard and jars of dirt from the countries they’ve inhabited over the centuries.
When he emerges, dressed and rested, they eat the food that delights their individual natures, all of it a bounty from their current land. For him there are fresh-picked red apples, a wheel of new goat’s cheese and a handful of golden straw. He rips apart a loaf of bread that’s thick with nuts and raisins and dips it into a crock of Manuka honey.
Celia in turn has a whole fish baked crisp and flaky, with a brace of sapphire-blue swimmer crabs. She shucks and shoots oysters still dripping salt water. At her elbow is a rough salad of seaweed that’s studded with steamed clams. Her meal matches the tattooed sleeve of sea creatures inked from the muscled round of her left shoulder all the way down to her wrist. Krakens spar along her forearm and every small gap contains a starfish, a lantern, or an anchor.
They toast to midnight with mead.
The gods eat, and as they do, a long-forgotten color comes back to their cheeks. Celia’s hair brightens and grows black as the sky over sea at night, winking out the speckle of a thousand stars. Brin’s beard comes in suddenly as red and thick as a kangaroo’s hide, replacing the wiry white hairs on the end of his chin. His eyes spark like new flint.
They talk as they eat, of chipped cups that belong to old houses, of slow songs that belong to old countries. They speak of lovers long dead, but who are still alive in the sweetness of memory. They drink the last crumbs of tea that has travelled with Celia over all the world’s oceans, and they bring a languid calm to the deep of night with cups of golden brandy.
Finally, they push back their plates and heave a conjoined sigh as a red-streaked dawn lights the sky.
Celia knows then that he’s still not ready to unearth the real hurt, the heart hurt—the cracks in his lips and the shadows under his eyes speak of that—so she asks him small questions. Anything to ease up his voice, which is still somehow rough with the years.
They settle on her beat-up leather couch, with an old red blanket tucked around their feet.
“Tell me, brother. What wild creatures have you rescued lately?”
So he tells her about an echidna whose spikes had gotten caught when it was trying to burrow under a wire fence. She asks him about the possums he rescued, the joey he’d bottle-fed because it was too small to set into the wild. Things that’ll make him happy to have accomplished.
He has years’ worth of stories for her, and as he speaks in his sonorous voice Celia watches the tension slowly slip out of his shoulders. Brin even starts to meet her eyes.
Celia is stirring honey into a cup of hot lemon water, to soothe his throat gone raw from talking, when he finally tells her why he’s here.
“They cut it down.”
For a moment, she’s silent, thinking back, thinking through. But it couldn’t be, surely humans aren’t vicious enough to have—
“The eldest tree?” When he nods, his eyes filled with tears, she swears softly, eyes wide. “Ah, I’m so sorry.”
“The shock of it nearly sent me mad.” He scrubs at his beard with both hands, pushing against the dark.
That’s it, then.
Brin doesn’t ask of the pod of orcas that carry her shadow the way the tree carried his. She can feel them, distantly, several generations swimming together in the waters off the San Juan Islands. They’re an echo of her, a memory. There’s a little bit of her imprinted onto each of them and each generation born.
“Things are different from the time we were made” she says, eyes distant. “We protect what we can, fight for our creatures and mourn the rest. The battle is harder now. I’d give you your fragment. You know I would. But what about the bargain we both struck? We swore with blood and bone, with earth and salt.”
They both remember the stone knives, the promises.
Not lightly forsaken. Not lightly borne.
“I’ll still be here,” he says, eyes low. “I’ll just be something else. Something stronger. I need to rest. To hibernate like one of my bears.”
There’s something heartbreaking about her big brother asking for her help like this. If he goes, she’ll be alone with the weight of her knowledge, with the weight of the world.
Nobody knows her stories like he does.
Nobody knows her.
“And you think this will help?” she asks slowly, “What about a different gender, a different body?”
“That won’t work. Such a change is not enough.”
She searches his eyes, turns her head this way and that to try to catch a glimpse of a lie.
“I think I could stay,” he says, each word careful. “If we changed everyone else. If we let the golden pollen blow out to take root in their lungs. Turn them all into saplings.”
She looks at him with barely concealed horror.
“Some of them I’d give to you,” Brin says. “Do you still have the salt that would turn them to sea and foam?”
“You know I do.” Her mouth firms with stubborn hope. “I’ll only use it when it’s all over for certain.”
They both know how close they are. Perhaps clearing the planet of humanity will be the answer one day.
But not today.
“It should just be me,” says Brin. Saying it out loud seems to make him sure.
“You’re right.” Celia knows it in her bones, even if it’s the hardest option for her. She pushes back her chair, stretches and rolls her shoulders like a mate on the last watch. “One of us can bend the binding. Maybe even for a score of centuries. Until you’re ready to come back. But not both of us. They’ll not stand for that.”
He’s silent, but all the words he needs are in his eyes.
She closes her eyes and reaches out with her heart. They’ve always been together, one and two, one and two, through the long years and shifting seasons. She can feel him like a glow in her chest, no matter where he is in the world. If he changes, she’ll be alone, without him to help her through the rough parts, the stormy weather, the spits of squalls that whip up unexpected. She’s made it this far, but only because they’re together.
His heartbeat matches hers.
One and two.
For him to be at peace she must be one.
One. One. One.
She could not bear it for anyone else.
For him, she must.
When she opens her eyes she knows that he knows. He thanks her with the ghost of a smile.
“Will you give me back my pearl?” she asks, voice low. “If you truly mean to change?”
The pearl contains a spark of her, too. Just as the orcas and the salt do. Ritual objects for ritual folks.
“And grow alone?” Brin is unsure now. “Without even a bit of you in my heart?”
“So shall I have to go on, my brother. I’d call it a fair bargain if it sat in front of another.”
Brin frowns, and then reaches into his pocket.
“I’ve kept it safe. Even when I was starving.”
Something in her breaks at the idea of him not having enough to eat. Time was, they were feasted and pampered, but these days it’s best to be small and modest, unnoticed gods in a new world.
He holds out a chipped pearl. It’s undeniably ancient, though a shine still chases across its surface. A little bit of his sister, to help him keep track of her as they wander the world.
Celia takes the pearl with an indrawn breath that’s like coming home. The pearl could resurrect her, if she was killed.
Neither of them will die of old age.
“Well, then. Take your fragment, and be whole.” She pulls a locket from her shirt and pops it open. Inside the battered silver is an acorn. Celia places it in Brin’s palm and folds his fingers over.
Some of the sadness lifts out of his eyes and his mouth quirks up on one side. But there’s still a heavy cast to his frame that Ce knows will bend him until he shatters.
But then, that’s why she’s grown to be tough as a storm. Big enough to engulf the world. Big enough to protect her fragile brother.
“Come on, then. You can use my back garden. Then I’ll know where to find you.” Ce walks like a pallbearer to her back door.
“Wait,” he says, gripping her arm.
“I know,” she replies.
They go together into the garden, where the morning has just begun. Mist hangs heavy over her succulents and strawberry plants and bright dewdrops glisten at the top of every blade. The roses are warm with scent, a glorious red and gold bramble.
They lock eyes once more, while they both have eyes to lock, and embrace.
A magpie warbles in the new dawn. Its song catches Brin like a hook. He frowns.
“I’ll mind them for you. The small creatures,” Celia says.
And she will. He knows it.
Brin smiles once more, this one full.
Celia’s heart squeezes at the sight and she tells herself that she’s not losing him, that it’s just a change. He needs it, though, or he wouldn’t have come. Ce knows that she would choose this in a heartbeat, again and again, to keep her brother-god safe.
Brin walks into a clear patch of grass and places the acorn on his tongue.
When he looks at her for the last time, there is thankfulness on his face. Peace.
Brin closes his eyes and swallows. Celia draws in a long, shaking breath.
Sometimes the sacrifice is in staying behind, alone.
She lets him go, lets him change, though her chest throbs.
Brin drops to his knees in the grass, hands open in rapture. Light blasts from his eyes. There’s a crack as his skull breaks open and a sapling pushes up through his torn scalp. His body is ground down; his skin and flesh bloodlessly flayed by invisible knives to build wood and bark. When he falls backward, roots twine over his femurs and sprout from the backs of his thighs.
White branches extend from white bones, a splash of leaf at the tips. Roots divide his ribs and press apart his pelvis like a fat wooden baby. It’s a surging birth of spreading tendrils and soil gripped that connects him to the deep safe earth. With one final heave the tree shoots up, a fully-formed oak in a handful of moments.
His bones remain the longest, a cradle for the tree. Still, they too are knitted into warm wood.
When it’s all over and the bloody sap has dried, Celia stares at her brother and thumbs her own fragment. She wonders what it will feel like for her body to dissolve into the sea, to become one with the sand and wave.
Perhaps one day his trunk will split open and his newly minted body will tumble out. Until then, he’ll take in the world through sugar transference in his root system, will hear whispers of growth and decay in the silent language of his sibling-trees.
He’ll know when it’s time to emerge.
Celia touches the bark of the new tree gently. Her eyes fill up with tears at the beauty of his branches, of the elegant twist of his new leaves.
“You’ll be safe here. I’ll make sure of it.”
She goes inside to put the kettle on, thinking as she does of the enormous task of making a world that’s safe for him. It’s too much, overwhelming, but she thinks about Brin freeing the echidna stuck under the fence. She’ll start with something small.
The lone god sketches over her fragment with her thumbnail, wondering, wondering.
|Emma Osborne currently lives in Melbourne, drinking all of the coffee and eating all of the food, but has a giant crush on Seattle and turns up under the shadow of the mountain at every opportunity. You can find Emma on Twitter at @redscribe.|