“Oh, How She Danced” by Sandra Odell
Once there was a girl who destroyed a world, but first she danced.
Cho-Bet rode her bike to the top of the hill and stopped, shielding her eyes against the glare of the swollen red sun. Finding what she wanted, she climbed back on the rickety two-wheeler and continued riding.
An hour later, she stopped in the middle of the road and slowly climbed off the bike. Sensing her body heat, tiny puffballs popped, covering her feet and the remnant of paving stones in a cloud spores. Cho-Bet ignored the ankle-high purple clouds and pulled out Kemb-Kim’s map. She adjusted her breather and spread the pliant bark over the bicycle seat, considering options and views.
Mushrooms the size of old-timey dream-shacks grew in clumps and rings along both sides of the road. To her left, mini-myconid-men, the tiny ThreeMs, not the larger, more self-aware TwoMs, shambled about, carrying wads of spore-infested detritus from one pile to the next. This was a lonely time place, not at all what she expected.
Cho-Bet would have liked to look for someplace else, but Kemb-Kim’s map showed a lady holding a stick above her head, and to her left was the remains of a statue of a lady holding a stick above her head, so this was the place. She walked the bike off the road to the right, carefully stepping around the largest patches of trilling ochre fuzz to reach a comparatively clear area behind a stand of bamboo shrooms.
Cho-Bet unloaded her knapsack, propped her bike against one of the stems, and built a fire from dried burn-shrooms and Kemb-Kim’s map. Would have been nice to have Kemb-Kim around, to talksies with or maybe feelsies, but Kemb-Kim had turned back at the Big River Gorge. “You go on ahead,” she’d said to Cho-Bet, smiling sad-like as she leaned on her staff.
Cho-Bet had opened her mouth to protest, but Kemb-Kim stoppered her with a wave of her hand and a shake of the head.
“It was all I could do to make it this far, Birdie,” she’d said. Kemb-Kim was the only one who called her Birdie. Cho-Bet never knew why. “I can’t go no fartherer.” Then she’d pulled a worn leather-skin pouch out of her robes and presented it to Cho-Bet. “For you.”
“I can’t take the map. That’s what you’re for.” Cho-Bet’s voice had sounded brittle and small through the breather speak hole.
Kemb-Kim looked her right in the eye. “Haven’t you been listen-earing? I’m not going no fartherer.” She held out the bag.
Cho-Bet hesitated, then took the bag with a hating, and a longing, and a sadding. “Where will you go?”
Kemb-Kim shrugged. Her smile crinkled the edges of the gray fungal fuzz on her left cheek and wide chin. Without the fuzz, she looked just like Cho-Bet; with it, she looked goner. “Back to the lab-jamboree if I can.” Kemb-Kim wiggled her bare toes in the dusty soil; tiny hairs along the tops and edges wiggled even more. “These mycelials want to put down every time I stop to catch my breath, and don’t want me to starters when I got to move again. No place else to go but back to the start and take root.” She tapped the bag, bringing up tufts of spores. “That is, no place that isn’t come the end program of the world, anyway.”
Cho-Bet felt weak in the knees, and wet salt stung her eyes. “But you did the final figurering. You is the alphamega.”
“Silly Birdie. I just finaled what the hold-outs already figurered.”
That’s when Kemb-Kim tipped up Cho-Bet’s breather and kissed her on the mouth, slipping a bit of meat between Cho-Bet’s lips. Cho-Bet chewed without thinking, meat was meat, was meat, when there was no other food—and the bit of Kemb-Kim’s tongue unraveled and filled her insides up to the top of her head with knowings.
Cho-Bet made wet salt noises. All the things she didn’t want to know made her brain itch, her nose snotty, and clogged the ducts of her breather. “I don’t want to be the alphamega,” she said, burying her head in the crook of Kemb-Kim’s neck. “I don’t want to be aloner.”
The other girl had hugged her harder, harderer even, and finally pulled away, holding Cho-bet by the shoulders. “There was niners, then eights, then seventies, and then all the way down to me, and now down to you. You’re the alphamega now. End program.”
And she turned and walked away, leaving the new alphamega to wonder what she’d done that was so horrible as to deserve the honor of end program for the world.
The memories came and went and turned to burn-shroom ash along with almost everythinger else: the knapsack; the extra shirt; the picking tools; Cho-Bet’s breather. The first breath without the breather burned like shroom fire all the way down, but after coughing and spitting-up she began to feel better. The spores didn’t waste any time. They settled into her blood; they turned the red sky even more red, made the soles of her feet itch, and filled her mouth with cotton. Cho-Bet knew that she’d eventually take root or die, but if she died withouter dancing then the world wouldn’t end and the eight holdouts beforer her would have carried the weight of that possibility in vain. Being the alphamega, she knew this, and knowing, settled down beside the fire to get what sleep she could.
Cho-Bet scooted on her side away from the blue bush shroom. Once out of reach, she cut through the woody vine wrapped tightly around her calf. As she peeled the fibrous strand away, she hissed in pain, wet salt seeping out of her eyes. She rubbed at the growing welt, flicking tangles of fibrous mycelials from under her skin. Stupider hungry shrooms. Why couldn’t they eat dead dirt things like everything else?
She cut back the ragged edges of her pants, then returned her knife to its sheath. In that short amount of time, her own pale pink mycelials had sprouted around the edges of the welt and now lay across the wound in a thin layer of skin. And they itched, oh, how they itched. Burned. Peppery fire hot, pee on open wound, chewing lemoners with a raw tongue burned. Cho-Bet gnawed on her palms until the welt healed over, the itching eased, and the urge to slice her own skin off in thin strips passed.
She leaned back on her hands and surveyed the low valley. ThreeMs wandered in obscure patterns around her, TwoMs walkering counterpoint. Every now and then a TwoM extruded a wad of shroom stuff from the middle of its body stem and handed off the mass to a ThreeM who continued its walk about until it found a clear space and set its burden on the ground. Then it was back to walkering.
Her camp behind the bamboo shrooms was fine for sleeping, but wouldn’t do for dancing. Too many rocks and puffballs, too many woody mycelials to trip a headspace focused on end programming the world. The red sun hung ready to drop out of the sky; she still had timer left before night to find a good dance place. The valley might do the trick.
She stood and brushed her hands on her pants, walkering into the throngs of ThreeMs, scratching absently where her shirt brushed the mycelials along her sides. Now and again her chest tightened and she stopped to catch her breath, wishering she hadn’t burned her breather yester-before, wishering lots of things that didn’t make any difference now.
Eventually Cho-Bet wandered down a gentle incline where shrooms that didn’t like the cold-times rested dormant. She stopped in a low spot, a bowl inside a bowl, flexed her knees, kicked up dirt. Aside from a few TwoM stomachy bundles, this looked to be a good place, flat ground, big enough for a proper dance. She began tossing the surprisingly light bundles to the edges of the dip. No sooner had she grabbed the third bundle than a ThreeM returned the first two to their previous locations.
Cho-Bet scowled. “Hey! Step it back. I’m world-ending here.”
She continued tossing shroom stuff away, and the ThreeM continued to bring it back. “I said stop,” Cho-Bet said, kicking at the squat ThreeMs.
The little myconid man stepped out of the way. Cho-Bet over-balanced and fell. She stood. The ThreeM retrieved a displaced bundle, bent to set the mass back where it belonged, and Cho-Bet slapped the ball out of the its hand. Her fingers scraping over the ThreeM’s spongy flesh. “Get out of here!”
The ThreeM stepped back. Around them, the other myconid men stopped in their tracks and turned blank faces to Cho-Bet, not faces, really, folds in the fleshy annulus rings just under their caps. Each glowed and strobed iridescent rainbows over its gills and florescent spots.
Cho-Bet eased her knife out of the sheath, an eye out for a clear path if she had to run. The myconid men watched her and strobed. “I mean it,” she said after a tenful of breaths. Kemb-Kim taught her to count to tenful so her brain could catch up before she went and did something stupider. “Clear on out.”
Three breaths later, the myconid men turned as one and walked up slope until she could no longer see them.
Cho-Bet nodded, re-sheathed the knife. “That’s better.” She began to clear a proper dance ring.
The one thing that did not burn with everythinger else was the metronomer. Cho-Bet sat cross-legged by the low fire in the center of the dance ground and fished in her pockets for the remaining piece of the turning key, the key to the end program of the world. The tiny piece of metal rattled in her hand when she pulled it out, then dropped and lost itself in the dusty soil. “Ratterdamn,” she swore under her breath, and spent whole minutes sifting through the dirt with both hands.
When she looked up, piece in hand, two ThreeMs stood on the far side of the fire.
Cho-Bet set the metronomer in her lap, covered it with one hand. “What do you want?” she said warily.
The little myconid men strobed and glowed.
“I don’t talk shroom talk, so go on and go back to whateverer you were doing so long as it isn’t cluttering up my dance place.”
The ThreeMs did not move.
Cho-Bet sighed. “Finer.”
She put them out of her mind, and turned her attention to fitting the bit of turning key into the back of the metronomer the way she’d seen Kemb-Kim practice every night since they left the lab-jamboree. Thoughts of her twosies made Cho-Bet’s eyes give wet salt; she smeared it on her shoulders and focused on her hands. After a bit of fussing, she wedged the piece into place and began to carefully winder the metronomer, holding it so the turning key remained intact. With the final turn, Cho-Bet pressed a finger to the side of the key to keep it still. The metronomer thrummed in her hands, aliver. She looked up to find the ThreeMs watching her. “You still here?”
Strobe and flash, a ripple of blue dots.
“I don’t got nothing for food anymore. I won’t be eating anything, and I know you don’t eat livinger folks like me. You here to kill me because-because?”
Not a sound, save her breathing, and the wind spinning spores and dirt into tiny tornadoes.
“I’m going to dance now, so you better move out.” Cho-bet stood, metronomer in hand. “I mean it. There’s going to be fire, and lightning, and thunder-rain all over the place. I mean it. Go tell the others so you can get inside someplace. Anyplace. Go on.”
The ThreeMs remained still.
“You’re weird,” she said, and meant each of the four sounds of the word.
Which didn’t mean she wouldn’t dance. Cho-Bet drew in a lungful of spores for inspiration, a way to remind herself that she had to dance no matter how the fear flapped in her stomach. She wanted to throw the metronomer away and run back to the lab-jamboree, turn back the clock with her runnings and make everything betterer again. But no, no, that couldn’t happen. The world was tired and over, all done. She was the alphamega of the last holdout, and that meant it was up to her. Best this way, even betterer. Dance on her terms with no one to follow.
Cho-Bet set the metronomer in the dirt. The tiny box of wood with the metal swinging bar ticked-tocked, and end programmed.
Rust and spore take the ThreeMs. Cho-Bet slid her sinister foot into position for the first step of the alphamega dance, her dance now, then her dexter foot for the second step. Always best to start with the sinister foot because beginnings and endings were made up of darkness before anything else. Comfortable, brooding, nurturing dark, not the giant red sun that burned up the sky and grew closerer every day.
Third step. Fourth.
She danced with knowings that went way back. To Kemb-Kim. Webs-Di. Upt-Brid. To all the on-backs until the niner Jare-Mich, the firster holdout of them all who built the lab-jamboree. Jare-Mich had knowings from other folks who made the myconid men and fought the long ago trouble-times, but those knowings were too cluttered and spun up for Cho-Bet to dance like her own, something about twisting one helixes into two helixes and runna-knots, but even they helped lead Cho-Bet’s feet. This dancing would finish the pattern and end everything, a key for the big compost-uterer. The stick lady would poke the sun, and all the sun stuff would spill out so there would be dark again. The end of the world. End program.
Cho-Bet breathed deep, tilted her face to the sky, eyes closed. The red sun stared at Cho-Bet through her eyeskins. On her first pass of the ThreeMs, her hand brushed against their caps. Cho-Bet brought her hand up to her face, opened her eyes. Her fingers glowed miniature rainbows.
Cho-Bet danced. She removed her shirt and then her pants, tossing them into the fire. The ThreeMs did nothing when she took off her first shoe, but when she pulled off her second shoe and threw that into the fire they feller in step behind her and began to dance along.
What do you think you’re doing? she wanted to say. Go on, get out of here. But she’d started the dance and it ran thick in her. She didn’t have the knowings to speak anymorer. She could feel the dance working on her body, mixing with Kemb-Kim’s knowings to end everything. So, let them dance along. Couldn’t be too bad, seeing that they were as much girl folk as she, making sprouts and other ThreeMs. Laydemis, Jare-Mich would have called them. No, wrong word. Layeedems. No. Neverer mind.
Faster she danced, tiny cilia extruding from her pores. She tasted red, saw the sounds of her feet on the soil, smelled the air pressure as more ThreeMs entered the circle. First oner, then twosies, finally sixties, and seventies total. A TwoM joined them, its cap a bouncing blur, together with Cho-Bet making niners in all. The myconids waved their stumpy arms and thick fingers, stomped their stemmy feet in time with the metronomer. Niners layeedems danced around the fire.
Cho-bet’s feet slid in the soil until her skin peeled away. New cilia formed and then broke off the next turn around. Gills fluted and disintegrated. She laughed hard and long, giddyish with the pattern unwinding. Faster now, her skin shed itself. Fingernails dropped to the soil and scuttled away. Hair flew off her head. Her eyeballs dissolved; she sucked them into her lungs to watch from within. Faster, Cho-Bet, faster, faster. Dance, Cho-Bet, faster, faster. Dance.
The wind joined the dance, stealing strands of Cho-Bet, depositing them on the myconid men. The strands coaxed their way inside the myconid. Hello, Layeedem Cho-Bet. Join us at the end of the world, join us and make it new again.
Voices? From where? New again? No, no. End program.
Yes. Dance, alphamega, be the end all and beginning all. If then, goto, untwist, reravel.
Cho-Bet laughed to the sky and the dance. Her tongue swallowed itself, and was stolen away.
And when she danced herself away, the myconid-men, small and large, left the fire, went back to their piles, taking the omega and the alpha with them.
Once there was a girl who remade the world, but first she danced.
|Sandra Odell lives with her family in Washington state. She is an avid reader, compulsive writer, and rabid chocoholic.|